Wild Ones   The Journey of My Journal  
Article and drawings by Babette Kis – Milwaukee-North (WI) Chapter

I grew up in the town of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, in the middle '50s through the late '60s. Back then, Spring Street had unmowed ditches and telephone poles. Wood posts and barbed wire-fenced hay meadows and pastures. Stone piles and hedgerows divided fields. And rabbits and pheasants were hunted along grassy railroad rights-of-way by schoolboys and their fathers.

One hot June afternoon in the middle 1950s, I complained to my dad that I had nothing to do – that after a morning of shaking weeds from the clods of earth my dad had turned for the garden. Dad told me to get some paper and a pencil and go outside and write about what I saw. When I came in, my parents looked over my sentences and sketches and said I might as well write every day. Mom bought me a stenographer's notebook, and my journal-writing career began.

August 1960
The field behind the House.

You can tell it's August because grasshoppers are everywhere. They come out of the ground and eat plants. When you catch one, they spit brown tobacco on your hand, so they can get away. Mom always yells to wash my hands when I get in the house. She doesn't even see if they are dirty. She just says to do it.
Babette Kis' journal entry (4th grade)

Due to my parents' persistence, journal-keeping became part of my weekly routine. In fifth grade, I used information in my journal to write a nature report. In sixth grade, I walked a few miles and interviewed a few long-time residents about the history of the land. These journal entries formed the foundation of my sixth grade History of Mt. Pleasant project. In high school, I used my notes to quiz science teachers and write English compositions. In college, one of my rewritten journal entries took second place in a UW-Madison writing contest.

Two years ago, my parents found many of my childhood journals. In them, faded and water-stained, were hundreds of my memories of Barnes Prairie yesterdays.

Today, Barnes Prairie has all by disappeared. Less than 20 percent of the rights-of-way, hedgerows, hay meadows, and abandoned pastures that filled my childhood remain. My journal entries are among the few existing records of the land that was Racine County, Wisconsin. They are currently being used by a conservation agency to benchmark change in southeastern Wisconsin. They may be used as a history of the land. They may spark conservation agencies to preserve what is left of this prairie land – the land I will continue to write about in my journal.

Journal Habits to Follow

Use a small, easily carried spiralbound book. If you're planning on writing only, lined paper is good. If you plan to write and draw pictures, get plain paper. Write in pencil or permanent ink; a lot of modern inks fade and run.

If you're a beginner, a good place to start your journal entries is on a field trip. Entries should include location, date, time, temperature, and a general description of the weather. Write down anything interesting that you or others have observed. If you're writing about a plant, note if it's single- or multiple-stalked, in a group, blooming or not. Include neighboring plants, soil conditions, animal or human disturbances. if it's being eaten or pollinated, record who or what's doing this. If you don't know the plant's name, and you've forgotten your key, make a sketch for later identification. If you're writing about an animal, note its location and activity. If you don't know the species, describe and sketch it. You might be able to find it in a field guide later.

Early June 1962
Near the Country Club.

Shooting star's homes are grassy, sunny fields and under gnarly bur oak trees. They grow in rich black soil. Their pale green leaves come up at the end of April. They hug the ground to keep warm. I don't know why they come up so early. They are always eaten by rabbits, gray gophers, and meadow voles. Now, tiny green caterpillars eat them. The caterpillars like to eat their petals and seed pods, too. Every year there are less and less shooting stars because farmers kill them by plowing closer to the edges of fences. And the roadsides are mowed. But this field has a lot of shooting stars. When I grow up, I am going to buy this land. Then the shooting stars will have a home forever.
Babette Kis' journal entry (6th grade)

If you're a seasoned journal writer, you may want to keep a journal in your car. Use it to record any sightings of native communities or native plantings. Take a survey of the plants and animals you see in these areas. If they are located on private property, make sure you get permission before doing this. Along with your survey, describe specific aspects about the community or interactions of plants and animals. Describe any construction of roads, buildings, etc. around the natural area. If you get a chance to observe a native community throughout the year, you might want to keep a record or list of different plants and animals you see by season. In summer or fall, go out in the evenings between 8:00 and 10:00 (take your flashlight) to find night-flying moths, orb weavers, katydids, night beetles, and bats. On winter evenings, you may see meadow voles, skunk, raccoons, and owls about. Before you make any night trip, get permission from the landowner and contact local law enforcement agencies.

You may wan to rewrite your best journal entices. Do this within the week, while images are still fresh in your mind. Enter these in a separate notebook, or use a word processor. Compare and share your entries with fellow journalists and conservation agencies. Journal notes are one of the best ways to document changes in our diminishing natural areas.

If You Want Your Child to Keep a Journal

Let her or him watch you make journal entries. Ask your preschooler what you should write about. After you finish your entry, read it to your child. If your child is older, combine journal writing with summer camp, field trips, and nature study.

Middle and high school students often do well with small notebooks like those adults use, but for younger children, ages 6 to11, an 8-1/2 x 11 spiral bound notebook often works better. Younger children I have worked with don’t like to draw on lined paper. If your child doesn’t, consider buying a spiral bound book that has lined paper and drawing spaces on each page.

You can also make a personalized journal for your child. On the cover, include your child’s name, the year, and a description such as “Summer Journal,” “Nature Journal,” “Summer Adventure,” “Plant and Animal Stories,” etc. Let your child help choose the title of the journal and the color of the cover. Calculate the number of pages your child’s journal will have by multiplying the number of times per week your child will write by the number of weeks or months the journal will be used. Twenty to 30 pages should do for a season. My summer class of second and third graders wrote in journals like these once a week. Design or buy pages that have space for your child’s name, the date, the location, and observations/notes and a picture. After you finish your cover and sample page, have the journal duplicated and spiral bound at a quick-print shop.

Journal keeping is most interesting during late spring through fall, so you may want to start during this period. In your yard or a nature area close to home, ask your child to point out birds, butterflies, bees, caterpillars, flowers or other plants and animals. While you and your child are looking at plants you may ask: Do they live in sun or in shade? Are they short or tall? When do they bloom? How do the flowers and leaves feel? How do they smell? For animals: What are they doing? Is there more than one? Are they quick or slow? Are they out all the time, of only at a certain time of day? Are they hunters or are they prey? Where do you think they live?

July 30, 1965
The field behind the House.

The lightning bugs come out when the compass plants start to bloom. There are three kinds. One is about half an inch long that makes a single yellow flash. One is about three-quarters of an inch long and also has a yellow light. These are photinus beetles. Another kind is about three-quarters of an inch long and flashes green. This is a photurus beetle. Photinus and photurus beetles spend their early lives underground. They need to live in moist soil with plants above them, not cultivated ground. That is why they are pevalent by the pond in back of the house. When I was a kid, I caught firelies every night. Sometimes in my hands, sometimes in jars. You can do that when you're a kid. The problem is the guys (teenagers in the neighborhood). If I see them, I'll tell them I'm looking for the dog. I'm going over the hill to catch lightning bugs. If they start to come with, I'll tell them to watch out for the spiders.
Babette Kis' journal entry (high school)

After one or two of these field trips, the children I have worked with usually decide what they want to write, without prompting. Each time she’s outside my 6-year-old writes one or two sentences and draws a picture. Give second-graders and older children note-taking rules. My third and sixth graders are required to write at least one paragraph containing at least four sentences for each journal entry. I review everybody’s writing after she or he has finished an entry, or once a week, depending upon the child’s age. I don’t correct their sentences and spelling errors. I do ask them to explain vague sentences or logic. And, I tell them they have sharp eyes when they state little known facts. Every two weeks I require my older children to chose one of their entries and write a page about it. To do this, they may have to make additional observations or use reference material. They write a draft, correct their spelling errors and sentences and arrange sentences into paragraphs. I encourage them to include pictures, graphs, lists, sketches, or other information in their report.

What's a Phenological Calendar?

Not quite ready for a full-blown journal? Click here for a great option to get you started.

At the end of the summer, I congratulate all of the children on a job well-done. We read our favorite stories out loud to each other. In fall, I store my own children’s summer journals in a box in the attic. Over time these journals will weather and wrinkle, like my childhood journals did. And, when my children leave, their journals will be waiting, should they wish to take them.

This article first appeared in the November/December, 1996 issue of the Wild Ones Journal.

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