Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Just Write It Down

Today's Did You Know fact is a real doozie: There are 851 species of plants native to the Illinois plains. For those of you who thought that prairies were all boring swathes of dun-colored grass, think again: in springtime, the prairies are a veritable riot of color.

The smooth blue aster is but one of the many flowers that covers Illinois' prairies when spring arrives.

Your Miss is reminded of this fact because I keep somewhat of a loose illustrative journal, and in winter, it dies down to a big fat pile of words, whereas, in spring, summer, and fall, it is, on some pages, just a mess of ink and noise. I paste things in, draw macro illustrations of leaves and flowers, or just of funny patterns that I see on rocks or in the sky. I'm particularly fond of drawing in maps of where I am.

I am not skilled in the least, nor can I work in anything but pencil or pen, since I find carrying around a big clutch of writing utensils to be just too much for my rudimentary skills, but still--I jot it down.

A few of the Miss' past journals.

In short, I do everything I can to mark the scene. I'm fully aware that I can't duplicate everything I see, or even come close to it, but it's as if, in the very act of taking time to jot down a rough illustration of the things I've seen, I'm making that much more of an impression on my memory.

And it's true--these journals above are the ones in which I know where everything is. I can tell you that the one on the right, with the life cycle of a butterfly and the curiously tall drawing of a house, also has pasted into it a particularly charming photo of a dog. He's the oldest dog I know to have been adopted from an shelter, and his name is Charlie. (He has four teeth left.) I can tell you that the journal on the right has some really bad attempted illustrations of the Andes and some Amazonian plants from a trip I took to Ecuador.

I'm a writer by trade, so I can do this with some of the other journals I have, which are "illustrated" only with words, but the ones in which I've drawn are the ones that really matter as the materials that reference where, when, I was at a certain point in time. They add such a rich dimension to my memories.

The point is, of course, that, with 851 plants in the Illinois prairie system, and goodness knows how many across our United States--this is a great way to get your family deep into the stuff that makes up your surroundings. Drawing something leads to questions, a conversation, even, and remember, your drawings don't have to be terrific. (Don't be intimidated by gorgeous journals created by professional artists. They are amazing works of art, but every illustrated journal started somewhere, and your kids'--and yours--will have their own unique merits.)

This journal, from graphic designer Gay Kraeger, is something your Miss aspires to on a regular basis, but alas, she cannot draw birds. Or work in watercolor. Or do pretty lettering. Oh, well. (Journal copyright Gay Kraeger.)

Don't pluck anything out of the ground with the intention of pasting it into your book because you're frustrated that you can't reproduce it exactly on your page. When flowers and leaves dry, they don't look anything like they did when they were green and thriving, and anyway, your sketches will help you to remember what they looked like. (This advice comes from the heart. When I was much younger, I plucked things out and pasted them in with impunity, and all I'm left with is some loose scotch tape and some faint plant imprints.)

Do, however, encourage rubbings. Lay a page of your book over a rock or a leaf, or anything with texture, and use the flat side of a pencil or a crayon to rub over the page. You'll have a nice, unique memory of the way something looks like it feels--and that's just as nice, if not better than, having pebbles pasted into a book.

A leaf rubbing. When you're done, have your kids put the leaf back so that someone else can enjoy it.

You can get fairly inexpensive, recycled-stock bound books at any stationer or art store. Get something with a hard back, so you can hold it in your hand and doodle whatever you see in front of you. I like the Moleskine books, which are in the middle price range (although not of recycled stock) and come in a selection of sizes and styles. Invest in some good pencils and some nice erasers, find something pretty to look at, and draw away. Just a quick sketch will imprint the scene in your brain, at least until you see something else to draw--but then you will have something to look back on: Just turn back a page.

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