Posted in education, extraschooling, Home

Your Inner Darwin

I really shouldn’t play the favorites game, but… I am so in love with the new book! If you only ever grab one Extraschooling title, make sure it’s In My Nature. This book has all the best of me in it, as it not only combines my passions of nature and education, but was also requested by my son and compiled with him in mind. And, while most of the ideas I write about are based on learning adventures we’ve had, I made this book specifically for us to use in our current day-to-day. I could keep on about it, but I’ll spare you. In short, if you are a nature-loving family, want more excuses to get outside, or are looking to cultivate a broader awareness of the great outdoors, then here – go grab a copy!

Okay, now, moving on…

We love science around here. One of my favorite things about it is that, while science seeks to answer a myriad of deep and important questions, it is infinitely approachable. With my other recent reads behind me, I quickly ran through The Earth Moved, by Amy Stewart, and am now listening to Darwin’s Backyard, by James T. Costa. The first pulled heavily from Darwin’s research on earthworms, which piqued my interest and made me reach for the next book. The other night there was a passage that struck me, about the origin of the term scientist. A word that can now seem so lofty was only coming on the scene when the man who would become one of history’s most well-known scientists was sailing around the globe on the HMS Beagle.

Did you know the number of toes on a salamander can help identify it?

Darwin was what any great scientist – professional or, as he was, home-based – still is: an experimenter. This is the beauty of the subject; while it is great to amass knowledge in any of its many branches, there was a time when nothing was understood, when everything was a fresh marvel. Just as babies reach out to feel, squeeze, and examine everything interesting that crosses their path, so were the many mysteries of life on and off this planet uncovered. One does not need a degree or a reference book or a step-by-step instruction guide in order to explore. All one needs is to be able to squint thoughtfully at something, tap their fingers a few times, and utter the words, “What if…

We are surrounded by a wide world to question and consider.

This has been our weekend of schooling around here. I got out the salt and posed a few questions. I knew enough to be able to offer up the elements from the periodic table that create salt and water, and then that ran my store of chemistry knowledge pretty well dry – but that was enough! So far we have had oodles of fun poking and prodding these two basic ingredients to see what happens. We have:

  • Cut a small potato in half and immersed one part in plain water, the other in salt water for a day.
  • Dried both potatoes and left one as is while covering the other in salt.
  • Checked to see if there is a point at which salt stops dissolving in water.
  • Let the water sit overnight to see if the salt settles with time.
  • Boiled both salt water and plain in covered pans to make “clouds” on the lids to see if salt evaporates with the water.
  • Boiled the water off to leave the salt behind.
  • Set up a stalactite string.
  • Frozen salt and plain water to see if they freeze differently.
  • Had a bunch of discussions.

And none of it required an ounce of research or planning – just a question, and a few simple materials.

Just add salt and… presto! Let the fun begin.

Science is about curiosity, discovery, experimentation, delight, and being willing to get your hands dirty, make guesses, be wrong, and then to try again. It is about making volcanoes in the sink, blending paint colors on a canvas, stalking bugs in the yard, peering through a telescope, taking a closer look at the world, and approaching life with “What if…?” always on the tip of your tongue.

Hint: Goldenrod is an amazing place to find a wide variety of incredible creatures.

If you want to try some explorations with your family, here’s a download to get you started, ripped from the pages of – you guessed it! – In My Nature: A Field Notebook for Kids Who Like to Explore on the Wilder Side. This is based on the scientific method, which is all the guide you need to dive into this amazing, diverse, and fantastically fun subject.

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Posted in environmental issues, Home

Almost Home

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We are doing a 6-week wellness challenge at the moment, hosted and created by our closest friends. Each day we have a specific task to accomplish along with movement and nutrition goals. Today’s activity was “Take a few minutes to tidy up your space.”

We have recently begun to shed some old possessions and reclaim long-lost corners of the house, so we are caught somewhere between small successes and burnout. This was a quick way to get back in the flow: we each picked a target area and set our timers for 10 minutes. When the timers went off, we were still in a groove… So it became more like an hour, and we got twice as much done as we’d planned on, and it both looked good and offered a happy sense of accomplishment for minimal investment.

I found the dresser! Three cheers for little wins.

It also has had me reflecting across the day.

I bought this place – my starter home I forgot to leave – 13 years ago this past February. I was in my mid-20s and single, having just lost my father while simultaneously gained my dream job at an animal rescue close by. My dad had always said my middle name was “Go,” so I had very appropriate panic attacks as I closed on this place; I both wanted roots and wanted to run.

We had moved so much as kids – I recall saying that if I counted anywhere (including motels) we had spent at least a month, I had averaged a house a year for my first 18, and my early adult years were equally mobile. While I loved a good change of scenery, I’d always wanted to own something just to be able to put my stamp on it – to decorate it and mold it the way I liked. My first year on my little acre I went to work with a wild abandon. I hired contractors and repaired and remodeled alongside them, painted and primped, arranged and planted. I was proud of the work, and it felt good to be surrounded by reflections of myself for a change.

Some of the “neighborhood.” I have always been a country girl at heart and wanted to live on this road the first time I ever drove down it.

And then…

Life happened. Jobs changed, and changed again. Money grew tighter. Relationships formed and required time. Marriage, a baby, a separation, single-parenthood, stress. They all began to conspire with the dust, the disrepair, and the clutter. Then, to boot, my son came out a born naturalist and environmentalist. Suddenly my house became a zoo, and my horticultural dreams for the yard morphed into watching a sort of wild nature park take over.

There has never been an animal he hasn’t had the time or enthusiasm to pause and meet.

The current state of affairs reads something like this:

The house is a mess. I would like for it not to be, at least on the rare occasions there is company, but maybe at some other times, too. However, we would rather be outside, and indeed are generally outside, and thus lots of outside gets inside, and it just seems quite pointless, especially when you add in the dogs. If we were in more, perhaps we would care more. But… we’re not.

But, really – why be in when you can be out?

The yard is a jungle. I wish I had a green thumb, but I don’t. Weeds are a welcome part of our gardens, as at least we can count on them to bloom and feed the pollinators. I do actually suspect we have produced quite a few veggies this year, but some combination of local wildlife has eaten them all so far. We use no chemicals in our yard and have only a reel mower, shovels, and hedge clippers to tend the cacophony of greenery with, so it has been known to overrun us, at which point there is little to do but wait for winter to chip in and drive it back a bit.

One of the resident brown snakes checks out the balloon flower I planted and the wood sorrel that planted itself.

We have become seasonal beings. The only time I had AC here was during the brief stint I was married. When the husband was done, so was the window unit. Each year we have become less interested in running the heat as well. Winter often finds the house in the low 50s and us outside, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun in the yard. The windows and doors stay open most of the year, as we value fresh air and the sounds of coyotes and rainstorms over climate control.

Where you can find me every morning possible, while the little one roams the woods beyond (with the cat, on this particular day).

Open doors and life in the woods lead to a house that is less a residence of people than it is a critter hotel. The spiders hanging from every nook and cranny pay their rent by acting as our “pest control.” As noted in the Little Green Hill series, we spent one winter re-homing either 52 mice or two of them 26 times. I have listened to opossums getting lucky under the floorboards at 2 am. There was a skink lost in the kitchen much of last summer. A milk snake got stuck in our magnetic screen door two years ago. I have had to catch a chipmunk in the dining room, a wood frog in my bedroom, and a wren in the bathroom. For Christmas a few years ago I gave my son a bug catcher to keep up with the constant demands of his insect relocation program.

And so on.

Around here, if you see a shadow on the floor at night, it is always best to turn on the light rather than thinking it’s just a leaf and going on your way (yes, that happens).

I have changed so much in 13 years. My goals and perspectives are so different, and while I am generally in favor of the shifts taking place, I still struggle to reconcile it with societal norms. I get embarrassed by the disaster zone when people with nice, regular houses pop by. I envy my neighbor’s gorgeous landscaping. I do sometimes begin to think there may be more bugs in than out, and they all want a bite out of me while I try to sleep.

But.

He and Rusty the dove attend to the yardwork. Or not.

Last night I heard a rustling out my open window and, after squishing a flashlight and my face up to the screen, was rewarded by seeing one of the possums clamber out of the lilac. Two months ago I walked into the kitchen and found a wolf spider that would’ve spanned most of my hand if I’d held it, and, for the first time ever, I calmly photographed it, then caught and released it – and when I found another a few days later missing legs, I felt quite sorry for the rough night it must have had. The porch I had built my first summer has now housed over a decade’s worth of carpenter bee generations, and I can’t help but imagine how grand their structures must be. I find I like winter more and more the less I run and hide from it. (I might never like summer, but I still have to admit that little beats a night bursting with the songs of cicadas.) The house feels less like a possession to be protected than like a shared habitat. I look forward each year to adding to my knowledge of the rhythms of this acre and better understanding my natural neighbors.

Just as long as it doesn’t want my coffee, I suppose…

In short, this house is starting to feel more like a home.

And it was nice to show it a little love this afternoon.

It’s our little piece of wild. And boy is it wild!

P.S. For anyone in a similar state – we read a picture book within the last year by Christina Soontornvat called The Ramble Shamble Children that we instantly fell in love with, as the kids try to “fancy up” their home until they realize how little all that matters. We, like Jory, would much rather find a good mud puddle to play in.


Posted in environmental issues, extraschooling

The Wild Things

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We went to the woods today.

It was one of those almost shockingly beautiful days, so incredibly fall – a crisp, rich blue sky, blazing fireworks of leaves exploding in every shade from lemon-lime to ruby. The sun was warm enough and the air cool enough to balance the scale perfectly, and a light breeze tickled its way through the forest.

We are amazingly fortunate in that we have neighbors who not only allow but encourage us to roam their property, and we live beside a state park, so we get to slip in and out of its boundary, in an area not crushed by crowds. We spend hours out there, inspecting the edges of mud puddles for tracks, visiting old tree friends, peeking into crevices for bugs, and testing the depths of burrows. It is a magical fairyland, a wilderness playground, a place I feel out-of-my-mind lucky to be able to offer my son. One learns lessons in nature not found anywhere else and cultivates facets of spirit not attainable elsewhere. This place is where we both come into our own, reconnecting with our roots as we explore those of the trees.

I was lost in all this today, reveling in it, taking photos every few steps as I fell in love with yet another maple in a bright pink-orange display. And then – and then I noticed our dog, who was noticing something of his own. Our last two trips we have been fairly sure we’ve happened upon a bear, and this being, as I mentioned a moment ago, not regular stomping grounds for others, I am always on alert. We have a couple of dogs, but my old girl tore her ACL on this hike a couple years ago, so I am having to learn to trust in my son’s dog. He will be 4 in February, so he is beginning to lose his puppy goofiness, and I am increasingly impressed with him on our ventures. Now I keyed in on him as he began to prick his ears, pause, veer off, and train his attention over the edge. We were on a shortcut trail that drops down into a 6-way intersection where the park service road comes through, and we had limited visibility right before the brief descent. My son was about to rocket down to the clearing, but I warned him back and we went cautiously together. As we popped out of the rhododendron I saw and heard a flock of birds – big birds. “Turkeys!” I exclaimed, which I had been somewhat suspecting by the dog’s actions.

“No, Momma,” he said. “Vultures.”

It was a dead coyote. Over the edge, maybe twenty feet below us. A place where locals, maybe even our own beloved neighbors and their family, have dumped trash over the bank for years, now laced with broken bottles and rusting cans. Here, as if it, too, were garbage, rather than a unique, special, and necessary part of this glorious wilderness. This was no natural death; it had been tossed here, discarded.

My heart felt heavier with every slow step down to the body. This beautiful, perfect day in the woods had a sudden stain upon it. I stood beside the small form, remembering earlier in the week when my son had called me outside – “Come out if you want to hear the coyotes singing!” It had quit before I got there, but I had heard it several more times later – not the usual lively chatter, but a haunting, brief, solo call. I felt sick realizing we had probably been listening to this creature’s mate wondering why it had not returned, or telling what they had seen happen.

And why? I mean, why? Beyond this lone coyote – the wolves, the bear, the mountain lions. Why have we humans historically felt it our duty to eradicate every predator we run across?

I have hit the age of appreciating my mortality without fearing it. Across our seasons in these woods, I have come to love it more than all the other hiking areas around – and we live in a land of plenty here – because of the very fact it still feels wild, like while I may be at the top of the food chain, I am not all-powerful. There are things out here that warrant respect. I have been so thankful of the times we have been alert to bear, so I can help my son understand how to share space. How to be knowledgeable in one’s actions so as to not need to fear. How to be so that others can, too.

We stood over the coyote for a while. I felt like something needed to be said, some sort of apology offered up to our surroundings. The air was still with sadness. The smell finally drove my son back to the trail, and I followed after a long, last look, gathering the now-tethered dog and resuming our travels under a black cloud I couldn’t seem to shake. I told my son I was sorry; this was his first coyote, and this was no way to see one. Growing up on a farm I had seen plenty. It was a very different time: their cries at night spooked me, and we lost the occasional barn cat to them. The farmer would try to shoot them, and back then, I would tell him when I saw one, watch him take aim. Thankfully, he was a lousy shot. You live and you learn, I told my son. I am wiser now. I am also thankful I have known them; that I know their calls, know their habits, have seen them sit like regal statues on knolls, or run the fields with the farm dogs, as if playing.

We walked on, to Crinkleroot Corner, as we call our favorite spot. A tree there bears the face of a wizened old man that we like to think of as Jim Arnosky’s loveable woodland character. My son headed to play in the creek while I decided to walk to the end of the trail, less than ten minutes on. I ambled down the hill as leaves swirled thickly around me and the dog trotted on ahead. At the bottom, the path turns back up and away from the water, and fallen trees create an obstacle course. The dog went through them slowly, sniffing keenly at the vertical branches and eyeing the trail. I continued a bit farther before deciding from his behavior that I was trailing something that had probably come down for a drink. I called him softly, and we went back the way we had come, surprising my son with our quick return.

My decision wasn’t made out of fear; I just don’t need it all. We had our spot to explore for the afternoon, and the animal was welcome to the rest. I want to be a good neighbor. I want to leave a positive mark by not leaving one at all, or the least possible, anyway. Around our area of this state park, the divide between the people and the land is glaring. There are properties that look like rotting junkyards. The litter is obscene. This poor, dead animal that – what? Maybe nabbed a chicken or two? Or simply was, like the coyotes of my childhood? Compared with the incredible beauty we were busy soaking up – it is a stark contrast. If you want to see what I mean, look at the photo for this post; I took it today. With the bottom cropped off, it is quite idyllic, isn’t it?

I’m not sure how to wrap this post up. There is no neat bow to tie on it, I was simply feeling the need to get words out. It hurts to see my favorite places – not just this one in particular, but nature as a whole – scarred by human actions, and I am tired of always having to explain to my son what we need to do better. I want him to see people feeling the way he does and joining in protecting and caring for our planet and its inhabitants with him. I want him to see wild things doing wild stuff, not laying in crumpled heaps after a senseless death. Call me crazy for getting so upset over a dead coyote, but I don’t know. It just made me so darn sad.

Posted in environmental issues, extraschooling, Home

To Wasp or Not to Wasp

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I have these neighbors… Maybe you know the type? They are the kind that brought about the phrase “good fences make good neighbors.” They like their space and don’t care for anyone overstepping their boundary marker. They are a bit brash, sometimes downright in-your-face, and not to be trifled with. On the bright side, they are only temporary, not fond of our winter chill. I have had one run-in with them that left me on guard, yet it also gave me a better appreciation of them. They are, of course, yellow jackets.

I love yellow stingy things as a rule. This is why I created a whole section on bees, after all. Few animals send me shrieking these days – I am still trying to reach this level of maturity around snakes, yet sadly I have a ways to go – but honestly it has never really occurred to me to be scared of bees and their kin. I’m not sure why, as it’s not like I have successfully avoided being stung – quite the contrary, in fact, and I have even discovered an allergy in the last decade. Yet I remember as a child listening, fascinated, as an older girl described being able to pet bees, and then trying it myself on the next ones I saw. Their plight in recent years has won me over even more, and at this point I let out a celebratory whoop each season as the first arrive.

This summer I was out mowing the grass late in the evening, near dusk, with our reel mower. My son wanted to help, so after cutting our hill I turned it over to him to tend the flat top area. Just as I walked off, I felt a piercing pain at the front of my ankle. I had on mud boots (ahem, snakes) and had to wrestle one off to find the wasp still stuck in my flesh. I flicked it free and it zipped off about ten feet, wheeled in midair, and then set a course for a fly-by. A little voice in my head wondered, “Aren’t these guys capable of multiple stings?…” But the yellow jacket only buzzed past me and disappeared. I would later learn I had just rolled the mower over its nest, and that was likely where it was hightailing it back to.

To make what turned out to be a long story short, I had another allergic reaction. Unlike the first (also a yellow jacket – I have never yet reacted to a bee of any sort), this was not immediate. The sting hurt, but we were headed in to read and go to sleep, so I had my ankle up and was resting, not swirling the venom through me, I suppose. By the next morning my foot was red, swollen, and itchy, and it only worsened across the day. By mid-afternoon I couldn’t bend my foot, the swelling was over halfway to my knee, and I was starting to feel just not quite right, so I called the local urgent care for their advice – which was to come down. It turned out I was beginning to have an anaphylactic reaction – yes, it can happen a full day later! – and required 2 shots, a pill, monitoring, and a week’s course of steroids and Benadryl. I limped out nearly $400 poorer, ankle still looking like an angry balloon, and greatly humbled by a little bug, a feeling that only intensified over what wound up being a much longer convalescence than I had ever imagined.

So that left me with the question – what to do about the yellow jackets? It was maybe a week later that my son, ever observant and tuned in to nature, spotted the nest in the backyard. I was torn. I am averse to pesticides and a huge proponent of letting the natural world be. Yet the damage wrought had left me shaken. I spent a night researching yellow jackets, trying to decide what to do. I had always heard yellow jackets are nasty, mean-spirited, and aggressive, too territorial and dangerous to coexist with. But, wait, let me think about that – isn’t that what most, if not all, animals might write about humans? I had to do a serious re-think. To begin with, I was fortunate. If I still used a whirring, roaring gas mower, there might have been a lot more than one I disturbed. Time of day surely played a part too, as well as the fact that area is thin of grass and doesn’t need much tending. If they want territory, I can probably spare that spot. I want territory too, and I take up far more, and fence it to boot. If someone came at me with blades, I’d likely be more aggressive than to take one jab at them – in fact, just the thought of wiping out a whole colony over one sting kind of points to me being the far more aggressive one, doesn’t it? I also remembered my resolution for this year: to be less reactionary. A fear-based, knee-jerk reaction is, in my experience, not when people typically make their best choices.

We decided to let them have their summer home. In a few months, they’ll be gone. In the meantime, their territoriality means I know where they are, as there won’t be another nest nearby. We put up his toy traffic cones around their hole. I had it pointed out to me laughingly that this wouldn’t keep them in their nest. No; it keeps us out. That’s their turf, and we need to be aware of it and not blunder over their fence. It has been a month, and we are living peacefully enough together so far. They occasionally pay a visit to rest on the laundry while I hang it, but that’s about it. I leave them a 3-foot berth or so when I mow, and we call it good. I’m still a little grumbly about the fact I learned they prey on bees – and the doctor bill certainly hit me where it hurt as I am notoriously cheap and unfortunately uninsured – but I am also finding myself, perhaps absurdly, glad I had a reason to get to know them better and to improve my ability to be a decent citizen of this patch of earth.

We choose to wasp.


In other news… Time immobilized has led to lots of creative endeavors! Please check out the Bookstore page to see the titles added across my downtime and pass the link along to anyone who might be interested… Consider every purchase a donation to our community urgent care!

— Stay safe, stay kind, stay curious,

JA Smith