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.

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

Spring into Action

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If I have learned anything in motherhood, it is that you better be ready to put your money where your mouth is. I can hardly expect my child to believe something is important unless I do.

Or can I?

Lesson #2: I am learning at least as much from my child as he is from me. The third lesson would likely be my child is a better person than I am. Thankfully, with him to guide me, there is hope though.

No joke, my son was born with an intolerance for trash. We would go walking before he was even verbal and he would point out every single piece of litter, frowning and saying, “Tuh! Tuh!” (Trash in Baby.) I was torn when he got mobile and would walk around cleaning up the playground. Half of me was so proud; the other half was alarmed (“Ew! Germs! Yuck! Safety alert!”). I had to dance through these occasions, as I wanted to preserve his distaste for human failings while not wanting him to grab the discarded tissues on the ground.

He’s five now, and nothing has changed. He is a hearty volunteer when we do clean up projects. He actually put down a brand-new, remote-control truck recently to go pick up a piece of discarded trash and dispose of it. He will make a speech with little provocation about ocean pollution. He was thrilled when we got a grabber and collected trash along our road. He is so excited about all the sustainable items we have switched to (see the section on Take it Outside for more on this).

Today we were driving into town (we live in a rural area; “town” still has less than a 10k population) and were pleased to see a crew had been through to clean the rather obscene amount of litter that has gathered recently. Yet, I was struck by the fact there seemed to be a lot of bags. I mean, I had felt it had hit epic proportions, but… wow. On the way back, I started counting. The crew had only covered a section of highway roughly 2-3 miles; about 2/3 of which was divided highway, so I couldn’t see the bags on the far side. I counted 59. FIFTY-NINE! Let’s say for 2/3 (40 of the bags) I missed about 1/3. That gives us about 13 more. So 72 bags across a, let’s say, 3 mile stretch of road, at 60 mph. That’s 24 bags per mile, which says we were passing one nearly every 2 seconds. I’m sorry, but that’s insane. How does an area – especially one not densely populated – generate that kind of litter? How is this the world into which I am sending my son?

At home, I couldn’t let it go. I posted about it. I fumed about it. Then I got wise – and I asked my son about it: “What can we do, Bubby?” He looked at me over his dinner plate and replied, “We can do more.”

Yes, we can.

We decided that, with a new season in the air, we can do a little spring cleaning. Every week we will venture out at least once to make a dent in the trash. Whether this means bringing a bag while we hike, surveying the park while we play, hunting up our road for a mile or two, or whatever else, we don’t yet know. But there will be a pack of gloves and a handful of bags in the car, at the ready. So we can do more.

I was reading A Warmer World to him the other night and kept being struck by the fact that dates they mentioned would fall within his lifetime. I will admit, I was the lazy person who hated when I was forced to do the extra task of rinsing something and putting it in the recycling bin. I wanted to do right by the environment, sure, but it was more by way of warm wishes than by any actual effort. Those days are gone. We can’t act like litter is not our problem because we didn’t toss it out our car window; we can’t assume nothing can ever improve and not try; we can’t hope our children do better than us and clean up the mess. Whether we like it or not, we’re in this together. What one does to pollute, the other is also stuck with the result. We may not have all caused the mess – at least parts of it – but the responsibility lies on the shoulders of everyone – especially since we model what values the next generation should uphold.

We’ve accepted our challenge. What will yours be?

Please join us for Spring Into Action 2020. Clean up your community. Start some sustainable habits. Walk when you can. Reduce consumption. Open a window rather than adjusting the thermostat. Just say no to single-use items. Learn about the issues. Working on those 1000 hours outside? Awesome – get out there and help. And please: comment, reach out, join us on Facebook – stay connected. Because we are.