Archive for February, 2010


Your yard as a nature center

You don’t have to travel far to get outside and start enjoying a little nature. You also don’t have to be in the depth of the wilderness to enjoy nature. Even your landscaped neighborhood has benefits of nature. It doesn’t take much to begin and it is addictive. In my yard, just coming out of the depths of an exceptional drought, with weeds replacing the St Augustine grass, I have the beginnings of a natural yard.

I started with a single, simple bird feeder. That’s it. For the first year that I lived here that’s all I had. I filled it with a decent quality mix of fruit, seed and nuts, under the Audubon brand. In that first year I got golden fronted woodpeckers, cardinals, mourning doves and house sparrows. Not a great mix but enough to keep my interest. The feeder was strategically positioned so I could see it as I was doing school work for my masters. I loved the cardinals best. They would come as a pair. The crimson male would entice his partner down to the feeder by bringing her, and feeding her, nuts from the feeder. That spring they brought their youngsters and taught them how to eat there.

In the fall, during the hummingbird migration, I put up a feeder just outside my window. It was abuzz with hummingbirds for the two months of migration. From there I have added, bit by bit, plants to attract butterflies, plants with berries to feed birds, and another five feeders, including one for the squirrels. I figure, if you can’t beat them, join them. I have added bushes that birds can hang out in, staying safe(ish) from predators. I still have other things I want to add to the yard but the simple changes that I have made have added rose breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings, orioles, some robins during a rare very cold snap, and cooper’s hawk to name a few. The hummingbird feeders, now up to 4, bring in Ruby Throated Hummers and Buff Bellied Hummers.

I see Monarch Butterflies at the milkweed, and I have watched their babies grow until they leave and build chrysalis somewhere for the final stage of their growth. I have Black Swallow Tails at the parsley and dill. We share the spoils, the caterpillars and I and I think I come out ahead.

The point is, that it doesn’t take a huge effort to make a garden that welcomes other creatures in. Each year I add another layer to the mix so that I increase the welcome I offer. If I had to say what two things would make the difference I would say it would be a high quality general seed (avoid millet and cracked corn) and a water feature. My water feature is an inexpensive bird bath that I bought from HomeDepot for about 35 dollars and it is quite popular. Things don’t have to break the bank. From there, I would add cover in the form of well placed shrubs in which birds can hide from the neighborhood cats and other predators. If these shrubs can be fruit bearing, so much the better.

Because planting for wildlife is such a passion, I will post more on this in the future. For now, this is a place to start and, as has said in many languages, starting is 98% of finishing.

So tell me, who visits your yard?

A Sense of Wonder

I think we live in a jaded world. Perhaps this makes me a jaded person. Perhaps this is not news to people who are reading this blog. Perhaps you are the sort of person who lives in a state of wonder and you think I am smoking my socks. If you are in the latter group, share your ideas of wonder in the comments. If you are in the first group, read on because I share some things I use to recapture that Sense of Wonder that makes life a little more, well, wonderful.

First, to give credit where it is due, many of the ideas I carry about what  “A Sense of Wonder” is come from Rachel Carson, biologist and author of Silent Spring and Edge of the Sea among others. In a wonderful little book titled “A Sense of Wonder” Carson shares her exploration of nature with her grandson. The key element of the book is simplicity. Children are delighted by the smallest things. They don’t need to know a fancy biological name. They don’t need to know something’s niche in the natural world. They don’t need to know its use to ourselves or others. Children are delighted by the new. Children are delighted by the familiar. One is the surprise, the other the old friend and children love both. In “A Sense of Wonder” we follow Rachel and her grandson through the Maine woods near her home and watch him name the things he finds there according to his whimsy. We splash with him through the tide pools left by the retreating sea and learn his names for the things he finds there. In doing so we come away feeling delighted at the wonder he sees.

Maintaining wonder (or reinvigorating it) is a simple but slow process. I think we want everything to happen fast, but that is another post. To start the process, find someplace near at hand to explore, your yard, neighborhood, or local park will do. Leave the id books at home. Take blank paper and a pencil. Go exploring. Indulge in the following behaviors:

  • Let go of the need to understand.
  • Let go of the need to categorize.
  • Let go of the need to explain.
  • Look up.
  • Look down.
  • Look under things.
  • Be still and watch.
  • Be still and listen.
  • Touch stuff.
  • Smell stuff.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Open your eyes.
  • Name stuff according to what it looks like there and then rather than the way the scientists do.
  • Use your pencil to poke at things and lift them up.
  • Use your blank piece of paper to highlight interesting things by using it as a study mat.
  • Use your blank paper and pencil to draw what you see, in words or pictures, as a child does, without editor to limit your image.
  • Smile.
  • Laugh.
  • Play.

For some of us adults, who have forgotten how to play, it is helpful to have a small child with us. Children will see many new things we will take for granted. The child is a magic ticket to remembering what it is to be a child.  If you don’t have a child handy go exploring anyway.

Then, I’d love it to know:

  • What do you find wonderful?

What is a hundred acre wood place anyway?

I was blessed as a child, growing up in a small New England town just north of Boston, to have a couple hundred acre woods kinds of places. One was the big wooded area behind my cousin’s house that had, no doubt, been the kitchen gardens for all the houses that enclosed it before the era of the community grocery. Time had passed and it was now over grown with 30 year old trees. Things grow fast in the Northeast. There were Jack in the Pulpits, Lady Slippers, and ferns of all kinds. We were all fascinated with something we called “Prickly Cucumber”. It was a vine with prickly fruits on it. I have no idea what it really is. Across the street and behind those houses was another wooded hill were we all played kick the can, capture the flag and hide and seek. On a big summer night there could be nearly 20 of us. Usually there were 7 to 10 kids running around up there.

In addition to these community spots, I had my own wood. It was tucked at the top of the hill where we played our games and was bordered by the cemetery on one side and more houses on the others. There was a meadowish sort of place, a pond and lots of trees. The cemetery provided a kind of creepy ambiance for a child with a vivid imagination and timid disposition. I tended to avoid that side. I liked to climb the trees and read, it was a good way to avoid being seen (no-one ever looks up) by the few people who wandered up there. I would remain very still, glaring at these intruders, until they went on their way. I did not like to share my place.

The thing of hundred acre woods is that they are small enough to be intimate and large enough to hold the occasional surprise. In the hundred acre wood you can hunt for hephalumps and still have time to visit your friends Piglet and Eeyore. There is time to sit on bridges and make boat had s of sticks and watch them float under the bridge swirling and dipping in the water.

At the time I lacked the curiosity to learn the names of the plants I saw. I don’t recall and birds or critters up there. Perhaps I was simply unobservant. Perhaps it was a residual of the Silent Springs we had made with chemical pesticides. I think it was something of both. Even so, the time I spent there was formative. I would go there to read. I would go there to write; I still have my journal full of its teenage angst that is timeless. Sometimes I would go and just sit. From this time I learned the value of stillness. This is a value I hold and treasure today. I go out of my way to schedule still time in each day.

Hundred acre woods places are small and near at hand. My current “wood” is a small pond down the road between my home and the Laguna Madre. It is currently home to 100 or so Red Headed Ducks, Herons, the occasional Pied Bill Grebe and a pair of Osprey. In late March or early April the ducks and grebes will leave on their journeys to the north. About Earth-day the Osprey will follow. This summer I will follow the lives of the swallows, spoonbills cardinals and other summer residents. I can get to my wood with short walk. I can go, sit, read, think or just watch. At my wood I find surprises, like hephalumps, and friends, like grebes. I always find rest.

What about you? What are your hundred acre woods places?

Purpose

I am continuing to focus on the purpose and focus of this blog, not so much so that I can find one but so that I can articulate what is already in my head. In any dream there is a lot of “fluff”. Or, perhaps, not fluff so much as bits and pieces that really belong in other dreams because, while these bits and pieces may be interesting, they have the potential to scatter energy from a main idea like dust motes scatter light.

As I was drifting off to sleep the other night I had a very clear list of focus topics for this blog form in my head. For example, the importance of being able to read and the tools for teaching that, the importance of maintaining balance between head logic and heart (emotion), the pleasure of maintaining a sense of wonder, and tools and techniques for learning about nature were topics that came to mind. That night, however, they had clear, one-word titles that would fit easily on the tabs of a blog page. I didn’t write these words down, I didn’t want to risk not getting to sleep, so now I can’t remember what these words are. “They” say that you should always write these kinds of thoughts down because otherwise the thoughts can slip away. “They” have a point but thoughts can come back or things could shift in other beneficial directions if you are willing to be flexible. I have never been one to forgo sleep to capture thoughts in that way. I believe in rest, which is one of the things I find in natural places, but that is a thought for another post.

Others, driven more by action than stillness would have taken a different course. And that, perhaps, is the key: The differences of approach and the results you get from each. Some people, when they go out into nature, have a focus for the trip. For example, having lived in both New Hampshire and Colorado at different times, I have known people who collected peaks. When they went to the mountains they were there for the purpose of getting to the top and getting home. They took in beauty as they went but that was not the purpose, it was only a minor side benefit, and not much was lost if they didn’t have time to take that beauty in. I also know people who, when they go into nature are more like a wild thing. If you were to trace their paths you’d find that they wandered all over the place, looping and zigzagging around, taking in as much as possible in their wanderings. If these people make it to the top of the peak it may be an accident and it may well not be a single day trip. Their purpose is to be in the place, enjoy the place and collect (if they collect anything at all) that wonder of being. I fall into the second group. I did try to go peak bagging with some of my hiker friends in the past but the pace was too fast and I felt that I was missing most of the good bits on the way up. The magnificent view at the top did not offset the loss of the many small things missed on the way there. In contrast, I once went on a backpacking trip with friends where we got a bit of a late start and were still on the trail in the dark. We came out of the woods to the edge of a lake that had a 3 to 4 foot rocky ledge near where we came out. The sky was a midnight blue velvet pricked with tiny diamonds of stars (no-one told that sky to avoid being cliché). There was no light pollution from the moon or the cities to disrupt that view. The water in the lake was so still that looking at the reflected night sky gave me the feeling of looking through a hole to the night on the other side of the earth. In my memory we stopped there and let that gift be given instead of pressing on to where we planned to be for the night.

So! Purpose. I do have a planned direction I intend to take, like the group of back packers I was with that night, but if the trip is sidetracked by something like the “hole in the earth lake” I’ll stop there or go there. That is part of the purpose.

Beginnings

The hardest part about anything is starting. This is not news to anyone, of course. Commiting to things is sometimes a challenge. There is always the fear that you’ll fail. The fear that thing will overtake you and take on a life of its own. The fear that you’ll be successful and you’ll have to live up to thing you’ve created. This too, is not news.“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” Bilbo said.  “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” (JRR Tolkien Fellowship of the Road)

With the start of this wee blog I have gone out of my door and I have no idea where the road will take me. I have ideas about where I want to go. I want to write and learn about ways to connect to the world, especially the natural world, around us. I want to talk about what it means to be connected. I want to write about things that are around me, like the nearly nightly flight of the Osprey who seek to roost in my neighbor. I want to write about how to get people, especially kids, outside, back into nature. I want to write about how to plant in your yard and neighborhood making it more inviting to critters like birds and butterflies and the like. These are a few of the things that I want to write about. I am sure that in my wanderings on the road I’ll be able to share about these things. I suspect that I will meet a few surprises as well.

I stalled for sometime on the start of this thing. But here I am. So off we go.