Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

On the Move June 20, 2011

I went out for my run at dusk tonight, making my way along the sidewalk through flickering waves of lightning bugs. My faltering night vision made the distant landscape a blur of dark green trees, a smudge of grass, a watercolor wash of gray sky. The houses along the street had turned their lights on, something which always makes me wonder about the people inside and seems quaint, even if it is not.

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Photo Credit

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After many weeks of alternating short walk/run intervals, I can finally run for longer periods of time without my brain wondering why I am doing this to myself and questioning every step. The Couch to 5K program helped me very much until about week 5, when I just couldn’t keep up mentally with the transition to long periods of running. I like being able to tell myself that it is only __ minutes until I can stop, that out of my entire day this is no time at all, and that I will get a break soon. I still use the Couch to 5K app but now choose whichever interval I want and sometimes stay on the same one for a long time before moving on, rather than following the prescribed path.

I can finally run in 10 minute intervals at a time, and it feels amazing! This isn’t a lot for many people in the world, but it is a lot for me and I am happy to be here. I am also starting to see that it might someday be possible to run more than this, perhaps even for some real distance, without wanting to stop every second of the way.

I am only at this point because I very specifically did whatever worked best for me without questioning it or telling myself I should be better.  For example, I am not great with competition. It is not the thing that motivates me. If I am having a bad run, I just tell myself that there will always be another run the next day, and the day after that. Instead, I challenge myself in small ways–I always pick a point just a little further to run to after I am supposed to stop, I try to keep my pace faster just a little bit longer, etc. In my case the thing that will get me outside the most is finding the joy in a great song, the power of my own body to push me forward, and a good breeze moving through the trees.

But maybe you need something different! Maybe you need to have someone yell at you to push through it, maybe you need to put up pictures of someone climbing Mt. Everest, maybe you need a friend to chat with, and on and on. The key here is to find what works for you and not let any person, book, or blog, tell you that it isn’t the right way to do it. For me, it is to tell myself that any action I take today is better than what I did yesterday, and trust that it will grow from there. I encourage you to explore what might help you get outside more, to listen to your instincts about how you are feeling and trust that you know best. Because who could know better than you?

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The days are going by and I am working on my summer goals. So far I’ve planted green pepper and tomato plants out on my balcony and added some colorful bits here and there to make it a nicer place to spend time in. I started taking walks around the neighborhood with a friend, which has been a lot of fun. I’m surprised how easy it was to turn our usual talk-while-sitting gatherings into talk-while-walking ones. Also, as of this Friday I have begun to work on one of my main goals: to use a bike instead of the car for local trips around town. I am very excited to have a shiny new hybrid starter bike to help me put this plan into action.

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Not to mention the very awesome detachable basket…

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I’ve never used anything besides a mountain bike before, and the thinner tires are an interesting change. I’m also scared of riding on the roads and get tense every time a car passes me even on our quiet streets, but I am really excited to experiment with it and see how it goes.

I am also interested in exploring another avenue of being moved by my own power. Since I started running a few months ago I have been thinking about this a lot and have a new appreciation for the human body from an evolutionary point of view. It’s just amazing what we are capable of, and every part of it astounds me. Even our ability to store fat is awesome–what a great adaptation that helped our ancestors survive all kinds of trials in the past. And sweating! Did you know that humans/primates are the only type of animal with sweat glands on virtually all the skin? This means we can regulate our own body temperature in a way few others can.

I am truly grateful for this new view of my body through the lens of where it comes from and what it is capable of. It has definitely changed me for the better.

I encourage everyone to find something–anything, outdoors or not–that they do only for themselves, and find the way of following that interest that works best for them. There are so many exciting things in the world, and only this one life to do them in! Why not learn how to climb a mountain, how to can food, how to speak Spanish, how to play badminton, how to identify bird songs, how to jump from one rock to another, how to make a good cup of coffee, how to use pastels, how to follow animal tracks, how to play the mandolin, how to look for crayfish, how to catch fireflies, how to take on the world……

You are the product of one million years of human evolution, 200 million years of mammals, 3.8 billion years of life. You share the world with 7 billion other people. Many of them dream with you, and wake up with you. All of them want to be happy and healthy just like you do. There are 5,489 other species of mammals in the world giving birth and raising their young just like you. There are 1,000 different kinds of conifer trees turning your breath into oxygen to be used again. With that kind of support all around us, what aren’t we capable of?

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Crow Funeral June 12, 2011

[Note: This post contains pictures of a dead bird. I never like when an animal dies, but I do like to use the opportunity to look more closely at the beautiful details an animal otherwise seen from a distance.]

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This morning I awoke early, around 6:30, and just couldn’t go back to sleep. Now, I love sleeping, and usually spend Sundays sleeping until the afternoon, so this is a rare event for me. On impulse, I decided to walk downtown to a coffee shop. I set off, without headphones or music, just enjoying the sleepy streets and early bird songs.

I spent about an hour reading a book and drinking coffee, and then headed home again.  I was intending to make a blog post of different bits I had seen on my walk–a broken robins egg, a painting of the solar system across a sidewalk. As I neared home, however, something much more interesting occurred.

First, I noticed something black near the edge of the path. I couldn’t make out the details of it and assumed it was a piece of tarp or plastic. Of course I just  had to find out for sure, and just as I was making fun of myself for always checking bits of nothing on the ground, I made out the soft edge of a bird’s wing. It turned out what I had thought was plastic was in fact a dead crow.

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(Note: I couldn’t help but be reminded here of the fossil of the earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx. Magnificent!)

(Image by Gareth Dyke)

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I racked my brain trying to remember if it was there when I first passed. I feel sure I would have noticed it, which means it got there somehow in the hour I had been gone. But how? Had an animal dragged it there? Had it just fallen from the sky? Why was it splayed out like that? Rigor mortis? Something else?

It was then that I noticed the sounds coming from the surrounding trees. Other crows.. many of them. They were cawing and cawing. It seemed I could make out the sound of some younger crows punctuated by the low gravel of the adults.

I went back to the dead crow to take a closer look.

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This time as I stepped close one of the crows broke out of the trees, flying over my head and then taking post in a single tree that stood nearby.

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I stood watching for a long time–the crow never stopped cawing at me, as if telling me to mind my own business. I tried to record the other sounds coming from the trees but unfortunately they were too far away to be picked up on my phone.

While it may sound strange, crow “funerals” are actually fairly well documented. There are many accounts of dozens–sometimes hundreds–of crows gathering around a fallen fellow. You can read some of them herehere, and here. This behavior has also been seen in magpies. The question is, why?  Mourning? Reverence? To let everyone know there is a change in the social structure? To eat it as food later? To let everyone know that whatever this crow did was dangerous and they should not repeat its behavior? Maybe they even killed this crow in the first place?

Regardless of what the answer is, it was a really wonderful experience. I never cease to be amazed at the complexity of the animal kingdom, and while I do not know the reason for these crow gatherings for sure, I would certainly not be surprised if the answer involved some attributes that we tend to assume are only human.

Fellow blogger Go Explore Nature told me she and her son also recently saw a crow funeral after a crow died in the front yard of his elementary school. Have any of you readers ever experienced a gathering like this? Under what circumstances? What did you see?

This experience was also a good reminder about all of the exciting things happening in the natural world around me. For a brief moment I thought that maybe the crow funeral was some sort of fate–a reward for the unusual circumstance of getting up and out early. I know, however, that the truth is amazing things are always happening out there all around us! Whether we are there to see them or not is a different matter.

I hope everyone is having a good weekend! As always, I’ll see you out there!

 

Human Nature April 13, 2011

(Source – Tim Allen)

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Are you an animal? Are we part of an ecosystem? Are humans still evolving, with all of the other creatures around us?

The answer is YES, my friends. YES. We are mammals, we are animals, we are vertebrates, we are multi-celled organisms. We came from this world, our ancestors changing through time and space, stepping trembling webbed feet onto land and scurrying into burrows to avoid a hungry dinosaur, and reaching nimble fingers towards a glistening, golden fruit, and stepping out from the edge of the forest into unknown, open grasslands. Spreading across the world, over land bridges and expanses of ocean. Using fire, planting seeds, training other creatures to be our friends and tools. Wheels and pack animals allowing us to carry things in a way we never could before,  developing specialties, building stronger houses. Learning about sanitation and disease so our loved ones could survive. Building strange contraptions that let us capture a moment in time, hear our mother’s voice on the other end, exchange information with people around the world. The world, once huge and incomprehensible, gets small. We share medicine, scientific advancements, philosophical wisdom with each other.

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(Source – Tim Allen)

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We share terrible things too, but the point here is that we aren’t some creature that appeared out of the blue and proceeded to change everything–we are born of this world, born of these animals and these plants, born of these bacteria and these oceans.

We believe we are so different from everything else (and everyone else) in the world, and it hurts us. It makes us feel like we can do anything we want, but just as harmful, makes us feel like we are hopeless, terrible creatures who have ruined everything.  I believe that if we want people to care, to conserve, we need to bring back the positive aspects of being a part of the world. We need to acknowledge the amazing progress that humans have made. Our creativity, our innovation. We need to use the qualities that have brought us here to help us into the future.

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(Source)

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I love when people embrace our place in the ecosystems of the world, and so was very excited to hear about the new BBC Earth program “Human Planet.” Each episode profiles people living in a certain landscape, like mountains or forests. It is simply amazing, and I love every second of it. The will of humans to live, and the universal desire to create a better life for your children than you had for yourself, is astounding.

I was really struck, watching the show, by the many advancements humans have made–advancements that required a single person to decide that the way their world was then wasn’t the way it always had to be. In one area, someone long ago carefully planted young mangrove trees, stringing the tender roots slowly across a river. Today, there are astonishing living bridges of thick, intertwined trees, allowing people to cross safely even during monsoons. In another place, a bat hunter once decided that if an opening was cut in the forest, many bats would probably try to fly through the easier-to-navigate short cut, and maybe, just maybe, a net could be strung up to catch them.

It is this ingenuity that has allowed us to not just survive, but thrive, in almost any environment.

My favorite part of the show was a story of a family in Tibet. They lived high in the snowy mountains, and wanted their two children to go to school. Their young girl was about 8 or 10, and accompanied her father on a 6 day trek along a frozen river through the mountains to get to the village where she would start school for the first time. It was very dangerous, and at a few parts along the way they had to navigate narrow shelves of ice about to break through, or climb down a “ladder” made of iron spikes driven into the rock. At each difficult section the father coaxed his daughter through, explaining how to move and where to put her feet. She was scared, and he guided her gently and with obvious pride at her accomplishments.

I have never had to do anything so difficult or life threatening, but it reminded me a bit of exploring the woods with my own father–crossing a river on a wire strung from bank to bank, or on a log that had fallen across. Probably the same age as the girl in Tibet, I was sometimes afraid, and I remember many times where my feet were pointed to certain safe locations, and I was encouraged to continue. I am sure there are other lucky people out there who could see their own lives in this experience as well. That love is so universal, and remains the same whether a situation is life threatening or just a weekend outing. It is the driving factor behind so many of our accomplishments, and we are all better for its existence.

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A father helps his daughter over a narrow part of the ice. To learn more about the “school run,” check out this post from Tim Allen: Source

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I was also, of course, moved by the amount of work and dedication this family put into their children going to school. Their love for their children was obvious, and shone through everything else. Next time I am driving to work I will think about how at least I don’t have to walk for 40 miles over thawing ice to get there. If they can do that, what can’t we all do?

It is time for us to embrace our humanity–to revel in it, to put our unique set of skills to use. Too often in conservation “people” is almost a dirty word. I disagree! Much of the damage people have done has been–truly, when you really come down to it–to give our children a better life, to help our parents live longer, to help stay in touch with each other, to have a comfortable place to sink into at the end of the day. If we continue to feel far away from the natural world, it can only get worse. But if we embrace our humanity, if we see ourselves in every woman, man, and child out in the world, if we use the same creativity and ingenuity that brought us fire, fishing poles, arrowheads, shelves, blankets, bridges, wheels, and nets to create a better place for our children and their children–now that is a future I would like to see.

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(Source – Tim Allen)

 

25 Inspirations from Nature March 16, 2011

Change has finally arrived to the world outside my window. The snow that poured down just a week ago is gone from sight. The birds are singing and fluttering outside my window. The internet nature-lovers community is on fire with talk of gardens and composting. There is another change happening too–during this in-like-a-lion out-like-a-lamb-at-least-we-hope month, I am turning 25 years old.

One of my favorite personal blogs, Dig this Chick, has a post every birthday where she writes one thing she currently loves for each year she has been alive. I really like reading these posts, and thought I would try my hand at it, with a nature twist.  So here, dear readers, are 25 things that currently inspire me about nature, science, and being outside.

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1. The Sun. Gentle enough to make your take off your jacket and stretch out on the grass, powerful enough to burn you from even 9.3 million miles away.

2. A smooth, round stone held loosely in the palm of your hand.

3. Powering myself over the landscape with just my heart, my lungs, my feet.

3.. Time-lapse videos that show how plants grow.

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4. The smell of the earth after a gentle rain.

5. Evolution. By far the most exciting thing I have ever learned about the world. I see the evidence for it and proof of it everywhere I turn my eyes, and it fills me with wonder.

6. Life finds a way.  I am partly using this phrasing because we just watched Jurassic Park, but also because it is true. I certainly don’t want to force life to always find a way between our concrete and glass, but I really appreciate that it does.

7. Feeling the warmth of the day still radiating from a rock face even after the sun has gone down.

8. Looking for animal tracks.

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9. Holding leaves, eggshells, snow, mud, and yes, sometimes animals in my hands. (Sorry, take only pictures leave only footprints rule! I follow you most of the time, I swear!)

10. Teaching others about nature, and hearing what they think about it. The kids I teach always have really great insights and questions, and I love hearing their perspective.

11. The online nature-lovers community, and everyone who I have “met” through it. This sounds a little cheesy, but I love feeling like I am a part of this group, and I have met many people who have supported me and shared my posts and pictures with others. It has been awesome to see what other people are working on and what they are inspired by. So thank you for all of the kind words and support!

12. Walking under naturally formed archways in the forest.

13. Learning about an animal or plant I’ve never seen before, like the raccoon dog.

14. Splitting apart a sedimentary rock with a sharp rock hammer and wondering what you will find inside.

15. My magical childhood.

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16. Songs with lyrics inspired by nature. This is a little nerdy, I know, but I can’t help it.

17. Making boats out of pieces of wood and leaves and sending them down the creek.

18. This video, which I can’t believe is real.

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19. Queen Anne’s Lace.

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20. A milky clean journal page and a fine tip pen.

21. The signs animals leave behind.

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22. Taking photographs of the natural world around me.

23. The way nature calls to almost all people in some way, even if they don’t know too much about or don’t spend a lot of time in it.

24. Knowing that I am the product of 2.5 million years of humans, 200 million years of mammals, 3.8 billion years of cells, 4.5 billion years of earth, 13.7 billion years of space, and who knows what before that!

25. Being alive! Seeing what there is to see.

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I wonder what will inspire me next year?  How about you, readers? What makes you want to get outside or learn more about the world around you? What keeps you excited and yearning for more? What special connections do you feel for the plants and animals in your backyard?

Thanks for reading, and as always, I’ll see you out there!

 

Winter Feelings February 21, 2011

Just a few days ago I was sitting right in this same spot, all of the windows in the house open, letting the spring air blow in, watching the hardened ice packed along the roads melt away. Today I sit and hear the cars splatter cold slush and watch the snow nestle onto tree branches. All of the grass that peaked out on Friday is covered once again.

I would like to be a person who is continuously thrilled by the things around them, no matter what they are. I am very happy, and love nature, and can always find something good in an outing, but when a close friend recently said the name ‘February’ should be changed to “Self-Esteem-Killing Darkness Home Stretch,” I had to agree!

Many times for my job I am in and out of classrooms and teacher meetings, but sometimes, especially in the dead of winter, I work from home. There are a lot of great things about this, but it can also be lonely. Finally, in an attempt to just get over it already, I moved my desk from a dark area of our main room to the second bedroom (until now still filled with boxes from moving 7 months ago) under a window.  It has made a world of difference and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner! I feel closer to the world and out of my own head. I sit in the sunlight and can see how it changes throughout the day.

One of the things I loved most about visiting southern India was that there was always something happening. People riding by on scooters and bikes, older aunties out for walks in their saris and running shoes, people selling snacks on the beach, a movie set going up, a game of cricket with a ball made from old bike tires.

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You might think that someone who loves nature and was raised as far from crowds as possible wouldn’t like being in the middle of this, but I really enjoyed the activity and still miss it just over a year later. My husband had different views of growth and expansion than I did and it’s been a great experience to consider different opinions and evaluate where I stand. I think I have a deeper love of people now than I used to. After all, people are nature too.

I recently read this post from a blog of a couple called “Married with Luggage.”  It is about a couple who ended up selling their belongings and are currently 143 days into traveling the world for as long as their money will let them. I like the post best, though, because they do not start off as people who don’t think they need a lot of things or don’t want a house or car, etc. They got to the point they are now over a few years by thinking carefully about what they really wanted, making lists, and working towards those things.

I am working on my list now. What do I really want? This Mary Oliver quote from “The Summer Day” poem gets around a lot on nature and inspirational blogs, but I have been thinking about it recently–

“…What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

What do I want? I want to live in both worlds–quiet dark forests and bustling streets, lonely stony outcrops and crowded shops. I want to dare to be happy. I want to make and write and teach. I want to see the great natural spaces of the world and I also want to know the habits of the bird living outside my window and the leaves fallen on my sidewalk. I want to be okay with feeling the cold now because next it will be warm and then it will be hot and then it will be cold again, and each is worth experiencing if only because it is my life. This is my only life! I will not have another.

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Sunrise

…”the sun

blazes
for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises

under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
fire.”

– Mary Oliver

 

 

Backyard Creature Feature – Pill Bugs November 12, 2010

 

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This is the second post in our Backyard Creature Feature series. You can find the first post here.  The last Creature Feature was inspired by a giant bug I saw scurrying up my wall in the middle of the night. This one is inspired by a talk I saw last night about Integrated Pest Management. The pill bug was mentioned in this talk because sometimes they come in to people’s homes. This usually occurs when people leave fallen leaves and other plant debris in basement stairwells, gutters, or other places near their houses. The pill bugs love moist habitats with lots of vegetable matter, so those are perfect habitats for them! If you don’t want pill bugs around (although are not in any way harmful to humans!), getting rid of those areas would be the first step.

When I was a child my grandparents had a bird feeder in their backyard. Around the base of the bird feeder in a circle there were little red bricks, and on most visits my brother and I would pry these up to hunt for the pill bugs underneath. We would pick the isopods up and watch them roll up into little balls in our hands. We always put the bricks back, but in retrospect I imagine what my grandparents were thinking as they watched from the kitchen window as we pulled apart their backyard. So I want to take a moment to send many thank yous to my grandparents (who are Backyard Safari readers 🙂 ) for letting us explore at the expense of their nice landscaping. They were always very supportive of us in these pursuits, so I also need to thank them for letting us stick their maple seeds to our noses, helping us take care of tadpoles, and for letting us throw our stuffed animals up into their trees and then try to knock them out again, which was an extremely entertaining game to us for a long time. Thanks Grandma and Grandpa!

Okay, back to the creature at hand! I have heard this little isopod called everything from a pill bug, to a sow bug, roly-poly, wood lice, and doodle bug. The big scientific name of the family it belongs to, though, is the Armadillidiidae. I absolutely love that this group is named after an armadillo, because take a look at the similarities:

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One of the most interesting things I learned about the pill bug while writing this is that it is actually a “terrestrial crustacean.” The crustaceans we usually hear about are sea-dwelling ones like crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. Not only that–according to http://www.pestworld.org, they are the only crustacean that has been able to live completely on land. How amazing is that?? There are giant isopods in the ocean that are very similar to pill bugs but, well, giant and live on the ocean floor. If you ever get bothered by the isopods on land, just watch the video here to feel safe again.

Once again I am just blown away by the details of this big world we live in. To think I’ve spent my whole life knowing about pill bugs without really knowing them. That I held their little rolled up bodies in my hands without thinking about how they are the only crustacean to have made that long arduous journey onto land. That I’ve never really thought about the convergent evolution (when unrelated animals have the same biological traits) between this tiny little creature, armadillos, and girdled lizards.

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I know I’ve said it before and that I will say it many more times in the future, but what an unbelievable world we live in! Even the smallest and most common creatures are extraordinary in their adaptations and survival methods. Your backyard is an exciting place to be! Have you or your children spent any time playing with pill bugs? Do you have any other special names for them? If so I would love to hear about it in the comments!

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Note for Parents and Educators:  There is a neat research project for K – 4 graders here, which teaches children how to use the scientific method by studying pill bugs, which are ideal because do not bite or carry any diseases harmful to humans, and can live up to 3 years if cared for properly.

 

Fall Changes in your Backyard October 8, 2010

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All across the eastern United States trees are exploding into a collage of color–red, yellow, orange, sometimes all on the same leaf! The daily commute to work, to the bank, to the grocery store has become an expedition seeped in color and change. Wasn’t that oak tree green just yesterday? When did the air start filling up with all of these blushing leaves?

When I was younger my brother and I used to run around the backyard trying to catch leaves as they fluttered down in their erratic descent to the earth. I still remember the feeling of looking up at those trees–so tall, towering high above me, swaying with some kind of ancient rhythm, sending their leaves down upon us in a shower of treasure. Seeing the leaves change color and start to fall still fills me with excitement all these years later (and if a leaf happens to flutter near my while I am walking, I would be a fool not to try to catch it, right??). This excitement and wonder is something I hope to pass on to the kids I work with in the schools.

The way leaves change is an amazing process and, like all things in nature, one that we should understand and appreciate! I was recently asked by a 3rd grade teacher to come up with an activity that helped explain fall transitions and I have since done it with a variety of elementary school ages.

I am going to explain the way I do this activity with kids, but I hope you will read on even if you do not have any just to learn more about why leaves change color and fall every year! Also if you are working with kids, keep in mind that you might have to make this more or less complicated depending on your age group!

I recommend starting this activity–and your own learning process!–by giving kids a few minutes to search through the leaves and find one that they really like. I then have them come up with one thing they find beautiful about their leaf, and one question they have about it. I learned pretty quickly that just starting out with a complicated explanation of the process does NOT capture kids’ hearts and imaginations. Anyone can learn facts, but the most important thing you can give someone is a Love of nature, a Passion for it, and a Curiosity about what makes it work. If people have the Passion, learning naturally follows. The idea of having them examine the leaf first is that eventually they will start to ask questions about what made it the way it is, and will want to know what I am about to tell them, rather than me just telling them they should.

It is difficult to explain why the leaves change without first explaining the very basics of photosynthesis. I like to do this using a small whiteboard I can carry around outside–I started using this a little over a year ago and now always take it with me–most kids find it helpful to have a quick picture drawn to explain concepts and I like having that option no matter where I am.  First, I draw a tree with one big leaf, explaining that what I draw for that leaf represents what happens to all the leaves on the tree.

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Next I ask kids how we, humans, get energy–by eating food! Do trees have mouths to eat food? They do not, so they have to make their own energy.  I explain that they use the sun for energy, and also water, drawing as I go. I show that water can come from the roots of the tree, and also can move in and out of a leaf.

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I explain that the part that makes the leaves green (chlorophyll) uses sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugars (glucose). The tree can then use these sugars as food! To help them understand this (and tie into the game we do next) I colored a clothes pin green and glued a magnet on the back so it sticks to my board. I put it in the center of the leaf, explaining that it represents the chlorophyll.

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I then show the sunlight coming from the sun as a yellow strip of paper, which I clip in the clothes pin.

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Next, I show a blue strip of paper coming from the trunk of the tree into the leaf to represent water and also clip it in the clothes pin.

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I explain that the chlorophyll has turned this little “packet” of sunlight and water into energy, which can move back into the tree for it to use as food.

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Now comes the really exciting part of how trees lose their leaves!  If you google search “why do trees lose their leaves?” you almost always get the answer “because there is less sunlight for photosynthesis.” Over and over again this answer is given. This is true, but it is only part of the truth. Ask yourself, if it is just the sunlight changing, why don’t evergreen trees lose their leaves too?

The change in sunlight helps trees know that it is time to lose their leaves. It is a signal to them that the seasons are changing and soon it will be winter. This is the same signal that is used by birds to know to migrate and mammals to know to hibernate! How cool is that??? In most cases, it isn’t even the sunlight that tells organisms things are changing but actually the amount of darkness in between, or how long the nights are. I find it truly remarkable that so many different organisms with very different ways of living all use the same cues to know winter is coming.

So why do trees lose their leaves? Well, we already talked about how there is water moving in and out of a leaf. What would happen to the leaf when all of the water in it froze during the winter? It would be destroyed! The tiny ice crystals would puncture through the membranes and cell walls. So, instead of wasting all of its nutrients and water on a leaf that will be destroyed in cold weather, the tree starts to remove everything useful from the leaf. This means the chlorophyll also goes away, and once the green color is gone you can see all of the yellow and orange colors that were always there in the leaf, but hidden beneath the green! After most of the nutrients are removed, the tree builds a layer of cells between the branch and the leaf called the “separation layer,” which once complete causes the leaf to fall off.

Evergreen needles (which are leaves, by the way, they just look different!) have a smaller surface area and are also protected by a waxy coating, so they don’t have to worry about water in the needle freezing the way deciduous trees do.

When I was trying to come up with a hands-on activity to go along with this rather complicated explanation, I saw mention of a “photosynthesis tag game.” This is a pretty cool game you can read more about here, but I wanted to make sure kids understood that it wasn’t just the change in light that affected the leaves. I made up a new game where the class was divided into 3 groups. One group all got green clothespins, like I used on the white board. They were leaves, and the green clothes pin was their chlorophyll. One group got the yellow strips of paper, and were sunlight, and the last group got blue strips of paper and were the water moving through the tree into the leaves. I explained that each time I said “go” represented one day, and in that time each “leaf'” had to get a piece of blue paper and a piece of yellow paper from the other students and clip them in their green clothes pin. This meant that together they had made one piece of energy for the tree to lose. After each round it would have it be nighttime and collect all of the clothespins into a pile. To represent the beginning of fall, I had students tear their pieces of paper in half, showing that there was less sunlight and the trees were providing less water to the leaves. Eventually, students were only clipping tiny pieces of paper in their clothespins and then I had them all fall down to represent the leaves falling. We gathered back together to examine our pile of clothespins with paper strips, and I explained that now that these leaves were gone, the tree could use this stored energy all winter long, the same way a bear uses the fat from the food it ate in the summer while it is hibernating.

Note: the next time I do this activity I will use pipe cleaners instead of strips of paper–the pieces blow around a bit too much so it is hard for kids to hold on to them, and once they are ripped up you can’t use them again. Instead I will have kids fold their pipe cleaners in half, so I can just unfold them later to use again.

The story of why some leaves change color and fall and why others don’t is a fascinating one, and one that I hope we can all learn and share! I did not understand this process very well myself until I was creating this activity, and it really increased my enjoyment of the fall leaves around me! What a difference it makes to look out at a hillside blooming with color and understand how the trees “know” to make this change and why it is happening. How interesting to realize that those trees standing bare in the winter are just like the hibernating mammals curled up tight with their tails covering their noses! How unbelievable to know the geese honking overhead are feeling the same drive to fly south that a tree does to lose its leaves.

In short–what an amazing world we live in! Soon it will be winter here and we will be covered in snow, but for now a cacophony of pigments, chemicals, and changes are swirling around you, just waiting for you to stop and ask the question, “Why?”