Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Spring Growth April 8, 2011

What a difference a day makes…

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As much as I love nature and being outside, I am not a person who is good at raising plants. I want all of the benefits with none of the work, and I don’t do the research necessary to really care for them well. As a result, I just don’t keep them! Every summer, though, I suddenly wish I had tomato plants. I sometimes go and buy a full grown plant, setting it out on my balcony and heading out every now and then to collect the glowing fruit.

This year, though, I am trying to get a head start. I bought this little tomato starter kit and some seeds, and tried to follow the little set of directions on the back. I’ve already had to ask my excellent Facebook friends for tips, like should you rotate the plants so they don’t get leggy (yes) and now am wondering how I ‘cut back’ all but the strongest seedling. Do I snip it with scissors?  Pull out the whole plant? And how do I know the right time for putting them outside?

It is a learning process, but it has been so much fun just to watch these little guys spring up in the window in front of my work desk. I have watched them grow with speed and force, unfurling their leaves and reaching for the sun. They turn as I rotate them, leaning their faces back toward the light.

I can’t promise they will make it through a whole season of living with me, but I am certainly going to try! In the mean time, I am going to take pictures of them every day, just like I did for the Backyard Transition Challenge last fall. I encourage you to do the same! If not something you are growing, than just something you see changing around you–a bud on a tree branch, a weed in your yard. It is always a great experience to watch something grow and be able to look back and see how far it really has come.

Happy Spring!

 

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

 

 

New Year’s Revolutions January 21, 2011

Confessions: In the winter I don’t go outside very often. I watch too much TV. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep at night. I am squishy in places I was not squishy a year ago. I often forget the reusable bag at home when I go food shopping. My household creates a lot more trash than it needs to. I worry about inconsequential things. Getting properly dressed up in many layers to go out in the cold feels like Work.

While I have never made new year’s resolutions before, I am a fan of new beginnings, and they can happen any time! I have apparently chosen Jan. 21st for mine–although if these don’t work I will just start again later!  I try to be honest with you, dear readers, because I want to show people that you don’t have to be a gore-tex-covered super-fit woodsperson in order to enjoy nature and the world all around you. I also believe that if you have a Love for something, the desire to protect it will naturally follow. If you bring the joy and the magic, the recycling and carpooling will come.

I am at a place now where I miss the free-spirited ease that I had as a child when it came to going outside. In the spring, summer, and fall, I can feel it, but in the winter I struggle. As a kid, there was no hesitation about pulling on our boots and mittens and running out into the cold. We had strategies of wrapping plastic grocery bags around our socks for extra protection so we could stay out longer. We would pull a sled up the same hill over and over again. And there was a comfort in coming in again, coordinating stacks of wet shoes and socks over the heating vents, our cheeks red from the cold.

I know I am stuck in a cycle–I watch more TV because I’m not going outside, I can’t fall asleep because of watching TV right before bed, I worry about things while I am lying awake.

In my attempt to get a new start I have set a series of very accomplishable basic goals.

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  1. Go outside every day for at least 10 minutes a day
  2. Start a “bed time routine” that involves not looking at any screen for at least 30 minutes before sleep (this includes the phone!)
  3. Always take the reusable bag to the car after bringing in groceries and leave it there for future trips. Be generally more aware of the products I am buying, how much vs. how much used, packaging, etc.

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I am not concerned that I have set my goals too small, because I am big believer that “the more you do, the more you do,” and I know that if I can accomplish these things as a baseline, that more will follow.

It’s going to be a great year life, I know it.

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One of my favorite pictures ever, taken by my father.
 

The Deer in the Desert January 7, 2011

“I love being a part of the hot, blowing, scurrying, madness of the desert. I feel the way the earth does when it rains–dark spots appearing in the dust, heavy with meaning and nourishment. Welcomed. What am I saying? Things full of arrogance and personification, for sure, but true things too. The main problem is that I don’t know how to explain it. I feel like the red rocks.”

So go many of the entries in the field journal I used during my time as an SCA park guide at Arches National Park in Utah. It was a time when my backyard literally was the park and I was full of wonder at the great expanses before me. There are entries detailing how ridiculous it seemed to hang my clothes out to dry in front of towering cliff faces, or drive my “commute” to work through the unbelievable goblin landscape.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tower_of_Babel_ArchesNP_UT_USA.jpg
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The best parts of keeping a field journal are having a place to record and sort these feelings, and then being able to look back on them later and relive the experience. Many of the things I wrote about I wouldn’t remember now otherwise, but when I read about them I can picture the exact moment and place I was writing. I remember the young Say’s Phoebe practicing his landings, “dusty yellow belly and gray everything else.” I remember huddling after a hike to write “in a small curve in a red lump of rock, the sun inching its way toward my shoes.”

One of my favorite experiences from my time in the park is the one written below.  I copied it here just as it is in my journal, incomplete sentences, thousand commas, and all.

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“…As I started my hike through I walked down the hill, into the wash, and came around a corner. When I say came around a corner I mean clumsily, bumbling, heavy, with my head mostly down. Suddenly, there was a deer. Across from me, perhaps 10 feet away. It looked at me, considering, and then went back to eating the scrubby Shinnery Oak. I could hear it crunching and chewing on the little acorns and leaves. It sounded so delicious, the way food always does when animals are eating it. I watched it for a long time. Her, I guess.

Finally I started to walk but stopped again closer to her, and she looked up and straight at me. She walked closer to me and we stared at each other for a long time. Minutes. Her eyes were shiny black obsidian orbs that I couldn’t see into or get a grasp on. Her ears were large and soft, expressive. I wanted to curl my fingers in her hair and bury my face into her neck, breathing it all in. I realized I don’t know what deer smell like.

She had dark lines on her side, I guess from where she had been scratched before. I could hear her breathing and smelling the air.

There is no better lesson in grace than a deer. Nothing to make you feel more like a clumsy, heavy, beast. I felt out of place with my overstuffed backpack, watch, bright clothes. My sunscreen and water bottles and shoes. I wanted to shed these things and follow her over the sandy hill, my feet leaving little prints in the sand.

Finally, she walked by me, slowly, crossed the wash and climbed up the bank. I held my hand out in a childish anthropocentric wave as she looked back once before passing out of sight.

I wonder what she was thinking of when she watched me. She wasn’t afraid, or wary, or judging. It was more expectation than anything–waiting to see what I would do. I should have eaten some oak leaves, but instead I did nothing, trying to prove that I could be silent too. I could also wait and watch and be gentle. I should have nuzzled the ground with my mouth, too. I should have smelled the air, and shaken the gnats off my large soft ears.

Next time.”

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There are times when I look back through my old notebooks, cringe at my awkwardness or naivety, and wish there wasn’t such an extensive written record of such things. Most of the time, though, I look back with a lot of love and compassion for the person who wrote those thoughts. Wide eyed, in love with the earth and the sky, struggling to find words for her experiences in the world. I wonder what I will think in 5 years about the notes I am writing now? The bird drawings and the descriptions of the moon. Will it seem childish or arrogant? Will it still strike a chord within me, help me see that I feel just as excited about life now as I did when I was 12, 15, 19, 24?

I think most of all it will show me that there have always been amazing things to see wherever I have gone, whether it is in the woods behind my childhood home, the red rocks of the fiery desert, or the rolling green expanses around my current neighborhood.

There is always a bird learning how to fly. There is always a place in shadow turning to sunlight. There is always a deer in a wash waiting to meet its glassy black eyes with yours. The only question is will you be there to see them?

 

The Moon, The Snow, and Getting Unstuck December 21, 2010

It is 1:51 am, do you know where your nature blogger is?

Well I will tell you. I am sitting in my apartment, in my pajamas, awake and periodically checking on the moon, which is transforming slowly in a solstice lunar eclipse. I am waiting for the unbelievable moment when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned in Space, and the moon is surrounded by a glowing red “sunset” of light refracted through Earth’s atmosphere.

I haven’t posted in too long–truthfully I have been having a hard time coming up with the right things to say. I started a few posts, but my sentences were all jumbled and my metaphors too complicated. I knew what I felt but couldn’t quite make the transition into words. I wanted to write about pine trees and the idea of Work. I wanted to draw beautiful scenes in my paper journal. I wanted to go walking in crisp winter air, feel the snow kiss my cheeks. But here I am instead, my apartment in the middle of the night, feeling sleepy at all the wrong times.

The view out my window is a bit lonely–it doesn’t translate well in my iphone camera.

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But really right now it looks beautiful to me. The snow is gently, silently falling, covering the ground in this unifying blanket of white. The grass, the roads, the sidewalks are all blended together into one unbroken landscape. It feels like I am the only one here, but I know that in fact there are many people around the world, huddled under blankets and rubbing bleary eyes with me, waiting to see the shadow of the earth cross the moon.  In the mean time, I have made some hot chocolate for company.

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And yes, it has mini-marshmallows AND whipped cream.

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Just checked outside again, slippers on my feet and a blanket tucked around my shoulders. The moon is a half crescent gleaming in the sky. According to NASA, the last time there was a total lunar eclipse on the solstice was December 21st, 1638.  I wonder what the people looking up that night thought? A sign from God(s)? The end of the world? An omen? Just a beautiful sight? Who was more mesmerized–them, struggling to grasp how such a thing could be, or me, knowing what it takes to make it happen?

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2:14 am. The moon is just a fuzzy sliver of light, but the clouds are thick and rolling, obscuring it after just a few seconds. They seem to be on the move so I am hoping to have at least a few moments of visibility when the show really starts at ~2:41.

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2.23 am. Someone just came out of their apartment and walked outside. Perhaps I am not the only one waiting for the eclipse?

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2:25 am. Hmmm.. only thick clouds as far as I can see. Well, I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Starting to get sleepy.

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3:17 am

For a long time the sky seemed intent on holding onto its covering of clouds. I stood out on my balcony for a long time, my neck craned up searching for an opening, but none came. I was afraid to look down or go inside, sure that during that brief moment a window would open and I would miss it.

I did happen to meet some neighbors–they had just gotten home from the bars and wanted to take a look before going inside. I love moments like these, seeing people’s curiosity about nature in the unlikeliest of places. We need to fuel the partying sophomore’s love of nature as much as anyone else’s.

Finally I decided to embrace this experience for all it was worth, moon or no. I put on some socks and my winter jacket, gathered up a blanket and my beach chair and set myself up in the front yard.

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Note: For the record, I didn’t actually sit under this light, I just needed it to take the picture.

I arranged myself in the lawn and leaned back, breathing in the cold air. Snowflakes fluttered down around me as I watched the thick mass of clouds hover in the sky. I decided that I would not get a chance to see the moon, but I did get to see a few stars glimmering brightly through slips in the clouds. I did watch the tree branches dance with the wind. I did inhale the night and the wonder of  Outside. And suddenly, as with so many things in life, the moon appeared right where I least expected it. I had been looking close to the spot I had last seen it around 2:15, but there it was, lower down, balancing right above the tree branches. The sighting was brief, but look! A large parting in the clouds. I sat silent, perfectly still like a hunter waiting for its prey to approach. The space came closer and closer to where I had last glimpsed the moon.. closer.. only to change shape and veer up at the last minute. Perhaps that brief moment of clarity was all I would get. The cold was seeping into my toes, swirling across my back where my shirt had ridden up.

And then, at long last, a strong wind blows the clouds, scattering them, making its way through them like a river through stone. The clouds push across the sky, and eureka!

The glowing red orb lit by a thousand refracted sunrises. The round, pregnant sphere improbably lined up in space with our turning Earth and the life-giving sun. The moon!, which has hung in the sky and pulled at the tides over all the people who have ever lived.

It was beautiful, the way everything else I saw was beautiful. I had been stuck, unable to find the words, unwilling to venture out into the cold, but tonight changes that. I went out, I sat in the snow in the middle of the night–just me, the trees, the fluttering white flakes, the clouds, and the moon. I searched for it and I found it. But I also found the reminder that everything else is worth seeing and experiencing as well. That red candy moon is just the cherry on top of the great boundless dessert of the earth, the night, the stars, the wind, the cold, and last but not least, of getting my voice back.

 

 

Notes from the Field November 14, 2010

“Just begin. Any day, any moment. There need be no occasion, no noteworthy event. Think of your beginning as the point where a tossed pebble hits the surface of a pond. Changes and discoveries will widen out endlessly from just such a small point. Take your life as it is, and go from there.”

-Hannah Hinchman, A Life in Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal.

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I have written a few times about nature journals (here and here), and it is something I just can’t recommend enough for people of all ages. It can be difficult to keep up with a journal of any kind, though, and you have to take inspiration where you find it. To help keep myself inspired, I recently ordered Hannah Hinchman’s A Life in Hand, now her second book about journaling that I own–the other one, A Trail through Leaves, is even more wonderful! Her drawings and words of wisdom help me remember to keep noticing, keep being curious, and keep drawing.

Thanks to the simple act of keeping a journal, today a dead brown marmorated stink bug (yes, those prehistoric looking things swarming your screens and windows) was not just a piece of refuse but something extraordinary to behold. Journaling, and especially drawing, slows you down and forces you to look at the details of things, like the tiny ridges on the insect’s abdomen, the way the wings are carefully tucked along its back, and the way the antennae bend like the crook of an elbow. It also encouraged me to look up the word marmorated–it means “veined or streaked like marble,” and is a beautiful word!

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As Hannah says, just begin! Find an empty page and start to look at what is around you. What do you notice? What are you feeling?  Start with the present and go from there–you never know where it will take you!