Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

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!

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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?

 

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!

 

Backyard Festivals September 7, 2010

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What is better than a community coming together?

I’ve been to a few festivals in the past, mainly in cities where they sometimes pop up unannounced, but this was my first time volunteering for one.  This festival was put on by the organization I work for, with the goal of raising money for the environmental education program. The amount of work the volunteers put in for this cause is staggering, and I’m so grateful for it!

Festivals are a great way to get outside and see something new without having to travel too far. At this one I was able to spend the entire day outside interacting with local children and getting their hands dirty. There were also plastic duck races in a nearby stream, animals to meet, workshops about using cold frames, growing your own food, and identifying wild herbs, and lots of great local food.

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All of these tents are put up early in the morning by a slew of volunteers–the one on the far left had local musicians playing throughout the day.

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This station was run by a family who lives in mountainous (by East Coast standards) Pennsylvania, almost completely off the grid. They have a variety of animals, and brought many of them down to the festival, which were a big hit! The man in the overalls also built a compost-able sawdust toilet complete with hand-washing station just for the event, which he carried to and from his property.

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I ran the kids’ activity station. I came up with three options to choose from: nature journals, butterfly magnets, or a scavenger hunt with a prize. Kids could choose to do any or all of them, and some made multiples of each craft.

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The nature journals were a big hit, which I should’ve known because they were the messiest! I wanted to do this craft because, as you probably know by now, I am a big believer in nature journaling! For this craft I cut up old manilla folders for the covers and then 10 pieces of white paper for the inside. I punched holes in the top and tied them together with string. Kids were then able to decorate the cover or the pages using paint and natural materials. As one co-volunteer pointed out, it was fun to watch the kids realize that there were no paintbrushes, and then decide what to do next. I brought some natural materials with me that I found outside my house, like leaves, acorns, acorn caps, walnuts, feathers, and stones, and the kids experimented to see what kinds of shapes they could make with each. Some of them also glued the leaves to the cover itself. It was a lot of fun!

I really enjoyed seeing what the kids came up with, including many things I had never thought of when I planned the activity. I highly recommend this as an activity to do with kids, and as one you could do in a variety of settings. They tried using the different parts of feathers, dipping a stone into three different colors of paint at a time to make interesting blends, rolling a walnut around the paper, and so on. Some of them even went searching around the tent for their own materials.

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Here are some of the materials we used.

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Next, they had the option of making butterfly magnets. I was mainly working with younger kids so for this activity I cut wing shapes ahead of time and then let them decorate them. They also decorated a clothespin and glued it on to the wings to act as the butterfly’s body. A pipe cleaner around the clothespin for antennae, a sticky magnet to the back, and viola!–you have a colorful refrigerator magnet that you can clip important papers in. This was a fun activity but there a few things I would do differently next year. For one, I would like to find more reused materials, instead of going through so much construction paper. One idea I thought of too late was to cut the wings out of old seed catalogs or other magazines people were going to throw away. I also would like to have some pictures of butterflies changing from caterpillars next year, so it is a bit more educational.

One important thing I have learned from working with kids is to always be flexible with what you want them to do! Some of them have their own ideas and I would always rather them be creative and explore their options then make them stick to my original plan. For example, one girl really wanted to make a flower instead of a butterfly. She knew what she wanted and had come up with the idea herself, so I quickly cut a flower shape out of extra paper and she colored that in instead. I poked one of  the extra pipe cleaners through it as a stem and not only did she walk away happy but I got a great idea for a future craft!

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The last activity choice the kids had was to go on a scavenger hunt. Usually when I do scavenger hunts with kids I list items for them to find in nature, like a yellow flower, or a mushroom, or something red. This time, however, I made it more community based and interactive. Kids (and adults!) had to accomplish tasks like: Meet an organic farmer, Meet someone who composts, Find a piece of trash and throw it away, Name 3 signs an animal might leave behind, and Meet someone who eats food they grow themselves.

People picked up a sheet with ten of these tasks to complete, a pencil, and went off. This activity attracted a wider range of ages, which included a few adults and some teenage groups–some of whom made it into a competition! The prizes for completing the scavenger hunt were these animal totem stones:

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I had seen these stones a lot as a kid in American Southwest gift shops. There are many areas with petroglyphs out there, and people make these stones into magnets or sell them in baskets next to the cash registers. A recent post by Marghanita Hughes of The Little Humbugs reminded me of them, and I decided to make them for the scavenger hunt! I especially wanted to do this kind of prize instead of giving out some plastic doodad that would end up in a junk drawer, the trash, or worse, swirling around the ocean somewhere.

To make these animal stones I simply looked up some pictures of ancient petroglyphs for inspiration and then drew on the stones with a sharpie. I also drew footprints of local animals–a wonderful idea from a fellow volunteer.

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I tried to keep track of what type of drawing people liked best. It seems that adults tend to like the footprints while kids like the animals, and everyone likes the swirly turtles!

In the end, it was a wonderful day. One of my favorite things about this festival was the way it used everyones’ strengths to make something magical happen. It was really a convergence and showcase of all of the different skills in the area.

As I mentioned, it was my first time being part of something like this, but I will definitely do it again in the future! It was a great chance to get outside, eat delicious food, and connect people to their local environment. What more could you ask for than that?

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Into the Forest August 25, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — backyardsafari @ 8:57 pm
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In honor of “Wordless Wednesday” I will make this short!

Trying out a new set of “blend-able” markers I bought on sale yesterday. They seem promising! I’ll have to add them to my field journal “tool kit.”  Is there anything you just need to have with you when it comes to pencils, books, pens, and other writing/art supplies?

 

Purple Beetle Catchers July 14, 2010

* Edited to include more information*.

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Have you seen me?

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Recently, while driving around the state of Pennsylvania, I started noticing these purple boxes, high up in trees spaced out along major highways. I saw them on the way to Philadelphia, Virginia, New York, and along roads in the small rural area where I work.

Every time I saw one I wondered what it was for. My theory was that they were part of a scientific study collecting some insect to get an idea of how many were in an area. Having completed research projects myself before, this seemed to make sense–the purple boxes were spaced out fairly evenly, as if to get a solid data set, and were put along major roads I assumed because of their accessibility. I didn’t know what insect they were trying to capture/count, but with their size and height in the trees it made sense that it would be one of our six-legged flying friends.

I always meant to look up the answer but kept forgetting, as so often happens in life. Finally, on a recent bus ride, I saw a box out my window and decided to end the mystery once and for all. Thanks to the joys of 3G and my phone data plan, I was able to google search right then and there. I couldn’t find anything at first, but after trying a few different search terms before typed in “purple beetle catchers along roads” and viola! An article from a Vermont newspaper came up that explained that these purple ‘boxes’ are being used to trap the emerald ash borer beetle.

The beetle turns out to be an invasive species introduced from Asia to Michigan in 2002. It has since spread to at least 12 states and a few Canadian provinces, including Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia. The adult beetles eat the leaves while the larva destroy the inner bark, which ruins a tree’s ability to move nutrients around. It seems this beetle has killed many millions of trees since 2002, and scientists are trying to find ways to eradicate it.

I contacted a colleague of mine at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to find out more information. He says that usually these traps contain a pheromone inside that attracts the insect, but in this case they actually contain oil from the Manuka tree, which has compounds similar to what ash trees release when they are stressed out (which in this case is because they are being eaten by the beetles). He added that the purple color is also an attractant in this beetle family, which is why the color was chosen. The traps are not supposed to eradicate the beetle, but are helping to find out where the beetle is and monitor its movements. It seems the biggest concern is spreading the borers around through fire wood. If people cut wood infested with the borers and then take the wood somewhere else, a new area can become infested. Many thanks to Jeff at PA DCNR for the information!

This post isn’t just about the emerald ash borer, or the purple traps, though. It is about trying to ask questions about the world around us and then follow through with the answers, even though we are busy and it is hard to remember. I always find it interesting to compare the differences between adult and childhood education.  As kids, we are taught many things. When we ask why, we are told that we might need it later, or that it is part of becoming a well-rounded person. When we grow up, though, this stops. Once you get out of college, especially, continuing education either stops completely or becomes pinpointed to a very specific topic that compliments our jobs and careers. Why? Do we assume that we now are well-rounded people and don’t need to learn anything else? Do we stop becoming curious about the world around us?

I thought consciously about this for the first time in 2005, when I was keeping a notebook during field work in Wyoming. For the first time I took the usual questions that often flit in and out of our heads–I wonder what that insect is? What is the name of this? Why is this happening?–and actually wrote them down and tried to find the answers later.

It can be difficult to remember to do this, but it is a great exercise and one that enriches and compliments our usual daily routines. When I finally picked the right set of search words to find out about the emerald ash borer, I was so excited–and as funny as it sounds, proud–about finally solving this mystery. Because of it, I know more about the world today than I did yesterday.

Imagine–there is a whole drama unfolding in the forests all around us! A stow-away from another land silently devouring trees from the inside out, as teams of scientists try to fight them in an ongoing country-wide arms-race between the beetle’s adaptations and our own human technologies.

And to think I knew nothing about it!

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Have you seen one of these traps near your house or in your travels? If so leave a comment or send an e-mail to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com–I would love to know how wide-spread these are!

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Exploring Nature through Field Journals June 16, 2010

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Back in March, I wrote a post about the wonderful benefits of keeping a field journal. I really can’t recommend them enough as a way to bring yourself closer to nature, and help you experience it in a different way. I haven’t been writing in mine as much lately, and am currently trying to get back to it again. Just to give you some more examples beyond what was in the last post, here is a drawing from my last field journal/nature journal entry.

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I was sitting outside a coffee shop in a major east coast city, and I noticed some sparrows flitting about, searching the ground for crumbs and singing out from the edge of old brick window sills. I made a quick drawing of it, trying to especially capture the way the dark markings on the sparrow looked depending on the angle it was facing.

The benefit of this type of exercise, and of the field journal in general, is to stop a moment to look closer. Drawing something–no matter your skill level–forces you to look a little differently, and notice colors and patterns you didn’t see before.

Another exercise I have always liked is the idea of a “day map.” This is something I learned from this book, although it may be discussed elsewhere as well. Basically, you create a map of interesting things you saw through out your day. The idea isn’t to be able to find them again, necessarily, like you would in an actual map, but to record what you notice as you see it. For example, if I made a map of yesterday I would include seeing the holes the groundhogs have dug in the sides of the retention pond by my house, a large brown rabbit hiding in the grass near an office building, and the heavy, soaking rains and overcast skies later in the day. On the map, a dotted line might show my traveling through time and space between these points.

In addition to being a great way to connect to nature, field journals can also be a great resource to go back to later. For example, I often write questions down that I go back and try to answer once I have access to books or a computer. I also can look back on past journals and compare them to what I see now. Is that big twisted tree that fell over but was still growing still there? Am I seeing as many spotted turtles now as I did when I was a kid? What was the name of that funny looking plant again?

I will keep writing in my field journals and will continue to occasionally take pictures to show you some examples of what you can do. If you already have a nature journal/field journal and feel comfortable taking pictures or scanning some pages to send to me at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com, I would love to share them!

Don’t force yourself to be perfect or keep track of everything–just record whatever catches your eye or inspires you!  Field journals can be a wonderful lens to view the natural world through, and I recommend them for all ages. If you have very small children, encourage them to draw pictures of what they see while you record dictated sentences. If you are old enough to write yourself, consider keeping a small book in your backpack or back pocket. If smooth, creamy pages inspire you more, as they do for me, find a blank book you like and use it to record thoughts and sketches of what you see. The most exciting thing about keeping a book like this is finding what works for you!

So let’s all give it a try! I will try to get back to writing in my field journal more often, and if you have never kept one before consider making this week, this month, this summer the time you start!