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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Summer Wishes May 25, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — backyardsafari @ 6:14 pm
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As I mentioned in my last post, my days are currently filled with nature outings with kids in a local school district. The school year is ending, however, and my schedule will change with it.

Almost 2 months ago I brought running back in to my life. My goal is simply to feel physically capable again. I am specifically going for this amorphous I’ll-know-it-when-I-feel-it goal rather than any kind of weight or calorie number. I feel weird about endorsing products, but the “Couch to 5k” program was really helpful in getting me started, especially one of the many matching iPhone apps. The app lets me play music from my phone but also counts down the time and tells me when to run, walk, and when it is halfway so I can turn around and end up at home. I don’t think I would have been able to keep up my motivation without this. It helped a LOT to have a set amount of time I would be running for and have a goal to work towards. I’ve recently switched to a more ‘barefoot running’ style (on the balls of my feet using a minimal shoe) and had to start over a bit with slower times, but I am still using the app.

I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying running this time around. I’ve gone out a few times here and there in the past but it never really stuck. Now I actually look forward to it. I think part of it was changing my goal to focus on being strong and capable.

Taking this one step has encouraged me to take more, and a recent post by travel blog Married with Luggage got me thinking about what I really want and what I can do every day to achieve it. Then I remembered fellow nature blogger Go Explore Nature‘s 2010 fall and summer nature ‘bucket lists’ and decided to make one of my own.

So without further ado, here is a list of things I would like to add to my life and work on this summer:

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1. Get a road bike with a basket and start using it instead of the car for local trips (grocery store, downtown etc.).

2. Finally plant the tomato and pepper plants I grew from seeds in a real container (I probably should have done this a while ago–oops!). Remember to actually take care of them.

3. Turn our balcony into a place that is fun to hang out in, spend more time there. (Small table and chairs? Lanterns? More plants?)

4. Use running as a way to explore new places. (Try out local parks, trails, and explore on vacations. I recently went running while at a friend’s house in another state and it was really fun to see everything from that level!)

5. Try to add more evening walks to our week.

6. Start drawing/nature journaling again. Try going to a place specifically to draw.

7. Take better advantage of the many farmer’s markets that take place in my area

8. Local baseball team games! My husband and I love going to these and I am excited for the season to start again. Outside, deliciously bad stadium food, free giveaways.

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We’ll start with those 8 for now and see how they go.  The one problem is the top 3 things I’d like to do pretty much all involve some initial money investment. As a person who tends to get very excited about things for short periods of time, I hate to put in the money if I’m not sure it will really stick. I will try to get creative with my planter boxes and balcony furniture and scour Craigslist for a cheap bike, but if anyone has suggestions for how to do these things more affordably, I’m all ears!

I’m glad to at least have made a list–I might not accomplish all of it, but if I never made the list then I definitely wouldn’t. What kinds of fun things would you like to accomplish this season? Maybe you’d like to take up fishing, learn how to cook a local vegetable you haven’t tried before, take a walk around the neighborhood, or climb that nearby hill you see every day? For our southern hemisphere friends, maybe you’d like to try to get out more even in the cold? As Married with Luggage asks on their blog, what can you (and I!) do today to make our lives happier?

So come on, summer! Let’s see what we can do.

 

Outdoor Fun for All Ages May 19, 2011

Almost every morning during the week I wake up, eat a banana and–if I’m organized enough and remembered to wash the old congealing milk out of it–pour coffee into my travel mug, climb into the car, and drive in the opposite direction of all the commuting traffic out into the neighboring community in which I work. After much planning, my outdoor days with grades K – 8 are finally here!

For these days I put together a series of outdoor activities and lead each class through them, teaching them about topics they have learned throughout the year in as hands-on a way as possible. Some grades travel to nearby locations like a wetland or stream, while others learn right on the school grounds. They are so much fun, and I have been having a great time! The kids are wonderful and have a lot of great questions and insights.

Unfortunately, I won’t put up the many adorable pictures I have of the kids themselves, but I thought I’d share a few other photos of the days and what we have been up to. Below is a random collection of pictures from a variety of different activities.

I feel very lucky that I get to do this for my job!

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The owner of the wetland’s rule was that everyone had to get at least a little muddy. Many of them fulfilled this obligation!

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And this station didn’t hurt…

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Some crayfish discovered during a macroinvertebrate study.

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A ghostly bee keeper suit watches over some kids learning about hives.

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A local dairy farm shows some kindergartners the different parts of the feed they give their cows. This matched a later activity where I gave the kids vegetables and we talked about the different body parts they kept healthy.

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A sign showing how to get to the “plant art” station at the end of the boardwalk.

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Some clay pots painted by a kindergarten class drying in the window. Later, they filled these with soil and planted seeds in them to take home.

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A large tooth (I believe cow) that students found in the stream during the macroinvertebrate study.

It’s been so fun to go out with all of the different age groups and help them experience nature. I have learned so much and love hearing their thoughts and impressions of the different activities. I end every day with what I call “Nature Letters,” where students pick a family member or friend to write a letter to about their day. They have to include at least (1.) something they learned, (2.) their favorite part of the day, and (3.) something they did that day that they would like to do again with the person they are writing to.  They write the letter first and then draw a picture to match. I LOVE reading what stood out to them about the day and like to imagine the person they are writing to getting the letter. One girl wrote to her older sister, and drew a picture of them collecting litter together sometime in the future. Another included “BEST MOM EVER!” in all cap bubble letters at the end of his. In the example I do with the class I always write to my grandma (hi, Grandma!) so some of them write to grandparents as well, or cousins, or a best friend in a different class. I am very careful with students to NEVER ever say “mom and dad” or “parents,” always “families.” It’s a simple change in words that helps to include every student, whether they are raised by another family member, their dad and stepmom, a single parent, their brother, their two moms, etc. etc.

Anyway, in a second grade class I noticed that one of the girl’s drawings had me in it! In the picture I am holding a ziploc bag with some milkweed seed pods in it, which I used to talk about seed dispersal and plant adaptations. So, in case you have been wondering what I look like, look no further!

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I also want to say that these days are partly made possible by volunteers who come out and help me lead stations. This is especially necessary if a grade has more than one class of students. In these cases I simply couldn’t do the days without them, and I am very grateful there are people who are interested and able to spend time with the kids to teach them about nature.

As a quick public service announcement I just want to say that if you happen to have any spare time (which, I know, is rare), please consider helping out your local schools! I had a very difficult time finding volunteers this year and I know the parent teacher groups are having the same problem. Also, many public schools have had funding for assemblies, art programs, and extracurricular stuff completely cut out, and they would LOVE to have an interested party come in and do some programs with their kids. Maybe you could lead a class or two in an outdoor painting activity? Or bird watching? Or bring in vegetables from your garden? Or lead them in a song about nature? The possibilities really are endless and I’m sure there is something to match up with your specific interests.

If you have a particular hobby or specialty you would like to share with students but don’t know how to get started or what age-appropriate activity matches, please contact me and I will do everything I can to help! I can be reached by e-mail at any time at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com.

I hope everyone is having a great week getting outdoors. As always, I’ll see you out there!

 

Once More with Feeling March 7, 2011

Yesterday, a gentle rain fell over central Pennsylvania, saturating the struggling earth and melting away the last remnants of ice clinging along the roads.  It was that good kind of rain, the kind I imagine makes the earth sigh and open its arms. I thought about how soon my husband and I will play catch in the yard. I picked out clothes for a “30 for 30 challenge” I started today, including flip-flops, capris pants, and two dresses. Spring was coming and I was ready.

In the late afternoon I sat watching the rain out the window when suddenly, shockingly, it turned into snow right before my eyes. The snow got heavier and heavier, swirling around in a miniature blizzard just outside the glass. It snowed for the rest of the evening and through the night, leaving us buried in a winter wonderland that rivals anything we had in December or January.

When it first started snowing yesterday I was sad about it, but this morning I woke up and the branches were stacked with snow, the sun was bright and reflecting off every surface, and I just wanted to go outside.  I can’t explain it, but my number one rule besides “Try to make yourself go out even if you don’t want to because you will be happy once you get there,” is “If you DO want to go out, go NOW NOW NOW before it is too late!!!”

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I dug my long underwear out of the closet and my winter boots out of the car (Note: Do not keep winter boots in your car! The walk from the house to get them will defeat the whole purpose), and set out to see what I could see.

The air was crisp but not freezing, in the way that it sometimes is when snow keeps everything close and muffled. My boots squeaked and crunched and the sun shone on everything. The snow was stacked high on every surface, and the low bushes and rocks were now just mysterious lumps along the ground.

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I am not a morning person but today was out early enough to enjoy the empty sidewalks before anyone shoveled (sorry, neighbors, for packing the snow down with my boots so it is now impossible to remove!). There weren’t even animal tracks yet, as if the squirrels and birds were as stunned as I had been to see a finally green world erased and white.

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In one spot there was a “wild” overgrown area right off the path. The sun was hitting it directly and it looked really beautiful. Welcoming and magical and quiet. I took a series of photos of it using my iPhone, which is currently the “camera” I use for everything. I am not a professional photographer, and I was amazed when I got home at how much the scene didn’t translate into the photos at all!  I had to laugh to see this three-dimensional wonderland show up as a flat and tangled place.

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I think it would have been better if I had kneeled down to take the picture instead of standing, so you felt like you were on the same level as the plants. To my photographer readers, anything else I could do in the future to capture this kind of busy space more accurately?

I continued on, craning my neck and standing right at the base of trees to get a “squirrel’s eye view” of all of the bright snow on the branches. I like how the snow makes this branch look like a feather from underneath:

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All in all, it was a lovely walk. I came in with red cheeks to the smell of coffee I had started in the coffeepot before I left. I hung my jeans up to dry by the door, and sat in front of my window to watch the world go by and write this post. I am making the effort not to be miserable about this snow for at least a couple more days, but really I didn’t have to work for my happiness this morning. Sometimes the yellow sun is reflecting off the brilliant new snow and what can you do but feel joy that you were there to see it?

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The Ocean in your Backyard January 16, 2011

Exactly one week ago today I was in a car riding in the sunlight out of Providence, Rhode Island, watching the green of the trees along the road suddenly give way to rocky ocean.

As a Pennsylvania resident, I live close enough to the ocean to visit every once and a while, but I always forget that for some people the ocean is their backyard. And while most of my blog is about finding what is unique and beautiful of your own backyard, every now and then it is good to visit someone else’s! To be honest, I sometimes have a hard time making myself go outside when it is cold and gray out, but last weekend I was so excited about being somewhere new and having rocks to scramble on that the cold registered far below my desire to Explore.

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There was so much to see! Waves crashing on the shore, algae clinging to slippery rock surfaces, shadowy places where snow met the sea, animal tracks carved into a frosty path, shriveled orange and red berries trembling on brittle stems, and a scavenger hunt’s worth of rock formations and textures.

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I also saw something I’ve never ever seen before, which is always an invigorating experience. In this case it was the way the wind pushed the waves back as they were coming in to the beach. It peeled the water right off the top of the wave, sending it back out to sea. The waves almost look like big animals coming in just under the surface, don’t you think?

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I was also astounded to come around a bend in the rocks and find this brilliant green moss/algae/seaweed (any guesses? I am thinking algae) covering the rocks close to the ocean.

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Unfortunately the other pictures I took of this are all blurry! This is because, even though it is silly, I was afraid of having my back turned to the ocean! The amazing power of the ocean frightens me, a bit, and I kept imagining a giant freak wave coming in suddenly while I was absorbed in the green, oblivious to the freight train coming to smash me against the rocks. I think this fear probably comes from not spending a lot of time near the ocean. I kept turning back to check on the ocean like someone walking down a dark alleyway turns to check for stalkers, and as a result this is the best close-up I have of the “algae.”

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Either way, it was a beautiful sight to behold!

Finally, if you are feeling land-locked and snowed in, you can watch this (slightly shaky) video I took of the waves coming in. I was specifically tracking the way they moved into and around the rocks:

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It was an invigorating weekend, and I have to send out big thanks to Julia and Geoff (who once sent in pictures for our first reader photo submission, posted here) for showing me their wonderful “backyard.”

I am going to try to use this momentum to head back out into my own backyard and search for the things that make it special, gray ridge-and-valley days, and all.

What do you have in your own backyard? Is it similar to what I write about or is it a different landscape entirely, like the ocean, or mountains, or swamps? What keeps you inspired to get out and explore your neighborhood? As I learned last weekend, sometimes you have to go away from home to appreciate coming back!

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Update:  In case anyone is interested, these pictures were taken in Beavertail State Park on Jamestown Island, Rhode Island.

 

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?

 

Nature Set in Stone November 30, 2010

Brick lined streets, open store fronts, new built on old, planes, trains, and undergrounds! My husband and I recently returned from a brief whirlwind tour of London, during which we walked (and walked and walked) through the streets, ate delicious food, and saw what we could see. I also want to say a quick thanks to all of the great people we saw there, some of whom have made the jump from my husband’s cricket blog over to my nature one–it was wonderful to meet you!

It is always fun to go explore a new place, and I saw a lot of great city nature like pigeons, magpies (extremely smart birds that can recognize themselves in mirrors), and little parks blooming green through the gray limestone buildings.  In addition to the nature itself, though, there were many other signs of the great influence it has on us as humans. One of these is all of the plants and animals that make an appearance in the art and architecture all over the city. I have never thought to look at these specifically before, but I am sure that in the future I will see it in every city and town, not just London.

Once I noticed this I spent the rest of the trip on the lookout for creatures carved out of stone and metal in addition to the living ones. As with so many things, once I noticed I realized they were everywhere! I continued the search into the British Museum, where I found a bounty of nature represented in historical artifacts.

Below are just a few of what I found during our trip:

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A deer running through a forest on a wall carving in the British Museum

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A cricket (I believe?) as a hieroglyphic symbol in Egyptian writings from the British Museum

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A large fish (catfish? koi?) adorns a lamp-post on the street in London

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A close up of part of an ungulate (hoofed animal) of some kind from the Egyptian section of the British Museum

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A close up of a sunflower held in the hand of a Hindu god in a statue in the British Museum.

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A lion stands guard over Trafalgar Square in London.

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A close up of one of the many animals adorning the gate leading into Shakespeare’s Globe Theater near London Bridge.

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A close up of a ram’s head in the Egyptian section of the British Museum

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A close up of a conch shell in the hand of a Hindu god on a statue in the British Museum

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A close up of hieroglyphics, which contain many animal symbols to represent letters and sounds, like a goose, a cricket (or is it a wasp?), and a falcon.

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As I mentioned, once I started looking I found nature represented in art, architecture, and artifacts all over the city. It was especially interesting in the British Museum–I had planned on going to the Natural History Museum, but when I realized we only had time for one decided on the British Museum instead, and it was exciting to see how much nature was still there after all! I am excited to keep looking for this kind of representation in the future, especially at other art and history museums. Who knows how many examples of this are hiding all around us that I’ve just never noticed before!

What kind of examples of this are there where you live? Is there something you walk by every day and just haven’t noticed before? Have you ever incorporated natural themes into decorating your own room or home? We are all more strongly influenced by nature than we realize, and as always, you can find nature anywhere if you look hard enough!

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Activity for parents/teachers: Take kids on a scavenger hunt through a city, town, museum, or even your own house to see how many representations of nature they can find! How many different types or species can the recognize? Are there more animals or plants? Were they made recently or a long time ago? If cameras are available take pictures of each example and make a collage to hang up at home or in the classroom. Optional: Make a bingo board of different plants/animals for kids to take a long–see if anyone can find enough examples to win!