Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

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!

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Fun Fall Colors October 26, 2010

I have a lot of big blog post plans coming up that I hope to share with you soon, but in the meantime I wanted to take a moment to share some of the wonderful fall colors I have been seeing near my backyard.

Lately it seems like everywhere I go I am struck by the unbelievable colors swirling around me–vivid reds, greens fading into yellows, bright oranges, and sometimes all at once! Anytime I go for a drive I just want to pull over and take pictures of what I see to share with you. I am drinking it all in, and decided that at least a stop at a local farmer’s pumpkin stand was begging to be documented! So here, for your fall viewing enjoyment, are just a few of the colors and textures I saw there. I hope you will all take a few moments to see the changes going on around you and appreciate the beauty in the natural world!

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I admit to not always loving the cold in the winter or a soaking rain, but I also know that there are beautiful things to find in those places if I look for them. Writing this blog has really helped me slow down and take notice, and I am interested to see what my attention will focus on this winter.

Sometimes people feel silly saying out loud that something is beautiful, or for wanting to kick leaves around, or splash in a puddle. These are considered “kid things,” and once you become an adult you are supposed to be serious, keep your head down, and just get through the day. One of the biggest things I hope to accomplish with this blog is to give everyone permission to shrug off these rules and follow where their interests lead. Think that bug looks funny? Linger just a moment longer to see what it does! Feel the urge to have the wind in your hair? Stand outside after checking the mail and let the leaves swirl by. Think the colors around you are brilliant and beautiful? Take pictures of them even if people look at you funny and make a slide show to share!

There is so much to see and do–as always, I’ll see you out there!

 

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?”

 

Backyard Exploration the Video September 14, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — backyardsafari @ 9:15 pm
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What bits of nature do you walk by on the way to your car, into work, or to the mailbox every day? What secrets do they hold?What kind of magic is hiding all around us? My latest video hopes to answer these questions! This video is inspired partly by this earlier post, and partly by this unbelievable stop motion film.

This video is all about seeing beyond the surfaces into what could be! It was created using only natural or found objects, all of which were things that I just came across as I was walking around. I had thought about trying to plan the video, but decided it would be better to just be inspired by whatever I found on my walk!

Unfortunately I cannot host videos off of WordPress without paying $60 a year, so Youtube is the next best tool available. I would recommend making it full screen if possible, though, so the details are more visible.

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In case anyone is interested in the “making of” details, I created this by taking about 300 still photographs on my iPhone, e-mailing to myself, and piecing them together using iMovie software. I recorded the sounds of myself walking on pavement, grass, and stones, as well as leaves rustling and acorns rolling around using the “Voice Memo” app on my phone, and then played them back to the computer.

If you are waiting for me to get back to a regular ‘ole post, please come back on Friday (or sooner!) when I will post my first submission to the Science @ Home Teach/Learn Blogging Carnival.

I hope this video inspires us to look closely at the objects around us and see them in a new light. Blowing leaves, shadows, and even litter can hold a secret life that might make us better for noticing them. Is there something you see every day that inspires you? I would love to hear about it!

As always, I’ll see you out there!

 

Memories in Our Backyards September 2, 2010

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The morning is cool—dew clings to the grass and my footsteps crunch along the gravel driveway. My father is taking pictures as we all march up the long driveway and out to the bus stop at the end of our lane. I am wearing new clothes, my hair is brushed (for once!), and I am excited about the new supplies in my backpack, although I think I called it a bookbag, then. My brother, parents, and I are accompanied by our golden retriever, who walks with us to the bus stop in the morning and comes up the yard to greet us when we come home, and a scattering of geese–two pale yellow and a gray speckled one I named Domino. My brother and I are the geese’s parents and they follow us this way almost anywhere.

Every year for most of my younger life this scenario is the same, although there are not always the geese. When Autumn comes I still feel these memories tugging at me–the crisp air, the walk, the weight of clean blank notebooks waiting to have their margins filled with doodles.

Signs of fall are different for everyone–it could be the leaves changing, the night sky turning, the end of fresh peaches, or the blush of orange across a pumpkin. For my family, one sign that fall is coming to stay are the Touch-Me-Nots that grow next to our old bus stop at the end of the driveway.

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This plant actually plays a big role in my childhood explorations. Before I call it Touch-Me-Not, I call it Jewelweed. They are one in the same, but for me the name changes just like the seasons. In the summer it is Jewelweed, a shade-loving plant that grows in large clumps. This plant may seem rather ordinary from afar, but the real secret comes when you put the leaves underwater, where the underside of the leaf transforms from a pale green to a flashing silver. This was a great trick as a kid, and one I now try to show the next generations as an environmental educator. We also used to use crushed Jewelweed stems to stop itching from mosquito bites, poison ivy, or other stinging plants.

In the fall, the word Jewelweed transforms to Touch-Me-Not in my mind as the plants’ small purse-like flowers come out and the seed pods hang heavy off the stems. These seed pods–which you can see on the right in the above picture–are the most exciting part of the Touch-Me-Not, and can provide endless entertainment in general and especially while you wait for a bus to arrive. I believe Anna Comstock–the first person to take students and teachers outside to study nature in the 1890s–described them best in her Handbook of Nature Study.

“The little, straight, elongated seed pods are striped prettily and become quite plump from the large seeds within them. Impatient? We should say so! This pod which looks so smug and straight-laced that we should never suspect it of being so touchy, at the slightest jar when it is ripe, splits lengthwise into five ribbon-like parts, all of which tear loose at the lower end and fly up in spirals around which now looks like a crazy little turbine wheel with five arms. And meanwhile, through this act the fat, wrinkled seeds, have been flung several feet from the parent plant and perhaps to some congenial place for growth the following spring.”

This is what this description looks like in real life:

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In this last video especially you can see how quickly the pod disappears once it decides to go! I managed to catch the pod after one of these explosions so you can see the “crazy little turbine wheel with five arms” and “fat, wrinkled seed” Anna describes.

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Isn’t it amazing how the seed pod transforms?

I should mention that the Touch-Me-Not pictures in this post are the very ones (or perhaps I should say their great-great-great-great grandchildren) my brother and I spent countless time next to while waiting to see a flash of the yellow bus coming down the hill. On a recent visit I walked up the old driveway to visit the Touch-Me-Nots again. The dog that once followed us is gone now, buried under a wall in the front yard. The geese have been gone even longer, lost one by one to perils in the forest behind our house.  A different dog–just as loyal even though missing most of our childhood–kept me company instead.

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Even though I am older now and out of school, this feeling of Fall always comes back to me, shifting as the Earth shifts on its axis and the season approaches. There are more signs like the Touch-Me-Nots, if I stop to think about it. There is also the appearance of the constellation Orion over the horizon. There is frost on the car windshield in the mornings. Leaf stains on the sidewalk.

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There is so much for us to learn–so much knowledge to pass along to each other. Imagine the people who walk and drive past Touch-Me-Nots every Autumn, and never know the Big Bang force contained inside the pods, or the silvery jewels hidden under the leaves. Likewise, I am sure there are plenty of things I do not know that each of you hold dear to your hearts. What kind of secret knowledge do you have that you would like to pass on to your children, to your neighbors? Do any parts of nature inspire certain memories of a time, place, or person the way Touch-Me-Nots do for me? Is a certain time of year heavier with these memories? It can be anything, big or small. A trip across a mountain range or a certain smell wafting in your windows at night. Whatever it is, short or long, happy or sad, I hope you will share with us in the comments.

I believe that these are the gifts we can give each other. The world sometimes seems like an impossibly large place—remembering the train ride through rural India, realizing the sheer number of people in the world going about their daily lives—but it can also be small: made up of people just like ourselves, heavy with memories, gains, losses, and wisdoms. Every person must have something that is known to them alone: the specific way shadows move across their room, the weight of a certain stone,  the feeling of rough wool running through their hands, the glint of ripples on the water, the way Touch-Me-Nots explode on your fingertips. The more we can share these, and learn them from each other, the better off we all will be.

 

Transition Challenge Update August 8, 2010

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A few days ago I announced Backyard Safari’s first ever Tree Transition Challenge. I mentioned briefly that the challenge didn’t just have to be documented in pictures, but could also be documented using drawing, painting, or any other creative way you can think of!

I thought I’d show a quick example of what I mean. I decided I would try to document the same tree using both photos and drawings as an experiment. It turns out that the drawings can be helpful in unexpected ways. For example, the quality of the picture I take depends a lot on the sunlight and time of day. The picture I took on August 6th is a bit gray and washed out because of the overcast skies. Because of this, the picture doesn’t show very well the 3 to 4 very bright red leaves that have turned in the middle of all the green!  With drawings, I was able to document it anyway.

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I’m no professional artist, so you’ll have to take the drawing with a grain of salt, but it was a fun exercise to turn a photo into a drawing that was actually more accurate in some ways (and less accurate in others)! My plan is to put all of the photos and drawings together in the end to show the transition in a sort of fast-forward slide show. I’ve never done this kind of thing before so it will be a lot of fun to try! I really encourage everyone to take up this challenge as well in whatever capacity they feel up for! I’ve already noticed I’m more aware of the seasonal changes I see around me because of documenting what I’ve come to think of as “my” tree.

So good luck to all with the challenge! I think it will be a great experience all around!

 

Tree Transition Challenge August 5, 2010

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My fellow backyard explorers, I invite you to take part in Backyard Safari’s first ever Tree Transition Challenge.

I got this idea after noticing that some of the trees in my area are already changing color.  Every year around this time it seems like the trees go from being green and luscious to autumn colors almost overnight. Once the trees have turned color, I always think to myself that I should have taken a picture every day or so to try to see how the transition really happens. Well, this year I am finally going to do it! I have chosen the tree shown above, and will take a picture of it every other day as it changes from green to golden.

I am now inviting you to do the same! I know our readers are from different parts of the world, and not all of you are going through the same Summer to Fall transition that we are experiencing here in Pennsylvania. If you are experiencing a transition of another kind (Winter to Spring, Monsoon to Dry, etc.) I would love to see what that looks like as well! So what do you think? It doesn’t have to be anything fancy–for example, I am just taking these pictures with my cell phone camera. Also, if you or your children would like to do something a little more involved, try drawing a picture of the same tree every day showing the color changes! Maybe I will do this too…

I am hoping that documenting this process will make me more aware of the little changes that take place as we move through the seasons.  At the end, I will compile all the pictures together so you can watch the change take place gradually over time. I hope some of you are inspired to do the same! If you do, please send it in to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com. If I am able to get some from you readers I will have a Transition-Inspired post highlighting all of your submissions!

So ready, set, go! Pick something you see every day and watch what happens!