Posts Tagged With: environmental education

A Dam Good Day… for Beaver Dams

Today was the Kickapoo Valley Reserve‘s Winter Festival in La Farge.
While I didn’t make it for any of the morning activities (flint knapping, dog sledding, ice cave hike, live raptor talk, and more!) I did get to go on a brilliant hike with Chuck Hatfield and learn about beavers–  I absolutely loved it!!!

[ Click the first picture then go through the slide show if you want to read the captions or see bigger versions of the images!]

I learned quite a bit about beavers in college but it was nice to get a refresher and actually see some dams and lodges!  Coincidentally I also read about beavers last night in Wintering by Diana Kappel-Smith.  She made some interesting notes about them, my favorite being that even when it is below freezing outside, it is still cozy inside of a beaver’s lodge thanks to all the warm bodies in there.  Chuck told us that beavers don’t leave home until 2 sometimes 3 years old meaning that at any given time there could be upwards of 10 beavers living in a lodge! Something else that I find fascinating about beavers that wasn’t touched on today is that the have a special gland inside their body that pumps super acidic juices into the beavers stomach so that they can process all the cellulose.  Wood is made of cellulose which is undigestable to most except for mushrooms and apparently beavers!  Other things that eat diets high in cellulose like ruminants actually have micro-organisms inside their bodies that help them break it down.  The beaver just gets cooler and cooler!  My last fun beaver fact, that I just learned through the wonders of the internet, is that beavers exude a substance called castoreum for marking territory that was often used in medicines.  Turns out that since beavers favor willow that this exudant is actually high in salicylic acid (aka aspirin) which explains its medicinal effects!  Fascinating!  Thanks Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Chuck Hatfield for putting on such a fun and thought provoking hike!

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Memories of My Future

On the loose

Last night I went and saw Mark Shephard talk about his new book Restoration Agriculture.  Mark is a Driftless Area permaculture guru.  The book deals with how one can mimic the native environment and biome to create an agricultural system that is high in calories and nutritional content per acre and is an ecosystem in itself rather than a lack of one.  I haven’t read the book yet but I definitely plan to once I finish the 4 (yes 4) books I am currently reading.   Mark’s farm is well known in the area for his hazelnut operation and the hard apple cider he makes.  He’s also well known for his hilarious band Synister Dane, being friendly and jovial, and taking on several interns each year.  I loved his talk and afterwards my mind was really spinning with dreams for the future.

I am an educator at heart.  It is what I am good at and what I am passionate about.  I am also deeply connected to the earth. I dream of forming a relationship with a piece of land and sharing it with others.  What that means is still unclear to me.  Will I someday own land and operate an environmental, outdoor, and farming education center out of it?  Would that land be mine or would I own it cooperatively? Will I find an educational community that I can make my home and educate from there?  Will I simply live close to the land like I dream and keep education as my day job working at a school or park or writing curriculum? I have worked with summer camps, outdoor education programs, public schools, a semester program, an alternative high school, and others and I have loved them all.  Even the experiences that were less than ideal at the time taught me valuable lessons about my values, strengths, and desires.  Where I am in life right now there is much uncertainty.  Where will I be a year from now?  Where will I be six months from now? Who will I be with and what will I be doing?

When I imagine my future I see images behind my eyes like vivid memories I have yet to live.  I am leading hikes in the rain and discussing vernal ponds. I am shelling beans into a bucket as the sunsets. I am chopping wood for future fires and looking up to watch others neatly stack it to season. I am singing songs round a campfire.  I am harvesting tomatoes with a baby on my hip.  I am skiing through snowy fields in the bright sun. I see fresh baked bread, a pantry full of canned goods, teenagers in waiters ready for adventure, and little kids with fairy wings and nature journals. I see a room of ecology supplies that always smells faintly of mildew in the best possible way.  I see children overturning rocks in the stream looking for salamanders and frogs.   I see my feet hanging from a handbuilt tree house as I read and sip on a tea of wild mint and nettles.  My journal is filled with drawings of encounters with wild animals and new plants. My hands are rough from hard work.  My schedule is busy, challenging, and always changing.  And best of all,  I am happy.

As I walked home from Mark’s talk last night  I decided it is time to embrace the uncertainties in my life.  I  don’t know what the future holds for me.  No one does. My professor Marty at Warren Wilson always to said, “Start small, go slow, but go.”  You can’t sit around and expect your dreams come to you if you don’t work towards them.  With that I am going for a walk and see what this rainy, freezing day has to teach me.

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Nature + Magic + Science = Environmental Education

The other day my friends Jon, Alee, and I went on a moonlit cross country skiing adventure at Sidie Hollow Park.  The bank in town said it was 11°F outside but at Sidie Hollow, by the lake, it was most certainly colder. As we skied the trail alongside the lake,  it was easy to feel like we were out in the deep wilderness.  Rarely do I feel that way since moving to SW Wisconsin, a place with very little public land for hiking, so I was taking it all in.  I was struck by how incredibly bright it was outside with the near full moon and layer of snow on the ground.  Thanks to the wind during the recent blizzard there was no snow on the lake which made it look eery and still.  As we rounded the first bend in the lake I was introduced to the phenomenon of lake singing and, for lack of better words right now, my mind was absolutely freaking blown.  Seriously.

The first noises we heard were like a low humming.  Never having heard such a thing before, I think I just tuned it out and didn’t give it much though.  But Nature didn’t want me to tune this fantastic sound out and the next sounds were LOUD and startling.  The only way I can describe it is like a low humpback whale song combined with loud vibrations and cracking noises.  We continued skiing around the lake, stopping every once in a while to warm our hands and take in the beauty and stillness of the night. At one point when we had stopped to listen to the noises, one was so loud that we all jumped.  A crack or shift in the ice happened directly in the front of us while we were watching.  I could feel the vibrations in my body.  A dozen owls hooted in the distance as if responding to the ice.  Alee made a joke that in Wisconsin we stand around and listen to the lake freeze.  We all laughed because we knew there would be no way to ever explain this phenomenon to anyone who had never experienced it.  It was seriously one of the most fascinating and magical things I have ever experienced.

Upon hearing the noises I was first met with wonder and awe.   It was absolutely magical and completely mysterious.  My next thoughts turned to science– why is this happening?  Did it have to do with expansion?  Water is less dense as a solid so maybe it has to do with that.  Or maybe it has to do with the low temperature outside. Does the lack of snow cover on the lake make then louder?  It amazed me how quick my mind went from magic to science and in a way it bothered me.  Am I unable to see the magic in nature now? Has science ruined me?  Of course not!  It is my background in science and my love of the outdoors that made this all the more exciting the me!  Of course the noises were absolutely mind blowing but knowing how nature does it is also mind blowing.  This is why I love outdoor and environmental education!  Because it’s all about teaching folks to see magic in the outdoors! It’s about facilitating an experience that inspires wonder and awe and encouraging them to ask meaningful and insightful questions.  It’s about encouraging curiosity about nature and the world around us.   I would argue that environmental education can’t exist without both magic and science in some combination.

So why is it that the ice sings on a frozen lake?  The answer has been harder to find than I expected and many of the answers are actually just theoretical.  It could be changes in atmospheric pressure or temperature fluctuations.  It might have to do with the moon. Whatever scientific answer is it will not change this one fact to me:  skiing under a full moon and listening to the lake sing was absolutely magical.

If you are interested in learning more Dispersion of Sound Waves in Ice Sheets by Andreas Bick has great information as well as links and sound recordings.  The best way to learn more is to get outside and experience it for yourself if you can.  It will definitely be worth braving the cold!

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Where are all the snow children?

From playing in the snow we so desperately wanted to celebrating Winter Solstice in our own way, the last few days have been a really special time for Jamie and me.  On Thursday we spent most of the day either outside in the snow (hiking, sledding, playing) or inside enjoying eachothers company.  Yesterday we had an unplugged day with no computers, radio, or other things until after sunset so we could fully enjoy the shortest day of the year.  We went hiking at Hubbard Hills, gathered fallen branches and pine cones from around town to decorate our house, played several games of Scrabble, and exchanged gifts by candle light as the sun was setting.  Last night we had friends over for more Scrabble, beer, pickled green beans and carrots, potato soup, and brownies.  We wanted to have a party but when only two people showed up it ended up being exactly what we wanted all along.

These last two days have really gotten me thinking about our connection to the seasons and nature.  Taking note of the moon cycles, changing of seasons, and changing of the light is something I make a point of paying attention to– and something I know a lot of people take for granted.  Winter storm Draco brought Viroqua a beautiful snow cover and while walking around town through the snow on a beautiful sunny day, I couldn’t help but notice how few other people were out there enjoying it.  On Thursday we went to the park for sledding and there was about a dozen or so kids and their adults there having a blast but I still feel like there should have been more.  Where is everyone on these days?  Are they inside reading and playing Scrabble or are they sitting in front of the TV, zoning out.  My guess would be the latter.

In the after school program for middle schools where I work we recently had the kids make Keynote presentations about themselves to present to the class. We gave them free reign to put whatever they wanted on it.  Almost every kid talked about music videos they like, songs they listen to, video games they play, and tv shows they watch.  On their “Things I like” page no one mentioned hiking or play outside or making snowmen or anything of the sort.   I think part of the reason is because it is way cooler to say you like “Gangam style” than it is to say you like building fairy houses but how much of it is because the kids spend most of their time indoors?

If you walk past Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School in Viroqua on almost school day whether it is raining or snowing or perfectly sunny, you will see kids outside playing and having an absolute blast.  The importance of being outside and playing trumps the fear that they could get a cold or get hurt. They are taught to dress for the weather. If you pass by the public school when it is raining or super cold out then you would think school must have been canceled that day because it is deserted outside. What does this teach children? What doesn’t it teach children?

I don’t have answers to these questions right now.  All I have are my observations and opinions.  My gut tells me that the teachers in the Waldorf school are doing something right here though.  I strongly believe when it snows there should be kids outside playing in it.  We should be teaching children to notice the changing of the light and encouraging imaginative play.  And adults should be out there too.  Get outside if you can or at least take note of when the sun rises and sets each day if you can’t actually get out there.  Keep the heat in your house lower than you normal and simply wear more clothes because it’s winter and unless you live in Texas you don’t need to be wearing a tank top this time of year.  Take 10 minutes with which you would be distracting yourself on the computer and look out the window instead. Watch what the squirrels are doing. Notice what types of birds are around, what ones aren’t.  And if you are up for an added challenge, try to only eat things that are in season.  Strawberries in December is ridiculous unless you live someone that grows them that time of year.

The world didn’t end yesterday which means there is still plenty of time to get the know the earth if you aren’t friends already!

Now stop reading blogs and go play outside!

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