For our family, the forest is our everyday nature place. We can walk to a forest for daily time in nature; we can drive 5 minutes to a forest — and we do, every week for Forest Freeplay. But at the end of June we spent a few days in a completely different habitat: the beach!
The forest tends to be dim, with soft filtered light and a soothing hush. Or it might have a continual throbbing undertone of cicada song. The creek burbles by, and the children can climb on the muddy banks, over boulders, and across fallen logs.
Going to the beach provides a natural experience of a completely different kind. The sky is vast. The Atlantic ocean is endless. The water is powerful!
There are birds to be seen, shells to examined, waves to be ridden, and salty water to be tasted, and the sand — oh, the sand. I think it is still coming out in the wash.
There is much to be said about the importance of connection to local places — Hunting Red* is just such a story! Exploring completely new habitats allows you to come back and see your own familiar nature spaces in a delightful new way.
Where will your nature explorations take you this summer?
A few months ago, I saw a posting on a local homeschool group about an informational meeting for staring a “Forest Freeplay” group. We’d been getting outside into nature as family every day as our One Thing. But I liked the idea of getting together with other families who valued time in nature.
I attended, hoping to meet someone who was excited about starting a group near me that I could join. The hostess was fabulous — answering questions (What do kids DO?), sharing the experiences of leading a group, and providing lots of links to online organizations which support kids in nature. Sign me up, I was ready to join a group!
Of course, none of the other moms lived near me.
So it was either feel sorry for myself that no one who lived near me wanted to start a group, or drive to another group. But, I’m tired of driving. I drive to the store, the library, weekly SCA practices, the community college, and to take my older ones to work. And if we want to visit with friends, I have to drive. I’m just tired of it.
There was, of course, a third option: start a group myself.
And so, with great trepidation, I posted a short announcement to the local homeschool group list. Two families came out!
Every week I post a short little announcement with the details, including the statement: Plan to get wet & muddy! Every week we’ve had other families join me & my kids for Forest Freeplay — sometimes only one family, sometimes as many as six. Yes, even on the two weeks it was actually raining!
By planning this weekly, I’ve committed us to two hours in the forest with others — socializing for the children and me (possibly more important!). By going to the same spot every week, we observe the changing of the seasons and the effects of sun and rain.
For example, when the kids built this structure, the water was low & clear.
The next week the water was deep and rushing…but the structure held!
Forest Freeplay is playing outside freely in the forest. There is no parental agenda, no nature study planned, no journaling required — nothing but playing in the natural space of the forest.
Think “parkday” without the playground equipment.
But what do kids DO? Yes, that was my first question.
They play. They explore. They challenge themselves physically. The discover. They create. And sometimes they read a book. Or even sit by mom and say “When can we go home? I’m bored (or hungry or hot or cold or tired)?”
Just like at the park. But in the forest. That’s it: Forest Freeplay!
Later this week, I’ll share how I learned about Forest Freeplay & started meeting with other families on a regular basis!
Having spent years roaming these woods, there are some plants I can identify, a lot more plants I recognize but can’t identify, and every once in a while, there is the sheer, delightful beauty of stumbling across a plant I’ve never even seen before.
I took a picture (there was only one, so I wasn’t about to pick the plant). And, in this heat, frequently a “real” specimen is a droopy, crumpled mess by the time I get it home, whereas digital photos can be easily shared, magnified and examined. The flower shape and size looked a bit like the non-native lily of the valley, but the leaves and growth patterns were all wrong. There is a false/wild lily of the valley, but that was definitely not it either.
I shared the picture around the office. Sharing is typically, in my opinion, way more fun than keying plants out (which is always Plan B, and a good skill to have!). A day later, a colleague at Indian Creek Nature Center told me what it was-the shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica). She had seen it before backpacking up north, where it is far more common. Like orchids, the shinleaf has strong micorrhizal associations, making it difficult to transplant or spread. So this little beauty has been hanging on in the woods here for a long time, and hopefully, as we continue to remove invasive species, it will spread on its own.
The shin leaf takes its name from its traditional medicinal value. Historically it was used as a poultice for bruised shins and other small skin problems, or gargled for sore throats. But, as it is rare here, its value is far greater as a keystone species for the woodlands.
I pet sit frequently, because, on a temporary basis, what’s one more fuzzy thing to feed? And because I truly love animals. People usually ask me to tend things like dogs, chickens, rabbits, turtles, kittens that need to be bottle fed. But this time…
…I got moths. This prometheus moth promptly crawled out of the paper sack I had her “secured” in and started laying her eggs on the window screen. The great thing about the prometheus moth as a pet is that as adults, they don’t need to feed. It was a marvelous opportunity to study the tiny feathers and bright colors up close. I’d never even seen one before, because, lets face it, I do not spend a lot of time in the tops of cherry trees at night. Black cherry leaves are what the caterpillars feed on, and night time is when the adults fly.
Today, these little ones arrived in the mail. Eggs and freshly hatched Cecropia and Polyphemus. Unlike the adults, they are voracious eaters, so I went on a nice foraging mission on their behalf for red oak leaves (Polyphemus) and Black Cherry leaves (Cecropia).
Right now, they are the size of a grain of rice. But the silk cocoons I’m watching from an earlier laying are not small! The cacoons range in size from a tube of lip balm to a mouse, which means I have a lot of leaf collecting in my near future…
If you’re in the area, stop by Indian Creek Nature Center to see a variety of caterpillars (in the sunroom) and adult moths and butterflies (in the hoop house).
“What is that one doing? Is it trapped in the mesh?”
I glance out the window with the children who have excitedly gathered. One raven is plucking at the tangled mass of “deer proof” mesh that I attempted to cover my new basil, rosemary, and oregano plants with last week when we planted them. Thinking of Jeremy the young crow from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, I open the sliding door. The raven flutters backward, not trapped.
“Let’s watch and see what it does,” I say, proud of myself for recalling the idea of becoming a nature mentor in How to Raise a Wild Child.
The raven returns to the mesh and stalks around the entire mass. He is obviously very interested in it. The other raven continues to watch from a distance. The first raven arrives back at his original spot and begins to peck at the mesh again.
“There must be something trapped there!”
And then I see it. A writhing black snake. No one noticed it at first, since it looked just like tangled bits of mesh against the dark bark.
I decide we must investigate. A bird of prey eating a snake would be a cycle of life lesson. But an animal inadvertently trapped in plastic by me?
We troop outside. The ravens take to the trees; we inspect the snake.
Likely an eastern rat snake like we saw on our deck last last year, is the verdict from the 12 year old.
I send everyone running around the yard to find a forked stick to pin the snake’s head down. Isn’t that what they do on TV? A garden fork will have to do. As you can see from the picture, the fork did nothing since the snakes head was so skinny!
The 12 year old holds the snake’s head while someone brings me scissors. I start attempting to cut the mesh. This is one tangled snake. More children arrive and someone brings my phone so we can take a picture. I clip carefully and see fluid oozing from the damaged scales where the plastic has cut into the snakes flesh.
The 5 year old asks: Is it poisonous?
The 12 year old replies that it is just a constrictor. At that moment I’m suddenly aware of powerful muscles coiling around my ankle. The 15 year removes the snake’s body from around me and holds it away from me. I continue to clip. Once partially freed, the snake begins to writhe forward, entangling itself more. Incredible muscles!
Finally the plastic mesh is completely cut away. My boys transport the snake to a shady, plant-filled area of the yard and release it. The other children remove all the mesh from the plants. I have to cut some of it free of the wooden stakes beside my plants. This stuff is treacherous!
With the snake freed, the mesh properly disposed, and the scissors in the dishwasher, I return to preparing dinner.
The whole experience probably took less than 10 minutes total, but it felt like an eternity — arandom act of wildness for the day, close to home.
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Random acts of wildness are not something I’m really good at. Oh, I’m all about being in the wild, and my attention is easily diverted by any random thing when outside. Mushroom! Snake! Bat! But my forays beyond my yard tend to be…planned. Dog. Leash. Water for me. Water for dog. Destination selection. Coordinating friends, who all love the idea of wilding away, but, but, but something else is almost always going on. Meanwhile, nature carries on, heedless of my attention or lack thereof. Which is good…
…because their are treasures to be found. The bloodroot leaves have grown bigger than my hand, and the verdant green provides a backdrop for some of Iowa’s rare treasures.
When I was a kid, I loved the smooth, perfect swells of the orchid blossoms, the way they could grow in the air, and the way they needed perpetual heat and humidity year round. Despite sweltering Midwestern summers, the frigid winters made the landscape inhospitable. I would repeatedly buy ones that “could” live indoors, and I would take them home, where they would never flower and gradually die.
But I was oh-so-wrong about one thing. There are actually 32 species of orchid that live in Iowa, and a woodland treasure hunt this month at the Indian Creek Nature Center revealed two.
The yellow lady slipper is far more rare than the showy orchis. Because of their beauty, people are tempted to dig them and take them home. Because of their strong underground mycorrhizal associations, they seldom survive transplant-leaving a hole in the woods they came from, as well as a hole in the receiving garden. Not quite The Orchid Thief, but I only found one lady slipper on my walk. The beautiful rare delicacy of these flowers reminds me that if I just go outside, nature will provide the random wildness.
The David Suzuki 30×30 Nature Challenge comes to end today! Or tomorrow if you missed a day. That would be our family. Earlier in the month we enjoyed a day with my parents — space museum visiting, dining out, and swimming at their hotel pool. That night I was horrified to discover that we hadn’t had any nature time! We failed! Alas, our habit was broken and the challenge lost.
However, out we went again the next day and the next, and the next… And we’ll go out again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next… As Dr. Scott Sampson says in his new book How to Raise a Wild Child, it’s “abundant experiences in wild or semi-wild places, typically close to home” that forge the deep connection with nature that I’m hoping to create with my children.
On one of our “close to home” outings we came upon a huge, black, bristling caterpillar. Imagine a solid black wooly bear, traditionally seen in the autumn, twice the usual size. My son picked it up and as it crawled over his hands we noticed that between the black bristles, the caterpillar had skin of dark red. Even I took a turn letting it crawl on my hand to experience the disconcerting feeling of its myriad of scratchy, sturdy feet marching relentlessly forward.
After everyone had a turn to hold this amazing creature — he really was huge — my daughter set him on a fallen log a few feet off the path from where we’d found him. And on we went.
When we got home we searched online and found a link that fit our description of “huge black bristly caterpillar” and as I scrolled down through the pictures, I knew we’d found a match: The Giant Leopard Moth!
But when the actual picture of the moth appeared, I jumped up — I’d seen this moth before in Hunting Red! I found our copy and started thumbing through. I had to go through several times before I found the picture on the dedication page. Yes, there it was — the moth and the caterpillar. Very exciting!
According to the article, the caterpillars eat the non-native invasive honeysuckle. We enjoy plucking the honeysuckle blossoms and sipping the tiny drop of liquid nectar. If you’ve never tried this, The Magic Onions has a short post on how to experience this sweet summer foraging ritual.
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