Usually I celebrate full moons, eclipses, solstices, and anything else I can think of outside walking with friends, followed by a little fire.
This season has been unusually hectic between Amazing Space (of which I love every moment, it just takes a lot of moments), the construction of the natural amphitheater, preparing the apiary for 2016, and everything else I normally do.
For this winter solstice, I opted to take a break and enjoy waldeinsamkeit. It literally translates into woodland solitude, and I find it is a beautiful way to connect with myself, and with the natural world around me. I actually had to visit waldeinsamkeit twice, once during the day and once after dark on the solstice. The warm temperatures, moist air, and clouds skittering across the moon were beckoning me back outside. Since English is based on German, why we didn’t we keep that word?
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).
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.
Forests in the not-too distant-past once provided primary sustenance for people, not just the other mammals and the birds. Today, agriculture and urbanization have made that relationship more challenging. The felling of many trees has reduced both the size and species composition of the woods. Forests are increasingly unhealthy, and lack many of the sustenance-providing species they once held. Among the foods we do eat regularly, it is a crop’s harvestability and transportability that have become valued over many other traits. Foods are increasingly single-sourced, and bear little resemblance-including nutritional value-to the myriad of plants on which we once depended.
This spring, we planted six cockspur hawthorn¹ (Crataegus crus-galli) trees at Indian Creek Nature Center, as part of a woodland restoration project. For restoration purposes, the hawthorns are native trees that only grow about 25 feet tall, easy to overlook when we discuss the grandeur of the mighty oaks and hickories. Yet they provide a lot of ecological benefits, with their thicket-like tendencies that protect young nestlings, blossoms for pollinators, and edible berries for wildlife.
For human guests, the hawthorns² are the latest addition to the native edible forest at the Nature Center. Both the blossoms and berries are good to eat. The trees were planted in a wide circle, forming a grove around one of the maturing oaks. In the not-too-distant future, guests will be able to come, spread a picnic blanket in the semiprivate shade of the grove, listen to the birds all around them, and harvest a handful of berries³ for tea later that evening.
A few notes:
1. The hawthorns serve as a host plant for Cedar Apple Rust, which is hard on apple trees.
3. Consuming hawthorns can help lower blood pressure. To learn more about the medicinal benefits, check out an herbal book, such as the Woman’s Book of Healing Herbs. If you’re under the care of a doctor for a blood pressure condition, talk to your doctor first.
My challenge in loving nature isn’t usually the “getting outside” part, its avoiding the poison ivy that thrives in the woods. Poison ivy is beautiful, especially in the spring and fall, but the oil causes my skin to break out in open, weeping, ever-expanding, never-healing sores, which causes me to go to the doctor for prednisone, which wreaks havoc on my immune system. Last summer, I avoided the doctor/prednisone, and I am going to do my best again this summer.
Step 1. Identify.
Step 2. Avoid.
Step 3. Wash thoroughly, assuming avoidance wasn’t good enough. Always a good idea after playing outside, because it provides an opportunity for a thorough tick check.
Step 4. At the first sign of breakout, start drinking copious amounts of tea made from reishi mushrooms, stinging nettle leaves, and budding goldenrod flowers. The challenge is on-we’ll see how this season goes!