A New Habitat to Explore

 

As an occasional contributing poster here at Pocket Mouse Publishing, I’ve enjoyed posting about how my children and I got out into nature regularly.  How we had consistently enjoyed forest freeplay and learned through the book Hunting Red.

Our Former Habitat

Then, we moved.  A job-relocation across the country.

Our habitat is no longer the lush green forest and small creeks of the temperate East Coast pictured above but rather the Sonoran desert of the Southwest: a place of dry sands, endless sunshine, and prickly cactus.   See below.

Our New Habitat

We’re adjusting.  Adapting. We’re ready to explore our new habitat. We’re reading about desert life in books like 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Phoenix, The Nature of Arizona, and Critters of Arizona Pocket Guide.

Desert Book recommendations

We’ve even ventured to take a couple walks in the desert and are planning some more. It’s not the forest freeplay we had grown to love. In fact, one child refers to it as “desert doomplay” due to the sheer number of opportunities to interact with cactus spines.

One thing remains the same, despite this new habitat: the night sky.  The stars are the same. The constellation Orion is still the only one we all recognize.  I wrote about that nearly a year ago in Walking the Nature Talk. And the moon!  The moon is still the same. Did you know that we all see the same side of the moon, all the time?

In a few days it will be the first full moon of 2016!  I’ll be making a calendar to share the dates of each full moon — check back soon.

And enjoy your habitat, whatever it may be!

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Waldeinsamkeit

Usually I celebrate full moons, eclipses, solstices, and anything else I can think of outside walking with friends, followed by a little fire.

While the browns and greys of tree bark and leaf litter dominate the woodland winterscape, some of the smaller plants stay green all winter in the woods.
While the browns and greys of tree bark and leaf litter dominate the woodland winterscape, some of the smaller plants stay green all winter in the woods.

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.

I've never known it to flood in December before. It is usually a light precipitation month for us, and the precipitation is usually in the form of snow, not rain. But Wood Duck Way and the silver maples in the floodplain are under water, as the Red Cedar River and Indian Creek spill over their banks.
I’ve never known it to flood in December before. It is usually a light precipitation month for us, and the precipitation is usually in the form of snow, not rain. But Wood Duck Way and the silver maples in the floodplain are under water, as the Red Cedar River and Indian Creek spill over their banks.

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?

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The unseasonably warm winter and frequent rains are supporting a prolonged mushroom season in the woods.

 

 

Art in Nature

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At our last fire, we decided to make some drawing charcoal. We took dried willow twigs and stripped the bark (stripping the bark should really be done when the willow is green, because it peels very easily then) to make a soft charcoal, and we split some thin strips of cedar to make hard charcoal. Each stick was about 8 inches long.

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We wrapped them tightly in tinfoil. This allows the gas to escape, but prevents oxygen from getting into the sticks and actually combusting them. We tucked them down in the coals, let them sit for an hour and a half, and then fished them back out. 

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A groundnut blossom
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A yellow lady slipper orchid blossom

With everything outside reduced to greys and browns, and the darkness setting in so early, drawing is a great way to experience  and study the wildflowers. Often, the brilliant colors of summer overwhelm me, and I don’t notice the more subtle structure of the flowers themselves. Meanwhile, mother nature has been creating her own artwork.

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The wind draws in the snow with little bluestem
The snow melted, the ground is not yet frozen, and the temperatures are vacillating between warm and chilly. We witnessed a rare phenomenon on some goldenrod stalks. Though the stalk is dead, it is wicking moisture out of the ground. The moisture then freezes in the air, creating an iceflower at the base of the plant.

Hunting Red in October

Every fall, two things happen that mark the shift from summer into the fall. The first is when someone calls to ask when to stop feeding the hummingbirds. The answer is whenever the hummingbirds stop eating the sugar water. They know when they need to fly south, and no amount of enticement on our part will convince them to stick around for winter.

The second is when someone brings me a beautiful red leaf to identify.

This is poison ivy. Stunning, and still full of oil. Off of its vine, there are no "leaves of three." The characteristic "mitten tips" curl under almost immeidately making it a tough one to identify.
This is poison ivy. Stunning, and still full of toxic oil. Off of its vine, there are no “leaves of three.” The characteristic “mitten tips” curl under almost immediately making it a tough one to identify.

There is, of course, plenty of non-hazardous beauty out there.

Oak leaves after a rainstorm.
White oak leaves after a rainstorm.
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Sugar maple leaves. Both the oaks and the maples produce golden leaves as well this time of year.
Sumac leaves only turn red before falling off.
Sumac leaves, on the other hand, only turn red before falling off.
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The red I was most excited about discovering on my last walk was a lovely patch of rose hips. Not only are the hips edible, I was able to cut them in half and save the seeds for future plantings, while drying the rose hips for turning into tea.

Planting a bioswale, part 1

Walls are going up.
Walls are going up.
Septic system is nearly complete.
Septic system is nearly complete.

Amazing Space is progressing quickly, both above ground and underground. Three of the bioswales are complete. Finishing them early allows us to protect them with silt fence immediately and re-establish permanent native prairie in the same season they were initially disturbed. We started dormant seeding already to provide the seeds a natural cold, wet stratification and good soil contact for spring germination.

Planting the bioswale with a seed and sand mixture.
Planting the bioswale with a seed and sand mixture.

In a few days, the more traditional annual oat cover crop will be planted. If these warmer temperatures hold, they should establish roots yet this fall to protect the soil, and they will die back over the winter. The site will also be mulched, to protect the bare soil.

Prairie seed is expensive, and local seed is the best, so we have been busy collecting. Paper bags are better, but we didn't have any on hand when this culver's root presented itself.
Prairie seed is expensive, and local seed is the best, so we have been busy collecting. Paper bags are better than plastic, but we didn’t have any on hand when this Veronicastrum virginicum presented itself.

Because these are bioswales, they are designed to move water through them. While it will be a lot of water, it won’t be standing and puddling. The species we plant need to be able to withstand drought far more than they need to be able to withstand flooding. For this first round of planting, we used: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa*), white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), sweet pearly everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtrusifolium), grey coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), wild rose (Rosa arkansana), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum),  purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), and narrow-leaved coneflower (Echinacea augustifolia).

wild coffee
Triosteum perfoliatum

As fall harvesting continues, so will the number of species we plant. For species that we don’t have a lot of already on-site, such as white prairie clover (Dalea candida) and rough blazing star (Liatris aspera),  we will purchase. Due to the support of Rockwell Green Communities, we also have a number of established plants started in the Butterfly Hoop House to transplant.

Butterfly weed ready for transplant.
 Asclepias tuberosa ready for replanting outside.

*It’s worth learning the Latin. I recently had a great conversation with a volunteer interested in helping us establish more pleurisy root on the property. Never having heard of pleurisy root, I had to do a bit of research to determine if pleurisy root was native (it is) and if it fit within our land management plan (critical to the plan, in fact).  I was also initially introduced to Triosteum perfoliatum as wild coffee, no Latin provided. I had to key that out in a guide book to find its Latin name, because what most people call wild coffee isn’t native here…

A fall field day

IMG_20150925_184848508_HDRThe autumn skies have been beckoning, so we headed out to investigate a nearby park on the Wapsipinicon River. A helpful fisherman cautioned us when we arrived that the trails weren’t well maintained, which we quickly learned was a euphemism for “non existent” but that didn’t slow us down. Figuratively. Literally, beating your way through tangled masses of vegetation, that even deer were avoiding, over uneven ground…definetely made it an adventure. We weren’t worried, because we had both the river to follow “back” and in this particular part of eastern Iowa, there is typically a road every square mile.

We didn’t know it at the time, but it quickly turned in to a mushroom treasure hunt.

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We were also treated to brilliant red of the false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum). The real Solomon’s (Polygonatum biflorum) seal has blue berries, and instead of clustering at the top like this, they appear intermittently along the stem.

IMG_20151002_141638884When we were ready to head home, we pulled out the smart phone with map ap, which let us know exactly where we were. It helped us avoid detouring the long way around an oxbow and a wetland. A magical afternoon in the woods.

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Sometimes it’s the forest, sometimes it’s the beach

Exploring different habitats - forest and beachFor 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.

Playing in the forest -- children's natural habitatGoing 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!

Taking children to new nature places -- the ocean!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?

*Hunting Red is PocketMousePublishing.com‘s own book! It can be purchased through Amazon‘s affiliate program: full disclosure here.

Forest Freeplay: How we got started

How I started a Forest Freeplay groupA 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.

Child directed learning in a nature setting: that's Forest Freeplay!The next week the water was deep and rushing…but the structure held!

Forest Freeplay means letting the kids buildGot questions?  Ask me in the comments!

Previous posts on Forest Freeplay:

Forest Freeplay: What is it?

About Forest FreeplayForest 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 DOYes, 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)?”

Sometimes Forest Freeplay means just reading a bookJust 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!

Forest Freeplay is part of our 30 Days Wild!

The Saga of the Shinleaf

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.

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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.

30 Days Wild