A Fun-Loving Guide to the Natural World for Kids and Adults

Help the Cheetahs!

We recently learned of a wonderful project headed by Marilu O’lyaryz. She is using her talents at film-making to bring attention to the plight of the cheetah.

Predators throughout the world have experienced more than enough prosecution. Projects like these that benefit large predators are so important. Please visit her page and learn more about what she’s doing, and if you can contribute even a single dollar, it will be greatly appreciated! You can also visit her blog to learn more. We’re so inspired when people dedicate their energies to helping nature!

We’ll leave you with a beautiful photo from her website –

These great cats have a powerful ally in Marilu O'lyaryz and her team.

New Visitors in the Woods

We try to get out for a hike with Mirabelle almost every day. Often it’s just a walk down the long drive, but the other day we had a good two-hour adventure through the Hundred-Acre Wood. There were some new tracks in the woods that we hadn’t seen before. The glove in the bottom left is for reference, thought it’s kids-glove size so the tracks, though quite large, aren’t quite as big as you’d think. Does anyone recognize them? More clues can be found below if you’re stumped.

Clues: These were found in a mixed hardwood forest along a rise going up to a ridge, though we saw the tracks throughout the 2-hour hike. The animal(s) were everywhere, often bounding in a pattern that left two parallel holes, a space, and the two more parallel holes (a 2x bounding pattern). The tracks had five toes each, with claws visible. Though the tracks were mostly on the ground, the occasionally disappeared up a tree. Do you know who this is?

You can find the answer in our Adventure Journal, in a post by the same name.

Seeing Nature

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt within the heart. – Helen Keller

I vividly remember when I learned that my grandfather was becoming blind.  Macular degeneration had destroyed all but his peripheral vision, and in order to see me when we spoke, he looked away from me.  It was an eerie experience for a young boy.  As his vision disappeared, his precious wood-carving tools began to gather dust in the basement, and his well-loved books sat silent on their shelves.

But my grandfather never seemed upset as his vision faded.  I’d sit next to him in the living room, gazing out the huge picture window, and he’d say, “Here come the chickadees.”  The first time he did this I felt a little embarrassed for him, because the feeders were empty except for a pair of cardinals.  But a moment later, as if my grandfather were some mystic seer, his predication came true and the chickadees flickered down out of the sky.

He could predict which birds would come to the feeders with uncanny accuracy.  He wasn’t psychic, of course.  Rather, he was hearing birds perched in trees across the yard as they discussed how they’d approach the feeders.  But the sounds that were so clear to his ears seemed inaudible to me.  The loss of his sight had helped him pay more attention to his other sensory impressions – impressions that I ignored because I relied so heavily on sight.

I had forgotten the lessons of my grandfather’s blindness until my wife and I stepped outside the other day and were confronted with a remarkable cacophony. It was the busy chirping of a horde of goldfinches that had just come to the feeders.

As we stood there enfolded by an almost deafening symphony, I closed my eyes and suddenly remembered my grandfather’s ability to predict the coming of the birds.  It made me wonder how much of the world passes us by, lost because our senses have grown complacent.  As writers, Rebecca and I often spend much of our day in front of a computer, with a bright glare in our eyes and the computer’s hum in our ears.  Often it’s not until we step outside that our senses begin to wake up, and if we sit outside long enough, the world begins to come to life.  Birdsong and wind’s caress, dripping icicles and billowing clouds, a hawk spreading its feathers into the rising air of a thermal.  These are hints of the bounty available to our senses when we take the time to step out into nature.

As Rebecca and I went back inside to sit down to our computers, I silently thanked my grandfather.  He had turned his blindness into a gift, inspiring a young boy to realize that the world is bigger and more mysterious than we usually think.  Nature is uniquely qualified to compliment his teachings– next time I go for a walk, I think I’ll take a bit more time to pay attention to the sounds, smells, visions, and sensations around me.

As Helen Keller suggested, the gifts of our senses can lead us to beautiful discoveries.  For me, the sound of the goldfinches led me back to a memory of my grandfather, and his lessons bring me full circle to nature, where I discover what it really means to see, even when my eyes are closed.

Come Adventure With Us!

Hello Everyone!

Rebecca and I are proud to announce the birth of our first child, Mirabelle Soleil. We’re also announcing the launch of a new blog where you can read about her adventures. We’ll still be posting articles on Wild About Nature, but this new blog will feature  our journey with natural parenting and a whole range of our life adventures — from wilderness survival to bellydance. We’ll be including our weekly Adventure Journal, as well as writing about diaperless parenting, Products Worth Actually Spending Money On, book reviews, natural birthing, world’s best recipes, philosophy and science, and all sorts of other fun things.

Come join us at www.kentonandrebecca.com, and as always, send us your own stories of your adventures as you explore the wonders of life!

Hugs,

Kenton and Rebecca

Brought To You By Nature

The other day I brought a shelf fungus home.  I found it on an old fallen tree that the neighbor was cutting up for firewood.  This particular species, Ganoderma applanatum, or the Artists’s Fungus, is as hard as wood, and gets its name because the white spore surface on the bottom can be used as a canvas by artists.  My thought was that we could affix it to the wall in our living room and use it as its name implied – as a shelf.  Rebecca told me she’d have to think about it for a short while, assuring me I’d have an answer before the next millennium.

The funny thing is that nature is full of these sorts of things – objects that mimic much of our modern technology.  Or perhaps it’s more apt to suggest that our modern technology has taken many of its cues from examples found in nature.

Sometimes these examples are fairly simple.  Last winter, when Rebecca and I were out for a walk and my jacket suffered a zipper malfunction, she walked over to a stalk of burdock, grabbed some burs, and used them to close my jacket against the wind.  It was a Swiss gentleman, George de Mestral, who used the hooked design of the burdock bur to invent Velcro.

When I lead people on wilderness survival classes, they are often surprised to find that many modern conveniences are readily available in the woods.  We sip tea from straws made of reed, sleep on heated floors by burying hot stones in the ground beneath our blankets, and even enjoy fresh running water – straight from a spring.

When bow and turkey hunters venture out into the woods, they’re using tactics our ancestors learned from watching animals – namely the benefits of camouflage, which is the basis behind a leopard’s spots, a rabbit’s soft coloration, and the uncanny mimicry of many insects.  Even highly-advanced technology benefits from observing nature’s ingenuity.  The fluorescent wings of the African Swallowtail butterfly are giving researchers insight into creating more efficient LED lighting, and by studying the super-efficient flight of flies, scientists are creating micro-robotic replicas that could be used for surveillance.  Some futurists even suggest that the human species, with its growing interconnection via modern communication, is evolving into a unified network like a hive of bees.

As for me, I decided the next millennium was quite a way off, so when Rebecca wasn’t looking, I put up the applanatum shelf and set a few knick-knacks on it.  And to my relief, when she saw it, she liked it.

Of Mystery Mushrooms and Rare Plants

On a casual romp through the woods the other day, we came upon a humongous mushroom. A bit more searching and we discovered others of the same species growing nearby (though not of this massive size). Kenton was almost positive that we had found a Boletus edulis — a Porcini — even though we didn’t think they grew in Wisconsin. Some research at home confused the issue — it turns out that genus boletus is being restructured all the time, and that ‘true’ Boletus edulis may not even grow in North America.

Our enthusiasm wasn’t affected, however, so we continued to work on identifying the mushroom. No bruising . . . good. Another point for edulis. Reticulation on the upper stem . . . another edulis trait. Everything looked right. All we had left to do was try a spore print, but Kenton was too eager (bad, bad Kenton!), and decided to try a little nibble.

Now, as anyone who knows anything about mushrooms knows, this is not a good idea. Mushrooms can contain some pretty potent toxins, and since we’d barely rank as amateur mushroomers (our harvest is limited to puffballs, morels, chicken of the woods, and hen of the woods), his action was foolhardy at best. Especially as the mushroom did not have the expected pleasant taste. It wasn’t horrible, but it did have a mild bitter taste.

The next day, when we observed our spore prints, the color was totally wrong (bright rust red, instead of olive-brown). We were stumped on our ID, and Kenton reluctantly returned the mushroom to the woods.

The day gave us another surprise, however, as we discovered an elusive and beautiful plant that was once almost extirpated from the Wisconsin forests due to over-harvesting. Does anyone recognize it?

Cedar Waxwing Feather

We’ve always admired Cedar Waxwings for their airbrushed beauty. Watching them in their congregations, however, we’ve always been curious about the mystery of their name — a name that references the tiny red bits of ‘wax’ that are perched on the tips of some of their flight feathers.

This is a mystery we’ve only been able to wonder about from afar, trying in vain to look through binoculars to see what those red tips really are. Then, the other day, an unbelievable treasure crossed our paths. There before us was a feather — a feather with a red, ‘wax’ tip.

Taking it inside, we examined it excitedly. The ‘wax’ wasn’t waxy at all — instead, it is smooth and shiny, like the feather’s shaft. The back is lighter colored and concave.

Even more perplexed, we searched the internet, only to find that no one really knows why these birds are graced with this special addition to their feathers. It seems to have something to do with age and mating, but it’s curious that the waxwing family alone has developed this trait, while most other birds (at least in our area) accomplish the same thing with bright colors, fabulous dances, and beautiful song.

Another of nature’s fabulous mysteries. Now that we’ve finally gotten close to an actual feather, it’s even more mysterious!

The Usual is so Unusual

One of our favorite things to do is to go outside and take a closer look at some of the normal, everyday things that we often tend to walk right by. Today, a short walk down the road showed us some marvelously ‘usual’ delights.

Our first discovery was this strange, pocked object. Any guesses?

It’s the top of a dandelion, the seeds having drifted off on the wind.

Then we came across this, which reminded us of the skin of an alien.

It’s actually oozing sap from a red pine tree.

Further along our journey we came across this beautifully colored pattern, like an exotic rug.

This is a tent caterpillar. Can you see the spiracles where it breathes?

This one amazed us. It looks very odd, and we had never bothered to look at one up close before.

This is the point where a pine cone breaks free of its branch and falls to the ground.

Finally, we couldn’t help but notice a not so subtle beauty — this lovely beetle who was spreading its wings out. We weren’t sure if it was injured or doing something else, but we couldn’t help but stare.

What a lovely world we all live in!

Wicked Cool Spider

My mother, over to visit for the annual morel hunt, spotted this tiny creature crawling out of a morel and across the table. We had it halfway outside before we decided that we simply had to get the camera. This creature is COOL!

Haven’t been able to ID it. Perhaps it is a ‘dwarf spider’ — Erigoninae.  But it’s difficult to concentrate on a name when something looks this awesome. Can you tell we’re infatuated? Another case of taking a closer look and being amazed at what we see. Dang, this is a cool world we live in!

Madison Meteorite

Have you heard about the recent fireball in southern Wisconsin? We weren’t lucky enough to see it, but in today’s communication-based world, it seems that almost everything is getting caught on video: (please excuse the ads — yuck — but we were unable to find any videos that weren’t on news channels).

One of the most fascinating things about this one were the reports of the sonic boom — a house-shaking boom that some are saying didn’t arrive for 15 minutes after the fireball was visible. Now, by our calculations that’s a bit strange — 15 seconds would be a more likely arrival time, based on the height of our atmosphere and the speed of sound — but even a 15 second delay would be a remarkable experience.

Speaking of meteors and such, the Lyrids are here, and though they’re not the most active of showers, they can sometimes deliver bursts of 100 or more meteors per hour, so it’s worth taking a peek outside if you have clear night skies. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see a whopper like this one we saw last year!

Visit our Adventure Journal at Live the Juicy Life! to learn about this week’s nature adventures!