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

Garden Beginnings

The other day Rebecca was poking about in the garden, getting things ready for spring planting. All of the sudden, she called me over and asked me to carefully and slowly dig down into the mulch. There was something ‘very special’ waiting beneath, she told me. I could hardly imagine what! I pulled back a bit of bark, then another, and then something strange and wonderful met my eyes. A gleaming bit of gold attached to an almost perfectly camouflaged body.

This amazing animal was hiding, silent and cool, beneath the mulch. Waiting . . .
There were other things to be found in the garden. Not only the growing plants, such as the odd, bright red peony shoots emerging from the ground, but another unexpected resident — this large beetle. He seemed hardly able to keep to his feet on the uneven ground. Time and again he tumbled down small hillocks and lay there for a moment, waving his sharp feet in the air before he righted himself and trundled onward.

It’s clear that all sorts of creatures are busy in the garden this spring — not just Rebecca. From the microorganisms in the soil to the chickens scratching about looking for bugs, the garden is already becoming a happenin’ place.

Samuel Thayer’s “Nature’s Garden”

There is no feeling quite like wandering off into the neighboring woods and returning with baskets full of wild edibles. These are the ultimate health foods — about as 100% organic as you can get, and many of them are surprisingly yummy. Even more significantly, learning about wild edibles re-connects us with nature. When all of our food comes from the grocery store, it’s easy to forget that what we eat comes from living plants and animals. In the wilds, that fact is ever-present.

Even children can go out and easily identify delicious natural treats. Wood sorrel is a great example with its tangy flavour, and during a recent ‘survival’ class that we taught for third graders, the children tasted ‘Golden Birch’ (yellow birch), and were delighted with the minty taste of the buds.

Learning wild edibles, however, isn’t always that easy. Field guides can leave you in doubt about identifying plants, and the negative mystique built up around wild edibles (Wild plants are poisonous! They’ll kill you!) has created a culture of doubt and fear around the whole subject.

For us, Samuel Thayer came to the rescue. His first book on edible plants, The Forager’s Harvest, introduced us to a new way of establishing a relationship with wild foods. Samuel doesn’t perpetuate the negative mystique — he not only eats all the plants he writes about, but during his classes he has his students eat them. From notes about where to find the plants, how to harvest and prepare them, and how they taste, his knowledge is based on personal experience. The result is that you become intimate with each plant he describes. The Forager’s Harvest opened new worlds of wild food exploration for us — including introducing us to some wild foods that were right in our own yard!

Now Samuel Thayer has worked his magic a second time with Nature’s Garden. Continuing in the tradition of his first book, he covers less species than conventional guides, but each species is introduced with stories, detailed descriptions, photos of all the edible parts, and personal accounts that leave you feeling like each plant is a new best friend. Prior to the actual plant descriptions, Samuel delivers a wealth of information on poisonous plant fables (including his take on Chris McCandless’s supposed poisoning by wild sweet pea), an account of Samuel and his wife eating ‘wild’ for an entire month, notes on conservation, a wild food calendar, and a chart showing the percentage of plants in the book that grow in each of the states and Canadian provinces.

Each time we open Samuel’s books, we find old myths turned on their heads, and feel renewed confidence in our ability to enjoy wild foods. This year we have a host of new plants to explore, thanks to Nature’s Garden. If you’re interested in edible wild plants and want a truly helpful guide, both of Samuel’s books are a must in your library.

Now, we’re off to see what green things are poking through recently-thawed earth . . .

Kids in the Woods!

“What’s this?” A tiny finger was pointing to a bright red cup-like fungus.

“Look at this!” Another child had broken apart some ice from a stream and was holding up a large pane.

“A bone! I found a bone!” This child was running through the woods with a deer bone.

These were the sounds that accompanied us as we led four groups of third-graders on ‘wilderness survival’ treks last week. Our intent was to teach them the basics of wilderness survival and lost-proofing, along with how to build an emergency shelter. We were able to hold to task, but each group of kids created their own experience, wandering in different paths and finding new treasures and places to explore.

Kenton dressed in his leathers and went by his ‘woods name’ of Red Fox. Rebecca brought a backpack with extra hats and clothes in case any of the kids grew chill. Her woods name was Bat. Each of the children chose their own woods names, opting for such creative ones as Dire Wolf, Vole, Tiger Lily, and Southern Bog Lemming (is there such a creature?).

Although the intended arrangement was we adults as teachers and the children as students, it often doesn’t work like that in the woods. Kids’ sense of adventure and curiosity soon turns the dry lessons of adults into a romp through a wonderland of smells, tastes, and sights. Chipmunks are alternately watched or chased, golden birch (yellow birch) provides a minty snack, and paper birch reveals a white powder on its bark that is perfect for painting on cheeks and noses. Going out into the woods with kids is always a reminder that the world is full of mystery and wonder — it becomes dull or boring only if we lose that sense of exploration.

Thanks to all the kids who took us out on those woods adventures. You taught us a lot more than we taught you!

Could Wild Runners Save the Wild?

I certainly love our dogs. Suka and Gryphon are friendly, beautiful, and playful. They are also allowed the run of the lands surrounding our home. As half-wild dogs, they fill their days with lazing in the sunshine, exploring the woods, and chasing animals.

It’s this last that bothers me. As companion hunters, they have learned how to herd rabbits into their jaws. Once or twice they’ve cornered and killed a raccoon. I can’t be sure, but I think that once they even killed one of the wild turkeys that have played such a powerful part in my own life.

With their tendency to ravage the wildlife, I’ve always considered them a negative impact on the local ecosystem. When they bring a rabbit back to the yard and sit down to share it, I admit that I sometimes have looked forward to the future, when their lives are lived and we no longer have dogs. Instead of torn and broken rabbits lying in the snow or grass, I imagine rabbits under our bird feeder, deer coming into the yard, and having to chase raccoons off the deck with a stick. In short, I imagine a healthier ecosystem where Rebecca and I are able to re-connect with the wildlife that our dogs spend their lives terrorizing.


Lately, we’ve been reading Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg. In the book, the author presents a convincing argument, citing many field ecologists’ work, that apex predators play a key role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Interestingly, they do this not only by regulating the number of their prey, but perhaps more significantly, by creating a culture of ‘fear’ (I’d prefer to call it a culture of awareness or vigilance) among the prey. In other words, the prey’s behavior is altered when they are aware that predators share the forest with them. In Yellowstone, the scientists found that elk tend to avoid the edges of streams when wolves are present. Stream edges are places where elk can be easily trapped by wolves, and the elk know it. Without as many elk, the willows can grow, which creates healthy stream banks for many species. The result is that the riparian ecosystems have seen a powerful recovery since the wolves have been re-introduced.

Here at our own land, we’ve often noticed that our six acre plot seems strangely abundant when it comes to certain plant species. We have raspberries and black raspberries. In the spring, the trillium blooms, and our woods are home to bloodroot, soloman’s seal, hepatica, and jack-in-the-pulpit, all in abundance. Yet, during our hikes in the surrounding woodlands, we’ve found that these plants are much more difficult to come by. We haven’t seen trillium in any of the hundreds of acres that surround us, there are scant wild berries to be found in the 250 acres of woods and fields that the neighboring farmer lets us hike, and other plant species have become rare hidden gems scattered through forests that can sometimes feel a little empty.

We had never thought much of this until we began to read Stolzenburg’s book, and to consider that there might be a reason for the green abundance on our land. This is the place where our dogs most often roam, play, and hunt. Might Suka and Gryphon inspire a culture of vigilance among the prey species — the main browsers — in our ecosystem? They’ve never killed a deer (the photo above is of a deer that a hunter shot that later died of its wounds — the dogs dragged parts of it back home to enjoy), but they certainly keep the deer running. As for rabbits, the dogs play at least a small part in keeping the numbers down.

Now I find myself pondering something new. When the dogs are gone, perhaps we will indeed have the rabbits and deer coming back to our land. But what, I wonder, will happen to the bloodroot, the soloman’s seal, and the lovely, pink-tinged trillium?

A Wild Thought

This thinking has brought me full-circle back to my year of chasing wild turkeys. What might happen if (in addition to re-introducing apex predators), humans took up a new ‘sport’ — Wild Running? Might not cross-country, on/off- trail, and ultra runners have some fun, connect with nature, and also do some ecological good if they began taking their running out into the wildlands? What if humans began chasing animals?

I know, it’s an odd proposal. Yet consider what it might do. The Wild Runner’s goal wouldn’t have to be to catching an animal. Indeed, if an animal turned out to be injured (as did one deer I began chasing last autumn), the runner could give up the chase and search for a healthy animal to pursue. The goal wouldn’t be to catch animals — only to give chase. The human runners would be fulfilling half the role of the apex predators — inspiring a culture of vigilance among the prey. If enough people in a given area took up the ‘sport’, it might alter the prey’s behavior enough that some of the browse might return. With a return of the plants, native butterflies and songbirds might come back to the area. Insects and amphibians that were no longer supported in the ecosystem might find it suitable once again.

At the very least, it would get people out into the woods more. I can envision a culture of minimally-shod or barefoot runners enjoying long runs through the wild places, connecting with nature and bringing back stories of their adventures. At best, if such runners were set loose into areas that have suffered “trophic cascade” (a loss of numerous species that is triggered by the removal of apex predators), it might alter the browsers’ behavior enough to make at least a small difference in the health of various ecosystems throughout the world.

What do you say? Anyone want to join me on a Wild Run, chasing the deer or the elk?

Sy Montgomery’s Birdology

Nature authors are one of the greatest forces serving to reunite people with the wild places and creatures that we share this planet with, and one of our all-time favorite authors is Sy Montgomery. With a ‘jump right in’ immersion-based approach to nature, she’s taken us around the world to meet pink dolphins in the Amazon, snow leopards in Mongolia, man-eating tigers in the Sundarbans, garter snakes in Canada, tree kangaroos in New Guinea, and tarantulas in South America.

This time, she’s applied her insight and considerable writing talents to all manner of birds in her new book called Birdology. It looks like it will be available starting on the 6th of April, 2010. A true ambassador who serves to give voice to animals and ecosystems (from the endangered to the ‘everyday’), Sy has always amazed us in the past, and we can only imagine that we’re going to see birds in a whole new light after we read Birdology. Here’s Sy Montgomery in a video about the book —

Ask for Birdology at your local bookstore! Yay for birds!

Treasures of Oz

We were delighted to recently get in touch with a new friend in Ozaukee County — Dave Bishop — who is part of a team that has come up with a great new way to encourage people to get out-of-doors.

Photo courtesy of Treasures of Oz

Ozaukee County is across the state from us on the shores of Lake Michigan, and we’ve never explored there ourselves. However, they have a lot of land that is set aside as natural areas, and Treasures of Oz is using some unique and creative ideas to get people out adventuring. On July 24th, 2010, participants will get ‘passports’ and a map that will guide them to a number of different natural areas in Ozaukee County, including bluffs, bogs, wetlands, prairies, and more. The tour will combine nature education with good, outdoor fun.  They have ideas to encourage people to bike or use efficient vehicles while visiting the sites, and are bringing together a diverse community of volunteers, nature experts, and even musicians to make the event a day to remember.

This is the sort of creative energy that can make a real difference in our relationship with our planet. Many people aren’t aware of all the opportunities for getting out in nature, many of which are right in our own communities. Our hope is that Treasures of Oz is not only wildly successful, but that it serves as a model for other communities as they explore ways to promote their natural areas and get people out of the house and into the woods, deserts, prairies, mountains, and shores.

Way to go, Treasures of Oz!

Going Barefoot!

It’s starting to look a lot like spring here in Wisconsin, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees F during the day. For Rebecca and I, that means it’s time to take the shoes off!

Some people think it’s weird that we enjoy going barefoot, but for us there is nothing quite like the feel of leaves or grass or stone (or yes, at this time of the year, even snow!) underfoot. Unconstrained by shoes, your toes can wiggle gloriously, and you get to feel the tendons and muscles of your feet moving and flexing after they’ve been stuck immobile in shoes and boots all winter long.

Some experts are beginning to suggest that shoes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. In the book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, the author cites numerous studies that show that wearing high-tech running shoes, for instance, actually increases our risk of injury. It turns out that our feet are marvelously designed, and that most foot problems might actually be caused by our shoes, which effectively act like casts on our feet, restricting movement (think muscle atrophy and reduced flexibility), cutting us off from the ground, and creating a moist, dark, hot environment perfect for growing fungus and other interesting organisms. In other words, we think our feet are tender, weak, and ill-designed, but most of us have never given them a chance to build muscle and flexibility. What might happen if we set them free?

Perhaps shoes aren’t actually evil, but Rebecca and I are often happier without. If you begin early in the spring, walking on the pavement where the snow has melted, the bottoms of your feet will become conditioned, and by summer you’ll amaze everybody by being able to run over gravel and go for unshod walks through the woods. After some spring conditioning, I’m able to rock-climb, backpack, and enjoy long-distance runs, all without shoes.

If you’ve never given barefoot a try, we’d encourage you to give it a chance this summer — perhaps on some lush grass — and see what it’s like to experience your toes moving through the green. If you want to try going full-on extreme super ultra barefoot, then now’s the time to kick off those shoes and start walking sans shoes wherever the snow has melted!

The First-Time Barefooter’s Guide to Getting Started

It’s simple. Just take off your shoes. Start around the house, to get some initial conditioning on your soles, and to begin to strengthen the muscles and tendons. Feet that have been cloistered in shoes for a long time have to remember what it’s like to flex, stretch, and wiggle. You’ll be building up strength through your ankles, as well as throughout your foot.

When it’s warm out, try going outside. Soft grass is the best place to begin your outdoor adventures. It’s a marvelous feeling to immerse your toes in grass, and your chances of getting a puncture wound are minimal. If you enjoy this, you can try a little more. Purchase some flip-flops or open sandals, which will let your feet breathe (if you have issues with fungus they’ll soon disappear once you get your feet breathing again). Plus, flip-flops are easy to slip off if you see a path or stretch of grass that beckons.

The Extreme Barefooter’s Guide to Going Shoeless

Purchase yourself some flip-flops or sandals, and unless it’s absolutely necessary, never put on socks or shoes again. (Here in Wisconsin, temps drop so low that at some point you have little choice but to boot up.) I begin conditioning in early spring, walking down our paved country road. I’ll walk on the road itself, venture over to the shoulder, and walk through patches of ice and snow. Sometimes I even sort of scuff my feet or wiggle them in sand. This is all to condition the soles, which will develop soft callouses and will become less sensitive to things.

Then comes the fire. Do this at your own risk, obviously, but I’ve found that if I warm the bottoms of my feet over the campfire (as I would my hands), and then give them small doses of hotter temps, my feet seem to quicken on their way to getting barefoot-ready.

Next comes jogging. I find that my gait is naturally different (no heel strikes) when I run barefoot, and by doing short distances I begin to build foot strength and flexibility. After that it’s a process of gradually adding more running distance and more extreme terrain. A month after training begins, I can go almost anywhere that I’d wear shoes (except into nice restaurants and such, which seem to frown on the practice =)

For the Rest of Us

One last option is to try some of the new ‘minimalist footwear’. Perhaps the wackiest, funnest, and most well-designed are Vibram Five-Fingers, which are ‘shoes’ that have toes. These still have the disadvantage of keeping your feet in a hot, moist environment, and they don’t allow your soles to condition (they also reduce sensation), but at least they allow your feet to stretch, wiggle, and interact with their environment. Of course, people will look at you very strangely when you wear them, since they are quite unlike any other footwear around.

If you do give bare feet a try, enjoy! Your feet will probably thank you =)

The End of an Icicle

All animals on the planet, including humans, tend to have their perceptions limited by such things as our size, the perceptual range of our senses, and the ecosystems in which we can survive. We humans, however, have managed to overcome some of those limitations. With submarines we can venture into the ocean depths where the pressures would otherwise kill us. With microscopes and telescopes we can extend the range of our senses, and transcend the barriers of our size, observing planets and microbes. Even if we don’t have high-powered microscopes, we can expand our usual view of nature if we take the time to get down and smell the earth after the first snows melt, or sit  for hours in one place until the animals begin to forget we’re there, or turn upside-down to see what the world might look like to a squirrel who is climbing out of a tree. If we give ourselves enough time (a half-hour is good) for our eyes to adjust, we can see quite well even during very dark nights.  And one of the easiest ways to see more of nature is to get up-close and personal using a magnifying glass or macro camera.

Yesterday, we did just that with some of the icicles that were hanging from our roof. We’ve seen icicles all our lives, and were used to seeing them from a single perspective — from a few feet away as we stood and observed. This time we got up close — really close — and looked at the end of an icicle as it dripped from the sun’s warmth. We had expected to find a sort of rounded tip of ice from which the water was dropping, but it wasn’t so. What we saw was a complex crystalline structure, grooved and angular and seemingly hollow-tipped. Its delicate beauty was nothing less than breathtaking.

This has us wondering — what other ‘everyday’ things around us would reveal amazing surprises if we took the time to look up close? Sounds like the beginning of a new quest . . .

Raptor Education Group

A couple of weeks ago, we were alerted to an unusual winter resident near our home. There was a swan on a nearby river. We made a trip to the swan’s reputed haunt, and sure enough, there was a juvenile swan floating on the waves. But what kind? Tundra or Trumpeter? Tundras are much more common, so that was our default guess, but no matter how much research we did on the internet, we couldn’t come up with a positive ID.

We sent a photo to Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group, Inc. in Antigo, Wisconsin, and immediately we had an expert identification — we had a Trumpeter! That wasn’t the best thing that came out of our conversation with Marge, however. It was the discovery of an organization that is deeply passionate about helping animals in need.

The Raptor Education Group is usually thought of as a wildlife rehabilitation center for owls, hawks, and eagles, but we were soon to learn that it is much, much more. All avian species are welcome at the center for rehabilitation, and swans, robins, ducks, vultures, grouse, ravens, pelicans, loons, and many more have been given a second chance at life thanks to REGI. REGI doesn’t stop at healing injured and poisoned birds, either. They are actively engaged in bringing raptors to classrooms and gatherings for education, and serve as a research facility as well. They are also thoughtful enough to keep a blog, Taking Flight, which is filled with the stories of the birds who come to the center.

More impressive than any of this, however, were the emails we received from Marge. In her writing was displayed an obvious passion and compassion — she helped us educate ourselves on lead poisoning in swans, asked us to keep an eye on the swan through the winter, and again and again expressed her gratefulness for people who appreciate the wild creatures we share our world with. We discovered a person who is not only aware of her connection with the rest of the earth’s creatures, but who has devoted her life to helping them out. We were deeply inspired by her, and would urge everyone to take a look at their website and blog, and if you have a few extra dollars this month, to consider a donation to help them continue their mission. They accept monetary donations as well as donations of skills or items, as presented on their Wish List.

Keep up the awesome work, REGI!

Addendum: One of our friends sent us this photo of a bald eagle who was sent to REGI. How amazing to be so close to such a magnificent bird!

Secret Wildlands

For those of us who love to explore natural places, we’re often trying to find locations where we can wander without seeing any other humans. It’s not that there aren’t some wonderful parks to explore, but sometimes we want to get off the well-travelled paths and leave our tracks among the footprints of otter, bear, opossum, and coyote.

With such a quest in mind, we stopped in at our local DNR office (your country or state should have a similar wildlife management agency), and after establishing a rapport with one of the rangers, he sat us down to show us on a map where his favorite wild places were.

This knowledge in hand, we ventured out to explore old growth trees, high cliffs, waterfalls, and glacial ridges — all of which were unknown to most hikers. In all, we have five new places to adventure in, and it feels like we’ve been given access to our own private national parks.

If you’re looking for new places to adventure, stop at your local wildlife agency and see if you can get some clues as to where there are government lands, industry-owned lands, or private lands enrolled in government programs. Many places seem ‘landlocked’ on a map (they don’t have any public access), but are actually accessible if you ask how. You’re sure to find some great new realms to explore.

Happy Adventuring!