Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Obsessing About Nature

gaining a deeper understanding of our place in ecology
I've been struggling with a way to see nature as an antidote to violence, specifically the gun violence that is confronting us in America, and elsewhere, these days.  I know for sure that hands-on experiences in nature are good for us.  I know that nature helps to quiet an unquiet mind.  But I'm also not groovy enough to believe that nature cures people who are sick.  I'll grant that the pharmaceuticals we discover courtesy of rain forest botany can actually fix some diseases, or mitigate pain, but I'm pretty sure that nature cannot fix somebody who is suffering from mental illness.  Nature with a capital "N" might be therapeutic, but I don't think it's a prescription for psychosis.

I do think, however, that a deeper understanding of our place in the ecology of the world can help those who seek to help the afflicted or those who work to mitigate the ills of our society.

I do believe that understanding natural relationships, processes, evolution and life cycles really helps us make informed decisions.  A close, careful, or even casual, study of physical processes in nature helps us to think hypothetically, to anticipate the future and plan for it.  When we think of ourselves as part of the life of the planet, not apart from it, we can't help but see ourselves in relation to the rest of the population.  It is my opinion that understanding yourself as an animal, subject to the same principles that rule animal and plant life the world over, helps you to see yourself as a human in relation to other humans.  You begin to see your own connection not only to folks on the other side of the world, but to the folks who live next door, those who might live very differently than you do, and yet you share this big common thing of trying to exist on the planet.

Check this out:

"The Amazon basin is one of the world's wondrous ecosystems, supporting massive amounts of life, both in kind and quantity. You might have thought about poison frogs or monkeys, but you've probably never stopped to wonder, "Where are all the nutrients that power this biotic explosion coming from?"

The answer is actually astonishing and delightful in that one-planet-one-love kind of way. As laid out in a 2006 paper that science writer Colin Schultz dug up, nearly half of the nutrients that power the Amazon come from a valley in the Sahara called the Bodélé depression."

--The Atlantic

Those America-sized dust storms in the Sahara then push the nutrients half way round the world to grow that "biotic explosion" (all those plants and animals) in the rain forest.  And you know what?  The plant and animal life in turn eventually become the silt that the Amazon itself washes out into the ocean and that silt gets pushed around the world again, fostering new life in the oceans.  And that life works up the food chain and out of the sea, eventually to us and our open mouths (fish meal is a main food source, or fertilizer for the food source, for a lot of the stuff we eat).  And then, eventually, we, let's face it, end as dust (or food).  Dust to dust.  We get all that great pharma from the rain forest and we get fed to boot, because we are an inextricable link in a chain of events that does not necessarily begin or end with us.  Humbling, isn't it?

So here we are, connected.  America holds China's hand economically.  The latest reports from Kenya suggest that at least one of the terrorists may be a Minnesotan.  I'm sure I buy clothes that are made in Bangladesh.  Every day, we send our kids off to schools that look a lot like Sandy Hook, but we pray that they have one important difference.  And what, pray tell, does any of this have to do with nature education and young children?  Well, to my mind, if people grow-up understanding their relationship to the rest of the world, and each other, if that is always at the forefronts of our minds, if that is a foregone conclusion, something we don't have to struggle to teach anymore, then we are that much more capable of getting along and solving problems together.

Farmer Jenna shows off Dodge bees at work
Right now, at Dodge, children are learning about bees.  This is the perfect season to talk about bees, as we are in the midst of the bees' big push to cache honey for winter.  Metro area kids are visiting Dodge to learn about bees.  Preschoolers are visiting the apiary and eating honey.  I'm even dragging a bunch of bee stuff out to my satellite classes for homeschoolers.  What are kids learning?  A lot of interesting stuff, but here are some big bullets:  

  • bees need plants
  • plants need bees
  • animals need plants
  • people need animals and plants

bees in the frame:  preschoolers consider the comb
Plants give us the air we breath after all, and so oxygen is in part courtesy of the bees.  When you swat or step on a bee, you are depriving yourself of a little bit of air.  Sounds dramatic?  Well, not really.  What comes around, goes around.  A good bee steward is planning on a future that includes plants and animals and air, essentially life.  One can be a good bee steward; one can be a good human steward too.  Take care of your fellow humans (you pick your stewardship:  education, health care, gun control etc), and you take care of yourself.  Obama says that the gun violence issue should "obsess us."  Whatever you think of that, also consider that the nature of our relationship to the planet and to each other should obsess us.  Teaching each other about the wonderful, complicated, inextricably inter-woven tapestry that is life on earth might just make the future possible.

preschoolers eat apples and watch wasps eat apples
The natural world can be a violent place, of course.  Humans, being natural, have the potential to be violent as well.  That potential is likely with us forever.  Some humans are of course victims of circumstances that incline them toward violence for a wide variety of reasons.  I cannot debate that, but I can suggest that our collective response to violence and the potential for it can be informed by a better understanding of who we are, what we are up to on this planet and how we share it.  Stewardship and care begin in "the garden," and once again, I am suggesting that, as the song says, we got to get ourselves back to it.

bee stewardship

worker bees and their liquid gold
My colleague, Joey, suggests that bees may also offer outfits like JP Morgan some instructive lessons about sharing...JP Morgan may already know a thing or two about bees though.  Did you know that bees will swarm a single wasp, or those they see as interlopers by suffocating them with their body heat alone?  Socialism?  Or "All the Kings Men?"  You decide!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Finding the Harvest

Well, we survived!  The first few weeks of school, that is.  Catch your breath, look around.  Wow!  It's gorgeous out there.  The harvest is coming in, isn't it?

My afternoon class just took a hike across the prairie.  The Indian Grass and Bluestem are simply magnificent right now.  Imagine being not even three feet tall and walking through two walls of ten foot tall grasses with a blazing blue sky overhead.  It is an awe-inspiring experience, even for those of us over three feet.  As we stood there on the hilltop, I caught my breath.  I turned to my colleague, Amanda, "Remember standing here last spring?"  Her smile widened and she laughed.  Last spring, we did stand on the very same spot, but it was a blackened, smoldering moonscape.

We watched the prairie burn, you see.  It was a controlled burn, and it was very complete.  Our class roasted bagels on a campfire and watched as a small crew set the dry, yellow prairie on fire.

Kids stood slack-jawed as a wall of orange flame licked the prairie clean.  It was over before we finished our bagels.  First there was something--so much biomass--and then there was nothing.  We were assured that we could safely stroll across the black fields.  We discovered long sticks, a few logs and rocks.  When we rolled them away, or turned them over, they left a perfect shadow of life in the old grass outline.  The fire burned so fast and so hot, that it just cleared away the spent plant matter, releasing seeds to the soil as it went and killing a few of the less resilient and undesirable weeds that creep into the prairie.  It was an amazing day.  A powerful image.  Just days later the black expanse was green with the first tender new shoots of life.  And now, a summer gone, the prairie is more robust than ever.  It is a harvest of flowers and seeds, teeming with life.

Everywhere you look in these last few days, during the last big push of the nature production, animals are on the move and plants are reaching the peak of their life cycles.  If you can take just a few moments to stop and see it, you will be reminded of just how amazing this cycle of life thing is.

Asters, Goldenrod, bees and wasps of all stripes.  Apples are getting rosey-- I understand that one of the best apple harvests in state history is on the way, a little late, but terrific.  Tomatoes are bursting, sunflowers are nodding.  Even potatoes and onions are poking their way up and out of the earth.  Right now, out there, it is a vibrant wonderland for young children (and their older friends).  Foliage is still lush, intertwined with wild cucumber vine or grape.  Cattails around our ponds are at least twelve feet tall.  Flowers are hallooing for attention from bees.  Birds are flocking, startling, flying up from fields of seed, arrowing overhead or gorging at feeders.  Deer are becoming frisky, bulking up on the harvest, anticipating the rut.  I was just thinking, if everyone planted just ten square feet of prairie in their yard--grasses, Goldenrod, some Asters, Rattlesnake Master, Cupplant--they could enjoy the same late summer and early fall feast for the senses.  Just that much prairie could give you an idea of the grandeur and invite birds and bees to the feast.  But most of us don't have this feast, this reminder right out the front or back door, so we've got to seek it out.
Asters:  a bee's delight
Preschoolers visit the Dodge Community Gardens
Picking in the Raspberry Patch with teacher, Dani
Dodge Apples
Giant sunflower head, more than 15 inches across!
Harvesting grapes for jam
Pollination in action
More grapes with teacher, Joey (the brains behind the jelly) 
Zinnia mania
I urge you to find the harvest.  I know, I know.  It's such a busy time of year, but you can do it, just for a few minutes.  It'll make you feel great.  And if you watch a kid discover the pleasures of fall, you'll feel even better.  I still remember the first time we took our twins to our favorite apple orchard.  I just couldn't wait for them to share one of my greatest joys.  They had very little hair, couldn't walk all that well and certainly couldn't pick their own apples yet.  They had eight teeth between them, but they made quick work of a half a dozen apples as they sat and gnawed/gummed them under a gnarled old tree.  The apples were fragrant and so tart, they made even the grown-ups drool.  Nearby, a trio of jet black Percherons loitered at the fence line, snorting and flicking their tails.  The farmer's fat old spotted dog sidled up and nuzzled one of the kids.  They weren't really my trees or my horses, that wasn't my dog, but in my memory I own it as one of the finest afternoons on earth.

Minnesota Grown's website and its publication are a great resource for finding the fruits of nature's labors, and the list below includes some of my favorite picks for finding and enjoying the local harvest in a variety of ways, beyond Dodge Nature Center.

Afton State Park
amazing prairie, nice ride to get there, orchards along St. Croix Trail

Carpenter Nature Center
more amazing prairie, and a great apple orchard (apples are produced with Integrated Pest Management and no pesticides)

Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
super beautiful and they usually have lovely fall displays in the building too

University of Minnesota Apple House
up the road from the Arb, selling the U's good goods

Deardorff Orchards & Vineyards
hands-down favorite orchard

Applewood Orchard
this one is almost in my backyard in Lakeville, and for the last couple of years they've done a corn maze

Minnesota Harvest
off of 169, this is sort of a classic MN thing-- oompah music and brats and apples and tractor rides

Mille Lacs Kathio State Park
the Maples near the fire tower are stunning, a canoe ride on the Rum on a sunny late September day is worth the ride & their Archeology Day is Sept. 28th

Minnehaha Creek
so much fall beauty and right in the city, lots of fun stops and fun kid-friendly eats in neighborhoods along the way

Lyndale Park, Japanese Garden, Rose Garden, Harriet Streetcar & Lakewood Cemetery
Every year, my kids and I do this as a day (I've got a post about this).  But these spots are all within walking, all with parking, all great for picnicking (even the Cemetery, but not the Streetcar), and, come late September, early October they are heartbreakingly beautiful.  You'll find this area very quiet if you can visit on a weekday.  And Lakewood is quiet all the time, but it really is a cool place to stroll in the fall-- the trees are terrific and the monuments are pretty interesting.

Murphy-Hanrehan Park Preserve
I'm a broken record on this park, but I just love it in the fall.  And you can ride a horse there, if you have one that is.  It's fun to watch them ride across the prairie even if you don't have your own and Murphy Hanrehan has the third best picnic table vista in the state (Split Rock State Park cart-in campsite #16 is #1, and, to my mind, Temperance River State Park has the #2 best picnic table vista if you sit at the big one overlooking the beach).

And, of course, anywhere along the North Shore before the leaves blow away is guaranteed to knock your socks off.  But most of the stuff above can easily be accessed with young kids in an afternoon.

Forget about everything else and just enjoy the harvest for an afternoon...

Send me a favorite fall harvest recipe and I'll post it, and probably try to to eat it!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Long Goodbye, Again

our twins:  two kids, two approaches to separation
As I write this, fall is certainly in the early morning air.  We've been surfing in the 90s for days now, negotiating another drought, but I can feel fall on the cool breeze and hear it in the rustling popple leaves.  I can also feel fall in my bones, my tired bones.  This week, my own kids went back to school, started middle school in fact, and I am totally exhausted, just bone-weary.  Why?  Waking up early and running around to after school activities certainly takes its toll, but the stress and anxiety exact a larger pound of flesh, I think.  Those dreams are back:  late for class, naked in class, can't find a pencil, can't find my glasses, am blind in class, failed an entire college course and didn't know it... you know the dreams I'm talking about.  And now my kids are having them.  Change is certainly good, but nobody said it was easy.

Look around.  The birds are agitated, flocking together.  The air is throbbing with insects.  The prairie is humming with bees.  Bears are covering long distances to gorge on acorns.  Everybody and everything it seems is busy, busy, busy, getting ready for a big seasonal transition.  Our own legacy of agriculture has given us a cycle that lines up, in some ways, with the natural world.  I suppose harvest time used to excite and exhaust kids the same way the start of school does now.  And here we are at Dodge Nature Preschool, shepherding the next generation through a new rite of passage:  back to school anxiety, and the beginning of the Long Goodbye for parents.  Yes, The Long Goodbye was a Chandler novel and an Altman movie, but here I'm talking about the Long Goodbye of the parent/child relationship.  Each year brings a new variation on this theme.  My husband threatened to ride our twins' school bus this year.  I spent an afternoon drilling my daughter on how to open her locker and then dreamt that I was trapped in a locker in my old high school.  High school!  That's only three short years away...and they already want phones and in four years they'll be learning to drive...and where are they going to go to college?  And what, dear God, will we do, what will we talk about, when they go off to college and leave us?

Going to school means stepping out into the world, away from the familiar, safe context of home.  It means taking risks.  Kids step out into new territory and get to decide who they are going to be when they are out in the world.  Risky business.  And mostly, they don't really know, and that's the beauty and anxiety of this transition.  Identity seems to come through experience.  Some kids seem immutable, but really, I think (and hope), that they are shaped by what they encounter and how they react in those encounters.  So children walk into the classroom and begin to meet peers from similar and dissimilar backgrounds and this is how community is formed, and how society forms:  through mixing it up with a lot of different people.

When kids come to Dodge Nature Preschool, as at any other school, we ask them to adjust to the norms and expectations of school.  It's probably a lot like home, but it can be radically different too and all the stakeholders in this new community have to exercise patience as we get to know each other.  New parents may be just as, if not more afraid of separating from their child.  Children may be sad, or happy to separate from their parents at the classroom door.  Sometimes it is the most enthusiastic child, the one who skips away from Mom or Dad at the door without so much as a backward glance, who totally unnerves parents.  Why isn't my child crying?  Doesn't she love me?  Teachers of young children have seen just about every variation on the theme of separation there is, and, speaking on behalf of my colleagues, I have a short list of observations about the beginning of The Long Goodbye:

--Your child may cry or fuss when you say good-bye, and they might, to your dismay, do this when you reunite too.  Try to think of this fussing as a love letter.  Your child is telling you how much they will miss you, or have missed you.

--Short & Sweet is a good rule of thumb.  By "Long Goodbye" I mean, separating from home life is sort of a life long process; some might say you don't really separate from your parents until you have your own kids, and even then, when your mother's words fly out of your own mouth, you realize you never really left home.  When taking a child to school, though, long good-byes are generally hard on everyone.  Keep it short and very definitely positive, declarative even.  Questions like:  "Should I leave now?  Are you going to be okay?  Would you like me to stay?"  seem to be unnerving for the child as she wonders, Who's the parent here anyway?  If you ask, "Should I leave now?"  You might be making your child nervous, and kicking the ball right into her court too.  "You are going to have a fantastic day!  See you later!  I love you so much!" Hug, kiss, exit stage right.

--Separation is a process because it requires trust.  Kids have to trust the new situation, the new teacher, their parents.  Parents have to trust the new situation, the new teacher, and they have to trust their kids too.  Teachers want you to trust us.  Most of us teachers are kind and caring, to the point of selflessness actually and we want the best for your child.  Maybe parents and teachers won't agree about everything, but we probably agree about one big thing:  we want the best for the kids.  We trust that you know best about your kids, and we ask you to trust us to do what's best for them in your stead.

--Parents should not hesitate to tell teachers how they feel.  Don't have the stomach for handing over your precious cargo when she is kicking and screaming?  Want to stay?  Want to leave, but don't know how to get out the door?  Want a phone call to tell you how it's going?  Is this good-bye thing ripping your guts out?  Just say so, a big part of our job is to listen and accommodate.

--School is a diverse place, full of different people from different backgrounds.  Not only are we required to tolerate differences in each other, we have a lot of fun celebrating them.  Your child might come home playing Star Wars, or pointing her finger like a gun.  Take a deep breath.  Before you rend your garments and pull out your hair, consider how your child's world is broadening.  You might feel uncomfortable with new modes of play, new stories, new tastes and even new words (!), and you should say so if you are, but keep in mind that school is generally a very safe arena for experimentation and new modes of expression.  Your child may try on many new hats, and before you snatch the latest one off his head, take a deep breath.  Childhood seems to be a series of phases, where we learn who and what we want to be.  Parents and teachers help guide kids and keep them safe.  At school we practice safety and inclusion.  Inclusion means that everyone is welcome, provided they are kind to each other.  Inclusion means tolerating and/or celebrating differences.  TV, computer games, light sabers, Disney princesses, gluten, meat or veg, candy or carrots, remember, it takes a village.  I think safe experimentation and self-expression make for smarter, more adventurous and more tolerant people.

We are really lucky that we are all so different.  The world would be a very dull place otherwise.  Once your child is comfortable at school, I encourage all families at Dodge and elsewhere, to take part in their child's school life to the extent that they can.  If you can share something of yourself-- your talents or your time--you get the chance to see your kid in another context and you enliven and enrich your school community.  Life seems to get commensurately busier as kids grow and sometimes we can't find the time or energy to be in the school community, but when you can squeeze it in, I think you'll find that you learn something and you stake a claim on your kid's childhood.

Here's to the beginning of a bittersweet lifetime process!