Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An Ofrenda for Olivia

Rebekah and daughter, Imix
We are always helping preschoolers learn how to share.  We coach them through in their play and general social interactions with peers.  The goal is to help young children grow up to be inclusive, patient adults, right?  Like most learning, the skills of sharing, patience, kindness, openness and listening are best acquired by doing.  Our Dodge community got a great hands-on lesson in sharing last week with the help of some special visitors.  Danza Mexica joined us for a series of performances and interactions, and now our Dodge community is a bit bigger.

Rebekah Crisanta is a lively member of our Dodge community, our larger local Twin Cities community and of the Ce Tempoxcalli community, a non-profit promoting interculturalism and community action. We first met Rebekah and her family last year, when her daughter, Imix, joined the Spruce Classroom.  Before the year was out, the Spruce Room blossomed into a very diverse and very exciting little community.  Many families shared a bit of their family life with us throughout the year, including Imix's family.  Rebekah, Imix and Danza Mexica Cauuhtemoc joined us for dancing and sharing of Mexican heritage and culture, and their visit and involvement was so enlivening and enriching, we asked them to join us again this year.  This time, all the kids at Dodge got to share some time with Danza Mexica, and to participate in a very special activity:  making an ofrenda for Olivia Dodge.

Danza Mexica's first visit:
Imix's little sister
was dancing then too!
The late Olivia Dodge, 1918-2009, or "Mrs. Dodge," was the founder of our Thomas Irvine Dodge Nature Center.  It is Olivia who gave us the big gift of the land that we all enjoy here, day in and day out, year 'round.  She loved this land so much, she named it for her son.  It is Olivia who made it possible for all kinds of young children to have access to developmentally appropriate, land-based education.  Olivia made it possible for us to perhaps cultivate and nurture the Olivias of the future.  And, for Olivia, Rebekah Crisanta, graciously and ingeniously invited us to practice a little bit of interculturalism and a whole lot of sharing, by making an ofrenda.  In Mexican tradition, an ofrenda is constructed for a beloved elder who has become an ancestor, someone who has died.  The ofrenda is composed of tokens that represent the elements of life, and the details of the ancestor's life.  Rebekah and Imix shared with us the ofrenda of a family member who was a farmer; it contained corn and representations of plants among other things, and a marigold, or cepoal-xochitl, whose potent scent calls the ancestor to the party.  The party is El Dia de los Muertos.  El Dia is, of course, a traditional Mexican holiday, when the ancestors are celebrated and remembered by their loved ones.  The ofrenda is the centerpiece of the holiday, recalling and calling the ancestor back to us.  So, together, we made an ofrenda for Olivia.

things they love; things Olivia loved

Olivia's ofrenda
Kids hiked and collected things they love, like leaves, feathers, sticks, rocks and bark.  These items were also things "that Olivia loved."  We know that Olivia loved this earth.  She loved the birds in the trees, the frogs in the pond and the animals in the pasture.  And Olivia also loved kids, and a good party too.  So we had a good party, with lots of kids and tokens of the things she loved from the land.  We gathered in our big meeting room here at the Preschool and Rebekah and Danza Mexica danced and drummed while children constructed a makeshift ofrenda for Olivia.  Rebekah spoke eloquently and simply about Mrs. Dodge and honoring the earth.  Then Danza Mexica danced and drummed their souls out.  They performed an Honor Dance, an Eagle Dance (because the "eagle is an elder, an ancestor with his white hair, like Olivia") and a Deer Dance.  Imix drummed along with the master drummer and little sister, Xochitl, rocked along in her car seat as the rhythm thrummed through the entire room.  Kids were riveted.  Rebekah and her apprentice dancers told stories of the earth with their bodies, crouching, spinning, balancing and whirling in their beautiful finery and impressive pheasant feather headdresses.  The stories were very powerful, electrifying.  Rebekah became a deer in the Deer Dance-- listening, leaping, stamping, startling.  It was a thing of beauty and awe-- like interculturalism between people and deer!  They taught us the Monkey Dance and the Snake Dance.  We wound our way through the entire school, head coiling upon tail, with the snake eventually consuming itself in a melee of fun, a giant circle of life.
Eagle Dance

sharing Danza
The power of this special interaction was infectious.  One of my students reported to her mother, "Mom!  There were dancers in the Morning Bunch Room!  They danced about LOVE and NATURE!"  When our class returned to the Spruce Room after the event, the kids immediately ran for musical instruments and began leaping and spinning, shaking rattles and telling their own stories with their bodies.  We got out our big drum and went at it.  Eventually, we made our own turkey feather and necktie versions of those impressive headdresses.  In the Oak Room, children set about illustrating and writing stories about dancing and feathers and snakes.  My colleague, Kristenza, shared with me that her Willow Room students had a long and engrossing conversation about life and death as they hiked to collect gifts for departed Olivia.  One child mused that Olivia rises in the morning and sets at night, like the sun, "going in a circle, over and over again."  A circle, like a snake.  Another child shared his thought that winter was the season of dying and wondered if Olivia had died in winter (she did!).  These things cannot really be taught, can they?  They have to be experienced and lived.  The kids got to live as much of these matters as they could, in just the right way, just because someone else was gracious enough to share their experience with them-- Olivia made it possible for us to share Dodge, and Rebekah and her friends make it possible for us to share Dodge too.  Olivia's circle keeps getting bigger.
sharing the experience
El Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life and memory.  Less to do with Halloween, and much more to do with a true idea of giving thanks, or "Thanksgiving" (not the Columbus/Puritan kind, by the way).

We give thanks to Olivia, and we give thanks to Danza Mexica for their great generosity of spirit.

Danza Mexica transported Olivia's ofrenda to the Wellstone Center last weekend for an even bigger party.  Olivia's memory was celebrated at their Dia de los Muertos community event and stood alongside other ofrendas, witnessing much happiness, an Aztec ceremony and lots of dancing.  The circle gets bigger and bigger.

new friends

To share more about Ce Tempoxcalli and Danza Mexica, and maybe even learn how do dance (!), visit their website or contact them at info@ce-t.org

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Season Eye Opener

Buck this morning
We've been mushroom crazed here at Dodge this fall.  We've been finding, cataloging and eating fungus.  It's been an entire slippery season of mushrooms.  Guess who else is enjoying the fungal bounty of this damp fall?  Whitetails.  Deer find mushrooms scrumptious-- they too are mycophiles.

What else do deer eat?

-tree leaves
-tree buds
-tree bark
-wild grapes
-apples (wild or not)
-lots of shrubs and bushes

When we visit my parents in the Florida Keys every year, we always see Key Deer.  These petite cuties  don't look it, but they are omnivorous.  I've seen Key Deer eat crabs, fish and hot dogs.  While my dad and I were grilling on the beach, a crafty little deer came and stole a pork chop right off the Weber!  Maybe he was just mischievous, you're thinking.  But, no, we watched that deer wolf down that pork chop.  His friend carried off my daughter's box of Cheez-its and crunched crackers not five feet from us.  When you see a list of what deer eat, even discounting Key Deer, it is clear that Whitetails are adaptable.  Whitetails live, successfully, in every county and corner of our state.  An old friend of my husband's confirmed that he used to see Whitetails picking over the carcasses of dead fish in lake country.  The DNR estimates that we share Minnesota with close to 1,000,000 deer.  Deer are really good at accommodating us, even though we do our best to diminish their habitat (and their predators, which keep them in balance), so it's no wonder that we see them all the time here at Dodge.

Doe on playground
And yet, it is a wonder.  It is wonder-full.  Dodge deer have habituated to mild disturbance.  They've learned, through their successive generations, that preschoolers, elementary and even middle school aged kids pose little or no threat to their existence.  Dodge is a relatively safe place for Whitetails.  No hunting, no dogs, no traffic.  Lot's of food and a good amount of shelter.  It seems no surprise then that we can routinely get within ten feet of a Whitetail or two, or thirteen.  But still, it is surprising.

This morning we encountered 3 bucks vying for the attentions of a single doe.  Picture 4 groups of preschoolers, out on their respective hikes.  Then the word goes out over the walkie-talkies that a really big buck is hanging out by the Nature Center parking lot.  Suddenly twenty odd kids and five teachers are bearing witness to a yearly rite of passage:  the rut.   Seems like I'm destined to do an annual deer post every November.  There really is no way around it.  Whitetails just make their presence known here at Dodge.

Admiring a buckscrape
Things always pick up right after Halloween.  The wind blows, the leaves come down, and there they are.  Actually, we see deer year-round, but what we don't often see are bucks.  Bucks cruise around, conducting a mini migration through different populations of deer, having contests with different males, trying to win the right to mate.  And this week, there are at least four bucks chasing does right around the Nature Center.  These guys come in small, medium, large and extra large.  When you stop and think about it for a second, it is simply amazing that preschoolers, and grown-ups, can get up close and personal (what's more personal than the rut?) with these large and interesting animals.  It's also amazing that Dodge teachers have a real reason to discuss the word, "rut"  with preschoolers.  Continue to be amazed, consider the stats of the ubiquitous Whitetail:

-4-6ft long
-3.5ft tall at the shoulder
-Run 30mph
-Jump 8ft high
-Leap 33ft across

Track on morning hike
Consider more cool facts:

-4 chambers to their stomachs and are ruminants (like cows)
-Stomach bacteria changes seasonally in order to break down the forage a deer encounters through the succession of seasons!
-Blow or snort when they feel uneasy or threatened
-In Virginia, where they are hunted in the greatest numbers, can run the fastest:  47mph!
-When first frightened, they first run with tails or "flags" up
-When shot at, Whitetails can run in zig-zags with tails down
-Conduct a lot of communication with glands.  For instance:  crouch and pee down the backs of their own legs in order to activate glands in their flanks.  This says, "I'm here, and I'm really big, so check me out."
-Have dichromatic vision, meaning they see two color families:  blue and yellow (this is why they don't see blaze orange very well)
-1 in 10,000 female deer grows antlers
-Number of points on the antlers and the general size do not necessarily indicate the age of a buck; most yearlings grow antlers with 3 or more points
-Antlers are shed after deer mate, after the rut, when testosterone drops, from December to April
-Antlers begin to grow again in the spring
-Deer mature at about 1.5 years
-Gestation is just under 7 months
-Does usually give birth to twins

Calling in the bucks with antlers clacking
We love watching Whitetails with preschoolers.  My best afternoon here ever, bar none, took place when I when I was hiking with a group of boys and we were caught unawares by a three-way buck battle.  The boys and I dropped low and watched the battle rage.  For days, even weeks after, those boys re-enacted the buck battle.  They told the story forward and backward.  They drew pictures and wrote words about the encounter.  The were electrified by the power of Nature, with a capital "N."  We should surely keep watching Whitetails, and learning from them, but we should also respect them and remember that, although they have a big, positive impact on us, we have an impact on them too, and it is not always so positive.

Things to keep in mind when you admire deer at Dodge, and elsewhere:

-Bucks do not eat during the rut, and they lose weight and condition in their relentless pursuit of does; interference with their behavior during the rut can further degrade their physical well-being, setting them up for starvation during the winter.

-Bucks and does must eat as much as possible before the snow flies.  Winter is extremely tough on deer, and like most animals, they get stressed out when people watch, follow or otherwise harass them for too long.  Stress eats up precious calories in the deer body, setting them up for malnutrition and illness. When you observe deer, do so from a distance for a short time, and then go your own way, leaving them to eat and recuperate.

Deer do seem ubiquitous, and sometimes they drive us crazy.  They eat our landscaping, or garden goodies and they run in front of our cars.  But deer have complicated and mysterious social lives.  We can admire and emulate their adaptability too.  And we should keep in mind that, like us, deer are just trying to make a go of things.  Deer have learned to cope with a relentless human presence.  Perhaps we can extend deer a little grace by remembering them each November, studying their habits, honoring what we still don't know about them and admiring their resilience.  A closer look at Whitetails might just reflect a few of our finer traits.