Spring is in the air; in the yellow spotted salamander’s feet marching across the snow; in the trill of the Spring Peeper announcing his space and his availability as a mate; and the quiet patience of the Fairy Shrimp waiting between the mud and ice for their home to thaw.
What Is a Vernal Pool?
A vernal pool is a small woodland wetland that is created by melting snow in an earthen depression which has no inlet or outlet; basically a “wicked big puddle”. These “puddles” are nurseries for several species including mole salamanders such as the yellow-spotted salamander, wood frogs, spring peepers, fairy shrimp, and fingernail clams. Vernal pools are usually temporary and dry up as the season progresses. For the animals who them as a nursery, it is essentially a race against time for the babies to grow up enough to be out the pool before the water is gone. Some pools are semi-permanent but that is not a guarantee so ether way, the salamanders and frogs are crawling or hopping away come summer. The invertebrates, those who cannot fly or crawl away, but are obligate to the pools such as the fingernail clams and fairy shrimp must squiggle down into the mud and wait until next spring to emerge again.
Who Might you Meet at a Vernal Pool?
Mole salamanders live underground which is why you don’t tend to see them any other time of year…except for the Marbled Salamander who lays her eggs in the fall in autumnal/vernal pools. She hoovers over her eggs until the rains fall and then she leaves them. These little ones are the first to hatch and will eat other species of mole salamander eggs in the spring when the pool has then been filled with Jefferson, Yellow-Spotted and Blue-Spotted Salamander eggs. All mole salamander species eat invertebrates and will use mole-excavated tunnels, hence why they are called mole salamanders. In the Spring, when the first rains tickle the ground and when above ground temperature reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the Yellow-Spotted, Blue-Spotted, and Jefferson all come on down to their home pools. The males arrive first, forming what is called “congress”, a group of salamanders. They may travel up to a half mile away from their upland forest underground homes to mate in these vernal pools. After they mate they return to their woodland homes. Watch for them on rainy spring evenings as they cross the road.
If you live near a vernal pool you may hear a din of sound that is caused by two vernal pool visitors – the Wood Frog and the Spring Peeper. The Wood Frog is one of our black-masked bandits (can you guess the other two? One is a mammal and the other is bird.); a woodland, territorial amphibian that has a very distinctive call – the singing males, who are calling out to alert everyone in the vicinity that this is their space make a “qua-ack” sound, vaguely reminiscent of duck. The Spring Peeper is a very tiny tree frog who bears an “X” on his/her back. The callings males make a high-pitched “ree-deep” sound.
There are a host of invertebrates that you can find in a vernal pool – from Predaceous Diving Beetles and Whirligig Beetles to Damselflies to Backswimmers and Water Boatmen to Mayflies to Amphipods, Isopods, Daphnia and Copepods to Fairy Shrimp to Fingernail Clams to Caddisfly larvae. These are species worth getting down and dirty with as each sport their own unique adaptations of locomotion, feeding and general survival. For example, Whirligigs have split eyes so they can see up and down at the same time; handy when watching for predators. Mayflies have fanlike gills on their abdomen to take in oxygen from the water. Predaceous Diving Beetles have their own scuba gear so to speak; they carry an air bubble at the base of their abdomen as they swim through the water. Caddisfly larvae make their mobile homes from debris they find in the pool and their silk. They have a little hook on the end of their abdomen so they really do hitch up to their home and crawl along the bottom of the pool. They keeps their soft bodies protected and camouflaged.
Exploring a Vernal Pool
You and your youngster can gently explore these nurseries using a simple dip net and a holding pan. Fill the pan with water from the pool being careful to obtain the clearest water so that your temporary holding container is not muddy. Now gently slide your net through the pool and along the edges to catch a critter. Gently put it in the pan using a plastic spoon. If you have a magnifying lens and an identification guide book so much the better. Watch how the creature moves. It is recommended not to place predators and prey species in the same holding container at the same time else you will be setting the stage for the prey to be on the losing side of the chase. Please also do NOT collect eggs as this action may destroy the embryos.
When you are through studying these amazing creatures please return them to their home in the pool. To emphasize to your young naturalist the importance of respecting wildlife you can end with a simple “repeat-after-me” releasing ceremony such as this one that I (Arianna) learned from Kim Noyes at Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center many years ago.
“Run away, crawl away, swim away, hop! You are free to go. I am not going to stop you from living your life. You deserve to be free; but thank you for spending this time with me.”
Suggested Field Guide: A Guide to the Animals of Vernal Pools by Leo Kenny & Matthew Burne.
Amphibians, including frogs, toads and salamanders, breathe through their skin. Their skin is very sensitive to many things (salt, chemical toxins, soap, bug repellant, chlorine in our drinking water, sunscreen, etc.) When handling our wild friends, please remember to create a micro-habitat between you and them. Create this layer by putting your hands in their water source (vernal pool, pond, bog, stream, etc.) if they are aquatic or by using soil and leaves if they are terrestrial. When holding an amphibian make sure you keep them low to the ground and be mindful that the temperature of your hands can raise theirs, and this can create stress for them. Always return them where you found them. Or, if you are helping them cross a road, always remember their direction of travel and place them on the proper side of the road according to their direction of travel.
The winter is such a fun time—sledding, skiing, building snow forts and taking wanders in the woods.
The winter wilderness holds so much mystery. From that first moment that each unique snowflake drifts down from the sky, there is a certain awakening that happens…an inspiration that we have as we are curious of what’s happening outside of our walls. There is a pull—as one of my mentors, Joseph Campbell, would say: “A call to Adventure!” As we venture out of our comfort and embark on that calling, we leave the house—whether it is to go for a walk or even more daring, heading for the trails in wild nature.
As a family moving through the land, we hear the snow crunching under our feet and we see our own tracks, and we cannot help but think of the wild animals leaving clues of where they have been traveling, hunting, playing and sleeping and ultimately, surviving. So, as we continue on our way, we notice that first break in the pure white glistening expanse of snow and excitedly approach our first set of animal tracks.
As we get closer and see the trail left behind, we wonder what it is. There is a primal spark growing in us, and this connects us to our ancestors who lived close to the earth. This is like being a detective and we have our first clue.
When the children of the indigenous cultures in the far north (like the Sami people who live their lives by the Caribou and take care of the herd) see a set of tracks, the Elders would not tell them what they saw. They would mentor them by helping to foster a relationship with the animals by asking questions and getting them in their senses. “What do you see?” the Elder might ask. The child might say, “Animal tracks.” The Elder would then kneel down and look closer and say, “Hmm.” The child would then copy and also kneel down. Then the Elder would say, “How many toes do you see?” The child might answer, “Four.” The Elder continues, “Are there any claws visible in these tracks?” Child would then reply, “Oh yeah, right there!” (pointing) Elder, “Can you point which direction it is heading?” Child points and says “That way!” Elder, “What direction is that?” Child, “North…?” (questioning)
This is an example of a similar dialogue I often have with my students. This is so they put the “quest” back into “question” and build upon the knowledge they have, not only as trackers but in their lives.
Let’s look closer at this. The Elder does not GIVE answers; they are earned. There is a place for children to have their own unique self expression and for them to think outside of themselves, which creates deeper knowledge. The Elder then may explain the depth of what they saw. “This wolf is traveling alone early this morning, and you see here, where the tracks are slightly melted out, it stood here to gather information, and then headed north in a faster gait of a trot. There is a herd of Caribou that was crossing the open plains up there about a quarter of a mile north.”
The Elder knows the land intimately; his/her survival depends on it in the home of the wilderness. He is bestowing the wisdom to this child so that he, when he grows up, can contribute to the health and well-being of the land, the herd and his family. This also creates self confidence and understanding of how life is around him and their deep nature connection.
So, as we go back to our wilderness adventure, we want to ask important questions to create an “experience.” Experiential education is one of the highest forms of engagement…of learning—not rote memorization of what we think someone might want to hear, but actually reaching down and picking up the snow, looking at the tracks and allowing our imagination to dance with our physical reality.
The best way to do this is to build your own skills to start learning together and be able to take someone from the edge of his/her knowledge further. This is the ultimate goal of a mentor through self empowerment and self awareness; we ALL grow in our experiences and what we can contribute in our lives.
The first thing you want to keep in mind is that you want to create a safe learning environment for your child or students to interact with their surroundings. It is important that children have ample opportunities to be stimulated by direct experience. This is a special place that you visit over and over for continuity, so you develop a relationship with that place.
Examples include sitting near your backyard birdfeeder, a place on a hill with a good lookout so you can see animals moving if you’re still and quiet, bury them in leaf piles, stick forts and sculptures to allow the imagination to express itself, a stream to explore. Maybe bring to a beaver pond to see nature’s engineers. Immerse your children in Nature. Spend a few hours (or all day!) outside on a hike, in playful exploration.
Explore the 5 Senses
Once you’re out there in the fields and woods, allow yourself and your children to take in all the sights and sounds and smells. Pause. Take a deep slow breath. What do you smell on the wind? What does the wind feel like on your face? What do you hear? What do you see?
Surrounded by the birds and insects or the trees or the leaves or the snow or whatever the elements of Nature provide, there is sure to be a bounty of ways that children can reach out and engage with the great outdoors.
Ask your children to share what they are seeing. What does the landscape look like? Do they know whether they are near a wetland? How do they know? Can they feel they are going uphill? Would they like to roll down it?
It is really important to have them to full engage their senses as they explore. Touch, smell, look, listen, taste. All those different senses are the doorway to connection.
The Gift of the Present
Be in the present moment, allowing them and yourself to be completely in the “here and now.” Let those pesky thoughts of “what are we doing for dinner?” or “I need to make time for homework” or “when are they having a play date with so-and-so?” – whatever the brain clutter is—pass. By creating a space to experience Nature in the present moment; you are gifting yourself and your children. You are opening up a moment to just be a “human being” rather than “human doing.” This is incredibly healing as well as healthy to teach our children how to be in the world.
A mentor does not need to have all the answers. In fact, you actually don’t even need to have any of the answers. Some of most powerful experiences people have are stimulated by questions. For example, when they hear a bird, stop, listen, look. Ask, “Do you hear that sound? Where is it coming from?” Pause. Allow your child the time to listen and look around. Then add, “Can you point to that sound?” This engages your child in an adventure, in a quest of being able to find that sound. “Can you copy the sound?” Take turns attempting to mimic the sound; this opens up a space for deep listening. The same thing that can be done for animal tracks. “What is that? Is it bigger or smaller than your hand? Where did it come from?” Get down on the ground close to the tracks. “Can you tell which way the tracks are going? Can you see how many digits are in the track?” This also opens the door for using resources. Take a picture. When you get back, you can look through resources to find out who made those tracks.
Your Intention, Their Passion
Discover what your children are jazzed about. What excites them? Listen to their stories and listen for clues so that you can better facilitate experiences to further their learning in their areas of interest.
Consider, what is your intention? What do you hope for them to get out of this experience when you take them into the woods? Begin with the end in mind. Your goal as a mentor is for your children to find their own place of discovery. Create that for them. Help them feel connected. Help them to understand that they are connected to something that is beyond words and beyond them. Provide an outlet for them to feel a sense of peacefulness in nature and sense of belonging.
As you discover your children’s passions, it is time to look down the road at what other experiences you can put in front of them to engage in. Each activity helps them to work the edge of their knowledge to bring them deeper into engagement.
Work Your Edge
Create your own learning environment to continue your studies in your areas of interest. Explore the woods on your own. Have access to a library of resources. Have something to share. For example, the other day, I was walking within six feet of a moose. I was so silent; the moose walked right up to me and didn’t even know I was there. Now I can ask the kids, “Can you tell how far six feet is? Do you know how big a moose is? Do you know where you might find a moose?”
Remember, it is your own inspiring stories that inspire your children to share theirs. Now listen.
Until next time, enjoy your journey into the outdoors
On November 11, 2013, Frank Grindrod made his first primetime appearance! Here’s the segment from Chronicle, Main Streets episode (you can scroll in about 2:49 minutes to see Frank’s portion about wild edibles; or you can watch the whole segment to see some of our community).
Let’s look at early humans and how they and their tools changed over time.
We need to see through the eyes of archeologists and anthropologists to learn the specific skills and tools for dating artifacts and linking them to specific time periods.
This means we need to use our tracking skills! Lets get started…
Imagine you are taking a journey back in time to 2.5 million years ago. There was fuzzy creature hunched over with a large extended jaw and human-like form with long arms and a long trunk breaking rocks. This animal is our ancestor hominid (human-like creature). They were a primate that could walk upright but still had trunk and arm adaptations for climbing trees. They also slept in trees for protection from predators. Our distant ancestor stood only about three feet tall.
How do we know this? Clues left behind that have been preserved. Archeology is the scientific study of historic or prehistoric peoples and their cultures by analysis of their artifacts. By studying their bones and tools we come up with ideas about them and their culture; it is like putting together a puzzle.
The bones become stone over time by a process called fossilization. These fossils can last for millions of years. Wow! Archeologists have also found pieces of various stones that have been chipped in a predictable manner with significant controlled force for a similar result. Tools!
Enter the Age of the Tool Maker
Look at the picture of the projectile points pottery and resin on an animal skin that was tanned for use of clothing, bags, etc.
These artifacts – the three on the left with 2 that are broken and all lightly colored are great tracks left behind that I share during our classes where we make stone tools and teach about ancient civilizations. Its one thing to read about it, but to actually MAKE it gives a deep respect for the artist and craftsmen these people were.
Making Stone Tools with Resin
From an atl atl, a tool designed to throw spear shafts, the point can be seen on the far left with the upside down v that looks yellowish, is from the archaic period. According to my good friend Charlie Paquin, an Experiential Archeologist, which is someone who does not just study things they find but they also replicate it by making it themselves, this artifact also has a worn point which could be from hitting something hard like bone or a rock when launched from the atl atl, or it could have been used as a drill.
Here is a List of Exciting Finds We Continue to Discover
Africa’s Olduvai site: discovered hominid bone remains dated at 2 million years old.
Shanidar Cave in the Zagaros Mts of Iraq found eight prehistoric people over a 100,000 years old.
Oldest fire remains, evidenced by a ring of rocks, big ash deposits and stone tools, indicate habitation. This 790,000 years old site was discovered along the Jordan River in Israel.
in Beaches Pit in England, Archeologists found fragments of stone around fires dating back 400,000 years ago. These were flakes hit in a precise way with pressure that would break stone in a predictable way to create an edged tool.
Clay-fired vessels from 18,000 years ago were found in China. One of the first containers was a steatite-type soap stone that could be shaped with stone and set directly on the coals of fire.
There is so much to learn from our past that can help us understand our future.
Enjoy the outdoors.
What a mystery the stars are for us. We, along with ancient people, have always been fascinated with the stars. They are far more than just balls of gas, though they are that too.
However, as a lover of the outdoors—enjoying a campfire, a night paddle or just sleeping out under the stars—there is a rich adventure awaiting us and our families.
Especially for children, it’s important to have a relationship with the night and having friends up in the sky that are familiar and always with us. By creating routines of awareness of these prominent features in the night sky, we become more at home and enjoy the night, which could be a scary thing; however, having the night come alive with stories and maps that are right there for us, we tend to search out the stars.
Putting the SEARCH back in research and having an irresistible pull as the twilight emerges and then the dusk sets in, our adventure begins!
So Where Do We Start?
We start at the beginning; well, we start during the period of the sun setting and twilight turning to dusk. Dusk is the time of the darkest part of twilight before it gets really, really dark. In the morning, before sunrise, there is a dusk too; however, this is where dusk is before it gets light and before the sun rises.
So after the sun sets, and it begins to get dark, the brightest stars are visible and easily seen. This allows us to focus only on the major features of constellations or groups of stars. This is where we learn how to read the night sky—when it is not so dark that all the other stars are showing and can make it difficult to see only the ones we want to study and become familiar with.
What Do We Do before We Look up?
The sky has been studied for so long and by so many cultures. The most impressive primitive navigators I have heard of are the Polynesian pathfinders; these early explorers traversed thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean in small vessels and were masters of navigation through nature study, bird migration routes and knowing the distance different kinds of birds could fly and how far away from land they could go, wind patterns and especially, the night sky.
Of the sky and in many native stories, there are maps that are woven together within the story that will help find shelter, water and good places to hunt, fish and gather, and also to have a vision quest a form of rite of passage.
There are countless stories you can learn about, and if you listen for the descriptions in them, you can find the hidden maps and special meanings in them.
Do I Need any Special Equipment or Resources?
Many people use telescopes or binoculars; however, becoming a star navigator, you do not need any special devices. This allows you to utilize this special skill when you are lost as well.
One of the most important things you want is a mentor or teacher…someone to guide you on learning to SEE with the naked eye. If you can take classes or become part of clubs that study astronomy, this could be helpful and I highly recommend it. The Northfield Mountain winter sky class by Kim Noyes (a friend of mine) is very well done, entertaining and informative. There are also planetariums and special events like Earth Hour at the Trustees’ Bullitt Reservation where they had people from Arunah Hill Nature Center bring telescopes and had two very knowledgeable experts teaching. This was another great class.
What Do I Really Need?
There are many books and guides out there, and one at the top of my list for beginners is H.A. Rey’s The Stars: A New Way to See Them. You may be familiar with the author because he wrote Curious George, which you may have read as a child. As an artist, he has created images with the stars that make up the constellations as characters to easily remember and make it FUN!
It is one thing to look at all the images in the books, but it takes on a whole new way of learning when you make them on paper and connect the dots. Then it is also a way of connecting to your cellular memory. So take some time and sketch out a few. I suggest starting with the Big 3: Big Dipper, North Star and Cassiopeia.
The Secret Way of Remembering Is Using the Mind’s Eye
Once you draw the picture from looking at the book, close the book and re-picture in your mind from memory, then draw it as you remember on a blank sheet, then re-study the picture of what you missed and fill it in. The next time you draw it, you will remember those certain parts you missed. Open your eyes again and add the pieces you missed then close eyes again and re-picture until it is clear. Viola! This is mind’s eye learning and can be applied to anything.
OK, Now We Are Ready to Venture Outside with Our New Skill and Find NORTH
It is time to get outside and assess our skills. Now find that GIANT group of stars known as “the Big Dipper;” at the end of the Dipper, find the last two stars creating the ladle effect (see photo). These are known as “the pointer stars” and are your guide to finding the North Star. If you look across you will find Cassiopeia.
Now you are following in the footsteps of the old explorers and our ancestors. You are now on the path to becoming a Star Navigator! Good Luck!
Many thanks to the countless friends who have shared their passion with me, and especially my friend and inspiration, Gail Parsloe, who has come to our programs and shared a FUN way to learn this. Thanks Gail!
How do we get to know our place? By exploring it! Do you remember as a kid creating a treasure map? You and some friends may have had a can of special objects that you decided to hide together. The question, after deciding where to hide it, was how to find it again. You had to create a map. What did you put on your map to give you clues on how to find your treasure? You may have drawn it out and labeled, “41 paces to big rock with eye.” “Bear right at the messy grey squirrel nest in old sugar maple tree.” “Turn left at big oak tree with the large woodpecker holes” “25 feet to muddy stream with raccoon tracks.” You may have created a key with symbols you made up to equal what something was. A wavy line was a stream. A pile of dots was a large sand mound. A connected line of circles was stone wall.
Mapping your yard or a special place with you child(ren) is a delightful activity that, in addition to providing time to explore together, also teaches valuable skills learning directions, map reading, counting, line of sight, and gaining a deeper understanding of place.
Winnie-the-Pooh says it best when learning your right from you left; quite an important skill in knowing which way to turn: “When looking at your two paws, as soon as you have decided when of them is the right one, then you can be sure the other one is the left.”
“In what direction does the sun come up?” Can your child point and show you the direction of east? “Where is north?” If they are still pointing straight up then it is time to teach your child direction. When I used to teach map and compass, one of the phrases I learned as an instructor was, “Never eat soggy Wheaties.” Not one for cereal, it wasn’t my favorite but the kids seemed to think it was funny.
Once you child understands direction, it is time to look a map. In fact look at several different types together. Depending on the scale you can find all sorts of variety in the types of information the map is providing. You can look at an aerial view of you property, a town map, a road map, a geographical map. In examining the various maps, look at what types of information each map provides. Some questions to think about are: What direction is north on this map? Can you point to where are you on this map? Does this map provide a key? Does is it give you an indication where people live? Where wildlife live? What do you notice most on this map?
A family that maps together…
Together, go out into the woods and hide an object of value to each of you. Then decide how you will find it again. Be sure to bring paper and crayons or colored pencils. Sit together and draw the area you are in. You can decide together what a variety of symbols in your key will mean. Five green triangles is a white pine stand. A blue circle is the pond and the blue circle with green sticking out of it is the marsh. Allow you and your child’s creativity to really come out. Next work together to how you are going to get back to the spot. Take notes as you back track and the retrace your steps. Ask your child if she wants to count in feet or paces. A foot is one step. Agree whose step – yours or hers? A pace is two steps. Plot out the trail and decide what natural features will help you remember how to get back to your treasure. Make sure your child can get back to the treasure. Then leave it out there, being sure it is protected and hidden and then wait a few weeks and then, creating a special time, go back and see if you can find it again with the map you both created.
Do you know the song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd”? Before the Civil War, this was a song-map to help slaves find their way to freedom. If your child is more interested in writing then drawing, mapping out the treasure hunt through a song or story is also a fun way to learn about your surroundings. Together decide on what natural features are prominent and then create a story or song to map out the trail to your treasure. I remember one year while working camp, my co-worker and I created a song-line scavenger hunt, “Follow the Rocky Road” to the tune of “Follow the Drinking Gourd” that led to a special place. Each camper was responsible in remembering a line of the song that provided a hand rail to the next land feature. We told them the order that they needed to sing the lines in and everyone had to be on lookout while the one camper sang the line and repeated it until we found that particular natural feature. It was great fun and the girls were enthralled to discover a kiva as the surprise. We all clambered down into it and sat and sang the song all the way through in the dark.
As your child increases mapping skills
Map reading can provide a sense of empowerment. Next time you are on a family trip, tell your child the destination and ask him to follow the lines on the map to figure how to get there. Let you child know, “As the navigator, you are in charge of plotting out the best possible course to our destination.” See what your child comes up with. Be sure he is looking at the correct lines, else you may be paddling your way along a blue ribbon.
By allowing your child to participate in getting to a destination, you are engaging their mind. Your child is actively looking for markers that help in knowing where and when to turn. They are developing their awareness skills. By practicing mapping skills they develop confidence and competence in trusting themselves. They also learn how to feel safe and comfortable in a variety of habitats, whether traversing a foot trail or bicycling to the ice cream stand or a taking trip to Grandma’s house.
So have fun! Be creative! And see in the outdoors!
There’s a real power in naming places in Nature. This transforms your yard, back woods, special hiking or camping area into a magical land of possibilities!
It’s one thing to be in the woods by that tree over there, but it is quite another to share a story about a place you have had a rich experience in where you saw raccoon tracks. It creates a hook of wanting to know more about the raccoon’s habits and life, and discover if there are more of them and if they had kits this year. The power of imagination and our deep connection to place can really awaken. This can be a way to bring magic, mystery and excitement back into our daily routine.
We live in a world full of changes and notice the technological advances that are happening–the power of TV pulling us all in where we can just sit there for a few minutes which turns into hours. I have noticed there seems to be this need to be constantly “plugged in.” This is embedded in our culture now. It is difficult to go through the day without being plugging in or seeing someone else having “screen time.”
It is believed that our environment shapes us; that what we are surrounded by consistently and our mind focuses on and our senses take in becomes our reality. So what do we do about this culture of which we are a part? Make it a habit to get into the outdoors and plug into Nature!
Nature has its own “screen time.” When you go out in nature, there’s a potential of experiencing a theatrical play. The story of the sharp-shinned hawk who visits your feeder daily may be seen as the dark force; however, the hawk is there waiting for a song bird to drop her awareness so that he can feed his young. The next day, there are cardinal feathers found right near where you see that bird retreat to when you walked outside your door. You may ponder, “What happened?” Now a story is born; one that reminds us of the delicate balance of life and death. Maybe it is as simple as what you learned from the cardinal at your house. In that initial story, we may feel the pull to go out and watch the birds at the feeder, noticing things completely differently.
Insert Nature Mentor
Then Dad or Mom starts asking questions -
Dad: “Did you see those feathers? What color were they?”
Daughter: “Red, bright red.”
Dad: “What birds are red around here?”
Daughter: “Uh, yah, a cardinal, maybe?”
At this point your children are on a journey OUTSIDE even though they are in the house talking with you. This is the power of mentoring! They are going back in their “mind’s eye” and trying to picture the event. This is a very common practice of how native cultures mentor their children. They create associations and a compelling desire of wanting to go back and look. The human nature of wanting to figure out a mystery is deeply embedded in our psyche. We just have to piece it together, take it apart, have it make sense, have a connection to it. To strengthen the connection, together come up with names of these special places in your yard: “Hawk’s Spot,” “Dinner Plate,” “Raccoon Trail.” As a mentor, you can encourage your child to map the yard with all the adventures and mysteries you both find there.
The next step is going out together and letting your child find the area and become a detective while you serve as observer and questioner. This allows you to put the “quest” back in question. This allows your child to feel like it is his/her discovery. There are so many other layers you can integrate too.
In just this story, can you see the power of influence to create nature connection and fostering an understanding of place? This in itself is transformative. Try it; see what happens, and share with us your results and learnings.
Another Story and the Effect of Seeds Planted over Time
Often people ask me, “How do you help kids connect to nature?” I usually tell them it is about establishing core routines; a special place and time in nature over and over where it builds on itself.
Over five years ago, during a class, we were off in the woods, exploring while on our way to the camp where the students loved to spend their time. We stopped to take off our shoes, going barefoot to feel the earth under our feet. I shared a little story and described a natural way of quiet-moving called “fox walking.” Everyone slowly rose to their feet and started to practice this way of movement and awareness.
There were background sounds of trees rustling and birds singing and the soft sound of leaves under our feet. The sound of a call was off in the distance to our north then it stopped. No one really noticed but then a few minutes later it screamed above us in a high-pitched voice. We were all shocked, but in a good way. We looked up and saw a giant silhouette of a bird; a huge wingspan just above the tree line. It cast a big shadow then circled to the south. The call repeated. Everything seemed to stand perfectly still in that moment; as I looked around, I saw the children mesmerized by this majestic brown bird with white head and tail—a Bald Eagle was visiting us. As the one eagle flew with such grace, we all noticed we were sharing a special moment, for some had never seen an eagle before and this marked that special day. Others never saw one this close. The look on their faces was awe and inspiration. Then I noticed there was another eagle flying over to the first, then another, and another, until there were six eagles in all circling this small group of barefoot children of the earth. Everyone was even more amazed at this miracle.
Photograph by Tom Ricardi
This place was then named by all of us present that day. It is now “the place of the soaring eagles.” Now whenever we return to this land, the children often say, “Let’s have snack at the place of the soaring eagles.” When a new student joins our community class, the kids share this story which not only introduces and includes the new child into the story and our community, but also deepens the connection of place for the storyteller. The kids also bring their parents to this spot and share the story with them, which helps foster and deepen the parent-child relationship.
One last thought: I have been practicing this core routine with many children over the years, my own daughter included. One of my magic moments, just recently, was driving down Route 116 with my now teen-age daughter and her saying “Bear Pass,” which reminded us both of seeing a bear crossing at that place and watching it together many years ago. It made me quite the proud Papa to know that what we shared years ago is still retained in her memory. This is the lasting impression of mentoring and the power of naming.
Hope you enjoyed our stories and now understand the power of naming places in nature. Until next time, enjoy your journey into the outdoors.
There are all kinds of fall events. In addition to going for a hike and seeing the foliage, how about harvesting some nuts to prepare and eat?
There’s an amazing tree in the forest right here around us that will help us develop a stronger connection to the natural world. This is such an important part of our patterning on nature that plants seeds for the rest of our development and our ch
This tree is strong, majestic, camouflaged and blends in well with the other trees and not well known by sight, but totally worth the effort in recognizing how to find it…once you can find it. Next you have to figure out which one tastes the best because there are different kinds of hickory trees.ildren and how we will interact for years to come.
It’s not often that you hear people talk about hickories—they are not well known—so let’s go over some identification details that will be helpful in being able to develop the secret to finding this tree and some wild edible foraging skills too.
As we get started, direct your focus on looking at the different habitats in your area and aspects of the trees, bark, leaves (on the ground which may be easier to reach) and up in the tree, note branching structure and nuts and outer coating (husk). Find an area that has a lot of oaks, because we are looking for an oak-hickory forest type. Trees need to be older than 40 years for producing nuts; the younger trees will not.
Michael Wojtech has a fantastic book, Bark: a Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast. I highly recommend it, and this will help give you some really great images and great detail on what to look for. We are fortunate that he has shared an image with us here in the article. I am feeling very grateful for all his research and his graciousness in sharing the knowledge.Most the time when you find hickory nuts they will be right under your feet. They are likely to be in an area that has a lot of squirrel activity; also blue jays are active in eating and caching (storing) them too. There are many kinds of wildlife feeding on this bounty: deer, bears, turkey, raccoons. You may find tracks and signs of their feeding, climbing and presence. You might even find the nuts on the pavement of the roads, parking lots, and other parks, golf courses and recreation areas. (Be mindful of the use of pesticid
Start to create maps of the area of your favorite spots and begin to look forward to visiting those special places around harvesting times every year. As a forager, this is a good thing to pay attention to and develop the habit of. Create special names and stories about these places, and soon you will want to return often, whether you are harvesting or not.es where you are harvesting food.)After gathering for a little bit, you might want to add a little excitement, if necessary.GAME: Nutty Squirrels–In this activity, you are a family of squirrels. By noticing the types of trees, are you able to find from where the hickories are coming (which is the parent tree?)? This is a great way to utilizefield guides and general observation skills. How many nuts can we gather as a group in a certain time limit? Ready set go!
You can always weave in predator-prey dynamics; lots of animals and birds eat squirrels!
Back to figuring out which nuts we have. Once you have the nuts in your hand, you can find out whether or not they are hard hickory nuts or soft? Why is this important? This will help in identification and to help you be successful in picking the best tasting ones and which to gather.
Look closely at the features of the nut. Is the husk thick or thin? When I say “thick,” I mean like a quarter- to half-inch thick. “Thin” is similar to an acorn shell, sometimes thinner.
Next, you need to shell and crack your nut. If it cracks really easily, you have what’s called a “soft hickory.” If it cracks really hard and the shells are like rocks, you have a hard hickory. There are two different groups of hickories: hard and soft.
Since there are no poisonous hickories, you can experiment and may be lucky enough to find Pignut Hickory, which is a thin-husked hickory with a hard shell similar to Shagbark but a little bigger in size and more nutmeat inside. This is the PRIZE one that can double your harvesting efforts.This is really helpful because the hard hickories with the hard shell have the sweet nutmeat inside. The soft hickories have the bitter nutmeat; at least it needs to be leached (take out tannins) and can still be edible. We are going to focus on the ones that do not need the extra step of leaching. These are the Shagbark and Pignut Hickories
I have found that Shagbark and Pignut together are excellent. There is some information out there that says Pignut is bitter, but I think they’re confusing that with Bitternut. It can be a little confusing, so let’s focus on the hard and sweet hickories this time.
You can crack nuts i
ndividually, similar to the walnuts you get in the store, using a pick and getting the nutmeat out (which really makes the effort worth it when you taste the goodness). It can take about 20 minutes, and you can have a generous handful.
There is a learning curve of breaking the nuts to access them. You will find that some of them are hard to hold and hit just right, (watch those fingers) break the nut and try to open it; you have to be careful how much force you use because too much force just smashes it then you have the shell mixed in with the nutmeat and it can be challenging to get that out.
Learning traditions from our past and developing seasonal harvesting routines for free food creates an enriching future
A Recipe from our Past Called “Powcohicora” (Algonquin Language)
Historically, the native people used hickory. The way they did it was to pulverize the nuts, crushing the shell and nutmeat together, and place all of it in a container and boil it with a watchful eye. The shells sink and everything else rises to the top and they skim the heavy liquid off the top, which is called “decanting.”
Important: They got a special cream off the top which is hickory nut cream, and the rest of it underneath the cream is hickory nut milk (sweeten to taste, but not necessary).
This is not only sweet but it also can be very good as a soup broth or for a stew; it’s full of oils and healthy fats (very high in calories as an easy to digest oil including the high-quality essential fatty acids shown to prevent heart disease), and it’s a good source of vitamin B1 and magnesium. They also provide protein, carbohydrates, iron, phosphorus, potassium, trace minerals, and vitamins A and C
I hope this has inspired you to get out into the fields and forest, and in a sacred way, harvest from these great beings. I also would love to hear about your experiences learning about wild food. May we meet each other underneath a beautiful hickory tree…