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sharing our trip to Alaska and Learning about Animal tracking

Frank Grindrod of http://www.earthworkprograms.com/
invites you to go for a guided walk of the mysteries of animal tracking in Alaska.
Learn to see through the eyes of a tracker.

what questions do you ask yourself when out in the forest?

when tracking look for patterns in the natural world.

what are the animals doing throughout the seasons.

There are so many mysteries in outdoor education and so many models.

How did you do on this little tracking quiz?

Filming by my lovely wife Arianna in our trip to Alaska in the Kenai wildlife Refuge.
Hope you enjoy our video’s and share with your friends and family.
we have a  request : Rate our videos and comment so more people can see them (pass them on)

Thanks for your support.

An Introduction to Tracking: Seeing through the Eyes of the Forest

Welcome Winter!

There are always amazing things happening in the outdoors, and all of them leave stories. This is an amazing way to learn: it puts the QUEST back into question and the SEARCH back into research. It also helps to engage all the senses: touching the tracks, listening to the birds, and letting the listeners know if the animal is still around them.

“Let’s follow an animal. We see some footprints in snow.” We all gather around, making sure not to step on the tracks; this is harder than it sounds with the excitement of everyone. Then we get close and reach out with our eyes like we are mountain climbing and we have shrunk ourselves down to climb in the track. We see that it looks pretty deep.

We start to measure and discover it is about an inch. Then Chris says, “I think it is a wolf!” We ask why? “I picture a wolf walking. We are reading a story about a wolf at home, and I would love to see one…” This is a gift; their imaginations are brimming, the tracks are coming alive, and the excitement builds!

Who’s got their journal? “Oh I do; it’s right here,” say several of the kids. They whip out their backpacks and start to make a sketch right there on the spot. Now the one measuring is working with the ones who are sketching.

There have been no answers given yet. We are in the brainstorming stage of tracking where everybody is sharing their direct observations, thoughts and feelings. There is a real magic at this point; an energy that flows throughout the group.

I ask some questions: “How many toes are there? Any claw marks?” There is a silence while everyone begins to get closer to the tracks. “I think this is a toe and this is another.” We all agree there are two huge toes that are about 3.5 inches long, and the width is 2.5 inches. I ask, “What shape is the overall track? A circle? Square? What do you see?” One of the girls says, “I see a heart.” “Me too!” agrees Maya. “Oh yeah, it is a heart,” confirms another.

I fuel their passion by reflecting back to them–“You are becoming great trackers.” “Now does anyone see the line right down the middle of it?” Someone exclaims “I see it! It is down by the bottom of the heart of the track.” I suggest an idea: “Why doesn’t everybody point which direction the animal is moving…on 3; ready…1…2…3!” Most of the students point where the mystery animal is headed. “Awesome! Way to trust your intuition!” I praise.

“Let’s look deeper. Did anyone bring any tracking guides?” A couple kids bring them out as I do. We all huddle around the guides looking for the tracks. It is now a matching game. “Are these fox tracks?” “No,” the group answers together. “These are way too big.” I ask one of them to make a track right next to our mystery track. He starts, and everybody watches. “Try to make it as deep as that one and feel how much weight–a lot or a little–it takes.” “Whoa! I am putting all my weight down, and it is just barely the same.” I ask, “Is this a light or heavy animal?” A resounding “heavy!!” is the reply.

Sometimes it is more important to have more questions than answers, like assigning a name. A lot of times I have noticed when I just share an answer of what I know, then the curiosity and mystery ends, and sometimes the experience as well as the discovery part of the need to know stops. I hope you can watch for it next time you are sharing or teaching.

Back to woods!

The kids start to guess certain animals and are showing and asking each other “do you think this is it? what about that?” This is a great example of how peers teach peers; they are mentoring each other!

Maya Tracking winter

We researched coyote, fox, otter and deer. There is a reason that I have them go through their guides; this is called coyote teaching–deepening the experience for them so they know what they know and they are learning how to learn when we, as a parent or teacher, are not there.

About the field guides: these guides are respected and revered as modern day elders with extreme knowledge and life experience. They have thousands of field hours in them. Lots of times there are also personal stories in them along with facts of behavior and measurements, etc.

Read More

Gifts of Winter

Gifts of Winter

By Frank Grindrod

Winter is here, and there is so much to celebrate and so much to learn! The word “winter” conjures up many thoughts, feelings and powerful images. Some people think of winter as cold and dark–a good time to get close to the wood stove or crank up the thermostat; while others see the first snowflakes and think, “I am going to the mountains to ski, snowboard and snowshoe.” You may hear an excited shout “no school!” and “I am going out to build a snowman or snow fort!”  Of course, there is always, “I’m going sledding!”

Animals in Winter

As a tracker, there is a long-awaited unveiling to seeing the many trails of animals and bird species. A blank canvas is placed on the earth, the snow is a medium, and the animals are the artists creating a masterpiece about the story of their lives.

When going for a walk in winter, it is like attending an amazing theatrical performance. There is action, drama, adventure, suspense, mystery and love.

As we witness these works of art, like tracks criss-crossing across a field or the wing prints of an owl swooping down in silent flight for a vole (small mouse-like creature), we get a glimpse of the playful courtship chases and successful hunts. We can also observe the hardships that face our wild neighbors, such as the deer being heavy enough that their hooves break through the ice whereas the coyotes are light enough to travel on top of the ice-crusted snow. Many animals, who are well camouflaged in other seasons, stand out in winter–their black, red, dark brown fur contrasting the white landscape. But there are masters of camouflage in all seasons; the ones that seem invisible. These critters are the ones that molt and actually change color. They turn white! Who am I talking about? Any guesses? I will give you a hint. One is in the weasel family, and the other is a lagomorph? A what? A lagomorph is a fancy way of saying rabbit or hare; it’s Latin. You were right if you guessed snowshoe hare, Ermine (short-tailed weasel), and long tail weasel.

Winter Living and Ice Safety

There have been several weeks this winter where the temperatures have dropped below freezing; an Arctic blast moving through the region. When cold temperatures are sustained, bodies of water freeze. This creates a new environment for both humans and wildlife to adapt to. Travel is made easier, though precarious, on ice-covered lakes. Games are created, and the ice becomes a playground for ice-hockey and ice-skating. People still need to eat, and fish is still readily available, as long as you can create a hole in the ice for ice-fishing. Be safe–the ice can be unpredictable if you don’t know how to read it. So safety first: check out our blog for research and videos (the best I have seen). (These videos may not be suitable for very young children…parents may want to view videos first.)

The Sami people of the Arctic follow the reindeer herds. They are nomadic hunter gatherers, continuing the ancient ways, heating their homes with fire. First there was the campfire, but a campfire is far too inefficient when temperatures range between 40° to 50° below zero. In these conditions you would go through a lot of wood! So these traditional people adopted a small portable wood stove that transformed their winter lifestyle. Today, the Sami still live traditionally, working, playing, creating amazing crafts of beauty, making their own clothes and shoes, harvesting their food, and raising their families; traveling across the snows with their portable fires. The Sami are many miles from any kind of town, so when a journalist who was studying their way of life asked the elders “what happens when someone gets sick?”, there was a long pause before someone stated “we don’t get sick.”

Night Sky Navigation

In the Northeast alone there are so many celebrations of winter, especially the Winter Solstice. This is a very powerful event because this is the longest night (or shortest day) of the year. The next day, the light returns and the days begin to grow longer again. Winter is a great time to learn about the night sky. As winter begins you may look to the sky for some constellations you know such as the Big Dipper (Canis Major). However, upon gazing skyward, you realize you cannot find it so easily. This is because the Big Dipper or the Great Bear, as it is otherwise known, is not as prominent in the winter sky early in the evening. Looking for the North Star to help guide your way? Are you thinking it is the biggest and brightest? The North Star, otherwise known as Polaris, is not big or bright. This is a common myth. Some people have gotten lost, because in the far reaches of their mind, they remember something about star navigation, so they follow the brightest star, which is actually Sirius. However, as all stars move across the heavens, except the North Star (which is stationary), following the brightest will not lead you north. In the winter night sky look to the constellation Orion, the Great Hunter; he is your guide this time of year.

So you are outside on this beautiful, clear night. As you gaze at the stars there is a part of you that would like to stay outside all night, breathing in the crisp air. Brrr! However, if you are not prepared for winter camping, it can be a challenge. Learning how to camp in the wintertime is very empowering and rewarding. Imagine you have all your layers on and just finished cooking by a warm fire. You enjoy sipping your hot tea or cacao outside, surrounded by forest. You look up and see the stars and the Milky Way. Wow! There are no ringing phones, no TV or computer screens, or even the humming of a furnace or refrigerator. The snow creates a blanket of silence. You watch the moon begin to rise and see millions of sparkles glistening, reflecting off the snow. It is all magical! Everywhere the moon’s luminescence touches the snow…it is glowing. A whole new sense of quiet and peace washes over you, and you are cleansed with a form of renewal that only being in nature can bring. We are all searching to slow down, rest and recharge. Experiences like these can be life changing; creating many years of memories and a strong connection with all things.

Embrace the gift of winter!

The Secret to Seeing Wildlife with Bird Language

The New Bird Watching

A Heartfelt Thanks to the Birds

As the birds fly overhead, flit from branch to branch or perch on our feeders, do we actually notice them?

Do we see the interactions between different birds, notice their reactions or lack thereof to our presence?  Do we know the difference between when they are happy and content in song or their startled into alarm?  Our ears may be aware of the sounds coming from the birds that fill the air, but sometimes in our natural rhythm of our own busyness and our being “human doings” rather than human beings, we might not appreciate this amazing gift of the rich language that is articulated around us all the time. Here is a friendly reminder of the neighbors with whom we share our homes and the possibility of deepening our relationship with them.

A historic cultural perspective

In many native cultures and hunter gather societies from around the world there are many stories (oral traditions) and practices that instilled many values and help connect people to the earth, their families and also to oneself. One of the teachings I learned from a Mohawk man named Jake Swamp, subchief of the wolf clan, is a custom called the Thanksgiving address. This is one version of this amazing custom which truly emulates the sacredness and appreciation of the birds.

“We bring our minds together and send our greetings and thanksgiving to the birds at the beginning of time the birds were given a very specific duty to perform in order to help lift the troubled minds from the human family and many times during the day our minds are often lifted by the sounds of the bird nations songs. With one mind we send out a thanksgiving to all the birds of the world”

Lessons from my Dad and storytelling

Looking back to when I was a child I began to learn about birds because my father told me my aunt used to have birds eat right out of her hand and I was inspired by this. So I began to try my own methods, and this is when the birds became my teachers of the lessons of patience, awareness and perseverance. When I wasn’t at the feeder, I also began to tune into the birds to their songs as well as their behavior and could tell what birds were around just by hearing them (this is called birding by ear).

I started to adopt this philosophy of Thanksgiving when I wake up in the morning to greet the day whether it is just a few minutes or preferably longer. Another one of my mentors, Jon Young from the Wilderness Awareness School, said that he learned in childhood from one of his Elders from Poland to “never disturb a singing Bird because it is in its thanksgiving“.  Since I learned that and something that is called “Bird language” I have a whole new appreciation for the birds, it has opened up so many doors of possibilities.  Now instead of only seeing the white tail of the deer as it bounds away  from me or wondering where all of the animals are, I’ve instead had some amazingly intimate experiences. Let me share one with you. I was fox walking and using wide-angle vision (techniques of movement and Awareness that we share in our programs), being conscious of the bird language and fully present in the moment and noticing everything was in its natural rhythm. I was able to walk up to a deer without creating any alarms from the birds or the deer. I froze in place statue still. The deer was walking slowly and started to investigate the other visitor, a porcupine that was also a few feet from me.  This transported me to the many times before I had been tracking these amazing beings. I had seen their tracks and now seeing them move in their natural rhythm right in front of me was a “gift”. I paused and gave thanks. I don’t tell you this to impress you, but to have you realize that this can be more of what you can experience yourself.  I learned that this is mostly from visiting one place over and over that is the key by adopting a place on the land. I was in plain sight in a pair of jeans and fleece top no special camouflage or anything. The porcupine almost walked right up to me.  Then the deer passed by me and started sniffing the porcupine.  I felt as if I was in the middle of a special show “Wild America”! As I look back at these “gifts” I cannot help but feel thankful.

Practice with your friend and family and have fun with it.

I am going to share with you the five voices of the birds which Jon has shared with me. If you are just starting out or have been birding for years the information on this subject can seem quite overwhelming, but I will do my best to give a simple introduction to five major types of bird language so that you can begin to unlock your understanding of what the birds can tell you.

So what is this thing — Bird language? Well, first know that there are no hard and fast rules and what I’m about to share are tendencies and not absolutes. Being aware of these tendencies may be fruitful and will get you on your way to learning this rich language…”

Of the five voices, four are baseline voices and one is the voice of “ALARM”. Baseline is the natural rhythm of the Forest which is the way the animals and the birds and all the creatures live. This reflects their life of survival. One of the most important ways of life is conservation of energy. This is not just a good idea, this is a necessity.

The song: this is the one we are most familiar with. Scientists say that this is how birds set up their territory. This may be true, but also think of this scene: the birds awake at first light and there is a dawn chorus as they sing  they turn to face the warmth of the sun greeting the day, maybe they are simply giving thanks for another day to be alive? Maybe we could greet each day with a song of thanks and praise? This could be a powerful lesson from the birds.

Think of the song as baseline behavior/no alarm. You will notice when the ground birds such as the robin and the song sparrow are singing and when the tree top birds (the warblers) are singing.

You will notice when the cat moves through the yard and alarms the robin and the song sparrow, interrupting their song, but the grosbeak (in the tree top) is still singing. The ground birds are the ones most interested in the potential danger, the grosbeak comfortably out of immediate reach.

The companion call: The best way to explain this is to think of a pair of male and female cardinals. They’re communicating back-and-forth not with a song but a “chip”. This is a short sound, very high pitched and some people may call this a call note. This call will go back-and forth “male chip, female chip, male chip, female chip”. The call has a rhythm with the same time and distance between the birds. This is baseline again; there are no predators. However if one of the cardinals is making too much noise and does not return the call there will be nervous series of rapid calls “chip/chip/chip/chip” (this is challenging to describe in words but if you listen for it you will know it). The call is then returned to baseline if there’s no danger.

Aggression: Two males encounter each other over territorial dispute. They will chase each other around vocalizing. This display makes a lot of noise and when first starting out you may mistake it for being an alarm. There may be a tremendous amount of body language associated with this–birds flying into each other, chasing each other, etc., but if you look around you will notice the other birds are feeding in baseline. As you develop a discerning ear you will be able to tell when you hear a loud raucous of birds that there is no predator nothing is endangering them, it is clearly baseline with aggression.

Begging calls: this sound is what happens throughout the spring and early summer and you can tell when you start to hear these calls because it sounds like constant begging (feed me, feed me, feed me), in this moment it is still a baseline call for young birds. However you may hear an adolescent bird constantly calling for food while other birds have stopped feeding and singing and everything is silent. This silence is a sign of another alarm–possibly a Sharp-shinned hawk coming through to feed its own adolescents on their main stay of songbirds.

These are the four baseline voices. Learn them and remember that the more you practice the more you will expand your awareness of and appreciation for the birds.

Alarm: The voice of alarm is when a danger or predator is at large on the landscape and there is intense body language and intense vocalization which is enough to call other species of birds to alarm. It is mostly a multi-species response to danger.

Daily practice when you walk to your mailbox, your car and into the fields and forest

Now that you have some tools for understanding Bird language remember them as you walk out to your mailbox or to your car or into the forest. Be aware of the birds and the messages they have for you. What is the robin’s reaction to you? Hopefully you will notice it next time. The robin, in essence, is holding up a mirror for you to see your level of awareness and empathy reflected back at you. It’s letting you know how well you are learning their language. Are you going to be accepted by them and learn to see through the eyes of the birds?

I’m glad that I can share just the taste of this art with you. So get out there with your new awareness of Bird language! If this has inspired you and you want to learn more, hopefully you

will connect with us here at Earthwork Programs, Wilderness Awareness School and other schools that are sharing and passing on these skills.

All good medicine,

Frank Grindrod

Frank Grindrod is founder and owner of Earthwork Programs, a local business since 1999. Earthwork Programs is dedicated to teaching people earth skills such as nature awareness, tracking, wilderness living skills, survival, and earth philosophy. Earthwork Programs is also recognized as a Nurtured Heart™ School. Visit Frank and Earthwork Programs at www.earthworkprograms.com. Immersed in Nature, We Reconnect You with the Earth.

A Summer Wander with Our Friends: the Plants

(Let’s Get to Know a Couple of Plants, in Depth…)

Summer and What Is Happening

Summer. What a fantastic time to get outdoors! This is the time of vacations—when we can take a break from our busy lives, spend time with family; the kids experience summer camp where lifetime memories are created.

So what’s happening in the summer in the natural world?

Birds are nesting all around us and raising their young. This is a great time to see lots of bird behavior…to see the parent birds teach their young how to fly. It is also a time to find baby birds out of their nests. The birds of prey are very active, seeking out those young birds to feed their young too.

The trees are in full leaf, creating shade for the plants below…also creating shade for us. There are so many different leaves: shapes, structures and textures that help to create photosynthesis, capturing the sun’s light with the pigment in the leaf called chlorophyll combining with carbon dioxide and water creating energy. These are little sugar factories.

The animals are rearing their young. A great time to be outdoors is around dusk or dawn—times of twilight (the magic hour)—to see the young foxes learning to hunt in the nearby fields.

The wetlands are exploding with life: newly-hatched frogs, turtles laying eggs, herons actively fishing, humans actively fishing; trout, bass and pickerel abound. Insects of all shapes and sizes—butterfly, moth, beetle, dragonfly, mosquito and more—are abundant. Birds and mammals, especially bats, and fish are delighted with the foraging potential.

Let’s Start Our Journey

Let’s start from our house. Go out the front door into our lawns. There is a plethora of wild edibles on many lawns. However before we go to the individual plant species that we will exploring, let’s pause to learn a little bit about foraging.

Historically, we’ve been foraging since the beginning of time. Our ancestors lived by their means of foraging as we are originally “hunters and gatherers.” As I make my way around interacting with native cultures and with mentors who have studied with them, I discovered that there is a deep relationship with the plant nations—from all types of food to fiber for rope, baskets and crafts, wild medicines for tinctures and salves, first aid and overall health. Every time you study and use a plant, you develop a deeper relationship with the natural world. The plants can be the foundation that connects us with all the things that are intertwined with which we are in relationship.

The Power of Native Knowledge

As we learn to look deeper at our neighbors, the plants, we also can recall how ancient peoples had an intimate relationship with plants as teachers and mentors, and many rites, stories and ceremonies were born through this connection. What I find as an incredible testament to our past is the deep knowledge of place that was, and continually is, fostered.

The Cherokee people had a deep understanding of 600 plants and their uses. The children, by their teenage years, knew 200 plants AND their uses. How many do we know?

Harvesting and Giving Back, What Is Our Intention?

When harvesting, it is important to realize that it is to be done with great care. Some people make an offering—tobacco, corn meal, a prayer, song or story. The Anishinabe use tobacco, but when Grandmother Lillian shared with me and others, she said to have the children use dry leaves that they can crush up to create a kind of fertilizer, and it was important for the children to get in the practice of an exchange.

In our classes, we let the children chose what to exchange, and sometimes it is a little bit of water or a hair from our head. With this kind of intention, there can be a link to help foster appreciation and respect for all species, not just plants. I strongly feel that if we pause in thanks and take the time to tune into our unspoken connection, we will learn much from our neighbors. To help put things in perspective, I like to point out that we wear plants and animals.

The Five “R’s”

It is important to remember where not to forage. This list will help:

  • Roadways: Highways, busy back roads, etc.
  • Rights of Way: Power lines and other easements.
  • Residences: If you don’t know if pesticides are used.
  • Railroads: There can be heavy toxins used to control growth of plants.
  • Rivers and waterways that use motor boats frequently.

Introducing the Plants

A friend of mine, Jeff Gottlieb, who teaches primitive skills, likes to categorize plants in three different ways. We have the “Grocery Store,” “Hardware Store” and “Drug Store.”

So let’s get back to our journey and meet some new friends, and if you already know these, let’s deepen that knowledge and reinforce the story we have that we can share with others.

In our yards, we have two wild plants that we will talk about in depth:

Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)—Leaves of this plant are more nutritious than many things you can buy [GROCERY STORE]. They’re higher in beta-carotene than carrots. The iron and calcium content is phenomenal, greater than spinach. You also get vitamins B-1, B-2, B-5, B-6, B-12, C, E, P and D, biotin, inositol, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc by using a tasty, free vegetable that grows on virtually every lawn. The root contains the sugar inulin, plus many medicinal substances [DRUG STORE]. The specific name, officinale, means that it’s used medicinally. The decoction is a traditional tonic. It is supposed to strengthen the entire body, especially the liver and gallbladder, where it promotes the flow of bile, reduces inflammation of the bile duct and helps get rid of gall stones. This is due to its taraxacin. It is good for chronic hepatitis; it reduces liver swelling and jaundice; and it helps indigestion caused by insufficient bile. Don’t use it with irritable stomach or bowel, or if you have an acute inflammation. (Taraxacum comes from Arabic and Persian, meaning “bitter herb.”) Dandelion leaves’ white, milky sap removes warts, moles, pimples, calluses and sores, and soothes bee stings and blisters (excerpt from Steve Brill). There is so much more…

Cattail (Typha latifolia)—The cattail is one of the most important and common wild foods, with a variety of uses at different times of the year. This is commonly known as the “supermarket of the swamp.” As my mentor Tom Brown taught me, and I continue to share with kids and families in our classes:

• The leaves, flower heads, shoots and rhizomes are food [GROCERY STORE].
• You can make rope, baskets, hats and visors with it [HARDWARE STORE].
• You can use it for fire making for the tinder and the stalk for a friction fire named hand drill (personal experience…Earthwork Programs) [HARDWARE STORE].
• The mucilaginous juice is a barrier to protect from Giardia and also is a numbing agent [DRUG STORE].

You can easily recognize a cattail stand: white, dense, furry, cigar-shaped, overwintered seed heads stand atop very long, stout stalks, even as the young shoots first emerge in early spring. People sometimes confuse cattails with the very common grass-like non-poisonous reeds (Phragmites species), which form dense stands twelve feet tall. But reeds have flag-like flowers, and leaves originating along the stalks. When the two species compete, reeds tolerate more salt, and wins out on land. But they can’t grow in shallow water, like cattails. Caution: Young cattail shoots resemble non-poisonous calamus (Acorus calamus) and poisonous daffodil (Amaryllidaceae) and iris (Iris species) shoots, which have similar leaves (excerpt from Steve Brill ).

IMPORTANT: NEVER EAT A WILD EDIBLE UNTIL YOU’VE LEARNED FROM AN EXPERT.
For more information on wild plants and their uses and classes, visit our website.

How Are We Connected?

by Arianna and Frank Grindrod

John Muir observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Let us take a moment to shift out of the Nature-Culture dichotomy paradigm and recognize that humans are part of Nature and that as a very young specie we have much to learn from our co-habitants.

Life is interwoven, interconnected, interdependent. We humans need what the land has to offer, just as other species do. In a very real sense, we all need one another. Humans would not exist without plants and other animals. We need them for food, resources, companionship.

In exploring our interdependencies, let’s see how many connections we can see in the web of life right here in our beautiful home of Western Massachusetts.

Take a look in the mirror. There is you. You are one, whole being. But wait, there are several systems within you, as within all multi-celled beings, that help to keep you alive and functioning. One example is the digestive system. In the intestines are bacteria. Intestinal bacteria are helpful to the elimination process. Yes breaking down the waste for pooping is important. This is a “nested system”; a whole within a whole, as a bacterium is a whole being in and of itself. Review another nested system, your family; several whole beings existing together and relying on one another for their wellbeing. Consider, why do your parents cook for you? What is their motivation? Parents, think about this? Why do you care? Why do you feed your children? Caring is innate trait in many mammals. A baby cries, a pup yips, a kitten mews and there a “switch” in the adult’s brain that turns on in a need to provide, to nurture, to nourish. Extend this nested system into the community realm. You may not always LOVE your neighbors, however, there are times when you may rely on them. Relationships are about discovering ways to live in a habitat together; helping one another to get through tough times and celebrating one another in triumphant moments. Extend outwards into the environment and observe your wild neighbors…no, not the humans down the street throwing a party, the other animals; raccoon, beaver, dragonfly, ant, hawk, sparrow, minnow, trout, toad, salamander, turtle, snake. Take a moment to think about how you are part of the habitat you inhabit. What connections in your life do you notice between your family, your friends, your school environment, the foods you eat, the water you drink, the wild neighbors you see and affect? At each level, from the body to the family to the community to the environment, there are a plethora of interactions and though each system is whole in and of itself, it is also interdependent with other systems.

As educators and parents we can encourage our youth to not only notice and observe these connections but also to celebrate them. As children feel their connectedness to life around them, they are empowered to more actively participate in living in agreement with the environment in which they live. When does a child feel empathy? What was that first moment, when you remember your heart reaching out? Was it a neighbor who just dropped his ice cream on the pavement; a pet whimpering for attention; a wriggling worm you held in the garden; a dead raccoon you saw on the side of the road; a deer and fawn who stumbled upon you in the woods before racing off the path?

There are several engaging ways to access this concept of interdependence with children. The following are a few fun activities to explore with your child or students.

Ravens & Wolves, Crows & Coyotes: Crows and ravens recognize coyotes and wolves as “carcass openers” (yes, like a can opener) and will actually caw in these predators to a prey or a dead animal. The canines recognize the corvids cawing and will pursue to the food and consume it. The corvids know that eventually they will have their turn at the carcass and get a meal too. Wolf researchers observed the behavior and thought it curious as to why two very different species, a bird and a mammal, would take advantage of each other’s skills and work together. But the observations do not end there. These corvids and canines will also play tag with one another; chasing each other back and forth. Really, play tag with a known predator with sharp teeth? Yes! So here is the game. Team up in pairs. Decide who will be the crow (or raven) and who will be the coyote (or wolf). As this game can be played between a parent and child or a classroom of students, it is very easy to adapt. To start, the crows run down the field and pretend they have found some delicious dead deer. Crows will then caw to the coyotes and coyotes, run down to the crows, pretend to eat their fill of the deer and then the crow will tag a coyote. The coyote will then chase that crow and tag them and then the crow will turn around and chase and tag the coyote and so on. When partners are pooped out, the crows can then eat their fill. The parent or teacher can then discuss the dynamics between these two incredible wild neighbors.

The Special Biology of Lichen: Crows and coyotes are interdependent; at the same time they don’t need each other. They can hunt and forage on their own. Lichen on the other hand are mutualistic; they do need each other. Lichens are composite, symbiotic organisms made up from members of as many as three kingdoms. And they live their lives so close, in such a cooperative form, that scientists needed a name to describe them, hence, lichen. The dominant partner is a fungus. Fungi are incapable of making their own food. They usually provide for themselves as parasites or decomposers. Lichenologist Trevor Goward, describes the relationship thus; “Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture”. Fungi are the farmers, and algae or cyanobacteria (formally called blue-green algae) are the livestock.

Lichen are easy to examine in any season. They can be seen with naked eye and though hand lens are helpful for focusing in on these small beings, they are not necessary. They grow in the leftover spots of the natural world that are too harsh or limited for most other organisms. They are pioneers on rock, sand, cleared soil , dead wood, animal bones, rusty metal, and living bark. Able to shut down metabolically during periods of unfavorable conditions, they can survive extremes of heat, cold, and drought. There are four basic lichen types that can be found in New England. Take your child or children out into the woods and examine these fantastic examples of interdependence.

o Crustose lichens form crusts that are so tightly attached to the rocks, trees, sidewalks, or soils they grow on that they can’t be removed without damaging the substrate.

o Foliose lichens are somewhat leaf-like, composed of lobes. They are relatively loosely attached to their substrates, usually by means of rhizines. Their lobes have upper and lower sides and usually grow more-or-less parallel to the substrate.

o Fruticose lichens are the most three-dimensional. They’re usually round in cross section and most are branched. They can be like little shrubs growing upward, or they can hang down in long strands.

o Squamulose lichens have scale-like lobes called squamules that are usually small and overlapping. Lichens in the genus Cladonia have squamulose bases and often have fruticose fruiting structures called podetia.

Lichens are indicators of healthy air quality because they get their nutrients right from the air. So here is another example of interdependence – if lichens are indicators of healthy air and we see them, we know the air quality is probably pretty healthy. On the other hand, if we are not seeing many healthy lichen, than we know that it is time to make some changes in the way we impact the air quality around us. Cause, we breathe that air too, so it is our best interests to change our impact – good for us and for the lichen. So we are likin’ those lichen.

The Nested Systems Search: Find a bird’s nest or hold up a photo of one. Any one will do. What is this? Yes, a bird’s nest. What is it used for? Yes for holding eggs and chicks. You can see the boundaries and yet, this little nest is only one part of the birds’ home. The nest is nestled into a bigger system. What is this nest part of; where did the bird’s parents find these materials? The forest. So the nest is nestled in the forest. What is the forest nestled into? You can name the town you are in; the watershed, the state, the bio-region, and continue to extend outward until you include the whole Earth system. Now briefly let’s go backwards from the nest. It holds a bird and the bird itself is not only one entity, it is also made up of many living cells. There are other minute beings, such as bacteria, also living on and in the bird. Systems living within systems. And each level interacts and is interdependent with other systems. Challenge your students to explore woods and look for examples of interdependence and nested systems. Ask them to share their findings about how systems fit together.

Song “We’re All a Family Under One Sky”: A sweet way to end your experience for the day is to sing about what you found. Have participants interject various species. Repeat song several times.
“We all a family under one sky, a family under one sky!
We’re chickadees! We’re maple trees! We’re gray squirrels and lichen too!”

Think about what you eat, where you live, how you get around. All these things come from the Earth. Human culture is not separated from Nature; we are part of it. We exist because of it. And – we are all a family under one sky, a family living within this incredible system – Earth!

Spring Is Awakening All Around Us

Look, Listen, Feel, Touch and Taste

Deep Listening, There Is More Going on than You Think

Kids InvestigatingThe sounds of spring are all around us. There is a BIG difference in hearing and listening. Hearing can be passive. Listening causes us to reach out with our senses to become more present in the moment. We may hear the chorus of frogs calling in the Vernal pools, flooded meadows, temporary ponds and sometimes in roadside puddles. Usually the first songs we hear are the spring peepers, tiny tree frogs identifiable by the “x” on their back. Their most common call is a long drawn out P-E-E-P, but this year listen to the other call that is a type of whistling trill, which is a sound signaling that these frogs are agitated by something. In order to find out what, we need to get closer and be quiet, slowly stalking over to the edge of the water to get a closer look. This trill may mean a couple of male peepers are competing for a female; it could also mean there is a predator in the water, overhead, or it could be you.
Also listen for wood frogs, the ones wearing the black mask.  Though they are frogs, their call may be confused with the call of ducks – “quack, quack, quack”.  Wood frogs are predators of spring peepers so if you hear the quacking, investigate to find out if there are peepers in the pool also.

Listen for the S-I-L-E-N-C-E. This speaks volumes to what is happening as you approach or if you happen to walk by and everything stops. If you are quiet, you can get really close and observe this behavior that you might not otherwise be aware of. The gift you could be rewarded by is seeing the natural rhythm of this place. A red fox could be observing your approach or perhaps a raccoon could be dining on frogs’ legs.

Deep observation is another way to develop a rich relationship with the land and your wild neighbors, the frogs and salamanders and everything that is connected to this strand of web of life that takes place here.

 

Blossoming

It’s Spring Time, It’s Spring Time
There’s a certain feeling in the air. Everything is waking up, blooming, blossoming, hatching. Smells are wafting on the winds, and the leaves are unfurling and are becoming fully developed. This is the perfect stage for them to be edible. There are many edible trees that are around and available; basswood, in particular, is one of my favorites. It’s like having salad greens, and you just pick it off, like our wild neighbor, the deer…no processing necessary—just pick and eat (and don’t forget, give thanks for the bounty, like our ancestors have shared since the beginning).

There’s a lot going on as it starts to get warm…as the snow melts and the streams start to overflow. The waters are intense with the spring freshet from the thaw from up in the mountains where the snow is melting, coming down all the way into the valley and pushing out into the ocean. It’s such an amazing display of Nature’s power. The wetlands and flood plains in the fields and forests are bursting with life. During this time, the frogs and turtles are becoming very active. Watch for the turtles as they line up on logs and bask in the sun.  Observe the red-winged blackbirds filling the cat-tail edges of the wetlands; notice the red and yellow field marks on the wings of the male as they display their dominance for prime real estate.

The birds are singing their springs songs. The wildflowers are growing up and coloring the landscape. The insects are hatching. In the stream, watch for mayflies, dragonflies and caddisflies emerging.  And watch for those red-winged blackbirds ready to snatch up a flying meal.

Snake

Snakes aren’t slimy…”they have scales, cool!”

The snakes are coming out of their hibernaculum–the place where they spend the winter…sometimes it’s under a culvert or in a pile of rocks. We see them moving around, sometimes 12 to 14 snakes all at once, soaking up the sun and basking. They’re endothermic, which means they’re cold blooded, and they cannot generate their own heat like we can; they need the warmth of the sun.

 

What the Mammals Are Doing
These warm days are great opportunities to be able to see the animals raising their young; fox and weasels have kits while coyotes and bats have pups; rabbits have leverets; porcupines have porcupettes; bobcats and beavers have kittens; bears have cubs and deer have fawn.

In their multiple color phases like sandy and charcoal gray, red fox kits are developing their black boots, black ears and their white-tipped tail (which distinguishes them as a red fox); they begin to learn how to adapt to their forest home with their amazing camouflage and all their senses being fully developed.   The young bears are learning how to forage, turning over logs and feeding on insects, and they are learning how to use their new claws as they learn to climb trees for safety and fun. Have you ever seen a cub climb a tree—it’s very cute to watch!

Red Fox

Wow! there it is

A leveret (baby rabbit) found stuck in bushes and released by earth stewards.

There are so many things happening:  squirrels and otters, coyotes and beaver–they all have young to raise and feed. Some of these animal babies are born with their eyes closed and their ears not being able to hear and the only thing they can do is smell, while others are born with their eyes open, furred and are ready to go, like a snowshoe hare.

So off you go “into the outdoors” either by yourself, or with family and friends, to connect deeper to where we live in this exciting explosion of activity…the springtime.  See you in the woods.


The Secret Life of the Black Bear

Many years ago I was awakened to the stories of our wild neighbors. Though we do not always see them, they leave so much information about the stories of their lives. There is adventure, drama, death, play, romance, and mystery. Through the years I learned how to stop, look, listen, smell, and feel these stories and attempt to reveal the mysteries. I do this through the art and science of animal tracking.

To see what our wild neighbors do – through their tracks, and their behavior through the signs they leave behind: claw marks on trees, scrapes, bite marks, digs, rubs, scat – is an initiation into a secret world. Though the world of our wild neighbors may seem one of secrecy to us; to them it is a very obvious. The sign they leave behind are markers to state who they are, what they are doing in the area, and if they are available to mate.

Some mammals are crepuscular; that means most active during twilight, at dawn and dusk such as deer, moose, rabbits, and beaver. Others are nocturnal such as our bat friends and flying squirrels. Then there are those, who like the majority of humans, are diurnal – active during the day – such as gray and red squirrels. Whether or not we have the opportunity to watch our wild neighbors up close and personal, they always leave sign of their presence and as a tracker you get to see those visual cues and smell their scents and be able to have that deeper connection and understanding of what is happening in the environment you are exploring.

Our black bear story takes place on a chilly fall day where the leaves covered the ground and the sound of the crunching under our feet echoed through the forest. My friend Mark and I were tracking through an open deciduous forest full of majestic American Beech elders, Red Oak, White Birch and Hickory. This year was a mast year for Beech and many beechnuts covered the ground. We noticed a large disturbance of leaves and as we looked closer we saw the tracks of turkey feeding signs mice,squirrel and the prints of deer and bear tracks. For a tracker all this sign could be equated to a kid in a candy shop; so much to gaze at and be excited about; so much to choose from. Aha, the treat we had to take a closer look at; the pièce de résistance, were black bear claw marks going up this tree as we looked up we saw many broken branches. They had been broken from all directions being pulled into the center. We knew this was not storm damage for the breakage would have been in all one direction of the path of the storm. We had discovered a “Bear Nest” this is a place where they climb up and sit in the middle of the crotch of a tree and FEED pulling the branches in to them then sitting on them and eating more. When bears are feeding constantly to put on weight they often are resting/ napping often too. Perhaps in the nest? later on that day when we were under the Hemlock trees we found an amazing sight. A set of bear tracks in the shallow snow with great detail. As we followed the mystery of where are they going why this direction we saw something I had never seen before. Right underneath the Hemlock tree at the base was a large clump of branches. These were not short they were rather long some 2 feet and in such a beautiful arrangement in the shape of a rounded bed. This was a Bear bed I had never known they made above ground beds with such detail and weaving of all Hemlock branches for a soft form.

So earlier in the day we found bear tracks at the base of the beech tree’s bear claws leading up the understory to eat beechnuts. Why beechnuts? Beechnuts are high in fat and bears are looking for high-energy foods to fatten themselves up to survive the winter some sources quote Beech nuts having 60% Fat. When we have a mast-year of beechnuts such as we had this year, with so many Beeches producing an abundance of fruit, the bears capitalized on this food source. You may have noticed last year that we had a mast year of acorns, with oaks putting out acorns aplenty. Bears are opportunists so whatever tree species are masting, bears will be there to put the weight on.

Throughout the summer bears are fattening up whatever berries, nuts, invertebrates and other animals they can find and just as we do they have their favorite foods. Don’t worry though, we are not on the menu of the black bear who typically stands about five feet tall with a range of four to seven feet tall. Adult males weigh between 125 and 500 pounds, depending upon age, season, and food while adult females usually weigh between 90 and 300 pounds, again, depending on age, season and food type availability.

According to Paul Rezendes, a renowned tracker in the northeast, that given the choice, Black Bears seem to prefer beechnuts even after the snowfalls. He has witnessed them digging up Beechnut under a foot of snow and putting off their sleep if there’s a good crop. Looks like this year the bears may be up past their bed time. There are years when
the American Beech do not have a “bumper crop” year and so the bears will seek out other tree species that are masting in any given year. Apparently they will even feed on White Ash seeds when the oak, beeches, and hickories are not masting. My wife and I sampled White Ash just to see what they would taste like. Arianna was not impressed
with the idea of having to eat many of these, whereas, upon soaking the beechnuts, she claimed them “quite tasty”.

Though spring to summer was mating season and summer to fall was major caloric intake season, come November a black bear’s focus is finding a denning site. They will try a number of sites before they settle on the one that serves their specific needs. A den may be a hollow tree, a cave, or an excavated den of a smaller mammal or even a small depression above ground; the main criteria is where a bear has determined to be safe and secluded. And this winter, on your visits through the woods, you may snowshoe or ski right by a bear den and not even know it.

A pregnant female will give birth sometime in January or early February and as any human mother will confirm, that under no circumstances, unless you are being heavily sedated, could you possibly sleep through a birthing experience. They are however, very efficient hibernators. In the late fall the Black Bear will start to eat less and become more lethargic, and while they are denned up during the winter they will not eat, drink or defecate during hibernation. And because their fur is so insulative, the bear’s body heat is lost very slowly, “maintaining temperatures above 88 degrees–within 12 degrees of their normal summer temperature.” (Rogers, Lynn, 1981) Still, a female Black Bear is
certainly alert enough to nurse and clean her young.

So as you step outside this winter, work on developing a deeper awareness of the beings around you. This will serve you in whatever you do in life. So go off trail into the forest, fields, swamps, and ridges. Explore the wild world around you and perhaps you too will find black bear marks on a beech tree in the middle of the woods and then say – AHA!

Learn more about Black Bears!

Read and watch Black Bear researchers such as Lynn Rogers and Ben Kilham; they have so much to share! Additionally, since it is challenging to express all the information in an article about black Bears and I want you to get outside, into the outdoors, I’ve provided a video to go along with this article so that you can go out on your own or with your family
and be able to find these things in your own forest. http://earthworkprograms.com/?page_id=800

Please be mindful and respect the Bears in their habitat.

Seeing WILD Life…Who Is Watching Whom?

WildernessWinter has come and gone, and spring is clearly unfolding: the birdsong, the wildflowers, the bursting of shoots braking through the Earth’s surface in fertile ground, the trees leafing out, the warmer days as frogs sing, and then in the spring, showers are coming as the ice melts off the mountains, bringing it down through the rivers. It’s a powerful time of change.

My daughter and I–with binoculars in hand and our favorite walking stick, backpack filled with food, water and a couple of field guides, map and first aid kit–venture into the forest, as the sun rises, with a goal of seeing wildlife and not being seen. We move quietly through the deep forest, moving like a ghost, invisible as best we can while using the Indian sign language we have been practicing.

We are so blessed to be in the middle of a magical place with such a rich diversity as we are in southern New England…a world where the boreal forest and the northern forest meet, giving us the best place to be immersed in nature. The boreal forest, also known as “the spruce-moose forest,” has mainly evergreen trees and a few select hardwoods like poplar, paper birch, tamarack and others. The northern hardwoods have such a vast amount of trees like yellow birch, sugar maple, American beech, eastern hemlock, white pine, northern red oak, cherry, and those are just a few—there are many more.

As we trek deeper into the forest, we notice the dense canopy not letting in much sunlight as the sun rises out of the east, giving us a sense of direction, but our awareness tunes into a subtle change, and as we enter, there is more light shining down on us than just a minute earlier. This is a track on a large scale that is affecting how much light which helps to make a more rich forest in vegetation and brings with it many animals and birds and the like. With our senses honed, there are signs of the animals all around us. We notice claw marks and bites on trees, stunted growth where it looks like a nursery of Japanese bonsai trees, and when we look down in the leaf litter, there are many footfalls showing worn-in paths on the forest floor, weaving in and out of the cliffs.

Passing through different habitats, we see the many deciduous leaves and all the light that shines creates a dappled look under our feet and in the area between the wetland and the cliffs. There is a lot of feeding sign called browse (little 45-degree angle cuts), taking the end of the branch clean off, almost like clippers.

Place to hide?As we expand our awareness to the area high up on the cliff, we see a good hiding place opposite of the spot we want to watch. Scanning for signs of movement, we hope to get a glance of this very elusive animal who chooses the south-facing, hard-to-access areas in the cliffs. We have already done our research; we know this animal is crepuscular, which means it is active at twilight hours (dawn and dusk). It is diurnal (day) and nocturnal (night).

Another place?Its primary food source has left sign with the angled cut that we found earlier, so we know there is a feeding area in close view. One of the traits of this animal is the ability to be motionless for long periods; even in winter, being able to lay in the snow where you can find a sphinx-like “hunting bed” while it waits to ambush its prey. To discover this body print melted out from the heat that is generated while it remains still as a shadow is inspiring! As we get down low, we find sections of hair frozen to the ice; however this time of year, you want to look for “resting beds;” places where you can make out where it has been laying down, usually under a rock overhang on a pile of leaves insulating from the ground.

resting placeThe forest is so quiet. My daughter and I take turns to scan the cliffs with our glasses. We have been watching, quietly, for almost an hour and a half. We know that patience always pays off. We also know that this animal has a very small heart and it travels a very short range compared to others of its size. By knowing this, we also could watch it hunt as it stalks its prey since it is primarily a carnivore.

While looking near the top where we have been looking all morning, in the best rays of light, we see movement–a very camouflaged tawny color with dark shades and beautiful markings, big eyes and graceful movement as we watch it stretch basking in the suns glow. It has been there all this time…watching us watching for her. So who’s watching whom? While studying us, perhaps, she senses we are not a threat.

It is time to hunt. Her preferred prey, the rabbit, helps to sustain her but also helps raising her kittens. If you haven’t guessed by now, the mystery animal is the bobcat.

bobcat babyAs we watch our cat in her natural rhythm, we are excited because we may be able to watch her hunt. Earlier we mentioned how she lies in wait in “hunting beds.” Once the prey is close enough, there is an explosion of energy–a POUNCE! From her ambush spot, bursting forth after the rabbit who has zigzagging motion to avoid capture. There is a very small window of time because she needs to not burn too much energy; if the hunt lasts longer than just minutes, she will stop rest, find another spot and start again and continue that cycle.

This bobcat needs to eat and feed her new kittens, and when she has the rabbit, she will take it to a place close by to hide it and take parts of the animal and “cache” (cover and save for later) the rest, using her front paws very much the same as our house cats. She will travel back and forth to feed her young if she has gotten a good amount of food. She will continue to hunt this area because of the success.

Thanks for joining us on our adventure into the outdoors.

Until next time happy trails…

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