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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 To: A Primer On Winter Emergency Skills

“Barbara Thomke, a contributing editors for EasternSlopes.com, attended one of our seminars and wrote this story. We are sharing it here with their permission. To see photos of that seminar go here.”

By Barbara Thomke
EasternSlopes.com

– February 6, 2011

After I spent the morning of Saturday, January 8th exploring the new world of Nordic Skating at the Lake Morey Skate-A-Thon, I was intrigued by an afternoon class offered in the Winter Skills Day series at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, Vermont called Emergency Survival and Self-Sufficiency Skills. I didn’t go to prepare myself for overnight treks in the winter wilderness, sleeping in hand crafted snow huts at 10 degrees! But I do sometimes venture into the backcountry for day-long treks on skis, so I thought it might be useful to expand my knowledge on this topic beyond what I gleaned from my Girl Scout days of yesteryore. What I learned: how to stay warm if I got lost, or what the best emergency items are best to carry along in a pack might just save me from trouble . . .

Carrying a pack of emergency supplies and checking your equipment function may be the two most important actions you can take prior to an outing. (Barbara Thomke photo)

Frank Grindrod, our instructor, a kind and gentle man, set the scene for his class of seven by showing us a video of a woman who cross-country skied alone with her dog in unknown territory, got lost, then broke through ice and fell in a river and shivered with the pooch until they were found hours later. Scary! But by the time our class was over we had a new awareness of how to take care of ourselves at home or in the woods, and had learned about the most important thing of all – being prepared. From the dozens of tips we learned, here are the top ones that I personally took with me from our class:

Outdoors – Always take with you a small kit of essentials, no matter how near or far you plan to roam, Here’s what Frank recommended:

* A signal mirror, large plastic bag as a rain protector or container for water, a magnesium striker for starting a fire and a space blanket. Why? Hypothermia (low body temperature) is the #1 winter killer.

* A tin cup to heat water in or to melt snow into water

* Extra clothing such as gloves, scarf, socks, goggles, upper body layer

* Duct tape – the universal fix-it

* A pocket knife

From 12″ of toilet paper we learned to make a wick. Using a cat food can, the cordage, and cooking oil, a small heat and light source can be created. It burned for a half hour! (Barbara Thomke photo)

At home – Frank recommended stocking up a couple of days before a storm is forecast:

* Flashlight and/or headlamps plus extra batteries. Matches and candles – the ones that burn for 9 hours that you can purchase at a camping outfitter. To increase the light effect through reflection, place a mirror behind or underneath these light sources.

* Canned and dry foods, especially lentils. Soak overnight and allow to sprout for increased protein punch and green food. Soak rice and beans overnight for quicker cooking. Store in food-grade plastic containers along with powdered milk and honey.

* A small stove and fuel.

* A crank-operated radio and a crank lantern could be called essential gear.

* Store water in food-safe plastic containers, cooking pots, and your washing machine. Because your water source may not be treated when the electricity goes out, purify water by bringing it to a ‘dancing boil’.

* Create a ‘warm room’ by draping plastic over doors and openings to trap the heat of a woodstove or other heat source – though be sure it is ventilated.

In the car – carry these items:

* A wool army/navy blanket which can be used to sleep in, as a coat, to keep an injured person warm. Wool continues to keep a body warm even if wet.

* A metal cup, duct tape and Yaktrax for traction on your feet if you walk for help.

* Water in a metal container (could be heated), or in plastic. Fill only 3/4 full to allow space for freezing.

* A bunch of asphalt shingles to provide tire traction if your car is stuck in the snow or on ice.

Visit Frank’s website for lots more good advice on this topic of how to be prepared to deal with hypothermia and other winter emergencies as well as a listing of programs and classes he offers.

Personal Testimonial:

Two weeks after I took this course my husband and I were on a vigorous backcountry skiing tour near our home in northern Vermont. We were only 15 minutes into the initial uphill part when the snap attachment on the kicker climbing skin of Bob’s right ski broke apart. Then the whole skin peeled off the base of his ski and lay in the snow behind him. Luckily we were able to secure the skin again with the duct tape I now carried in my pack!

“Thank you, Frank!”, I thought many times as we continued the rest of our nine mile trek without a further glitch.

P.S. I carry the duct tape wound around a pencil. The pencil can be handy to write with or punch a hole, and it makes it easy to unwind the tape. Plus, you can carry a reasonable amount without the bulk of a duct tape roll.

Editor Note: Most old hands at backcountry skiing carry duct tape in their pack emergency kit as Barbara suggests, but also wrap 25 feet of it around a ski pole just below the grip. You never know it’s there until you need it . . .

via How To: A Primer On Winter Emergency Skills | EasternSlopes.com.

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…

Create Your Own Nature Map

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!

Raccoon TracksIt’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.

Bare Feet CircleOver 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.

Eagle

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.

How to Be a Mentor for a Child’s Immersion in Nature

Just Add Kids and Nature

leave shelterThe 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.

leave shelter young girl

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.

group of kids in leaves

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?

goose tracks

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.

Ask Questions

making a fire on snowA 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.

exploration

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

In the News!Wilderness Survival, Primitive skills and Nature with kids

Earthwork Programs is grateful for all the press we received this Summer! The Recorder and the Daily Hampshire Gazette visited our At Home in the Woods and Way of the Scout Summer Camps and captured the moments…

“Research shows that kids can’t identify many common plants or trees in their environment, but they can identify 500 corporation logos,” Grindrod said. “Imagine what they would know if learning about the environment was instilled in our culture rather than learning how to be good consumers.”

Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Hitchcock Center, Earthwork Programs connect children and environment

By FRAN RYAN Gazette Contributing Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
(Published in print: Wednesday, August 6, 2014)

On a hot summer day in mid-July, Rainier Jewett, 8, of Florence rose up from the underbrush in the woods of Conway covered in mud and forest debris and sporting a broad, sly smile.

Then several more young campers, including Caleb Schmitt 13, and Ari Benjamin 10, both of Williamsburg, also emerged from the forest. They were all participating in a summer day camp run by the Earthwork Programs.

Frank Grindrod, is director and founder of Earthwork, which offers wilderness education programs and teaches emergency survival and self-sufficiency skills. Grindrod described how his programs help people of all ages learn to broaden their ways of seeing, in order to understand, survive, and thrive in the natural world, and along the way he paused to talk about plants that were native to the area.

…click here to read rest of the article…

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Honing skills that work beyond the wilderness

By TOM RELIHAN
Recorder Staff
Sunday, August 24, 2014
(Published in print: Monday, August 25, 2014)

CONWAY — Frank Grindrod has noticed a trend that disturbs him deeply. To see it, he said, all one must do is compare a child’s ability to recognize corporate logos to their capacity for identifying wild plants and animals.

“You show them a ‘Hello Kitty’ logo and they’re like, ‘Oh, I know that one,’” he said, as we walked through a dense pine forest in Conway. He stopped to bend down and examine a patch of leafy green plants on a plot of land, which had sprung up under a rare, sun-soaked gap in the canopy. Cupping the leaf of one plant in his hand, he said, “But you show them one of these, and they say, ‘Uhh … a fern?”

That trend — one he defined as a decline in knowledge of and appreciation for nature among young people — is one he is determined to change.

“A lot of the nature education is on the surface,” he said. “Some of the kids are good with their hands, and that’s great, but for the ones that aren’t, we feed them stories that they can then share with the group. That way, everyone gets a specialization and it grows exponentially.”

…click here for the whole article…

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“I began to wonder why some kids weren’t out in the park or playground and needed to have everything spelled out for them and facilitated,” Grindrod said, noting that when he was growing up, that type of thing wasn’t as commonplace. “We spent most of our time in the woods, and everyone just had a special call or bell when it was time to come home.”

Learning naturally: Nature programs take the classroom outside

Story by Tom Relihan & Fran Ryan
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, August 30, 2014)

As he crested a densely wooded, moss-covered hill in the middle of Conway’s pine forest, Edwin Anderson, 13, of Greenfield yelled, “Wow, come and look at this!

At his call, a half-dozen other kids scrambled up the hill. Some dropped to their knees as they examined a huge brown mushroom protruding from the pine needles on the forest floor. Moments later, Frank Grindrod of Conway knelt in the middle of the group and began to inspect the fungal wonder.

“See how it’s all shaggy on top and on the stipe? This is called ‘The Old Man of the Woods.’” he said. “Oh, and look at this one!” he said, picking up a piece of bark with a couple of fuzzy, pink mushrooms growing on it.

“It looks like the Lorax!” exclaimed one of the campers.

That day, the kids were out in the woods as part of Grindrod’s Earthwork Programs summer camp, which he runs to teach children about nature and develop skills that they can use in their everyday lives.

…click here to read more of this article…

 

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

F&M Great Swamp FallAs we walk into the forest, we see all the different types trees, and we know, somehow, that they all have a purpose in life, just like we do. We notice many have lost their leaves this time of year, and the forest looks completely different—kind of empty because you can see so far, and it is very open. However, that is just the surface; let’s look closer.

The conifers take center stage with their deep green and contrast to the snow; while they do shed their needles, they are primarily green all year, which is why they are called “evergreens.”

Using touch—reach out and feel the needles

hemlock branchWhen we reach out and feel the needles, and when we rubbed them in our hands and smell, there is that amazing pine scent reminiscent of a Christmas tree—that strong aroma that can remind us of the holidays.

Visual things to watch for

As we look even closer, we notice really short needles (less than an inch) that are flat and on the underside, there are distinct white lines like racing stripes; this is an excellent identification characteristic. It also has the tiniest little stem you can barely see. In botanical terms, when you look it up in your field guide, this is called a “petiole.”

Feel the texture of the bark

These trees have really smooth bark when very young, and as they get older, it becomes stiff and deeply furrowed (creating indented grooves). Look at many different trees—young and old—and compare the feeling of the bark, and how the young ones are really tender and the older ones are like a rock.

hemlock 2Natural history viewing our past

In the 1800s, Eastern hemlock (Tsuga Canadenses) was used heavily; these trees would be anywhere from 250 to 800 years old. They were harvested in great numbers and were sought after for a special quality they possess: great amounts of tannic acid—up to 12%—used for tanning hides and preserving leather; the outer bark was used and soaked. Some of the hides were kept in vats (barrels of soaking tannins) for up to six months in order for them to turn the dark tea color and create a preserve and coloring for the produced leather. Hemlock tanneries were all over the Northeast, and they shipped the hides from here all over the world.

What I have personally seen, and you can too!

hemlock 1In the picture, you can see the needles and the bark. You can see underneath the very outer light brown bark, there is a dark purple color; this is a great characteristic for being able to identify Eastern hemlock.

What use are these trees now? They are a tremendous resource for wildlife: the needles create shade to give animals and birds cover. So they are used for nesting, denning and protection from the elements.

I often find many deer and moose in these areas…tracks, signs and tons of “browse” (feeding sign). This is where deer “yard up” (all stay in same area communally); this helps create safety in numbers and helps avoid being surprised by coyotes. It also makes it easier for them to move, because they pack down the snow to conserve their energy during these hard winter months.

I’ve also found coyotes’ beds, which look like circles; the heat from the coyote’s body melts out the impression of its nose where he/she is melting snow with the breath.

Outdoor challenge and scavenger hunt you can do with your children

See if you can find the interior bark that is purple. Hint: When you look around at the base of the tree, you can see the flakey bark chips; look under there.

Tracks and sign: if you look on the very tops of the branches, close to the trunk, you will often see squirrel territorial teeth marking sign, or going up a mature tree, you can see the claw marks and sometime bite marks of our black bears climbing since they use Eastern hemlock as babysitter trees (mama sends her cubs up them in times of danger or when she is away for long periods).

And at the bottom of the hemlocks, underneath the dense needles protecting from the wind and elements, you can find deer, fox, moose and bear beds. Let’s not forget the calling cards of raccoon and porcupine too—scat!

If you find little holes and black powder on the ground and through the roots, it’s possible you have found Truffles (fungus).

Can you find the little Hemlock cones that look like little tiny pine cones—about ½ inch. Can you find the racing stripes on the underside of the needles?

The River Is Calling You to Experience Its WONDER!

Will you answer the call?

protective case

The larvae of many species use silk “like glue” to make protective cases of gravel, sand, twigs or other debris; this is their home they carry with them in different currents in the river

Why the River?

So what’s going on down by our rivers and streams? There is so much happening as rivers have totally shaped our world. They are constantly moving along the earth—creating habitat, moving mountains, building webs to connect us all. We have built our communities near them—as well as our farms; rivers were the “highways” of our ancestors, and today they still help us travel and navigate. They are such an important place for all wildlife’s food and shelter as well as migration routes for birds. Rivers also help generate power for our homes and industry. All of this helps connect us as a community…we even have festivals involving rivers! We learn valuable lessons about all of nature because it is all connected. This carries with it an importance of conservation, restoration and stewardship to take care of our wild neighbors and also ourselves. Let’s not forget all the fun we have too. We play and recreate on rivers–paddle our canoes, kayaks and inner tubes, swim, fish and even renew our spirit. These waterways create so much on so many levels. So let’s go down to the river together and see what is happening.

The approach

animal tracks

Animal tracks of many mammals and birds are often discovered on the edges of the river; here is our friend the raccoon up close with the common 5 toes showing

As we walk through the woods, we hear the sound of the water as it flows through the land and draws us in to get a closer look. We may hear the rustle of the leaves under our feet, feel the sand or hard-packed soil along the banks. There are all kinds of bird songs, and perhaps, one in particular that hunts the rivers—the Kingfisher is making a head-first dive, fishing with its beak. As we get close to the edge, we move slowly, so as not to startle any of the wildlife because we know that even the fish in the water can see our approach. We see the signs of our neighborhood beavers and how they may have shaped this part of the river, and there are raccoon or mink tracks in the mud. We are walking on all the stones that have been placed at our feet by the power of the river. Ahh…we have arrived; let’s take off our shoes and feel the warm stones and cool water and mud spread between our barefoot toes. We look up and around, and notice the branches leaning over the waterway to get full light; it creates a natural shady spot for many creatures from which to retreat the hot sun…and for us too.

What we notice

Surrounded by trees—sycamores, alders, basswoods and willows—we are reminded of the amazing diversity of plants in and around the water—like cardinal flower, Japanese knotweed, cattails, watercress and many algaes—in these important watersheds. Looking around, we see the riverbanks covered in many sized stones—from boulders all the way down to grains of sand and even smaller particles, such as clay, are present too. As the earth is transformed, there is a natural sorting that happens along the river bottom and the banks that we see.

Getting a closer look

As we look closer, we notice things have patterns. We are tracking the water, time and weather to understand the river ecosystem that we are currently seeing. Think of the channels of water—through rain, runoff, snow and flooding–that created the Grand Canyon. We are standing and witnessing a microcosm of that wonder of the world right in front of our eyes!

riffle

This feature to watch for on the river is called a “riffle,” a great place to look for aquatic invertebrates and look under rocks, but be mindful to explore with care and return as you found it as much as you are able

Reading the water

The water flows through in shallow areas called “riffles,” and it runs where you see turbulence in the water; this also is where the water has the most oxygen and can be the coolest part of the river in the summer. It is where the aquatic invertebrates such as caddisflies, mayflies and stoneflies and others are very active in their day-to-day lives.

The miracle at the river

There is a display of nature, and it is one of the most amazing things you can experience seeing on a river as the aquatic insects spend between several months to several years under the surface of the water, feeding and living their lives. There is a term called an “emergence.” This is where there is a constant journey of insects—from being underwater for their whole lives up until the point of cresting the surface of the water and starting their adult lives, flying for the first time and experiencing the gift of flight above the place they lived before. Being able to witness this miracle is truly breathtaking and is one of the reasons to go to the river often to “Catch the Hatch.”

Mayfly larvae have 2 to 3 “tails,”and gills can be seen alongside or under the abdomen

Mayfly larvae have 2 to 3 “tails,”and gills can be seen alongside or under the abdomen

Don’t miss the action

These are great spots to watch just above the surface of the water and see the insects dancing, mating and falling, creating a concentric ring that signals the fish to feed. This is where you see a phenomenon called a “rise”–the trout rise, coming to the surface; you see the cresting of the water, and if in a clear pool, in middle or the tail of it, you can actually see the fish itself…size, color and grace as it moves.

Time for a river trip

So put visiting the river on your schedule and experience this miraculous occurrence with friends and family. What kind of values do you think are instilled in your children when you create experiences and opportunities to have nature astound them? I am feeling grateful, and hope I see you down by the river.

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