The winter wilderness holds so much mystery. From that first moment that each unique snowflake drifts down from the sky, there is a certain awakening that happens…an inspiration that we have as we are curious of what’s happening outside of our walls. There is a pull—as one of my mentors, Joseph Campbell, would say: “A call to Adventure!” As we venture out of our comfort and embark on that calling, we leave the house—whether it is to go for a walk or even more daring, heading for the trails in wild nature.
As a family moving through the land, we hear the snow crunching under our feet and we see our own tracks, and we cannot help but think of the wild animals leaving clues of where they have been traveling, hunting, playing and sleeping and ultimately, surviving. So, as we continue on our way, we notice that first break in the pure white glistening expanse of snow and excitedly approach our first set of animal tracks.
As we get closer and see the trail left behind, we wonder what it is. There is a primal spark growing in us, and this connects us to our ancestors who lived close to the earth. This is like being a detective and we have our first clue.
When the children of the indigenous cultures in the far north (like the Sami people who live their lives by the Caribou and take care of the herd) see a set of tracks, the Elders would not tell them what they saw. They would mentor them by helping to foster a relationship with the animals by asking questions and getting them in their senses. “What do you see?” the Elder might ask. The child might say, “Animal tracks.” The Elder would then kneel down and look closer and say, “Hmm.” The child would then copy and also kneel down. Then the Elder would say, “How many toes do you see?” The child might answer, “Four.” The Elder continues, “Are there any claws visible in these tracks?” Child would then reply, “Oh yeah, right there!” (pointing) Elder, “Can you point which direction it is heading?” Child points and says “That way!” Elder, “What direction is that?” Child, “North…?” (questioning)
This is an example of a similar dialogue I often have with my students. This is so they put the “quest” back into “question” and build upon the knowledge they have, not only as trackers but in their lives.
Let’s look closer at this. The Elder does not GIVE answers; they are earned. There is a place for children to have their own unique self expression and for them to think outside of themselves, which creates deeper knowledge. The Elder then may explain the depth of what they saw. “This wolf is traveling alone early this morning, and you see here, where the tracks are slightly melted out, it stood here to gather information, and then headed north in a faster gait of a trot. There is a herd of Caribou that was crossing the open plains up there about a quarter of a mile north.”
The Elder knows the land intimately; his/her survival depends on it in the home of the wilderness. He is bestowing the wisdom to this child so that he, when he grows up, can contribute to the health and well-being of the land, the herd and his family. This also creates self confidence and understanding of how life is around him and their deep nature connection.
So, as we go back to our wilderness adventure, we want to ask important questions to create an “experience.” Experiential education is one of the highest forms of engagement…of learning—not rote memorization of what we think someone might want to hear, but actually reaching down and picking up the snow, looking at the tracks and allowing our imagination to dance with our physical reality.
The best way to do this is to build your own skills to start learning together and be able to take someone from the edge of his/her knowledge further. This is the ultimate goal of a mentor through self empowerment and self awareness; we ALL grow in our experiences and what we can contribute in our lives.
See you on the trail,
Frank and Arianna Grindrod
There’s a real power in naming places in Nature. This transforms your yard, back woods, special hiking or camping area into a magical land of possibilities!
It’s one thing to be in the woods by that tree over there, but it is quite another to share a story about a place you have had a rich experience in where you saw raccoon tracks. It creates a hook of wanting to know more about the raccoon’s habits and life, and discover if there are more of them and if they had kits this year. The power of imagination and our deep connection to place can really awaken. This can be a way to bring magic, mystery and excitement back into our daily routine.
We live in a world full of changes and notice the technological advances that are happening–the power of TV pulling us all in where we can just sit there for a few minutes which turns into hours. I have noticed there seems to be this need to be constantly “plugged in.” This is embedded in our culture now. It is difficult to go through the day without being plugging in or seeing someone else having “screen time.”
It is believed that our environment shapes us; that what we are surrounded by consistently and our mind focuses on and our senses take in becomes our reality. So what do we do about this culture of which we are a part? Make it a habit to get into the outdoors and plug into Nature!
Nature has its own “screen time.” When you go out in nature, there’s a potential of experiencing a theatrical play. The story of the sharp-shinned hawk who visits your feeder daily may be seen as the dark force; however, the hawk is there waiting for a song bird to drop her awareness so that he can feed his young. The next day, there are cardinal feathers found right near where you see that bird retreat to when you walked outside your door. You may ponder, “What happened?” Now a story is born; one that reminds us of the delicate balance of life and death. Maybe it is as simple as what you learned from the cardinal at your house. In that initial story, we may feel the pull to go out and watch the birds at the feeder, noticing things completely differently.
Insert Nature Mentor
Then Dad or Mom starts asking questions –
Dad: “Did you see those feathers? What color were they?”
Daughter: “Red, bright red.”
Dad: “What birds are red around here?”
Daughter: “Uh, yah, a cardinal, maybe?”
At this point your children are on a journey OUTSIDE even though they are in the house talking with you. This is the power of mentoring! They are going back in their “mind’s eye” and trying to picture the event. This is a very common practice of how native cultures mentor their children. They create associations and a compelling desire of wanting to go back and look. The human nature of wanting to figure out a mystery is deeply embedded in our psyche. We just have to piece it together, take it apart, have it make sense, have a connection to it. To strengthen the connection, together come up with names of these special places in your yard: “Hawk’s Spot,” “Dinner Plate,” “Raccoon Trail.” As a mentor, you can encourage your child to map the yard with all the adventures and mysteries you both find there.
The next step is going out together and letting your child find the area and become a detective while you serve as observer and questioner. This allows you to put the “quest” back in question. This allows your child to feel like it is his/her discovery. There are so many other layers you can integrate too.
In just this story, can you see the power of influence to create nature connection and fostering an understanding of place? This in itself is transformative. Try it; see what happens, and share with us your results and learnings.
Another Story and the Effect of Seeds Planted over Time
Often people ask me, “How do you help kids connect to nature?” I usually tell them it is about establishing core routines; a special place and time in nature over and over where it builds on itself.
Over five years ago, during a class, we were off in the woods, exploring while on our way to the camp where the students loved to spend their time. We stopped to take off our shoes, going barefoot to feel the earth under our feet. I shared a little story and described a natural way of quiet-moving called “fox walking.” Everyone slowly rose to their feet and started to practice this way of movement and awareness.
There were background sounds of trees rustling and birds singing and the soft sound of leaves under our feet. The sound of a call was off in the distance to our north then it stopped. No one really noticed but then a few minutes later it screamed above us in a high-pitched voice. We were all shocked, but in a good way. We looked up and saw a giant silhouette of a bird; a huge wingspan just above the tree line. It cast a big shadow then circled to the south. The call repeated. Everything seemed to stand perfectly still in that moment; as I looked around, I saw the children mesmerized by this majestic brown bird with white head and tail—a Bald Eagle was visiting us. As the one eagle flew with such grace, we all noticed we were sharing a special moment, for some had never seen an eagle before and this marked that special day. Others never saw one this close. The look on their faces was awe and inspiration. Then I noticed there was another eagle flying over to the first, then another, and another, until there were six eagles in all circling this small group of barefoot children of the earth. Everyone was even more amazed at this miracle.
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.
Winter 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.
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).
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.
The 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.
As 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…
Summer Explorations for You and Your Child
By Arianna & Frank Grindrod
Summer is splendid season to be outside exploring with children. There is just so much to investigate! A myriad of flowers are blooming in the garden and field; bees are buzzing and gathering pollen in their pollen baskets; butterflies are sipping nectar; preying manti are hunting for food. Listen! Crickets chirp and children chatter; each are separate instruments in a summer orchestra. Enjoy the symphony of sounds. Let the buzzing and chirping entice you and your child into the exciting world of the six-legged. There is not much you will need—just an open heart and mind towards our creepy-crawly neighbors, for they will be your teachers.
Insects are the largest group, or class, of animals in the animal kingdom! They are found almost everywhere on the planet, living in a wide range of habitats. We can even find them living in our homes. Insects belong to the phylum of invertebrates, having no backbone; instead of bones on the inside of their bodies, insects have a hard outer covering called an exoskeleton. Insects also belong to the subphylum called arthropods who share some distinct characteristics, such as jointed legs and segmented bodies.
Spiders, millipedes, and lobsters are other examples of arthropods and invertebrates. But they are not insects. How can you tell the difference between an adult insect and others arthropods and invertebrates? Insects have three body parts—a head, a thorax (where the legs and wings are attached) and an abdomen (where the heart, digestive system and reproductive organs are located); whereas spiders have only two body parts and eight legs. And where are the lungs on an insect? Insects don’t have lungs. Instead they have a series of tubes, called spiracles, carrying oxygen through their bodies. Aquatic insects, however, may have breathing tubes, portable air bubbles, or gills!
Exploring the Insect World
Because insects live all around us, they are easy and fun to study. Here are a few hands-on activities you and your budding naturalist can do together to learn more about these fascinating and incredible beings.
Sing with Me: Sing the song “Head, Thorax, Abdomen” (to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”) to learn about insect body parts.
Head, thorax, abdomen, jointed legs.
Head, thorax, abdomen, jointed legs.
Antennae, wings, and an exoskeleton.
Head, thorax, abdomen, jointed legs.
Tracking the Six-Leggeds: Find or create a small wet clay or mud area that is somewhat slippery to the tough and a very cooperative insect such as a grasshopper and watch the grasshopper make tracks in the mud. Using a magnifying lens, have your child study the tracks. As they focus on a creature they saw make tracks, they may become ever more excited to see what other invertebrates make tracks. Always remind the child to be gentle and respectful to our small friends.
Insect Safari: If you and your “little bug” would like to catch and observe insects, then there are very specific ways to safely catch, observe and release the critters. The equipment you will need is simple: a few bug boxes of various sizes with magnifying tops, a field insect net and an identification guide. Many of our local bookstores carry insect identification guides for children.
Walk into the field and gently sweep the field net back and forth through the grass. Take a look at what you have caught. For a closer look, carefully inch the bug box under one insect and place the top on, making sure not close it on any little antennae or feet. Please make sure that no live creatures are under direct sunlight in the magnifying boxes!
Observe this amazing creature! What do you and your child notice? Did you catch an insect or some other invertebrate? Do you notice three body parts—the head, thorax and abdomen? Count the creature’s legs. Are the legs hairy, barbed or spindly? Are its legs designed for hopping or crawling? What color is this animal? Does it have any special markings on its body? Does this critter have wings? What is the shape of its body? In a field journal, take some time to draw the creatures you catch. Can you identify this creature or what would name it if you could?
After you observed the animals you have caught, a nice way to honor them and let your child know the importance of respecting other life forms is to do a releasing ceremony.
Holding the bug box, return the creature to the field while saying this poem aloud:
“Run away, crawl away, fly away, hop! You are free to go.
I’m not going to stop you from living your life. You deserve to be free;
but thank you for sharing this time with me”.
A note about who not to catch: It is not recommended that you catch bees, wasps, moths, butterflies or adult dragonflies. Bees and wasps do not make good specimens because they do not to appreciate being caught and may sting you. It is better to observe them while they are busy pollinating a flower. Butterflies, moths and dragonflies are also not happy with this method of observation because they have delicate wings easily damaged when brushed up against. Again, better to observe them wherever they are.
Orders of Insects
Now that you and your wee naturalist know what an insect is, it is time to learn a few of the different groups insects belong to based on similar characteristics. Below is a sampling of the insect groups you may find in the field.
As you read each description to your youngster see if she can identify the insect by either looking at pictures or at live field subjects.
• Butterflies & Moths (order, Lepidoptera): These creatures have two pairs of fine, powdery-covered scaly wings.
• Ants, Bees & Wasps (order, Hymenoptera): These “tiny-waisted” creatures are usually considered to be very social, living together in large colonies or hives.
• Mosquitoes, Flies & Gnats (order, Diptera): Insects in this group have only one pair of wings, usually clear, rather than the usual two pairs.
• Beetles (order, Coleoptera): To know this group of insects look for tough front wings that meet in a straight line down their back. A pair of thinner wings is kept folded under the top pair when this creature is not flying.
• Dragonflies & Damselflies (order, Odonata): These darlings have two pairs of nearly transparent wings that are almost equal in length. They have large compound eyes and long slender abdomens.
• Leafhoppers & Cicadas: Observe two pairs of wings that form a tent over the insect’s body when it is not flying or jumping.
• Grasshoppers & Crickets (order, Orthoptera): Notice the long hind-legs of these jumping musicians of the field.
• True Bugs (order, Hemiptera): Look for the triangle shape on these creatures’ backs. The triangle is formed by the leathery forewings crossing each other when the insect is not flying. These insects have sucking mouth parts, whether they are supping on plant or animal juices. YUM!
If you are observing insects with an older child, you may stimulate a discussion with the following questions. If you were in charge of classifying or grouping insects, how might you group them differently? What criteria would you use? Would you also use physical characteristics that you could notice, such as color, body shape or size? Or do other characteristics jump out at you?
Insects are incredible! Take some time to investigate their delicate beauty and the diversity of species. They are marvelous reminders of the tenacity of life!
come on a journey of tracking at night,learn some of the mysteries and secrets of NIGHT TRACKING
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!
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.
Frank Grindrod of https://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.
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