Nature Nerd Presents: Turkey Tracks

It’s spring in Indiana, which means the weather is playing nasty tricks on us.  Yesterday it was 70 degrees and sunny; today it was 30 degrees and snowing lightly.  That’s a bit dramatic even for us local yokels but a couple of false starts before spring truly sticks are pretty common.  I thought I’d take advantage of the cold weather to showcase some snowy footprints I spotted during a women’s retreat a few weeks ago staying in a little cabin in the woods.

My friend Lisa is actually a much better Nature Nerd than I am and was able to identify all the footprints we spotted while I focused on capturing them on film.  (Check out our flickr page for footprints from deer, raccoons, possums, and other critters.)   I was most excited by the turkey tracks because I think turkeys are super cool.  This is mostly from when I housesat for my boss out in the boonies one summer and got to see turkeys walking across a meadow at sunset, surrounded by fireflies.  They looked like little dinosaurs with only their reptilian heads sticking above the grass.

Wonder what turkeys eat in the winter?  Well, as we followed their tracks around camp we came across this pile of cracked acorns.  They look like a lot of work to me but I’m guessing turkey beaks are more efficient at these sorts of tasks than I am.  I believe turkeys also depend on different kinds of seeds in the winter, including corn or other grains from nearby farm fields.  They probably were quite happy at the camp where we stayed, which had a variety of habitat types including open meadows, wooded ravines, a lake, and nearby farm fields.  In the summer they add berries and insects to their diet.

We saw quite a few animal tracks in the snow, especially around the creek, but I figured we probably wouldn’t see any animals themselves as I am not a particularly lightfooted hiker.  We were also working hard not to slip on the icy trails and generally paying more attention to our conversation than any efforts to be sneaky.  However, an hour into our hike we came up a hill and suddenly spied a flock of turkeys running down the trail from us.  Sorta.  They were pretty far off.  Can you see them?

Here’s a cropped version of the photo where they’re a little easier to spot.  Lisa tried to get closer but they are surprisingly fast runners with their bobbing little heads.  They also seem undaunted by steep hills and underbrush that left me panting.  Guess I am not cut out to be a wild turkey!

Ah, well.  We weren’t really planning on a turkey dinner anyway so I’m just happy we caught a glimpse.  Maybe next year we’ll see that beaver…

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Nature Nerd Presents Wild Edibles

Redbud tree in bloomThey say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach but I’ve found it to be equally true with children, especially if the food you are offering is exotic or intriguing in some way.  Kids are strangely drawn to disgusting and/or weird foods if they’re presented in the right way.  They may turn up their noses at mom’s brussel sprout special but if Nature Lady takes them outside and plucks something off the ground, they’re totally happy to eat it.

Part of the trick is peer pressure – there’s always one kid who will eat it and if he/she has any sort of strong reaction, everyone else has to try it too.  It’s kinda like that old stand up routine about the guy in every office who comes around saying “Man, this coffee is terrible!  Try it!”  The other trick is to  give kids just a small taste so it’s not like they’re eating a whole plate of it.  This time of year is great for sampling redbud tree blossoms.  Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are beautiful trees, one of the early spring bloomers, and they also have heart-shaped leaves that are pretty easy to identify.  The flowers are edible and were allegedly eaten by pioneers who were eager for some fresh vegetables.  The taste is, well, plant-like.  I think it tastes like grass or maybe a strong variety of lettuce.  A couple of kids told me it had a minty flavor.  Several descriptions I’ve read claim it has a nutty flavor.  I guess I should disclaim that I have a pretty uneducated palate; I’ve never been good at describing the tastes of wines or cheeses much beyond “I like it!” or “I don’t like it!”

Spring is my second favorite season (after fall) and I love introducing kids to frog calls and spring wildflowers but I find myself returning time and again to edible plants.  I did a presentation today with some kids at Unionville.  They were very excited to sample the redbud flowers and wild onions growing in the schoolyard and immediately began bringing me plants asking if they were edible.  I told them that I think of plants as being in three categories – edible, neutral (like grass; you can swallow it with no ill effects but you can’t actually digest it), and poisonous.  I can identify between 30 and 50 wild edibles and tend to leave everything else alone.  One of the boys was very disappointed and gestured around the schoolyard saying “You can only find two edible plants here?”  I pointed out a number of other plants that either weren’t ready or weren’t very kid-friendly –  red clover (flowers), wild black berry (fruit), autumn olive (fruit), dandelion (bitter greens), pine tree (tea from needles), sassafras tree (tea from roots), violets (flowers) – and he changed his tune.

“You sure know a lot of things,” he told me, shaking his head in awe.  It’s nice to be admired.

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Chilling in the Summer

We’ll blame the lack of posting yesterday on Will’s parents, who are in town for a whirlwind visit on their way to Saint Louis. We tried to show them our house (we hope soon) today but unfortunately, when the owners moved out they locked a lock that the realtor doesn’t have a key to. *sigh* So we walked around the outside and tried to describe what it looks like behind the blue vinyl and mini-blinds.

Life is a bit stressful these days between wedding planning and house buying and the long laundry list of projects I have piled on my plate, not realizing that even tiny commitments add up quickly. I am looking forward to a long holiday weekend and a chance to spend some time relaxing in the out-of-doors. The fireflies are out and the day lilies are in full bloom. I’m ready to lie on my back in a field looking up at the stars. I’m eager to walk in the woods and listen to the summer cicadas. Maybe I’ll make it down to the lake and throw myself in the water. I’m ready to reconnect with nature and with relaxation, in celebration of summer.

Happy Explosion Day.

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The Wedding

Maggie and I are back in Bloomington after another long drive. Rob and Angel’s wedding was beautiful. The ceremony was in my parents’ front yard, so we spent Friday making sure everything was perfect. That mostly consisted of shoveling rocks back into the pond (they’d been removed so that my dad could fix the pump), so I’ve been sore since then.

Saturday morning, there were lots of clouds but nothing more than a sprinkling of rain. The clouds were a bonus because they not only kept everything cool, they gave the wedding an even lighting that made the pictures turn out incredibly well. It was great to see all of the close family friends at the ceremony, especially when they stood and spoke about the couple.

Rob and Angel were married under the auspices of the Raleigh Friends Meeting (Quaker), so the ceremony consisted of about half an hour of silence punctuated by people standing and speaking when moved. After that, Angel’s sister read the marriage certificate and they exchanged vows. After ten more minutes of silent worship, everyone got up and talked, signed the certificate, and got something to eat. It was incredibly moving and very fun.

The reception was held at one of the lakes that forms Raleigh’s reservoir system. Although it looked pretty normal when we were there, although perhaps a little low, it was basically dry a year ago and was still several feet below normal even a couple months ago. There’s a lot of discussion now in Raleigh about what to do about the water supply. Based on the editorials and letters to the editor I read, the most popular views seem to be to increase the cost of water in a tiered system, to encourage individuals to continue to conserve water, or to hook Raleigh’s water supply to those of nearby cities.

My parents are doing their part. They have two new connected rain barrels that they use to refill the pond when it evaporates and to water the plants in the front yard. There’s also no grass (it’s all pine straw and plants), which means less need for watering, as does their proximity to the pond. The birds certainly appreciate the pond too! My dad had to shut it down for a couple of days to clean the pump, but as soon as he turned it back on, the robins jumped back in to bathe. The next step is to get some frogs to live in there and keep the water a little cleaner.

Overall, it was a great trip. I’m impressed with how well my parents were able to create a beautiful natural space in the middle of Raleigh and I’m jealous that my brother got to use it for his wedding! :)

Once I unpack my camera, I’ll post some wedding pictures here so that you all can see what I mean.

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Book Review: Last Child in the Woods

Last Child in the Woods by Richard LouvI just finished “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv.  It’s on a lot of “must read” book lists and has generated a lot of enthusiasm for getting kids outdoors, while also creating some controversy.  The basic concept is that kids need exposure to nature in order to be physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy but our society has made it really difficult.  Some of the major obstacles are lack of open spaces, excessively busy schedules, fear of letting children explore outdoor areas, and concern of potential liability when kids do activities where they might get hurt like (gasp) climbing trees.

Most of the book was information I had heard before and parts of it were a bit dry but I enjoyed the way he wove it all together and came up with suggested solutions that attack the issue from multiple levels – getting our own children outdoors, exploring ways to bring environmental learning into our schools, and lobbying to have more nature-friendly city design.

I was most excited about reading his descriptions of Green Towns and other nature-friendly urban planning concepts.  I have toyed with the idea of being an urban planner for many years because I feel we could create really amazing places to live if we put some effort into it.  Sometimes I think the biggest challenge is convincing people to let go of the status quo.  People seem to worry a lot that switching to more eco-friendly designs will decrease their quality of life but I don’t think it’s true.  Wouldn’t we all enjoy living in towns were we could walk to the store or to work and where we had beautiful natural spaces to enjoy?  I think we just need to let go of the idea that life is incomplete without wide roads and 100% climate control.

In the end, I have not entered the realm of urban planning because redesigning cities is a very slow process that involves years of patient negotiation with a wide variety of stakeholders – community members who have various needs and desires, governments that are interested in maximizing property tax income while minimizing infrastructure costs, developers who want to stay in business, preservationists who want to save various historical sites and buildings, transportation networks, and oh, so many more.  It is not a battle I’m ready to take on.  Not yet, anyway.  But I do believe one of the best things any community can do is to develop a vision of what they *might* look like if everything worked out right.  Not a utopia.  Not some dream of perfection.  But a semi-realistic concept of a town that integrated into the ecological landscape, that supported the needs of all living beings in the area.  Humans are definitely important but I think the way for us to protect ourselves is to do a better job protecting everything else.

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Nature Nerd Presents Frog Calls

ball of frog eggsThere are many kinds of nerds in the world and I have been accused of belonging to several categories but the title I wear with pride is that of “Nature Nerd.”  This year I’m even lucky enough to get paid for my nature nerdliness by teaching kids about the great outdoors.  I did a presentation yesterday teaching second graders about trees.  They thought the sassafras twigs I brought in for them to smell were the coolest thing ever.

I feel that appreciating nature is an important part of green living.  As Scott Russell Sanders once said, we only protect what we love and we only love what we know.  So I’m always excited to teach – and to learn – about the natural world. 

Next week I’ll be teaching a group of third graders about frogs.  This is an awesome time of year to talk about frogs because they’re out doing their mating calls and producing huge quantities of eggs, including the alien-looking globule in the photo.  I found it at a girl scout camp a few weeks ago and just had to touch it.  It was totally cool.

Here in Indiana, this is a great time to go out in the evening and listen for frogs.  All you need is a nearby body of water.  The frogs are generally louder when it’s warmer and they will go silent if you make too much noise.  Here are three of my favorite frog calls.  (To hear some clips, check out this University of Michigan frog call site or these video clips of Midwest Frogs created by the Chicago Herpetological Society.)

If it sounds high and squeaky like a baby chicken, it’s probably a Spring Peeper, and boy can they be loud!

If it sounds like a twangy rubber band, it’s probably a green frog.

If it sounds like a shrilling alarm clock, it’s probably actually an American toad.

Happy frogging!

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