Posts Tagged ‘nearby nature’

It’s been a good while since I’ve posted, this being the time of year when I’m completely consumed with high school soccer, but I thought I’d take a moment and announce Postcard from the Outback’s next adventure: Paddle Georgia 2011. During the week of June 18–24, the boys and I will be canoeing the Oconee River from Athens to Dublin.  We’re pretty excited—after our 10,000 mile road trip last year, we’re looking to scale back and stay closer to home this summer, and this trip feels more than adventurous and ambitious enough to be a worthy follow-up.

Step one: Liberate my brother’s canoe from my mom’s place. He bought it many years back for his solo journey down the Mississippi River, and it has to be hankering for more action than puddling around the pond behind her house. I hope it’s still in river-worthy shape!


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Here’s a fact seemingly forgotten in our wired-wimpy-shopping-mall world: kids are natural little outdoor people.  It is we, the adults, that turn them into indoor people.  If you don’t get off the computer, why should they?

—Mark Jenkins, from Wild with Child: Adventures of Families in the Great Outdoors

On Friday evening I watched a fascinating online TED Talk by Richard Preston about climbing the Coast Redwoods of California.  While I was suitably wowed by his explanation of the intricate structure and ecology of these amazing trees, I was also inspired by his story of how learning to climb trees with his kids had led him to this particular writing project.  A quick internet search led me to Atlanta-based Tree Climbers International, and yesterday the boys and I joined them at a local park for one of their bimonthly Beginners Climbs.

Will gets the basics down under the watchful eye of TCI founder Peter “Treeman” Jenkins.

As a kid, I knew and loved a number of climbable neighborhood trees—two mature Magnolias in particular—but TCI sets much loftier targets, using roped climbing techniques to ascend trees that would be otherwise impossible, to access a world otherwise off-limits. When we arrived on Sunday afternoon, they had a towering Willow Oak already rigged with a dozen or so lines reaching up into the various levels of its crown. After listening to a short orientation and getting fitted with harnesses and helmets, we were off.

Andrew, in particular, is totally unfazed by heights.

Will had more of an “invisible ceiling.”  Still, that picnic table is a long way down.

Looking down past my feet. The “architecture” up here was fascinating.

What the pictures can’t show is the wind on this particular afternoon, enough to keep the canopy in nearly constant motion yet not enough (evidently) to put dangerous strain on the tree.  The more muscular gusts allowed us to experience “tree surfing,” and I was reminded more than once of John Muir’s joyful account of ascending a tall tree in the Sierras to better experience a windstorm.

Andrew, tree surfing.

The climbing itself was pretty straightforward and didn’t require any particular skill—as beginners, we were ascending pre-rigged top-ropes, after all—but I was proud of how quickly the boys got the rhythm down and mastered the simple safety knot they needed to tie periodically as they ascended.  They had an absolute blast and felt very accomplished and cool afterwards.  We would definitely do this again.

As for me, I’m at least mildly tempted by the thought of learning enough to do it independently, tree climbing being a far more “local” technical pursuit than kayaking or rock climbing—and I’ve got a massive Water Oak in the thicket behind my house that suddenly looks very different to my two little tree frogs!

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As a part of a committee exploring the topic of “sustainability” for our current re-accreditation self-study, I helped to deliver a workshop on sustainability education during our Faculty Forum in-service days at the beginning of this school year. While other committee members gave tours of our new greenhouse and organic garden and introduced the solar photovoltaic array we installed last spring, I (re)introduced my peers to a little pocket of campus woodland and, in doing so, offered some thoughts about best practices in environmental education.  What follows, the first of an occasional series about “reinhabiting campus,” is both a distillation and an expansion of the thoughts I had to offer my colleagues on that sweltering day in August.

On my school’s campus, a paved walkway through the trees connects an older structure known as the “Gym in the Woods” to our state-of-the-art elementary school building. Every day, scores of youngsters and their teachers walk this path on their way to P.E. class, descending a forested slope and crossing a tiny tributary of Nancy Creek on a footbridge at the bottom.  I wonder what our students see as they traverse this space.  Do they know and love these woods as part of “a community to which we belong,” to borrow Aldo Leopold’s famous phrase, or does this leafy corridor pass by as a green blur, mere backdrop to their transit?  Students and faculty alike, we are proud of our 180-acre campus, but how well do we know its stories?  For most of us, this little cove forest is a forgotten corner, one among many.  But if we really took the time to get to know our campus, what might it have to teach us, and how might it change us?

Several years ago, as our school planned for construction of a new Junior High building, this particular hillside was considered as a possible site. However, the tract was eventually rejected because it is home to some sort of threatened or endangered plant species, I’ve been told.  I don’t know any details about the plant in question, and neither, so far, does anyone else that I’ve asked. And yet here’s a real opportunity to make learning about endangered species, which is (I presume) a part of our curriculum, more experiential and less abstract for our students.  First-hand experience in an increasingly virtual world—here’s an opening not to be missed.  In an age when kids can easily research far-flung examples like pandas and tigers and seas turtles on the internet, we run a high risk of making important ecological concepts too abstract and disconnected from their everyday lives and surroundings.  At its heart, good environmental education should be experiential, should work to reverse this tendency toward abstraction and disconnection (which lies at the heart of all of our environmental problems), not perpetuate it.

Even though I don’t know any specifics about the plant in question (being in need of some experiential learning, myself), I’d speculate that this particular population’s future is cloudy at best.  Even if this pocket of woodland remains safe from future development, it (like many of the forested areas on campus) is being steadily overrun by invasive species—English ivy and Chinese privet and some sort of teeming bamboo.  Left unchecked, these alien invaders will steadily crowd out native species, both rare and common alike—that’s what invasive species do.  And yet here’s another opportunity—with hard work and commitment and the right expertise, invasive species can be controlled and even removed. Forests can be restored to health, as Trees Atlanta does around the city with impressive results. Given the flood of bad news regarding the environment faced by youth today, good environmental education includes service learning to encourage a sense of possibility and empowerment where there might otherwise be despair and withdrawal. Our students could work to research, design, and implement a restoration plan for this little watershed.  In doing so, they would personally take part in the protection of an endangered species and develop both the connection and the commitment to the natural world that effective environmental education should foster.

And from there?  Lately I’ve become a regular reader of the blog Blue Jay Barrens, a daily chronicle of a property in Southern Ohio that is “managed to improve the integrity of the special ecosystems found here.” Author Steve Wilson shares a wealth of information on local human and natural history and ecology, the result of careful and sustained attention to his natural neighborhood. In Steve’s blog I see a possible model which our students might emulate, providing the impetus for their own careful and sustained observations as well as an opportunity to write for and connect with an authentic audience. Sharing their experiences of getting to know this place, documenting its richness in words and images, they’d be both reinforcing their own connections and helping to educate the wider school community. Moreover, such a project moves environmental education beyond it’s Science Department beachhead, and good environmental education is transdisciplinary. The current educational paradigm of rigid disciplinary separation is one that denies the basic ecological principle of interconnection, one that inhibits our students’ ability to productively participate in a rapidly changing world beset with challenges that are transdisciplinary by nature.

Update: Middlewood Journal is another blog (featuring beautifully illustrated nature journal entries) that I follow.  It’s also a great model for the kind of transdisciplinary work our students could do.

Ultimately, we have much to learn about this community to which we belong, and I entertain a vision that we might reorient segments of our curriculum around becoming informed and engaged community members. We can start by learning about our campus’ history, both natural and human. We can gather scientific data to document and monitor its biodiversity. We can conduct meaningful restoration work and track the results. Networking with audiences near and far, we can share our story of learning to meaningfully and responsibly reinhabit campus.

Exactly how this all happens—well, I don’t know exactly.  For starters, the metronomic fracturing of the standard school day presents an obvious barrier, as does the reality of well-entrenched departmental curricular aims.

But those are topics for other posts . . . I don’t want to give up the vision just yet.

Want to hear more?  The thread continues with reinhabiting campus: a starting point.

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Of all the reading I’ve done in the field of teaching and tree-hugging, David Sobel’s Beyond Ecophobia is one of two or three titles that I return to regularly, one that has profoundly influenced my thinking.  It’s a slim little volume, all of 45 pages, that asks some important questions about environmental education. Here’s an excerpt from a magazine article/summary where he outlines his concerns:

What really happens when we lay the weight of the world’s environmental problems on eight and nine year-olds already haunted with too many concerns and not enough real contact with nature?

The crux of the issue is the developmental appropriateness of environmental curricula. One problem we have in schools is premature abstraction – we teach too abstractly, too early. Mathematics educators have recently realized that premature abstraction was one of the major causes of math phobia among children in the primary grades. Unable to connect the signs and symbols on the paper with the real world, many children were turning off to math. Mathematics instruction has been reinvigorated in the last two decades through the use of concrete materials (such as cuisinaire rods, fraction bars, and Unifix cubes) and the grounding of math instruction in the stuff and problems of everyday life. The result has been the turning of the tide against math phobia.

Perhaps to be replaced by ecophobia – a fear of ecological problems and the natural world. Fear of oil spills, rainforest destruction, whale hunting, acid rain, the ozone hole, and Lyme disease. Fear of just being outside. If we prematurely ask children to deal with problems beyond their understanding and control, then I think we cut them off from the possible sources of their strength.

In response to physical and sexual abuse, children learn distancing techniques, ways to cut themselves off from the pain. My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum will end up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused, and they just don’t want to have to deal with it.

I propose that there are healthy ways to foster environmentally aware, empowered students. We can cure the malaise of ecophobia with ecophilia –supporting children’s biological tendency to bond with the natural world.

And then, right at the end, this single sentence that has resonated with me  for years:

If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.

I thought about all of this at the end of last week when Will came home from school talking about the problem of plastics accumulating in our oceans, sharing details about how plastic debris can be found in seafood or how, in the vast mid-ocean eddy currents, smaller fragments outnumber plankton.

Is this an important topic?  Well, yes, of course.  If I could, I’d make every adult in the world watch this eye-opening TED Talk video.  But would I show it to 8-year-old kids?  I know what David Sobel would say.  To his credit, Will has biophilia strong enough that this little bit of grim news isn’t going to snuff it.  His response has been one of earnest concern, not distancing and disengagement. (Perhaps he’ll help me lean on Belinda to stop buying bottled water for the kids to drink in our backyard.)  And I give credit to his teacher (she’s just generally awesome) for taking the class down to Whetstone Creek to do a little clean-up, hands-on service learning encouraging a sense of possibility and empowerment where there might otherwise be despair and withdrawal.  Nonetheless, I agree with Sobel that a steady diet of this kind of environmental awareness, no matter how well intentioned, cannot be developmentally appropriate for kids his age.  For my own part, I don’t breathe a word to the boys of my profound disquiet and worry about environmental trends.

Instead, I just keep taking them outside, doing what I can to instill a biophilia durable enough to encourage and sustain engagement in the future.  Over Labor Day weekend we made a visit to the Newman Wetlands Center, one of my favorite nature getaways in the Atlanta metro area.

Walking the half-mile boardwalk trail, we saw fish, turtles, snakes, and a pair of whitetail deer at surprisingly close quarters.  Preserved in the mud, there were all sorts of intriguing animal tracks to speculate about.  But the big attraction at mid-afternoon in late summer has to be the dragonflies, a bewildering and bewitching diversity of Odonata.  We came equipped with binoculars and a good field guide and learned to identify Blue Dasher, Eastern Pondhawk (male and female), Common Whitetail (male and female), and Common Green Darner.  All three of us brought our journals to record our findings and impressions.  And all three of us came away feeling the love.  At my boys’ ages, that’s the most important outcome for environmental education.  Even if it can’t be easily assessed by standardized tests.

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Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we live, the landscape that for better or for worse we call our home.   —William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness”

I came downstairs this morning to find the kids already up and getting ready to settle in for a round of cartoon watching, but I managed to lure them away from the screen and out into the yard by offering to let them use my good camera on a bug hunt, taking an idea I first saw on Rick Van Noy’s Dirt World blog.  “Find me a Praying Mantis,” I said, and they were off (after a brief care-and-feeding-of-camera lesson).  I had never let them use my Olympus unsupervised before, and that opportunity proved more seductive than Phineas and Ferb.  (Truth be told, they weren’t entirely unsupervised this morning, either; I just let them feel that way.)

In the end, they didn’t find a Praying Mantis (neither did Van Noy’s daughter), but they came back with eighty-nine snapshots after thirty minutes or so, a few of which turned out to be keepers.  Over the years, I’ve put in a lot of plants to attract butterflies, and this made the hunting easy on a warm summer’s morning.

Gulf Fritillary—worth clicking on to get the full-sized view

But the fun didn’t end there.  When we came inside and loaded the pictures on the computer, it was time to turn to my butterfly field guide and figure out just what they had come up with.  We won’t stake our reputation on all of our identifications, but we’re pretty sure we’ve come close—the boys can at least tell a Sulphur from a Fritillary from a Skipper.  And viewing the good shots at full size was a revelation: “Whoa, look at its eyes!” shouted Andrew when we magnified a Gulf Fritillary, the camera recording detail that we certainly would have missed otherwise.

Gulf Fritillary—also particularly impressive at full size

Cloudless Sulphur

Pearl Crescent

Hummingbird Moth (looks enough like a bumblebee to give Andrew a fright when it buzzed him)

Bumblebee “hugging” the business end of a flower

After our summer of wandering the continent, I was glad to see them so engaged with the natural world right at our doorstep.  I’ll be curious to see how this activity lingers with them—when they finally do find a Praying Mantis, I bet they come running for my camera.

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On Sunday, the boys and I went to visit one of the most important places in the landscape of my youth, a little woodland in my old neighborhood called Alexander Park.  This undeveloped tract preserves some twelve acres of forest in a steep creek valley, a linear greenspace mostly hidden from view behind houses.  Driving past on East Wesley, you wouldn’t think much of its tiny bit of road frontage, might not know it was there at all except for a single grave-like granite monument at the edge of the trees.  During my early years in that neighborhood, I thought the Alexander Park headstone monument simply marked the little clearing of grass at the roadside, and I thought “that’s not much of a park.” Nonetheless, there came an age when my friends and I were destined to follow the creek that ran behind Garden Hills Pool and see where it went, and so we crossed over East Wesley and entered into another world.

I’m not sure how old I was or whom I was with (though I can make a pretty good guess that I was in 3rd or 4th grade—funny how those two years dominate memories of my childhood), but I’ll never forget our delicious sense of discovery and surprise when we found a narrow trail winding its way back through the trees into a hidden kingdom.  Our kingdom.  It was big, it was wild, it was a place apart from our normal worlds.  I was thrilled to discover later that these woods stretched to within a block of my house (who knew!), that I could access the sanctuary with a couple of judicious backyard cut-throughs.  Perhaps nostalgia colors my recollection, but from that day on it seems my friends and spent every free hour down in Alexander Park.  We built forts.  We climbed trees.  We hunted each other with toy guns (the rule was you had to count to 30 when someone yelled “BLAM—got you!” before continuing).  More than anything I remember playing in the creek—wading around looking for crawdads, staging elaborate amphibious assaults of sandy beaches with our plastic army men, frantically trying to build earthen dams faster than the creek could overtop them.  We never saw other kids back there, much less any adults.  Our parents certainly never came to check on us.

In fact, I wonder now just what they were thinking.  What did they think we were up to?  Were they worried at all?  How can it be they didn’t come check the place out themselves, make sure it was safe?  I’m not saying that they should have so much as I’m wondering what’s wrong with me and my peers now that we’re parents.  Have we become weenies?  If I still lived in Garden Hills, would I let my boys have the same sort of experiences?  Perhaps I can’t answer this question yet as they’re still on the young side, perhaps my mind will change, but my gut says I’d be too concerned about water quality and too nervous about their running into shady characters to just let them run free.  In particular, I find it hard to shake an offhand comment from a classmate back in high school that Alexander Park had become an illicit trysting place, a comment that filled my woods with all sorts of bogeymen over the years.  By that age I was no longer heading for the creek every free afternoon, and so it was all too easy for fear to fill a space that had become unknown again.

I had all of these questions in mind as the boys and I crossed East Wesley and slipped into the trees.  The path is still there—somebody still uses it—and the impression of entering a different world is still there, too.  “This is like the mountains,” Andrew shouted out as he pattered along, the terrain being surprisingly rugged, the trees impressively large.  As a kid, I guess I didn’t give much thought to the trees, but I was transfixed by them on this visit—towering white oaks and massive smooth-skinned beech trees and a few remnant grandfather pines, an exceptionally dense and diverse canopy for intown Atlanta.  I don’t know the technical definition for “old growth” forest, but that’s what it feels like to me.  Growing up, how lucky I was to have this little pocket of wilderness so close by.  And how strange and sad it is that so few people seemed to appreciate or even know about its existence.

Unfortunately, the neglect shows.  On Sunday I was immediately struck by how invasives have taken over in the nearly thirty years(!) since I last visited.  Not that I had naturalist sensibilities at age ten, but I knew already that a thick English Ivy groundcover was a pain in the ass to traverse (we had a big area of ivy in our yard at home), and so I’m confident in my memory that Alexander Park wasn’t filled with it.  Moreover, I remember a mostly open and airy forest, big rooms of space under the soaring canopy, not the dense jungle of privet and wisteria that would have made tearing after each other with plastic guns impossible.  Unfortunately, such is the fate of untended urban woodlands.  Fortunately, this deterioration is reversible; take a look at these pictures from the Forest Restoration page at Trees Atlanta’s website to see before-and-after shots of another Atlanta natural area following an organized privet pull.  (For kicks, I’m going to email Trees Atlanta and see what it might take for Alexander Park to be next.)

And then there’s the issue of water quality.  I don’t know how bad it is—and can’t imagine that it’s any worse than it was when I was a kid—but the orange slime covering all the rocks gave me the creeps.  I picked up a few to look for aquatic macroinvertebrates on their undersides and came up empty, but I wonder what a more comprehensive survey would reveal.  I didn’t find any crawdads, either, but I was admittedly reluctant to reach in too far for bigger rocks to flip over.  And of course there was all the God-knows-what that had washed in from upstream: empty plastic soft drink bottles and flattened aluminium beer cans and strips of yellow police-line tape.  Nonetheless, it was all I could do to keep the boys from trying to baptise themselves as they scurried along the banks, gleefully following leaf boats negotiating micro rapids and searching for flat rocks to try to skip in the one slow, deep pool we found.  Wouldn’t it be great if there really were clean creeks close by for our children to play in?  Nothing could be healthier.  (And perhaps my squeamishness is unjustified?)

Hey residents of my old neighborhood—you have a real treasure in (literally) your back yards!  Take good care of it and it will take good care of your kids.

Update: I had the opportunity tonight to ask my parents about their thinking back then.  My dad’s comment: “I never even thought to worry, figured you were okay.  It was never an issue that your mom and I ever talked about as far as I can recall.”  My mom’s reaction: “I don’t think I knew that’s where you were.  You probably just said you were going to a friend’s house.”  I got the impression it would have been an issue had she known.  Good thing I was sneaky, I guess.

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In his recent blog post titled Near is the New Far, author Richard Louv writes about the importance of “nearby nature” and wonders if rising gas prices might force us to stay closer to home as we chase our next outdoor fix—and if doing so might lead us to live in more rewarding urban environments: “If we stick around long enough, we might even protect what’s left, reclaim poorly used land, and create new habitat.”

I have to admit that expensive gas has put a damper on my getting outside with Will and Andrew since we returned from our summer odyssey.  I could justify the expense when it came to driving cross-country for an extended trip, but I’m not as enthusiastic about the outlay for a casual weekend, much less a day trip—driving three to four hours round-trip to take them day hiking in the mountains just isn’t as attractive when $40 of gas is involved.  For that matter, my kayaking has taken a big hit this year, too.  Metro Atlanta’s sprawl has never felt like so much of a prison as it does right now.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the city were a nicer place to play?

But as much as I’d like Louv’s vision to play out, I admit my gut response to his call to stay closer to home is not a positive one.  Perhaps a young adulthood spent pursuing wilderness experiences has spoiled me, but it’s hard for me to be enthusiastic about these degraded places. When I take my boys down to the admittedly scenic Chattahoochee River, I have a hard time ignoring the old tennis balls and discarded styrofoam cups that float by (much less the posted e-coli warnings). When we visit the little patch of woodland left in my neighborhood, all my eyes seem to see is the invasive Chinese Privet and English Ivy that has overtaken the place.  I know this attitude is counterproduitive, but I’ve been unable to help myself.

In this respect, I seem to have been infected by the dualistic view of nature that William Cronon rails against in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness”: “Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we live, the landscape that for better or for worse we call our home.” Doesn’t this societal mindset just lead to home’s continuing degradation?

Well, it’s said that the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one.  Now that our summer swelter has finally abated, I’m commited to giving nearby nature a second chance, so this will be the first in a series of posts over the next few months as the boys and I explore our nearby faraway.

Last weekend, I took Will and Andrew to Boat Rock Preserve, a popular urban bouldering area preserved and managed by the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, a destination only 15 minutes from home.  This being our second visit, Will was so fired up that he took a Sharpie to a t-shirt he made at camp last summer and wrote “Boat Rock” on the back for the occasion.

We spent a good two hours exploring the area, clambering over and under and between all the boulders.  The boys could have stayed longer, but I was mentally worn out by that point, as the boys kept finding formations that might have an easy walk-up on one side and a nasty drop on the other.  This is not the sort of place where I could take a book and kick back while the boys run wild.

The good: It’s relatively close by, and the rock formations are definitely something to behold, with plenty of cool nooks and crannies to explore.  The woods in and around the boulders are a scenic oak/hickory climax community and have not been overrun with invasives, so it’s a pleasant little piece of forest.  And I don’t think we’ve seen it all; for all the climbers’ cars in the little parking lot, we didn’t see many people, so there must be more to the area.  Kudos to the SCC for saving this area from the bulldozers.

Will does laps up the crack on this little slab.

Will in particular loves climbing, though there aren’t many easy routes on these egg-shaped boulders.  Next time, I may bring my own rock shoes and clamber around a bit, too.  I’m nowhere near my fighting weight, and bouldering has always seemed to me like a good way to break an ankle, but I do miss climbing.

Happy for the chance to wear his rock shoes again.

Poor Andrew can’t really climb yet, his toes still slowly healing, but he enjoyed exploring all the boulders nonetheless.

The bad: Boat Rock is not in the best part of town.  The area is gentrifying (hence the development pressures that nearly doomed it), but it was nonetheless hard not to think about my car back on the roadside; evidently break-ins have been a problem here.  Traffic noise is very noticable.  And while climbers have done a pretty good job of cleaning the area up, there’s still a good bit of trash at the margins (like a mysterious pile of old athletic socks along the trail to the pond).

The ugly (or at least creepy): Our turn-around point was the little lake tucked back in the woods where , according to local legend, Atlanta police found the submerged bodies of six children back in the eighties, supposed victims of the “Marietta Mangler.”  Creepy.  While we sat on a big rock at the water’s edge and snacked, a guy drove his ramshackle van drove down the dirt road on the far shore, got out, and started fishing.  Given that he was dropping his catch into an empty five-gallon paint bucket, I’m pretty sure he was fishing for subsistence, not sport.  My spidey-sense was telling me I didn’t want to know what else he had in his van.  About that time, Will gushed “This would be a great place to camp.”  Ummm, no. I just told him it was against the rules.

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