Monthly Archives: February 2010

Mom’s Gifts of Nature

Today would have been my mom, Bunnie’s, 77th birthday. She died four years ago after a long illness. We were close but our relationship was not without rocky patches. Since I began working for Children & Nature Network a couple of months ago, I can say without hesitation that my appreciation for her has grown. There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t thought about her influence on my enjoyment of nature and the gifts she gave me in that regard.

The gift of walking. My mom didn’t drive. In L.A., a place built especially for transportation by car. As a result, we walked everywhere when I was little. She walked with my brother and I to different parks and playgrounds, talking to us the whole time. She ran errands on foot (and then by bike when we were older), so that we had a sense of our place on the earth and in our community. We knew neighbors and shopkeepers and had a different kind of life than the kids who were driven places.

It helped that my parents had settled in Santa Monica, which they chose because it was (and is) a very walkable, livable place, with real streets where there are neighbor-serving businesses (this part has diminished over the years, as the businesses have largely gone upscale) and good public transportation. I rode the bus by myself at age 9. Pretty much everyone walked, biked, or bussed to and from school. I only recall a couple of rides to school ever, and those would have been early mornings in high school, when my dad would take me before he and Mom went to work.

I love to walk to this day. I enjoy the activity in itself, and a pace that allows you to engage with your surroundings and neighbors.

The gift of splashing in puddles. We didn’t have snow in Southern California, but we did get rain. My mom was not one to let the weather impede any plans. Dressed appropriately, in raincoats and boots, we were encouraged not only to walk in the rain but to enjoy it and to splash in the puddles. Her attitude was, “Who’s afraid of a little rain?” and I adapted it in junior high when I secretly looked down on my peers for using umbrellas. This seems a bit guerrilla now, but the spirit holds. To little kids, especially, rain is something to be enjoyed, not cowered from. And children’s bodies and clothes are meant for play.

The gift of summer camp. My mom was a Brooklyn girl, but her childhood memories from upstate New York’s Camp Guilford and Oxford had deeply imprinted on her. She talked lovingly of classic camp activities like archery and color wars. My parents worked summers; There were not a lot of family vacations. But what my brother and I did have was camp. I got to go to camp for nine summers, seven of them at Tumbleweed Day Camp, beginning incredibly enough when I was four.

I loved everything about Tumbleweed. It was in a gorgeous, special spot in the Santa Monica Mountains. Days began and ended by sitting by group in an amphitheater made of logs, singing folk songs. (I can still sing the camp and other songs.) I learned to swim there, and ride horses, and jump on a trampoline. We had cookouts and sleepouts and dress-up days. In the 70s we did modern dance to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” while the boys played caroms. There were nature hikes. (I learned about poison oak and bee stings.) We cared for animals and made lanyards and paint-and-macaroni covered cigar boxes. There was one camp craft I loved so much that we started doing it at home, too — gathering items from nature and placing them in a paper cup, pouring resin over the items so that the whole hardened into a medallion, and then drilling a hole and stringing it to make a necklace.

Because I loved camp so much (can you tell?), I sent my own daughter to camp and sought the most classic, outdoor-oriented ones I could find. So far she has attended five years of JCC Day Camp and three years at Mountain Meadow Ranch in California’s Lassen County, and I believe her experiences have been formative.

The gift of independent exploration. There is no doubt some personality trait involved, but I got on that camp bus by myself at age 4, and it wasn’t even an issue. I also, from maybe age 5 or 6 on, regularly took my own “adventure walks” around our neighborhood — with age-appropriate limits, like working up to crossing streets. My mom championed and encouraged these. She understood the power of exploring on ones own, the serendipity of what might transpire. That I called these “adventure walks”, even though they were in a neighborhood of suburban apartments, speaks volumes. Any walk can be an adventure, given the right spirit and desire to find something new. To this day, I enjoy being in a new place, whether it’s an exotic location or somewhere a bit more close-by and mundane. I like to have map and resources, to consult if need be, but I’ll also let curiosity take me someplace if I’m pretty certain I can find my way back. (Warning: This does not always fit others’ comfort levels.)

The gift of quiet and observation in nature. I believe I inherited my mom’s mix of gregariousness and solitude. On the solitude end of the scale, she loved any walk in nature, in various seasons, usually with her twin-lens Rolleiflex camera. (A camera case is visible in the above picture of her, which was taken among cherry blossoms in Japan.) She would slowly stroll, pausing often to aim her camera and look down into its viewfinder to compose her shots. She took great pictures — in New England falls, of the plants in the park near our house, in the Japanese gardens she loved. As it does with me, I believe nature provided her a kind of meditation. The photography was an activity within it, and then a result. It was fun in itself but also a way to harness and focus observation. On my early walks, I took a notebook. I now often carry a notebook and a camera. And, if my family is any indication, I can take just as long as Mom did to compose and take a shot.

The gift of appreciation of nature. My mom’s appreciation for the beauty of nature was apparent in her photos, and also in our home. She had a beautiful rose garden, which she lovingly tended. Once a week, she’d pick roses from it and arrange them in vases that would be placed around our house. She seemed to spend hours arranging them to please her aesthetic eye. I have memories of the lovely rose smells, the snipped stems on our kitchen counter, and also of her being lost in the activity, as her slender fingers repositioned the open roses in their vases. Here, I believe I have her eye but lack some of her patience.

Come to think of it, I especially enjoy taking pictures of wildflowers. Perhaps wildflowers embody much of the above, and so much of the gifts available in nature: serendipity and discovery, solitary enjoyment, continuing wonder and delight, appreciation, and sheer beauty of form.

For all these gifts of and in nature, Thank You, Mom!


Who Brought you to Gardening?

As a wonderful treat yesterday, I awoke to a lovely post on my friend Alison Kerr’s blog, Loving Nature’s Garden. Alison is a very talented observer of the natural world. From her, I’ve learned all about birds, flowers, and critters; ideas for getting myself and others outdoors; and Alison’s special relationship with her own Kansas habitat, which she shares with a great deal of wisdom and humor. And did I mention how thorough she is?

Her new post is about all the people who have influenced her to be a gardener, a wonderful trail back to her grandfather who bought baby leeks, her grandmothers who made rhubarb pie and grew wildflowers, and her mother who grew improbably warm-weather crops in Scotland. All these threads of course led to Alison’s own love of gardening and the way it connects her to family members who came before. It is a beautiful piece, with great pictures of everyone, and of course it led to a flood of hearfelt comments from readers sharing their own memories of the people who influenced them to love getting their hands dirty and growing things.

She got me thinking about my own gardening heritage, which I shared:

My family has always grown something, on patios and decks, in windowboxes and raised beds. At 9 we moved from an apartment to an old house that miraculously had a greenhouse, great beds and soil, and wonderful sun. My mom grew beautiful roses and spent lots of time lovingly cutting and arranging them. She had long, pretty fingers and I can still see picture them tending to her roses.

My dad and I took to the greenhouse, to propagate and experiment. Into the beds went cucumbers, tomatoes, marigolds, zinnias, and other cheery and fairly easy flowers. My dad worked hard at his job and gardening was a way to spend relaxing, fascinating time together.

I still always grow something, now with my own daughter. I love sowing the seeds, watching new shoots come in. Our shadier spot is home to peas, lettuce, pansies, cosmos, and tulips that are just coming up now.

I really appreciate Alison’s continuing inspiration and her getting me to think about who brought me to gardening, which I probably would not have done without the prompt. (Such can be the beauty of the internet.) I recommend you take a look at Loving Nature’s Garden, and visit often. There’s always a link to it on my front page.

My mom was also an avid photographer. The rose pictures are ones she took of her garden.

Here is my dad with a prized cucumber from a fruitful growing season.

Photos by Bunnie Sachs and Susan Sachs Lipman

New British Study about Nature Disconnect

A new study from Great Britain bodes poorly for children and their outdoor lives. According to researchers at Hertfordshire University, while most children are open to outdoor play, their parents are not, and a lack of confidence is often the reason.

Parents are overly fearful, the survey said. They fear cars, injury, abduction, ending up on private property, children running away, and .. dirt. From the study:

There seems to be an obsession about cleanliness. Perhaps because children are in expensive clothes, mud seems to be abhorrent.

What happened to play clothes? Are children showpieces? It makes sense to use inexpensive or used clothing precisely for play, to be dirtied and stained. Play is the job of children! Dress them appropriately and let them explore.

Another issue? Lack of map-reading skills. Said senior lecturer Debbie Pearlman Hogue:

None of the mothers I spoke to could read a map.

This is downright pitiful. As a result of skewed priorities and an extreme lack of skills, a whole generation is being deprived of outdoor play and experiences which, in turn, is going to render each successive generation increasingly bereft of experiences and abilities until we all just stay huddled inside our homes.

Poul Christensen, chairman of Natural England, says:

Children are being denied the fundamental sense of independence and freedom in nature that their parents enjoyed.

Children now want more opportunities to play outdoors. Whether through pond dipping or tree climbing, nature-based activities can play an important role in the educational and social development of children.

England’s Royal Society for the Arts points to a “risk averse” culture in which “youngsters were being deprived of the freedom to develop, to manage and take risks – and, ultimately, to grow up.” Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to England – It’s prevalent in the U.S. and in much of the industrialized world.

How can we reverse this unhealthy trend? A few ideas:

Make outdoor play a public priority by designing parks and safe, green play spaces.

Make outdoor play a personal priority by getting outdoors as a family or joining a nature club.

Educate parents about legitimate and unfounded fears.

Learn to enjoy wild spaces and trails as much as mediated, organized playgrounds and parks.

Dress kids appropriately for play and weather.

Walk instead of driving when possible.

Make friends with your neighbors.

Learn to read a map and kindle a sense of adventure about going somewhere new.

This site explains map reading and also offers some exercises and games for beginning map readers.

As an aside, I’ve always loved maps and atlases. I appreciate knowing the “lay of the land”, getting the big picture. For that reason, I don’t rely on GPS devices in cars. They remind me of driving through a tunnel, being told only what I need to know. I’d rather be armed with information and perspective. I fear that devices like GPS, while helpful, also tend to do the work for you, and that their prominence will only render people less capable of navigating their own, not to mention other, neighborhoods.

If kids and adults merely go out their doors and explore, and engage in simple map use and games, like treasure hunts, they’ll find themselves empowered to use maps and they’ll have a lot of fun. Look for treasure hunt tips in a future post.

Kings Norton Park in Birmingham, England: benkid77, Map of Twickenham, England: Creative Commons

Snapshot: Spring is Just Around the Corner

With apologies to those who are still buried in snow, I’ve really been feeling it lately — the first blush of spring. A few warm spots of sun, trees beginning to bud and even flower.

Sweet, small goldfinches called from this cherry tree. Petals sprinkled from a plum tree on our street. Acacia trees have been blooming with bright yellow. There seems to be new life all around.

Not long now ..

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

The Great Backyard Bird Count

On Saturday, some friends and I participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count, a 4-day event that is winding down today. We had great fun and saw lots of birds while hiking around the Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds in San Rafael, CA, a nearby place I’d never visited before! There’s still time to join this and other bird counts. In fact, they’re part of an ongoing effort by the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology to track, learn about, and assist bird populations. Here is complete information about bird counts and how you can get  involved. In the meantime, enjoy our walk with us.

We immediately spotted lots of birds in the nearby trees, such as Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Red-Winged Blackbirds, House Wrens, and these Finches, both male (top) and female.

The large ponds were teeming with bird life, both on water and in the trees. It was amazing what I could see in the trees with binoculars. It was as if a hidden world opened up. There were birds everywhere — white glints of gulls, herons, and egrets.  (I admit I’m not sure what kinds. My friends, and their kids, were all much better classifiers than me.) Flocks of Canada Geese flew by and we did our best to count/guess how many there were.

In the water were Avocets, and these graceful Black-Necked Stilts.

Plenty of ducks and geese swam by and called noisily to one another. Ducks we spotted included the poetically named Northern Pintail, Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, and, of course, the lovely emerald-headed Mallard.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a Red-winged Blackbird. It took me a moment to register the bright orange-red color on the tops of their wings. These seem in repose, watching a duck.

We found a great stand of trees, hosting lots of bird life. (Quickly moving bird life, that seemed to sense when you were closing in with a camera, before flying away.) We were able to identify Robins and these Western Bluebirds.

I quietly followed this Great Egret for a while. I liked the way he mozeyed down the trail, taking his time (Slow Egret?), before sticking his neck out.

This tree was full of noisy, cheery blackbirds.

You can listen to a group of blackbirds, seemingly signaling spring.

The tally for the Bird Count got entered online. As of mid-day Monday, there had been 46,912 checklists submitted, 553 species observed, and 4,531,433 individual birds counted. In a little over an hour, we contributed 170 birds in 24 species to the list in order to help the Bird Count get a snapshot of bird activity over a busy, migrating weekend in February.

As for me, the activity really whet my appetite to do more bird watching and counting. Who knows? One day I might be able to identify those white birds in the trees.

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Mixed Reviews for New Necco Sweetheart Flavors

I admit I was a little (okay, a lot) worried when I read that one of my favorite childhood candies, Necco wafers and sweethearts, was being reformulated after a whopping 163 years of tradition and success. Necco wafers were good enough to accompany two explorers on their expeditions (Admiral Byrd’s to the South Pole and Donald MacMillan’s to the Arctic) as well as feed the WWII troops, plus they featured the most wonderful iconic bright colors and flavors — Why would the company want to mess with that?

Mostly, as it turns out, to replace artificial ingredients with natural ones, an endeavor it’s hard to argue with. According to the Necco site, the roll contains the same flavors it always did:  Orange, Lemon, Chocolate, Clove, Cinnamon, Wintergreen and Licorice. Artificial ingredients have been replaced with natural flavors and colors from red beets, purple cabbage, turmeric and cocoa powder.

A panel of adult and teen tasters assembled by Slow Family Online tasted the company’s Sweethearts in preparation for Valentine’s Day. The group applauded the inclusion of natural over artificial ingredients and even liked the new, slightly softer, texture of the candies. While some of the new flavors were fine, others didn’t fare as well in the transfer and we bemoaned their loss.

The group found Purple (grape) to retain the most classic Necco flavor. The grape flavor is actually a little more pronounced than it was before. We all continue to like Orange (color and flavor), a favorite, which is definitely more citrus-y than its predecessor. The Green (green apple) has a new flavor, instead of its traditional, vaguely lime one, which I had really liked. Like the Purple, it retains the Necco chalky quality we like. The apple flavor got mixed reviews. I found it somewhat cloying. Light blue (blue raspberry) is brand new, in flavor and color. It’s a bit sugary tasting, but then the tartness of the raspberry comes on. This one could grow on me, despite the additional strange newness of its color. My daughter was particularly disappointed with Yellow (lemon), which she says used to have a more banana flavor. I was particularly let down with Pink (strawberry). Gone is the classic, nostalgic, unclassifiable Necco pink flavor. In its place is the much too bright strawberry.

I’m glad to report that the bright colors definitely remain intact. I’ve watched the sayings get updated over the years, as new ones like FAX ME and E MAIL ME came on. This year brings TWEET ME as an addition to classics like SOUL MATE, SWEET PEA, SAY YES, and ALL MINE. The Necco Sweetheart page tells us that all the previous sayings were scrapped to make way for sayings that were voted on by the public. I’m glad, then, that the voters thought to include LOVE YOU along with U R HOT.

Sweethearts are the top-selling nonchocolate Valentine’s Day candy. 6 billion little Sweethearts are produced each year. They’re so successful that they are now going to be produced for occasions other than Valentine’s Day. You’ll soon see Sweethearts with sayings targeted to the Twilight vampire book series, as well as a patriotic line.

I’m eager to try a Necco wafer roll next. I’m looking forward to Chocolate I remember. They wouldn’t mess with that, would they?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Photos: Necco

Bonus Trivia Question: What does Necco stand for?

Answer: New England Confectionary Company

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count this Weekend

I am very excited about the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count. It takes place Friday-Monday, February 12-15, all over North America. Anyone can participate, even if you only have 15 minutes and are completely new to birding.

Here’s how it works: You can pick a spot to go watch birds (a backyard, a park, a trail, a marsh, or anywhere you think birds might be) or you can join an organized event. You can download a very thorough check list of birds that are likely to be seen in your area. You record the birds that you see and then go home and either send in your checklist or enter the names and numbers in online.

There are lots more tips about counting and recording birds, tricky identifications, binoculars, and much more on BirdSource’s Great Backyard Bird Count page. The site also features recordings of bird sounds and more activities for kids.

The All About Birds site has beautiful photos and information that can help you identify birds. These are the top 10 birds that were reported during the count last year.

So, why count birds in the first place, and why now? The Cornell Ornithology Lab, the Audubon Society and others use the information from the annual February count to track the health of various bird species over time and, in some cases, take steps to protect them. Mid-February has proven a good time to count, as it occurs just before the major Spring migrations. If you find you like counting, you can actually help year-round on various projects.

Last year 11,558,638 individual birds were reported by more than 100,000 people. This year you could be part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Photos: Painted Bunting and Green Honeycreeper by Doug Janson, Flame Colored Tanager by Jerry Oldenettel, Blue Jay: Creative Commons, Northern Spotted Owl by Susan Sachs Lipman