Tag Archives: Nearby Nature

Enjoy the Ancient Act of Cloudwatching

This afternoon I saw the most marvelous cirrus clouds over Northern California. Wispy hallmarks of the kind of beautiful blue-sky day during which you hardly feel the air. Upon inspection they seemed to be moving pretty quickly.

When I came in, I found that Bethe, at Grass Stain Guru, happened to write about cloudwatching today and she, in turn, wrote about Jane Kirkland’s fun Nature Challenge cloudwatching video. (Something in the air?) Both challenge you to slow down, look up, and enjoy the age-old game of making objects out of the shapes you see in the clouds.

What do you see here?

Want to know more? This site is a great one for learning how to identify different kinds of clouds and learning how clouds form.

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Treehouse in the Woods

We recently built our daughter a treehouse nestled in the redwood trees by our house. She had long enjoyed a special stand of Cathedral Redwoods, which get their name by growing in a circle around a host stump or tree. This circle has about half a dozen trees, each about 150 feet tall.

But she needed a better way to get there – our land is extremely steep, and soft and slippery with needles, leaves, branches and, often, mud. There was no trail. Even if you were to make your way up on foot, chances are you’d slide back down on your bottom. This is what much of the land looks like. It’s shady redwood forest with lots of ferns and bay trees.

Being more visionary than handy, we called on some handy friends to help design and build a trail with a switchback, and then some stairs to get up the steepest part of the hill.

The trail is one that was already used by local deer and just had to be widened. (We’re hoping the deer appreciate it.)

The steps are made of copper-injected wood. We wanted something that would stand up to the weather in this damp spot. We also wanted a banister for safety.

The deck has a pier-and-post cement foundation, to make it sturdy and raise it above the forest floor.

The platform is close to our house but far enough away and in deep foliage, so that it feels private. It’s a great place to read and daydream, to the sounds of birds and frogs and, if it has rained hard enough, water running down a natural stream.

Anna is very happy there. She wants to decorate with prayer flags and chairs for friends (she says a sofa). When the rain stops we are going to hang this colorful, handwoven Mayan hammock that she picked out from a mother-daughter company called La Casa Mexicana.

We know the treehouse is going to get a lot of use. One of its great benefits, which we have already experienced, is that it gets us up into the land by our house, which we had been looking at but not walking on because of the steepness. It’s still steep past the treehouse, but not quite as much, and from there, the forest opens up. We took a walk through it the other day and found early spring wildflowers and all sorts of other things. I will tell you about them in my next post.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman, La Casa Mexicana

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!


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

Inspired by Grass Stain Guru: The Joys of Being a Free Range Kid

One of my favorite bloggers, Bethe Almeras, the Grass Stain Guru, has a consistent and wonderful gift for capturing the joys of childhood and the outdoors. She has posted often about simple pleasures, outdoor creatures, and all kinds of activities and play.

Recently she posted a short reminiscence called Free Range Guru about her childhood in which she enjoyed the freedom to wander, explore and play in nature. She also regularly accessed her imagination — so much so that she actually talked to sticks. It’s a lovely post and it sparked the memories of readers, including me.

What it brought up for me was this:

“I also talked to sticks! And ants and bees and rocks and marguerite daisies and tiny flowers that grew on bushes in Southern CA that had a distinctly wonderful smell. I lived in an apartment until age 9 and, while I loved moving into a house with a big backyard and a perfect climbing tree, the apartment neighborhood also offered wonderful opportunities for exploration.

I lived in walking distance of two lovely parks and my walking mom took advantage of them. But I also found plenty to observe in the (sometimes green) spaces between and around buildings, and at 6 or 7 I would announce that I was taking an adventure walk and would do just that. People of all generations (well, mostly seniors and kids) seemed to be around and, except for crossing streets, which I was allowed to do one by one, it was not particularly exceptional to do this.

I also had media and school and activities, but there did seem to be a space for exploration and imagination that many kids don’t have today. I know I have a certain sense of the natural world, of neighborhood and community, as well as a delight in being by myself, as a result of these childhood experiences.”

Does this sound like a child you might know today? Perhaps, but more likely not. They don’t often find the same stretches of time available for play, the same parental spirit that lets a child  — in age-appropriate fashion — wander a bit. As a result, children miss out on opportunities for play, as well as development, friendships, and the ability to order and navigate their surroundings. As witnessed by Bethe, me, and so many others (including Lenore Skenazy, who writes the Free Range Kids blog), these skills and experiences can color our whole lives.

I also use my own experience to note that one needn’t grow up in a rural area to experience nearby nature. Nature and its value can be found in a park, or any wild or green space, even a small one and even one between apartment buildings.

I’m very excited about the work the Children and Nature Network is doing to inspire and educate people about ways to connect children to nature. So much so that I host their discussion forum. You might want to come along!

Following is a sample of the nearby nature where I grew up. As a kid, even the smallest (the better for secrets?), local, and not always particularly special looking, spaces fed imagination and play.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman