Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Change in the Seasons

Howdy folks, and happy first week of Autumn/ Fall!
Tuesday was the Autumnal Equinox, a day of equal sun and dark. As this seasonal change has begun, it is a wonderful time to begin watching the weather. Anytime is a great time to watch the weather actually, but the changing seasons can offer a wide range of weather phenomenons. Keeping track of changes in the weather is a wonderful way to get together and learn about something that affects us all everyday.

Weather can be a fascinating topic to explore, especially with the use of the internet and modern satellite technology. The other wonderful thing is that you can get as complex and technologically integrated as you want: buy weather stations and online support, or keep it simple and use paper and markers.

The first thing to do is to check in with your cardinal directions. We do this because weather patterns have tendencies, and knowing where the weather tends to come from can be useful information. For the most part weather in the United States, and in most of the Northern Hemisphere, moves from west to east.

A simple way to get into watching the weather, is to watch the evening news or get online and see the upcoming forecast, and then pay attention the next day. If the forecast is for rain, watch how the clouds change through the day right up until the rain starts. Then watch the changes after the rain. Also every season has its own unique weather pattern. For example in one season, the major storm patterns might come from the south west, and then as the seasons change the pattern might switch up to a north western flow.

Also you can begin to track the basics of the weather; daily temperature, wind speed, humidity, and barometric pressure. Try and keep records for about a month. If you want to get more in-depth, go online and get the data from previous years and see if there are any differences.
So, get out there and see what the weather brings you!

Nature Nugget:
To go along with weather observations, here are the average measurements for Barometric Pressure.

1 atmosphere (atm) =

101.3 kPa (kilopascals) =

14.7 psi (pounds per square inch) =

760 torr =

29.9 inches of mercury (symbol Hg). This is the most common measurement used.

So, when the weather forecast says a high pressure system is coming in, the barometric pressure should rise above these numbers. Now these numbers are based at sea level. You will have to do some research to find out what average barometric pressure is for your area.

Weather web sites:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Take a Disco Hike!

(A recent discovery of mine)

Welcome back folks! Today we are going to start a journey down a new trail for some of you. Some of you may already have been down this trail. It is a trail of exploration, and it heads through the area you live in . So, get your walking shoes on, your deer ears tuned up, and your owl eyes focused. Actually not too focused, remember to relax your eyes in owl vision. Anyway, get ready to head outside.

Todays activity is to take a walk through or around where you live. It does not have to be a 5 hour excursion. A simple walk around the block, down to the corner, around a local park, or just a walk down the road. The point is to head out and start exploring the area you live in using some of your tools. When you head out, pick a direction to go. Maybe the first walk head south, the next time east, etc. Don't worry about bringing a compass, although you could.

You are going on a Disco Hike! A Disco Hike is not some new dance craze. It is a Discovery Hike. Your goal is to notice more. Or perhaps to take an initial inventory of the things you notice. A Discovery Hike is not necessarily a naming or labeling hike. It is about walking around and looking for cool things to discover.

As you walk around where you live, simply be on the look out for things that catch your attention. It could be something you see, hear, or smell. Then go check it out. Try and resist naming the item. If you want to, write a description of the item or take a picture. That way you can look it up later. Just enjoy the process! Have fun, and maybe get a little dirty.

While you are out, you can try some of the following things:
-- Just walk and look. You could even try a walk without talking.
--Listen for various birds.
-- Notice the birds flying overhead.
-- Look for all things red, or blue, or brown, or orange (natural or man made).
-- Count the conifers in the area.
-- See if you can tell which houses have pets, and if so what kind.
-- See if you can notice 10 things you have never seen before.
-- Count cool insects!
-- See if the moon is still out.

You get the idea. If you can, try and make taking a Disco Hike a routine. Maybe once a month, or once a week. Or even take a Disco Hike when ever you go to some place new. Or better yet, to a place you visit frequently, and see what you discover!

Nature Nugget:
A quick lesson in plant parts. Nothing in great detail, but the basics that can aid you in future plant discoveries. Many if not most plants have six parts, and they are: Roots, Stems, Seeds, Flowers, Fruits, and Seeds. Now, there is more detail in these six parts, but that is for later. For now when you visit the farmer's market or the grocery store, see if you can identify which plant parts you see, and will hopefully soon eat! Have fun out there!

Virtual Explorations:
Visit this website for great website for exploring the night sky.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The siblings of itch!

Classic Poison Ivy
(Photo by Jon Sachs)

Jon Young, an amazing mentor in wilderness awareness and exploration, says that when you begin to explore your area, learn all the things that will hurt or kill you first. The reasons are simple, 1) There are fewer things that can hurt us than things that are beneficial or benign. And 2) They can hurt or kill you. Kind of straight forward.

Now, I want to start out by saying that there are things out there that can cause us harm. And, with some knowledge, we can avoid most of them and enjoy being outside safely. Today we are going to explore the big three in plants that can cause us problems: Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac. The three siblings of itch! There are others, but they are for another time

These three plants can cause a whole range of reactions in people. Some people have little or no reaction, and others can have respiratory issues or break out in blisters. Most folks get an ichy rash. The cause of these reactions is the oil these plants produce called Urshiol Oil. And the best (worst) part is that these plants have the oil year round. So even in winter you can get a reaction.

You can do a pretty good job of avoiding these plants with a little awareness. Start by learning which plants you have in your area. For the most part, Poison Ivy can be found in most places in the United States and southern Canada except for far western states, deserts, and high altitude. Poison ivy can grow in forests, the forest edge, and disturbed soil. It grows as a small bush, along the ground, or as a vine. The leaves of poison ivy are red in early spring. In late spring, the leaves change to a shiny or dark green. In the fall, the leaves turn yellow, and or red.

Poison Oak is found in the western states (California, Oregon, parts of Nevada, and Washington). It has very similar growing habits as poison ivy, although the leaves are rounded like oak tree leaves rather than the jagged edges of the poison ivy leaves. Each leaf of oak and ivy is made up of three leaflets more or less notched at the edges. Two of the leaflets form a pair on opposite sides of the leafstalk, while the third leaflet stands by itself at the tip of the leafstalk. Both poison ivy and oak produce white waxy (non-edible) berries in the fall.

Poison Sumac is found predominately in the southern, southeastern, and mid-atlantic states. Some cases are reported in in the northeast. Poison sumac also looks very different from the other itchy siblings. The key features to notice are large alternate leaves usually with 9-13 entire (non-toothed) leaflets and a red stem (rachis). The leaves are shiny and the red stem is reasonably easy to spot from a distance.

If you think you have come in contact with any of these siblings, wash with cool or warm soapy water as soon as you can. There are some products out there, like Technu, that does a very good job of removing the urshiol oil. Also was the clothes you were wearing when you were out exploring.

One last word of caution. If you burn yard waste, please make sure you are not burning any of the three siblings! Inhaling the smoke from any of these plants can get the oil into your throat and mouth. If this happens and you have a reaction, you will be going to the emergency room to get treatment.

Nature Nugget:
There is a saying regarding the three siblings; "Leaves of three, leave them be". Which does provide some guidance. Except for the following:
1) Poison Sumac has alternate leaves and looks nothing like poison ivy and oak.
2) Several wild berry plants like black raspberry also has three leaves. Another saying adds some knowledge: "If it's hairy, it's a berry".
3) There are other plants such as Virginia Creeper which often gets mistaken as poison ivy. Not every green plant low to the ground is one of the siblings.

Don't let these three siblings stop you from exploring!

Final note:
If you would like to receive this blog as an email, please let me know either here in the comments, email me at, or leave me a facebook message. Also, if you have topics you would like to know more about, let me know.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Listen Up!

Howdy Folks! I hope you are getting outside and seeing more with your Owl Eyes. In addition to spending a good portion of our days in tunnel vision due to over stimulation, we also tend to have tunnel hearing. There is so much "noise" in our daily lives that we can tend to ignore so much of what is going on around us in terms of sound. And, just like our eyesight, we also tend to listen to only what we think is important.

As humans we have some wonderful skills, such as whistling, the ability to walk upright, and writing poetry. We do not however have some of the unique abilities of animals like dogs and deer who can move their ears independently of each other and listen in different directions at the same time.

Teaching ourselves and our kids to hear more can open up a whole new way to experience nature. Many animals, both predators and prey, use their hearing to stay alive by helping to find food or to avoid being found. In this posting we will explore the use of "Deer Ears", which is a technique that we can use to enhance our hearing.

To begin with, face forward and cup your hands behind your ears while slightly pushing your ears forward. This allows our head to take on a more "dish" shape like that of an owls head. This allows more sounds to be directed into our ears. Practice placing your hands behind your ears and then removing them to hear the difference. Also try this with your eyes closed. Does having your eyes closed effect your hearing?

You can also cup both of your hands in front of your ears and aim them backwards. This will allow you to hear sounds behind you better. And if you want to, place one hand facing forward, and the other one facing backwards. This will allow you to simulate what deer, cats, dogs, and other mammals can do by moving their ears independently. Practice all of these variations with your eyes open and closed and see if you notice a difference in what you hear and pay attention to.

You can add another dimension to your increased hearing by adjusting the angle of your ears. With your hands cupped behind your ears, slightly turn your head to one side. Do the sounds change? If so, how? Turn your head the other way. Share your results with us in the comments.

We will explore our other senses in the future, but in the next few posts I will be talking about a few of the common things that present some hazards to our wilderness exploration! So, until next time, keep working on your owl eyes and deer ears! And make sure you are still stopping occasionally to check in with your inner compass.

Next Time: Nature's Revenge! Some potential hazards out there!

Nature Nugget:
Since we are practicing our Deer Ears, here is some information on the three major species of deer we have here in North America. We have the Whitetail Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), the Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus), and the Blacktail Deer or Pacific coastal mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus). There are three other offshoots of these basic species: the Sitka Deer in Alaska, the Coues Deer in the Southwest, and the Florida Key Deer.

Deer are wonderful animals and are great to watch in the wild. In the spring keep your owl eyes open for mother deer with their young, usually one or two fawns. When young, deer have white spots on their fur to aid in camouflage. The white spots resemble dappled sunlight on the forest floor. Young deer will keep these spots until their first winter.

Sometimes deer can be very unafraid of humans and will allow people to get rather close. PLEASE remember that deer are wild animals no matter how tame they appear. Do not try and pet them or hand feed them. They can become aggressive very quickly and can attack by using their front feet which have very sharp hooves. Admire them from a distance.

Website to explore:
The Encyclopedia of Life. An amazing website working on documenting all the species that have been identified so far. This project is guided by the work of E.O. Wilson, and his goal is " electronic page for each species of organism on Earth...".

Friday, September 11, 2009

Seeing more.

Photo from Liesl Pimentel

Howdy Folks!
I hope you are doing well and getting outside and enjoying the weather. The seasons are getting ready to change this month providing us with a wonderful opportunity to experience a bustling of activity, regardless of whether you are headed into fall or spring. Animals are either preparing for winter, or getting ready for the abundance of spring. Today we are going to dive into increasing our awareness so we can experience the changing of the seasons with greater detail.

In our daily routines we are exposed to a wide range of stimuli which can be almost overwhelming. The sounds from television, computers, vehicle horns, music, air traffic, etc bombard our ears on a consistent basis. We encounter smells, both pleasant and nasty, along with hundreds of things touching our skin every hour. And our eyes receive millions of images everyday, often generated by televisions and computer screens rather than by nature.

As a result of this over stimulation, we tend to filter out various components of our environment, and develop the habit of selective awareness. We are aware of only what we think we need to notice. However, in doing this we often miss the wonderful show nature is providing us.

So, today we are going to work on increase our awareness. Today we are going to focus on our eyesight. We will get to our ears, noses, skin, and mouths at another date.

In our rush to get through our days we tend to operate in tunnel vision. We focus only on what is directly in front of us to the exclusion of a great deal of other things. To improve our visual awareness, we are going to work on seeing with our "Owl Eyes".

First, stand up straight, and look forward. Now raise your arms out to your sides, and hold your hands with your palms facing front. Next, keep looking forward and wiggle your fingers on both hands. Adjust the position of your hands, forward or backward, so that you can see only the tips of your fingers moving with both eyes at the same time. Relax your eyes and do not try too hard.

When you can see both hands at the same time, your are seeing at the range of your peripheral vision. This is how most predators hunt. They move about using their peripheral vision until they see movement. Then, and only then do they shift there focus to look closer at the movement. A benefit of using owl eyes, aside from seeing more, is it actually takes less effort than focusing our eyes, thus causing less eye strain over time.

Once you and your kids have found the range of your peripheral vision, sit or stand quietly and gaze out with your owl eyes. When you see movement, draw your attention to the movement and see what it is, then shift back to using owl eyes. I challenge you to switch your vision from tunnel vision to owl eyes several times a day. Try it when you are taking a walk, in the office, while running, and any other daily tasks.

Try using your owl eyes when playing hide and seek with your kids, you might be surprised at how much harder it is to hide. Play a game with your kids and see who can see movement outdoors first. A little healthy competition ( striving together) can help you develop your owl eyes.

Next time: Deer Ears: Get ready to hear more!

Nature Nugget:
An owls eyes are large in order to improve their effectiveness, especially in low light conditions. And in fact, the eyes are not actually eye balls, like ours, but are actually elongated tubes. Because of this, an owl cannot "roll" or moves its eyes, it can only look straight ahead! An owl more than makes up for this by being able to turn its head around, and almost upside-down. It is able to achieve this by having a long and very flexible neck. An owl's neck has 14 vertebrae, which is twice as many as humans. This also allows the owl to turn its head through a range of 270 degrees measured from a forward looking position.

And remember to send in stories, comments, and feedback to:

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cardinal points, pt 2.

(Fall is coming!!)

Welcome back! To begin today I want to add to the previous post regarding compasses. If you do not have a compass, go to your local outdoor store and pick one up. It should cost you no more than $20 for a decent compass, and it is a tool you and your kids can use for life. We will talk about compass use and GPS units at another time.

So onto today's activity. If you have determined where the cardinal points are relative to your home, great. If not, please do so. Once you have done that, place some objects to mark the cardinal points. These objects could be inside your home if you have limited space outside, or around your yard. Inside you could put up the letters N,S,E, and W to designate the directions. And outside, place simple things like plants, rocks, or small flags. Once you have done that, go outside and look for fixed objects that are as close to the cardinal directions as possible, and fairly close to your home. It could be a tree, hill, building, lamp post, etc. Choose something that won't move. I know that is common sense, but I just want to make sure. By using objects that you and your kids can see everyday, you will begin to train your internal compass to recognize the cardinal directions.

That's it for today, nothing grand, just another small step to get you and your kids oriented to the natural world. Getting familiar with directions will help us in exploring your town, street, city, and back yard. If you are heading out this weekend, stop every once in awhile and see if together you can figure out where N,S,E, and W are located. Developing the habit of periodically checking in and seeing where the cardinal directions are continues to helps us develop our internal compass.

If you have very young children, do not worry about the directions just yet. Try and let them spend at least 1 hour a day outside just experiencing nature. It could be going for a walk, or playing outside, just make it fun. By getting them outside at least for a little while each day you are helping them become accustomed to the changes in weather this time of year.

If you have older kids, late middle school or high school aged, have them choose additional landmarks in various locations around town. Have them begin to recognize local landmarks to help them determine the cardinal directions. In some places this is easy: In St. Louis, the arch is almost always to the east. In Boston, the ocean is either in the east or south. Look for popular places that are easy to find from almost anywhere in your area.

Nature Nugget:
At this time of the month in September, at night you will see a bright object in the southern sky, it is the planet Jupiter. Also Venus is the "morning star" right now. It will be the brightest object in the sky before the sun rises in the eastern sky.

A little story:
I am going to finish today with a little story about directions. I was at a conference this past February in Boulder Colorado. We had gone to another part of town one night for an evening session. When I came out to walk back my hotel, I realized I was not familiar with the part of town I was in. I knew generally where I was, but no specifics. Luckily it was a clear night. I looked up, found the north star, and began navigating back to my hotel that was located in the southern part of the city. It took a little time but with the stars as my guide, and a little previous map knowledge of Boulder, I made it back to the hotel in about an hour. Yeah, I could have taken a cab, but where is the adventure in that!
And remember to send in stories, comments, and feedback to:

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Getting situated.

Howdy folks, and welcome to a new blog dedicated to helping parents, teachers, and mentors connect children, and ourselves, to the natural world around us. This blog will be at least bi-weekly and cover a wide range of topics and activities.

In order for this to be a greater success I am asking 2 favors of you the readers. First, please send in your ideas of activities you enjoy doing with your children. They can be local events, or things you do to get your children interested in the outdoors. Secondly, if you find the information here useful, and perhaps entertaining, please tell your friends about it. My goal is to reach as many people as possible and help our children gain a better understanding of the world around them through direct, enjoyable experiences.

If you want to receive the email version of this blog, please send me an email to So here is the first activity.

Getting Situated:
Head outside and learn where the cardinal directions are with your kids. You do not have to know your self yet. Simply get a compass and head outside. If you do not have a compass wait until early morning or evening and watch the sun rise or set. It will not be exactly East or West, unless you do it on either equinox, but it will give a good approximation.

By getting oriented to the cardinal directions, you begin to put you and kids in a relationship to the natural world. You can then play the game of trying to work out where you are any place in town.

If you have little ones, under 4 or 5, start by simply watching the sun rise or set one day this week. Or perhaps the sun and the moon this week. That's it for this time. See you later.