The Ripple: Squelching through Wetlands Reveals Nature at its Most Natural

The Beauty and Ickyness of Upland Wetlands

Thanks to wetlands, mountain rivers should be clear while valley rivers like the Connecticut can resemble a river of milk chocolate.

Last week, I stood by the side of the East Branch of the Westfield River in Chesterfield with a group of intrepid explorers, astonished by the gasp and growl of its raging flood waters. “Where’s Augustus Gloop?” I heard someone ask; “He would love all this hot chocolate!”

Laden with brown soils that had eroded from roadsides, construction sites and fields upstream, the river did look like it was made by Willy Wonka. A wild and scenic river like the East Branch of the Westfield should not look like hot chocolate because of its federally-registered conservation status, and the fact that there is little development in the hilltowns. And yet here was unmistakable proof that torrential rain on vegetation-less lands was causing extensive erosion. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for July: Rivers & Lakes Give it Up!

Rivers & lakes dispense gifts for July

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

When the air is thick and muggy and temperatures stretch beyond the thermometer’s eighty degree marker, we head to the river. Though the river is a major feature in our landscape no matter the season, the hot days of midsummer compel us to develop a much more intimate relationship with the ripples and rapids than we’ve upheld throughout the rest of the year. Our far-away glances and detached musings about river-bottom happenings slip silently into the current, transforming as they cool into true knowing – our feet dig deep into the sandy river bed, our hands feel the rocks’ soft surfaces, and our veins pulse a little cooler, a river in miniature inside of ourselves.

July is indisputably a time for swimming, a time when we direct all of our attention to eradicating our skin of prickly, sticky sweat, a time to submerge ourselves with abandon into the dark water that rushes down from the hills. In the summertime, we experience our landscape much differently than we do any other time of year – and not just because it’s full of life. Warm weather grants us the opportunity to explore wet places without protection – bare feet, bare arms, bare bellies. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Lifeline Waterways

River Trees

Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

Imagine—by float, boat or walking, you’re in the river as it wends past farmland, backyards and woods, through plains, valleys and gorges. After an hour, the initial thrill of united movement, of flesh and water and flow, has passed, and so have the conversations. The river begins to insinuate your skin and re-network your synapses; you start thinking like a river. Feel the expansion.

Hear the river sound; its voice (like ours) combines the everything it passes through, and that passes through it (for it breathes and eats with its mouth open): the more obstructions, the more turbulence; the more turbulence, the louder the growl. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for June

“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

Our recent weather is unmistakably that of early June – thunderstorms have filled our small West County valley with thick, muggy air and heavy, low-hanging fog that hides the tops of hills. The landscape is so green we have to squint sometimes, and the darkest bits of nature are lost amongst all of the light. It’s obvious that June is going to be good to us – wild strawberries are starting to bloom, the summer’s first mushrooms are starting to pop up, our school garden is fully planted, and the frogs have been plentiful and easy to catch. June’s nature table will be our last of the school year, but not my last for the summer. I’ll continue to collect items all summer long, saving, storing, and preserving what I can to share with my fellow nature enthusiasts in the fall. Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Backyard Bird Paradise Brings Toddlers Closer to Nature

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Feeding the Birds, Feeding the Curiosity

The Downy Woodpecker is one of six species of woodpecker found in Massachusetts. They are easily attracted into your backyard by building simple Woodpecker feeders.

Now that the warmer weather is here, it is easy for us to work outdoors.  Creating a backyard bird paradise is easy and fun.  By encouraging your toddler to take ownership of the feeders you will enable your child to build a great relationship with the nature in his or her own backyard.

Relating to nature allows toddlers to feel connected to something bigger, something beautiful and something alive. Toddlers love the opportunity to watch the world; by creating a backyard bird attraction you bring nature to your home and to your child.

In western Massachusetts, there are some very amazing birds that will join in the feeding frenzy if you put out the right seed, including Cardinals, Blue Jays, song birds, and of course the famous Woodpeckers.

Woodpeckers are intriguing to watch and can be easily attracted to your feeders. Using store bought or homemade suet and feeder, you can attract several different types of woodpeckers.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: When I Jump into Your Flow

When I Jump into Your Flow

When I jump into your flow
You’ll take me wherever you go
ever you go, ever you go
You’ll take me wherever you go

Flow.

We’re in one, and sucked into bigger flows that swept into bigger flows. And on and on. Minnows circling in eddies. In white water, stonefly nymphs cling to stone. Anadromous fish are making their way up whatever tributaries aren’t dammed, and being watched and counted at Holyoke and Turners Falls dams. Visit them, because their populations are declining and might soon vanish—just 397 Blueback Herring, for example, have passed Holyoke Dam as of May 21st.

Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for May

Springtime has definitely come to the Hilltowns!

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

Though the weather has yet to consistently offer warmer temperatures and sunny days, springtime has definitely come to the Hilltowns. With the newly exposed muddy landscape have also come choruses of evening peepers, clumps of gelatinous frog and salamander eggs, the rush of moving water, and discoveries of newly-exposed nature treasures of all kinds. It seems like every single day brings discoveries of everything from feathers and scat to soda cans and rotting 2×4’s.

Inside my classroom, these outdoor treats have inspired a fuller-than-ever nature table. This month’s table has filled not only its usual tray, but much of the surrounding counter space with items discovered and collected mainly by the students themselves. And what variety! We’ve come a long way from the branch-filled tables of the winter months. We have seeds that are sprouting roots, branches that are sprouting leaves, and feather and quills that have come to us because a creature lost its life. Some of the items are so surprisingly vibrant (blue and yellow feathers, for example) that students have accused me of dying them, while others are so unexpected (porcupine quills) that students can’t even guess what they might be. This month, learning what we have and why it’s there has been more engaging than ever before.  What would you find on a nature table in May…

The Ripple: The Cure For All Things Pavement

The Cure for All Things Pavement

Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you! Tuning into this “wheel of time” is one way that we leave our pavement-based perception of place. If you are lucky, you’ll get to see mergansers, a sort of river loon, as they hunt for the same trout that are hunting the invertebrates.

Before there were roads, there were trails and before there were trails, there were rivers. The Nile and the Mississippi—can you see Cleopatra and Huck & Jim making their ways on these liquid highways? Have you heard the tale (more or less true) of how Native Americans followed the paths of deer that traveled up and down food-rich riparian corridors; and that Routes 5 & 7 were laid over such paths?

Once upon a time, people knew their places from the perspective of the river; and what is so wonderful is that this perspective is still available to those who pine for a way of seeing, and being, that is not pavement-based. This summer, you could float down the Deerfield or Connecticut Rivers—and you ought to!—but floating down means that you’ve already driven up it. Nothing wrong with that; in fact it can’t be avoided given our moment in time; but the proper way to get the feeling and the vision of being placed in a biome is to head upstream, like the Atlantic Shad are doing right now. (Reminder: the operators of the Holyoke and Turner’s Falls dams open their anadromous fish viewing stations around Mother’s Day, and—despite the fact that both dams are causing extinctions—they are worth visiting.)

If you want to change the way you and your family view your “place” by leaving the pavement and making your way up a river valley, you are lucky! Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Celebrate the Shortnose Sturgeon!

Our Friend, the Shortnose Sturgeon

Short-nosed sturgeon

Since the Atlantic Salmon was declared extinct in the Connecticut River two years ago, I have wandered the river banks with students, wondering what a healthy living river is like. That the Shortnose has survived under such duress, with such poor assistance provided by humans, made us love it—because it expresses the brisk vitality that remains in that 400 mile waterbody. The Shortnose does not give up, and neither should we. Before we lose this last clan entirely, let us try to assist it, and raise the Shortnose’s image and story to the forefront of our biocultural awareness. Let this environmental-adapter epitomize us and our still beautiful Nonotuck biome, at this moment of epochal transition.


Spring equinox has passed and the great thaw is underway, turning greys into green and silence to chansons. Have you enjoyed the cold (as much as the otters, who fished the icy pools)? The ice it brought let us walk rivers and tributaries as if they were sidewalks, and grand boulevards. What a wonderful feeling!

The perspective gained by walking above the river was as rare as the record-breaking weather that enabled it. Seeing the way trees lower, extend and up-curl their limbs over the water, to catch the sun on each yearning pinkytip; and noticing deep punctures of buck hoof puzzled over by bobcat pads as wide, soft and light as hamburger buns—such perceptions awaken dormant parts of human being, sparking awareness of how lucky we are when we find time to unplug. Despite the best attempts of technologists to rewire us, we’re wild; and, when we step into places without signs or brands or passwords, a brisk vivacity and slight confusion welcomes us, and matches our character, as Shakespeare made plain in this description of some dukes chillin’ in the forest of Arden: Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for March

Nature Table for March

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

As late winter and very early spring begin to overlap here in the Hilltowns, the landscape begins to change. Snowy banks and icy walkways are melting into gigantic muddy puddles all over town, and the trees are filled with the joyful cries of birds who’ve returned to perch amongst the tiniest of early leaf buds. This month’s nature table in my classroom reflects all of this: the lengthening of days and the coming of warmer weather, the sudden influx of feathered friends, the buds that are beginning to lengthen on branch tips, and the very few bits of green found amongst a sea of still-sleepy brown.

In addition to objects that reflect the changes taking place outside, the children in my class have added some items to the table that pair with some of the late winter activities we’ve been doing. We have tapped a single maple tree – old school style, with a metal spout and bucket – so our table includes new buds and last year’s leaves from our tree. We’ve also spent an awful lot of time feeding and conversing with the birds in the schoolyard, so we added a feather that we found in the woods, the bird call we’ve been summoning them with, and a homemade cardboard bird feeder that a squirrel took a big bite out of.

What would you find on a nature table in March…

Nature Table for February

Every month, Hilltown Families will feature a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

What would you find on a nature table in February…

The Ripple: How Rivers Still Flow When It’s Way Below

Ice-Walking Bugs, and the Lessons They Teach Us

(Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield)

For the next two months or so, if the weather isn’t too bizarre, we’ll be knee deep in snow, and our rivers and streams will be flowing beneath their softest, whitest blankets, like restless kids dreaming of bodysurfing at the beach. When it’s really really cold outside, the river becomes the warmest part of the biome—kinda like our beds become the warmest part of the house when the frost creeps over the windows.

A few weeks ago, when the temp was in single digits, I saw bathtub steam rising off the Westfield River. In the squeaky-snow brilliance of the unclouded morning, more vitality in a deep breath than a whole pot of coffee, I had a flashback of some Rocky Mountain hotsprings, arrived at after two days of backcountry snowshoeing and skiing. Like a chrome grasshopper off the top of an ear, a gleaming sliver of myself leapt to that river steam, magnetized by the delicious feeling drifting in the wavering mist: of the coincidence of opposites, wet/dry hot/cold, manifesting as a high country hottub, as exclusive and elegant as they come. I wanted to jump into this fantasy, but didn’t—because I knew that water was so cold that it burns… Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Gifts Under the Hemlock

Gift to Receive by Being Present

Our hills are gemmed with gifts—receive them by being present!For the next few months, the deep chills of winter will freeze our higher elevation watercourses—and invite us to wander in a winter wonderland.

Few places are more “Christmas-y” than our snow-laden hemlock forests; and since hemlocks love shallow wet soils and grow near bouldery brooks and streams, they beckon us, who yearn to be present when and where our biome most clearly expresses its unique vivacity. Snow settles on their dark green needles, very “zen” if you see it that way, and Currier and Ives, if that’s what you’re looking for. Snow settles on needles anyway it wants, of course—and being with those we love when the crow lands and shakes the hemlock and spills the sprinkles that glisten in sun above the brook is magical. Most of the holiday advertising we are deluged by tries to convey what is freely offered by our own hills—receive the gift, by wrapping up and presenting yourself to the hemlocks and their hidden icy grottoes… Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Rivers and Experiential Learning

Biophilia: Love of Life

When I walked with my children along and in Stonehouse Brook, I let them play, for it was crucial that they engage the brook at their own pace and comfort level. My job was simply to ensure they didn’t get hurt—but I let them slip and fall in, so they would learn how not to do that. I let them wade a little too deep so they could feel the muscular strength of water flow, and allowed them to get carried away so they would learn how to recover their feet, balance and stance.

When my daughters (now 15 and 17) were little, their most magical place was Stonehouse Brook, a lively watercourse that tumbled down from pine and oak headlands. From the age they could walk by themselves until the era of afterschool sports, they were all mine and I used our time together to live halfway indoors and halfway outdoors. I, and my wife, did this because we were concerned that their cognitive development would be shunted if their senses and their consciousness were not stimulated and challenged. For this purpose, Stonehouse Brook was perfect; it was intimate and not overwhelming, and it was very alive.

Biophilia is a word that means love of life and the person who coined it, evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, did so because he noticed that we have an innate attraction to other living beings… Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: River Therapy

Take Me To The River

(Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

I really love looking at pictures of people enjoying rivers. Lakes, ponds, pools and the ocean: these are great, but (with the exceptions of oceans) they are stagnant. I do love oceans, yet they’re too big to get a handle on and—dare I say it—beaches get boring.

Rivers, on the other hand, are dynamic and have tons of personality (Our rapid biotic assessments show us how different they are.). When we get near them after escaping buildings and cars, we experience a liberating emotional release—as Ray Davies so perfectly captures in the song, “Sitting by the Riverside” by The Kinks.

Whether it’s a leap of joy and dash to the edge, or a stoical surrender of complex thoughts to the onward round-the-bend flow, or a bright flash of sensory expansion as one is enveloped in a fresh kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells…People like to take pictures of themselves and their friends when they are next to rivers, and these kinds of emotional states are recorded…

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Let’s Play: Nature Based Play & Art in Autumn

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Searching for Fall

Scavenger hunts appear to be popular right now. They are being used for local fundraisers. They are mentioned on many television programs this fall. Local college groups are joining in. So we went on a nature scavenger hunt of sorts.

Head outside with the kids to hunt down the visual signs of fall with a mental list of outdoor things specific to the season. Brilliant red leaves. Acorn tops. Pine needles. Helicopter seed pods. Colorful fall flowers. After all your collecting, stop in the woods and make a nature collage on the ground. This took a bit of convincing at our house because this will not be permanent. There was a bit of concern about leaving our project behind…

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The Ripple: Engaging as Citizen Scientists Along the River

Hilltown Families Citizen Scientists
4th Annual Assessment of the Westfield River

A few days ago a friend of mine, the talented Northfield potter Tom White, posted a Facebook picture of himself holding a wild King Salmon he caught in Pulaski, NY, on the Salmon River near Lake Erie.

That’s what 30 pounds of pure aquatic vitality looks like—and once upon a time our CT, Westfield and Deerfield rivers were teeming with their cousins, the Atlantic Salmon, that were declared extinct last year by the National Fish and Wildlife Service.

This past Friday, Hilltown Families Founder, Sienna Wildfield, and an energetic group of Hilltown Families citizen scientists and I conducted our fourth annual rapid biotic assessment of the Westfield River in West Chesterfield, and we marveled at how alive this beautiful watercourse is! Consistent with the two assessments we’ve done since hurricane Irene, we found that the populations of crab-like bugs has shrunken while the worm-types have increased (Compare assessments: 2011 & 2013).

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Though we would like to find a wide variety of river bugs, because biodiversity is a sure sign of ecological health, we did catch five types of the “most wanted” cold-water oxygen-loving bugs. They signaled that the Westfield River continues to enjoy “exceptional water quality,” the highest of EPA rankings. YAY!

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The Ripple: Stewards of Our Rivers!

Rivers as Circulatory Systems

Be a steward of the river! Join Hilltown Families and Biocitizen as we do our 4th annual rivers health check-ups, through the EPA approved method called Rapid Biotic Assessment or “RBA.”

It might sound like a stretch to say that rivers are the blood vessels of the earth, but ecologists (who understand that even empirical descriptions of nature are metaphorical) have no difficulty viewing rivers as circulatory systems. Start with the rain cycle, for example: the science of which tells us that there is a finite amount of water on earth that gets pumped around, over and over again—and, it’s the exact same water the dinosaurs drank and swam in!  Move on to the fact that every dawning civilization began by developing agriculture in valleys, whose soils were annually replenished by spring floods—which means that even the letters I use to write this, first invented in the “fertile crescent,” are brought to us by the charitable trust and generous sponsorship of flowing waters.

Next, enjoy this exercise of your imagination, if you will: even now your own warm blood consists of water that, at one point or another, tumbled down mountains, splashed over rocks and spilled into basins. That connection is actual. What you are imagining is real. Not some new age fluff or sci-fi gobbedygook…

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The Ripple: River Walking

This Land is Your Land

Check out these 5 pointers below on how to river walk, preventing a wipe out due to slippery rocks and strong currents.

Our floods are over for the time being, and the furnace heat of July is driving us to the water where we can find some relief from the breath of fire that surrounds us. We are such sensitive creatures, aren’t we? Below 60 and above 80 degrees, our life patterns get deranged—20 degrees is not a very wide spectrum of temperature, is it? Heat waves provide us with the best evidence that the maxim of classical environmentalism is true: where you are is who you are.

So get thee to a river! This is the best time of year to explore the river bed and the lush riparian growth that flourishes beside it.

The common law of the USA states that river courses are the property of all citizens. I say common law, because right to river access is considered to be an ancient and inherent right—but, depending on where you go, you might find this common law more or less respected.

You might find the history and reality of our common law right to access rivers to be interesting, so here’s a portion of the explanation that National Organization of Rivers provides us:

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The Ripple: Lessons in Floods

An Invitation to Think Outside about Floods

Floods, like weeds, are problems. Occupying places we don’t want them to, they ruin things we are growing.

Weeds are plants in the wrong place. And what’s a wrong place, we decide.

Floods are the return of ocean to mountain. They decide with the objectivity we (would) laud in our courts of justice. They’re not elitist; they are levelers.

Floods would not be a problem if we didn’t take more than we are given, placing things in flood plains like cities, farms and vacation homes. Everybody likes a water view, and to build structures as close as possible to them. The closer you build, the more likely to get leveled…

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The Ripple: Insects of Spring

Before May Flies, Meet the Mayfly

Every September, just after the leaves start to fall, I go out with Sienna and Hilltown Families citizen scientists to do a Rapid Biotic Assessment (RBA) of the East Branch of the Westfield River downstream from the RT 143 bridge in West Chesterfield, MA. Returning to the same site as the year before, we collect aquatic bugs—including mayfly nymphs—and, based on what we’ve gathered, we can tell how healthy the river is. If a river has a lot of mayflies, it is a healthy river—with lots of big and healthy trout in it (We’ll invite you to help us; so be on the lookout for our invitation!).

Imagine never getting swarmed and bit by mayflies as you revel in the vivacities unleashed by the ubiquitous green fountain of spring. Imagine gardening, or hiking, or simply sitting on a park bench without having to constantly swat and flinch and keep from going mad as the mayflies crawl on your neck and arms and ears, looking for a sweetspot to slice skin and lap blood. Now, imagine your dream of never getting bit again by mayflies comes true, right now as you read this! Because mayflies don’t bite.

Blackflies: they’re the little flying vampires that mob us in spring—not mayflies. Here is a picture of a mayfly. Notice its two long tails (though some have three), and large transparent wings. Most are an inch or longer.

Here is a picture of a blackfly

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The Ripple: The Magic of Spring Peepers. The Science of Vernal Pools

How do spring peepers know when to start singing?

Vernal pools contain creatures (amphibians and bugs) that can only breed where there are no hungry fish. Citizen scientists are needed to find and report vernal pools in the Hilltowns. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

How do spring peepers know when to start singing?

They don’t have weather reports, or the ability to see the buds forming on trees, the snow melting, or teens walking around in shorts and T’s when it’s 40 degrees and climbing.

Certainly, there are scientific reasons that explain how peepers know when to announce the return of the sun and the warmth; but there’s a simpler reason that is worth considering and appreciating. The peepers feel the right moment to sing.

Peepers are a special family of frogs, and frogs have a unique physiology—a evapotranspirative skin that makes them especially sensitive to the slightest changes in temperature, humidity, chemistry and other things we don’t have words for including that feeling that we also get when spring arrives. There is, for example, a new kind of sunlight that appears out of the grey, slush and slog of the late winter months that Emily Dickinson noticed, and maybe you and the peepers notice too.

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Let’s Play: Sunflower & Popcorn Houses

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Families in the Dirt

This summer we are taking a break from the usual planting and growing of beans, pumpkins,  squash and salad greens.  This year we’re making plans to grow a Popcorn House! (Photo credit: Carrie St. John)

Snow pants, boots and mittens be gone! It’s time for sunny afternoons and mud pies after a spring rain. Outdoor clean up. Digging. Rakes. Water. Hoses. Sticks. Rocks. Shovels. Mud. Now that the younger ones are completely engrossed in dirt play, encourage the older kids to put down their devices and join you for fresh air and sunshine. Their play job this month is to help you design and plant a sunflower house.

The Story of the Sunflower House

Wondering what a sunflower house is? Here is an excerpt from Inspiration from the Garden: Sunflower Houses, a Book for Children and Their Grown-ups by Sharon Lovejoy that shares the story:

In early summer, my mother would wake us up with ‘Get up you sleepyheads, today’s the day!’ and we would get out of bed and pull on our clothes. We didn’t even want to eat breakfast, but she would make us sit down and take our time. It all served to heighten the excitement. We couldn’t wait to get outside. Chores done, watering can and stick in tow, we would head outside and take time choosing the best, flattest, sunniest spot in our garden. Then the work would begin. Mother would use the stick to trace out a large rectangle, usually about 6 by 9 feet, leaving a small opening for a doorway. She would drag the stick along the ground and gouge out a trench a couple of inches deep. My little sister and brother would trail behind and drop in seeds. John would drop in a big, fat sunflower seed; daintily, my sister would tuck in a ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory seed. I would trudge along behind them lugging the huge tin watering can. I’d use my foot to knock the earth back over the seeds and then I’d give them a small drink of water. Every day one of us would have the chore of walking that rectangle of land and giving a drink of water to the sleeping seeds. We all hoped to be the one to discover the first awakening green heads that poked through the soil. Once the green of the sunflowers peeked through the earth, we became even more interested in our growing playhouse. Usually, we would each water the plot once a day. Soon flowers were climbing skyward and the ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories were wrapping their tendrils around the stalk and heading upward too. I’ll tell you there was nothing like crawling through the door of that playhouse and lying on the ground looking up through the incredible lacework of vines and flowers. I guess you could say I spent the best days of my childhood playing, dreaming and sleeping in that little shelter.

The Story of the Popcorn House

My daughter and I planned a slightly different version for our garden—a Popcorn House. Japanese Hulless Popcorn. This year we are taking a break from the usual beans, pie pumpkins, summer squash and salad greens. We have loofah seedlings, hibiscus tea sprouts, wine cap mushroom spawn in our fridge and various flower seeds waiting for warmer days. So why not plant our own popcorn? We saved a space 10 by 20 feet for the Popcorn House.

The entrance will be slightly hidden by a verbena and sunflower border. Verbena has gorgeous, delicate purple flowers with brilliant, green stems and attracts many varieties of butterflies. A mix of ornamental sunflowers (sun samba), giant sunflowers (sunzilla) and a summer mix of bright yellow, red and orange sunflowers will help create the outer wall with the rows of popcorn.

My daughter requested a secret space in the center where she can dig, collect outdoor things and have tree stump seats. Her inner space will also have a carpet of fresh straw to keep the weeds down. The process involves a lot of patience waiting for everything to grow. Hopefully the excitement of warmer weather, planting and planning will help with the waiting for warm summer days playing in the popcorn house while mom weeds and waters the veggies.

April Collections

  • Seeds of choice
  • Outdoor buckets
  • Shovels
  • Water & Dirt

April Book Resources

April Web Resources


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie continues to do freelance work for clients here and in Chicago.

The Ripple: Hunting for Springs in Western MA

Spring Hunting

Spring has a leap of the leprechaun in it; who can deny that?—but spring’s called spring not because of its leapiness.  Spring’s called spring because of the upwelling waters that appear as the frozen earth thaws.

Right now is the best time to hunt for springs. We had a great ice winter, a record snow and some flood-causing rains, so the conditions are approaching perfect for finding the little springs that make Spring spring.

Why would parent and child hunt springs? Well—we’re pasty from sitting indoors for five months and, no matter the age, cobwebbed and crotchety.  A good hard bushwack, a mucky hill scramble is therapeutic. When the sun pours through the grey tree limbs, you can almost feel them swell like you swell, soaking the glow, craning for warmth, more heat, more nourishing radiation.

The trick to hunting springs is: you can only hunt springs that you don’t yet know about. If you know about them, it not possible to hunt them.

So, you have to enter a place, a terrain, a topography that is a mystery, and that draws you to it. It can be your backyard, or a town park, or wherever there isn’t too much pavement to occlude the upwelling waters. The best places are the ones where few things have been constructed—the deep woods, the sides of mountains, the banks of rivers. I suggest, though, that you start by trying to find a spring w/in a five or ten walk from your front door.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: River Otters in Western MA

Winter Otters

When winter is most wintery, the otter is most active. It is hungry, of course, and it is also very smart. The ice that forms in and above the streams shrinks the size of the stream, making it harder for fish and crayfish to hide. Not only that, the otter—of the weasel family (i.e., a mountain lion crossed with a squirrel)—is in summer a nocturnal feeder, but changes that habit in the winter, and feeds during the day. In the harshest and barrenest of late winter, the otter finds a feast. (Photo credit: Kurt Heidinger)

It’s the end of winter (almost), when months of frigid winds have whipped the bare hills and leafless trees into a freeze-dried state. The best loggers cut trees for firewood now, just before the March thaws, because the ground is frozen and the green wood is at its driest, all the sap stored underground (Think maple syrup!). How wonderful and wise and tough are the trees, an example for us all of character and of presence (A friend of mine, a Chilean ethnobotanist, once said, “Always live in the trees. Humans go crazy without them.” I still wonder if she’s correct—and I tend to agree.).

The creatures who live in our forests are likewise in their stiffest winter state, hungry and cold, their food supply growing ever more meager. The deep hard snow will soon be gone, but while it lasts, life gets dearer for all us living beings. Dessicated, shrunken, and gnarled, the bios—the shared life expressed by biodiversity —is ready to spring.

Before it does, get out of the house! As harsh as late winter is, it is an ephemeral world of austere beauty. Everybody wants summer right now, all my friends off last week in Florida, posting Facebook photos and saying nananabooboo—but what is summer anyway, if it is not earned by gritting through the iciest and bluest and shiveriest months of cold? Living four seasons deeply is what chisels the Yankee character. For each season, we have a way of living and that—our environmentally-determined multifaceted  character—makes us culturally unique and vibrant. Spring is not so incredible and sweet and exuberant unless it follows the kind of winter we’re having, and that makes the winter we’re having a perfect one.

SO: Grab some snowshoes and ski poles and take risk (I guess I should place a disclaimer here: what I will now suggest is somewhat dangerous, so be very careful and don’t over do it.)… put on those snowshoes and, preferably with a friend or two also on snowshoes, walk a stream bed…while you still can!  Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Guerrilla Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Play it Forward

This month we need to spread the play. It’s cold out. People are looking for signs of spring. I think families can brighten a little corner of our world with kindness and have great fun doing it.

Many people are helping neighbors near and far. Knitters have made blanket squares for victims of Super Storm Sandy (Knit Sandy). Many observed the National Day of Service in honor of Martin Luther King (Spreading Kindness). Small gestures are made numerous times a day that can brighten an afternoon such as holding a door for a delivery man loaded high with packages, helping your child’s teacher with a special project or shoveling the neighbor’s walk. We decided to spread play in our community.

I mentioned yarn bombing in my column last year. Those wacky knitters provide the public with visual interest and color in unexpected places. Knitted items pop up over night. Yarn bombers spread creativity, art, beauty and ideas. Technically yarn bombing is an act of graffiti. Northampton frequently removes it from the main areas downtown. We decided to start making Play Bombs! Can play bombs be illegal? I hope not. We have been leaving finger puppets, tiny toys and bouncing balls around Northampton on and off for months now. Have you found a paper puppet in your stroller? Or a tiny purple spider on the jungle gym? Maybe a felt bunny on the chair at a local coffee shop? We try to be subtle and act as if we accidentally left an item behind, as subtle as you can be with a 7 year old excited about leaving surprises for other children to discover. Each has a little note so people know there is no need to look for the owner. You can brighten the faces of kids in an after school program by dropping off something as simple as a box of paper airplanes. Are the neighbor kids home with the flu? Leave a box of hearts to cut out with scissors and glue on the front steps. It’s easy and can quickly bring a smile. Just don’t get caught. Play bombing is much more fun, if it is secret.

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Help us spread some play this month. I have links below for more ideas and examples of random acts of kindness.

February Resources


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie continues to do freelance work for clients here and in Chicago.

Call to Artists: Travel the Watershed

Westfield River Wild & Scenic Call for Hilltown Artists

Michele Beemer of Heartwood and volunteers have been working away in the beautiful Washington, MA shop, designing and building watershed suit cases. (Submitted photo)

The Westfield River Wild & Scenic advisory committee invites local artists of all ages to paint wooden suitcases that will “Travel the Watershed” this summer!

“Many artists choose to live in the Hilltowns because of the inspiring landscape and the pristine river that runs through it,” writes the Westfield River Wild & Scenic advisory committee. “The idea for a call to artists is to invite local artists to paint six handcrafted wooden suitcases that will ‘Travel the Watershed,’ inspiring others to soak up the beauty and protect the watershed.”

These suitcases will be on exhibit as works of art throughout the summer as display cases with information about Westfield River Wild & Scenic.  Local artists of all ages are invited to apply by midnight, March 1st, 2013… a great opportunity for youth artists to integrate art with environmental studies!

Selected Artists will be announced at the Westfield River Watershed Symposium held at Westfield University on March 23rd, 2013.  A $500 honorarium will be given to each of the selected artists and their work will be shown throughout the summer as the cases “Travel the Watershed.”

“We are looking for local artists of all ages, four of the selected artist must have an address in one of the ten towns with Wild & Scenic designation,” writes Wild & Scenic.  Towns include Becket, Chester, Chesterfield, Cummington, Huntington, Middlefield, Savoy, Washington, Windsor, and Worthington. To apply visit: becketartscenter.org.

Westfield River Wild & Scenic advisory committee serves to preserve, protect and enhance the special qualities and outstanding resources of the Westfield River Watershed in concert with local communities. Find out more at westfieldriverwildscenic.org.

Citizen Scientists Wanted for Mass Audubon Winter Bird Count

Focus on Feeders
Mass Audubon Winter Bird Count
February 2nd & 3rd, 2013

People can help their feathered friends in the coldest season by joining Mass Audubon’s annual Focus on Feeders winter bird count on the weekend of February 2-3. The volunteer survey invites participants to list individual bird species and the greatest number of each seen at one time at their feeders and in their yards during that Saturday and Sunday.   Anyone can participate—including families, first timers, and veteran bird enthusiasts. Participants will be able to learn and share information about the birds that visit their yards and feeders in winter. They will also be contributing knowledge to more than 40 years of winter bird feeder sighting information.

Does your family enjoy watching birds at your feeder during the winter?  Backyard feeders provide a consistent, easily accessible source of food for a wide variety of bird species during the winter, and feeder-watching is a great way for families to learn about the many different species who live in their neighborhood.

This weekend, Mass Audubon is offering a chance for families to put feeder-watching to good use!  Focus on Feeders – the great winter bird count – will take place on Saturday, February 2nd and Sunday, February 3rd, and is an annual event held to collect data on bird species and populations.  All that families need to do to participate is to keep a list of the types of birds seen at the feeder during the weekend, as well as the number of each type of bird seen at a time.  Then, families can submit their data for use in an actual scientific study by either entering it in online or completing a form and mailing it.  The data collected will be used to assess bird populations and habits across the state – information that can be analyzed in order to understand the effects of changes in climate and landscape.

In order to identify birds, families will need to use a good field guide.  Using a field guide to identify species allows kids to develop and practice reference skills while discovering bird characteristics of different species needed to properly identify them.  Learning about the species living in their backyard will help students nurture a sense of place while drawing closer to the natural world around them!

Deadline for submissions is Thursday, February 28, 2013.  More information at www.massaudubon.org/focus.

[Photo credit: (ccl) senoracak]

The Ripple: Rivers in the Sky

Clouds are Rivers

The next time the western wind blows strongly, hurtling great grey masses of clouds over our towns—long cirrus strips with ribbons of blue between them—imagine you are a fish looking up at the river’s surface. Because, in the wider scheme, you are!

Rains become rivers, so—if we think of the whole instead of the parts—clouds are rivers.

How very unscientific is such a thought! If everybody thought clouds are rivers, how would we distinguish between them? Wouldn’t reality become an un-focus-able blur?

Maybe! That could be a very healthy development, if it allowed us to reboot our way of categorizing, and comprehending, the parts that make up the whole of our biosphere.

All too often we are forced by training and circumstances to have a tunnel-vision view of things; we are so driven to achieve personal goals, for example, that we block out anything that is beside-the-point. All we see or care about is that carrot dangling in front of us, and so we lose the wider perspective, which (also) provides the place for our performance, the stage where we display our role not as a soliloquy-er, but as a high-kicking member of a chorus line. Even when we have the spotlight upon us, we perform in a wider scheme. I have nothing against achieving personal goals or ignoring extraneous information, as long as I have, from time to time, the space—a wider scheme—within which to place my activities.

We live and act not as isolated island universes, but in a biotic mandala (that is itself part of other mandalas), and to the extent that we join things together and perceive reality holistically, the more we assume in thought and deed the design of our mandala: and there is soft power and beauty aplenty in such magnification.

So, clouds are rivers.

You saw it a few weeks ago when dense fog exhaled out of the snow and blanketed both our white hills and heavy dark waters. Science explains that, because the air was listless and warmer than the frozen ground, water molecules condensed (like tears on the side of an ice-water glass) in the atmosphere—giving us fog: an un-focus-able blur. Science explains, too, that the water molecules are essentially the same, whether they float in the sky or flow over the earth. What science doesn’t explain is how fog feels.

We feel fog. It’s clammy on our skin. It occludes our vision, and because sight is our primary sense, it frustrates us. Drivers—and downhill skiers—don’t like fog, and people walking on the side of the road worry more when they walk in it. It makes us turn our lights on in the middle of the day. In some psychosomatic way, the day never begins when it starts in the fog, and—yawn some more coffee please—the night never ends. When you walk in the woods in a dense fog, a subtle rain falls—each crooked finger of branch-tip collecting H2O atoms until the drip is formed and drops on your head. If you aren’t prepared, and walk long enough, you get soaked.

When the sun breaks through again, blue and gold and making us squint, we feel relief, as if a burden and gloom has lifted off our thoughts and shoulders. Our eyes resume command over things, feeding our brains the information of parts, distinguishing between this and that, and giving us the power and freedom to choose what we will focus on. We like that; it is the realm we have been trained to operate in, where everything has its place and is in position where it is supposed to be.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Great Day for Snow Play!

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Go Out in the Snow a Bit Each Day!

It’s a great day to get out into the snow!  Just add kids and go!  But before you head out, prepare so as to optimize the fun! Set up a healthy snack for the kids to energize and hydrate, then have them take a bathroom break BEFORE getting dressed in their winter gear. While they eat, gather up the warm clothes by the door. Layers. No cotton. Wool and other fibers are warmer. Long underwear. Turtlenecks. Sweaters. Snow pants. Snow jacket. Warm socks. Waterproof boots. Winter hats. Warm mittens you can tuck up into the jacket sleeves. And extra mittens to swap out when the first pair gets wet. When its really cold, add a neck warmer and leg warmers. Cover all the skin you can in layers. Then open the door and let ‘em out… and the kids will just play!

Snow has a magic effect. There are the traditional snowy day activities. Sledding. Slipping and sliding on patches of ice. Climbing snow hills. Building a snow person. Walking through the drifts. A snowball fight. Constructing a snow fort or igloo. Making snow angels. For variety, as the winter lingers on, present some other options.

  • Paint Snow: Fill spray or squirt bottles with water and food coloring to paint in the snow (Avoid spraying each other as food coloring can stain.).
  • Build Winter Fairy Houses: Build mini houses with icicles for walls. They can be houses for snow fairies similar to summer time fairy stick houses.
  • Make Mini Snow People: Use snowballs and tiny foods like raisins and nuts for faces and toothpicks for arms for mini snow people.
  • Blow Bubbles: Blow bubbles on a cold, cold day. They freeze.
  • Hula Hoop: Have a hula hoop contest dressed in all those layers.
  • Flashlight Tag: It gets dark early, so consider a game of flashlight tag before dinner.
  • Box Sled: Use a cardboard box or trash can lid for a sled.
  • Tracking: Go on a hunt for animal tracks in the snow.
  • Indoor Snow Bin: IF it gets too cold outside, bring a plastic bin of snow inside to play. Add a few action figures, toy trees and some ice cubes or sugar cubes for building and pretend to have a tiny winter landscape inside.

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Enjoy the season!

January Collections

We are always collecting and saving items in bins and on shelves for creative projects. This month add a few things to enhance snow play:

  • spray or squirt bottles
  • food coloring
  • flattened cardboard boxes and large trash can lids make great sleds
  • traditional summer playthings like bubbles or a hula hoop
  • large plastic bin to bring snow inside

Related Post: 9 Resources for Surviving & Thriving the Winter in Western Massachusetts


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie is a licensed family care provider and continues to do freelance work for clients in Chicago.

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