Nature-Based Learning: Learning through the Lens of the Wild Orchid

“Writing professor Kyhl Lyndgaard finds that 19th-century attitudes about ‘Indian removal’ were echoed by a notable shift in the common names of native orchids.” This is the sentence that begins the article, “Taking Off the Moccasin Flower and Putting On the Lady’s Slipper,” published by Potash Hill, the magazine of Marlboro College. Using the Lady Slipper (sp. Cypripedium acaule), in which we’ve seen a “bumper crop” this year, as a catalyst for learning, let’s begin here, the renaming of native orchids and other plants. Learning about the history and origin of different native plant species names can support a wide variety of subjects, including Native American studies, U.S. history, ethnobotany, poetry, and ecology. In Lyndgaard’s article, these subjects are tied together by weaving a story about Indian Removal through poetry, history, and the renaming of the Moccasin Flower. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature-Based Learning: Learning through the Lens of Lilac

This week with Lilac as our point of entry, we’re getting curious and learning through the lens of food, cultural heritage, and habitat.

Now that we have turned the corner from May to June, notice the changes through your senses. Your senses can tell you what time of the year it is without even looking at a calendar. Just the sound the trees make as their young green leaves tussle together in the treetops when it’s breezy before a rainstorm is enough to signal the time of year. The next time there’s a wind, notice the sound of the trees. How does the sound differ from the winter months when the leaves are on the ground, or in the autumn when they are crisp and turning colors? Layer upon this dance between wind and leaves the changing soundscape of the birds, insects, and frogs, and you can observe what time of the year it is merely through sound. Invite your sense of smell to the table and the conversation deepens, accessing memories through the scent of blossoms, dirt, and summer rains.


Lilacs are in bloom right now, and unlike the intoxicating smell of Lily-of-the-Valley, which were in full bloom last week, the equally intoxicating scent of lilacs can be captured through taste. If you have access to Lilac blossoms growing safely away from the road and toxic chemicals, give these recipes a try while they are in bloom: Lilac honeyLilac cocktailsLilac waterLilac pavlovasLilac scones, and Lilac syrup. These recipes capture the essence of this flower and are delicious ways to compare and contrast the smell and flavor of other flowers, like lavender and violets. How does our sense of smell and taste combine? What biochemistry is involved with smell, and how does our brain receive information and translate it into memories and emotions? Check out these TED-Ed videos, “How do we smell?” to learn about the biochemistry, and “How to master your sense of smell” to discover the art of smelling. Between the two, learn how smell, taste, and memory are connected through the olfactory nerves.


Learning the scientific name of plants can lead us to learn about the historical context of a flower, it’s place within cultural heritage, and taxonomy. For instance, the scientific name for Lilac is Syringa vulgaris. Vulgaris is Latin for “common” (common Lilac), and the scientific name for Syringa is derived from the Greek word “syrinx” which means pipe. According to Wikipedia, “In classical Greek mythology, Syrinx was a nymph and a follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” Those reeds were the hollow branches of Lilac.

Word origin is one path to take when looking through the lens of habitat during the season of lilac blooms. Another path is towards the cultivation, propagation, and care for Lilac in your home garden. They’re pretty sturdy perennials that can live up to 100 years. If you ever see a large lilac bush oddly growing in the middle of a field, the chance is there was a farmhouse that once stood nearby. In this video, “The Dirt: Lilacs,” home gardeners can learn about caring for lilacs. It also can help strengthen your appreciation for lilac shrubs in the home gardens of others and within community accessible botanical gardens.


Lilac has a strong presence in our cultural heritage. You can see evidence in annual events that celebrate this fragrant shrub. While they are not taking place this year, festivals like the Lilac Festival in Rochester, NY, and Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University have marked the season with cultural celebrations.

Attendance to these festivals, close observation in your garden or nearby botanical garden, and review of lilac renditions by famous and contemporary artists can support multidisciplinary learning while strengthening a sense of place. Paintings to compare and contrast include, Lilacs in a Window by American artist Mary Cassatt and Lilac in the Sun by Claude Monet.

Photo credit: Lilac Infused Honey (c) Sienna Wildfield.

Nature-Based Learning with Curly Willow on the Westfield River. Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on the east branch of the Westfield River, Curly Willow on the Westfield is an emerging space for the passionately curious. A convergence of mindfulness and community-based education. Member, Community-Based Education Network™.

Nature-Based Learning: Spring Chorus of Frogs & Toads

On the heels of a New England winter, spring in Western MA can be very engaging to the senses. This week, take inventory through your senses and notice what’s “speaking” to you.

As you move through the final month of spring, notice what you observe through your senses and how your observations might change and evolve. Our sense of place is interwoven with the seasons and our five senses, deepening our connection to place through seasonal changes. Embedded within this awareness are self-directed learning opportunities that are sparked by curiosity and supported by community-based resources.

WHAT DO YOU HEAR? Native species are a community-based resource that can deliver lessons through our senses. Take, for instance, deep listening to the frogs and toads native to Western MA. Have you ever noticed how their chorus changes through the season? How they are quiet on some evenings and very noisy on others? Pay attention to their chorus (or lack of) and let it guide your learning! It’s a great way to support interests and education in herpetology, biology, and ecology. Start by learning the calls of different native frogs in your region. This video demonstrates how their chorus blends and changes over five months (in just 22 seconds!).

GET CURIOUS: Once you are able to identify the different calls of the frogs and toads in your area, see if you can single out their contribution to an evening spring/summer soundscape. If you find yourself wondering why you hear them one evening, and not the next, get curious and look for the answers. Maybe their mating season has ended? Is the weather a factor? Are they loud or quiet before or after rain? What’s the high and low temperature for that day? These questions and the search for the answers guide learning while putting into practice the process of self-directed education, encouraging curiosity, and delivering the rewards of following your interests.


  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library has audio recordings of different species to support your learning of different calls.
  • AmphibiaWeb provides information on amphibian declines, natural history, conservation, and taxonomy.

Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield. Video credit: Cable Natural History Museum

Nature-Based Learning with Curly Willow on the Westfield River. Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on the east branch of the Westfield River, Curly Willow on the Westfield is an emerging space for the passionately curious. A convergence of mindfulness and community-based education. Member, Community-Based Education Network™.

Nature-Based Learning: Lily-of-the-Valley

In shade gardens across the Hilltowns, Lily-of-the-Valley makes its debut in mid to late May. This delicate, fragrant flower is rich in folklore and goes by many names. Learning through the lens of Lily-of-the-Valley, let the different names of this spring flower start as your guide for learning this week.

CHRISTIAN LORE: Names like “Mary’s Tears” and “Our Lady’s Tears” are associated with Christian Lore. Can you think of other flowers that are also related to Christian Lore? Have you ever heard of a Mary Garden? The University of Dayton has a list of “Flowers of Mary’s Sorrows” that are typically grown in a Mary Garden and can support learning about religion through folklore.

FOLKLORE: Pagan folklore associations can be found in the origins of alternative names of Lily-of-the-Valley, like “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Ladder to Heaven.” In Irish folklore, the bell-shaped flowers of Lily-of-the-Valley were drinking cups for fairies. When Ireland converted to a new Christian-based belief system, these two alternative names with roots in paganism took hold.

WORLD CULTURE & HISTORY: In ancient European cultures, the Lily-of-the-Valley was thought to protect homes and gardens and to bring good luck when brought into a home. Even today in France, May 1st is a public holiday, La Fête du Muguet (Lily of the Valley Day). Let this annual observation day lead your learning about French history and culture! La Fête du Muguet is a tradition that dates back to the reign of King Charles IX in 1561. In more recent history, this fragrant flower has been linked to the worker’s rights movement, where they were worn on the lapels while participating in protests and marches.

ART STUDIES & MINDFULNESS: Lily-of-the-Valley has caught the eye of many artists. Looking through the lens of this delicate flower, let it lead you to learn about art history through the many depictions of Lily-of-the-Valley, including paintings by Marc Chagall and Albert Durer Lucas. Study how these artists interpreted the color and texture of this flower and see if you can find what they saw within your own observation of Lily-of-the-Valley closer to home. Photographing and sketching, or just sitting and observing, can train your eye to notice the nuances of light and shadow, shades of white in the flower, and tones of green in the leaves. Get up-close and give the flower a sniff. Does smell engage any other senses? Might you also interpret smells with colors, sounds, or tastes? These mindful moments make your learning relevant to where you live, connecting lessons with a sense of place through the senses, and through the seasons.

Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield

Nature-Based Learning with Curly Willow on the Westfield River. Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on the east branch of the Westfield River, Curly Willow on the Westfield is an emerging space for the passionately curious. A convergence of mindfulness and community-based education. Member, Community-Based Education Network™.

Nature-Based Learning: Early May Buds & Blossoms

It was Albert Einstein, who said, “Look deep, deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” During the spring, as nature bursts into bloom, help deepen your connection to which Einstein hinted by looking towards the emerging blossoms of flowering plants purposefully planted in gardens or self-seeded in the crevices of sidewalks or manicured lawns. Every spring, flower buds emerge and unfold into inviting blossoms, an annual appearance rooted in the seasons of the past. We can “look deep” into that past to learn about botany, ecology, art, and history. But to “understand everything better,” the beauty of a flower invites us into the present moment where it can spark reverence and capture faith in the process of bud to bloom to seed. It is there our understanding of “everything” can awaken.



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This spring, pick a flowering plant nearest you and spend a mindful moment with it every day. Use your camera or sketchpad to capture it’s unfolding process. Notice its pattern of opening, relationship with pollinators, variants of colors and tones, textures, and smells. Welcome a flowering tulip tree, azalea bush, or dandelion plant into your daily observations and appreciations. Use your senses to connect with the essence of your chosen plant and pair it with self-directed learning about plant science or natural history. Blending the two not only supports place-based education, but it also strengthens a sense of place through the cultivation of respect for nature’s process and, ultimately, “understanding everything better.”

Nature-Based Learning with Curly Willow on the Westfield River. Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on the east branch of the Westfield River, Curly Willow on the Westfield is an emerging space for the passionately curious. A convergence of mindfulness and community-based education. Member, Community-Based Education Network™.

Three Ideas for Cultivating and Sharing Gratitude

Memory Banks, Gratitude Journals, & Accountability Partners

Some old-fashioned things like fresh air and sunshine are hard to beat. – Laura Ingalls Wilder

This New Year, rather than making a resolution to change something, why not make a commitment to find a deeper appreciation for small moments and shared time with friends and family? Create a memory bank and throughout the year, write little notes of appreciation and deposit them for opening up next year on New Year’s Day! Notes could include three things you’re grateful for from the day, a joy-filled event, a small moment of appreciation, a thank you note to someone … the ideas are endless! Next year when you open up your memory bank and read what you deposited throughout the year, you’ll be hooked on a new tradition!

Another option for those less crafty folks or wanting more guidance is a gratitude journal like Good Days Start With Gratitude: A 52 Week Guide To Cultivate An Attitude Of Gratitude. With daily quotes and prompts, journals like this one can help facilitate a practice for finding appreciation for the big and little things your experience every day!

Accountability partners are good too. Gather a few friends and commit to sharing with one another three things you’re grateful for every day (or week if you want to begin with a less ambitious plan). Email your list to one another, post it to a private online group, write it down and tack it to a bulletin board in a shared space… whatever works for your group of friends (or even coworkers!) for sharing and checking in with one another on a regular basis.

November: A Month of Generosity

Creating Sanctuary Through Shared Meals

November is a month of generosity, with gestures of abundance played out through our community landscape. Nature is generous, leaving our open fields and meadows with a plethora of grass and wildflower seeds feeding wildlife in the winter and delivering a promise to summer pollinators. The cultivated land is generous, delivering a cornucopia of locally grown food from the late harvest. People are generous, volunteering and spreading kindness during the holiday season. Family and friends are generous, sharing recipes and stories during holiday dinners. And the community is generous, creating a shared history together during annual community meals.

During this month there are at least two common threads that run through these gestures of generosity. The first of which is food! Integrating community engagement opportunities centered around food with curiosity and compassion can help to strengthen our connection to place by being fully present in the moment and open to those with whom we share our lives… and our meals!
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