The Ripple: Getting Beyond the Dam

Life Will Return to Our Rivers!

The challenge we (who value these nonhuman lives) face is to turn the immense powers we have to obstruct life into powers that liberate it.

Sweet as maple syrup, the thaw is coming.

Sea lamprey, shad, herring, alewives, eels, sturgeon and the last of the salmon: all are sensing it, as they swim far offshore in the (comparatively) warm ocean. Exactly how they sense the return of Spring remains unknown, even to the brightest marine biologist; but our lack of comprehension, alone, will not prevent their return. Our dams will.

Every dam we remove increases the chances that our native anadromous fish—and all the other creatures (birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles) that feed upon them—will thrive. For this reason, I long ago joined the Connecticut River Watershed Council, which has a laudable record of success in removing the obstructions that block fish passage.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Listen to the Story of the River

The Importance of Escaping to the River

Be adventurous and skirt the edge, but do be careful; use snowshoes, stay clear of ice jams, and have a friend close by if you can’t resist walking in spots that clogged with frozen floes.

A walk alongside one or our rivers is a walk with a companion, even when alone. Cares of the world will ping pong and even hornet in the head ‘til settled by rushing water. Give a river a chance, when one’s thoughts have quieted down: listen—it tells a story, and like every really good story, it draws us out of our heads and into another.

Asked how I began to love rivers so much, I recall how as a lad I’d scoot to the flow whenever things stagnated, or became too crazed, in a house with three brothers. No matter the boredom or conflict I escaped from, the river—Silvermine river it is—settled the ping pongs in my head by providing fresh and loud sensations, and endless opportunities for adventure. Rafting down it in cold April floods, in cheap inflatable pool rafts that punctured instantly (unless steered by experienced skippers), introduced me to hyperthermia, blue lips and the need to pack hot chocolate in thermos.’ (We wore cotton back then, and I remember shivering for hours like a wet cat on an iceberg. The experience toughened me up, and made me realize that dressing correctly makes all the difference between teeth gritting and laughing when on the adventure. To this day, I dress so I when sleep in snowdrifts, I purr.) Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for January: Tracking Mealtimes

Crusted Landscape Crackles with Nature Treats

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.

January’s slow and chilly start has brought with it some interesting natural treasures. However, as the local landscape is currently crusted over with a thick coating of ice and a slippery dusting of fluffy snow, most of these treasures are the kind best enjoyed indoors rather than out. And, so as to discourage us from becoming frustrated with the cold weather (and therefore forgetting how wonderful the outside is, even this time of year), our current collection follows an exciting theme.

Compiled somewhat by accident, the table is filled with the clues (big, small, feathery, bony, scat-like, and otherwise) left by animals of all shapes and sizes at the scene of some kind of crime – or as our neighborhood creatures would call it – a meal. A true nature detective could take a few quick, close-up looks at our treasures and determine who ate what based on evidence of bite marks, the foods that have been feasted upon, and the size, shape, and contents of bits of scat and regurgitated bits. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for December

Thanksgiving Snowstorm Shakes Out a Unique Blend for December’s Nature Table

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.

Winter here in West County came early this year, blanketing the ground with a pile of heavy, wet snow and pulling down anything and everything willing to bend. The woods, roadsides, and backyards of our area are littered with tree debris, and once-sturdy trunks now stand like wounded warriors, their bright, fleshy interiors bared for all to see after the loss of a limb (or two or three). Our own beloved crabapple, which grows its roots just outside the classroom windows, has lost nearly a third of its beautiful feeder-baring limbs.

The early snow and subsequent rain and melting has seemed to confuse us slightly, and this month’s nature table reflects the lack of seasonal connectedness that we’ve experienced. We prepared ourselves for winter and faced its snow and frigid temperatures, only to find that once we’d mastered the boots-and-snowpants routine, it was warm enough again to brave the blacktop in sneakers. Similarly, our nature table contains bits of evergreen as reminders that soon, they’ll truly be the only green that we see, while out the window, a mix of brown and green grass mocks our dedication to its demise.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: The Survival Instinct of the Sea Lamprey Endures…for 460,000,000 years

Why I Love Sea Lampreys

Sea Lampreys: A lot to love, and even more to admire.

Our rivers—the Westfield and the Connecticut—are alive. They could be more alive than they are, but the Holyoke and Turners Falls dams on the Connecticut and the West Springfield dam on the Westfield prevent that vivacity. These dams make anadromous fish (that spend part of their lives in fresh water and another part in salt water) go extinct.

I have wondered how it is that people can allow these extinctions to happen, without feeling absolute horror and guilt, and preventing any more of them. One reason is that we don’t know why their lives are valuable. Read the rest of this entry »

Western Mass Winter Brings Tracking Opportunities

Some of Nature May Nest but Signs of Movement Remain to be Explored

American Robin

The American Robin can be a subject of winter tracking expeditions over the winter months.

During the cold months of winter, many of the creatures often seen during the rest of the year have migrated south, are tucked away in burrows for most of the winter, or have become even better at hiding so as not to be easily spotted against the snow. But their signs are still there and a lot of fun searching for! Looking for signs like tracks, scat, dens, and nests is a fun and educational way to learn about the habits of wildlife living near you. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Rivers Can Fly

The Importance of Flying Rivers

Flying Rivers have receded in the Amazonian rain forests but can be seen around our very own Mount Tom! However you won’t see them in Fall. Wait for a humid August day, and you’ll have more luck.

Perhaps you’ve heard that California is experiencing a very severe drought caused by climate change.  Since most of our fruit and vegetables are grown there, now is a great time to become knowledgeable about our regional food system, and to redouble support for our farmers who can supplement the shrinking Californian supplies. Compared to the rest of the nation, we’re lucky to have such a vibrant and energized agricultural base. A few years ago, a study was done to see if Northampton could grow enough food to supply its own population; and the answer is—if everybody’s vegetarian—”yes.” What good news! Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for November

November’s Nature Table is Filled with Beginnings and Endings

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.

It’s dark outside these days, and the hills all seem a little less tall now that they’re devoid of the leafy fluff that extends their reach a little closer to the clouds. While it may seem that the change in seasons signals to the natural world that it should slow to a stop, there are beginnings amongst all of the ending.

This past week, my classroom hung the first few in a collection of bird feeders outside our windows. We’ve tracked goldfinches, blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees, and some small woodpeckers outside of our window, and the bird journal is quickly filling up with sightings. The buffet of thistle and sunflower seeds has attracted a wide variety of feathered folks, and we’re proud to feed them suet from a local farm. An outdoor snack time afforded us the opportunity to inspect our feeder-holding crabapple, allowing us to discover the many perfectly round holes pecked into its bark. We’re looking forward to continuing to learn how to identify the bird species found locally, and are planning to participate in some feeder-related citizen science this winter. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Short Guide to River Movies

Rivers in Reels: Short Guide to River Movies

A classic film set on the Potomac River…a river mighty enough to hold two film icons.

Witch hazel crane over Halloween rivers, their branchtips glowing with yellow blossoms—tassled tiny chandeliers of color, calling for sensitive notice. Catch one in the sunlight; examine the blaze that pops vibrant against the drab of forest dun and river dark. Rivers seem darker when leaves have fallen down. Soon the tiny chandeliers of the hazel will drop, too, into the flow to spin and drift and sail away deep into the frosty months of winter. Soon enough, water will show us its sterner self, as snow and ice will be with us.

Still a few weeks where we might catch some peace in a warm little microclime beside a Hilltown river: yet there’s no fighting it; it’s time for us to retreat from the outdoors a bit, and pull back into our shells of home and work. And imagination.

When it gets cold in the coming weeks, light a fire and let yourself go on a voyage on a river—at least, a voyage of imagination and feeling. Rivers are real as the rain, but they are also imagined. I love imagining rivers, and of experiencing what others have imagined, too. Rivers are always apparent; they don’t hide. But they are inscrutable and relentless, always a mystery.

Here are a few of my favorite river movies, starting with the child friendly titles then moving into PG13-land:  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for October

This Month’s Nature Table Illustrates Rhythm of Nature

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.

The rains have littered the October ground with a crackling sea shed from the maples outside our window. Fall at our West County elementary school is beautiful, as it turns out, and warmer than we expected. Stories about the chill of fall air sit on the shelf, waiting for the cooler mornings to last all day long and provide the proper climate-context for their telling. Even our wardrobes are confused, and small bodies alternate constantly between winter coats and t-shirts as the temperature bobs up and down. Our classroom “pets,” a collection of pond snails, move about their bowl at approximately the pace that fall has arrived at this year, and they devour green leaves at about the same rate that those outside our window have changed. Our caterpillar has come and gone, his quick chrysalis-ed exit to an outdoor overwintering suspected to have been the result of a few days’ worth of boredom in our room. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Your Local River is Alive…and Waiting

Touch the River and It’ll Touch You

The Connecticut River is the lifeblood of the Pioneer Valley.

Thinking of how important it is for nature-lovers to spend time “being in” nature, the conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”

Ethics involve what we judge to be right or wrong; and Leopold is correct: if we are to be ethical—if we are to wisely judge the rightness or wrongness of a thing—we need to have a direct experience of it. It’s easy to forget that a river is alive, and has a life that is valuable unless, from time to time, you touch it. Unless we touch the river, we can’t understand enough about it to be ethical towards it.

Rivers have always provided humans with perfect places to live, whether it be the nhà sông of Vietnam, the chickee hut of the Mississippi shrimp catcher, or the highrise of a hedgefund manager towering over the Hudson. We’ve always been attracted to rivers because they, of all landscape features, are the most alive: kinetic in movement and full of creatures. There is a big difference between viewing a river, though, and touching it. I want you to touch a river this month if you haven’t lately—and let that river be the Connecticut, which flows for over 400 miles from just over the Canadian border to Long Island Sound.

One way to touch the Connecticut River is to volunteer to assist the Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Source to Sea Clean-up, scheduled for Saturday, September 26 and Sunday, September 27, 2014. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for September

A Transition Between Seasons Brings a Colorful Table

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.

September has brought a nature table filled by the hands of young amateur scientists. As we work to build our new classroom community together, we’re also learning how to look at the world around us. Writing lessons take us outside with clipboards, ready to write about the things that we find. Science sends us on a hunt for specific items, though we’re easily side-tracked by crickets and butterflies. Math surveys are centered around favorite local animals, and whether or not we go hunting with our families. Outside games disintegrate into a group effort to free apples from trees using sticks…

Lucky for all of us, fall’s graceful appearance comes on slow, allowing us to soak it in. Our collecting so far has been filled with excitement over the very, very first signs that the seasons are beginning to change. Sumac – plentiful ’round these West County parts – has started to turn a little bit, and golden rod is blooming with glory. Both of these have been major players in our early fall table-scape, reminding us of the overlap of summer and fall. The half-eaten apples we’ve found (and have watched quickly brown) can only be the leftovers of a feasting animal, though the students don’t seem to be inclined to believe its origins.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for August

Taking the Table on the Road Reveals Diverse Collection

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.

It’s no secret – the tail end of summer is fast approaching. The nights are cooler, the air is drier, and the natural wonders of fall are preparing to emerge. The recent rainfall is providing the perfect growing conditions for the first mushrooms of the season, and we’re greedily gobbling up the very last of the year’s blueberry harvest. While summer’s end can be bittersweet (and often times jam-packed with last-minute adventures), it’s also filled with natural treasures – summer’s final gems continue to slowly emerge throughout the month while signs of fall begin to appear, making for a simultaneous beginning and end.

Summer’s travels have made for a collection filled with items found locally, as well as items found in slightly more far-flung destinations. Alongside the Massachusetts forest’s wealth of galls, nests, and twigs are treasures from the desert and ocean – a crab’s shell from Maine sits alongside invasive zebra mussels from Nevada’s man-made Lake Mead and a delicate butterfly collected from a desert trail in the mountains from which the Colorado River flows.  Read the rest of this entry »

When Dinosaurs Walked…Western Mass

Paleontology Fascinates and Stimulates Learning in Kids

As one of They Might Be Giants’ best-loved (and paleontologist-narrated) children’s songs proclaims, “I love diggin’ in the dirt!” The potential for getting dirty is just what many kids need in order to become interested in dinosaurs, but it’s not the only hook. In addition to the fun that comes from digging and discovering, dinosaurs are fascinating to children for the magic and mystery that surrounds them – though we have lots of evidence that supports their long-ago existence, young ones whose understanding of time has not fully developed are astounded by the beasts of long ago. Drastically different from most of the creatures seen on Earth today (at first glance), dinosaurs’ shape, size, and even habitat are fascinating and almost unbelievable to youngsters.

Engaging children in dinosaur-related learning allows them not only to learn about the prehistoric beasts, but presents opportunities for lots of other types of learning as well. Learning to identify dinosaur species can help young children practice putting words to specific characteristics related to a species’ shape, size, and coloring, while for older learners, species identification serves as a means of understanding the role of each specific body part that distinguishes one type from the next – information that can help children to understand animal adaptations and evolution. Additionally, dinosaur studies supports children in learning about the climate- and landscape-related changes that the Earth undergoes over time. Read the rest of this entry »

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 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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