The Ripple: Life in the Riparian Zone

The Life Riparian

“Land is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” – Aldo Leopold

Riparian is a strange sounding word that denotes “river bank”: the meeting point of river and land. We enter the “riparian zone” when we get close to a river. It is a place we want to be, because it brims with exuberant sounds and smells, and because it often harbors wild plant populations that flower and fruit, attracting pollinators and all sorts of other hungry creatures. In fact, when I think “riparian” I think of food. The riparian zone is where the food is, and where the food is, life is. It is possible to trace this living landform from where it almost touches the sky all the way down to the sea.

A few weeks ago, two miles high in the Chilean Andes with my friends at Superfun, I became dangerously dehydrated. Careful to avoid water that might have bad bacteria in it, I found what I thought was a perfect source. Beneath a melting ice field I filled my canteen and drank until I gasped in pain. So cold, the water sang in my skull; so pure it tasted like breath. For half an hour I sat on a rock, loving the fact that this straight-from-the-glacier water was as perfect as water can be. The purest of the pure, cleanest of the clean, the supreme goal of bottled water drinkers achieved. Woo!

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Nature Table for February

Nature Table for February

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.

We, like the creatures we share our landscape with, spent the better portion of the fall and early winter resigning ourselves to the necessary hunkering down that the coming of cold and snow so requires. Perhaps as the result of being beaten into submission by last year’s constant snowfall (or maybe in anticipation of another year’s worth of excessive drifts and banks), we found snow boots, ski pants, thick coats, and all manner of hats and mittens at the first sign of frost this winter, and as soon as the daylight began to wane, we receded further into our indoor bunkers, hiding out stubbornly until the arrival of springtime. But now – much like creatures whose bodies adapt to the seasons – we’re finding that our stubborn reluctance and our thick layers are simultaneously unnecessary. The unseasonably warm temperatures as of late are inspiring us to end our self-imposed semi-hibernation; bare arms are making a comeback.

Here in western Massachusetts, many of the creatures with whom we share our landscape follow a winter routine quite similar to ours. Coats thicken, food is stockpiled, and the big rest is near. Local woodchucks, bears, bats, chipmunks, and certain mice take wintertime hibernation the most seriously, their bodies stockpiling layers of fat in order to support them through months’ worth of waiting and occasional waking. Other familiar local creatures like raccoon, skunk, and squirrel follow a pattern of hunkering down when winter hits, but they don’t hibernate quite as seriously as some of their other mammalian cousins. These creatures can still be spotted poking around their familiar warm season haunts, but are far less active during the winter. Regardless, the creatures know what’s up: when it’s cold, food becomes scarce, and hiding out (awake or asleep) is the best way to pass the time and ensure survival. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Rivers Near and Far

In Chile

Rivers are everywhere, and one of the joys of paying attention to them is—if you let them, they bring you places far from what you have left behind. Sometimes that new space, that new place to wander, is exactly what is needed, for there the unexpected can find you, and in finding you, can awaken you to the multiplicity (and miracles) of worlds there are on our small, living planet. In this post, I am taking you to a river new to me, far from those who are my friends and teachers in Western Massachusetts… Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for January

Nature Table for January

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.

This month – the cold, dark, first one of the new year – is generally the one that launches birds’ most challenging time of year. With January generally comes ice and some serious snowfall, blanketing the local landscape under a beautiful and fluffy covering that, for humans, sparks unscheduled days off and season-specific outdoor activities. For the creatures with whom we share the local landscape, however, the ice and snow typical to January means something else: an increase in the amount of time and energy spent finding food, and a decrease in the accessibility of winter food sources.

This January, though, humans and creatures alike can’t quite seem to be able to figure out what to do with themselves: not only are we short a good foot or so of snow as ground covering, but we haven’t even experienced temperatures below the freezing point for more than a few days at a time. El Niño has given us a warm winter – one that doesn’t allow us to depend on seasonally-dictated routines in order to explore nature. Where last January certainly lived up to expectations, granting perfect conditions under which to search for animal tracks and sign, this January leaves the landscape largely exposed, offering itself as a buffet for the hardy species who stick around these parts through the winter.

This month’s table is not our usual kind: it is a dinner table of sorts, focused on the January habits of our feathered friends. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Carrying the Ocean Inside

We Carry the Ocean Inside Us

A few days ago, when the East Branch of the Westfield River was shrouded in warm drizzly fog, it occurred to me that I was in a giant breathing lung. Every breath I inhaled was as wet as what I exhaled. My exposed skin was wet, too, with mist, and the tips of the wool threads of the sweater I wore held glistening beads of water that matched the droplets hanging from delicate branch tips.

Amphibians must feel this way, I reckoned, but even more so—for, unlike us warm-bloods, they breathe through their skins. I’ve walked with kids who reprimand other kids for picking up newts and frogs, because our skin oils clog the breath-pores of their cool, moist lung-bodies. That’s sensitivity, the kind that makes me hopeful. Whom ever is teaching these kids deserves a high five!

Way way back in time, about 390-360 million years ago, fish with gills and lungs crawled out of the water and onto land. It is hard to grasp such a length of time—or is it? Most of the colorful rocks that comprise the Westfield’s riverbed are about that old. Our lungs, the breath we’re breathing this very instant, can be traced back to these miraculous walking fish. Gills extract oxygen directly from water; somehow they managed to reverse the engineering of their gills, and created within them a sort of mini ocean, an inner sea, where atmospheric oxygen could be turned into sea-water: and that sea-water is our blood. Our lungs are 90% water, and our blood 80%. Somehow, the walking fishes brought the ocean onto land, by keeping it inside of themselves. And—think of the taste of sweat when it drips onto the tongue—that is exactly what we do today.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for November

Nature Table for November

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.

Since the month has begun, the once-orange forests filling our river valley have become suddenly bare; late October showers scattered delicate leaves across our fields and roads. Everything around us is preparing for a big sleep. We see it in the squirrels’ scurrying, the chipmunks’ furious collecting, and the absence of some of our warm weather feathered friends.

It is at this time of year, though, that we begin to scour the landscape for a variety of signs of the beginning of new life. While the rest of the landscape stalls all growth and hunkers down for the first storm, this year’s seeds enter the spotlight. From tiny flecks to spiny cones, seeds come in all shapes and sizes, and can easily be found en masse amongst their suddenly bare pre-winter surroundings. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Ancient River Friends

Freshwater Sponges: A Most Ancient and Wonderful River Friend

Of all the river beings who remind us of the unity of our highlands and our beaches, the most startling is the lime-green freshwater sponge that you sometimes encounter downstream of swamps and beaver dams. I am always blown away when we meet each other around here, not only because they are most venerable of the multi-celled river beings, but also because you’ll find that they are not documented as living around here yet!

The leaves are falling again, and soon enough we’ll view without obstruction the muscular bodies of our hills and valleys.

I think of geology when I see our biome bared: the thermochemical transformations that over eons have given us our sandy happy valleys and smooth rounded granite ridges.

400 million years ago our mountains were the first and tallest in what is now North America; 200 million years ago the subterranean lava leaks that are now Mt Holyoke and Mt Tom were spluttering; 90 million years ago the Atlantic Ocean formed, splitting North America off from what is now Europe and Africa; and very recently, only 13,000 years ago, the Laurentian Ice Sheet crushed the mountains into boulders and pebbles, then melted and those waterfalls and rivers spewed the grits out into the ocean, where they formed Long Island and Cape Cod. Yes—the sands of P-town come from here, where we live!  Read the rest of this entry »

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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Nature Table for October

Stories in the Landscape

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 is during the turning of seasons that our own affect on the local landscape becomes most apparent. While the life that surrounds us makes its colorful and dramatic shift from summer to autumn, the portions of our landscape that to which phenology does not apply become all the more apparent. Our houses, our roads, our street signs, our stop lights – all of these things remain relatively unchanged as the seasons go by, refusing to yield to the gentlest forces of nature. Because our awareness of our surroundings involves the consideration of both natural and man-made elements, we become all the more aware of seasonal changes when they are contrasted with the lack of change elsewhere.

Recently, we’ve celebrated the end of river wading season and have spent some time exploring the shallow current of the river. Amidst discoveries of crayfish, caddis flies, and volcanic rock are discoveries of things that, unlike small creatures and stones, did not end up their on their own. In sloshing our way downstream to conduct this year’s Rapid Biotic Assessment, we found everything from bits of pottery to an oil filter, reminding us every few steps of the role that our own lives play in the life of all rivers.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Fall Scavenger Hunts

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Fall Scavenger Hunts

Our Septembers arrive with excitement for new teachers and school friends. There is also a bit of anxiety while we all adjust to the new changes—NEW teacher!, PE on Monday, new classmates, art on Friday before lunch, etc… We are searching for the new day-to-day routines. It’s an adventure as things quickly fall into place.

While the school schedule gets established, it helps if we start our after-school routine at home. Someone at my house craves downtime with a snack or a lazy walk home with friends and then any bits of homework before dinner and free time. Weekends become regular with Friday sleepovers and family fun. Having a fall party is part of our annual back-to-school routine. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for September

Telling Stories 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.

There are signs all around us that the end of summer is nigh – the rivers are running lower than ever, forest mushrooms are out in a rainbow of round-capped glory, the evenings darken earlier, apples are dropping of their own volition from branches, and our glowing sun-tanned bodies have returned to the concrete confines of a place of a different kind of learning. It is with summer’s end that our experiential nature-based learning begins to wane, but rather than putting our summer adventures behind us, we share them wholeheartedly, allowing connections to be built between the deep biotic immersion of summertime and the more structured learning we experience once the leaves turn.

This month’s nature table is a collection of objects intended to inspire curiosity, but also curated specially for the purpose of sharing stories. Our collection has migrated from our own tabletops to a space where it can be enjoyed by our entire community, and the curious summertime finds it holds inspire everything from cries of excitement about skull recognition to groans of frustration when it’s discovered that what looks like a duck’s bill doesn’t even belong to a bird. More than this, though, this month’s collection inspires the sharing of tales from summer and beyond – tales inspired by objects, memories whose recollection is dependent upon the recognition of the shape of a shell, the color of a feather, or the patterns in a rock’s layers.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for August

A Collection of Experiences

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.

So many of this summer’s days have been spent in cold waters underneath an umbrella of green and camp kids I have the privilege of spending time with. The young naturalists leading me through the forests that fill the Nonotuck Biome have reveled in the discovery of everything from water snakes to the perfect walking stick, and have walked with wonder through the process of falling in love with their surroundings. The small discoveries are frequent, serving as the pulse that pushes us further into the river-y veins that give life to our landscape.

It is, however, in examining closely not each small moment but the sum total of all of the small moments that we realize what we have truly learned together: that the earth is alive, and intensely so. When we compile the many experiences that we have had within a day, a week, or a season, we are left not with a stream of images but something larger – something encompassing our entire bodies, our entire consciousness.

Experiencing the seamless flow of life from field to forest to flowing waters with all of our senses allows us to connect the millions of moments we have experienced singularly: the texture of paper birch leaves; the sweet smell of a mushroom-covered nurse log; the chill of river waters moving under a thick canopy; the pattern of sunlight on moss; the maddeningly infinite song of water rushing over rock; and the endless other sensory experiences that light up our synapses when we experience our landscape fully.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: A Philosophical Exercise of Eradicating Invasive Species Along Our River Edges

Cutting Knotweed

Cutting knotweed is a philosophical exercise, because doing it makes you a cultivator of the wild. Wherever the knotweed takes over, creatures starve. It provides no food to native species, except to pollinators when it briefly flowers. By eradicating it, we increase biodiversity, and the amount of food there is to feed our wild creatures.

Every summer I bring students into our woods, and wade in our rivers, so they can learn biocultural history and experience deep biotic immersion. Over the years, we have become very aware of the character and health of our biome; by visiting the same places, we register how they have changed—and they always change. One of the most striking changes we have encountered is the blanketing over of our favorite river spots by Japanese Knotweed, a bamboo-like plant.

Two years ago, we began to reclaim some the beaches we love on a nationally-registered Wild and Scenic river (the East Branch of the Westfield river) because they’d disappeared under impenetrable groves of the stuff. We had nowhere even to put down our packs and eat lunch. Until we got squeezed out by this pernicious plant, we thought there was some entity that would come and take of the problem; but after a few years, we realized there was nothing stopping knotweed from choking the entire river corridor. Action was required.

Cutting knotweed is always good thing to do. At the river spot you love, chop it down and let it dry out on shore. It will come back out of the root, so hit it again until it’s finally surrendered. Be sure not to spread the root, because that’s its primary means of colonization.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for July

July’s Nature Table is Ready to Crawl Away

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.

There’s nothing scary about mammals. There’s nothing scary about birds. Fish are perhaps a bit odd looking, and might produce a scare when discovered in murky waters, but they’re pretty safe creatures too. There isn’t much to be truly scared of within the plant kingdom, either. Bugs, on the other hand, have the power to produce negative reactions the likes of which other creatures can only dream of eliciting from humankind. There’s just something about them – or many things, maybe – that can induce panic in humans of any size. So what is it about these miniature beasts that bothers us so much? This month’s nature table contains a collection of potential panic-inducing specimens that may lead us closer to forming an answer to this question.

In the heat of July in western Massachusetts, the small-yet-intrepid youth explorers leading me this summer have begun to discover a wide range of creepy-crawlies in all kinds of different habitats. We’ve found mites in rich soil, giant beetles amongst wild strawberries, wolf spiders on river rocks, spittle bugs frothing on buttercup stems, and ticks (the least welcome of all discoveries) navigating their way through forests of leg hair. For the mini-naturalists I’m adventuring with, these creatures have been met with kindness and curiosity rather than shrieks of terror (the ticks received a slightly less warm welcome, but still no shrieks), but for many kids, the discovery of anything small that can crawl is a terrifying experience. The discovery that a small crawling creature can also fly – well, let’s not imagine the panic that might induce.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Living Patterns of Watersheds

Thinking Like a Watershed

In the same way all the tiny veins at a leaf’s edge connect to the midrib and then the leaf stem and then the branch and tree trunk and roots, so do our upland streams and brooks flow down into our rivers that empty into our oceans.

Make this summer the summer you discover (if you haven’t yet) the Westfield River watershed.

A watershed is—imagine—a giant bathtub, where the high sides of the tub are defined by ridgelines; and when the shower is on (rain), all the water is contained in the tub shape, flows to the bottom (river), and exits through the same drain.

A better way to imagine what a watershed is: it is a leaf-shaped geography. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for June

The Space Between: Finding Dichotomy to Learn About 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.

We humans do some of our best learning through observation. Even those of us who have yet to develop any consciousness surrounding this aspect of our learning process still depend on the powers of observation in learning about the world. Observation is the means of education for that which we cannot experience; while we will never experience what it’s like to sprout from an acorn and spend a season growing slender and leafy, we can watch the process and reflect on what we’ve seen.

While observation is often looked at as a process of watching, it is actually a process in which watching is very closely intertwined with both reflection and comparison, and this is especially true in learning about our surroundings. We observe the changes taking place around us throughout any given season, and we use our ability to reflect on earlier days in the season and compare these memories with what we’re currently experiencing. It is in this balance of experience and some brain-based form of Venn diagramming that our best understandings are built.

This month, our nature table focuses not on a seasonal theme but the idea of dichotomy – a division that exists between two separate groups of things. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature-Based Education Supported via Berkshire BioBlitz

6th Annual Berkshire BioBlitz

Families are invited to be citizen scientists in the Berkshires, June 19th & 20th at the Berkshire Bioblitz! From their participation in the bioblitz, kids will learn to identify plant and animal species that they see often, and learn about the role that each species plays within the local ecosystem. Participate in a mammal tracking workshop, Owl Prowl and Moth-Light demo. Great for budding naturalists!

In celebration of local biodiversity, Berkshire County’s annual BioBlitz will be held at Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary on Holmes Road in Pittsfield starting at 12noon on Friday, June 19, and ending at 12noon on Saturday, June 20. This year’s free event is hosted by Mass Audubon’s Berkshire Sanctuaries at their Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary and co-sponsored by Berkshire Environmental Action Team, Dr. Augie’s Science Education Programs and the Berkshire 4-H. Canoe Meadows is home to a wide variety of plants and trees as well as turtles, ospreys, otters, and owls. Gentle, flat trails wind through the sanctuary’s scenic woods, fields, and wetlands, and along the edge of the Housatonic River.

The BioBlitz is an opportunity for biologists, naturalists and environmentalists to work in collaboration with the general public to gather in a given area and—in a 24-hour period— complete a formal survey of all living species while seeing first-hand the importance of a healthy, active ecosystem in their own community. Approximately 20 specialists will be on hand to explore, identify and educate, including local mushroom specialist John Wheeler of the Berkshire Mycological Society, Scott LaGreca, lichen specialist, Cornell University, and author of Insects of New England and New York, Tom Murray. Read the rest of this entry »

Reborn! Nature Table for May

Spring is Here & New Life is Welcomed

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.

Spring has arrived here in West Franklin County quite suddenly. Just as the very last traces of the most stubborn and well-frozen snowbank disappeared, so came 80-degree days, red faces, and an almost instantaneous burst of light green just about everywhere. We somehow managed to entirely bypass mud season this year, and have not had to exercise patience in waiting for the landscape to dry so as to easily accommodate our adventures. The brown grass is about to give way to a surge of new squashy green stuff, and newly-hatched leaves adorn the twig-ends of each and every deciduous branch that the eye can see. Indoors, our collecting follows this common thread of hatching, and new life is beginning right before our very eyes. The landscape is awake, and so are the creatures. And when the creatures have awakened, they reproduce as if their lives depend on it. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Cheering on our Native Trout!

Native Trout vs. Finned-Zombies: the Essential Difference

More than ever our rivers—and other river-lovers—need us. The Massachusetts Department of Ecological Restoration has published a list & calendar of river-helping opportunities. This local offering is a perfect way for those of us who want to do something, to do it!

Purples, reds and greens thrown high like hard candies, caught by each branch tip that shakes in the soft warming breeze;
our winter dun hills flare up in their pointillist fervors, a rolling canvas of vivacious colors that blend and bleed and swarm ‘til we can’t see the ridgelines or hollows;
hawks and falcons and eagles circle above our busy ant movements in parking lots, farm fields and backyards;
sweet tulips burst and bend over, taking their bows:
the snow melts and sugarings are suddenly memories;
and amorous fish arrive from far out at sea, crowding the rumbling spillways of Holyoke Dam, hoping to catch a ride on a world-famous elevator, so they may have babies upriver where their parents once did.

Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Table for April is Strong as a Rock

Nature Table for April is Strong as a Rock

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.

Everybody needs a rock.
I am sorry for kids who don’t have a rock.

These words – the opening lines of Byrd Baylor’s Everybody Needs a Rock – carry with them deep meaning, both literal and metaphorical. It can be hard to feel sane and grounded at this time of year, when each day is a game of waiting for the sun and searching for small patches of green. Especially after the long, cold winter that we experienced, finding patience for the slowness of early spring is difficult. It’s difficult to remember that the earth is doing slow growing, it’s difficult to notice that each day gets a little bit better, and it’s difficult to appreciate the small things like slowly melting snow and growing leaf buds.

It’s this time of year, more than any other, that it’s important for us to have a rock, in both the literal and figurative sense of the phrase. Unlike any plant or living creature that we can find nearby, and still much unlike human beings, rocks are things of natural beauty that have been created slowly, slowly, slowly over huge expanses of time – longer expanses than any plant, human, or other living thing could ever hope to live for. Of course, rocks are not alive, but nevertheless their age and slow creation is astounding. Close inspection of the millions of tiny speckles, scratches, crevices, corners, and textures that make each rock unique reveals this slow process and long, long existence. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: The Living Land Wants to Play

Our Bodies of Water

The land is an organism, wrote Aldo Leopold, the Yale-trained game management specialist, about seventy-five years ago. An organism is alive, and its life is made up of the contributions of disparate organs, each of which would be lifeless without the collaborations of all the others.

The idea—actually fact—that land is an organism is, of course, an ancient one, as venerable as our anthropomorphic figure of “mother earth.” Leopold’s work, especially his classic book A Sand County Almanac, reveals how he struggled through his education in empirical science to prove something that we, as a species, have felt and known for eons. If Plato was correct, and knowledge is remembering something we have forgotten, then Leopold stands as a vibrant example of a knowledgeable person. His experience of translating the wisdom of our ancient ancestors into the lexicon of science is one that anybody who loves and tries to protect land knows well. Read the rest of this entry »

Nature Tables: A Year in Review

Nature Tables: A Year in Review

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.

After a year’s worth of Nature Tables, my own awareness of the local landscape has become heightened greatly. After a full seasonal cycle filled with monthly posts, it is time to reflect on what has come and passed, so as to look forward to another year’s worth of awakening, growth, and rest. Whereas humans mark their starting over point in mid-winter, when January’s snow coats the ground and temperatures remain frigid, nature begins again in spring, when the ground re-emerges from the melting slush and thrusts forward a whole new crop of green and growing life. And so it is that in anticipation of this forthcoming burst of new life that I reflect on a year’s worth of collecting, a year’s worth of paying close attention to the subtle and constant changes taking place all around me… Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

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 »

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