Happy Earth Day!


“I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful — an endless prospect of magic and wonder.”  — Ansel Adams


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Skunk Cabbage, it’s here!

skunk cabbageI love skunk cabbage. It is one of my favorite signs of spring. As a child, I would carefully navigate the edge of brooks and swamps, making sure not to step on skunk cabbage plants. It was fun to be a bit scared of the potential stink, though the fear of the smell was worse than the smell itself.

Each year, as the light changes and the air warms, I watch the wet ground for my old friend. First to appear is the waxy, deep-red and green hood-like spathe, which contains the plant’s flowers. Then, the tightly furled leaves emerge out of the wet earth like dancers who lift and twirl to greet the spring sun. In a short time, the brown disappears under a canopy of giant bright green leaves.

During the early days of spring, I hike where skunk cabbage grows. I hike alone, with family and friends, or with the Explorers—the 4- and 5-year-olds in my class at Schoolmates. When we arrive at a patch of skunk cabbage, everyone leans down to get a better look at the odd-looking plants. Usually a game of “spot the skunk cabbage” will start soon after we begin to see plants. “There’s some skunk cabbage. There’s some more skunk cabbage.” Kids like to say the name. A stinky plant named for a stinky animal. What could be better?
During a hike to a cedar swamp near Schoolmates, Skylar, one of the Explorers, was in line behind me. As we walked through the swamp on a boardwalk, skunk cabbage all around us, she made up this poem.

I see skunk cabbage,DSC_0186
yucky skunk cabbage
moss and skunk cabbage.

I don’t like yucky skunk cabbage.
It looks pretty, but it doesn’t smell nice.
                                                   By Skylar

skunk cabbage (click here and listen)

The Nature Institute – Skunk Cabbage

National Wildlife Federation – Skunk Cabbage




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Friday Photo


The days are longer, the sun is higher, and the winter stores
are almost gone—spring must be near.

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Take it Outside: In search of ice.

image by Joe Healey

image by Joe Healey

Before winter disappears, and it will, take a walk outside and search for ice. Walk near a brook, a swamp, a pond, or if you want big ice, a river.

When I was kid, the reward for braving the coldest days of winter was “mother’s china.” That’s what my siblings and I called the very thin layer of ice that forms over puddles in ruts or depressions in the ground during super cold snaps. In a group, we would race to find unbroken sheets of ice. The thinner the ice, the more beautiful the sound when shattered. We would listen while we stomped on the delicate layer of ice, and then declare, “Yes, mother’s china.” Or if the ice was thicker and produced a less satisfying sound when broken, we would say, “Nope, mother’s everyday plates.”

image by Joe Healey

image by Joe Healey

“Mother’s China” is just one kind of ice out there in the frosty world. The ice that forms in a babbling brook holds another kind of beauty, as do icicles reaching for the ground. Bundle up and make your own frozen discoveries.

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Friday Photo


Sparkling columns rise out of the ground and
make a musical “crunch” under foot.



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Merry Christmas William

william with termite hillMy son William is spending this Christmas in South Africa with fellow biologist, Vervet monkeys and lots of other wildlife. In the words of Yoda, “Living his dream he is.”

William is “a volunteer working for the Inkawu Vervet Project, a program that has been running for the past five years and is aimed at furthering our understanding Vervet Monkey behavior and community structure. The reserve is located in the Kwazulu Natal province of South Africa about fifty baby monkeyskm outside of the nearest town Vryheid.” If you want to learn more about William’s adventures,
he writes a blog called Wills Wandering.

At this moment, my only way of connecting with William is through email. I have been sending him Holiday messages through December. The Golden Christmas Tree is a
favorite book at Schoolmates, we read it with the children every year. It seemed appropriate to share with William this year. And now I want to share it with you.

The Golden Christmas Tree
by Jan Wahl
illustrated by Leonard Weisgard

 …The monkeys put the ornaments on.  And the giraffe laid, at the top, a star.…

…The monkeys put the ornaments on.
And the giraffe laid, at the top, a star.…

All was hushed in the forest for animals’ Christmas.
The elephant brought a great fir tree from far away.

A red cardinal flew through the
trees, carrying the news—“The fir is here, the fir is here.”
The llamas and the goats, who were slow of thinking, thought, “We already have our fur.”

The wolf helped the red deer, whose
antlers caught on low-hanging branches.
Silently they walked together, joined by the badger and a family of foxes—guided by bats who whistled soft carols.

Squirrels whispered stories of the time the first Christmas came, announced by a ringing like clear crystal bells.
Now, as it happened before the lion lay down with the lamb.

The animals gathered, one by one…
There was no growling, howling, meowling, anywhere.

It was hushed in the forest, hushed, hushed, hushed, hushed.

The kangaroos picked cones and leaves to hang on the branches. The tiger strung berries.
The antelope chewed the grass, making a smooth lawn for the fir. The baboons painted pinecones carefully.

The monkeys put the ornaments on. And the giraffe laid, at the top, a star.

Then the tree was ready.
The animals gathered in the silvery moonlight. The raccoon lit the lights.
Darkness fell, but no one moved.

Now, up in the sky, there appeared a great constellation of bright shiny stars. The bear said he was sure it was a large and little bear.
The tiger was sure it was a large and little tiger.

Then a delicate golden glitter flashed—and each in that moment made his quiet wish.

The cardinal’s brothers and sisters dropped walnuts and apricots, chestnuts and plums, with a rustle of whirring wings.

The beautiful fir stood flickering all night. And they danced—
they danced—
they danced until it was light of morning.

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A Mushroom Family


Sofia and Ava came running across the playground, “Ann, we found a mushroom family. Come see the mushroom family.”

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An Autumn Tradition

jack-o-lanternHalloween is over—the witches and ghosts are being put away. The candy is almost gone. And the Jack-o-lanters fold in on themselves as they grow old and become one with the earth. These events cue another tradition in the Explorer’s classroom—the reading of a favorite book about a charming mouse and a friendly Jack-o-lantern.

From the reading library of the Explorers.

Mousekin’s Golden House, written and illustrated by Edna Miller, is a great post-Halloween read. One moonlit night, Mousekin, a little mouse, travels down a path and walks right into a jack-o-lantern. He finds the big-faced pumpkin interesting—so interesting that he forgets to watch for danger and he’s almost snatched by an owl. Luckily, the jack-o-lantern provides him with shelter. Mousekin finds many benefits to living in a jack-o-lantern. 

Miller does a wonderful job giving voice and personality to this little mouse while staying true to the facts of nature. Playful illustrations nestled on the pages add visuals to this sweet story. A wonderful read with a very cozy ending.

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Get Growing – The definition of “weed”

weedingGet Growing
“Pick this one,” is what Shannon and I said to Stephen as we stood beside a weedy flower bed.

Stephen and I had just arrived at my cousin Shannon’s farm to help her weed some garden beds. Stephen asked, “Which ones are weeds?” Shannon and I paused for a moment, both realizing the complexity of that question. Then we arrived at the same solution. We pointed to a tall, easy-to-identify plant that was also easy to pull out of the ground and said, “Pick this one.”

Stephen went to work. Occasionally, he would stop and ask, “Is this the one?” We would stop weeding, look up, say, “Yes, that’s it,” and then return our attention to the weeds before us. Stephen finished pulling “his weed” in one area, so Shannon gave him another bed to work on.

Shannon and I hadn’t planned Stephen’s part in the weeding task but it worked out well. Stephen felt connected, helpful, and learned to identify one “weed. As we worked Stephen asked Shannon, “What makes a plant a weed?” She explained, “A weed is a plant growing somewhere we don’t really want it.”

Merriam-Webster dictionary says: weed (noun) – a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth; especially one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants

The Oxford dictionary says: weed (noun) – a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.

After we had weeded two flower beds, we walked over to the vegetable garden to see what was growing. There were beans, eggplant, cucumbers, lots of varieties of tomatoes, squash, soybeans, and yes, Stephen’s weed. He spotted them immediately and asked if he could pull them out. In the vegetable garden, this weed had the same identifying features, but it was much taller—over 5 feet tall. Stephen felt strong and accomplished as he recognized his weed and removed it from the vegetable garden.

Next time you head out to the garden to remove pesky weeds, invite a child to join you. Introduce them to one weed you would like removed from the garden. Talk with them about the features that distinguish that “weed” from the other plants—tall and thin, oval leaves, spiky seedpods, etc. and then get to work.

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One Last Hike

start the hikeRain slickers, rubber boots, happy voices, bright shiny green everywhere, and rain—summer rain, these are the lasting images of my final hike with the Explorer’s class of 2015.

It was a fitting end to our time with this adventurous group of children. They were always ready to hit the trails and make discoveries. Some days we would only make it to the front of the school because the birds at the feeders or the caterpillars on a nearby tree were so interesting. On those days, we would watch, talk, investigate, and play nearer to home. On other days, the Explorer’s would be ready for distant explorations. They would pick up giant oak leaves, sparkly rocks, acorns, sticks in the shape of Y or 7, curly pieces of bark, etc. while hiking to Berry Berry Island or the Cedar Swamp.

Cedar Swamp became the class’s favorite destination. We’d follow the white trail until it reached the blue trail, then hike the blue trail past a vernal pool to the top of a small hill. At the top of this hill is a Stone Circle built to mark north, south, east, and west. The Explorer’s love to climb the rocks in the circle. On the other side of this hill is the Cedar Swamp with a new boardwalk running through it, courtesy of a boy scout and his eagle project.

children hikingThe swamp contains huge straight cedar trees with bark so soft and smooth that we all feel compelled to pet them. In early spring, the Explorer’s like to watch the skunk cabbage poke its way out of the mud. “There’s some skunk cabbage. There’s more skunk cabbage. I see skunk cabbage. Why is it called skunk cabbage? Here’s more skunk cabbage.”  This is the running commentary as we walk through the skunk cabbage.

Further down the boardwalk and deeper into the swamp, we see frog and salamander eggs in the water. And we see and hear frogs, lots and lots of frogs. The commentary changes. “Look frog eggs. I see salamander eggs. (Yes, the Explorer’s can tell the difference.) Here are more frog eggs. I hear frogs. They are so loud! There they are, I see frogs. Look! Frogs!”

At the end of the boardwalk there is a root-filled clearing lined with benches. This spot became the Explorer’s favorite playground. We named it Rootsaboxen, after reading the book Roxaboxen to them during one of our visits to this area. The book is written by Alice McLearran and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Check it out. Great book.

51LM-gyDfKL._SY421_BO1,204,203,200_When it came time to plan an end of the year celebration, Melissa and I wanted to include this special spot in our plan. We decided to create an Explorer’s letterbox and hide it at the end of the boardwalk in the land of Rootsaboxen. Melissa wrote clues that would lead the class from the school, through the Cedar Swamp and to the hidden letterbox.

By the time everything was in place, it was the last day of school and it was raining. We continually checked the forecast through out the morning, looking for a break in the rain. No break. After lunch we checked on the class’s rain gear. We were able to outfit everyone with rain boots and raincoats. Melissa and I convinced ourselves that the rain had let up a bit and it was time to head for the Cedar Swamp. The Explorer’s happily followed us out into the rain. I could feel their trust and enthusiasm. The rain hadn’t really let up, but it didn’t stop us. We were all on a mission to find the surprise hidden near the Cedar Swamp.

IMG_5099Many times this year I have said, “This class hiked further the first week of school, than other classes hiked on their last days with us.” I wonder about this. How did we cover so much ground with this class? I think the answer is that it isn’t only the Explorer’s who are learning in our classroom. Melissa and I have learned that four and five-year-olds can and want to be out on the trails. They enjoy the freedom to make discoveries and investigate new territory. They love being outdoors in natural settings, where they can pretend and play what children pretend and play. We have also learned to read the group—whose tired, who needs support, when to add a song or game, and most importantly, when to make tracks for home.

As we set out for parts very well known to our class, I smiled at this new twist—rain. Another first for all of us to experience together—hiking in the rain. Their trust and enthusiasm a gift that I gratefully accept. Thank you Explorers for a wonderful year.

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