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World Wetlands Day 2012: Part 2

Aransas NWR Gator in the Wetland (c)Beth Chase/TheNatureSchool all rights reserved

February 2nd is World Wetlands Day. The theme this year is Wetland Tourism: A Great Experience. Perhaps you have visited some famous wetlands and can describe your own experience, perhaps not. You don’t have to travel far to find wetlands, very likely there is a wetland near your home. In this post I have activities that you can do at a wetland or two near you.

What is a wetland?   This activity is designed to explore a wetland and compare it to a non-wetland.

Wetlands are identified by the type of soils and by the kinds of plants present. Because wetlands are covered with water for at least a significant part of the year the soils become what is known as anaerobic. Anaerobic means with out oxygen. This will often give wetland soils that characteristic “rotten egg” smell. As material breaks down underwater, it uses up all the oxygen in the soils and starts giving off sulfur dioxide gas, the same gas that rotting eggs emit. If you look at healthy soil that is not underwater you will notice that it has a lot of spaces between the little bits and pieces that make up the soil. Upland soils have a lot of air in them and plants will take up the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air in those gaps through their roots. Upland plants need the air in soil to survive. If they are submersed in water their roots will rot and the plant will die. Plants that are found in wetlands, like Cat Tails and Rushes among others, have special roots that are adapted to taking oxygen out of water.

Age: This activity is suitable for all ages with adaptation. For young children and first time explorers keep the expectations simple and appropriate to age, skills and experience. For example, preliterate children could use simple words to describe aloud what they see, smell, and feel. In addition, they could draw simple pictures of their observations of the wetland. Older and experienced observers might be expected to write in organized detail about their observations.

Skills: Observation, Description, Analysis (Optional: Microscope, chemical testing)

Step 1, Find a location: Find a place near you that has standing water now or most of the time. Select a small section (a 3×3 to 5×5 foot area) of that wetland to explore if you are working with young children or first time explorers. The more experienced an observer you are working with, the larger the area that can be explored. Even then it is best to make observations systematically of smaller areas until the larger area is covered.

Step 2, Observe: Since wetlands are determined by their plants and their soils, concentrate on those things. It is not necessary to name the plants but there are wetland plant guides if you wish to. What you are looking for are features of the plant. Answer the question: how are the plants in the wetland different from the plants on the upland. Look at all parts of the plant. (Note: You can use a plant from a green house or nursery to analyze the roots so that you don’t need to be ripping plants out of the ground,)  Answer the similar question about the soils: how is the soil in the wet area different from the soil in the upland?

Step 3, Describe: Being able to communicate what you see is important for two reasons. 1) Communication builds connection between people and allows us to share experiences. 2) Communication allows us to explore, modify, and solidify the experiences we have so that they become an active, working part of our knowledge base that we can access for current or future actions. It doesn’t matter whether we describe things out loud to another or whether we write, sing, video or draw that description. What matters is that we find a way to describe what we learned and what we experienced.

Notice, there are two parts to the description. An analytic part and an emotional part. The best descriptions, the ones that resonate and stick with us best, are those that have both parts woven tightly together.

This activity can be adapted to many different levels of exploration. High level students, with lots of experience in exploration can become very detailed and in depth with their studies and use a variety of tests, such as pH, hardness, oxygen levels and nitrogen levels, as well as instruments such as microscopes and can compare several different wetlands and uplands to each other. Beginning explorers can start with learning to observe, question and wonder, and trying to figure out how to answer their questions.

In all cases, I recommend that Wonder be the central object. From Wonder, comes all exploration and learning. Wonder also makes experiences great. Have a great exploration.

I’d love to hear from you and hear what you found in your wetlands near you.

World Wetlands Day 2012

Visit a wetland near you.

World Wetland Day Comic from WWD site 2011

In February of 1971 a group of scientists and world leaders met in Ramsar, Iran to discuss what could be done to protect wetlands around the world. These people were concerned about the rapid loss of wetland habitats and wanted to see if there was something that they could do to change the trend. On February 2nd they signed the Ramsar Convention to protect wetlands. There were 18 countries that signed this document.

World Wetlands Day was established in 1997 to recognize the original convention and to increase public awareness about wetlands and their value. This year’s theme is Wetland Tourism: A Great Experience. According to the Ramsar Secretary General, 470 million people, approximately half of all tourism, visited a wetland area in 2010. That number is growing. That number of tourists is bound to have an impact.

Tourist impacts can be both positive or negative.

Looking at the negatives, there are the pressures from humans to the organisms in the wetland. Many animals do not like people and will leave an area that they consider to be too close to where people are. There are the impacts to the soils from compaction and chemicals from vehicles near or in the wetlands. Too often people thoughtlessly leave their trash behind. Trash is often a hazard to wildlife who ingest it or become entangled in it. Dirty diapers, yes diapers, have multiple issues, bacteria, plastics and the absorbent materials used to keep babies dry are all hazardous to ecosystems. Finally, as in the comic below, people often try to smuggle plants and animals out of the area for their personal use and entertainment.

On the positive side, there is the education of people about the wetland area and the fact that people will share positive experiences with friends. This positive sharing often leads those friends to visit the wetland and to care about the wetland as well. Tourists bring money to the local economy near the wetland funding protections and helping locals earn a living. When the land helps people earn a livelihood, people are more likely to honor and protect it. Knowledge about Charismatic animals, like hippos or cranes, brings protections for them which can benefit the, often more important, invisible species like soil bacteria or aquatic plankton. One last positive impact is more subtle. The thing is, most people are proud of the places they live. The sense of connection to “your place” is, I think, part of the human psyche. People love to share that sense of place with others. Shared experience of a place can bring people together, building bridges between cultures.

Many places will have celebrations to honor the wetlands in the area. Keep an eye out for celebrations in your area and share that information with others. Leave a comment here. Tweet about it on twitter. Post about it on your facebook page. Write to your local paper to encourage them to recognize the day and to promote wetlands in your neighborhood. However you do it, get the word out.

The World Wetlands Day site has materials that you or your group can edit to promote your World Wetland Day celebration. That celebration could be as simple as taking your kid to a wetland or as complicated as hosting a tour for the public to a wetland near you.

In my next post, I will share a few activities that are easy to do to explore the wetlands near you. Some will need a little equipment. Some will need only your eyes and sense of wonder. The point is, take time to visit your wetlands and get to know them. Become a tourist there. But, remember: take only pictures (and some trash), leave only foot prints.

WWD Comic from WWD 2012 Web Site

TED Imperatives and Nature

Whenever I have found myself stuck in the ways I relate to things, I return to nature. — Wynn Bullock

Connecting with nature is a lot like connecting with people. It is a relational thing. A connection is not just about heart or about head knowledge it is about both. We connect with other people when we show up. When we are interested. When we are interesting. When we are generous. (TED imperatives via Seth Godin.)

Show up. Get outside. Find a place to begin and take it in.

Be interested. Watch what is going on around you. Listen to the noises both human: people talking, cars, cell phones ringing, whatever, and non-human: birds chirping, squirrels scolding, the breeze, whatever. Just take it in.

Be interesting. Believe it or not, if you stop and are still long enough a lot of critters will stop and notice you. You can increase your level of interesting by feeding a squirrel a peanut or scattering some cracked corn or sunflower seed for a bird. I have had hummingbirds fly up and check me out because I was wearing red or yellow.

Be generous. I keep bird feeders with black oil sunflower seed to feed the birds that come to the neighborhood. I also plant things that provide food. We have so altered the various ecologies with our landscaping that it is often difficult for critters to find food. Another generosity is simply allowing something to live. That may sound like an arrogant statement but it is the opposite. When we kill something, like a fly or a bee, because it is inconvenient, creepy, or scary, we are acting out of selfishness rather than generosity.

Nature is relational. The scientific world for this relational nature is Ecology. Connect with nature. You are part of the ecology whether you acknowledge this or not. Be a positive part.

The artificiality of time

FreePhoto.com Photographer not Attributed

This is riff off of Seth Godin’s post of Jan 2, 2012 wherein he talks about the fact that time is an artificial construct. Although physicists would argue this, I tend to agree with the point I think he is trying to make.

I have always gravitated to places that seem to run on their own time. Locals in these places use the phrase “Durango Time”, “Beach Time”, “Corpus Christi Time” or some variation of the theme. The point made is that there is something of a casual relationship to punctuality, that people get where they get when they get there. Things get done when they get done. There is a sense that there is something of a time warp from the rest of the frenetic pace of the rest of the world.

Truthfully, there is a bit of a time warp in such places.

The take away that I get from Godin’s post is that the clock is a tool. Prior to trying to coordinate everything to some universal measurement beginning at Greenwich England, each town ran according to its own measurement of noon. This worked fine in a world without trains, planes and automobiles. In a world with planes, trains and automobiles, it is helpful to have a universal standard of noon from which derive all other measures of time. It creates a standardized tool. We have the standard of living that we do have because we decided to synchronize our watches.

I don’t think Godin or I would argue that we should revert to that old norm of each town with its own noon.

The problem comes when the tool begins to control the people it is designed to serve.

We reach a point where the number of things accomplished in the given time rather than the worth or quality of the things determines the value of the day. There is a place for sheer volume. On the other hand, we do need to evaluate whether it is number that is the most important thing at this time.

Do you need to be watching your kid play soccer while at the same time checking the email on your smart phone and trying to jot down that thought you are having about the Miller account? When count becomes the only measure of accomplishment we lose something, I think.

Are you driving the tool or is the tool driving you?

Nature is a great place to answer this question. Take a walk, leaving all electronics and time measurement devices at home. Pause. Watch the critters around you. What are they doing? What can you learn from them? What are they doing when they eat? What are they doing when they play with each other? What are they doing when it is time to run from the dog?

Are you driving the tool? Is the tool driving you?

AONC style year in review

This has been my second year running The Nature School blog. I began this blog with two simple purposes. The first was to connect me to nature and nature education. To bypass the gate keepers and to take personal action on a personal goal to help others find meaningful connection to nature. The second was help people consider the importance, the value, and joy of being connected to nature and, as corollary, to help them learn how to connect or expand their connection.

Looking back on the year, what went well:

  • Up until June, I maintained a consistent posting schedule, updating the blog every Sunday.
  • Overall, the quality of the topics and the writing were good and, I think, they got better as the blog aged.
  • I learned things that helped me improve my writing by following other blogs and reading about online writing and trying them out.
  • I made contact with a few other people on similar blogs.
  • I established a twitter account and made an effort to learn how to use it.
  • I successfully installed a capture box to limit the spam comments I was receiving. (More important for the technical success than for the comment filtering.)

Looking back on what didn’t go well:

  • In June, the regular posting schedule fell apart and my posts became more and more sporadic.
  • I was not able to create posts that stimulated comments
  • I tried and failed to find someone who could help me understand wordpress and help me in the back room.
  • I tried and failed to achieve some technical goals in the set up of the blog.
  • I was not able to find a stride on twitter to help me build readership and community with people who have an interest in nature connection.
  • That limited my ability to communicate my message, create a tribe and to find people I could learn from.
  • I was not able to get an email system in place that allowed me to see who my subscribers were and to interact with those subscribers in anyway.
  • I did not achieve my goal of monetizing the blog by creating product or building affiliate links with people.

This year has been a year of transition. I began the year as a full time science teacher teaching on the subjects of Chemistry and Physics. In some ways I was successful. In some ways I was a colossal failure. In most ways I was mediocre. When I was successful I believe it was because neither Physics or Chemistry come naturally to me and I can understand and empathize with others who struggle. My failures rested on the foundation that these subjects are not native to me, that I have to learn the content, and that makes it very hard to stay ahead of the students I am trying to teach. It also created a high frustration level and which was reflected in my demeanor, sad to say. Kids pick up on that and they become frustrated and anxious as well. As the year progressed I got better. That allowed me to reach mediocre.

In the face of layoffs I decided to resign. I figured that would allowed me time to write more. I’d improve my content. I’d expand my outreach. I’d reconnect with some local nature groups. I’d find a volunteer niche where I’d be out more and would have more personal content. In short, the blog would improve. In fact my writing fell apart. I did continue to post but the posting dates became more random and more sporadic. Along about October I decided to ride that wave for awhile and focus on the tutoring business that I am trying to start.

Aside from the technical challenges that I have faced due to lack of comfort with and understanding of widgets and other tools to make things happen with a web site another has been the lack of interaction with people on the blog.

Perhaps my content is too didactic. I am certainly a woman of strong opinions and values. I know that my tendency to lecture comes out in conversation with friends who have learned to converse with me in spite of it and call me on it when it is too severe. On the internet, where my readers do not know me, I know I do not have that luxury. I know that somehow I must make my posts more inviting and conversational. This is certainly a goal for the coming year.

Upcoming goals:

  • Improve my use of twitter and learn how to participate in conversations there so that I move from a single tweet or retweet to following a #chat.
  • Develop and become part of a Professional Learning Community (PLC)
  • Improve my content. (Always, per Tony Robbins “Constant and Never Ending Improvement” idea)
  • Develop and stick to a posting schedule again.
  • Develop marketable content.
  • Sell it.

I’d like to improve the interactivity between myself and others on the site. At this point, I am not sure how much control I have over that. This is why it is not on the list. I do feel that I can control how much I interact with others elsewhere and, if I interact with others more on the topic and related interests elsewhere then there is a greater likelihood that people will visit the site. The more people, real people not bots, who come, the more likely it will be that someone will say something that starts a conversation.

I think I have made it through the Dip, at least the first one, and come out the other side ready for 2012.

Wishing you all a Happy, prosperous, and natural New Year!

A bad day outdoors is…

an adventure. fun. a learning experience.  all of the above!

I spent the day at a Texas Master Naturalist training. The day began with a training sponsored by the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS) to teach volunteers how to help rescue cold stunned turtles. The Master Naturalist crew was just a tiny part of the 50+/- person crowd.

You can tell the dedication of nature lovers because we were all trying to breathe in spite of the air borne irritants put off by the algae that creates red tide. Anyone who has lived near an out break of red tide knows the perils of trying to breathe under those conditions. The seminar room sounded like a room in a 1920’s TB ward. And these are healthy people. But, these are also people who love being outdoors and love helping things live. Quite frankly, it was worth it.

Turtles are reptiles and like all other reptiles they take their heat from the environment around them. They do not produce any heat of their own. This means that they are vulnerable to the conditions around them. In a winter where the temperatures become cold gradually and stay cold the turtles will leave the area for warmer waters. In warm winters, like the one we had here, in S. Texas, last winter and the one we appear to be having now, turtles, especially Green Turtles, with stick around in the warm water and dine on our abundant sea grasses. Then, if we get a hard freeze that lasts for more than a day or two, the turtles become cold stunned. Their body temperature drops, their blood chemistry changes, and they become unable to move. If they are not rescued they will die. They may die because they drown, unable to lift their heads to breathe, or because something else eats them. Last year, in the S. Texas coast region, over 1600 cold stunned turtles were rescued. In Florida, it was over 5000.

Green Turtles are an endangered species. This means that there are restrictions on who can handle them. Volunteers at PINS are placed on the permit that the seashore carries to work with endangered species. If you find a cold stunned turtle in your area call your local Fish and Wildlife Service agency and ask for instructions. They will tell you what you can do. Cold stunned turtles may well appear to be dead but may well be alive. At today’s training there was more than one story about turtles assumed to be dead moving after several hours. Call. Ask someone what to do. You may get the chance to do something good.

But! Don’t act without instructions.

There are two basic reasons for this. 1.) You may hurt the turtle if you don’t handle it properly. 2.) Having possession of an endangered animal, even in the attempt to help, is a federal offense.

Contact number: 1.866.Turtle5 (1.866.87778535) USA.

Saving the oceans from plastics

5 major Oceanic Gyres @ Wikipedia

Did you know that 80% of the plastics in the Oceans come from land?  This trash washes down our rivers and streams and ultimately into the sea. There are 5 major ocean vortices in the world (as well as many small ones). A vortex is recirculating pool of water, think of the spinning water running out of a drain. In the link to the Greenpeace page, above, you can see how the North Pacific Gyre is formed. The intro image shows all five.

Plastic trash anywhere is a real disaster. At the minimum it is an eyesore. Beyond that, it causes damage to marine life that ingest it. In addition, animals can become entangled in the plastic ties, ropes, bags, and drink holders swirling around in the seas. According to that Green Peace page, “it is estimated that over 1 million seabirds and over 100,ooo marine mamals and turtles are killed each year from plastics.”

Another problem with plastics is that many of them are known to attract and concentrate petroleum based toxins that also end up in the seas through runoff from land and, to a smaller extent, from discharges from ships and platforms far out at sea. This can create highly toxic zones in the ocean and be poisonous to organisms when ingested. These toxins will be ingested by plankton, the tiny organisms, free floating in the oceans, that form the bottom of the food chains and be concentrated up the food chain because they are not processed out of the organism but are, instead, stored in the fat of the animal. Eventually, it becomes concentrated enough to kill an animal.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Growing up a Girl Scout I learned to leave a place better than I found it. When we would go on hikes we would carry trash bags to collect the garbage that we found along the way. Even in the 70’s we would find a lot of trash and the quantity of disposable plastic was far less then. For example, nobody had yet thought to sell water in personal bottles and soft drinks still came in glass bottles.Our troops would take our hikes with a few small, easy to carry, garbage bags and collect the litter we found along the way. This is something I’d encourage everyone to do today. Just take a small plastic grocery bag with you when you walk and collect any trash you see along the way to toss in your garbage or recycle bin, as appropriate. Keep a paper towel with you if you are worried about touching things.

I can hear you saying it now, it’s not convenient to carry a trash bag everywhere and what do you do with all that tiny trash that you see or create in your daily travels? The Ocean Conservancy has a cute craft project to make a little container for the tiny litter that one might find along the way. When there isn’t a trash container near and you come upon cigarette butts, bottle caps, and other bits and bobs, you can stash them in the little box to be disposed of later. I can see this as a potential conversation starter as people wonder what the heck you are doing.

Tiny Trash Collector Craft Project @ Ocean Conservancy

This is one of the ways that we can be mindful about what we are doing and how little things add up. It is a simple way to take simple action that, cumulatively, can add up to a significant action. This is one of the lessons that I learned, one of the values that I incorporated into my way of being, little things count. Leave the world better than you found it.

Even if no one else does.

Halloween’s creepiest critter

Spider Image: Sweet Crisis @ FreePhoto.com

If there is one creature that inspires the most fear in the most people it’s spiders. While I don’t know any statistics on the matter, I think spiders would outrank snakes on the phobia scales.

From Shelob in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings movies to the packs of spiders in Aracnaphobia or the creepy little spiders hiding in every nook and cranny in Arachnid and the funny, scary Eight Legged Freaks, spiders are terror movie heaven. Seeing an oversized one of these creatures spring out of some dark nook is guaranteed to make us jump in our seats. Spiders are the creepy crawly we love to hate.

This being halloween, the night we cheerfully let spiders decorate our doors, let me give you a few fun tidbits of knowledge that may just help you love the little (and big) things all year round.

  1. Spiders are Arachnids, they have 8 legs and 2 body segments. The head, stomach and legs are all found on the front part, the cephalthorax (cephla means head and thorax means chest), the spinnerets are found in the back part, called the abdomen.
  2. Although all spiders spin silk, not all spiders make webs. Some spiders are great hunters and they will lie in wait for their prey. Some will chase it down and jump on it.
  3. Spiders are mostly beneficial because they eat a lot of insects. Some spiders even eat other spiders.
  4. A few spiders are harmful to humans but, thanks to modern medicine, venomous spider bites are treatable.
  5. There are three families of spiders that do not have venom glands and do not produce venom. One is found only in Tasmania, one family is found in Southeast Asia, while the Uloboridae, or the hackled orb weavers are found nearly world wide.
  6. One kind of spider, the golden silk orb weaver, makes silk that is yellow in color. Most are found in warm areas like Australia, parts of Africa and parts of Asia. One species, Nephila clavipes, can be found in southern parts of the US.
  7. A cloth was woven from the silk of over 1 million of the Madagascar spiders. Be sure to check that link, it’s amazing!
  8. In the winter months some spiders will die, some will come inside seeking warmth, some will hibernate and some will build a little nest of silk under leaves or in crevices to ride out the cold months.

What spiders can you find in your neighborhood? The National Wildlife Federation has made a spider bingo scavenger hunt to help you find out. This is most likely a southern hemisphere and southern state kind of Halloween game. An alternative for the northern dwellers is to use the card to search for information in the library and save the outside activity for summer.

Happy Halloween!

Magnifying glass fun

Image: FreePhoto.com by Sujin Jetkasettakorn

Kids love magnifying glasses.

A simple way to do free play is to give a kid a magnifying glass, a few things to examine as a starting thing and then let her go to town. As it were.

10 things that you can start with.

  1. A daisy, dandelion or similar flower. Daisies are awesome because they have all kinds things to look at. The flower heads have two types of flowers (ray on the outside & disk in the center), the leaves have texture, the stems have texture. In short, they are just a lot of fun to explore.
  2. The seed head on a piece of grass.
  3. A pile of sand.
  4. A handful of garden soil on a plate.
  5. A bunch of seed heads from different plants.
  6. 10 different kinds of leaves from 10 different plants.
  7. 5 (or more) different kinds of flowers.
  8. Several kinds of cloth and thread.
  9. 7 different kinds of wood.
  10. ____________________________ Fill in the blank with things you see!

I still love exploring with a magnifying glass.  It is like there is a whole other world you can see when you get up close and personal with things. Kids love to do this kind of thing. There is so much to see. The key is exploration, not mere identification. If your kid is the one that has to know proper names of everything, by all means, indulge him. But if you have the kid that just wants to look a hundred different things, let him. This is play.

Monarch Migration 2011

This post is inspired by a few things.

First there was my observation to my best friend and fellow nature nut that I hadn’t seen any Monarchs so far this year. We hypothesized that the drought and fires were taking their toll on them as they tried to work there way south. Then, about a week ago I saw this Washington Post article that confirmed what Cindy and I were thinking. That got me thinking about what people could do to help whatever butterflies did make it this way. This thought to try and help was confirmed when I saw a tiny Monarch caterpillar on one of the bedraggled milkweeds, in my garden, that managed to make it through the summer this year.

So, what can one do, to make oases in a vast drought stricken desert? As it turns out, a lot.

  1. Plant Milkweed in your garden. As much as you can (expect, that if monarchs come, this will be eaten by caterpillars).
    • Monarchs are dependent on milkweed.
    • They go there for nectar.
    • They lay there eggs only on milkweed.
    • The caterpillars will eat nothing else.
    • Tropical Milkweed, also called Butterfly Plant at nurseries is most commonly planted in TX butterfly gardens.
  2. Build a sand pond for the butterflies to get water and minerals
    • Take a 12 to 16 inch clay plant pot tray and spray it with waterproofing sealant (You can you a plastic one if you want).
    • Place it in a stable place, either on the ground or on an up side down pot.
    • Fill it with garden soil mixed with garden sand amendment (50/50 mix) such as used for lightening clays soils.
    • Scatter round river rock through out the sand for butterflies to land on but leaving access to the sand.
    • Soak the sand with water till it is not quite ready to puddle.
    • Keep the sand moist for butterflies (and other insects) to drink.
  3. Don’t have a garden?
    • Use a clean natural sponge soaked in sugar water (1 part sugar to 4 parts water).
    • Place it in a small saucer or or plant pot saucer.
    • Place it outside where butterflies can find it.
    • You can use a sponge and plain water in a saucer as a watering station too.
    • This is not as specific an attractant as the butterfly weed so you may need to tolerate other insects as well.

According to Texas Monarch Watch most of the butterflies have passed into Mexico. However, I am just starting to see them at my house so it’s worth the effort to see what you have come visit. Let me know.

You can find more information at Monarch Watch. Or at Texas Monarch Watch.  If you want to know what your state is doing try “googling” your state or try your Local Extention Office. The extension office link goes to a clickable map.