If you have any heart for the outdoors, spring will fill that heart with elation. Summer and fall, even winter, have their charms, but spring is the rebirth of hope. It is that time of year when the gates of ice and snow are opened and the long-imprisoned molecules of water are released into the world in a riot of babbling brooks, cresting creeks, and muddy roads.

frogI’ve been reading Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert F. Capon. He rightly locates water on the map of significance: “Admittedly, the Scriptures begin and end with water. There is a river in Eden, and there is a river in the Heavenly Jerusalem: All life comes from the sea. Equally certainly, without water, no life is possible in between. No man can praise it enough. It is the root of freshness, the sign of purity, the means of grace. Most of all, it is the element that makes earth Earth, the principal ornament of the round world, the blue mantle of what must be a stunning planet indeed…. But for all that, plain water is not the world’s best gift to a stew.”

Two days ago, I opened our bedroom window and heard the faint hint of spring peepers on the wind. Yesterday, the lascivious call could be heard through the walls. For the next several months, these amorous amphibians will be guaranteeing fresh voices for next year. Spring peepers live about three years, so they fornicate like… frogs, I guess, in the short time they have.

This week is spring break, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. It’s the first week of the year where coats are not a necessity, and the kids can play outside without the twenty-minute ritual of snow pants, boots, hats, gloves, blah, blah, blah. Tater’s preschool teacher assigned some homework this week: Go outside and collect some nature. I love that.

Hopefully you and yours are getting to do the same.

Happy spring, everybody!

Nature books

We love telling you about a great book when we find one. Both of us writing on the site read quite a bit. What we never get around to sharing are the books we meant to read, or the ones we never quite finished even though they were quite good. To remedy this contrived shortcoming, I offer this list of the books that I wanted to read in 2013.

Nature booksFirst up, Henry David Thoreau. Earlier this year I started The Maine Woods. Those only familiar with Walden will find this an interesting departure. This book is not a social experiment, but a journal of his journeys into Maine. Cape Cod is a little different, as he is combining several trips to the Cape into one volume. Both of these are wonderful to read, and I look forward to getting past the first couple chapters.

Have you heard of Sigurd F. Olson? If not, you need to read his stuff. This guy was a powerhouse in the environmental movement. The Singing Wilderness was his first book, published in 1956, and I feel somewhat ashamed to have not read this yet. Olson was especially known for establishing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I am still trying to track down a copy of his most well-known book, Reflections from the North Country.

Talking with the president of a local land conservancy about some books I picked up, I mentioned this one. She grew very excited. Reading the Landscape of America by May Theilgaard Watts was the book she read in college that set her on the path to a career in conservation. I’ve heard similar stories from a handful of people, and now that I am a few chapters into it, I can see why. The book is brilliant. With a keen eye to the interconnectedness of various ecological landscapes, Watts describes an America that is in some ways no longer the one we would see today—even thought the book was written in 1975.

For those of us in more conservative Christian communities, there’s a lot of misinformation circulating about evolution and the age of the earth. Two professors from Calvin College address the latter question in The Bible, Rocks, and Time. This book is a lesson in biblical hermeneutics, history of the geological study, and detailed scientific survey. I ripped right through the first two sections, but the last third of the book stopped me short. If I had some science background maybe I could have gone all the way (geologists will love it). In this book they tear apart the “5,000-year-old earth” theories posited by well-meaning young earth creationists. They begin with the Bible and respectfully offer a different reading of the scriptures that considers the texts in their historical and cultural contexts. They then go on to dispute the young-earth science. If you like this book, you will want to follow it up with The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John Walton.

The final book I wanted to read was A Natural Sense of Wonder by Rick Van Noy. This is a book about one man’s journey spending time with his kids outside. What’s not to love about that!

Of course, this list is limited by the audience of this site. Were I to list all the books I wanted to read this year, it would include Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie, John James Audubon: The Making of an American by Richard Rhodes, and Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford (to name just three from the two-foot-high stack of books on my nightstand).

This week I’ve been reading a classic in the area of ecology writing, May Theilgaard Watts’ book, Reading the American Landscape. I was going to rave about the book and the way it so deftly elucidates the way native species have been pushed to the edges in North America. I was going to go on ad nauseum about how it’s a great tool for interpreting the natural and human history of a place. I like that about the book a lot. Some thought went into the book, but it’s not all heady. Lots of practical information too.

May Theilgaard Watts, Trees, Tree Finder, ReviewThen, just this afternoon, I realized that Theilgaard Watts was also the author of two of the handiest books you’ll ever find for identifying trees: Tree Finder and Winter Tree Finder! As anyone who has tried to id deciduous trees after they have all shed their leaves, the latter book is a God-send.

A lot of my reading on nature topics seems to be motivated by a desire to not look like an idiot when I am out hiking. So far, it’s not been terribly successful, but there’s no shame in consulting a guide, and these two slim pocket-sized volumes are a lot more convenient than finding a chatty naturalist to follow you around.

The challenge: Burn a mess season’s worth of fallen tree limbs in a backyard that has been drenched by one of the coldest, wettest Aprils on record.

The tools: One paper grocery bag and a box of the new 5-Minute Cricket Firestarters

CricketLike most dads, I like to consider myself an expert at starting fires. Start off with easy-to-light tinder, add thin dry sticks and twigs. From there you build it up, starting with the smallest material first, finishing with the largest of your logs. Of course you will want to make room for air with either the log cabin or a pyramid shaped pile of wood.

But even when you know what you’re doing, it’s not always easy to get a fire started, especially in the backyard after a month of rain and snow. The ground is wet; the wood is wet; and even the damp air seems against you. This was the situation last week when I headed outside to begin some spring yard work. Even with a paper grocery bag as tinder, I’ve gone through a half dozen matches before I can get a fire to catch. Either they get snuffed by a gust of wind, or smothered by the cold damp, or they light just fine, but then go out 30 seconds later.

This time out, I was kind of excited to be testing a new product: the 5-Minute Cricket Firestarter. Originally from Sweden, these handy “matches” have recently been introduced to the American market. Like wooden matches, they come in a cardboard box with a strike strip along the side. Like matches, you pull one out and strike it on the box to light it. But that’s where the similarities end. The Cricket Firestarter is much thicker than a match, with a larger head, and once it’s burning it doesn’t stop for five minutes. It’s a match and tinder all in one.

With crumpled paper for my base, I lit a Cricket and dropped it into a fold of the bag. With ordinary matches, this would have smothered the flame and I would have to light another. The Cricket just burned, and burned, and burned.

Couple things to note for parents: The thick firestarters are great for smaller hands. A kid can grab base in a tiny fist and strike away. If you are teaching your kids how to light a campfire, this will make it easier. They’ll also feel pretty successful right off the bat. And for those very same reasons, it’s sound advice to keep them out of reach of little hands. If they drop a lit match at home, there’s a good chance it will go right out. Drop a lit Cricket and you’re going to have a problem. (This reminds me that I need to follow up with my kids about fire safety, and this summer should be the year to start teaching them how to handle flames responsibly.)

Cricket Firestarters!Frankly, I like the idea of involving kids in the whole outdoorsy-build-a-campfire project, but the best thing I like about these 5-Minute Cricket Firestarters is that they help me maintain my cred as the “expert firestarter.” I am pretty sure much of my dad rep will erode as the kids get older, but hopefully I can keep this bit going a little longer.

(The firestarters will be available a retailers soon. When you look for these at your local grocery store ofrcamping outlet, look for the box with the cricket!)

My house is crazy with books. Right now I am trying to read a book on landscaping with native plants (specific to Michigan) as well as one for folks with tiny lots who want to homestead. There’s also What the Robin Knows, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, and Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris—just to name a few from the stack next to my bed.

collage2Eventually this current reading obsession will wear off. I can already feel my bones aching for action. There are, of course, the usual chores to be attended to. The garage needs cleaning; I need to build shelves in the workroom, clad our roughed-in staircase, and finish the entry hall. The crawl space needs to be cleaned out, and a vapor barrier needs to be laid down. And this summer has me painting the house, landscaping and gardening, and tending to so much yard work I am almost overwhelmed already.

I am also hoping to try my hand at hard cider. Bought some of the equipment last week, and now I am gearing up for a slow brew. My dream project this summer would be to recreate Thoreau’s cabin as a workroom/seasonal office on our property. I’ve been researching plans online, and I think I can score materials relatively cheaply, but it’s likely a pipe dream on my part.

And then there’s the writing, the most strenuous task of all. Writing projects are constantly on my mind. Back road guides to Michigan and Ohio are on the to-do list, but I also have a few more ambitious projects are also in the works. These later ones are more work and less sure, but a guy’s got to dream, right?

All of this is part of an underlying desire to push back somewhat against the onslaught of modernity. (I don’t find it ironic at all that I am posting this on the Internet, since you asked.) Having read Neil Postman’s Building a Bridge to the 18th Century a few years back, I increasingly find myself trying to create a less technological atmosphere for our family. A big part of that is getting outside as much as possible, but it also means finding joy in simple cooking, reading books, and projects that keep the hands busy.

So, what are you doing this winter? What are your plans for warmer weather? I’d love to hear what you’re reading and what the underlying philosophy is that guides your daily lives these days?

I really love to cook and experiment in the kitchen. Because of that, I love checking out blogs of others who cook and experiment in the kitchen. Since it’s winter and there’s not much going on outside (wind chill near -20 here right now), I thought maybe you would like to see what I’ve been up to food-wise.

indian pickles, garam masala, cucumbers, curry, cardamom, refrigeratorI love pickles, but the whole process of canning pickles has been an obstacle to really having fun with it. I mean, you have to pick up pickling cucumbers by the bushel when they’re in season. Then you have to clear off all your counter space and chop up onions and garlic and whatever else goes into your recipe. It takes a lot of time, and the window for pickling cukes is pretty small.

All that is why I was so excited to hear about refrigerator pickles a few years back. Cut up some cucumbers (any kind you find in the store), add water and vinegar, some sugar and salt, and toss it all into a jar. The next day you got pickles. And if you want to try something unique, it’s no big deal. Just toss it into the mix.

Yesterday I decided to go a little crazy and pulled all the Indian spices from my cabinet: garam masala, curry powder, cardamom pods. Instead of dill, I added a dash and a scoop of all these, plus a little cayenne pepper for some heat.

The results are pretty good. I skipped the usual tablespoon or two of sugar and so they are a bit tarter than I was expecting, but the results are not at all unpleasant.

The food angle is a new one on the site—a little beyond the picnic lunches and such that we’ve shared—so I would love your feedback. If you’re interested in hearing more from the kitchen, or want more specifics on the pickles, leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Nature and Observations Notebook, collage, cattails, indian springsWhile a lot of folks look forward to this day after Thanksgiving, I am not that much into shopping for shopping’s sake (Go to Walmart at 5 a.m.? Isn’t that what the Internet’s for?). But November is a very full month for us. In addition to the usual full social calendar, school parties and activities, and church stuff, Grace’s birthday comes the week before Thanksgiving. So for us, the Thanksgiving weekend is three days of blessed rest.

Nature and Observations NotebookFor her birthday this year, we bought Grace a nature journal (The Nature and Observations Notebook, to be specific). Perhaps a bit girly in design, the notebook comes with pages for note taking (aka “observations”), rooms for sketching, envelopes for collecting specimens, and stationary for sending notes to your grandma.

I was under no illusions. The journal looks like a lot of fun, but kids are always missing the point of gifts—especially gifts we hope will deepen their understanding and lead to self-enrichment, etc. So I was actually surprised when Grace told us this was her favorite present. For two days she carried it with her wherever she went, even took it to bed at night.

A couple days later she had her first day off from school and she demanded we go to the nature center. Happy to oblige this surprise turn in our gift-giving experience, I took her to the nature center. There she sketched cattails, a garter snake, and a gray tree frog. The woman at the counter even came around to take a look at Grace’s notes. She practiced her spelling with CATTAILS and GARTER SNAKE, but I took dictation for the rest. I thought it would help her enjoy it a little more.

Since then I’ve had to stop the car to pick pine needle specimens, and stoop for any number of leaves and acorn caps. So as the whole country looks toward buying this holiday season, I will be humbly reconsidering all my expectations and keeping an eye out for a few more gifts that will open my daughter to the outdoors.

Fall at Indian Springs Metropark (White Lake, Michigan)

When Grace went back to school, Tater and I were at a loss. So much of his time is spent playing with his sister. Now that he was an “only child,” we had some retooling to do. This past summer I visited a lot of area parks doing research for a book. Many of them have nature centers, and I remembered all the time wishing my kids were with me.

So Tater and I decided we needed to check ‘em out. The big question for me was, Are nature centers any fun in the fall? (Heck, are they even open, or are they more seasonal then I imagine.)

Our first trek took us to the Indian Springs Metropark. The swampy sections of the park are the headwaters for the Huron River, which gains much in the way of volume and dignity between here and Lake Erie. The Environmental Discovery Center, as it’s called, overlooks a small pond.

Most of our time was spent outside, looking for snakes and frogs along the shore. Since this is classic massasauga rattler habitat, I was glad it was a cold day. A small brook connects the main pond with a smaller adjacent pond. Much time was spent watching the water flowing between the two.

One of the big attractions at Indian Springs (one surprisingly few people know about) is the Pond Room. The lower level (i.e. basement) of the nature center is below the level of the pond—roughly the same level as the pond floor. A clear tunnel leads out from the main building under the water to a circular domed room. From here you can watch fish swim by and get a close look at the habitat created by logs that have fallen to the bottom.

The Pond Room is my favorite part of the site, but, frankly, it kind of freaked Tater out. Confined underwater spaces, apparently, aren’t his thing. So after the Pond Room we went upstairs and looked at some of the animals on exhibit—a garter snake, salamander, turtles.

All in all a good visit, and Tater now tells his sister that the nature center is “his and daddy’s place,” which is kind of nice too.

Next week we’ll look for someone showing off animals. I think the boy is itching to hold a snake.

Amusement Parks

So, you have young kids and are heading out to the amusement park… What are you? Nuts?

This is what people asked me when we were planning to take our kids to Cedar Point in Ohio earlier this year.

It’s been years since I’ve been to Cedar Point. Last time I was there they had a whole Berenstain Bears theme for their kids area. It was close to the front and right on the main drag. Six years ago, a bunch of parks changed ownership, partnerships were hatched, and property merged. I am assuming this is when the bears were kicked to the curb in exchange for a Peanuts theme. But I digress.

I am writing to share what worked (and what didn’t work) when we took our two- and five-year-old kids to the amusement park.

My first bit of advice: Make a bee-line to the kids’ rides, preferably those in the back. The rides in the back make sense only if you can get to them in less than 15 minutes. If not, head for the closest. Interest wanes fast, and if you take your time (like we did) you get a lot of whining and complaining. Maybe it would have been better if we had ridden the easy-going drive-the-car ride before heading back. But instead, we jumped on the Sky Ride, and then leisurely walked around the back the park before coming up on the kids’ section. BIG MISTAKE. By the time we reached Jr Gemini Children’s Area, the fragile balance that is a functioning family unit was beginning to sway. It was only some amazing parenting that kept the kids pleasant enough to enjoy a few rides.

Of course, even kids get tired of the kids’ rides after awhile. That’s when they turn to Ferris wheels and carousels. So chose the timing of mainstream rides carefully. In most cases, the grown-up rides are simply off limits to the shorter set. But kids love merry-go-rounds. While there was hardly ever a line for the little kid rides, after noon we found the line for the Ferris wheel growing. Our two-year-old wasn’t going to wait 30 minutes in the hot sun for a ride he didn’t understand (why can’t they ever have shade?!), so that leads me to my third piece of advice:

Play in the fountain. Seriously. Why is it always 105 when you go to the amusement park? After a day of chasing shade, you will find you’re still sweating like a bear in a fur coat. And if you’re this hot, the kids are too. If you see running water they can play in, by all means stop. Their clothes will dry, and it’s really very likely to be the most fun they’ll have all day.

There are other tidbits that might make the visit easier: split the trip into two days, so you’re not fighting to “get your money’s worth” in one afternoon; spend the late afternoon at the beach; take a siesta and head back the hotel or campsite for naps. But we didn’t do any of these, so I will leave the dispensing of that wisdom to those wiser than me.

Kids love dinosaurs. I remember years back my friend’s five-year-old son reciting the names of what must have been a hundred dinosaurs. He had dino toys, posters, and place mats. He was even pointing out where lazy editors had misidentified dinosaurs in his books. I am not sure he still retains this info at 12, but it was fascinating to see his level of interest.

So that’s what we’re doing this week: exploring the world of dinosaurs.

  • Monday – Visit the library and get books on dinosaurs. Have a fun reading time, and then using our art supplies we’ll make our favorite dinosaurs
  • Tuesday – A trip to the museum. In our case Dinosaur Ridge in Colorado. Back in Michigan, a couple traveling exhibits have passed through. But you can find dino shows all over.
  • Wednesday – Freeze plastic dinosaurs (or, better yet, plastic bones) in large bowls of water. Using tools, “dig” for the “fossils.” Maybe grow dinosaurs (the rubber kind that grow after soaking a day in water).
  • Thursday – Talk about the relationship between birds and dinosaurs (you can find information on this online). Go outside and watch birds for awhile. Then we’ll cut feathers out of construction paper and glue them on a picture of a dinosaur.

Looking for Fossils

I love summer, but when it gets this hot, the risk of heat stroke is very real for me. After a long day, after I come home and wring the sweat from my shirt, I’ve just been too exhausted from the heat to sit at the computer and dream up posts. So I am cheating a bit with this one.

I’ve been doing a lot of hiking this summer, snapping away with the camera as I go. Here are a few of my favorites. (Normally I am not a big stickler on copyright and all that, but these will likely end up in my next book, so I want to make sure everyone knows these are protected and all that.)