My daughter is slightly obsessed with “If a Tree Falls” by Bruce Cockburn. So I wanted to do a bit of a hyperlink experiment with the song. The results follow. Stay tuned afterwards for my thoughts on how this ties into the experience of all of us with our kids, outdoors.

****************************************************

IF A TREE FALLS

Rain forest:

Mist and mystery
Teeming green
Green brain facing lobotomy
Climate control centre for the world
Ancient cord of coexistence
Hacked by parasitic greedhead scam
From Sarawak to Amazonas
Costa Rica to mangy B.C. hills
Cortege rhythm of falling timber.

What kind of currency grows in these new deserts,
These brand new flood plains?

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
Anybody hear the forest fall?

Cut and move on
Cut and move on
Take out trees
Take out wildlife at a rate of species every single day
Take out people who’ve lived with this for 100,000 years
Inject a billion burgers worth of beef
Grain eaters — methane dispensers.

Through thinning ozone,
Waves fall on wrinkled earth
Gravity, light, ancient refuse of stars,
Speak of a drowning
But this, this is something other.
Busy monster eats dark holes in the spirit world
Where wild things have to go
To disappear
Forever

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
Anybody hear the forest fall?

***************

This is of course only one—rather pedantic, but beloved—song that could be used to teach your kids about the outdoors. But there are so many other directions to take this idea:

This is a topic that could be taken in at least three different directions that I’ll discuss here, but I’m sure if you think about it, you’ll come up with many more.

The first is represented by Cockburn’s song. That is listening to adult music with your child and helping them to process it. Jack Johnson’s “The 3 R’s” is a good example of this.

Another path is music created specifically for children. It is slightly easier to find songs that relate to the outdoors in this genre. SteveSongs, “The Water Cycle” or “Spyrtle the Turtle” are great examples, as are many of the songs They Might Be Giants have been putting out for kids lately, particularly on Here Comes Science. “Electric Car” comes quickly to mind.

A third path would be songs that are related tangentially to the outdoors. A song about the plight of Native Americans could bring up great discussion with your child about how they feel about the earth. A song about mythical beings like fairies, mermaids, or the Loch Ness monster might provoke quite a discussion about what all might be out there in nature that we are simply unaware of… which brings us back to the rainforest, where new creatures are discovered all the time.

 

Give this article some life: respond in the comments below how you might use music to teach your child about nature, and I’ll incorporate it into the article itself!

Balance bike, teaching kids to ride

Okay, I’ll say it: When it comes to teaching my kids to ride a bike, I am a better parent than you are. You might have nailed down nutritious snack habits, taught your kids how to save their allowance, and had them prepped for the SATs by the time they were in first grade. But me? I got my daughter riding a bike by four-years-old without resorting to the worn-out, self-defeating crutch of training wheels. And my two-year-old is not far behind. He’ll be pedaling away within the year.

How did we do it? Easy. The same way people developed the bike in the first place.

Have you ever looked at a cup of coffee and asked, “Who was the guy who first picked these beans, roasted them, then soaked them in hot water until it turned black, drank this bitter mess, and said ‘Let’s do that again!’?” You could ask something similar of bikes: Who was the first guy to build a frame with two wheels, add pedals and gears to power those wheels, and then spent a month falling down trying to figure out the balance?

Of course the answer is, No one did. The first bikes had no pedals. You sat on the seat, pushed with your feet, and coasted when you could.

The key, of course, is to teach BALANCE. And that’s why you need to get your kid a “balance bike.” We’ve talked about this before (here and here), but I still see kids out there trying desperately to learn the bike with training wheels.

So why are training wheels bad, you ask? They don’t teach kids the fundamental ability they need to acquire to ride: balance. They teach kids how to get on the bike and pedal fast. Later, when the training wheels come off, they have the confidence to dive into riding but still have to learn balance. It’s backwards.

A balance bike, on the other hand, has kids coasting around and balancing naturallyas a parent, all you have to do is show them the bike. Then, once they decide they want to go faster, you move them up to a bike with pedals. There might be a transition at this point (I had to run behind Grace two times; then she just figured it out).

We tried this “method” first on Grace, but to determine it wasn’t a fluke, we stared Tater on a balance bike at two. As soon as his legs were long enough, he jumped on and hasn’t gotten off since. When he’s on his bike, the world has no obstacles. He’ll ride down the stairs of our deck (they’re pretty shallow stairs), we’ve had to teach him not to ride into the house. I even watched him coast (balancing, mind you) backwards down our driveway. I can’t even balance this good!

I hope you’ll forgive my tongue-in-cheek at the beginning and give the balance bike a try. It’s for the kids!

 

Hello, and Merry Christmas! The two of us writing this site both have undergraduate degrees in English Literature, so when it comes to great gift ideas, we often turn to books. We love ’em, and books like Last Child in the Woods and Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids have provided the philosophical ground and inspiration for this site. We read a lot, and this is a great time of year to share a few of our favorites. Check it out and then tell us about the ones we missed in the comments!

The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder
By Richard Louv

Having read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that his new book, The Nature Principle is somehow able to again cover the topic of separation from nature, but really tread new ground. Im not quite sure how he’s able to do this. It may be that the writing is noticeably more personal.

There is still the quoting of experts, but Louv writes now of intimate things, like sitting at the site of his fathers self-inflicted demise, questioning whether separation from nature hastened his mental illness and whether our own can have similar effects. Its a powerful moment, and involved this reader with the book very strongly. A less emotional but still appreciated carryover from the first book is that we hear more about Louvs children, now grown older. This helps to give this decidedly non-fiction book “characters” and lends the feeling of continuation you might find in a fiction trilogy. Highly recommended. Look for a longer more detailed review later.

Survivor Kid: A Practical Guide to Wilderness Survival
By Denise Long

Right off the bat I want to thanks the author and publisher for not excluding my daughter with this book. Gender is a big thing for her at this age. She has whole taxonomies to explain that blue is for boys and red is for girls, girls can be doctors but not dentists, and boys can’t dance but girls can. So all the books with titles like Boys’ Adventure Guide or A Boy’s Guide to the Outdoors, or any other such title, causes her to automatically erase it from her list of possibilities. (And the “girl” books are kind of lame.)

Survivor Kid is more pragmatic than all that. Not looking to cash in on a marketing angle, the goal of the book can be appreciated by both boys and girlsthe goal of surviving outside should they get lost or hurt. There’s plenty in here for young readers (middle schoolers would love the book), but parents will find a lot for creating fun learning activities. I think there’s a Trench Shelter (pp. 27-28) in our future. Toward the end the book, the author has described everything you need for a survival kit.

The Geek Dad Book for Aspiring Mad Scientists: The Coolest Experiments and Projects for Science Fairs and Family Fun
By Ken Denmead

We seem to have gotten further and further away from an honest understanding and use of science in our daily lives. When emotional and political motivations color the use of scientific results, the true purpose of science gets lost. So begins the introduction to Ken Denmeads The Geek Dad book for Aspiring Mad Scientists. And thus we learn that while the title is obviously a joke, inside the joke are (clearly benevolent) honest plans for world domination. Denmead really is a mad scientist, looking to change the world to his (again, benevolent) ends!

While the contents are too involved and recipe-like for me to get into them here, suffice to say thatIm condensing madly, herethis book explains exactly why Mentos explode in soda in hundreds of different ways. Different Mentos, different sodas, but the same basic average materials with extraordinary results scenario. And a clear scientific explanation of why it happens. If youre the type of Dad to look for teachable moments, and have any interest in science at allget this book. Or Ken Denmead will make you his minion (p.27, DIY Mind Control).

Handy Dad: 25 Awesome Projects for Dads and Kids
By Todd Davis

In the publishing world, there’s a lot of talk about what kinds of traditional books can compete with e-books. And there seems to be a growing understanding that books need to have something speciallots of color, unique design, and interesting materialsin order to compete. Handy Dad rises to that level. The book is as attractive as it is useful. I just was blown away by the heavy stock, the textured cover, the creative design.

Divided up by how long each project should take (easy, afternoon, weekend), Davis gives us twenty-five great projects. From a homemade lava lamp and a water-pressure rocket to a half-pipe and a rope bridge, these kinds of projects can be done with the kids or for the kidsand they’ll love the results either way. Personally, I am looking forward to building the skate longboard. Thankfully it will be a few years before the kids are old enough to want to borrow it.

50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)
By Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler

A little while back I watched Gever Tulley give a little talk on TED. There’s a movement afoot, encouraging parents to stop babying their children. We’re raising a generation of adults that can’t do for themselvesstifling not only creativity and such, but keeping kids from developing competence and a sense of confidence. Cut it out. I wish every parent had a copy of Tulley’s book and worked through all 50 of these “dangerous things.” There would be more scraped knees, cut fingers, and even some broken arms, but there would also be more kids who knew how to interact and control the world they live in.

And your kids will love it, whether they’re standing on the roof, breaking glass with a bat in the driveway, or exploring subterranean worlds, this is the stuff that childhood is made of. Embrace it, scraped knees and all.

Treehouses and Other Cool Stuff: 50 Projects You Can Build
By David and Jeanie Stiles

When I was in high school we went white-water rafting quite a few times in West Virginia. While waiting to return my wetsuit, I would take a look at a few of the books the outfitter had for sale near the gear trailer. One of these was a fully illustrated guide to white-water kayaking. I really loved this book. Through funky cartoons, the author was better able to describe certain paddle strokes and river scenarios than photos ever could. I got that same feeling when I picked up Tree Houses and Other Cool Stuff.

More than just treehouses, the book covers everything from a lemonade stand to a playhouse shaped like a spaceship. There’s also a section on accessories (i.e. treasure chests and canons for the pirate ship, winches and special locks, rope swings, etc.). The full-color photos give you a good idea of what the project should look like, but the hand-drawn illustrations are where it’s at. They show you how to make it. Maybe I should be a little embarrassed how important pictures are for me with this kind of book, but I think you’ll find them very useful. And again, your kids will love these projects!

Just a bit ago, I posted about slightly big holiday gifts that you could get, that would encourage your kids to brave the winter and get outside. But they were all a bit expensive. Without commenting on the various levels of gift giving and grousing on philosophically, here are some smaller, “stocking stuffer” (what would the Hanukkah version of this be? Anyone?) gift ideas.

  • The thermometer/compass zipper pull. Does the compass really work? Probably not. Is the thermometer accurate when its that close to your body? Not really. But theyre infinitely more useful than a small piece of pseudo-climbing-rope, arent they?
  • Their close cousin, the L.E.D. light zipper pull (from Nite Ize). Not exactly a flood light, but when it gets truly dark, these things are AMAZING compared to well, nothing. Or the aforementioned piece of rope.
  • Titanium Spork. The beauty of something like this is that it takes something the recipient takes for granted (the silverware for a given meal) and makes them more aware of their life. Hey, its my spork! Cool! My favorite is Snow Peak, but also be aware of the Light My Fire polycarbonate spoon/fork (theres a differencelook at the link).
  • Magazine Subscription. In a way, its the ultimate downer of a gift (get the lastest issue to give them!) since they cant see it, but in the immortal words of Cousin Eddie, that theres the gift that keeps on giving, Clark. If I may add, it teaches the recipient about delayed gratification, as well. If youre wily, a years worth of reading can cost less than $10 this time of year.
  • And while were on the subject of gifts that arent particularly fun That aside, you should consider things like Charitable Donations and Memberships. These can be fantastically teachable moments (but I wouldnt make it someones only giftespecially a child).
  • Weird gifts that arent commonly available always make wonderful stocking stuff. Like the hand cleaner from bicycle parts maker Phil Wood. Ask your local bike mechanic about it. Then order it here (because I can almost guarantee the shop doesnt sell it).
  • The Survival Bracelet. I include it as a representative sample of those quirky, odd but possibly life saving gifts. Still not sure how a bunch of very strong string can save your life, but it couldnt hurt. Also consider fire-starting paraphernalia in this category.

This should be more than enough to get you started. I must say, thoughdespite my anti-philosophizing promisesthat those ducks make all these other suggestions sound shallow. Way to go, ducks!

 

“Up, up, and away[on] my beautiful, my beautiful…” The 5th Dimension

Le Pre de Grace et de Pommes de terre suggested I write a little bit for you about bicycle touring. This is sort of a loaded question. Not because I’m so very knowledgeable from experience, but more because I’m long-winded and full of trivia. I began riding road bikes in 1987 while working in a Schwinn shop (back when that used to mean something other than a Target), and though I’ve become far more of a mountain biker than a road cyclist, I have kept up with touring over the years, as it simply speaks to me more than racing does.

Bicycle touring was really biggest in the 1970s. There was something called BikeCentennial in 1976, and for some reason (that I’m sure someone out there can tell us) it lit a philosophical fire under America (rightfully so) for touring the country by bike. If you’re old enough, you might remember a time when most road bikes were covered with bags. It should be memorable, because you’re starting to see all those bags around againin this case, more for utility cycling, but nevertheless, it’s the first time bikes have been seen in a guise other than racing for many years.

See, I told you this would be long-winded. Anyway, what does this have to do with YOU, I hear you asking. Well, you will know if you are interested. I’m not going to try to talk you into anything. But I’m here to be a resource if this is something you can see yourself or your family trying.

The first place you should start is a quick overnight. There are two excellent (in my opinion) sources of info on how to do this. The time-honored veterans of these short camping trips are Rivendell Bicycle Works. For years they have championed what they call the ‘Sub- 24 Hour Overnight’ or S24O. Check out info from them HERE. Another new and fantastic source of information comes from a contest that the Welsh clothing company Howies put on involving people going on what they call MicroAdventures and documenting it. Check out these videos HERE. Between these two, you should be well aware of how to get started with this bike touring thing.

But before you read that, let me tell you what you already know, but don’t know you know, y’know? (Ugh). You’ll need a bike (either road or mountain bike, really) and either a backpack (a rather large one) or a rack on the bike. Or a rack and a smaller backpack. You need to either plan on sleeping outside, renting a hotel room, or carrying a tent. You’ll need food. Again, you can credit card tour and this is perfectly valid, but it’s not the cheapest way to go. Perhaps better to carry food and either fire starting material (be VERY careful with fire) or a campstove.

This is a good time to say that one of the worst things you could do is get a special touring bike, outfit it with all the bags, buy all the camping things, before ever sleeping outside on a bike tour. Remember, the experience here is worth far more than having all the “right” equipment. After you’re experienced, you can tour the whole country with all the gear, but first, get started doing it. the Howies videos are good at getting this point across.

Now, if you want to just get an idea of what the larger kind of touring is about, give THIS a look. And bikes like thisor this. Andand and… You see how easily you can be lured into gear worship. But this is supposed to be about re-experiencing nature. And for most of the readers of this site, modeling for your children what it means to experience nature. So what does it mean? A reason to use your cool gear? Or is the gear just a tool? I knew you thought so. (Wish I could practice what I preach- well, I can, but only through poverty!)

Ernest Hemingway has a famous quote which I won’t bother to Google, because it’s so easy for you to do. In which he said that riding a bicycle helps you to appreciate the landscape in a way you never could in a car. A hill is very physical and real to you. Flat ground isn’t always as flat as it looks, as you will know if you have to keep pedaling, instead of coasting. A forest has a smell and a feeling to the air within. Know what I mean? You will!

Certainly, ask any questions you’d like in the comments or e-mail me at the contact info on the home page.

Though it feels to me still that it’s only late summer, my right brain knows that with Thanksgiving’s passing, any parent with a shred of sense needs to have a plan either in place or soon to be put into place regarding Xmas gifts.

Even if you choose to give your child a pile of cardboard boxes (which by the way I think they’d love, especially if it came with markers or paints), now is the time to be thinking about what’s up.

So, with that in mind, and since you’re visiting a site about getting kids to enjoy being outdoors, here are five quick thoughts for gifts that will get your kids out exploring over the winter break instead of just sitting at the window and wondering what lies outside their four walls. This list will focus on gifts ofunusualsize, rather than stocking stuffers. That’ll be another post.

So, without further ado, here’s some ideas that won’t fully bust the bank, but will last for awhile, too.

  1. Snowshoes. Tubbs and Atlas are major brands. (NO, they aren’t paying us anything at alljust what I know). For little toddler’s snowshoes, expect to pay under $30. For more serious adolescent models, just under $100. These not only allow them in areas that would normally beinaccessible due to deep snow, but also teaches them about flotation and allows a fantastic lesson on why the heck these things can work the way they do. Also consider that they could make junior feel like a superhero while mom or dad looks like a fool, postholing in the snow. This is a good thing!
  2. Trail-a-bike. If you are having a rather dry winter, and your kid is at a stage like my daughter, where she can ride but isn’t making any long trips yet, consider one of these an investment in the future for both of you. He or she won’t ride with you forever, but while they’re learning to ride by themselves, this can also be teaching them about how a little speed feels and how the bike can provide a great adventure on the trails or taking a ride to the coffee shop for some nice hot chocolate. Begin by looking at your local bike shop. This is perhaps the nicest one made, but they are also available at Target (and they won’t be riding it forever, y’know; I’m just sayin’).
  3. Balance Bikes. But say you have a smaller child, who doesn’t yet ride a bike, these are the best thing in the world. It is worth reading my post about teaching kids to ride bikes to understand why I think they’re so awesome. Suffice to say confidence is a huge force in kids learning, and they begin learning almost immediately with these. Like #2, they are available across the whole range of prices, so don’t let the link scare you away. Finally, though we are talking about Christmas presents and everyone has sepia-toned romantic associations with the holiday, may I also remind you that after your toddler learns to ride, these durable learning tools can be passed down to cousins and friends ad infinitum.
  4. Trust. For the older child (we’re talking pre-teen) consider gifts that will last a long time and show how much you trust and respect them. I’m thinking an axe or knife; there could be other choices to consider that only you can imagine. The idea remains the same thougha gift that tells them you’re putting some trust in them and believe that they are worthy of it.
  5. Inside/Outside. Finally, there are the gifts they use inside that somehow drive them outside. A microscope. Or how about a telescope?(guess you don’t use this inside unless you’re in Rear Window but it naturally leads from a microscope). And when we talk about these two, we have to mention binoculars. These are really sort of a macr0-microscope, right? They bring in nature so you can see its details, but in a larger sense than a microscope does. Come to think of it, some binocs and a bird feeder would be an awesome outdoor gift you could use while warm and toasty! (Be aware most Home Depots have a pretty nice bird-feeding section.)
Hope these ideas spark other in your mind, if they don’t directly speak to you. And I hope this will help you get this stuff figured out early and in a way that inspires you, so that the holidays can be a time of peace instead of stress.

I was recently searching eBay for vintage outdoors gear. In particular I was looking to see what I could find by searching the name “J C Higgins,” which is an old Sears brand. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff on there, but one thing in particular caught my attention and sent me scurrying down another path altogether. I saw a duck call, and I was suddenly struck with the inclination to see if I could “talk” with our feathered and furry neighbors.

At my parents’ house, there’s a rafter of turkeys that wanders up and down the driveway, across the yard, and through the adjacent woods. Hunters use calls to lure in unwitting prey, so why not use the same tools to get a closer look at these gobblers? This seems like an especially fun idea to try with kids. They may not learn how to use the calls like pros, but the activity teaches them how certain animals sound and, if we’re lucky, might get them closer than they sometimes might.*

With that in mind, I began my search. It seems turkey calls fall into two categories: You have your traditional turkey call box, that makes a sound by scraping a paddle across the wood, and there are the diaphragm turkey calls that fit in your mouth.

I found the diaphragm calls easy enough at Outdoor World. We’re not a hunting family, so the walk through the hunting section took some explaining to Grace who accompanied me on this trip. The call boxes, however, seemed to be a bit pricey until I found a man who makes them by hand in Kentucky and sells them on eBay. His reviews were outstanding so I gave it a shot.

Both calls give you a pretty realistic sound. The mouth call tickles my tongue and the roof of my mouth so much I can only use it for a few moments before I feel the urge to scratch my mouth with sandpaper. After a couple days, I am still getting used to it. The box might give some people that nails-on-a-chalk-board feeling, but it doesn’t bother me.

For the kids, the box is definitely easier. The mouth call is tricky and requires some finer motor skills than a five-year-old possesses.

There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube, and the learning curve isn’t all that steep. At least, it seems easy enough to make a soundwhether or not we can consistently bring in the turkeys is another matter altogether. So far we’ve not had much luck, but on Thanksgiving day we will have hours to play around in the yard. And what could be more appropriate on Thanksgiving day than talking with turkey?

 

* Wildlife is not to be messed with lightly. Even a flock of turkeys can be dangerous. Even more dangerous are the hunters that mistake your call for something to shoot at. Use reasonable caution. Don’t, for example, go out during hunting season with a turkey-feather headdress and sit in the bushes making turkey sounds. But even less obvious, don’t try to feed or pet wild turkeys. Best case scenario, they cause a ruckus and scare the tar out of your kids.

Over the next nine months, I am researching and writing my first hiking guide. To produce accurate maps for the publisher, I will need to walk every inch of my chosen trails and record the route with my Garmin. That’s 40 plus trails that range in length from a couple miles to over 36 miles long. It seems I have a lot of walking to do.

I am trying to get as much in now as I can before the weather shifts. Of course, I am happy to keep on hiking until the trails are impassable with snow, but the cold makes hiking with kids difficult. And I am planning on taking the kids with me as much as possible.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share some of our essential hiking gear (a term I use rather loosely here). Of course, a lot depends on the ages of your kids. If you have a toddler or pre-toddler, you will need a child carrier of some kind. We’ve talked about this before: Taking Babies Outdoors and the Kelty Child Carrier Review. You will also need to make the decision about diapers, bottles, tissue, etc.

Aside from these essentials and temperature-appropriate outerwear, what else do we bring on the trail?

#1 A handy blade
I think 9-11 set us back a bit about the acceptability of carrying a knife. There was a time when every man had a pocketknife handy, in his pocket with his handkerchief I suspect. As a kid I carried one myself. But several years back I brought a miniature key chain box cutter to work, and my colleagues expressed shock.The blade was less than a half inch long! (Experts estimate that there are close to 283 million guns in the hands of civilians in the United States. That’s nearly one gun for every man, woman, and child. I think pocket knives are one the last thing we Americans need to worry about.)

I say all of this to highlight the fact that hiking and camping (and hunting, of course) are the last remaining activities where a knife is not only handy and acceptable. So when I go hiking, I always bring along my old Leatherman. When we go paddling, I bring a sheath knifeconsidered an essential safety tool for paddlers (when you’re tangled in a rope underwater, you absolutely must have a knife, and you don’t want to fiddle with opening up the right blade!). So far there hasn’t been much call to use the Leatherman. I’ve used the smaller blade to cut out a sliver, and we’ve used the pliers or screwdrivers to fix gear. But mostly it stays in my pocket or on my belt, depending on my level of geekiness on a given day.

#2 A plastic grocery bag or two
Last year I was reading a book on environmentalism, and the author was pointing out that there really is no place left on earth not impacted by human society. A writer who explorers some of the remotest places on the planet reported finding litter. In these places, it might have floated in on the wind or was left by swollen rivers carrying trash downstream. On the trails we hike, it’s most often left by inconsiderate hikers and others messing around in the woods. So we carry a plastic bag to pick up the odd trash as we go. It’s also helpful for packing out dirty diapers and the leavings of our dog.

#3 Binoculars
What kid doesn’t like binoculars? They are up there with periscopes and walkie-talkies. Part of the fun of hiking with kids is to get them to pay attention to nature. Sometimes it’s no easy taskthey are either having too much or not enough fun and all they see is the path six feet ahead of them. Binoculars make looking purposeful. We have found eagles’ nests, watched loons dive, and just scoped of the woods.

#4 Camera
Earlier this week I talked about taking great outdoor photos. One thing I didn’t mention in that post was the importance of always keeping your camera handy. You never know when the perfect opportunity will present itself. I carry the camera to get pictures of my kids, to try and capture dramatic landscapes, and to record different plants and trees so I can try and identify them when I get home. Of course, I could just make this a list of eight and add my copies of National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees (Eastern Region), North American Wildflowers (Eastern Region), and North American Birds (Eastern Region).

#5 Moleskin notebook and pen(s)
This one serves a couple purposes. First and foremost hiking often leads me to contemplation. Even with one kid giggling on my back and the other streaking away up the next hill, the sounds of leaves underfoot and the soft quiet of the woods frees my mind somewhat. Every now and then I think of something that I want to remember, so it’s nice having a way to jot down my thoughts. The other reason it’s nice having a notebook is that, in a pinchm it can be used to entertain the kids. Grace is old enough to find tic-tac-toe endlessly challenging, and Tater loves to scribble. Caught in a sudden rain and need to huddle under a shelter for a little before heading back to the car? A notebook will help fill the void.

For you all who dont know, this site is written by two guys who spend a lot of time with their kids. The subject matter fits in with a lot of the mommy-blogging sites, but every now and then our content becomes a little more rugged. If you are going to take your kids camping, or just spend a lot of time outdoors, it makes sense to learn some woodcraft. Not only will it make the experience more fun, your kids wont grow up thinking you have no idea what youre doing. Todays post from Monkeys Uncle looks at the proper use and maintenance of the axe. Grace n Taters Dad

Would you agree that its safe to say almost everyone of our generation has a longing to chop wood to heat their home? Not an actual desire, necessarily, buton one level or anotheran almost archetypal need to chop wood? And yet, if you try to learn how to actually do this thing, you find more on an internet search engine about AXE body spray than using the actual tool. Speaks volumes, doesnt it?

So today, Id like to just share five quick pointers thatshould you find an axe in your handwill make you look like a pro. Or if not that, then at least keep you from looking like a fool.

Look sharp
Now, Im going on the assumption that you already have an ax and some wood in your hands. Likely, this is a tool that youve just found at a camp youre visiting or in a friends garage.

(If you have just purchased a wood stove and need to get serious about chopping wood and buying an axe well, the wood stove dealer is likely the best place to start, but if not, ask for help wherever you buy axes. If none of that works, write us here at Our Days Are Just Filled and well get you the correct information. Regardless, it goes beyond the aim of this article.)

As you should know by now, if youre a parent, a sharp tool is always best for a job that involves cutting. Counterintuitively, it is in fact safer to use a sharper tool. There are professionals who sharpen axes. And if youre looking at more than an afternoon of chopping, youd do well to patronize them. However, if youre just trying to split enough wood for you and your kid(s) to have a campfire, at least take a look at the blade of the axe. If you can see dulling or flattening of the blade, or if there are places where you can tell someones hit a rock or something and gouged or dented the blade, youd do well to find a flat file, and placing the axe head on a level surface (picnic table top, etc.) simply follow the obvious angle of the blade and smooth off these burrs. Just this much sharpening can do wonders. Helps build lumberjack confidence, too.

Before you start swinging, if you have a pile of wood to choose from, get the driest logs and those with flat ends. These will split the best. And softwoods will of course split easier than hardwoods (generally pine vs. maple or oak)

Hands and feet
Your feet should be shoulder width apart. This provides a solid base. This may seem trivial, but without concentrating on it, you will naturally try to use an axe the same way as you stand at the ordering kiosk at L.L. Bean. And while this may work, chances are that youll end up with an axe just far enough into a log to get stuck. And thats if youre lucky.

Another point that experts stress is the hand placement. Start with the axe above your head (were assuming a gentle but fluid swing has led it behind you before you reach this point) your left hand on the end of the axe, and your right hand up near the head (reverse if you need to and are left-handed). As you swing down, this hand slides down the handle so that just before you hit the wood, it grips just above your left hand for maximum leverage. The reason it is done this way is to increase control and increase power. And power is the difference between getting stuck in the log, and splitting it into two pieces like a lumberjack!

The eyes! The eyes!
It has taken me until midlife, but I think I finally am starting to get what my little league coaches meant when they told me to keep my eye on the ball. Your chances are increased by nearly 100 percent when you watch what youre doing rather than closing your eyes. This is true, incidentally, on a bicycle as well. If you see a stone in the trail and become obsessed with avoiding it, guess where youll steer subconsciously? Exactlyright into that stone.

Now, if you want instead to hit an exact spot on the top of a log, where do you think you should look? At your toes? Not unless youd like to lose a few. Of course, you want to look at the log. And through the miracle (and I dont use that word particularly lightly) of the way our bodies work, the arms, trunk, and legs will guide that axe-head to the very spot. Its amazing, really. And easy to forget. Look where you want to hit.

Break on through to the other side
Though Im quite sure this isnt what the Doors were talking about, its a good phrase to keep in mind when its time to split. Though it sounds a little mystical while you sit at the computer reading this, I assure you from personal experience that intention makes a difference while splitting logs.

If you say to yourself, I am going to hit this log with this axe, it sends a very real message to your body. “Give this a try, lets see what happens.” And from the very beginning of the stroke, the effort is halfhearted, which results in an unsplit log, which makes you feel bad about yourself, and makes the next swing even less likely to succeed.

You dont know how it hurts me to repeat all these old things my coaches told me way back when! Im not a team sports guy, Im really not, and I hate to pass along coaching talk. But as I said, it turns out they were sometimes right. Im talking about what they told you about the follow-through. It makes no rational sense that the way you swing after a ball is hit makes the ball go farther. But it takes just a little practice to see that its true, whether youre talking about a baseball bat, a tennis racket, or a golf club. Or an axe, as it turns out.

What Im saying is: Swing through the log, not just at it.

Chop more than you need
This isnt a tip about swinging the axe, so much as an organizational tip combined with a sneaky ongoing self confidence builder. There are two things going on here.

First, dry wood burns better. And the wood gets drier on the outside. So split wood left to sit for long periods will be drier than recently split wood. Obvious, right?

So while youve got the sharp axe, while youre warmed up and well-practiced, while youre already covering your clothes with woodchips, chop extra wood. It will be better wood to burn the next time you want a fire, and you wont even have to get the axe out of the garage.

And as an added bonus, if you do enough, youll have a little woodpile sitting in the yard (hopefully stacked between two trees) and when people notice it, you can nonchalantly say, Oh, yeah, well, I chopped some extra last time I was splitting logs And who doesnt like that?

 

(If you enjoyed todays post, please head over to the Best Made website and browse their signature axes. If you find one you think wed like, wed happily send you our address. Thanks! Grace n Taters Dad)

Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. And who doesnt like to rub bug resin all over things? Oh, rightanyone.

Well, in this case, I think I may be able to change your mind.

A quick diatribe: we live in strange times. Where we once just picked up a stick and started hiking, we now pick up ergonomic, shock-absorbing, and coincidentally very expensive, hiking pole. We are told so often that we need these techie gadgets that we often take it for granted, even when its not really what we want.

In a more practical sense, shellac is a stain, used to give something a harder surface as well as adding a leathery-looking amber tint. Is this something thats missing in your life? You may easily say no, and so did I until I started messing with the stuff. Now I look around for ways to use it.

I use shellac for bicycle grips, but here are just a few other uses:

  • Wrap around a good stick for a slightly more permanent hiking stick. Heck, drill a hole in it and buy some leather shoelaces!
  • Those things you buy to protect your bicycles paint job from the chain flopping around.
  • Tennis racket grips
  • Fishing pole foam.
  • Dare I go there? Your cars steering wheel

One more little aside of thought and theory before I tell you where to get this stuff and what to do with it. When we make something our own, it acquires meaning and worth to us that it didnt have when it was simply an off-the-shelf product. And secondarily, as Grant Petersen has said many times on the Rivendell website, the things we touch as well as the things we wear create our immediate environment as we pursue our lives. If it feels empowering to do this the first time, then each time we use the item, it will make us feel better about ourselves, rather than reminding us that we are a consumer who will use what the great machine tells us is available to us.

Okay, heres what you need and where you get it. This is a very limited application of the material. Im sure shellac has another universe of uses when applied to wood, for example.

  • Cloth tape. I bought hockey tape at the local hockey store. Three dollars a roll. It has some texture to it and seems to take the shellac well. If you have a bit larger budget and want/need your grip to be softer, buy some road bike handlebar tape, in white if you want the pure shellac color, or other tints if youre the experimental type.
  • Shellac is available as flakes which are then dissolved in denatured alcohol, but who wants to go to all that trouble? Just buy Bullseye/Zinser brand. At almost any hardware store in the world. They make a clear shellac, but Ive only ever looked for the Amber.
  • Cheap paintbrushes. Even little kid watercolor brushes are fine. But plan on disposing of them after each coat. Or buy some
  • Twine makes for a fun way to wrap both ends. For a simple short video about how to do the twine, click here and go to 2:45 in the video (although the rest of it is pretty soothing and worth watching, in my opinion).

Now, wrap the tape tightly around whatever it is you want to shellac, a couple layers if you want it thicker, and shake your can of shellac. Open with a screwdriver, and get painting. The more coats you put on, the darker and smoother the shellac gets.

As with every activity like this, Im certain youll come up with ideas that have never even crossed my mind. Send em in to Our Days Are Just Filled, and well post your work here.

Now get out there and empower yourself!

We love working on this site. Not only is getting outside with our kids something we’re really committed to, but writing about our adventures and thinking out what it all means makes the experience of raising our kids even richer.

The other day Monkey’s Uncle said, “We should have a t-shirt.” He was right. Here’s our first idea. Hopefully we’ll have a dozen more by Christmas.

You can buy the shirt on CafePress.

If you have any witty quip that would work on a t-shirt of a mug or something, let me know. We’ve had a couple ideas, but they kind of fell flat. And if you think this image would be better suited for something else on CafePress, I’d love to hear that too.