Ash BorerYou can’t spend too much time outside before you realize that there’s a lot of death and dying sprinkled throughout nature’s celebration of life. That’s part of the deal, though, right? Living and dying? Growth and decay? To a point.

Unfortunately, a lot of the dying we see these days is not all that natural after all. Here in the Great Lakes, we have phragmites, oriental bittersweet, and mute swans. These species all come from somewhere else and are able to out compete native species because they’re playing by a difference set of rules. While they thrive, local flora and fauna suffer.

Last week we had the opportunity to see the evidence of one of these invaders up close. An ash tree just over on our neighbors yard gave in to a gentle breeze and crashed, spreading its disintegrating trunk and limbs across the entire street, leaving a hefty debris pile twenty feet across. Thankfully no one was driving by at the time.

After the neighbors all came out and we hauled the thing to the side of the road, I was able to show the kids what caused the tree to die in the first place. It was the emerald ash borer. This bug inserts its eggs under the tree’s bark and when the larvae hatch, they eat the cambium. You can see the tracks of their consumption when the bark eventually falls off.

Now that all the ash trees in the state are dead, I am not sure how the borer will survive, and what value there is in restrictions on the transportation of firewood. This event, in any case, was a nice illustration of how fragile the ecological web really is.

“Low ebb, high tide. The lowest ebb and highest tide… At the edge of the continent” R.E.M., “I Remember California”

You know the feeling. You show up at the beach, and it’s a nice day with a soft breeze, and… “Hey, Dad, what is this?” And sure, it’s a crab. But don’t you wish you could tell them more than that? I know I do.

So I, the Monkey’s Aunt, and The Mjellyonkey’s Cousin have been spending some time at the beach. And perhaps you have too. And I thought I’d put together a quick bit of research so we can both have some answers to give our little darlings so we sound like the heroes we wish we really were.

But first, a disclaimer for all you bio nerds out there. I do not claim for one second that this is very accurate. Let me make that clear. I will not knowingly steer you wrong, but I can’t claim any exact knowledge. This is about having something to say, not Beach Biology 101 at State U.

That said, let’s talk crabs first. If it’s in a shell, it’s a Hermit Crab. “Is it a boy or a girl, Mama?” C’mon, do I have to tell you this? Pick one and go forward confidently. After that, things get more complex.

But this isn’t all about lying or guessing. If it seems to be what you would traditionally consider a crab, there are three main possibilities. If it has sky blue legs and parts of it’s shell, it’s a Blue Crab. It’s pretty clear. If one claw is obviously bigger than the other, he’s a male Fiddler Crab. For all other crabs, you’re best declaring it a Rock Crab. Just tonight I was snorkeling at our local watering hole, and found one of those. If he seems particularly green, he may well be a Green Crab. A Dungeness Crab, well, you’re on your own, but throw that out there if you’re feeling daring.

Next, we come to birds. You know seagulls. But here’s something you may not know: If you see a brown one, that’s a kid seagull. A teenager. Not a female gull.

If you see a smaller, faster, kinda psychotic little bird that has a black top on its head and bright orange beak, that’s a tern. There are lots of different kinds, but just say it’s an Arctic Tern. One of the farthest migrating birds of all. Goes clear from the North to South Pole. Why? Who knows.

The little buggers with long legs are called Least Sandpipers. And they’re eating either sand fleas or worms. If you tell your kids there’s worms in the sand, you’re in for trouble. So tell them they’re eating bugs in the sand!

At our beach, we also sometimes see swallows. If it moves at nearly the speed of sound, it’s evening, and you hear peeps—that’s a swallow and you should say thank you because they’re eating flying insects.

And if you see a mostly brown bird that looks like it’s wearing a black collar, you’ve spotted the rare Plover. More probably, you’ll see signs warning you that they’re nesting nearby, and telling you to get lost.

That just about covers it. Here’s one more tidbit though—when your kids find seaweed, which they will inevitably do, find the air-filled sacks, and point out how that helps the seaweed (you could call it Kelp if you like but that’s probably not what it is) float on the surface and photosynthesize.

And one more thing: Those black rectangles with thin pointy ends are Stingray Egg Sacks.

Aquarium 2013 009Hope that quick primer helps you out a bit. I’ve heard a lot of questions in preparation for it, I’ll tell you that. And remember, though they may not look like it at the time, your kids are building the foundation for a lifetime of nature appreciation here. If one hermit crab has to have a rough time so that your kid can grow up to value, appreciate, and conserve nature, it’s a small sacrifice that I think is worth making. Of course, you never want to stand idly by while your little monsters torture small animals, but within reason, it’s better for kids to touch, feel, and experience nature. In our house, that works out as: you can play with the hermit crabs, but don’t think you’re going to bring one home to certain death (we tried bringing some home and learned that lesson the hard way).

Happy exploring!

At first glance, Wildwood sounds familiar. Evil magical woman leader? Check. Kids as heroes? Yes. Ominous canines as femme fatales’s pawns? 10-4! Talking animals? Oh, yeah. Now that a second book is on its way, the set is even called “Wildwood Chronicles.”

I love the Decemberists. If you didn’t know, this is the band for which Colin Meloy is the singer and primary songwriter. However, I also deeply love C. S. Lewis. Enough to take a college class about him. To travel to England to see his home. Enough to search around Oxford with an old photograph from one of his books trying to find his grave (I succeeded). Suffice to say, I’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia a couple of times.

And yes, the above comparisons are true. When I began reading the songwriter’s first novel, I was… concerned. Just how close was he going to stick to Lewis’s plot lines?

But now that I’ve finished, I won’t deny the comparisons, but The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and this book are vastly different. While Lewis seems out to create a world of the past, full of fauns and dryads, Meloy goes for a much more “real” world. Yes, the animals speak, but they live a life much more like and aware of the “Outsider” world around them (there’s no “Spare Oom” scenes, in other words).

And there’s another aspect of Wildwood‘s “accessibility.” Narnia is entered somewhat randomly, at the will of the lion Aslan, which reflects Lewis’s Christian slant and intentions for the books. When Aslan wants you, a way is made ready for you (which reminds one of the Buddhist maxim: the teacher will appear when the student is ready, but that’s another story).

But Wildwood is different. Though protected by magic (c’mon, the book is aimed at kids after all), the main characters are seen over and over again, to each character they meet, explaining that they did nothing special, they just walked into the woods. In fact, in a major scene, Prue (the female lead) leaves the magical woods and simply goes home for the evening. Then decides to come back. And does. No crashing trains or fuss or muss (unless a giant ghost bridge is “fuss”).

And of course there’s the aspect I alluded to with the title. This is an up-to-date story for modern times, and that doesn’t mean nothing. Prue carries into the woods a messenger bag with Gorp inside. She rides a bike she upgraded herself. Her parents visit a farmer’s market (of course, these have been around forever—but you know what I mean) Maybe the C of N felt like this when they initially were released, but they certainly don’t anymore. They are still beloved, but as time capsules.

But those are only technical observations. There’s something deeper that makes me truly love this book, and feel the need to write about it here. And that is this theme of the accessibility of the forest for our own children. As I mentioned a few paragraphs back, Prue and Curtis simply walk into what they’ve been told all their lives is an Impassable Wilderness. Richard Louv, are you hearing this?

But that is only the start and most obvious instance of what I’m talking about. It’s more than access. The way Wildwood speaks to our relationships with nature encourages readers to interact with nature. Animals like owls and golden eagles who at first appear to be intimidating are later shown to be friendly and helpful. Birds in particular come off well in this book (Crane wife, anyone?). Three major characters of the story are plant life (two of these, benevolent).

We also see the city and the country contrasted in a reasonably subtle way. The northern part of the Impassable Wilderness is full of cute yet potentially vicious animals (a rabbit with a collander for a helmet, for example) that seem quaint but prove to be much more helpful in Prue’s mission than the seemingly sophisticated but dangerously narrow minded city folk (the south).

And in the wild part of the woods that separates the two live the Wildwood Bandits. These unexplainedly Celtic banditos seem to have paid a lot of attention to Robin Hood at some point in their lives (hence the accent, perhaps), but though they are essentially anarchists, they are fair and just. If I may step aside from talk about nature for just one moment, this oft-used contrast of scruffy (but noble) bandits & the beautiful (but quite evil) Dowager Governess is—to my mind—an excellent message for young female readers to hear. Not to mention the fact that the primary hero of this story is a seventh grade girl (cue smiling spirit of Madeleine L’Engle here).

The animals talk. That is an unavoidable comparison. But to suggest that they say the same things as Lewis’s Narnians is to not read either book closely enough. A little like Robinson Crusoe, Colin Meloy’s Wildwood is a figurative island/world not removed from, but present in the real world. And because of that, the book suggests what any forest can be to our kids. We longed to get to Narnia, but never could. But somehow, the Wildwood is everywhere there are still trees.

 

{Also, I like the illustrations better. Carson Ellis, Bravo!}

Glory, Monarch butterfly

Glory, Monarch butterfly“I can’t believe my mind! … It’s glorious!” Now, I don’t know about you, but these are not words I typically hear from my six-year-old. They were prompted by the “birth” of our Monarch butterfly, which she promptly named Glory.

It’s not that The Pretender (she wants to play make-believe ALL THE TIME) isn’t impressed by nature. I’ve written before on this website about her lifelong love of being outside. But this was by far the most emotional reaction I’ve heard.

Maybe this was a mini version of what we all went through when our children were born. It involved patience, and watching, and waiting, and wondering. When would it happen? What would it look like? Will it like me? And so when Glory finally arrived, it prompted a smaller version of the emotional catharsis that I, for one, experienced when The Pretender was born.

So how did we arrive at this emotional moment? And how can you do the same with your kids? That’s what I’m here to tell you about.

So, the first thing you need to make this happen is a milkweed plant. These are the plants you may remember from your childhood as having pods of seeds that resemble a fish when they’re cracked open. I was told something about baby Moses in a basket that I can’t fully remember. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go HERE.

Ideally, you’ll find a Monarch caterpillar on one of these plants. Or you can go to a mail-order place (teacher stores are good sources), but you’ll still need milkweed for the caterpillar to eat. And wow, do they! The Hungry Caterpillar book isn’t very far off the mark, lemme tell you. We’re talking about two or three leaves a day would be a good first guess. I brought home two whole plants and ours didn’t eat them all.

The fresher the leaves the better. My source said to wash the leaves but really, is the caterpillar going to do that in the wild? No. And try not to get the white “milk” on your skin—it’s sticky like pine sap and quite annoying.

We’ve looked for a long while, but it was Grandma that came through with our caterpillar.

We put ours in an unused fishbowl, but a large glass jar would be fine. It’s not like the caterpillar wants to do gymnastics. Just eat leaves. Just make it big enough that when it becomes a butterfly, there will be room to stretch out its wings to dry—and a clear way out. (This is why a soda bottle, etc. won’t work, although with plastic, you could just slice open the top when it’s time, so maybe it would work quite well!)

So, after a few days, which will depend on just how old she or he is when you acquire them, they will start to think about becoming a cocoon (aka chrysalis or pupa). How, you might be asking, do you know what they’re thinking? Well, they start to make a distinct “J” shape. I’m not sure why, but it’s a certain sign that they’re about to go into the cocoon. They’ll attach themselves to the side of whatever you’ve given them with a strand of … something, and then something happens that I didn’t see. I honestly don’t know where the cocoon comes from, but my unscientific observations suggest that it happened too fast and fit too tightly to be woven, like so many of us were taught. I think it’s a final layer of skin that comes from within the caterpillar. Whatever it is, you will be surprised by how pretty the cocoon is. Light green with brilliant gold highlights, and a shape somewhere between a pill capsule and sports car but unlike either one.

Ours greatly valued privacy and waited until we left to perform both this step and the next.

Now the waiting game begins. You will wonder if you’ve done something wrong. If that’s even possible once it is in this state. If it should be kept in sun, or shade, or … or … Deep breath. Relax. Everything is fine. You might want to make a note on your calendar when the little bugger makes the chrysalis, because it will be anywhere from 10 days to 2 weeks before you have a butterfly. Trust me—you’ll forget when it went in there. No matter how exciting it seems to you the day it happens, you’ll forget.

When the cocoon turns black, you are getting very close. It’s time to start thinking about cleaning out the jar, making sure there’s room to stretch wings, maybe stick some fresh flowers in there if you’ve got ’em.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see the butterfly emerge. But don’t plan on it. I’m tellin’ ya, they’re tricky, private little creatures!

Metaphorically, this process is so rich with meaning, and so often referenced, that your child will obviously gain an intimate interaction with nature, but it’s worth remembering that they will also be given a vivid mental picture that will likely stick with them for their whole life.

There’s no overstating the point: seeing a hungry, striped little fat worm turn into a flying stained glass window is amazing.

As part of my job, I’ve been reading The Giving Tree many many times lately, and my formerly rosy opinion of this tale of an apple tree’s friendship with a boy has changed a bit.

At the start of the book, we should take it more seriously when the boy plays “King of the Forest”. It’s foreshadowing, because that’s how he’ll act later in the book. But this is just me taking the story of a childlike moment too seriously. Greater issues occur as we get deeper into the book.

For instance, to show his love for the tree, the boy carves his name into the tree’s flesh: Me + T. An odd way to show affection for a tree, but he’s just a little kid. Any parent knows that kids can be aggressive in their love, right?

It’s when the boy grows older that things get really strange. He wants money, and the tree gives him apples to sell. Nothing wrong there (except that he’s disappeared until he needed something, as he’ll do throughout the story, but let’s set that aside) except that in his young love (for someone else) he has once again taken to carving into the tree’s flesh.

And then things get serious. When he’s old enough to want a house and a wife and children, he asks, can the tree give him a house? It’s not clear whether the boy or tree is to be blamed (or the author) but instead of simply taking that year’s apples and selling them, and building a house with the money, the boy removes the tree’s limbs. A little weird, but trees can grow new limbs, can’t they? Forget the fact that the limbs of one tree would never be enough to build any house. This is, of course, a fable, a children’s story. I get that. But at a moment when the book could teach a real lesson about sustainability, it chooses to go for the one time “gift” or sacrifice of the tree simply giving its branches. Why doesn’t the young man (who loved trees as a child) start an orchard?

And though the boy/man is gone for a long time, the tree chooses to grow no more branches. And when he returns, he is sad. Fair enough. Sad enough that he wants to escape. Perhaps he should’ve thought to escape into nature for solaceback to the tree that seems to have had a large part in raising him. But instead he makes the choice (or takes the tree’s gift) to cut down the trunk, the main body, of the apple tree he once cherished. He makes a boat and sails away to an undisclosed location. This doesn’t really seem like the best way to tell kids to deal with their problems, in my humble and respectful-of-Shel opinion. (Note: I’ve only read the first few paragraphs of this link. Full disclosure). Another opportunity missed.

Finally, the boy and tree come together once more at the end of the book in a very zen moment where the tree has nothing to give and the boy (finally) needs nothing. Convenient that the boy is in fact the one who has taken everything, “enabling” the tree to be in this reduced state. And before you say it: it’s immaterial whether the tree offered or the boy took. That’s called co-dependency, isn’t it?

Of course I’m over-reading everything here. And it’s easy to second guess a classic piece of children’s lit. Still, I think these can each be real discussion points and learning moments with our kids. And I honestly think the book shows a bias to an old way of thinking that I, for one, don’t want my child to espouse. And what makes this the most poignant is that the book seems so touchy-feely pro-nature & warm fuzzies.

Look, I get it. We’re all careless about green things sometimes, aren’t we? Maybe I’m too tired to put each little thing into recycling or whatever. My personal eco-sin is that I’m horrible about using too much water, for example. But by and large, I try. On the whole, I do make an effort to show my daughter recycling and cleaning up litter on a regular basis. I try to give to nature, too, in other words. Do I do as much for it as it does for me? Maybe not. But I try.

It’s too bad Shel Silverstein isn’t still with us so that he could perhaps give us a more modern and enlightened picture of a tree-loving boy, don’t you think?

 

 

This post will overlap a small bit with my post on simplicity. If you haven’t read that one, you might give it a read.

*******

These days it would be easy to think kids have changed. That all they want is video games and microwave food. Why aren’t they like we were as kids?

Well, part of it may be our culture: we may be keeping them inside more than they are choosing to stay inside.

But the truth is that given the chance, they haven’t changed at all. I swear! I’ve seen it myself. After kindergarten every day, I pick up my daughter, and she and her friends love more than anything to play in about a 100X100 foot space, containing a miniature pine forest, a very small wetland environment (that most parents won’t let their children anywhere near), and a giant sandbox-ish area that used to be beneath the playground (until they tore it down). And they love it. My daughter would stay there (often does—why take her home to be alone with me when she’s outside with friends?) until every child went home. She loves it. The mess, the stickiness, even the litter (water bottles—they like to pour sand out of them).

Now, while the litter makes me angry and the germs that go along with it make me a little queasy, it’s heartening to see kids climbing trees and getting dirty and being curious about the “swamp.”

So, while I stand there waiting and watching, I have time to think. The school is trying to raise money to buy a new playground. You have no idea how much these structures cost. And I’m helping out where I can. But you know what?

Even though I’m afraid of heights, I wish we could build these kids tree houses. I’m fascinated by them.

I had two as a kid. One was when I was a bit older. It was kind of high. It was in a maple tree on top of a hill, right behind our garage, and it took a bit of climbing to get into. Though I did climb a tree last year just to see if I could, I’m still not sure I could get back up into that thing.

But the tree house I remember most fondly was from another apartment, when I was much younger. My mom made a large, flat platform between four trees—almost a perfect square. I would guess about 6-8 ft. off the ground. High enough to feel protected but not so high that major trauma would result if someone fell off.

I wish I could build that whole micro-forest with platforms like that. Perhaps with some ziplines in between platforms. Or a little box on a pulley! How fun would that be?

Alas, there are insurance concerns, and town clearances, and on and on. But the idea remains. With that in mind, here are some resources I found online that you might consult if you have trees on your own property where you’d like to build a “Castle in the Sky.” Or if, like me, you are just fascinated with them and love to dream.

TREE HOUSE WORKSHOP: is actually the home of three companies in Seattle that have branched out from the original ‘workshop’. The main/original site is home to how-to seminars on the art of building one of these (sometimes quite elaborate) structures. It also has galleries full of tree houses. Nelson Tree house and Supply also launches from here and is more of a storefront.

POP MECH HOW TO: From the venerable Popular Mechanics magazine, this is much more basic than TW. And perhaps more practical as a result.

THE TREE HOUSE GUIDE: The link takes you to the FAQ, but there are many pages to this practical guide that will help you think through exactly what it is that you want to build. The website includes a tree house forum, a review of tree house books available, and more. Quite comprehensive.

ADAM AGAIN’S SONG “TREE HOUSE”: Doesn’t really have anything to do with tree houses, but in all honesty it is the song that plays in my head EVERY time I think about tree houses like this. Worth a listen while you look at the above!

 

Let me know if you have links you think should be here, and check back—I will update with more info when/if I find it, or hear about it through comments!

Seeing stars is no longer as easy as it once was. Light pollution is a pervasive bummer. It’s tragic to consider that my generation is likely the first in all of human history to grow up without a constant nighttime backdrop of stars. I was in my teens before I saw the Milky Way.(See the site for the International Dark-Sky Association.) Just think of the last generation: their childhood memories all include late nights stargazing at an immense field of stars. So inspired, they put launched men into outer space and landed on the moon.

Introducing kids to the stars may be the only way they ever really see them. We live beyond the ‘burbs, but even I can only make out the main constellations at night. The Milky Way? No way. So depending on where you live, you may have to be purposeful about finding a place where they’re shining bright at night.

Identifying constellations is a great way to make stargazing interestingyou know, once the sublimity of it all has worn off. The easiest place to start is by looking north, and from there you can follow a simple “map” to locate and ID five major constellations.

Nearly everyone can spot the Big Dipper, with a little effort. The constellations rotate around Polaris throughout the year, so the big ol’ ladle might be upside down or right side up. But once you’ve found it, you are at the starting point. The Big Dipper is, in fact, part of a larger constellation, Ursa Major (the Big Bear).

1 – Lining up the bottom two stars in the Big Dipper will point you to Polaris. This is usually the brightest star. It’s the North Star that has guided so many navigators. It’s also the tail-end of Ursa Minor, or the Little Dipper.

2 – Using the first star on the handle of the Big Dipper and lining it up with Polaris points you right at the center of Cassiopeia. Kids might have an easier time if you call it the W, since the queen’s crown looks more like a letter than an actual crown.

3 – The far right stars of the W will point you to the bottom of Cepheus. Named after the King of Aethiopia, I like to think of this one as a house. (Come on. No one sees an ancient king in this shape, do they?)

4 – The fourth short cut identifies our fifth constellation, Draco (i.e. The Dragon). This stellar creature is twisted around our other constellations. A line drawn through the two stars of the bowl of the Big Dipperthe ones closest to the handlepoint to the head of the dragon, crossing its body in two places en route.

This is just a start, and if your kids take to it, there’s plenty of next steps, from books on astronomy for kids to investing in a decent telescope.

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)

Photography is a great excuse to get outside. The kids can be the subject of your photos, or you can let them run around with the camera collecting pictures of stuff they find. Or maybe you create a natural scavenger hunt. At some point however, it’s nice to let the kids play while you snap away. Whether you’re taking pictures of your kids, landscapes, or the intricacies of nature, here are a few tips for great outdoor photography.

#1 GET UP EARLY
I read an interview once with John Fielder, one of Colorado’s most prolific landscape photographers. He said something to the effect that great photography is mostly about hard work. In particular, he was talking about the hard work of being at the right place at the right time. For photographing the Rockies, this might mean getting up at 3 am to climb four or five hours to the perfect spot before the sun rises over the horizon. Most of us don’t want to work for the perfect shot. Then again, most of us aren’t getting paid to take photographs either. But if you want more professional looking photographs, you need to be intentional about it.

#2 FIND THE LIGHT
The previous post hinted at this one. You have the best light in the early morning and in the evening. When the sun is low on the horizon it picks up more color from the atmosphere, hits landscapes and trees at interesting angles, and generally provides the best light you’ll find all day. I’ve also found great light right after a thunderstorm. When dark clouds part, especially in the fall, the sun hits the gold and reds of the trees and the rain soaked fields gleam in the light. Because of this, when it’s raining, we’re always keeping an eye out for the break in the clouds.

As someone who has to take a lot of photos for work (travel writing), I’ve found bright sunny days to be the absolute worst for taking pictures. The sun creates stark shadows, so all your shots will be at the extremes of black and white. If it’s at all warm, the sun evaporates moisture on the ground making landscape shots hazy and uninteresting. Much better to go out when the sky is a bit overcast for lighting you can work with.

#3 TRY ANOTHER ANGLE
We like to take a lot of pictures of our kids. Too many. I think we have 20,000 of Grace alone (I am being conservative). This is the curse of digital photography. There’s no holding back in the fieldyou just keep snapping away, making little adjustments as you go. The real problem is, however, that the pictures all start to look the same; it’s just the clothes that change.

One cure for routine photos is to try and find a better angle. I discovered this one day while trying to get a good photo of a deck I had just refinished. Standing on a step ladder in the backyard, the picture turned out way better than the ones the real estate agent had taken just a year earlier. So now, I stand on chairs, fences, and ladders whenever I can. I also take it the other way and lay down in the grass or on the sidewalk. With a small display on the back of your camera, you can go even lower or higher. As long as you can see the screen, you know what’s being framed.

#4 FRAME THE SHOT
You will read about this in every photo guide, but it’s critical. Learn how to frame a shot. The rule of thirds is a great place to start. It’s okay to simply center and shoot, but you will be much happier with the outcome (no matter what you choose) if your shots are framed on purpose.

#5 SHOOT THE HAND
For this website, we didn’t want a lot of pictures of our kids plastered around. On the other hand, stock photography is boring and impersonal. So, necessity being the mother it is, I started taking pictures of my kids from behind, or close-ups at weird angles that showed what they were doing without showing their faces. I found that many of the pictures are more interesting because of this. Of course, there’s nothing a parent wants to remember more than a child’s smiling laughing face, but to capture what’s unique about a moment, it sometimes helps to focus on just that thing and see where it takes you. Another added benefit of shots like these is how much they help when putting together scrapbook pages. A page of the same face smiling at you is boring. Adding action shots and interesting close-ups add a lot.

A final thought: Do something with all those photos. If you’re like me, you have thousands of photos stored up on your computer. Cull the best, delete the rest. Then you can then create custom photo books with all your wonderful pictures to share them with your friends and family.

Resources: As an added bonus, I want to share with you a book that’s been a real gold mine of information on photographing landscapes: The Landscape Photography Field Guide by Carl Heilman II. I’ve learned a ton from this book, and it’s small enough to fit in my camera bag.

Mamas, dont let your babies grow up to be cowboys
Willie Nelson

This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang,
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

R.E.M., Cuyahoga

Im sure youve each and all heard about it by now. Ive seen it on CNN and the big Boston stations.

There is a small farm near here, sells apples and pumpkins. And they have a corn maze. Named Connors Farm. Well, a few days ago a family (inexplicably including a three-week-old baby) got so lost in the corn maze that they felt the need to call 911. They sent a K-9 unit from the Police Dept. who quickly found the family 25 feet into the corn. Twenty-five feet.

Some facts to ponder. This was the last night of the Topsfield Fair, and enormous local agricultural fair. This corn maze is located almost on top of the road many people use to get there. Along this road are, of course, telephone poles and power lines. Finally, at the back of the maze is a line of tall trees, marking its rear border.

Willies advice might have been to not let your babies grow up to be cowboys, but heres my version of his advice: please, please parents, dont raise your children to be this clueless when they grow up.

It saddens me a little that in just a few hundred years, weve gone from our ancestors crossing the plains and their associated adventures, on their way down the Oregon Trail, to a family that cant find its way out of a cornfield at dusk.

Its not as if corn is as impenetrable as a thick wall of titanium. Cant find your way out the paths? Fine, just walk through the corn to the landmarks you can see. Or simply in a straight line toward the cars you hear. Did I mention that there are bridges inside that rise above the corn, so that you can see your way around? Or that I visited this very maze just last week, so I know whereof I speak?

I remember as a kid running through whole cornfields with my friends, cutting through the rows. I also remembering picking corn and selling it as a way to make summer money. And I remember walkingcompletely without panicthrough fields of weeds twice as high as my head. Sure, I grew up in the country, Im used to the accursed corn. But before a person panicked and called the police, dont you think theyd have enough common sense to figure a plan of action out?

Enough about them. Lets talk about you and me, and our children. What is the number one lesson that can keep them from this situation, someday? Landmarks. Learning to keep track of where they are by recognizing landmarks. Like a gunslinger in the old days who had the presence of mind to sit with his back to a wall, and his face toward the door, our kids need to learn throughout their childhood to be aware of their surroundings. Not to scare them about what might happen. Just the opposite. To put their minds at ease that they are in control of the situation through repeated exposure to their parents calmly taking them through what might seem to them to be a lost sort of situation. Not that Im the great exemplar, but Ill often, on walks, ask my daughter if she knows where she is, and if she says she doesnt, Ill little by little start to point out and remind her of things weve seen before, perhaps on the way out into the woods. Often, shell be leading me out of the woods after a few of these reminders.

And you know, in a more abstract way, this could also be a lesson about goals. About seeing where you want to go and ignoring obstacles that keep you from getting there. But thats a story for another time. Now get lost!

We’ve added a lot of life to our family this summer, literally. For years I’ve wanted to grow some indoor plants. This summer Grace and I potted a couple bonsai trees, Ficus Too Little, to be exact. This past week, with the threat of an outdoor frost, they came inside and joined our other bordersthree fish and a four-month-old puppy.

Living things are, as Grace says, “really tricky.” They’re not predictable. Whether it’s a plant with its changing needs for water, or a fish that seems moody and won’t eat, there’s no simple A-B-C plan for taking care of plants, fish, and dogs. While not easy, it is valuable. So I wanted to think this out a little bit. Aside from companionship and simply keeping kids busy, what have our plants, fish, and dog taught us this summer?

Following the Sun

Living things need light. The ficus thrives on as much direct sunlight as we can give it. Because of the trees in our yard, we often went out this summer and moved the bonsai from one side of the deck to the other. Though they didn’t know it, the kids were learning that the sun rises in the morning “over there” and sets “over there” (we’ll add east and west later). We also talked a little about how all living things draw energy ultimately from the sun and plants.

Understanding Water

All three of our new wards require water. On hot summer weeks, the bonsai need water almost every other day. We water the plants and then discuss how the sun pulls the water through the roots, trunk, and into the leaves. The water carries important minerals and nutrients from the soil and feeds the plant.

The dog, on the other hand, passes the water we provide at regular intervals. The kids are anxious to both keep the water bowl full and let the dog out when he whines at the door. It’s an equation even a preschooler understands: Water in, water out.

But then we have the fish. They don’t pass their water. Instead, they live in it. Once a week, we swap out about a third of the water in the tank for fresh spring water. Then once a month we drain and wash the tank, clean the gunk from the rocks, and start from scratch. The kids have learned that fish pull the water through their gills and “breathe” that way. They also have learned that uneaten food and algae can cloud the tank. And they’ve seen how a filter works.

Great Open Spaces

In one way or other, all of our creatures need space. The dog loves romping through the backyard, chasing a ball, playing tug of war, etc. (Think of all the ways a dog gets kids outside!) The trees need space to grow, both upward, but also down. Maintaining a bonsai’s roots is perhaps more important than maintaining its foliage. And the fish, of course, need room to swim. Each of these creatures has its own environment, and thrives in it.

I like to think, and perhaps I am pushing it, but I like to think that all this tank cleaning, water changing, fish feeding, fertilizing and leaf pinching, poop scooping, late-night walking, and potting and repotting is somehow giving my kids a different perspective on life than they would have if their days were spent punching away at a Gigapet or “playing tennis” on the Wii. I like to think it will give them the perspective that life isn’t about remote controls and game controllersin fact, there’s little about it we can control. Instead, like fish, dogs, and plants, life is something we feed and clean up after, tend and water. It’s something we care for, always attentive because it’s not predictable… it’s tricky.