Nature Centers

Say what you will about 2016; it was a pretty good year for me. Early in the spring, I pitched a book idea to Adventure Publications about Michigan’s nature centers and preserves, and wouldn’t you know they liked it! So I spent the the spring and summer traveling around the state with my kids looking for the best nature centers and nature/wildlife preserves in Michigan to share with readers.

Nature is valued in Michigan, and the number of communities that support nature education and preservation is overwhelming. In the end, we whittled our favorites down to just over 50.

Some properties were nothing more than a sign indicating a trailhead; others have a robust community of supporters that can rightfully boast of museum-like exhibits, educational facilities, and calendars full of classes and events.

I was honestly surprised by how much we found. The idea for the book sprang from our attempts to find outdoorsy stuff to do and see with our kids. As we visited familiar vacation spots, we were surprised that there were nature centers everywhere—many we had never heard of.

In many cases, these sites are less that fully utilized resources. Most are free (and those that have fees are more than reasonable), and they all encourage families to be more engaged with the natural world.

This blog is meant to be a “universal” resource, so we’ve not focused too much on regional activities, but over the next couple months, I will share some of the more interesting places I talk about in the book. If you haven’t really embraced your local nature centers, maybe these posts will an inspiration.

In the meantime, Michigan’s Best Nature Centers and Wilderness Preserves will be available from booksellers in mid-April.


Owls: The Book

Owls: Our Most Enchanting Bird does a couple things well, and one not so well, but the latter might just be a matter of expectations.

We buy books like this for one reason: to read to the kids. In one sense, Owls has a lot going for it. It’s a book about nature, what Tater (now in kindergarten) calls an “informational” book. But it’s not one of those photo-heavy animal picture books we usually run across. The art is beautiful, and the text doesn’t try to explain the entire owl-eat-mouse world. Instead, each owl is presented on its own terms. Short entries. Easily digestible.

In that sense, it’s a delight. We can read about one owl or two and then move on. The text is where I wish there was something “more.” Frankly, I can’t get my kids attention with it. They listen to a sentence or two and start fade away.

This is where those expectations come in. I find the book a real treat to read. I am not slamming through it like a James Patterson action thriller, but when I pick it up and read about a few owls, I am glad I did so.

My hope is that in years to come, Grace or Tater will be browsing their bookshelf and find this book about owls. They will have grown into reading that isn’t narrative driven and enjoy Owls for what it is.
(I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.)



Emerald Ash Borer: Foreign Agent

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.

Soup for One?

soupCookbooks are a weakness of mine. I love all sorts. Earlier this year I was excited to receive a copy of The Soup Club Cookbook to review on our site. This blog is mostly about getting kids outdoors. There are lots of book reviews on here, but the rub is that the book has to have something to do with being together as a family–eating together, preparing food, growing food, etc. There is some potential for that with this book, so I wanted to give it a read.

More than a cookbook, this book is a guide to creating a soup club. With a soup club, friends, family, and neighbors can share the load of preparing weekday meals. Soup can be an easy meal, and it’s easy to make more than enough. For example, three families can each make one batch of soup every week, a batch large enough to share with the other two families. Pass around the jars, and everyone is fed for three nights (plus leftovers).

This book offers a fine collection of soup recipes with lots of practical advice on the best ways to transport soup, organize a club, etc. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a lot of interest in this idea. Everyone likes soup well enough, but few were interested in committing to cooking every week, let alone investing in soup jars and the like. Perhaps this is because I am a man and don’t have many relationships with other men who cook regularly.

In the final analysis, there are a lot of great ideas for soup here, but you really need a particular set of friends to use the book to its full advantage.


The Pizza Bible: A Review

Homemade pizzaA few years back my doctor told me it was time to improve my diet. “For example,” he said, “you need to take pizza right off the menu.” Of course, I love pizza, so moderation rather than total abstinence became the mantra.

When pizza became a “special treat,” it was suddenly terribly important that when we had pizza, we had good pizza. Of course, there’s only so much good pizza we can find locally. So I started trying make good pizza at home. I even took some classes and became proficient at a simple Margherita pizza and a so-so Chicago-style pie.

The Pizza Bible by Tony Gemignani, however, has opened whole new vistas for me in the kitchen. In addition to classic Italian pizzas, the book covers a breadth of regional styles that promises years of fun tossing dough.

Here in southeast Michigan, Buddy’s Pizza is legendary. Order a pan pizza nearly anywhere, and you’re tasting a Detroit tradition. So I was especially excited to find recipes for Detroit-style pizza.

All of these recipes are tweaked for the home cook. No need for a 900-degree pizza oven, though some basic tools (like a pizza peel) will come in handy.

So far I’ve not been too daring with the pies I’ve tried, but we’re looking forward to giving every one of these a go.



(I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.)


Finally, a Book for Us Good-Looking Folks!

We’re a handsome family, I am not too humble to admit. And though we take a mighty fine picture from time to time, when I see amazing family photos on Pinterest, I feel judged… Ha! No. I don’t feel judged. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I simply assume that all these families with great photos have all this extra money that they have chosen NOT to spend on the poor. Instead, they hire professionals to come out their homes with cameras and formally stage informal moments with the kids (who are all conveniently wearing matching outfits, bleh).

your family in pictures reviewSo, when I see great family pictures, I curse everyone in the upper middle class and above, congratulate myself for making life choices that revolve around the attainment of joy and contentment (and not the almighty dollar), and remind myself that just by living in the good old US of A, our family is wealthier than most. Then I turn to Me Ra Koh, the author of a couple books on taking great family photos.

In the past she has pointed her pen and her lens at babies and kids. Her most recent book is Your Family in Pictures: The Parents’ Guide to Photographing Holidays, Family Portraits, and Everyday. This relatively thin tome is chock full of ideas for great photos. For example, who ever thinks to have their camera ready at breakfast? I usually have my filled with ideas about getting lunch ready and making sure the boy is wearing pants to think about capturing a special moment. It’s ideas like this that will keep you flipping through the pages and slapping down strips of Post-It Notes.

Behind all these great ideas is the central idea that if you want great photos, you have to be intentional about it. You need to carry your camera with you wherever you go, and you need to plan ahead. You will also learn that the most casual informal shots are the ones you don’t plan.

Good stuff, all around!


(I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.)

The Nourished Family

Once again I return to write a quick book report. There are a couple more in the works, so if you enjoy reviews of new books, stay tuned. But for now, permit me to turn your attention to The Nourished Kitchen by Jennifer McGruther.

modern pioneering reviewFood culture in America is a complex thing, borne of a mishmash of traditions from all over the world that inform family cooking habits, World Wars that introduced a generation to Old Country cooking, and the advent of industrialized food production. For all that, the great variety of foods we see today is relatively new. One of our local grocery stores, for example, stocks a small shelf of Indian food. The larger one does not.

Thirty years ago, the town where we lived in west Michigan did not have a McDonald’s. As I remember it, there was Hiatt House Pizza and the Chicken Coop. And even though migrant workers from Mexico arrived en masse at harvest time, there was no Mexican food to be had at all. After we moved, I discovered Taco Bell, but it wasn’t until I was in college in the early 90s that an employer took me to a bar in Grand Rapids that served real Mexican—prepared by an elderly Mexican woman who made everything fresh in the bar’s tiny kitchen.

I say all that just to highlight how much there is still to explore in the world of food and cooking, especially when it comes to feeding your family. There are older traditions that have yet to be rediscovered, and The Nourished Kitchen does just that. The author takes us back to the American farm of the early twentieth century, when families maintained a hearty vegetable patch, regularly gathered eggs from the chicken coop, milked the cows, and occasionally pulled a few fish from a local pond or stream. The recipes contained herein are beautiful in their simplicity. And yet, with a few healthy ingredients, McGruther creates a menu that is fresh and exciting, and one that offers a surprising amount of variety.

Take, for example, the chapter on dairy. If you have a few organic, herbalist, New Age nutritionist, pseudo-scientific anti-food allergist friends (and who doesn’t), you’ve certainly heard of kefir (aka, fermented milk). And if you’ve heard of kefir, you know all about its overstated health value. But ignore that bit for a moment and consider kefir as part of something larger—a traditional way of approaching food, perhaps. A traditional approach that is likely to be healthier than the was we might be eating now.

McGruther begins with a recipe for making kefir and then continues with an exploration of yogurt. Apparently Yoplait and Greek are just the tip of the iceberg. With different yogurt cultures, you can make yogurts from all over, each with its own unique texture and flavor. Then these yogurts can become more than just pre-packaged breakfast food. It’s something you can make at home; something that fits well on the lunch and dinner menus.

The cookbook has a larger scope than just dairy, of course, and it all looks amazing. I think the stunning photos could be credited for much of that, but they match nicely with the written recipes and will certainly  drive our meal preparation for a few months. For a closer look, head over to McGruther’s website and order a sampler of recipes from the book.


(I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.)

Pioneering? Kinda

There’s a book I have that I love. It’s called Country Wisdom & Know-How. The tag line is “Everything you need to know to live off the land.” It’s brilliant. Everything about the book screams utility. Its trim size is 13.5 by 10.5 inches, that is to say, this thing will NEVER rest on a bookshelf. Even then, it’s close to 500 pages of micro-tiny print. I honestly feel that if civilization collapses tomorrow, I will be all set to head out and homestead with this book.

modern pioneering reviewGiven my appreciation of this masterwork of self-sufficient living, you might assume that I would simply love a book called Modern Pioneering: More Than 150 Recipes, Projects, and Skills for a Self-Sufficient Life. And you would be right, but for the wrong reasons. This book is not a guide to modern pioneering. It’s more like a Martha Stewart version of “pioneering.” It’s self-sufficiency as a DIY aesthetic rather than an approach to life.

That’s not all bad, actually. There’s not much in here that I didn’t find interesting. Want to know how to make dandelion wine? This is your book. Want to gather wild herbs and make mint chocolate shakes for your BFFs? Again, I will direct you tither. There’s even helpful directions for building a lean-to, and a couple pages later advice on changing a tire. The latter bit of handy how-to’s are a bit weak (knowing how to assemble a pocket first-aid kit is not nearly as important as knowing how to use one), but it’s a start for someone completely in the dark on these things.

The best thing about the book are the recipes and various canning projects. That’s why you should buy it. The food is quite unique. For directions on how to pickle watermelon rinds, I am not sure you’re going to have luck anywhere else.


(I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.)

Shakespeare Matters

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.

Ken Ludwig kicks off his book, How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, with the first line from the bard’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From the very start Ludwig emphasizes the book’s approach, that is to get kids (and parents) memorizing Shakespeare.

The author rightfully compares the work of Old Bill with the King James translation of the Bible for its influence on Western culture. It would be very hard to overstate this influence, which can be found everywhere, once you know where to look. As a former English major, I have fond memories of reading Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. The best part of the classroom experience was that we were walked through each play by a knowledgeable guide—someone who pointed out the highlights and made sure we didn’t miss any golden nuggets.

As old English majors know, reading the classics is not always so profitable once you’re out in the “real world.” Ludwig’s book is that trusted guide I so sorely need, and aiming this book at children gives me an excuse to spend time ruminating on some of the best literature ever written. (That’s kind of a theme on this site: using your kids as an excuse to do things that grown-ups are not supposed to have time for.)

So far, we’re only a couple chapters into the book, and Grace and (to some extent) Tater are starting to get into it. Check back for updates on our progress!


(I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.)

Vegan before Six O’Clock?

mark bittmanThe easiest posts are reviews of books and gear, and since I’ve been slacking on here a bit, I thought I’d share a recent cookbook we discovered.

Mark Bittman’s cookbook, How to Cook Everything, has been to me and my family what the Fanny Farmer Cookbook was to my parents. Come Thanksgiving, I am digging through that weighty tome for everything from how to make cranberry sauce to how to roast a turkey. In fact, I used it weekly for years and years. It’s been a lifesaver more than a few times. Heck, it’s because of Mark Bittman that I haven’t bought pancake mix in over a decade.

A few years ago, Bittman came out with Food Matters and the Food Matters Cookbook. Both of these came along right when my wife and I were re-examining the way we eat as a family. The dominance of meat began to be a concern for us, mainly for health reasons, but also because the affect our meat-heavy diet has on the environment. These were good starts and pointed us in the right direction.

With the VB6 Cookbook, Mark Bittman has helped us move forward once again. While I haven’t read VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health . . . for Good, I have heard the author on TV once talk about his “vegan before 6 o’clock” philosophy of eating. It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense to my wife and me. We don’t feel the need to completely give up meat, and while we find vegan options appealing, we love our dairy. In this book, Mark Bittman gives us both of these: more trustworthy vegan dishes than you will find on Pinterest, and great ideas for incorporating meat, dairy, and other non-vegan (but healthy) ingredients into occasional meals.

The cookbook has 350 recipes, many with full-color photos (a big plus in my book), and still has room for practical advice on regularly preparing healthy meals for your family. The chapters on stocking the pantry are worth the price of admission by themselves. My wife and I spent over an hour tagging recipes to try and drooling over the pics.

All said, I love this book: from the healthy approach to eating to the practical advice on cooking.



(I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.)