Thursday, July 30, 2009

We Plough The Fields

AH, life in the country! We're in Germany visiting Oma and Opa, and just a few streets away is the edge of town and field upon field of crops. Whether you consciously observe it or not, you can't help but notice a change in the season when the landscape literally changes colour. We were fortunate that our trip coincided with the wheat harvest. We saw combine harvesters at work, watched tractors pulling trailers of straw bales into their barns, and noticed how some bales were round and others rectangular. Emma wondered why she could see 'lying-down stalks' in some harvested fields and 'little tiny stalks all still standing up' in others. I didn't know the answer to this one so had to research how the whole harvest works.
So here's a suburbanite's understanding of the harvest:
First the weather has to be warm and dry (ever mown the grass in the rain?)
The combine harvester both cuts and threshes the wheat. During threshing, the grain is separated from the stalk and chaff and collected in a tank, which is periodically emptied into a grain truck. The leftover bits are dropped back onto the field among the 'little standing up stalks'.
Then a baling machine comes along and gathers the stalks into straw bales, which are used mostly for animal bedding. (Hay is grown in its own right, rather than a by-product, and is more nutritious than wheat stalks, which become straw.)
Finally the last bits of stalk are tilled back into the ground.... and the 'short standing-up stalks' (stubble) are now 'lying down'.

The wheat crop was the most obvious, as it was being currently worked on, but we have also been driving, walking and riding bikes through fields of corn, rye and oats. Today we picked a sample of each of the cereal crops and then went home and looked in our cupboards for things that were made from these plants.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Colour Me Beautiful

THE project began so serenely. We were decorating a large terracotta saucer to make a bathing and drinking dish for birds and butterflies. First we glued some glass marbles around the perimeter for a little sparkle, then painted the base of the dish. We had fun mixing colours to get the shades we wanted, and tried not to let them get too murky. Working with a three-year-old is an excellent way to cure perfectionism. It's just not going to happen. So once I'd let that go, a fun time was had by all.

What to do with the leftover paint? Body painting, of course! Serene was left in the dust, mown down by hilarious preschooler silliness. What a lovely afternoon.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Goodbye Froglets

IT is time to say goodbye to our tadpoles - now froglets. It has been amazing to watch them grow. Not all of them have legs at this point, but the largest has both front and back legs. The back legs developed gradually, from little lumps to paddle-like protrusions. Then they took on the characteristic frog shape and we could even see the feet. Most incredible however were the front legs. Emma and I noticed one evening that the largest tadpole had bumps behind its gills, and we wondered if these would become front legs. The very next morning, he had front legs, complete with knees (elbows?) and feet! Imagine waking up to that? You can see in the picture how their shape changes too, from a little round blob to a distinct head and body. Next the tail will shrink, then it is absorbed back into the body. How amazing is that?

We will be releasing them into a nearby pond. Hopefully they do not become lunch to the next predator.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Butterfly Watching

HOW the butterflies and their winged friends are loving the sunny weather and our lovely brightly coloured flowers! Over the last few weeks we've spent many hours sitting in our garden watching the various creatures fluttering around and feasting on nectar. There have been little skippers, cabbage whites, sulphurs, fritillaries, and the largest we've seen so far, a beautiful Eastern Swallowtail.

We have two areas the butterflies especially favour: first, the rockery with lantana and assorted herbs which are now starting to flower. Secondly, a collection of pots with zinnias, impatiens and petunias. This is actually "Emma's Garden". She chose the flowers, planted them and has been diligently watering them. The pots are in an ideal location for us to watch during snack time. Emma likes the idea that she and the butterflies get to snack together.

Today we went to a Butterfly Festival, where, among other things, we witnessed a butterfly release of hundreds of fritillaries. That would have been impressive, except the butterflies didn't want to leave their cosy little box so it was a little anti-climatic!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Heron's Dinner

WE had just walked onto the bridge to watch the sliders (turtles), which are rather a common sight at this spot, when we saw a bird we hadn't seen before. It was a wading bird; I thought perhaps a heron but it was small - no larger than 12-18" tall. Naturally we had neither camera nor binoculars on hand, so instead had to stay very still and try to creep a little closer for a better look. Emma and I took it in turns to observe the bird's features out loud. Long beak, grey back, reddish chest and throat, yellow ring around the eye, long yellow legs. It was remarkably well camouflaged among the reeds and dead trees. When it extended its neck, it was definitely a heron. We watched it for a good fifteen minutes. When we first saw it, I could have sworn it was eating a mouse. Something very mouse tail-like was hanging out of its beak, then it gulped and a lump was visible all the way down its neck, like a snake eating something large. After poking about in the shallows, it was stalking something in the water we couldn't see. Then the bird made its move, and we saw what it was after! A water snake. Later I looked it up. It was a green heron, and yes, they do eat rodents. Who knew?

Photo credit to Barbara Simpson

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A History Lesson

IT'S been a while since we'd visited Sweetwater Creek State Park and we'd forgotten how beautiful it is. By chance we were offered an unusual peek inside the ruins of the textile mill, and what a treat that was! A ranger explained the history of this impressive five-story building and how it was destroyed during the Civil War to hinder the production of Confederate supplies.

Of more interest to the children was the salamander peeping from behind the ivy. Later that day, Emma wanted a story about a house that used to be used by people but now was home to animals.

But the mill in all its former glory couldn't hold a candle to the thrill of the water, with its seductive babble, gentle whitewater, shells, tadpoles and such delights. We hadn't really planned on a swim, but oh well. Doubtless those mill workers cooled off in much the same way over a hundred years ago.

Friday, July 10, 2009


IT all began with my taking a lesson in drawing with block crayons, trying to blend the three primary colours to make a rainbow. Rudimentary though the finished picture was, the colours were really quite beautiful. That got me noticing rainbows all around, and we've spent a fun week finding and creating rainbows of our own.

The hose was a great place to start on a hot, hot day, and delighted squeals accompanied a small thumb over the end of the hose as Emma sprayed all those in her path. Once the novelty of this wore off, she was intrigued to see a rainbow in the spray. The next afternoon we found rainbows in bubbles. At other times, we had fun dressing up with an item of every colour and chalked rainbow coloured paths on the patio to run on. The original crayon rainbow and a wet-on-wet watercolour painting of a rainbow became backdrops for a new colourful nature table, and we heard a lovely Native American tale "How The First Rainbow Was Made". At the end of the week, believe it or not it rained - while the sun shone bright in the sky. We were driving, and as I craned my neck at each traffic light, all Emma's response was: "You still looking for a rainbow, Mama?"

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Winged Creatures of the Water

WALKING along a river this weekend, we saw dozens of dragonflies and damselflies flitting about. Many were of the common variety of small black damselfly with flashes of brilliant blue about their tails. Then we noticed a huge dragonfly with a wingspan of about 8cm sunning itself on a reed. Apparently there are 450 species of dragonfly and damselfly in North America, but this had to be the male widow skimmer. How to tell a dragonfly from a damselfly? Dragonflies typically hold their wings to the side when at rest, whereas most damselflies fold their wings together. Dragonflies' eyes meet in the middle, and damselflies' eyes are wider apart. Some more fun facts about these lovely winged creatures of the water:
  • Some can fly up to 30 miles per hour

  • They are carnivorous, eating among other things mosquitoes, tadpoles, butterflies and spiders

  • Some dragonflies live up to four years

In folklore the dragonfly has been a symbol of both good and evil. In Japan, it represents strength, victory and courage; while in Europe, the dragonfly was in past times considered an envoy of the devil. The Zuni tribe of Indians had a legend in which a boy and a girl were left behind after the village's corn crop failed. The boy made a toy dragonfly for his sister from corn husks. The dragonfly eventually came to life and appeased the corn maidens, who created a bountiful harvest of corn to welcome the villagers back.

The dragonfly's a timid thing,
He's very pretty, too;
His lacy wings are clear as glass
And delicate as dew.
I don't know why the dragonfly
Has such a fearful name.
I never saw a dragon
That was nearly half as tame.