Sunday, March 29, 2009

Catching Interest

THE other evening Thomas came into the house from the backyard and made me go out into the woods behind the garden to show me what he found. It was worth the trip! Though the sun had gone down by the time I got there, I could see a carpet of purple throughout the woods. Almost more impressive than the flower was the discoverer - looks like my interest for nature is a little infectious... I have yet to identify this flower, so please let me know if you are familiar with it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

To The Raft, Boys!

TODAY we saw the most amazing sight, which caused me to do a little research into fire ants. These little red ants look innocuous enough, until they creep silently onto your skin, finally announcing their presence with a painful and persistent sting. They live in the ground and we often find little mounds of red earth in the grass, which you definitely don't want to step in barefoot. Around the baseball field where we walk, these ant nests line the tarmac path and provide much interest to curious onlookers. But never as much as today, when after a rain we saw several seething masses of ants on the surface of puddles.

You have to admire their pioneering spirit. This particular species of ant was accidentally introduced from South America in the 1930s through a port in Alabama, and has since spread across all the southern states. Their successful colonisation is due in part to exceptional resourcefulness and teamwork. When their nests are threatened by rain, instead of fleeing or curling up in defeat, the ants march forth into the face of the enemy. They form a large mass around the queen, creating a living raft that floats until it bumps into a tree or clump of grasses to hang onto. The ants constantly rotate positions so that none stay under water too long. Even though some die, enough survive so that once the waters go down, they can return to the nest or build a new one.

At the time, I thought they were clamoring for a spot on the roof of their home, jostling and climbing over one another to ensure their own survival as we humans surely would do. An unsuspecting caterpillar drifted into the mass, where it was promptly tossed into the moshpit, I fear never to be returned. I was so fascinated by this spectacle that Emma grew quite impatient with me: "Come ON Mama, let's go. There more ants up here!"

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bird's Nest Supply Project

WHAT better way to spend a beautiful sunny afternoon than sitting outside with your children doing a craft project? Through the winter, we have been collecting odd bits of materials inside the house that birds might like to make their nests - dryer lint, hair, fluff, soft toy stuffing, raffia. Outside, we added to our collection with organic materials - pine needles, the long feathers from our feather reed grass, mown grass etc. Then, using a wire coat hanger, we spanned a mesh bag into a diamond shape and threaded our pieces in and out before hanging it in a tree. We haven't noticed any takers yet, but at the least it's a colourful tree ornament!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sing a Song of Spring

THOUGH we've had touches of Spring creeping into the house for a while, today is the official beginning of Spring. Since it was the bees that first caught our attention and triggered yesterday's lawn investigation, we decided to bring some of the purple henbit indoors for our Spring nature table. Emma told me the real bees wouldn't like being indoors, so instead ran to get the little bee we crafted last year, and balanced it carefully in the vase.

Inadvertently, I admit, we now have several different habitats represented: the vase of purple henbit for a country meadow, a sprig of new pine from the woods and a bright yellow primula for a neat landscaped garden. And various treasures brought back from walks. A child's habitat.

We learned a new song for the occasion. Here's the English translation from the original German:

Sing a Song of Spring
F.W. Moeller

When the green buds show, and the March winds blow,
And the birds all call across the meadow
Gay as bird on wing, we'll go wandering
Sing a song of spring the wide world over.

Warm will shine the sun, far from home we'll run,
Greeting ev'ryone so kind and friendly.
As we go we'll sing, tell the world it's Spring,
Make sweet echoes ring the wide world over.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

In the Weeds

THE first mowing of the season is long overdue in our front garden. I was thinking it looked a little shaggy, then shamefully unkempt until this week, when a purple-flowered weed popped into bloom all across the lawn, which looks quite lovely. Now, after spending two hours lying in the 'meadow' examining the different kinds of non-grass and watching the bugs, I rather wish we could keep it long.

What makes a weed a weed? A close look at some of the flowering kinds revealed some pretty little flowers, no less attractive than some you would pay for. The bees certainly make no such arbitrary distinction. They buzzed by the dozen around the purple henbit, oblivious to our presence. Henbit has an interesting shape: it has square stems and the upper leaves fan out, appearing to encircle the entire stem like a wax catcher on a candle.

I was surprised to find a delicate yellow flower on another weed whose leaves I have seen often. This turned out to be sorrel. Native Americans have used different varieties of this plant in different ways: chewing the leaves to alleviate thirst, feeding its crushed bulbs to their horses to enhance their speed, and boiling the plant to make a yellowish-orange dye.

We have no daisies to make chains from nor buttercups to shine under your chin to see if you like butter, like I did as a child. But we found other things to do. We dug up wild onions to look at the bulb and smell the crushed leaves, blew dandelion clocks, watched ladybirds climb up waving stems, gently pushed back leaves to see glittery slug trails and watched ants weave their way around their leafy cities. Emma dug a hole and buried her hand. She noticed how cool it was in the ground, and concluded that roots must prefer cool places and flowers warm places.

"A weed is but an unloved flower."
~Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Early Bird

AN early morning walk after rain brings many delights. For Emma, it is jumping in puddles. For Alexander, feeling a wet raindrop on his nose and tongue. It is a magical place where spiderwebs glisten, trees drip, the grass squelches and the air smells fresh.

We stood and watched as dozens of American robins flocked to the soaked baseball fields to take advantage of a delicious worm feast served on a soggy platter. Robins eat earthworms in the morning, then switch to fruit later in the day. I wonder if they would make an exception if there is a rain in the afternoon?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Earth, Air, Fire & Water

HOW can we have become so detached from the elements: earth, air, fire and water? They are too messy, dangerous, primitive, and not available in pink.

And yet, take four young children away from the comforts of home and place them in a tent in the middle of the woods, and they could be children of any time in history.

How wonderful to be able to get dirty and wet, feel the musty old leaves, cool new ones, sand, grit, wood on your body without someone immediately running for a washcloth.

To actually feel the difference between hot and cold without heating and air conditioning, warming your body instead through movement, layers, fire and the sun.

To watch fire as it blackens, then consumes its fuel, with a mesmerising dance.

To breathe in a cold, dewy morning.

To get tired. Not bored tired or brain tired - the kind of whole-body tired that comes from fresh air and healthy activity and leads to really deep sleep.

While I know tent camping's not for everyone, it makes me feel alive.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Spring Cleaning

BEFORE we could prepare for our camping trip by stacking everything in the car port, we first had to sweep all the leaves away. Well one thing led to another and before we knew it, a full-on spring cleaning episode was in progress. Luckily we did still have enough energy for the intended project of the day - and had a clean car port as a bonus.

At one point I heard an excited: "Mama, look at me!" to find Emma up at the ceiling, having climbed up the decorative iron supports. I was impressed at her climbing skills, but since she was up there tried a little reverse psychology to get the cobwebs down too. "I bet you can't hold on with just one hand and dust the ceiling at the same time!" "I can, I can, give me the duster, I show you!" Wily Mama.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Hawk Eyes

BIRDS of prey have always been somewhat of a mystery to me. You see them on posts at the side of the interstate, sometimes soaring overhead in the woods. But always so far away, until today, when we were lucky enough to see a wild hawk in closer proximity than ever before. We first noticed a sound not unlike seagulls. Clearly not seagulls in Atlanta, we traced the sound to two large birds in a tree. A naturalist confirmed they were red-shouldered hawks, possibly drawn by members of their own species kept in captivity at the center for rehabilitation. They circled in the sky a couple of times, then landed again on a branch not 15' from the ground. The hawks were then perfectly obliging, staying neatly in place as we crept closer to admire them.

As they flew, Emma noted that they didn't flap their wings. She thought they were very clever to spot little animals on the ground while flying high above, so we decided to train our eyes like hawks as we continued our walk and see what we could discover. It worked! We made a new identification (to us) of an Eastern towhee, then had our first sighting of the season of turtles basking on a log. We also discovered, sadly, a red-bellied woodpecker "sleeping" at the base of a tree, which Emma covered with a leaf blanket. Even Alexander learned something. He's been squawking like a hawk (or is it a pterodactyl?) ever since.

Some fun facts:
  • "Hawk" is a general term used to describe the entire group of diurnal (active by day) predatory birds
  • Hawks can see in colour
  • Most hawks pair for life
  • Kestrels don't have such great eyesight, but they can see ultra-violet light. This enables them to see the trail left by their favourite food, voles.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Thaw

RUSHING water overhead
Journeying from roof to earth
Along the gutter, down the pipe
Streaming ever onward.

A different pace where no sun shines
Clinging to height and form
Yet fading more with every hour
The snowman bids farewell.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Snow Day

WELL so much for welcoming the Spring! Our camping trip this weekend was postponed due to an ominous weather forecast, and sure enough March 1st brought rain, then sleet, and finally a rare few inches of snow. Woohoo! On with the boots and gloves and we were out making footprints, tasting snowflakes, watching them melt on our clothes and making a snowman. The garden was picture-perfect, with more than a light dusting on branch, leaf and bench. So much fun to be had.

(to the tune of "twinkle, twinkle little star")

Snowflakes, snowflakes falling down,
On the trees and on the ground.
I will build a man of snow,
Tall black hat and eyes of coal,
If the sun comes out today,
I will watch you melt away!