Friday, April 24, 2009

Baby Tree

WITH Earth Day on a Wednesday, we managed to visit two separate celebrations - one at each end of the week. The first was at a nature center, where among other things we planted cucumber seeds and a tiny hemlock tree to bring home.

Hemlock is mentioned in the bible, and used as a poison! However, this is the hemlock plant, which despite an apparent similarity in leaf shape, is not related to the noble hemlock tree. Members of the pine family, the Eastern and Carolina Hemlock are among the only old-growth trees in the Eastern US, but both species are under severe threat from a little beastie called the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. It's a true David and Goliath battle, but unfortunately in this version the tiny David is the baddie and the gentle giants are being wiped out faster than Goliath can wield his pine needly sword. So we planted one in our back garden and will tend it with loving care. Maybe the little woolly beasts will remain at bay and our tree will flourish. They can live to 800 years! It's a funny thought that such a tiny sprout of a tree may one day grow to 45 m tall or more.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Foraging Part II

AFTER my success with pokeweed, I wondered what else I could scrounge from the garden. The most obvious was the wild garlic that sprouts all over our lawn. They have long stalks like chives, and if you dig them up, clusters of tiny bulbs. I'm not 100% positive that it's wild garlic - there seem to be differing opinions all over the web - but it's definitely some kind of allium and is not poisonous. So a bunch of that went into my goulash soup.

And then there was the lowly dandelion. Despite their place on many a lawn-lover's most despised weed list, dandelions have multiple uses. Eat them, drink them, grind or chew them. Fresh young leaves make a great and nutritious salad and may also be boiled for a spinachy taste. The roots may be ground up to make a coffee-like drink and the flowers boiled for tea, eaten raw in salad or battered and fried for a crunchy little appetizer. And don't forget dandelion wine! Dandelion has been used as a herbal remedy for centuries and is an ingredient in many common pharmaceuticals in use today. Its root is particularly good for urinary and skin complaints, and with all the vitamins A, C, E and K as well as minerals in the leaves, it's no wonder there are so many rabbits around. We forewent the more complicated preparations and simply picked a few leaves to add to our salad. Yum!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pioneering Pokeweed

WHILE exploring the wilder parts of our back garden, I noticed some new pokeweed shoots coming up. Many people would recognise this plant, as it grows really tall and has a distinctive red stem and, in the autumn, black berries. But you may not know that poke is one of the first wild greens to appear in the Spring, and has been eaten for centuries. Most parts of the plant are actually poisonous, and despite a common name for the dish, "poke salad" or "salat", it should never be eaten raw. When cooked in a certain way, however, it is supposed to make a delicious vegetable dish. Throwing caution to the wind, I decided to give it a try.

We harvested only shoots that were less than 6-7" tall as those taller become too toxic. Taking care not to include any of the very poisonous roots, the leaves were washed then boiled. They must be boiled for ten minutes at least twice, discarding the cooking water in between, in order to remove the toxins. (Needless to say this dish was not destined for the children.) Then, I dug in with a fork. I felt like a pioneer tasting something unknown, not knowing if I would wake up the next day or not. This thought alternated with the other that I was being ridiculous and people have been eating this wild stuff for years. The third thought was one of irony - that the general populace would think me most weird for voluntarily eating some 'nasty' weed from the garden that I knew to be poisonous; and yet they happily feed their children who knows what chemicals in the average processed food. If nothing else, it was quite the thought-provoking little weed!

Well? you ask. It was absolutely delicious. Texture soft like canned asparagus (well, it was boiled to death). Taste, somewhat like creamed spinach. I suffered no ill consequences and have been unconsciously looking for poke everywhere I go ever since.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Egg Hunt

THE day dawned brightly for our Easter Egg hunt and the children gathered excitedly. After a short circle of spring and Easter action-songs and fingerplays, the children departed with some parents on a walk, while the rest of the parents played the Easter Bunny. We had all kinds of gifts to hide, donated by the parents and all obviously prepared with much love: butterfly-shaped cookies, beautifully dyed hard-boiled eggs, lollipops, painted wooden eggs, felted butterflies, handmade bags containing wildflower seeds, handsewn felt leaf pockets with a tiny ladybird hiding inside.

Naturally the edible goodies didn't last long, but the seeds are already planted in our garden and the butterfly, wooden egg and ladybird have pride of place on our nature table.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hot Cross Buns

OUR Easter preparations had mixed success. For Palm Sunday, we made a 'palm' cross with a long stem of tiger grass from our garden. It was a bit brittle, but worked out okay after soaking in water.

Dyeing eggs should have been easy. Following advice from several sources, we used celery seed and turmeric for yellow, blueberries for blue and spinach for green, but despite the addition of vinegar, the colours did not take. The water was pretty though.

Hot cross buns for Good Friday were interesting. They are one of those things we've always bought so it's never really occured to me that they could be homemade, but we decided to try our hand at baking them. Several recipes I found called for an icing cross on the top, which is not how I've ever eaten them. But we stuck to the recipe and did this. Just as well since the buns didn't rise and the icing was really the only redeeming feature.

Oh well, it was more about the activity than the result, and now we have a whole year to practice before needing these skills again.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Red Stuff

ON a tip that the red stuff is now blooming at Arabia Mountain, we took a trip there to see. This is one of Georgia's many granite outcrops, and plants and animals here are often very specialized due to the stressful environment. It was quite an amazing sight! Great expanses of seemingly dead grey rock interspersed with explosions of colour and - after the night's rain - rivulets of water, sparkling in the sun. There were yellow, purple and white flowers, and great carpets of this strange red stuff.

Diamorpha grows in the shallow, sandy soil of depressions in the rock known as solution pits. Really shallow soil - as in about one inch. It's a succulent, like a cactus. It has adapted to heat and periods of drought through several strategies, such as storing water in thickened leaves, and its red colour which protects it against radiation from the sun, and can survive due to the lack of competition.

Certainly a very unusual landscape.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Our Little Nest Egg

I have a whole new appreciation for the homemaking skills of birds. For our spring nature table, we tried to make a birds nest. The operative word being 'tried'. It took three days worth of outside time, and many start-overs before we had something that I could hold in only one hand without falling apart. How in the world do these little birds perform such a feat of engineering without even opposable thumbs? The project turned from a simple 'let's see if we can do this' into an obsession, and as Emma scuttled around the garden bringing me different supplies, I swear I heard a bird laughing. Eventually, we figured out that twigs and grasses have differing levels of suppleness and looked more closely at the materials we collected to find the best kinds. Thin, winding wisteria branches worked out well; Emma hypothesised that because this plant grows round and round trees, it is good at going round and round nests too. We finally got a passable framework together, and Emma found some soft grass to line the nest. It now sits proudly on our nature table, holding three beautiful wooden eggs, hand-made by a friend for last year's Easter egg hunt.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Day on the Farm

ONCE again the weather threw us a curveball. A planned day on the farm filled my head with dreamy thoughts of children skipping around barefoot among the lambs, full of the joy of spring... then I checked the forecast and landed back on earth with a thump. Despite the freezing temperatures, our tour of a local dairy farm was informative and fun. We saw the shed where cows had been milked since the 1920s, at 4:00 AM and 4:00 PM every single day. That's quite a commitment. Though of course electric pumps are now utilised, each teat (four per cow) is washed with water, wiped dry, sanitised twice, a little milk expressed, attached to the pump, detached from the pump and then swabbed with iodine. All by hand. How amazing to find that these days. Emma was quite intrigued by the similarities to human breastfeeding, and caused a few smiles with innocent questions and comments that only a child can get away with.

After the horror stories that abound about battery farming, the chicken shed was another breath of fresh air (well, country air). Around 200 chickens had a total of seven acres to roam in! They were huddled in the shed for warmth when we visited, but could come and go outside and eat grass whenever they pleased.

Our picnic was thwarted by the cold, but we still managed to pet some more baby farm animals before dashing off for a hot drink. But the real benefit of the visit was being able to show Emma the supply chain by buying some milk and eggs at the farm store, then taking them home to cook for our dinner. How many city children don't know where these things come from?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

I recently had the opportunity to explore the natural world beneath the ground, with my first foray into cave exploration. It's one thing to visit a cave attraction with tour guides, lighting, little signs pointing out items of interest and perhaps even a lift. It's quite another for everyone in your party to extinguish their head lamps and sit silently, breathing in the absolute dark all around you. In the pitch black, the other senses had plenty to keep them occupied. In this particular cave, there was the sound of water in many places: running streams, spluttering springs, light showers, steady drips and a cascading waterfall. The air was cool and steady, though at times a gentle breeze betrayed an opening to the air somewhere far above. Handling the formations is strictly forbidden for the sake of cave preservation, but even on the well-trodden paths different textures can be easily observed: hard, compacted sand and mud underfoot, loose rocks and rough boulders in break down areas, tiny fossilized sea creatures embedded in the cave walls, smooth and shiny surfaces where water has fallen for millenia. And the wide array of remarkable formations, from delicate and feathery soda straw stalactites to ancient flows of molten material, seemingly frozen in place.

Places like this put human life into perspective - each person a miniscule dot in the vast expanse of time.

There was animal life in the cave too. We saw several cave crickets, their legs and antennae so long that they looked like spiders. I had hoped to see bats, but didn't notice any. The most welcome sight however was a red, spotted cave salamander. These only live close to cave entrances, which for us meant only one thing... after six hours underground and a few wrong turns, there was light at the end of the tunnel!

Friday, April 3, 2009

First Dabble

I finally got my feet wet in wet-on-wet watercolour painting, with a couple of classes organised by our local Waldorf Homeschoolers group. It was so much fun and I look forward to lots more practice before introducing the technique to Emma at some point. We started by exploring the colours and their relationship to one another.

Then we took a peek into the plant world. This began with blue water underneath and yellow light overhead, then finally red life blood linking the two together and forming green plants and brown roots.

Finally we delved into the animal kingdom. For our final piece, we were asked to choose an animal, and prepare its habitat using wet-on-wet. We then painted in the animal with a wet-on-dry technique. I wanted to paint something for our Easter/Spring nature table, but didn't want the typical chicks or bunnies, so I picked a scene showing the Owl Mother returning to her babies Sarah, Percy and Bill, from one of Emma's favourite books "Owl Babies".

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Enchanted Forest

A simple walk after rain turned into a precious glimpse into a child's world of wonder. The scene was set beautifully for a magical experience. In just a few weeks since we had been there last, the rain and warm temperatures had caused the woods around the swamp to explode into an abundance of green. Leggy juvenile branches observed no boundaries and formed gateways and arches over the barely discernable path, dripping from the morning's rain. Patches of violets had sprung up on the forest floor, and spider webs were dressed in their finest pearls. There were all kinds of interesting fungi we'd never seen before, and we wondered if fairies or gnomes lived inside. Then Emma stopped fast in her tracks and held her finger to her mouth to silence me. She beckoned me closer and pointed deep into the undergrowth. "You see, Mama? A baby unicorn. Ssh, he's sleeping."