Saturday, October 8, 2011

Flower Shapes

I love to look at shapes in nature. This one.. Indian Heliotrope or Turnsole (heliotropium indicum) I believe... doesn't it remind you of an octopus' tentacle?

Heart-shaped, bell-shaped, metaphor of form. 
Is it symmetry or silhouette,
A reminder of shapes of the past,
Connection, categorization,
Or simply individual expression of beauty?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Cool but Clunky

THE children have discovered in our garden what they have dubbed "the coolest bug ever". It's a wheel bug. He caught our attention noisily flying around our back patio and we transferred him to a bug box with a magnifying lid to examine in closer detail. These creatures are often called "assassins of the insect world" thanks to their chosen method of feeding, which involves using their long beak to pierce soft-bodied insects like caterpillars with dissolving enzymes, then sucking out their insides. How charming. Sometimes the females even feed on the male after mating. The cannibalism was not a trait I shared in detail with the children, but we did observe that it moves very slowly and jerkily and has of course that huge and strange "bumpy hump" on its back. Big, clunky, and indeed pretty cool. 

Herbal Frogspawn

WALKING home from school one morning after heavy rain, Alexander and I noticed something strange on our morning "snack bush". This is a huge lemon basil plant at the front of a neighbour's garden, which never seems to mind sparing a leaf or two as we breeze past. This day, however, it seemed to have been showered with frog spawn. The strange gelatinous lumps with a black speck in the middle were sprinkled all over the leaves, and piled in masses on the ground beneath the plant. We thought they might be some insect eggs, then on a hunch I checked the basil plants in our garden. Nothing like that to be seen on the regular Italian basil, but yes - the Thai basil and lemon basil both had the same frog spawn. To the internet I went a-running! Turns out the seeds swell with water (rain). In fact, they can be used to make a delicious drink by mixing the seeds with water and sweetening with a little sugar or honey to taste. Naturally we had to try it, and we found it was similar to drinking chia seeds in water, or bubble tea, which uses tapioca. Apparently this drink is common in Thailand, where it is also sold in cans. "Thai basil seed drink" is not especially original, but it does sound more appetizing than "frog spawn drink".

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nature Study

IT'S great to take sketching materials along on a hike.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Most Amazing Thing

THE other day we noticed a green caterpillar on one of the tomato plants. Having plucked it off ready to deposit elsewhere, we realised that the tomato plant was nearly dead anyway so the caterpillar might as well enjoy the last few leaves. So we put it back. Imagine our surprise when the next day we found it tucked cosily in a cocoon! In fact there were two of them! Two days later the plant was indeed dead, as was apparently the second pupa. But the first pupa still wiggled when gently prodded, and one part had turned brown inside its opaque, silky home.

On my return from a trip four days later, Emma greeted me with: "Mama! The most amazing thing happened!" It seemed that the pupa had transformed into a moth, which Emma had discovered drying its wings next to the empty cocoon. It had flown away by the time I got home, so we didn't get to photograph or identify the moth or butterfly, but it could have been a diamondback moth.

Pupa, Chrysalis or Cocoon?
A pupa is an insect undergoing transformation. If it is a butterfly pupa, it is called a chrysalis and is surrounded by a hard casing. Moth pupas most often change inside a cocoon of spun silk, though some species burrow into the ground. Pupas of other insects change inside the exoskeleton of their final larval stage, or in a nest or shell.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Creek Life

YOU'D think with four children under six, a mad labrador and an excitable Jamaican in our camping party, the wildlife would stay very, very far away. And indeed many of the wiser creatures did, a few cawing a retreat or leaving a tiny footprint behind. But not all. Whether oblivious, confined or simply unperturbed, some animals of the water allowed themselves to be discovered.

Armed with new birthday catching nets and bug boxes we went to explore the creek. It was bursting with animal life! Diving beetles tootled leisurely through the water as pond skaters gathered in little groups around the edges. Tiny fish came into sight when we stayed very still then flitted away the second a small foot disturbed the silt. A 10cm long stick insect brushed my nose as I ducked under an overhanging branch. Two crawfish were enjoying a little sunlight in a shallow, sandy spot and dragonflies flew abundantly overhead.

But it was one particular insect that caught my attention. Under almost every stone we found the same clear-coloured crawling creature with a split tail from a few millimetres to 2cm or so, including a couple of larger outgrown skins outside the water. I think they were mayfly nymphs. Mayflies live up to a year under water in the larval stage, then crawl out of the water and in their last stages of moulting, emerge with wings. They then fly around for one day only, during which time they mate and lay eggs on the water's surface, where they sink to the bottom to repeat the cycle. Whatever they were, they made interesting creatures to watch.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It's a Record!

WHILE walking home from school one day, we noticed a proliferation of one type of insect on the grass under a particular maple tree. Looking somewhat like a firefly, we took note of its markings and looked it up at home. It was a box elder bug, a true bug which feeds predominantly on box elder trees and also maples.

We've since seen this bug many times, always under maples. They are not especially fast moving, which makes them attractive to Alexander. Every time we see them he tries to outmatch his own record of how many he can hold in his hand at any one time without any flying away or being squashed. I try to share his joy while secretly encouraging escape.

Despite the occasional mishaps, the bug does now have the honour of having renamed this route home from school. It is now called "Box Elder Way".

Monday, August 29, 2011

Birthday Butterflies

LOOKING back through old posts, I'm reminded that Emma received a "bug hotel" for her third birthday. Now rather the worse for three years of weather, it has nevertheless provided much interest to us and a home for many insects.

I'm not sure if it's coincidence that one of Alexander's favourite presents on his third birthday was a butterfly net and bug collection box! He has spent hours outside trying to - often successfully - catch various insects, which he then stores in his special jar with a magnifying lid. Happy birthday little bug catcher!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Next Plague?

LAST year we noticed a great number of insects we hadn't seen before in the park. Little green/brown bugs, they looked a little like ladybirds but had a distinct triangular shape, the head much narrower than the tail end. They congregated in great numbers on the kudzu, were easy to pick up, flew away just as easily and didn't smell too good when squashed (accidently). It was Megacopta cribraria, otherwise known as the "kudzu beetle".

Alexander was delighted to discover them today in our garden too, on wisteria, which prompted me to research them. This little bug was first seen in the US, or in the Western hemisphere at all, in October 2009. It was discovered right here in nine counties in north Georgia and in a year had spread to over 60 counties. Now Megacopta is also a resident of North Carolina and South Carolina. The rapid spread is particularly worrisome to agriculture, since the bugs are voracious eaters not only of kudzu (which grows equally fast and does not seem to be unduly damaged by the pest) but other legumes too - especially soy beans.

Soy being, in my opinion, one of the most heinous of all crops in terms of contribution to the proliferation of cheap processed "foods", I had a fleeting thought that this little beetle army might be on a divine mission to save us from ourselves...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Preserving Herbs

IT'S funny what things we take for granted that children know. A few weeks ago Emma and Alexander helped me harvest mint, rosemary, oregano, thyme, basil and Thai basil in our garden then bundle them and hang them up to dry. Today we were preparing old glass shop-bought herb jars to store them when Emma suddenly looked at me with a mixture of astonishment and revelation: "Mama, you mean herbs in the garden are the same thing as herbs in jars?"

Monday, August 22, 2011

Black Walnut Adventures

I was recently introduced to the Eastern Black Walnut tree juglans nigra through its fruit, which hung heavy and green, like smooth golf balls. Parts of last year's crop that the squirrels had spared lay dried in the grass, but the fresh new fruit smelled fresh, almost citrusy. Evan, the tree owner, advised that the nuts are very difficult to open. He may as well have thrown down a glove.

Back home the children and I tried to crack it. The husk came off relatively easy with a knife. Immediately the flesh began to oxidise and turn brown. After rendering inoperable a heavy-duty and formerly rather nice nutcracker, we conceded that black walnuts are, in fact, rather hard to open. We also noticed that my hands were turning various shades of yellow to dark brown and black, as was the counter top, and ... it didn't come off. Emma wondered if this is why it's called black walnut. We took the stubborn nut outside and pretended we were hunter-gatherers, smashing our dinner open with a rock. Success! Tasty, but hard-earned. No wonder they are so expensive to buy.

Having already discovered the dyeing properties, we then decided to dye something for real. Using a piece of white cotton fabric, the result was an earthy dark brown. Not a colour en vogue this year, but it would be perfect for camo gear. Thank you Evan for inspiring an afternoon of fun and discovery!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Twilight Magic

TWILIGHT is one of the most magical times to be outside. To observe the sun inch lower and lower with perceptible movement brings a sense of oneness with time. We have been taught of the earth's rotation around the sun, yet to many these are mere words; whereas experiencing a sunset (or sunrise) forges a deep inner connection to this cosmic reality. Images of the sun going to bed are not just for children; experiencing the dusk is to remember the beauty of the day, breathe out and prepare for rest.

Animals too favour the beginning and end of the day. As I sat with a new group of friends with the magnificent backdrop of the setting sun, for a short while the trees came alive with birdsong. It gradually darkened and the evening grew still. Then, a deer gingerly stepped out of the bushes followed by another. As we continued our gathering, the does moved closer browsing in the long grass for shoots and fallen fruit. Their babies followed and the usually shy animals munched away, stopping now and again to nurse or bleat a message to one another. I was entranced. For this special time between day and night, deer and people shared time and space.

Photo credit:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Lorelei Calls

HAPPY sixth birthday Emma! We had great fun preparing for her mermaid party - designing a menu, painting underwatery paintings to hang up, planning activities and decorating with strips of blue and purple crepe paper, which waved delightfully when the ceiling fan was turned on.

On the big day, it was hard to contain their excitement. Six little girls and one little brother made shell necklaces, played musical mermaid rocks then sat on their rocks for a tea of seaweed, kale chips, tuna crackers and "rainbow fish" cake. Outside, water beads awaited discovery in the paddling pool, and finally a treasure hunt for a take-home mini treasure chest of sparkling gems. The theme continued until her actual birthday two days later when Emma received her present from Mama - a beautiful mermaid of her own!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Naked Tree Climbing

ALEXANDER was having some fun running away from his bath. Up a tree was an excellent place to hide.

While there he noticed the dogwood berries just beginning to form and was quite intrigued about what might eat them. Not content with "squirrels and birds", he wanted to know what kinds of birds. I said we'd have to wait until they are ripe and watch to find out. He wanted to wait there until they were ripe but looked like he just might reconsider when I said he'd have to sleep in the tree for many nights. A warm bath did sound preferable, after all.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Grrr! said the Tiger

WE tried for ages to identify this interesting fly we found on our window screen. It was on something white and we couldn't tell if it was feeding on bird droppings or if it was some kind of nest/egg collection. Whatever the white patch was, the fly was quite attached to it. We picked the fly up to examine it, and it flew away, then a short time later was back again and even returned the next day.

It was quite large - maybe 2cm. Plump and black, with a fuzzy body, huge eyes and a curious pattern on its wings. We couldn't tell if the wings had patches of white or patches of see through.

Finally a few days later we found a picture of the tiger bee fly Xenox tigrinus . Emma astutely pointed out that tigers have stripes not spots and why wasn't it called a leopard bee fly? Apparently they lay their eggs in the nests of carpenter bees and their hatching larvae then eat the bee larvae. The white stuff on the window screen wasn't eggs, then.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Not Playing Possum

AN unexpected encounter greeted us recently at the woods - one who was not playing possum. Instead of playing dead like this animal is wont to do when threatened, this possum was very much alive and snarling. A shuddering lady was trying unsuccessfully to release it from a trap she had laid in her garden. Its strong fingers and sharp nails clutched fast to the wire cage as she tried to gently shake it loose. Alexander's eyes grew wide as the scared creature hissed and bared its extremely ferocious looking teeth. With the aid of leather gloves and a stick, the lady and I managed to pry its feet loose and the possum backed out of the cage into its new habitat. Needless to say the encounter with "the animal with the triangle mouth and lots of teeth" has been the talk of the week.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Summer Breakfast

ONE of the best things about school holidays is that there's no rush in the morning! That means there's plenty of time to prepare a breakfast feast. One morning Emma fancied fruit salad "with all the fixin's" and, oblivious to the fact that it was still dark, set to work preparing it, her sous-chef by her side.

Unable to contain my curiosity any longer, I peeked into the kitchen and was crossly dispatched back to my bedroom. It was worth the wait.

A delightful healthy breakfast, beautifully presented and prepared with pride by an almost-6 and almost-3 year old, awaited the family on the dining table.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lamb's Quarters

AFTER purchasing lamb's quarters Chenopodium album, also called goosefoot, several times at the farmers' market, what a great discovery to find it growing wild in a bit of scrub land behind our house!

It sat on the window sill in a glass of water for a while until we'd had a chance to be sure of the identification, then I cooked some and cautiously sampled. Yep, tasted the same. Into the soup it went! Who doesn't love free food?

Reading some more about it, it seems that the seeds too are edible and very nutritious. It's closely related to quinoa, one of the only complete proteins. The plant can become very tall - up to 3m - and as it ages, the stems become woody enough to be used as walking sticks! I think I feel another gathering trip coming on.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Baby Birds

WE'VE been lucky enough to see an number of baby birds
this spring and summer. A slight movement caught our eye in the garden, which turned out to be a tiny fluffy bird cowering under a bush in our garden, freezing whenever we came close but bravely venturing a few hops if we sat quietly for long enough. Our gourd bird box has hosted not one but three sets of baby wrens. They tweet so loudly when mama arrives with food, you can hear them right across the garden. A robin nest high up in a tree is just close enough to see little beaks clamouring for food whenever a parent flies close.

But Emma wins the award for the best bird discovery. She was sitting on our front steps when she noticed a little bird clutching the side of the step. On closer examination there were two of them, baby Northern Flickers. These are a kind of woodpecker and we watched them over the next two days as they progressed from hopping on the ground and step to clinging to the house wall, then climbing up the wall and finally taking their first flights. Amazing to observe!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Midsummer Celebrations

MIDSUMMER snook up on us, but we found plenty of ways to celebrate without much preparation. We made a new summer nature table based on the story of Runya the Fire Fairy, one of Emma's alter egos. It featured an orange and yellow fairy house and a bonfire, to which all the woodland animals were invited to roast acorns. We learned a new summer song while preparing a special festival snack of sun tea, orange slices, apricots and butterfly biscuits then read The Sun Egg by Elsa Beskow together. Dinner was cooked over a real fire in the back garden, the bowl of chilled fruits a welcome addition in the 80 F temperature and higher humidity. No evening of magical happenings would be complete without a gift for the fairies, so the children assembled a miniature feast of fruits, herbs and tea along with a tiny campfire for the fairies to dance around. By morning, the food was gone and in its place, a little thank you gift of flowers and a pile of embers. There really must have been fairies in our garden!

Recipe for Sun Tea
Chamomile tea "brewed" in the sun, muddled with fresh mint and orange slices and sweetened with honey. Quite delicious!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reptile Watch

NOTHING is quite as startling as almost stepping on a large snake. This 4' black rat snake slithered out of its hole in the bank of the Chattahoochee River and moseyed along the water's edge for a while. But it wasn't the only slithery creature we've seen recently.

This smaller snake was about 18" long. We spotted it in the woods by a different stretch of the river.

Northern Water Snakes and Slider Turtles abounded at the school picnic, causing delight among the children and reactions ranging from mild interest to terror in parents.

But impressive though the larger creatures were, it was a tiny baby frog that really captured the children's attention.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Fairy Trees

THE summer is just the time for nature study. We often walk the same same stretch, and it's fun to notice different things each time then draw it and maybe read up on it at home. Today we looked at trees, and Emma especially liked a tree that she said had fairies all over it. The leaves were feathery and "nervous" (they slowly closed up when touched). The "fairies" are the white and pink feathery blooms. It has a smooth bark, and in the autumn has long (30cm or so) brown seed pods. It was a Silk Tree, sometimes called Mimosa, but - curiously - dubbed "foamy" by the children. It grows all over the place here in the south US - beautiful, but invasive. Since then, spotting "foamies" while we walk or drive has become a favourite pastime.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Rainbow Nice Cake

THE stall turnout at the outdoor market was disappointing. But in the car park I spotted some bushes laden with fruit. Perhaps we wouldn't go home quite empty handed after all. They were wild plums, about the size of cherry tomatoes, and very delicious. We picked several bags full. After snacking on them all day, the haul yielded four jars of ginger plum chutney.

The next week we went back again, this time prepared with fruit baskets. This time they made a delicious dessert. We simmered the tart plums with a splash of sherry (orange liqueur would have been even better), cinnamon and sweetened with agave. When cooled and thickened, the fruit was layered with a mixture of cream cheese, homemade yoghurt, orange peel and honey, then refrigerated for a few hours to let the flavours meld. Yum! We served it to guests that evening and voted on the best name for our concoction. Emma's won: Rainbow Nice Cake.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sleeping Beauties

WE were not alone in the campground. We were surrounded by cicadas. All over the grass, clinging to every tree, the empty shells of cicada nymphs, their skins shed as the adults emerged triumphant after a 17-year slumber. From the treetops they now sounded their victory cry. The noise was deafening. At first we didn't equate the high-pitched sound with the insect shells all around. It sounded more like a squeaky siren. Maybe some kind of motor. But it was, in fact, cicadas by the million.

This particular kind of cicada has a revolutionary survival strategy. With only 3 weeks to live as an adult, it quickly mates and lays eggs in trees. The larvae hatch and drop to the ground, where they bury themselves for ... 17 years. It has been measured, and it is always 17 years. All at once, they then climb out of the ground, cling to something and crawl out of their baby pyjamas, leaving these behind to be collected by delighted children. Then, wings unfurled, they fly off into the sunset, trumpeting all the way. Other animals cannot rely on such infrequent visitors as a food source, and their vast numbers ensure plentiful survival even when the odd bird or snake ventures into new culinary territory. In this way, the juicy winged beetles live on to lay the next generation. See you in 2028!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Things You Find

STICKING out of a hole in a log was a little thing wiggling. We pulled it out carefully as it appeared to be stuck. It looked like a cocoon. Suddenly it made an audible pop! and a fly crawled out! It was so unusual that Emma decided to draw it in her nature journal.

The notes in the picture describe the insect and were dictated by Emma: fuzzy bits on its head, big black eyes, long grey body with orange stripes, delicate wings, 6 legs with 2 little feet on each leg.

We never did discover the identification but it was exciting to witness its birth!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wood Sorrel Tea

WOOD sorrel, with its lemony flavour, is said to make good tea. So we decided to try that out. Gathering enough wood sorrel in our garden was not a problem, and we soon had a large bunch simmering away. Add sweetener (we used honey), pour into a glass and... well what do you know, it's red! Bear in mind that this was a green plant with a yellow flower. But it was very refreshing, especially cold with ice.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Nine Lives of Cattails

TO my surprise I found I could already identify many of the plants highlighted in the recent wild edibles class. At least, well enough to guess out loud but not necessarily well enough to tuck into without an expert present. While I could identify cattails and knew that they were edible, I didn't realise quite how many uses they have!
Before modern development began destroying the habitat of cattails, American Indians used the nutritious plant in a myriad ways:

  • When peeled, the white heart of the shoot is similar to heart of palm and can be used in stir fries, soups, salads, or sauteed as a side vegetable.
  • Immature flower heads can be eaten like a corn cob.
  • The super-nutritious pollen can be added to flour for baking.
  • The jelly-like substance found between leaves can be used medicinally to heal wounds.
  • Dried leaves can be twisted or woven into cordage, baskets, thatched rooves, toys for children.
  • The empty seed heads keep insects away when burnt on a fire.
  • The fluffy white seeds make good stuffing for additional warmth in bedding and clothes.

      That's pretty impressive for a single plant.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

HOW nice to feel appreciated! I had the opportunity to attend a day-long class on Mother's Day while the children enjoyed a day of daddy time. On my return I was greeted with a fabulous cake which they had baked together. Yum!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Strawberry Fields

TIME for the annual pilgrimage to pick strawberries! This time we took a few little friends along and had a wonderful time filling our baskets and tummies. The juicy berries later became boats as we washed them, then were frozen whole, pureed, made into ice pops and jam. And of course we saved some to have with whipped cream for a real Ascot treat.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spring is Here!

Spring is here, Spring is here!
Fairies dancing in a ring.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Good Morning Easter

A sunrise is always wonderful, but on Easter Sunday, after hiking up a mountain in the dark until you are so high up that the sky almost swallows you, surrounded by hundreds of people of all different denominations sharing songs of praise, it brings an incredible feeling of awe and reverence.

Whereas Easter eggs are best if chocolate and hidden among the vegetables.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Toasted Caterpillars

ALEXANDER pretending to be a bird who is camping and toasting caterpillars over a fire like marshmallows. Since it was a real caterpillar, I jumped up to stop him from actually putting it in his mouth, which caused him to console me: "Don't worry Mama, I not really a bird. I a little boy. Little boyd no eat caterpillard." Funny! He went on to instruct me all about what birds eat and what caterpillars eat and how we shouldn't eat things that other animals eat because we will get tummy ache.

What do caterpillars do? Nothing much but chew and chew.
What do caterpillars know? Nothing much but how to grow.
They just eat what by and by will make them be a butterfly.
And that is more than I can do, however much I chew and chew.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Great Trees

Music by Malcolm Dalglish, Text by Wendell Berry

Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,

Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air.
Tier after tier a timbered choir.
Stout beams upholding weightless grace

Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;

They are the advent they await.


Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life's a benefaction made,
And is a benediction said

Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
To walk on radiance, amazed.
0 light come down to earth, be praised!

Throughout our stay in California's Sequoia National Park, all I could think of was the song "Great Trees" which I recently had the pleasure to sing with a small group. It can be heard here by another group. The majesty of these trees quite takes your breath away.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Many Faces of the American West

WHAT an amazingly diverse country the USA is!

Our one-week road trip began in Las Vegas, Nevada. Heading west into California we drove through dusty deserts and rocky hills, then crested the range and found ourselves at once in a lush agricultural area.

Nowhere has the influence of topography on weather and land use been so apparent. As we came out of the mountains into the valley, citrus and nut groves and vegetable fields dominated the landscape. It was hot.

Then began the climb back into the mountains. The foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains are marked by scenic oak woodlands, abundant wildflowers and streams. As we ascended, the temperature dropped.

By the time we reached the lodge in Sequoia National Park at 6,500 feet, the land was covered in 12' of snow and giant trees stretched up to the clouds.

The journey back east took us through Nevada's Mojave Desert then into Arizona. This mighty landscape of dry earth, cliffs, scrubby grasses and cactus extended as far as the eye could see for hours and hours. Incredible. I thought I had no awe left in me until we arrived at our final destination, the Grand Canyon.

In the context of such natural majesty, individual people are so insignificant. We have, however, learned to live in an astounding variation of habitats.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Gift

HOW lovely to have a child to remind you of the earth's beauty.

How lovely to have grandparents that will fly half way around the world to share in your discovery.

In gratitude for both.

Friday, March 25, 2011

More Spring Edibles

THE woodlands behind our house erupt into a marvellous sea of blue just about now. We had to look up what the flower is: Dame's Rocket. More exciting - it's edible! It's actually considered invasive, though hard to believe, as it looks so beautiful brightening up the woods. Only the petals should be eaten and we tried them in a salad. The flowers also pressed nicely and we look forward to using them for crafts when they are fully dried.