About Me

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I am a mother, a teacher, and a nature lover. I grew up on a mountain we called Owls' Knob in the Ozarks of Arkansas. The first seven years of my life were spent living in a log cabin, far from a store or streetlight, without electricity or running water and after twenty years of travel, I returned to the abondoned homestead. Now I live on a hill by a small lake and work at a public garden. These are stories about nature written from a women deeply influenced by place.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Changes: Both Outside and Inside

Ripe Persimmon among Changing Leaves

     Leaves all over the rolling hills are changing color. Persimmons are orange like the carved pumpkins on porches. Caterpillars are fat and falling out of the trees. Eagles are returning and hummingbirds are departing. The harvest has passed and the market is full of a kaleidoscope of delicious foods.
     The other morning frost tinged the world for the first time this season. To many Americans the colder weather makes their houses become warmer and their heating bills higher. But for anyone heating their home with wood alone, the cold weather presents a new struggle.
     Firewood must be cut, hauled, and split. Kindling must be kept dry and plentiful. Each morning you wake to frosty clouds rising as you exhale. As you stumble to the fireplace in your pajamas, you hope that coals are still smoldering under the ashes. If there are no coals the fire must be started from scratch. It becomes a science and a ritual.
     This year, staying in a modern house, I have a gas wall furnace. It requires no splitting, starting, or stoking. The thermostat is set and regardless of what the weather does we stay effortlessly comfortable. Removed from but not unaware of the environmental impact of drilling for the fossil fuel we are burning.
     I miss the flames. I miss the intensity. I even miss feeling the winter's crisp grasp.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum)

Taken by George Imrie on his farm south of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
George has been laboring to provide a safe haven for these creatures.

The ringed salamander (Ambystoma annulatum) is secretive and endemic to the Ozarks. Once upon a time these salamanders were seen by the hundreds each autumn, but now you are lucky to see just one in your lifetime. These endangered amphibians live under log, rocks, and in the ground. Their main defense is to hide themselves away. They have soft black bodies striped with yellow so camouflage fails them. Their tiny legs make it look laborious to walk and they are fairly defenseless especially when as an egg or tadpole. Therefore, they live hidden, eating grubs and worms all year.

Once a year they emerge from hiding to mate and lay eggs in the clean fishless pond they were born in but finding clean water without fish is becoming harder and harder. The mating event always takes place on the first cool rainy night in autumn. This year we had a cool rainy night in late September, but then again this past week we had another similar night. The ringed salamander took advantage of both nights and matted twice this year. Both times, I was lucky enough to see one at the Ozark Natural Science Center where I work as a teacher/naturalist.

This first time I saw a ringed salamander it was trucking across the trail at theOzark Natural Science Center, ONSC, after the students had all been sent to bed in the lodges. Only the teacher naturalists remained awake and we were making our way to bed when we found a salamander out in the open on a trail near the pond. We watched it walk on stubby legs, its long fat tail slithering like a snake’s behind it. I felt privileged to witness its annual journey by night but disappointed that I didn’t have my camera.

The second time was during the day, after the rain we had this past week, when I had a group of students from Bentonville’s Baker Middle School. My group crowded around a log where we had found a ringed salamander hiding. It tried to dig itself to safety at first but eventually gave up and crawled along the ground close to the log. My students, a group of ten 5th graders, were mesmerized. They sat silently watching it with awe and respect. I knew that this was the first time any of them had seen a salamander. Many of them didn’t even know what it was until I told them.

While they watched the salamander, I read and discussed all I knew about the species. I told the children that they only come out once a year, so this is a specially occasion. They lay from 300-500 eggs but 99 percent of those eggs will never mature into adults, many will be eaten as caviar, others as salamander tadpoles, and many more as young adults. The ones that survive will not be able to reproduce until five to eight years of age, which is a long time for such a venerable creature. Also by breathing through their skin any type of pollution in the water or soil will kill them. Their mere existence is a bio indicator of a pollution free environment. As they got to know this fantastic creature, I encouraged them to name it. They couldn't choose between Sally or Steve until I informed them that because it was smaller in size it was most likely a male but it would be hard to be sure. He became Steve the Salamander and with that he was no longer a forigen wild animal but a friend.

The experience changed their perspective immediatly. For the rest of our time together, two days and one night, they were respectful and in awe of everything we found. They named every caterpillar, spider, and millipede we found, befriending all species. An old man once told me, "You can't force children to grow up and protect nature, you have to teach them to love it, then they will WANT to protect it!" I think that Steve the Salamander may have taught these kids such love.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It is Raining Caterpillars and Acorns Instead of Water After the Drought

     In the past few weeks caterpillars have been falling from the tree tops. I would have thought that this year would have been a hard year for any organism, especially a plump insect on the bottom of the food chain. But it seems that the caterpillars are fat, happy, and raining from the tree tops. I hope that this means good things for butterflies, moths, and other pollinators.

     Earlier this year I took note of the size of some acorns outside my house in Fayetteville. The tiny acorns made me think that the summer's awful drought would have a devastating impact on the oak tree's acorn production.  This could have started a butterfly effect that would have rippled throughout the forests and made species big and small starve.
 However, this week was near Beaver Lake and found that the oak trees there were literally raining fat acorns. Upon further investigation I believe that white oak trees are producing a healthy crop of acorns while red oak trees seem to have tiny acorns. Perhaps this is because red oaks produce acorns biannually while white oaks produce acorns annually. But in that case I would have guess that the white oaks would be doing worst than the red. I am sure there are many factors that have contributed to the acorn production but I am curious if anyone else could comment on this matter.
 Are the oak trees around your home raining acorns? Are the acorns tiny or huge?


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ozark Area Community Congress Annual Event

The Ozark Area Community Congress, otherwise known as OACC, meets every year to share ideas, knowledge, and to celebrate the Ozarks. Though the event has taken place at the Ananda Kanan yoga retreat center for years, it used to be at a different location somewhere in the Ozark bioregion each time. It attracts environmentalists, healers, and friendly country folks from all corners of the Ozarks.
This year was their 32nd annual meeting and I drove to Willow Springs Missouri to attend. As child my father took me to OACC just about every year. I didn’t appreciate the workshops and collective group that got together back then, I just wanted to play with Rose, a friend who I saw only once a year. As I became a teenager Rose and I kept in touch with letters but eventually we grew apart.
As an adult it is still partly about meeting with like-minded people and talking over breakfast or late into the night around the campfire. But it is also nice to attend workshops. In past years I have lead a workshop. Most workshops are organized and held by the people attending the event. As people arrive on Friday they write descriptions of workshops they want to teach on pieces of paper and stick them to the ever changing schedule board. The people who come to OACC make it what it is; therefore, it is different every year.
But this year was entirely different because I am a mother now. The weekend became keeping Zane happy in a strange environment with strange people. My son started out by getting car sick during our four hour long drive. When we arrived at the lovely Anana Kanan yoga retreat center, the opening circle event had just begun. We stood in a large circle outside the dining hall with a grand old white oak tree as a key member of the group. I tried hard to listen to the announcements but Zane was anxious to run and play. His anxiousness did not fade for dinner or bedtime. He ran around outside and through the dining hall giggling. Though most people thought it was cute, I found it to be exhausting.
The second day Zane was still disturbed by the strange event. He refused to eat the delicious vegetarian food in the dinning hall; it just wasn't like meal time at home. Though he was interested in the other children there, he just didn't have the social skills to play. Most of the day I spent following him up and down the stairs between the kid's playroom area and the dining hall.
I was only able to attend one workshop on primitive skills and edible plants. Bo Brown from the First Earth Wilderness Schoolin Springfield Missouri taught us how to knap flint, make stone tools, weave rope out of dogbane fibers, and how to make a fire using a bow drill successfully. The we went on a short plant lore walk in which everyone taught everyone else what they knew about the plants we came across. At was a great break from the kid.
When I returned to being a mom, I found Zane even more disturbed than before. I tried desperatly to feed him but he still didn't want to eat. He suddenly fell asleep while eating dinner and so let him snooze in my arms while I watched the annual open-mic talent show. Though there were many talented people, my favorite performance was singer/songwriter Stan, the Eco Troubadour. His songs were fun and geared towards kids but deep in meaning and full of information. During one of his songs, Zane woke up and immediately started clapping.  
As we got ready to go on Sunday, I realized I had missed out on many much of the weekend. It would have been easier if Zane had been older or if I had brought along a helper. But as it was, I had to stay in mom mode all weekend.
While I packed the car to go, a tattered butterfly landed on Zane and rested there. I coaxed it onto my finger. Two children came by and wanted to hold it as well. We all took turns letting the delicate creator rest on our fingers. It brought great delight to all involved. And I was reminded why I go to OACC every year. Moments like this is what it is all about!