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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Owls on a Night Hike

Have you ever hiked in the woods without a flashlight? Not through your back yard to gather forgotten items or to the curb to put out the recycling or even across the farmyard to tend animals, but deep into the unknown woods, just too see what it out there at night? Before I started working at the Ozark Natural Science Center, the only time I wandered through the woods at night without a light was during bonfire parties, in which we were a pack of loud drunken fool, uninterested in the night's sounds. At the science center, I take children on a night hike.

I begin the hike with my flashlight on and lead the children into the woods. An adult is also at the back of the line shinning flashlight. Once the center is completely out of sight, I stop and turn off the lights. We talk in the dark about the night. Often a few children are afraid and I ask them what they are afraid of. They always say the same things and a debunk their fears one at a time.
"Wolves," they said.
"We killed off all the wild red wolves. They exist only in zoos or parks, so don't worry."
"Mountain Lions."
"Same fate as the wolves."
"Cowardice creatures. As far as I know, no one has ever been attacked by a coyote."
Black Bears are about as dangerous as coyotes."
"Blood sucking bats."
"None of those around here, perhaps a few blood sucking mosquitoes though. And that is just about the only thing I fear at night. Mosquito bites and diseases." (I also fear copperheads, but only in the summer months.)

By the time I have finished quelling their fears, their eyes have begun to adjust. I have a bag of tricks over my shoulder and a do a few nifty nighttime tricks to get their mind somewhere else.
Then, if the moon is not completely dark, we walk without a flashlight. I ask of complete silence and (amazingly) I often get it. Though most of the time we walk without seeing or hearing anything but katydids, we sometimes sneak up on a noisy armadillo or hear a barred owl calling in the distance.

Barred Owl

Last week, we took an extra long night hike. We were in to dark woods for almost an hour. The moon was half full and the few clouds reflected the light to make it seen even brighter. I took the group to an abandoned house on the property. It is a hike I do often during the day, but I have never been at night. It looked spooky in the darkness. A few children did not want to creep up to the empty windows panes and look inside, but most braved the journey.

On our way back towards the center we paused near a cedar thicket and heard an Eastern Screech Owl. The children all gasped in horror at once. I prefer the name Ghost Owls for this little creature, because I have never heard it screech. It's typical call has a hoot and then an eerie trill, almost like a ghost howl from a Halloween cartoon. I explained in a whisper that they were hearing is one of the smallest owls. I showed them with my hands how tiny it is, only about 8 inches tall. They relaxed. After explaining that this tiny raptor was less dangerous than a hawk, we walked slowly into the darkness of the cedar thicket. Three times we snuck up on the owl and I quickly turned on my light to reveal the bird before it few down the trail on quite wings. My brave group of 10 years olds were excited and thrilled to have had such an experience. 

As I drove home the next day, around dusk, I spotted a barred owl swoop across my path. I stopped my car and we watched each other. It sat in a colorful dogwood tree, and watched me watching it. I snapped a picture and the flash frightened it away. 

Owls have a spooky reputation. Perhaps it is their eerie nightly sounds. Or their huge knowing eyes. Or the way they turn their head to look behind themselves. Myths and legends have associated owls with either death or wisdom for generations. I am in awe of their grace and song. This year, for Halloween, I am invoke the spirit of the owl!

This Year's Jack-O-Lantern

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Stress Relief

Like most moms, with a million things to do and worry about, I suffer from stress. I know that stress is not good for my baby or me, so I have been trying to find ways to lower my stress levels. I took an herbal tincture during the day and drank a glass of wine at dinner until I got pregnant. Now I am struggling with more subtle stress reductions techniques. Of course, yoga and Tai Chi helps, but it is hard to find time and floorspace for that with a three year old. In fact, too many yoga positions say to him, "human jungle gym!"

The only thing that works every time is nature! I had a mental break down on Saturday. I just snapped. I couldn't handle life anymore. So I drove out to Owls' Knob, 50 miles from a streetlight, siren, or 24/7 store. Way out there I don't have a cell phone or Internet connection, the radio waves don't penetrate my brain and no one is calling me up to tell me their problems. I slept two nights listening to crickets and even a few hardy frogs. I took long walks during the day, through the tunnels of red, gold, and brown leaves. I started reading an old first addition copy of Gone with the Wind (old books are more relaxing to me somehow, written and printed in a slower paced world). For hours I just sat with my son, gazing dreamily at the colorful leaves and listening to whatever nonsense he had to say.

What is it about staring into nature that makes me feel so calm? It doesn't logically make sense. I still have to make food, wash dishes, and deal with my son's mood swings. In town I have a yard, my street is quite, and I have more modern convinces. What makes the dramatic difference? Research shows that sunlight boosts the levels of serotonin in the brain and fresh air (particularly air that is near a body of water) contains negative ions which are also necessary to balance the brain's chemicals. It is not just the quiet or beauty that the wilderness provides, there is something chemically going on in my brain that changes my mood when I am outdoors.

But that still doesn't explain why the back yard is not just as good at the deep Ozark wilderness. Why is the park or the bike trail not just as relaxing as a walk through the crunching leaves of the old oak and hickory trees? Perhaps science will not be able to answer that question. Maybe it will remain a mystery. However, I can feel it and I know it to be true. The remote Ozark wilderness is good for my soul and necessary for my sanity!  

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hello Trees!

"Hello tiny flower!"

Last week, Zane and I went many places to admire the colors of autumn's leaves. First we went to the park. There the falling leaves were mostly from Osage Orange trees. My son was more impressed by the huge Osage Oranges fruits than the yellow leaves. He is an observant young boy, and very curious. I stopped often because he was busy examining a stick, tree, bug, or flower. He also took time to say hello to many of these things.

The following day Grand-ma, her friend Zan, Zane, and I went to Yellow Rock at Devils Den state park. The round trip hike is about 3 miles long and it is categorized as moderately difficult trail on the Devils Den website. But Zane is a trooper, so we set off on the hike. At first the rough terrain kept him completely occupied and moving briskly. Every rock was an opportunity to climb a mountain and jump off a cliff. Often he stopped to greet a tree. I am not sure why he has decided he must greet the trees or what makes one tree so inviting while he passes so many others by. I have learned that it is pointless to argue, not worth the fuss. So we waited and watched him as he said hello and good bye to many a tree.

Half way through our journey we rested on a large rock and ate snacks. Then we descended the hill and rounded the mountain towards Yellow Rock. Upon the huge rock, in front of the amazing view, my three year old was not so impressed. A leaf or a tree is tangible, but a view is just vast. He does not recognize the size and scope of an entire valley and the mountains beyond yet. So we only stayed on the rock a short while, before walking back.
On the hike back, Grand-ma had to carry the boy often. As she became tired, she devise a game that encouraged him to walk. Grand-ma and Zane would hurry ahead and hide behind the biggest tree they could find. As we approached, they would jump out and scare us. It delighted the boy and kept him moving. Even after the long hike, the three year old was full of joy and energy. So we went down to the river at the Devil's Den picnic area to let Zane do what he loves most: throwing rocks in the water!

The next day, Grand-ma drove Zane and I out to Owl's Knob for a much needed visit. All summer, during the intense heat and drought, finding the time and energy to go out to Newton County was hard. But the colors of fall lured us deep to the wilderness. We drove out the long way, along highway 16, where the hills were dotted with color and cyclones of yellow leaves circled the car. All day we walked around the mountain. All around the cabin a halo of yellow glowed. Sunbeams turn golden as they were filtered by the wide compound leaves of hickory trees. As I walked through the forest to the north the rock, yellows gave way to deep reds of tupulo trees and joyous oranges of maples. Along the edge of the pond brilliant reds from the sumacs are set off among deep maroons of water logged sweet gums. I took a stroll down the long driveway and collected leaves. My favorites were oaks and maples that had just been touched with hues of red, as if fairies had come a painted their tips on the night. 
When the day was done, we said good bye to Owl's Knob. Zane said good bye to the trees.

Perhaps there is something to learn from the boy who talks to trees. I am not saying we should all go out and literally speak to trees, but maybe we would all feel better if we took the time to stop and silently greet the world around us, understanding and appericating it better in the end.  

"Hello, tree... Good bye, tree!"

Friday, October 12, 2012


After such a long hot summer, the cool winds of fall are refreshing. Color is creeping into the green forests as the days become shorter. Normally I would be inspired; I am very fond of fall, but I have been out of touch this year. I am currently 15 weeks pregnant and having a particularly difficult time so far. As summer has faded, so has my energy. I have also been incredibly sick. Therefore, I have not been spending enough time outside. My camera has been abandoned and my thoughts left with summer's energy. In the coming weeks I hope to find more energy to write about this fantastic season.