Posts tagged ‘nature’

New Neighbors?

Bald Eagles are a common sight here in Red Wing.  The city features “Eagle Spot” weekends in February and March when hundreds of visitors flock to Colvill Park to to watch vista of scores of the birds feed in the Mississippi near the nuclear power plant.  Eagles are drawn to the Red Wing area by a lack of ice and abundant food supplies, most notably the gizzard shad.  These large gatherings of bald eagles are an especially valuable opportunity for young birds who get a chance to improve their skills by watching experienced birds fish.

Bald Eagles typically prefer to live near lakes, seacoasts, rivers, and other large bodies of open water where they can fish. Studies  They require stands of old-growth or mature trees to roost and nest in. Locally, over 2,800 acres of forest marshes, bottomland and floodplain along the Mississippi, Vermillion and Cannon rivers provide excellent habitat and populations are steadily increasing. The most recent information I could find said that there are currently 872 bald eagle nests in Minnesota, including two dozen nests along the Mississippi River from the Twin Cities to Lake Pepin.

Nesting eagle typically begin incubating their eggs in early March.  So, nesting season has started and the birds are now migrating north or spreading out into their own territories.  Except in winter, when supplies are scarce, Eagles are territorial, they don’t like to share.

We’ve seen Bald Eagles flying over our place on a regular basis for the last week.  Several times a day I look up (if I’m outside) or out the window (if I’m inside) to see an unmistakable visitor. 


Eagle photographed while standing at my kitchen sink

According to information I found at ConservationMinnesota:

 Cannon Valley trail manager Scott Roepke that eagles are back in the nest about 1 mile upstream of highway 61.  During the last decade, nests, reported by an army of volunteer wildlife watchers, have appeared along the Mississippi to within a couple of miles of downtown St. Paul. Eagles have spread up the Minnesota River, where years ago they were never seen.  

We’re about four miles away from this nest as the crow flies eagle soars.  We’re also about four to five miles from the nearest marshes and small lakes along the Mississippi north of us – so I wonder if there’s a nest somewhere nearby.

March 9, 2009 at 1:35 am 3 comments

Play — or Pay

Two interesting articles caught my eye today.  First in “The Serious Need for PlayScientific American points out that children and animals that aren’t given opportunities for loose, unstructured free play when they are young grow up to be anxious, socially maladjusted adults. Then in “The End of Solitude,” The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses how technology is taking away our ability to be alone (h/t to Matt Mullinex of Querencia for this one).

Two seemingly unrelated articles – but I believe that they’re both related to the same issue – the diminishing importance of nature in our lives.

As I’ve written here before, I am concerned that we are creating a world where young people prefer to learn about nature though Podcasts, interactive computer games, television and surfing the web rather than by actually experiencing it.

SciAm reports:

Most psychologists agree that play affords benefits that last through adulthood, but they do not always agree on the extent to which a lack of play harms kids-particularly because, in the past, few children grew up without ample frolicking time. But today free play may be losing its standing as a staple of youth. According to a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children’s free-play time dropped by a quarter between 1981 and 1997. Concerned about getting their kids into the right colleges, parents are sacrificing playtime for more structured activities.


But kids playsoccer, Scrabble and the sousaphone-so why are experts concerned that these games and more structured activities are eating into free play? Certainly games with rules are fun and sources of learning experiences-they may foster better social skills and group cohesion, for instance, says Anthony D. Pellegrini, an educational psychologist at the University of Minnesota. But, Pellegrini explains, “games have a priori rules-set up in advance and followed. Play, on the other hand, does not have a priori rules, so it affords more creative responses.”

Free play is natural play.  It’s playing with other kids when there aren’t any adults around to supervise or intervene. It’s not a soccer game organized by rules, coaches and referees. And it’s not Guitar Hero where rules of rhythm, pitch and imitation control the action even when you’re playing alone.

Free play is crucial in developing healthy social skills in all social animals. You can’t learn how to deal with bullies – or learn not to be a bully when there’s always a grownup there to butt in. And the idea of taking turns becomes a lot clearer when your skill at it directly relates to how often you get to participate in games.

When I was a kid, most of our free play time took place in nature. An overgrown vacant lot. The wooded area behind our school. A stretch of marshy land along the lake. A cow pasture. Those were ourplaces. Places we were free from adult interruptions and interference. Places where we did the stupid things that taught us a lot of the most important lessons of our lives. No helmets, kneepads, referees or rulebooks required.

Was it safe? Hell no, it wasn’t safe. I got a concussion, I broke my hand, I broke two ribs, lost my big toenail and ended up with stitches more times than I can remember. I got my feelings hurt and I did stupid, mean-spirited things that hurt other kids’ feelings. But those physical and mental hurts healed and in the process my friends and I learned things we couldn’t have learned anywhere else.

And because those free, empty places were an integral part of my life, I learned how to spend time alone. A skill that I fear will soon be numbered among lost arts like root cellaring and rhetoric. Deresiewicz writes:

Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn’t say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can.

How did this happen?

…Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. What technologies of transportation exacerbated – we could live farther and farther apart – technologies of communication redressed – we could bring ourselves closer and closer together. Or at least, so we have imagined. The first of these technologies, the first simulacrum of proximity, was the telephone. “Reach out and touch someone.” But through the 70s and 80s, our isolation grew. Suburbs, sprawling ever farther, became exurbs. Families grew smaller or splintered apart, mothers left the home to work. The electronic hearth became the television in every room. Even in childhood, certainly in adolescence, we were each trapped inside our own cocoon. Soaring crime rates, and even more sharply escalating rates of moral panic, pulled children off the streets. The idea that you could go outside and run around the neighborhood with your friends, once unquestionable, has now become unthinkable. The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the grandparent of a kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space.

Lost in an alien space of our own creation, we put our faith in regulation and technology, thinking they’d save us. But instead of saving us they’re retarding our social skills, reducing our ability to cope with stress and anxiety, eliminating our opportunities for introspection, making us less flexible and creative — and creating in us a disturbing sense of uneasiness with nature.  Our access to places where we can play freely or enjoy solitude shrinks as we become subject to increasing levels of rules and regulations. Will we continue on this path and develop new values as we become more like our new electronic companions or will we find ways to rediscover the values of our ancient ones?

Go HERE to read Melinda Wenner’s SciAm article on play and HERE to read Deresiewicz’ excellent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

         Jack russel long haired ( 1 years )aibo

January 29, 2009 at 5:26 am Leave a comment

Celebrate Solstice!

The Winter Solstice marks the astronomical beginning of winter north of the equator.  This year the solstice occurs on December 21, 2008 at 6:04 AM CST. However, meteorological winter, as defined by the onset of winter-like weather conditions, occurs earlier in the year as one moves farther north. Here in the Upper Midwest, meteorological winter runs from December 1 to the end of February.

For those of you who may be astronomically challenged, the Winter Solstice occurs when the sun sits at its farthest apparent point south in the sky and we have the fewest number of daylight hours in the year. 

Contrary to what many people believe, the changing of the seasons is not caused by the Earth’s distance from the Sun. They are created by the 23’30” degree tilt of Earth’s axis off  a line perpendicular to the ecliptic.   This axial tilt affects how much sunlight each part of the planet receives at different times of the year. Axial tilt is difference between having seasons and not having seasons.  It is the engine that drives the hydrologic cycle – and supports life on earth. 

When the winter solstice arrives here in the northern hemisphere, the North Pole  is tilted away from the Sun as shown in the illustration below:


In ancient times the solstice marked the beginning of both longer — and leaner days. Livestock were often slaughtered to provide meat and to save fodder, so feasting was one way our ancestors celebrated  the Solstice.  Fire festivals, which evolved into the Yule Log tradition are another ancient ritual.

You’ll have to provide your own feast, but here’s a bit of Yule Log cheer to warm your Solstice:

Yule Log – The Director’s Cut

December 20, 2008 at 7:36 pm Leave a comment

Springtime Odds and Ends

Spring is desperately trying to make headway against winter’s insistent pull.  As soon as most of the snow disappears from our yard, another storm blows in and dumps a half-foot thick wet blanket on our warm weather aspirations.

The dogs don’t mind.  They love the snow.  The young dogs sprint through the slushy mess grinning as it splashes around them.  They roll and wrestle in the deeper bits and the old dog rouses his tired bones to join them, at least for a bit.

I sulk.  Unlike the soft, feather-light snows of our winter storms that can often be cleared off the walks with a push broom, the spring snows are more water than ice.  Water just cold enough to have an unstable, yet somehow inert, form.  It’s aptly referred to as ‘heart attack snow.’ 

To distract myself from the evil whiteness I’ve been listening to CDs on birding by ear as I putter around the house.  I got the first one at the recommendation of a friend whose husband’s encyclopedic ear is legendary.  I expected to listen to it a few times, lose interest and move on to something else.  Instead, I’ve become addicted. 


We live in a wonderful area for birding.  Our place sits on a wooded bluff above a spring-fed creek a few miles above the Mississippi River.  Hardwood forests, open fields, cliffs, creeks, broad river areas, marshes and suburban yards are all located nearby.  It’s a veritable smorgasbord of habitat.  The Mississippi flyway bottlenecks not far from us, where the River flows into Lake Pepin, making this one of the best birding areas in the country.

In just the last couple of days along with the regular avian visitors to our bird feeders I’ve seen great blue herons, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, a northern flicker, a  couple of robins and several red-winged blackbirds.  The robins and blackbirds were especially exciting to see as they are harbingers of… dare I say it…. Spring! 

And now that I’ve had just a bit of time to listen and study the song identification CD, even though I haven’t seen them, I can also tell that barred owls, saw whet owls and a sand hill crane have been by to visit. 

Another of my favorite springtime occupations is picking up the winter’s harvest of poop.  Odd, isn’t it?  It should be an unpleasant job but ambling around the two acres or so that we keep mowed gives me a chance to reacquaint myself with the ground my feet haven’t touched in at least four months.  And I sometimes find interesting things along with the poop.  Just this week I came across a disc-shaped wasp nest and the pinecone shaped nest from some bald-faced hornets.  I found an old udder tug that Zip was thrilled to see and the severed head of a rabbit.  The rabbit head disturbed me a bit at first, but I called my friends Sharon and Mark from Northwoods Wildlife Center and they told me that great horned owls often sever the heads of their prey.  So, though it may be a bit creepy, it’s just another bit of evidence that these owls are regular visitors. 


Since we’re spending more time indoors that we’d like (I think it’s safe for me to speak for the dogs here) I’ve been doing more fetch work with young Audie.  We’re moving on to having him pick up and carry large, awkwardly shaped items like bath towels and fleece jackets.  This is difficult in several ways.  First, he has to figure out how to grab the item – as a grabbing place is not necessarily obvious, then he has to work hard to pick it up because its heavy and finally he has to figure out how to drag it without stepping on it. 

I find it interesting to see that as we advance with fetch work, Audie carries around things similar to the ‘difficult things’ we’re working on with a Very Focused Look on his face.  I’m convinced that he does this to practice.  We just started working on large, awkwardly-shaped items on Sunday.  Starting last night, he’s begun to pick up largish fabric items he finds on the floor (sadly not a particularly difficult task in our house) and dragging them to me.  This am as I took my wakeup pee, he dragged the size XL long-sleeved t-shirt Mark slept in to me looking Very Proud of himself.  He made of point of handing the shirt to me, then strutted off.  I’m convinced that he was telling me “See, I CAN do this!”

April 3, 2008 at 8:11 pm 3 comments

A Lovely Waste of Time

Sometimes I need to re-examine my priorities.  Chores, bills, work and other responsibilities – I tend to take them too seriously.  A little of this a lot of that… and the next thing I know I’m bogged down in a great big pile of pointless grownup stuff. 

The old dog has been doing a wonderful job lately of showing me what is, and is not, important. 

My husband and I have taken to spoiling the old fellow a bit.  Well, OK.  More than a bit.  But we adore the old fellow and it doesn’t look like we’ll have the chance to do it for a lot longer.  Age and an entire Minnesota smorgasbord of health problems are taking their toll.  I doubt he’ll make it to summer. 


The wonderful thing is that he’s a dog and utterly unaware of his mortality.  He seems to be utterly convinced that he will heal to roam the hills with me again.  And I’m quite happy to indulge him in that fantasy. 

Tonight the old fellow, the pup and I went out for what was to be a short evening constitutional (i.e. poop break).  It was a calm, quiet, warm (30 degree F) night.  Our house sits at the end of a very long drive on a hillside overlooking a steep ravine and creek near the Mississippi River.  Hardwood forest, cliffs, creek and scrub – it’s a great place for wildlife. 

Being a clueless, impatient human who thought she had other, more important, priorities (laundry, bills, correspondence) my goal was a quick potty break and return to the house.  Zorro had a different agenda. 

We walked next door to the training center.  I tied up a few loose ends, gave the boys each a liver snack and planned to head right back to the house.  I was about a third of the way there when the old fellow stopped and gently blocked me from going any farther.  The old guy is not terribly steady on his feet any more, so when he moved in front of me I had to either stop, or knock him over.  So of course I stopped. 

As I did, he looked up at me with a very calm, very serious gaze.  He distinctly made eye contact, and then pointedly looked up the hill.  It was a look that said “there’s something important up there – look!” 

So, of course I followed that important gaze. 

On a quiet night a lot of sounds punctuate the night air at our place.  Tonight I heard the creek roaring with spring runoff.  I heard a distant freight train.  Trucks, probably hauling grain, on the highway a few miles away.  Then, just faintly – coyotes.  Right exactly where the old dog’s nose was pointed. 

We sat for a while together.  The old guy leaned comfortably against my thigh.  It was a quiet, dark, starless night that made the world seem a bit smaller and more intimate than the crystal clear, bitingly cold nights we’ve had until just recently. The two of us stood together and listened to the coyotes sing far away. 

And then he turned.  With a quizzical look the old dog leaned out and looked around me to the woods along the creek – and I heard it too.  A barred owl calling.  Soft, muted.  In the bit of pine forest behind the training center


The owl called just a few times then continued his hunt.  The coyotes went on to sing a long, complex song.  They were interrupted once by deer bleating on the hillside above us.  The puppy heard them and barked once (silly puppy) and we heard crashing sounds of brush and corn snow as they ran for cover. 

A quick potty break had turned into an hour long symphony of night sounds.  Beautiful sounds and experiences I would have missed if it wasn’t for an old dog with a ruined body and a strong and resilient soul. 

The laundry, the bills and all those other banal responsibilities of day to day life will still be there tomorrow.  Why should I waste time on them when the coyotes, the owl, the deer – and my wonderful old dog – might not? 

It was a lovely waste of time.

March 17, 2008 at 5:58 am 5 comments

Are we Afraid of Nature?

According to recent studies, computers and climate-controlled shopping malls have replaced the natural world in the leisure activities of our children.

Are we headed for a world where people no longer feel comfortable with nature?


In a recent study conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago, trends in the number of Americans visiting natural areas like State Parks, National Forests and campgrounds were analyzed.  Investigators also reviewed trends in the numbers of outdoor licenses (fishing, hunting, trapping, backpacking, etc.) issued during the study period.  Results indicated that the number of visits by Americans to natural area peaked between 1981 and 1991 after 50 years of steady increases.  They further showed that visits have steadily decreased since that peak at a rate of approximately 1% per year.

According to Patricia Zaradic of the Environmental Leadership Program and co-author of the report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. “It would take 80 million more visits this year to get the per capita number back up to the level it was in 1987.”

According to a study published by the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning group;

“If children’s natural attraction to nature is not given opportunities to be flourish during their early years of life, biophobia, an aversion to nature may develop. Biophobia ranges from discomfort in natural places to contempt for whatever is not man-made, managed or air-conditioned. Biophobia is also manifest in regarding nature as nothing more than a disposable resource.”

Communing without nature… 

This aversion to nature has become increasingly common in people raised in suburban surroundings where nature is tolerated only in as much as it cooperates as a decorative accent.  We are creating a world where young people prefer to learn about nature though Podcasts, interactive computer games, television and surfing the web rather than by actually experiencing it.  

Have we become a society where we are more comfortable with technology than nature? 

 And there’s more to this than just the allure of those nifty electronic devices… Richard Louv, chairman of the Santa Fe, N.Mex.–based Children and Nature Network and author of “Last Child in the Woods”, ascribes the change to increasing school and work pressure on children and parents.  He’s also concerned about the fear factor. “You didn’t have the concept of stranger danger [in the past],” Louv says.  If you are raising a generation under protective house arrest, will they have a joyful experience in nature?”


Now that we have a media more interested in making news than reporting it, the concept of ‘stranger danger’ (much like that of killer pibbles) has been blown utterly out of proportion. Sadly, 85% of all children who are molested are the victims of people they know well, they are not attacked by strangers. Statistically speaking, your child is likely in more danger at home or at school as he or she is out on a hike. But the never-ending string of heart-rending stories about children kidnapped and brutalized by random strangers hyped by the media not only affects us all – it also gives us a false sense of danger.

Your creepy uncle Edwin is likely far more dangerous to your child than that random killer you’ve never met.  Not just because Edwin is, statistically speaking, far more likely to molest your child but also because your deep, (understandable) but misplaced fear of that nameless, faceless stranger keeps you from allowing your child to experience the joy, beauty and freedom that time alone with nature provides.

Watching a spider build her web, eating fresh picked gooseberries, catching frogs, climbing trees, looking for shooting stars, and seeing fantastic creatures appear and then evaporate away in the shapes of clouds – you can’t reproduce those kinds of experiences electronically.

And without those kinds of direct, hands-on experiences, the value of nature is lost on us.  Without it, we can’t know how inexplicably beautiful and awe-inspiring nature is and its impossible for us to have a real idea of how our actions impact the environment.

 I could devote an entire book to how and why modern Americans fear nature and another one to the deleterious effects of that fear.  Instead I’d like to propose a remedy for the epidemic. I believe that dogs are that remedy. Despite what Jon Katz, the author of “The New Work of Dogs” says, I think that one important reason we have been blessed with the companionship of these wonderful creatures is – their ability to re-connect us with nature. 

If you have a dog, you need to walk it. Walking a dog means you have to be outdoors. Being outdoors with a dog involves spending time with a being that finds inexpressible joy in the smells, sights and sounds of nature.  To a dog, urine is beautiful, bugs are interesting and grass is made to roll in. Walk your dog.  Listen to your dog.  Find the joy in the weeds in your lawn, the spider in your basement, the mice in your garage and the stars in the sky.  Put away the iPod and your computer.  Shut off your television, get out of your car and experience the world with your dog. I guarantee it’ll make you a better (and happier) person.

February 18, 2008 at 6:45 am 4 comments

Natural Security vs National Security

“A new book due to come out shortly caught my eye today. Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, is the result of more than two years of investigation and debate by a multidisciplinary group of scientists and security experts lead by Duke University’s Raphael Sagarin and international security expert Terence Taylor. 

The book explores the myriad ways that biological organisms have found to protect themselves from the threats posed by predators, disease, and other dangers in the environment.  “Arms races among invertebrates, intelligence gathering by the immune system and alarm calls by marmots are just a few of nature’s successful security strategies that have been tested and modified over time in response to changing threats and situations,” Sagarin said. “In our book, we look at these strategies and ask how we could apply them to our own safety.”

According to early reviews the book explores how evolutionary models and ideas can be applied to threats ranging from terrorism to natural disasters and the spread of disease.

It sounds like a fascinating premise and I look forward to reading the book.  I think that the current popularity of popular books on cross-disciplinary studies is a wonderful thing. My bookshelves are full of books like Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked; Candace Pert’s Molecules of Emotion; Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness and more.  

We’ve reached a wonderful point in world culture where the proliferation of new knowledge and ideas combined with the searchability and availability of information are coming together in an absolutely wonderful way. Not only are we discovering more pieces of information every day, we also have a much better ability to see how they fit together. 

And the fit is often surprising.

A report last year by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed what most Americans already suspected. Despite heightened awareness and tightened restrictions, “the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) cannot possibly control all potential threats to airport security. According to Raphael Sagarin “Biological organisms inherently understand this. They realize they can’t eliminate all risk in their environment. They have to identify and respond to only the most serious threats, or they end up wasting their resources and, ultimately, failing the evolutionary game.

Here’s the important thing folks, right from the expert – Mother Nature.  It is impossible to eliminate risk.

So why is our society so obsessed with doing just that? From soccer moms to news reporters and trial attorneys, eliminating (not minimizing) risk is the key issue in modern life. We worry that satellites will fall on our heads, pit bulls will attack us or that we’ll die of bird flu —  when it is far more likely that we’ll die on the toilet, be killed by a loved one or succumb to a common flu virus (even though statistics say that the latter three are much more likely than the first). The unknown scares us. This is an evolutionary advantage, or at least it used to be.  But that fear of the unknown is an ancient piece of our psyches that we focus too much on today, largely because politicians and the media find it convenient to hype issues that focus on fear rather than facts.H. L. Mencken had it right when he said that “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety), by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”There’s a great quote in this new book that hits this issue head on: “Whether you’re dealing with al Qaeda or an emerging pathogen, studying animal behavior teaches us basic principles of survival,” Sagarin said. “You can’t eliminate all risks, so you have to focus on the big ones, while adapting to minimize risk from the rest. You have to be aware of your environment, understanding that it’s constantly in flux. And when it comes to adapting and responding to threats, a centralized authority can get in the way. Individual units that sense the environment, with minimal central control, work best.” Are we the enemy, or is the enemy a government and media that control us by playing on our fears?


January 29, 2008 at 6:40 am Leave a comment

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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