Burning Wishes

This 4th of July weekend, I had an incredibly proud parent moment or day, actually.  My daughter Kate never ceases to amaze me.  She is a very busy and focused woman raising my beautiful granddaughter, being a health department nurse overseeing infectious disease care (including COVID), working part-time as a prison nurse, and running a burgeoning bakery business on the side. As if that weren’t enough, she is a gardener, cares for pets, leads a Girl Scout troop, and recently joined her local community action group. I can barely find the time to do the handful of things I do each week and struggle to understand how she manages so much. And yet I remember that long ago, I too had that kind of drive and energy and could stretch out a day like nobody’s business. 

The huge thing she’s done that thrills me is starting an arts organization.  Kate and her family live in a very remote, rural, and underserved part of Illinois. She was raised as a country girl and continues to love country life.  But she was also raised by parents who enjoyed traveling and appreciated and made time for the arts.  When she was growing up, it was simply routine for us to take her to art museums, historic sites, and cultural events. As a result, she was exposed to a broad range of arts and history experiences. I cherish memories of her wide eyes taking in such things as Renaissance Fairs, galleries of the Chicago Art Institute, the blooming landscapes of botanical gardens, Ice Capades, and Native American Pow Wows. She even learned about the music of her parent’s generation while attending a concert of “The Monkeys,” who performed at Six Flags. 

I also am drawn to the arts and majored in art in college. I’ve painted, drawn, photographed, made jewelry, sewn, knit, crocheted, molded clay, and more throughout my life.  I was an event coordinator in my museum work and often brought Katie to work with me on days of events.  I suspect that her exposure to all this as a child was also absorbed and valued.

So my little girl, who is now 35, said to me, “I have this burning wish to find out if anyone else around me would like to have more of the arts in their lives.”  This was a big heart-swelling moment for me. She was not content to just privately dabble in the arts on her own. She desires a connection to other creative souls – for learning and growing more of that essential part of her being. 

So she began researching arts organizations in other communities, studying their mission statements, who they serve, where their funding comes from, and what kinds of activities they offer.  She created a Facebook page for an art group and began seeking input from interested parties.  She contacted her local community government and pitched her idea. After months of knocking on doors, she was invited to join the Action Brown County (ABC) Committee in planning a 4th of July event. The event would include an opportunity for her to explore public interest in arts activities. She decided to focus on art for young children. Through the support of volunteers, the ABC, and a grant from the Two Rivers Arts Council and Illinois Arts Council, she was able to co-host her first art event.  And by golly, it was like watching Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams when he heard a voice say, “If you build it, they will come.”

Altogether between 65 and 100 people visited the little arts tent at the Mt. Sterling Summer Bash. Children could create firecracker paintings by stamping or spraying watercolors. The event could be likened to a salad of colorful, messy, and delightful ingredients, and the little ones who came couldn’t consume enough. Parents also seemed to enjoy the crafts and offered many thank-yous. Then, as quickly as it began, it ended.  It was a stellar day.

I volunteered for her at the event, and at one point, when things were humming at the height of the afternoon, I stepped back to watch the buzz. The bright yellow “art tent” was filled with happy, bouncy children spraying paint, flinging glitter, and grinning from ear to ear. Their paintings were strung on lines around the tent, airing to dry. All the colorful works and busy moving children made the scene look like a living kaleidoscope.  A little voice in my head said, “She has done such a wonderful thing.”

So parents, grandparents, and teachers… keep buying those crayons and paints. Keep taking your kids to events. Let them be messy and explore. Let them get lost in the colors, sounds, and textures of their young lives. Expose them to the big swirly, dancing, color wheel of life and watch what they do with it. It just might come back to serve your family’s community someday, and you too will feel the massive swelling of the heart.

Sticks, Stones, Dirt, and Bones Are All the Things You Need

Photo by Helena Lopez (https://www.pexels.com)

When I was a child, my brothers and I had plenty of lovely toys to play with, yet we weren’t overwhelmed by too many playthings. What we had was beloved and became well-worn.  But just as much as we loved our toys, we loved natural things that we used in outdoor play and perhaps used these things just as much.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, long before video games, cell phones, and computers. It was a simpler time in so many ways. During summer vacations, we woke each morning with play in mind. The minute we finished our breakfast cereal, we were out the door, and there we remained, only coming back indoors for bathroom breaks and meals.  Sometimes after supper, we even went out and played some more until dusk.

So what could be so entertaining, you might ask? We entertained ourselves with our imaginations and the natural world. We climbed in trees and pretended we were in towers or were animals living in the trees. We made little forts and villages with rocks and sticks.  We drew pictures in the dirt. We collected found treasures like quartz and crinoid stems from gravel, as well as any animal bones, feathers, or broken bird eggshells we could examine. We had sword fights with sticks, jumped in puddles, rolled down hillsides, made clover chains, and caught butterflies, caterpillars, and fireflies in jars and nets.  We ate mulberries and stole grapes from the neighbor’s grape arbor.  We chased, somersaulted, jumped, kart-wheeled, biked, swam, camped, and laid on our backs, searching clouds for animal shapes.  You’d think we would run out of things to do outside. But the truth is there was never enough time to do all we wanted. The days were too short.

In my former employment, I had the opportunity to teach many children about fun and games of the past. In Native American cultures during prehistoric and historical times, children had few toys. Still, they played lots of games, many of which improved physical skills like hand-eye coordination.

One toy, commonly used, was Ring and Pin. It came in many forms, but basically, one or more rings (made of leather, wood, or bone) were attached to some string (sinew.)  The opposite end of the string was attached to a pointed stick. The objective in playing ring and pin is to swing the string and spear the ring with the pointy stick. As an adult, threading needles or even spearing animals would require similar hand-eye coordination, so in a way, playing ring and pin helped sharpen those skills.

Native American children also played lots of running games like chunkey and stickball in which balls or flat round stones were rolled or hurled at goalposts, much like in Lacrosse. Little boys also played target practice with bows and arrows. And little girls mimicked mothering with dolls made from leather and adorned with beads, horsehair, or tiny shells. 

Native American children also enjoyed stories told to them by the adults in their families. These stories often were oral histories of family origins, relationships, brave acts, or significant lessons kept alive by word of mouth. Adults told the stories many times until children memorized them. Since early Native Americans didn’t use any forms of writing, oral traditions were the only way to keep stories alive.   Other types of stories explained hard-to-understand phenomena in the world or spiritual and cultural beliefs.

When European arrived in North America, they brought with them their ways of playing too.  Little girls likewise played with dolls, and little boys played with slingshots. They played dice games, stick games, card games, ball games, string games, and marble games. One toy similar to the Native American ring and pin was Cup & Ball.  A small cup had a string attached to one side and at the opposite end of the string was a small ball. The objective was to toss the string and scoop the ball into the cup. 

Another simple game was “Jack Straws.”  It can be played in different ways. The most common way is like “pick-up-sticks.” Straws are dumped onto a surface and players are to remove the straws from the pile, one at a time, without causing other straws to tumble. An alternate way to use Jack Straws is for a player to place one straw on the back of their hand, toss it into the air, then try to catch it with one hand. If they catch the straw, then the player next places two straws on the back of their hand, tosses, and catches them.  Every time they catch the straws, they add more straws to the back of their hand in the next attempt.  If the straws fall to the ground, the player must begin again, with only one straw on the back of their hand.

In terms of entertaining stories, pioneer children didn’t usually have access to many books. Books were expensive luxuries. Families often read together at the end of a day, gathered around a fire. A parent would read aloud from the bible or another cherished.  Stories told for entertainment, and educational purposes often included Aesop’s Fables.  This collection of ancient Greek stories (attributed to a Greek slave named Aesop who lived between 620 -524 B.C.) uses animal characters to teach important lessons that reinforce good choices and moral behavior.

I can’t argue that playtime in the past was better than how kids play today. In all honesty, I’ve been highly entertained and educated by toys and books that my daughter and granddaughter have grown up using. I also can’t deny the delight they (or I) experienced watching Sesame Street and Disney movies or playing electronic games.  Life changes and we roll with the times.  But I will say that sometimes it’s good to revisit the ways of the past. Left without the tantalizing playthings we rely on today, what kind of games and amusements might we invent?   If you have kids and a place for them to play outdoors, turn them loose and watch.  I’m pretty sure their excellent little minds will come up with something wonderfully creative, all on their own.

Be sure to check out the “Activities” section of my blog, on how to make Some Simply Simple Toys.

In Praise of Childlike Abandon

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of going on a 3 day getaway to St. Louis, MO, with my daughter and granddaughter.   We only live a couple of hours from St. Louis, and the city has much to offer in the way of museums, shopping, art, and history. 

We got to visit St. Louis Arch and marvel at its construction. Additionally  we enjoyed the history museum beneath the arch, which has terrific exhibits on the St. Louis area being the gateway to westward expansion.  The museum, run by the National Park Service, offered children study booklets to use in the exhibits that help them focus on important content. My granddaughter and her mother worked together to find the answers and fill out the book. Afterward, Jaycie was “sworn-in” as a Jr. National Park Service Ranger, which she took very seriously.  Little did the ranger know that she adores animals and wild places and would love nothing better than to one day work for the National Park Service. After receiving her badge, she turned to me and said, “I really do promise to protect the parks and leave only footsteps, Grandma.” I could see it happening and felt my heart swell.

Next, we headed for The City Museum, another memorable and happy experience.  The old 5 stories downtown building has been converted into a children’s museum that encourages play and imagination.  The developers have cleverly and uniquely designed playscapes using rescued architectural elements and incorporated numerous hidden staircases, slides, tunnels, towers, caves, ramps, and more for visitors to explore. Fantasy faces of dragons, gargoyles, whales, lions, and mysterious creatures are found throughout the place. What tickled me the most here was seeing children crawling in and out of all sorts of holes. Anything goes here. 

At one point, I sat awhile to rest while watching my daughter and granddaughter enter the mouth of a gigantic white whale. They disappeared into the belly of the whale and 15 minutes later came out in a part of the museum I wasn’t expecting to see them exit from.  While I watched visitors walking by the whale, three small girls stood beside the whale, then got down on their tummies and wiggled into a very narrow space beneath the whale’s belly.  Oh, no! They shouldn’t be in there. They’ll get hurt or lost, I thought. Then I saw two bigger boys do the same.  And a few seconds later, a parent. Apparently, this was part of the plan, and everyone knew but me.  If there was an opening, you were allowed to go in and explore. Eventually, everyone crawled back out, sweaty and smiling.

At The City Museum, kids are completely free to be kids. They can be wild, loud, climb, spin, run, crawl, touch and investigate. You don’t see staff or parents shooshing them or saying don’t touch, or no, you can’t do that. Here it was okay to be inquisitive and express yourself.

On the second day of our trip, we visited the new St. Louis Aquarium. There we had great fun touching starfish, sea anemones, stingrays, and little minnows that kissed our fingers. Schools of fish, rays, and sharks swam over our heads. Jellyfish danced inches from our faces. An octopus tried to hide by pressing itself into a corner. And little eel heads popped in and out of the sand.

Lastly, we went to the Missouri Botanical Garden, a place we’ve been visiting since my daughter was little. I love that both the girls enjoy walking through gardens, smelling every flower, and taking pictures. We enjoyed the tropical plants of the Climatron, likely the closest we will ever get to a rainforest. And our time in the Japanese Garden, feeding gigantic koi, Canada geese, and turtles, was also great fun.

These experiences, which were planned for my granddaughter, were just as enjoyable for her mother and me. We had the opportunity to explore things in ways that weren’t available when we were children. I was reminded of the importance of occasionally stepping out of adulthood to see things with new eyes and allow my imagination to carry me for a time. All these things – crawling through tunnels, spinning like a top, petting stingrays, and walking through miniature rainforests was invigorating. I came home feeling that my world had expanded. I also came back regretting all the times I said no to my daughter when it may not have been essential. Sometimes boundaries just have to be pushed, and curious things must be tested. It’s the only way to grow.

For an excellent laugh, check out this week’s recommended read, 17 THINGS I’M NOT ALLOWED TO DO ANYMORE, by Jenny Offill.  It’s laugh-out-loud funny and completely captures the inquisitive nature of a child.

Grandma’s Gifts

This week my book review (under Recommended Reads) is  When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree by Jamie L.B. Deenihan.  I really loved this book, which got me thinking about my own grandmothers and what they gave me.  While I received many material gifts from them that I enjoyed throughout my time with them, it is the intangible gifts that I cherish the most.

Both my grandmothers were excellent cooks, and their cooking styles were radically different from one another.  What they had in common, though, was the ability to cook without reading recipes. All their recipes were in their heads. They also both taught me that some of the very best dishes required considerable patience to prepare.  Often the things family loved eating the most had the most love put in them.  Even if my grandmothers were hot, tired, and over-worked, they still put effort into making things people loved because they loved those people. That is what made cooking fun for them.

My Grandmother Johnson made fabulous fruit pies that were utterly beautiful to look at.  Her crusts were works of art, bubbled high and golden brown, sprinkled with sugar, and decorated artistically with little slits and designs.  There were no instant desserts in her kitchen. Things were prepared the old-fashioned way.  My brothers and I  helped pick the fruit. I even got to help run the cherry pitter if we picked cherries, but Grandma alone did the rest, adding her magic touch. 

My Grandmother Knapp had a way with fowl. She made excellent chicken casseroles, baked chicken, roast duck, and goose. She also hunted and fished and had probably learned about raising chickens from her grandmother.  If Grandma couldn’t buy it, she raised it, hunted, or caught it. No one went hungry if she had anything to say about it. This behavior likely stemmed from childhood trauma. She’d grown up in a family of ten that experienced a horrible period of poverty and hunger. Grandma could remember being hungry at a young age and frequently was fed popcorn for supper. Her hair began to fall out, and she was ill, so her parents sent her to her grandparents to recover. (Each of the children experienced health issues from time to time and were sent to live with relatives.) My Great Grandparents had a farm where my grandmother could get plenty of milk, eggs, vegetables, and whatever else they had.  She had intense gratitude for her grandparents because she felt safe and rescued by them.

My grandmothers were also gardeners, so I was always raised knowing the joy of growing your own food and putting it on the table.  To this day, I too garden, although now on a smaller scale.  But I swear there is no better salad than the one I make from our own herbs and vegetables.  I am indebted to them, and my mother too, for involving me in meal preparation and gardening — gifts I have relied on my entire adult life.

My grandmothers shared other gifts too.  Grandmother Johnson was very industrious and crafty. She made quilts from flour sacks and hooked rugs for her home. On summer vacations, she would have me practice making latch-hook rugs. This was another gift of self-sufficiency. I learned I could make the things I needed and feel great satisfaction in doing so.

I saw my Grandmother Knapp pretty much every week because she lived close by. One of my favorite gifts that she gave me was the gift of time. I was the only girl in my family and the only girl in a neighborhood of boys. I played many “boy” games and was a bit of a rough and tumble kid. Sometimes though, I just really needed to be a girl and felt like the odd one out.  My grandmother saw this. When she visited on Saturdays, she would take me with her to yard sales, auctions, and running errands. She became my confidant and shared stories of when she was a girl.  She treated me as her equal. Not as a child. We would go out for lunches at Wong’s Chinese Restaurant and drink tea. And best of all, when driving home, we would roll down the car windows, let the wind wildly blow our hair, crank up the radio and sing at the top of our lungs.  She taught me to feel free.

Resourcefulness, the gift of time, and knowing family will love you and do their best for you are just some of the precious gifts my grandmothers gave me.  I can only hope that I give my own granddaughter such priceless gifts.

Sacred Seconds

Well, it’s official. School is out.  And at our house, that means our precious granddaughter, Jaycie, comes to stay for her first week of summer vacation.  We really live for this time because there are so few opportunities for her to stay over during the school year. While she only lives an hour away, it seems the older she gets, the busier she gets with pets, chores, dance classes, girl scouts, and so forth.  Though we frequently speak on the phone, it’s simply not the same as having her beside us. When she is here, we can memorize her facial expressions and beautiful chestnut color hair. We can see the bright light in her crystal blue eyes.  And we can feel the electricity in the air from her endless energy. 

I think both Tom and I are different people when Jaycie comes to stay. We become excited kids again, going for hikes in the woods, discovering plants, rocks, and animals. We invent games, eat anything we want, stay up late watching movies, craft together, joke, and just bask in each other’s love.  We’ve cherished watching her grow from that inquisitive infant that would crawl into the kitchen cabinets, and dump out all of my pots and pans, to the brilliant little ten year old she is now. She can tease, show sarcasm, make up big fantasy stories, and report on all the facts she’s learned from watching David Attenborough nature documentaries.  She’s still a sweet and precocious little girl but on the cusp of being a savvy and determined teenager ready to take on the world. She is in that in-between stage where she still believes in magic and yet knows that sometimes life can become dark and scary, especially this last year with the trials of Covid-19.

On one day of her visit, we went through various projects that I discovered on Pinterest.  Having a grandchild is the perfect excuse to explore some simple crafts that you wouldn’t usually see a 61-year -old woman doing.  We learned about making nature mandalas, “nature crowns,” and “nature bracelets” and made dragonflies from maple seeds.  First, we started with an early morning walk to the park just a block away. We brought along a plastic bag for collecting interesting leaves, flowers, and sticks and tried to find as many diversely shaped and colored specimens as possible.  Along the way, we stopped for some birdwatching and to investigate a creek.

Back home, we dumped out our treasures and picked our favorite things for making into mandalas.  Our intention was to make the mandalas on the front lawn, leaving them for passersby to enjoy as they walked or drove by our house.  Because we live near the park, we see a good deal of foot traffic past our house, as an endless stream of walkers, with and without dogs, and families on bikes, head for the public greenspace. We were sure they would love our mandalas, which more or less are art for art’s sake and made as temporary creations to enjoy for the day.  But sadly, by the time we got back from our walk, it began to rain, so our mandalas had to grace the dining room table. We both became so quiet while making these and later remarked how relaxing and enjoyable it had been to create them.

Next, we moved onto “nature crowns” and “nature bracelets. Admittedly we both are too old for such activities. Yet, we had fun pretending we were wild women from the woods crafting our regalia. It’s good, no matter how old you are, to remember how wonderful a playful child-like imagination can feel. To make these crafts, all you need is scissors, cardstock, double stick tape, and an assortment of flowers and leaves.

Then lastly, we made the dragonflies from the maple seeds that littered my backyard.  We painted the seeds happy pastel colors, then glued them to sticks to make dragonfly bodies. We made dragonflies perch on house plants, placed them on sticks in bouquets, and glued some onto paper in collages.

Before you know it, lunchtime had come. Our morning ended, leaving us deeply satisfied with the entire process of going for a walk, seeking nature treasures, and making wonderful creations to celebrate our special time together. I think Jaycie enjoyed herself, and I know it was good medicine for me. Our dear girl has gone back home now. Still, the maple seed dragonfly perched on one of my succulent plants continues to make me smile. And I look forward to new adventures and each sacred second of her next visit.

No Place Like Home

A little over a year ago, my husband and I left our sweet little country home to move to the city of Macomb, IL.  While it has been quite an adjustment moving from a wide-open space and constant companionship with wildlife, we are adapting reasonably well to our new house and urban environment. We are fortunate in our comforts. Still, after all this time, I find myself thinking of our old place as “home.”  I wonder when does that feeling go away? And what exactly is “home?”

For animals, home begins with the perfect habitat – a combination of food, shelter, water, and space. When they find a place with those elements in the right quantities for their species, they carve out their living space and do the best that they can.  It’s as simple as that. You would think that would be true for people as well.  But I think there is one more element necessary to make a habitat feel like home…time.   It is time and perhaps a bit of habit and toughing it out that makes the change in feeling that we’re home. 

My latest book review, under Recommended  Reads, deals with just this very topic. Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler is the sweet story of a family under duress that must make a home out of a shack. The child telling the story is skeptical that a ramshackle structure could ever be “home.”  But by the end of the book, we see that it is time spent in the home… loving, enduring, repairing, and just living that transforms the space into “home.”

Perhaps it is true for all beings.  For a woodchuck, it is crawling into its den, time and again, escaping  the wind, rain, or snow and curling up into a warm little ball – safe from the outer world.  For a bird, it is flying home to its nest, day after day of chasing down insects and dodging watchful hawks, then nestling upon a small clutch of eggs that hold its hope for the future. And for me, it will likely be, coming home after a hundred hectic days, to the house lit by the glow of a living room lamp, where my husband waits for me as he reads a book. I will walk through the door, past rooms filled with their eclectic mix of him and me, our families, our past, and our present. He will hug me, and we’ll fall into chatter about how our days were spent.  Tired and glad to at last be cozy on the couch, that’s when I will no longer think of the old house and know I’ve come “home” to where I belong.

The Magic Hour

For as long as I can remember, I have been an early morning riser. I’m not sure what makes a person wake early. Neither my husband nor daughter are morning people. Both tend to come more alive at night and have no problem sleeping late into the mornings with the sun blazing through the windows and the hum of the buzzy world beginning its day.

I think a big part of the early morning wake-up time for me stems from anxiety. When I was young, there was always worry about getting up and ready for school and walking to school, which took some time.  From my mid-20’s until I retired, I rose early to make sure lunches got packed, my daughter got to school, pets were fed and walked, and I allowed plenty of time to commute to my job. For the better part of my working life, I was a commuter, often facing a 45-minute drive to work. Over the years, there was much anxiety over weather and road conditions. I have many memories of traumatic drives to and from work.

My commuting experiences included:

  • Hitting deer
  • Getting flat tires
  • Narrowly avoiding accidents with erratic drivers
  • Watching funnel clouds form in stormy skies
  • Fearfully praying out loud while slipping and sliding on icy roads.

But despite waking early to deal with the day’s anxieties, I have found that I’ve had no pressure many days.  I‘ve developed a certain amount of excitement about waking early and being alone with a cup of coffee when dawn breaks. I think of this time as the magic hour when I am handed the gift of watching a resting world come to life.

Typically I awake between 4:30 and 6:00 a.m.  Coffee is the first order of business. With messy hair and java in hand, I head to the den and stand at the windows to stare out into the yard. Often I see the shadows of little rabbits sneakily nibbling in my flower beds. And frequently, we are visited by a small herd of deer that roam the neighborhood at night when resident’s dogs are locked indoors. Next, I fire up my computer or grab a tablet of paper and begin writing.  At this hour, I am undistracted, my thoughts are clear and my own, un-driven by tasks and outside demands.  I can sit and ponder anything I wish, from my most outrageous wishes to my darkest memories.  I can giggle to myself, or shed tears over past pains, all alone, with no witnesses, other than the little houseplants and our pet turtle Tootles, who sit nearby. 

Time alone is significant to me. I need time to muster up the strength to face difficult things, hatch exciting plans, reflect on events that have transpired, and strategize on solving problems. I also need time to just sit, and breathe, close my eyes, and absorb stillness.  Early mornings are my time for being present in calmness.

One of my favorite books, as a child, was a Little Golden Book edition of A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Eloise Wilkin.  Wilkin’s illustration style spoke to me as a child of the 60s.  And though Stevenson’s poems were written in 1885, they capture a small child’s sense of wonder and curiosity about how things work in the world.  My favorite poem was My Shadow, in particular, the last stanza, which begins: “One morning very early, before the sun was up, I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup.” I’m certain Stevenson wrote this from his own “magic hour” experience. I too have stepped outdoors at dawn into the stillness and mystery. Perhaps, like me, Stevenson was an early morning riser who woke to create, wonder and seek answers to life’s questions.

My Shadow

by Robert Louis Stevenson

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.

He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;

And I see him jump before me when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow –

Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;

For he sometimes shoots up taller like an India-rubber ball,

And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,

And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.

He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;

I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,

I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;

But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,

Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Source: The Golden Book of Poetry (1947)

A World of Watchers

Every once in a while, Facebook likes to remind me of posts I’ve made in the past.  The other day, I received a notice of a post I’d made four years ago when I caught a juvenile Six-lined Racerunner (a type of lizard) while weeding in my garden.  The photo made me smile.

So many times when I’ve been alone outdoors, I’ve felt very much not alone and as though someone is watching me.  At first glance, one would never see just who is watching, but by spending more and more time in nature, you begin to see the eyes, sense the movements, or find the clues of others that are nearby and very much aware of your presence, even if you don’t always see them.

The story behind the Six-lined Racerunner is that for a few years, whenever I’d be working in the vegetable garden, I had the sensation of being watched, or I would see something darting about in the perimeter of my vision. I would turn to look and study things but never find that thing I felt was near.  Then one day, I spotted it, basking quietly among the zucchini vines. 

At first, I was unsure what I was seeing. It seemed a bit snake-like around the head and with its’ little stripes and coloring… like a baby snake. But then it moved, and I saw legs. I realized it was a lizard of some type.  It was about 4 inches long and moved like a bolt of lightning. My eyes tried to follow it, but it was so fast and blended in so well that I quickly lost sight of it.

Once I’d seen the lizard, I looked for it every day.  More and more frequently, I was able to find it. Somedays, it was confusing because it would be on my right, then suddenly on my left.  And then it dawned on me that there was more than one. 

Over time I must have sighted between 4 and 6. All seemed to be about 4 inches long. But then, one day, while clearing leaves from a nearby flower bed, I removed a clump of leaves and exposed an adult pair in the act of mating. They were perhaps 6 inches long and more mature than the others I’d seen –maybe the parents of the others.  I learned that they were burrowing beneath the corners of my raised beds and no doubt were doing their part to reduce insect populations in the garden.  I grew to love the little family of lizards living among our vegetables.

My husband and I have lived in our new city home for just a wee bit more than a year. Even though we have started gardening,  in our new location, I still miss the flowers and garden residents at our old home. I was grateful that Facebook reminded me of discovering the lizards not so long ago.

There were so many hidden watchers I discovered there over the years. Finding them requires time, sitting still, listening, watching, and soaking in your surroundings.  I recall seeing snakes and baby bunnies hiding in the grass, sphinx moths among the flowers, and the occasional walking stick trying hard to blend in with its surroundings.  Each discovery was like finding a hidden nugget of gold.

I have a new E-book in the works that will be coming out soon. It is titled, WHAT WILL YOU SPY WITH NATURE LOVING EYES? It’s about the creatures that live hidden all around us and features photographs I’ve taken over the last several years of hidden animals. The book illustrates camouflaging techniques used by animals and provides tips for deducing what kinds of animals might be in your vicinity. I hope children will love it. I know watching for who might be watching me is a favorite game I play whenever I spend time in nature. Honestly, we are never alone.

Coming soon: my newest E-book, WHAT WILL YOU SPY WITH NATURE-LOVING EYES?

May Day Memories

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things about spring was May Day.  It was a sweet and quiet event, celebrated at school and by just a handful of children on our block.  My mother explained it only as a celebration of spring and a way to let people know we cared about them.

We made little baskets by rolling cones of pretty pastel-colored construction paper. Then we stapled a strip of paper on either side of the cone opening,  to make a handle. If Mom had leftover scraps of lace or doilies, we cut pieces of the lacy work and glued them around the tops of the cone.  Then she instructed us to go outside and pick some flowers. Our yard always had some kind of flowers growing. We picked dandelions, violets, tulips, and my two most favorite flowers of all… lilacs and lily of the valley.

We brought our little bouquets back to the house, where mom trimmed the stems and wrapped them in a damp paper towel.  She then applied another layer of wrap such as tin foil or wax paper around the stems and held everything together with a rubber band.  We made several little bouquets and stuffed them into the paper cone baskets.  Then as a special extra something, we dropped in some sweet little hard candies. 

There was even one year when we must not have had construction paper in the house, so we used soup cans. We washed the cans, removed the labels, and Dad punched holes on either side of the can opening. Then we threaded twine through the holes and tied knots to make a handle. Mom attached ribbon bows on the corner of the cans to add some color then, we filled them with the usual bouquets.

The next part of the project was for us kids to disperse into the neighborhood, sneak up on people’s porches, hang the flower baskets on every doorknob, then ring doorbells and run. Often times we could get well away from a door before it was opened, but sometimes it was necessary to hide in the nearest bush.  Our objective was to deliver a surprise and not be caught doing it.

I remember a few of the elderly ladies, who surely knew we were near, opening their doors and loudly saying, “Oh how beautiful! Now, where did these come from?”  We always felt like we’d gotten away with a great caper. Still, there was also such deep satisfaction in giving our elderly friends something special and letting them know they were seen and loved.  This is something I’m sure more and more elderly would love to experience in this day and age.  And it’s something we should be teaching our children– honoring, respecting, and giving back to those who are now shut in and isolated.

Another May Day custom we practiced was in elementary school during “P.E.” (physical education), now called gym class.  We danced around a Maypole.  I don’t recall much orientation to the tradition of Maypole dancing, just that we circled around a pole with colorful streamers attached to the top of the Maypole.  Each of us held streamers and circled this way and that as the streamers twisted in our hands.  We would raise our streamers and go over and under a person to our left or right. The colorful streamers danced about in kaleidoscopic fashion from our movements:  it was a cool thing. For those who don’t understand what I’m talking about, I guess I would liken it to how kids play in group parachute activities in preschools and elementary schools today. The parachute’s colors and movements make them happy, as they learn to move together as a team and see what magical things their coordinated efforts can make happen.

May Day was first practiced in ancient Rome to herald the spring season, new crops, fertility, and love. The event would last the entire month, and there were lavish celebrations and ritual observances to the gods.  The May celebrations got a little out of hand at one point, focused too much on the fertility aspect.  So, the holiday was squelched for a while.  Eventually, it became more controlled. The tradition spread to countries the world over – with many cultural variations and meanings for May Day developing over time.

May Day is celebrated on May 1st, which is significant because that date marks the midway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.

May Day celebrations are enjoyed in many countries.  But there has been a decline in recognition of the holiday in America since the 1970s.  Today, some elementary schools continue to teach children about the custom. Still, sadly the rest of the adult world seems to be dismissive of it.

It is a custom that is beautiful, and I wish it would be revived.  But I fear that here in America, we have forgotten to celebrate the sweetest and purest things, like flowers, and all things that grow –including our growing selves.  Our holidays tend now to be about giving expensive gifts, gorging on foods, or watching sports. One can only wonder what our world might look like if we shared more flowers, more sweetness, more giving, more gratitude, and more crumbs of kindness.

Space Invaders (Part 2)

Bruno the Bear photographed by Bradley Darnell

Well, our little raccoon friend is gone. As I reported last week, we made a call to an animal control specialist who showed up the next day and set some traps. We caught her the first night, and the following day she was relocated. I had gotten up early the morning after we baited the traps, and when I approached the garage, I could hear her talking and rattling the cage. The minute I stepped into the garage, she became silent and started shaking all over with fear. I told her I was sorry, but she needed to find a more suitable place to live.

The concern, of course, was that she’d had babies in the attic garage, but after a thorough examination, none could be found. This was a great relief because relocating a mother raccoon with tiny offspring would likely not end well. The stress of finding adequate protection for them on short notice in new surroundings would have been pretty tricky.

I’m glad things were resolved quickly, and I feel better about her being in a new place in the country. I think she will fare better.

I am reminded of another wild animal that showed up in our area about a year ago. Last June or July, folks in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas were visited by a black bear that wandered down from Wisconsin. Dubbed “Bruno,” he created quite a stir. While bears are common in Wisconsin and known to cross from Wisconsin into northern Iowa from time to time, Bruno was different. He just kept going and going further away from his home territory, in hot pursuit of who knows what. Bruno was first spotted wandering about in cornfields. Over time, he was so bold as to walk through towns, across people’s lawns, and zig-zag along highways and backcountry roads. People couldn’t believe it. He was a bear, where bears shouldn’t be, or at least a bear, where bears hadn’t lived for over 100 years.  

Bruno quickly became a media sensation, and people began tracking him, reporting his whereabouts on social media. A Facebook page called “Keeping Bruno Safe” was developed to provide the most up-to-date information on Bruno sightings. Bear biologists speculated that Bruno was a young male seeking to establish new territory. He likely became lost in his quest. Others thought he might be seeking a mate. 

Whatever his purpose was in making his long journey, his quest would take him across five states and over 1000 miles. He is perhaps a “record-breaking bear, in terms of the distance he covered.

At one point in Bruno’s journey, he crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri, heading straight for the greater St. Louis region. This was not good. Soon he got boxed into an industrialized zone with multiple lanes of high-speed traffic, train tracks, and utility areas. He became cornered in a fenced-in area with no other option but to exit into chaotic traffic and threatening conditions. Conservation officers and staff from the St. Louis Zoo had to tranquilize him and relocate him to an area of Missouri where there were known bear populations. The hope was that Bruno would find this suitable habitat. For a time, it appeared he might stay. But after only a week or so, he left Missouri and continued into Arkansas. There, Bruno found the perfect place and decided to over-winter there. And there, he remains to this day.

While Bruno may have taken some birdseed from feeders, strolled through a garden or two, or knocked over a garbage can here and there, no one complained about these things happening. Bruno found plenty of food in the forests and fields along his travels. He didn’t seem to mind people but knew to keep his distance. His biggest challenge was probably maintaining a safe distance from people who insisted on getting too close to him – forgetting he was a wild creature.

Over 100,000 people followed Bruno’s story. He moved and inspired them in the most unexpected ways. Why? As I said before, he was a bear, where bears shouldn’t be. He was a wild thing that had invaded our bear-free communities and spaces. But it was more than that. Bruno appeared just two months after the outbreak of Covid-19 hit our country. When schools and businesses were mandated to close, and life as we knew it became frightening and uncertain, a bear wandered by. People fell in love with him because he was oblivious to human troubles. He was natural and pure and symbolized hope for the future as he marched onward, searching for the perfect place he could be. Like us, he wanted no trouble but to be happy, healthy, free, and safe. Never did an animal have so many people praying for his safe journey.

Much has happened since Bruno visited the heartland – a world economic crisis, countless deaths to Covid-19, a presidential election, mass shootings, attacks on our U.S. Capitol. But Bruno still reminds us that “this too shall pass.” We must push forward, give our best efforts, and believe in positive possibilities.