Wednesday, October 17, 2018


There is an expression, can’t see the forest for the trees.  It literally means getting so caught up in the details that one loses sight of the problem, the question, or the situation.  But in nature, it is the opposite. I can’t see the trees for the forest. And teaching a new class is just like that for me. I can’t see the children for the class.  Until I understand each child better, I don’t know what they need. I hope my lessons are meaningful but it takes me time to discover who each person is -  their individual strengths and challenges, likes and dislikes, friends and frienemies - before I know how best to steer attention and ignite curiosity.  That is my aim. Ignite the children’s curiosity so they become nature teachers too. We simply don’t have enough nature teachers and time is running out for the trees and the bees. But that is morbid. My aim is to inspire.   

I have been teaching a nature class called Naturally Fun to four and five-year olds for the last five years.  I have created a curriculum that introduces children to trees and leaves; birds, reptiles, and bugs; rocks and water.  I think I like my Watershed Class best but the Christmas Bird Count and Leaf Collection and Big Bug Dig are lots of fun too that it is hard to choose just one.  And every year concludes with a day at a nearby nature center where the kids get to go creeking. When the parents come, I feel like cupid because now I have gotten Mom and Dad to fall in love with nature too. 

My new class is a mixed Montessori group of elementary school kids. I have three 6-year olds, three 8-year olds and three 9-year olds. All are boys except for one girl who I will call Eve.  She is one of the 6-year olds and already showing her mettle; I am quite fond of her to say the least.  I am working with a seasoned teacher who is just as excited as the kids to learn more about nature and she patiently helps me to stay on track. Being a nature teacher means I am a little distracted. How could I not be? There is so much to see and tell! Where to begin?? Then I hear Julie Andrews start to sing and I think, oh right. Start from the very beginning. I am also working on curbing my wit. I am funny. But whether the kids understand my humor or not, they devolve easily.  Admittedly, I pack too much into my hour-long lessons…  I am working on that.

Recently, I came across a great term in Richard Louvs book, Last Child in the Woods. It is called Directed Attention Fatigue.  The way I interpret it, I should talk less. Smile more. And let the kids discover the woods themselves. (Thank you, Lin Manuel Miranda.)

Funny. This isn’t even the blog I wanted to write. I wanted to share what the Fernwood kids dug up. But today's lesson had the kids changing location every ten minutes so that I cycled three groups of three children to survey three sites and look for more than three invertebrates. THEN they had to count what they saw and write it down. YIKES! Even my head is spinning now that I think about how much they had to do in so little time.  The plan looked good on paper but it was unrealistic and neurotic. Fortunately, Adam (who would rather be engineering the trail,) saw a green, wingless insect on a spicebush leaf just as we were calling it a wrap, and he called me over to ask, What is it?  Fascinated by its color, I said, I don’t know! Hum. My guess it is an insect despite being wingless.

After the kids left, I spent time getting to know the neon bugger better. I am still not sure if it is an insect but it has most of the qualifiers: six legs, two antennae, maybe three body parts but no wings. Trapped inside an acrylic bug box, I discovered it climbs quickly on tall articulated legs; it reminded me of a daddy long leg.  And when it felt threatened, it folded up like a pop-up tent. I watched the critter for 10 minutes before walking further into the woods to look for more insects. What I found was this: a living snail underneath a huge oyster-like mushroom, (all the others we found were just dead, dried and empty shells,) and a white speck or feather floating in the air. It landed briefly on a limb near me before taking flight again. It wasn’t lint or fluff or feather after all. It was alive.

Next week I plan to repeat this week’s lesson but with a few edits. The kids will look for invertebrates at one site (not three,) and take as long as they want to see the bug for the invertebrates for themselves.

PS Here is the incredible mushroom. Can YOU see the shiny snail shell? Hint: It is a tiny glint and it is located in the lower right quadrant.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


Maintaining focus was harder than I thought it would be. Todays scavenger hunt did not include looking for insects or other creepy crawlers. But right in the middle of my blah, blah, blah speech about these sacred woods and what to look for it  happened:

A spider.

Mack practically jumped into my arms. (I think his name is Mack; they are all new to me.)  When I asked who likes spiders, everyone raised their hands. I like spiders too. Then we watched the spider  wind its way up over my head to feast on an insect it had caught earlier in its web.  Because we were already side-lined, I explained that spiders liquefy its preys guts and drink it. But here is the problem. I was not able to get a picture, therefore I cannot i.d. this spider. All I can say is that it was about the size of a wolf spider and it had a white patch on the back of its abdomen. There was no time for me to check out its web design because 1.) it was above my head and 2.) it was not the point of todays nature lesson.

THEN Gareth saw a worm, or so he thought, and he tugged my arm to get me to look at it.  It was a green, ½-inch worm and when it opened its mouth, it looked like his whole head was opening up.  Frankly, it reminded me of an alien movie. I was intrigued and really wanted to look at it longer but Gareth and I were the only ones who saw it. Then, as it happened, the 1/2-inch worm cut silk cord and dropped to the ground. Thank God because then I could get back to what I was doing…

BUT just as soon as we started on the scavenger hunt, someone shouted BEE! Is that a Bumblebee? NO, I replied. It’s a carpenter bee… or maybe a ground bee… I don’t know. But the bee seemed to be in  bad  shape so I moved it out of harms way.  No sense in anyone getting stung on their first day in Fernwood Forest.

Todays lesson was simply an introduction.  We weren’t supposed to talk about the animal kingdom yet.  But here is the thing: Fernwood Forest is a forgotten woods.  AND there is so much life in there!! I am looking forward to seeing things I haven’t explored yet and so are my  kids.

Monday, August 6, 2018


Stops me every time.

And stops my companion too.

Toward the end of a weekly training bike ride last Spring, I saw what I believed to be a bufflehead at Widewater and I made my bike buddy Kathy stop too. Its not the first time she has had to brake for birds.  On another ride along the canal just past MP12, bright orange feet grabbed my attention; it was all I saw before this wading bird flew into the woods.  Looking it up on my phone, I declared it a green heron. I don’t see them as often because they camouflage easily in foliage along the shore line.  But there it was plain as day and now Kathy has another Life Bird. (Kathy doesnt know it, but it is my aim to expand Kathy’s life list while I grow mine. Since 2018 started, my bird list has grown by 21 species but that is a story for another day.)

So many birds make the C&O Canal their home especially great blue herons which is a perennial favorite for most people; just think about all the artwork, wood and metal sculptures and note cards that adorn homes, yards and personal-style motifs – they are great blue herons.

Since we started biking in the Fall of 2017, we have braked for a solitary sandpiper, egret, kingfisher, king bird, wood duck, merganser, downy woodpecker, a barred owl and of course lots of eagles. Once we ran into a fellow bird enthusiast who set up a scope and let us look at the eagles nest across the river.

Bird calls stop us in our tracks too.  It is how we identified the yellow warbler. Lucky for us one was close by and waited while we made confirmation. I make Kathy listen for the eastern wood pewee all the time and sometimes make a fool of myself screaming queeeep, queeeep in the hopes of attracting a great crested flycatcher. And every once in a while, we hear a pileated laugh at us.

But birds aren’t the only reason we stop. I like snakes too. And snapping turtles and muskrats, (or was that a beaver we saw?)

This here is the eastern wood pewee and it happens to be my favorite little bird.