Notes from Camping with 13 Year Old Girls

Age 13 is often a challenging time for a kid. It’s the transition time. Biologically, humans turn adult during this year, give or take a couple. While cell differentiation in certain body system’s are blasting away a million times a second, differentiation from one’s care givers, like a rocket separating from the mother ship in orbit, also approaches the sound barrier.

Girls viewing Cow Pie Hill-small.jpg

“Wow, this field is like the Sound of Music.”

A 13 year old can also be tough on guardians involved.  In other words, it’s an age when kids sometimes drift away into scary teenage-hood, and some grownups (parents – possibly not fully adults themselves?) can make it worse. Sound mildly familiar? It wasn’t the full intention, but bringing my daughter and her two 13 year old friends almost felt like a lunar landing of sorts, bridging a bit of the disconnect that can crack its way into adolescent-adult relationships. What a treat. Me and three wonderful adolescent girls on the brink of leaving childhood.

Girls Standing in Rapids-small.jpg

“Ok, we really need to get some pictures here. Like – a lot of pictures.”

Let’s get right to it; by the numbers, here are some of the awarenesses:

  1. They still care a lot about sounding older. Busted. Two of the three are actually still 12, but all three unanimously voted to have 13 represented as the number in the title.
    Girls at Bruce Trail Sign-small.jpg

    “So can we actually walk the entire 900 km trail, from Niagara Falls to Tobermory?” Yes, but not today.

    2. Man, 3 is a tough number. It is a triad of possible breakdowns, and ephemeral imbalanced alliance formations. It’s actually a great opportunity to sit back and watch the dynamics, and insert oneself in service to what the Universe may be asking of any given kid in any given situation. This is where adulthood and a shake of wisdom can shine in on conflicts. It’s also good practice for not favouring one’s own kid, while also not consistently giving them the short end of the stick.

    Erica Exploring Eddy in Creek-small.jpg

    “Can I walk over there in that golden pool?” Sure. Take it one step at a time.

3. They like having their pictures taken. Dah!!! You’re thinking, they are 13. Sarcasm: that’s really insightful, isn’t it. Not exactly? It actually is. You know where we had to go to get some great shots for Instagram or SnapChat? Forests, meadows, rock piles, hill peaks, waterfalls, rapids, streams, etc…. once there, the allure of nature’s charm takes over. In theory, that is. Sans insects, that is. Or at least, a manageable number of insects.

Girls with Goats-small

It’s not very often you get goats coming by looking for love and any handouts. They actually wagged their tails when you pet them. It turns out, many 13 year old girls like goats.

4. They love sports when introduced and facilitated the right way. This can be said of all kids, but I think it might be fair to say girls still feel isolated, uncoordinated and less likely to engage. I thought this would change a lot since I was a kid, but I’ve recently watched many schoolyard interactions and it hasn’t. To get girls or any non-athletically bent kid to engage in sports for fun activity and community building: 1. Make it easy. e.g. Move closer to the basket and/or lower it; 2. Counter any peer shaming taunts with really positive infused alternative comments invoking different points of view and teamwork vs. individual achievements. 3. Change up the teams frequently to avoid us vs. them mentality. In no time, these kids were dying to play the three semi-competitive games that I built into a scavenger hunt.

3 girls at camp site-small.jpg

Wow. Eating food cooked by burning logs. “How do you turn it down or up according to the cooking instructions?” Goooooood question.

5. Camping affords the development of refined rabbit ears. Being paper thin, one can hear anything between tents. I found the superpower developed here is the fairness, and safety ears. Privacy is still fully afforded. Mostly. These ears filter out the private, regular and fun drama that’s shared between friends. But when the imbalance, teasing, or even worse bullying erupts, this superpower triggers the alarms and the dudes in tights inside slide down the grey matter poles, perking up for interception.

Cow Sunset.jpg

With the vast majority of us now living in cities, slowing up to watch the sun go down on the cows isn’t an every day occurrence. “Are these, like, the kind that we eat?” Gooood question.

6. Showers are not necessary every day. These girls just proved it. Feel free to use this for any such young teens you may have. At home, the contrary is true. Showers are lived in. Sometimes needed twice a day. Camping, well, it doesn’t matter so much.

Grillies-small.jpg

“Oh my god, you forgot the ketchup? Like, what will we do?” Goooood question. I don’t eat them without ketchup either…the Unitarian Camp up the lane way pulled through and squirted us ample ‘loaner’ ketchup.

7. We all tell lies on occasion. Some of us more than others. Watching directly 13 year olds around food, chores, and friendships is fertile grounds to call subtle ‘inaccuracies’ with humour and without shaming. I found these past few days really questioning how I tell certain truths and avoid others.

Ellis On Rock in Rapids-small.jpg

Running water, dappled sunlight, Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies gracing our spirits. “You know, this place is so calm and peaceful.” Yah. It really is.

8. A scavenger hunt can really blur lines. For one, the cell phone or ipod is a great tool. They had 35 things to ‘find.’ A few items on the list included, photos of a horse (or 3), a bird’s nest, twelve different flowers, a baby bird, a selfie of the three of them on the highest nearby peak….

Three Wild Horses.jpg

A horse farm was on the edge of the forest of our camp site. They slept near the fence, snoring at night, keeping me awake at my computer, helping me consider 13 year old logic and wisdom.

How did they do? What was great is that they set up to explore a largely unknown landscape on their own. This built up their confidence. I think it also developed some leadership skills. They got most things on the list.  A few I assisted, others were helped by neighbouring campers. I did include a big incentive; a little gift back of age appropriate goodies for young people/girls (my wife did this). Included within was a journal.

Planned the day after the scavenger hunt was some reflective time after hiking 1.5 hours on the Bruce Trail towards Collingwood. Not knowing this section of this wonderful 885 km trail, it was a mystery to me what it might look like and where we might stop. Luckily, we stumbled on God’s country. After an hour’s hike climbing up rocks, descending down across meadows, and traversing a few short edges of fields of cattle and horses, we settled creek side in awe. Rapids split around rocks the shallow and narrow stream. With great care taken, we waded in, finding our ‘summer feet’ and easily withstanding the cool summer stream for the golden experience. To boot, the banks of the glistening stream were covered with trees pumping out pure magic into the air; Phytoncides – essential wood oils, that were thick in the air, thanks to the Hemlocks, Eastern Cedars, and Red Oak trees.

Three Girls in Forest Serious-small.jpg

They walk in the present, staring down a how to be for many moments in the future.

After a solid 15 minutes of photography, they sat for a while just with their feet in the rushing water. This activity is known to provide a plethora of health benefits from removing positive ions, to eliciting sensations and stimulation in all parts of the body thanks to the feet being in touch with most major systems found within us. Feet also work hard and repeatedly. Taking the load off and with a water massage is a another sign, ‘it’s time to just ‘be’, relax, and soak in the moment.’

One by one, each of them in their own way came to me with glowing eyes and said something to the effect of, “It’s just so peaceful and relaxing here.”

Girls jounraling-small.jpg

Thinking we might stay in the stream for a few minutes, the journals came out. I thought maybe another 15 minutes. About an hour and a half later, the first child started to stir.

I didn’t plan it perfectly. The experience didn’t go just as planned….but in the end I feel as though I was the lucky one getting to spend time with three amazing young women. I also feel that it’s so important to be generous with time with kids and the rewards are profound.

It’s not hard to enjoy being outside. For me, a trip with these kids was a bonus, a balance and a lesson in life; plan and be spontaneous, expect much fun, many challenges and and just roll and role with it!

 

 

Fall in Love for Nature this Autumn

Here are some tips to grow a great relationship with your yard and local ecosystem, now that summer has finally flipped off the calendar. While you and I are just proverbial drops, our landscape actions accumulate, and then fill the bucket (our local ecology) with a certain flavour – pollution or purity, resilience or climate change fragility, sharing with other species or taking away from them. Let’s be clear; this is a choice.

Fall Walk.jpg

Walking into the sunset in one of the final days of summer.

Leaves. Leave them. Ok, not all of them, because you probably want some lawn and thick leaves on grass will kill it or set it back some in spring. You can shred the leaves. Then add them back to your lawn. It’s free fertilizer and more. Leaves represent many nutrients and minerals that trees have ‘mined’ from the Earth. When trees release leaves back to the Earth’s surface, they are like gold to the topsoil layer. Imagine spending all that energy to rake up, bag, and then ship away the free ‘gold’ that rains down on your yard (then we go and buy fertilizer to replace this loss)?!

Joy in Leaves.jpg

Let it go. Enjoy the leaves. You don’t have to go to all the effort to get rid of them!

Ok, I recognize that while a few like to go lawn-less, most want some green grass. However, without a few yards with leaves on the ground over winter, we would not have many species we enjoy and even revere, like Fire Flies (which are actually beetles) and many others.  Indeed, many others. The Red-backed Salamander is a lung-less amphibian that lives in a few ‘more natural’ yards in Wortley Village. Like the Firefly, it needs this golden, life-giving leaf cover. Another species, which used to live here when we had more floor leaf cover and natural forests, is the Wood Frog. It actually hibernates in the leaf litter. Over 50% of its body mass freezes solid like an ice-cube. Come the warm rains of early spring, this small brown frog with a black mask then thaws and hops into active life again. And leaves, twigs, old seed heads and other organic offerings from the active season are the chief ingredients to grow healthy diverse soils. Soils are the foundation for healthy trees, shrubs, next year’s garden, and more.  A healthy teaspoon of forest soil alone contains millions of important life forms.

Fall Leaves House Native Garden.jpg

Yes, leaves can be a (golden) mess, but then again, how clean is the rest of life? Messes sometimes are for good reasons!

Another loving thing to do is leave another type of mess – or at least, a perceived mess to some. Dead and dried flowers and seed heads are highly valuable to local wildlife. Yes, sometimes this doesn’t jive with the nice English Garden or Wortley Village Victorian motif some of us have going on. But again, you don’t have to leave all, but leave some. In winter, many birds, like the American Goldfinch, feed on plant seeds from Woodland Sunflower, Pale Purple Coneflower, and others. I recently learned that the juicy, dark purple berries from Pokeweed, or Purple Dangleberry are favoured by Mourning Doves and others. (Homing Pigeons, temporarily blown off course , have been known to show up at yards to feast on Pokeweed berries for hours at a time!). One of the main reasons we spend millions of dollars in the bird seed industry is because we’ve removed natural seed sources from native plants and cut away the few that remain at the end of summer to ‘clean up’ our yards!

If you live in Southern Ontario, you are blessed to live in the region in Canada that has the most number of species of plants, animals, and fungi; this is to say that Carolinian Canada has the highest species diversity. In some of my previous blogs, you may have noticed that I’m really pulling for people to join our http://www.inthezonegardens.ca program. This isn’t a frivolous new trend or the latest gig of some out of touch non-profit.  Returning to our roots with native plant gardening is a whole movement. It’s based on solid science. With due respect, the ‘ground zero,’ the common troubled ground we share, is one that has been assaulted by climate change, heavily impacted by introduced species, and has experienced the complete disregard for the protection of our ancient natural areas that used to ‘have our backs.’ While these big issues need care, attention, and local heroes, the choice before us to make change on our private landscapes is always our own.

Ten Life Lessons from Ten+ Years Living Off Grid

I lived without utility supplied electricity, water, or sanitation for over a decade. Was it all romance, extensive fanfare, and free living? Not a chance. It was time consuming, high maintenance work requiring constant presence. Living off grid means you are a chief maintenance person, head of parts, repairs and the main author and chief responder in the complaints department. Monitor and adjust you must, the deep-cycle batteries, the climate control for electronic inverter, the daily rodent entry attempts, and many, many more things.

Wind Turbine at Wilds

My Bergey 850W wind turbine and the first pair of solar panels on the battery and inverter shed. Together, with a backup generator (diesel) these formed the hybrid power system for the little cabin that was 300m away, in the edge of the woods. Pelee Island, ON, Canada.

I nevertheless had a golden experience, feeling almost like I was a part of a new renaissance. The metaphors for life in general wrought in the constant struggle were akin to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Ripe for the ages – climate change, species loss, bio-regionalism, permaculture – my noble and yet extremely humbling experience ‘off gridding’ thumped me in the nogggin more than a few times enough to impart some key insights.

Cabin After

The little (13′ x 23′ or 4 x 7.5m x 2 floors) cabin powered by wind and sun, equipped with a composting toilet, a wood burning stove and apparatuses for water collection. The stone chimney took a pal and me just under two weeks to complete, rising at a rate of 1/2m(2′)/day.

  1. Divvy up. If you’re on your own, you have no choice of being your own hero 24-7. But if you’re with a family or in a group living setup, being a Jill (or Jack) of All Trades is by far the worst approach.  Our houses and the world needs fewer Die Hard Heros, and more collaborative, group-powered successes.
  2. Know when to plug in/consume power. Just because we can use power, or in our era, engaging in smart phones, or laptops, don’t do it. Off grid, when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, one does laundry, uses the computer, and/or has a few lights on. When it’s cloudy and calm, we power down. It becomes time to write in a journal, bask in silence, or chop some wood. In either life style, mindlessly switching into power usage mode not only costs electricity, but our inefficiency from either employing ‘nose to the grind stone’ or ‘distraction mode mentality’ costs us our own personal energy reserves, robbing us from our core brilliance.
  3. Positive charges vs. energy sinks.  Off the grid, things with motors or those that create heat, like toasters, are major energy hogs that can drain a daily electricity budget in a few minutes. What or whom empowers you? What drains you? When we’re present to the subtleties of energy in our bodies, we notice what tasks, or people drain us or give us energy.
  4. Lovingly adopt appropriate technology. If you can do it by hand, do it by hand. High tech items that may appear to save time, money and energy often have hidden costs to the individual, the family, and the environment. Many appliances used by Mennonites or the Amish include hand cranks, foot petals or other contraptions that don’t use electricity and rarely break down. Buying a gadget for every aspect of life enslaves us to driving, electrical consumption, landfills, and loss of free exercise!
  5. Know your daily life cycle. If a battery is used up early in the day, at best you are trickle charging until nightfall. This means the battery just becomes a conduit for energy transfer instead of a vessel for storage. This is sub-optimal at best. If you have to extend yourself when you feel empty, ensure there is a full recharge waiting for you in the form of rest or an energy gaining event.
  6. Make your trips count. Buy your life needs as though you are on a remote island; you can’t just hop in the car and go and buy another ‘one.’ Short, repetitive trips in a car hurt our bodies (excessive sitting), add stress, and are far more polluting to the atmosphere than longer, planned ones. The same is true for the small tasks in our work day. They eat away at us, leaving the big and important tasks incomplete or starving for more quality attention.
  7. Hold, plan and be your own system. When you live off the grid, it’s call an ‘independent home’ because it is self reliant. The minute you stop ‘feeling your system’ and knowing it intimately, and if it happens to break down you are problem solving in the dark. If you fail to hold, plan and be the ultimate you for your family members, irreplaceable missed opportunities amass, loved ones feel less connected to you and seek other friends or devices to meet their attachment needs.
  8. Managing human waste as a daily recipe for life. Off the grid, managing waste is put into our own hands. Composting toilets must be coddled with clear presence and awareness or decomposition is hampered and there’s a nasty mess to contend with, costing much time. What would we do with the extra billions of dollars saved if we all made the choice to stop sending toxins, excessive paper waste, and loads of lint (biggest problem of all) down our drains every day?  We would surely bask and play in a rejuvenated environment.
  9. Water wisdom cultivates more aqua for all. Living off the grid slams home the notion that water is to be treasured, conserved and kept pollution free. After collecting rainwater, I used to hang a 1 gal blag water bag in the sun and then use it for showers in two consecutive days. If you’ve slipped into complacency, remember how difficult water is to cleanse, desalinize and purify? Try going on a highly reduced water budget for a day or two to remember the gift of Earth’s life blood. Like a food fast helps us really value food, absence of anything reunites us with gratitude.
  10. Let conservation become second nature. Turn a light on, turn it off. Lather in between runs of showering water. Turn your heat down at night, draw shades at the appropriate times when it’s hot out. This isn’t to train you in thinking in lack mentality; the world is indeed abundant. However, conservation alone can meet our energy needs without drilling for any more oil, building any more nuclear plants, or erecting any more mega wind turbines, or fields of solar panels.

 

Remember Climbing Trees? People Are Taking to the Trees Again

The act is natural, refreshing and fun. Do you realize that tree climbing can help save your sanity, tone your muscles, quiet your mind, and create strong leadership sorely needed for this generation and those to follow? Climbing itself builds balance, confidence, wherewithal, and courage. It allows us to toy with our playful selves, stretching boundaries, and to lead as role models. To rise up in a tree, we must measure every step and hand hold with presence, use the tree as a gateway, a friend, and a playful obstacle to a healthy Earthly escape.

I climbed a lot as a kid and teen. And now? Entering my late 40s, I’m climbing more than ever. I’m seeing more unseen things than ever. I don’t care so much about how high I go, or getting too many photos up there. I climb in my Forest Bathing practice, often helping others up. I drag my kids out to climb. I’m thinking of ways to get seniors up there too. In short, I can’t get into trees enough.

2015-11-10-17-33-27

Getting into the canopy of a Manitoba Maple. At 10 years old, she took 15 minutes to decide to make the 7m (20′) climb. After that, she was up and down like a squirrel. The Coves, between German Canadian Club main soccer and practice fields, London, Ontario, Canada.

Every so often we recognize an idea, a program, or a publication of something that we have held strongly in our own hearts for years and years. For me it is a recently released book on tree climbing by Jack Cooke. What an ultimate gift it was to come across someone as crazy as me and diligent enough to write an amazing account of a life partly lived, rising up and down the trees of London.

tree-climbers-guide

Someone has finally gone out on a limb and created an excellent read on tree climbing! I sincerely hope you buy this book and help inspire lots and lots of people to start climbing again. Cooke, Jack, 2016. Tree Climbers Guide. Harper Collins.

Cooke’s book, “The Tree Climbing Guide” is almost a lament of simpler eras gone by. Thanks to a lot of research, great drawings, and a wonderful perspective, this book is so much more. It’s a reminder of our youth. It’s somewhat of a how to. It’s a poetic, almost self-‘helpian’ statement; how we can rise above our lives to give our heads a shake, or in the very least, re-calibrate our beingness to a new perspective on the casual inaneness of fossorial living. For anyone remotely nostalgic or still into hoisting their physical (and spiritual) matter(s) above the Earth’s surface into the welcoming limbs of a tree, you simply must add this book to the treasured section of your library.

Cooke makes notice to the significance of our childhood’s first climb. For me, it was a quartet of Silver Maples growing between our farmhouse and the horse bard. Spaced out enough, they were daily multi-limbed climbing invitations. Planted a few years before I was born, these trees now in their 50s are massive, accessible to all ‘climbers.’

What was your first date with a tree climb (comment below). How old were you? Where was the tree and do you know what kind it might have been? Is it still there?

ben-in-tree-at-coves-resized

A barefooted, fall climb on Grandmother Sycamore of the East Coves Oxbow Pond (you can’t miss this tree even from the small bridge at Coves Road and parking lot of German Canadian Club). The hollowed out base of this tree is my sit spot. Occasionally, I force her old and weathered bones to hold another 200 or so pounds above the water. London, Ontario, Canada. Photo courtesy of Cassie Dugsin-Porchuk.

Cooke describes and lists a bunch of great trees to climb in his London (England). In the absence of a publicly accessible book in which to promote my own familiar trees, I use the photos scattered through this post to highlight some arboreal buddies upon which great climbs can be had in Southern Ontario (and a bit beyond). Again, please send along any stories, photos and locations of great climbing trees you know of.

Tree Climbing woman.png

Few trees can rival the ease, comfort and reassuring feeling imparted by an open grown Norway Spruce. Here in the Forest Therapy Invitation, “Introduce Yourself to a Tree”, a participant chooses to ascend to great heights. Look for the open grassy meadow lined by several giant conifers at Medway Creek Heritage Forest, London, Ontario, Canada (I call this special place, “The Council of Conifers.”)

I’ve never before encountered fellow humans in a tree. However, Cooke mentions a few memorable encounters, especially dismounting the lowest branches and crashing a group of unsuspecting picnic’ers….quite the riot ensued!

Gary Against Climber.jpg

When all is said and done, you still don’t have to climb a tree to enjoy it. However…inspiration just may present itself when you least expect it! Norway Spruce, Medway Creek Heritage Forest, London, Ontario, Canada.

Anyone spending time up in trees gets their share of unique encounters with wild animals. Recently, while only 2m up a Sugar Maple, I witnessed a bizarre exchange  as a Red-bellied Woodpecker attempted to peck a meal out of a dying Green Ash. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird moved in and appeared to have mistaken the red breast of the woodpecker for a flower. Seemingly seeking nectar, the hummingbird moved in. The woodpecker responded by comically hobbling 180′ around to the opposite side of the tree. Not letting up on a potential source of nutrition, the hummingbird responded accordingly by flying around after the woodpecker. Of course, the woodpecker repeat countered, as did the hummingbird. After a few rounds, having enough of it, the woodpecker bolted, deciding to fly the 10m or so over to the tree upon which I was now hugging extra tightly. I suppose that since I had been so silent and motionless that the woodpecker didn’t notice me until the last possible moment. The primary feathers of her left wing wisped my left cheek as she realized she couldn’t land on my face. Yes, it was exhilarating and due cherished.

paul-battler-down-below-1

Looking downward at climbing companion, Paul, in a Norway Spruce. I think we could fit 50 or more people on this tree at once and ‘she’ wouldn’t sneeze at it! Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

Many other times I’ve looked up, as I suspect you likely may have, in awe of the straight trees rising branchless to the canopy. Serving as inspiration, many have considered the ascension to these natural cathedrals unattainable. While you can use ropes, harnesses and spend lots of money to get you there, I treat these more mature woods as places for other more naturally adept animals to scale these domains.

forest-power

Views like this have created a yearning in many to somehow get to the canopy without tools, external energy sources or anything but our one’s own will, hands, feet and full presence. American Beech, Meadowlily Woods, London, Ontario, Canada.

Professionally, as a wildlife biologist a few memorable arboreal experiences occurred that I’d never recommend to anyone. Rare, fast and extremely agitated, Blue Racer Snakes numbered as few as a couple of hundred in all of Canada. My colleague and I had startled a large male in the grass at the edge of a field. The dash was one. Thrashing through and across the big tufts of grass thatch like a slalom water skier flying across one wake of the boat to the other, the near two-metre long animal fled for the nearest escape; a Cockspur Hawthorn. We sprinted following behind to the small tree. At only 4.5m (18′) tall, many low branches and piercing 5cm (2 inch) thorns awaited our perseverance. With ease, the large reptile whipped from one side of the tree to the other. For every small branch we scaled, descended and then scaled again in pursuit of our moving target, a good half-dozen or so thorns etched our skin with consequence, slowly painting the surface with our own blood. Finally cornering the tiring serpent, he made one last getaway attempt. Using leverage, gravity and the flexibility of the branch, he flung his thick body in a coordinated pulse to jump from the tree to the grass, but we caught him, almost in mid air!

blue-racer-1

A Blue Racer Snake. They take to the trees with ease! Some hawthorns may be possible to climb, but Cockspur is highly recommended to avoid. Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada.

Taking stalk afterwards we were thankful the snake wasn’t injured and that all four of our eyes were fully functional. We weighed, measured and tagged the snake, and then let him go, watching him slip into a nearby hole in the ground. “Why didn’t he go there in the first place?” we had thought, wondering if the snake had been looking to give us a run for his pure enjoyment. Looking back at the tree we remarked how it would be one of the last trees in the world that we’d ever consider climbing.

view-from-spruce-up-high

A view in Autumn from 20m (65′) up a Norway Spruce looking at a 25m (85′) White Pine in the distance. Having climbed this day alone, I had to take a photo to share what I was bathing in. Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

Very few of us get the experience of being a wildlife biologist that sometimes brings such excitement. This is far from the point. Naturally kid-like, climbing trees is a really fun and healthful pastime. While being in nature is a great experience in itself, challenging yourself physically and encountering some edges are great ways to build balance, strength and confidence.

Tree Down Pic

Tree climbing gives us new vantage points, opens most hearts to joy and playfulness and reconnects us to the values of measuring every step in life as though it is our last. Black Maple at the first large group camp site, Albion Hills Conservation Area, Caledon, Ontario, Canada.

Being playful with friends and family in the branches creates lasting memories and tight bonds between people and the natural world. With more and more pulls to interesting electronics, grand gizmos, seductive fashions, and dazzling events, any reverse tug back to nature is something more than welcome in our era of high distraction and often unhealthy escapism.

Ben Pine.jpg

It is not necessary to get high up a tree to get a fresh perspective. Many trees, alive or passed on can facilitate peace, playful giddiness and unique perspectives. Eastern Hemlock, Sunnybrook Park, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Of course, all of the inventions in our era are for the most part great additions to our lives. Some features and designs, however, that intentionally lead us to obsessive use or extreme behaviours (e.g. social media, staying ‘connected’, fear of getting dirty, etc.) cross the line and rob us other great experiences that we truly need.

Kayla in Spruce.jpg

Not too high up an entry level climbing tree is a great place for a little ‘zoned out’ meditative reflection. Norway Spruce, Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

Very few of us can get away with lecturing others to make change (thank God!). We need to live by example and show each other (especially our children) that we don’t need to be plugged in 24-7, and that we are not defined by our cell phones, our bank accounts, our popularity or anything else than our true personalities. And – we have to demonstrate that seemingly immature or ‘young things’ like tree climbing, are ‘cool’ for all ages.

20160518_182904

Tree climbing is far, far from a male or ‘boy thing’ or a young person thing. Sometimes getting up to the first (lowest limb) is the biggest hurdle for either of the sexes, for any age. Knowing this, those with more experience, confidence and physical strength can serve as humble, non-judgmental guides. London Plane Tree, Hebert Arboretum, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA.

If you have been sold on the idea, go out with a friend or two, or find an event in which others may be going (see this offering for example in the London (Canada) area). Pick up a copy of The Tree Climber’s Guide. While this book is somewhat specific to trees of the London, England area, there is much great advice within if you don’t have anyone experienced to accompany you.

Conversations with Plant

About 7 years ago I lead a Traditional Medicinal Native Plant inventory in a Native community not far from my home. I describe it as the highlight of my ecological consulting career. But it was way more than that.

I remember vividly the moment a Native Elder put me in my place. His timing was impeccable. I had been a recovering scientist* for several years previous.  Standing in the forest filled with spring bloom, he looked at me and said, “You’re too busy and active, moving from plant to plant and checking your list. You’re like an Olympic bee on steroids. You have names for all these plants, but do you know these plants?” he exclaimed.

2015-11-08-02-17-21

A family of Blood Root plants in early spring. Each individual has a flowering head and lives sometimes for more than 100,000 hours (10 years) in the same piece of land on Earth. 

“Well, for some of them I know interactions with other species like insects, birds and mammals. So yes; I would say I somewhat know them,” I replied in careful defense, so as not to seem like an academic know-it-all.

“I’ve watched you and you rarely spend any quality time with them. How can you possibly know them?” he asked.

“Well, I know how some of them can heal our lungs, how others are good for our throats, some can combat cancer and others can treat various aliments.”  He looked at me with a generous smile.

“I still think you’ve likely read these things in a guide or a book. There are many things these plants can heal that only can come about when you get to know the plant personally through time and conversation – not the species or type of plant – but this plant before you.” He continued, “Please sit with this plant here, and I’ll tell you when to get up.” I considered this.

2015-11-08-02-15-08

Blood Root plants in full bloom. While this plant offers many medicines if you are willing to enter intimate relationship with her, she can also be deadly poisonous to humans should one act superficially and not learn the ins and outs of right relationship.

“By the way,” he added. “How many hours are there in a year?”

I calculated. “Over 8,700.”

“How long does this plant live?”

“Over ten years,” I replied, continuing,”…so, 87,000….it lives likely over 100,000 hours.”

“I now introduce you, Ben, to one of this plant’s 100,000 hours in this spot on Earth. I hope you come to know her better.”

isaac-day

Plant conversationalist and Native Elder Isaac Day. He’s one of these guys that can speak miles and miles in simple smiles. He also put me in my place, forcing me to enter into my first conversation with Plant. 

There I sat with Bloodroot. An hour passed. I squirmed but focused to the best of my attention span. Looking for cues to be finished, thinking he had forgotten about me, I sat some more without much insight. I became quite squirrely.  Then messages, stories, anecdotes and jokes started to come from my conversation with Plant. Indeed, I started to know this plant, get a feel for her spot and a snapshot of her time.  I sensed more about her, the forest and the simple intricacies of cycles of the woods than in all of my previous years combined.  Therein lay my first Conversation with Plant.

A bloody conversation with a plant? How is this possible? The science, the professional persuasion, the convincing evidence, the authoritative balance tipper; these are not the points of this post.

This is what I know. Plants speak. Plants listen. Plants advise. Plants are funny. They also respond to our presence, our energy and feel our love. I know this not because of any personal study with trials and statistics. Forget any other evidence. Sure, ask a pink and grey rock or a piece of yellow Lego a question  and we could argue our brains will reflect back an question that silly people like me think are coming from the gneiss or poly-something-or-other.  It is my belief that there is something profoundly different than that with a living plant. It’s about the presence, the energy field and the life force of a particular plant.

2015-11-08-02-39-04

Bloodroot after a rain shower. Time to uncloak and open up. For soft, delicate tissued-plants, they stand their ground firmly. They unleash their powers in early spring, uncloaking their strength to make way for the rest of the plants to follow. 

Ok, beyond mere belief, and since I’m still not fully recovered as a scientist or sense-maker, my mental rumination unfortunately has come to some conclusion about the ‘how.’ I wish I did not feed the need to quell my scientific mind, but since I have, it allows said mind to say, “Ok – gotcha. Talk on, brother; listen up.”

Here goes. Quantum physics. Yeah, it’s the new age explanation for a lot these days. Simply put, we know this – observing a molecule results in the molecule behaving much differently than if not observed. Extrapolate this. Observe many molecules of a whole plant. Mentally or verbally converse with Plant. We know that plants can detect energy from other beings; energy in forms such as sound, other vibrations, touch, heat, etc. Thus, plants observe us and our molecules are impacted. Speak or think words or full questions – again, forms of energy – and, if only at the molecular level, plants are there to interact with the energy. This changes the molecules and toys with the electrical thought impulses in our brains, impacting our energy fields.

It’s that simple. Plants can speak with us.

What was the nature of my conversation with Plant? The usual starter place for a human, according to Plant. Here’s the synopsis:

  • Idiot human (me) questions sanity of talking to plants. Plant (Bloodroot) says, don’t be dumber than you already are.
  • Idiot human (IH) expresses feelings of guilt for destroying natural world and her inhabitants. Plant says, guilt, shame and bad feelings will get you nowhere and actually weaken you, resulting in more destruction and killing.
  • IH looks at plant in wonder, tries to make sense of plant’s purpose and part of the greater whole. Plant responds with most beautiful of scenarios, imparting images of plants dancing across the landscape in time, partying with (and signing contracts with) ants, other animals and moving to the beat of the sun’s seasonal and annual drum. Wow. This one really gets IH, bringing him to his knees. Plant explains human-imparted name; Blood Root. IH again moved, this time to tears, which fall to surface of leaves of Plant. They become extremely re-connected.

As I left the natural area, I got another comment, seemingly coming from the whole forest, “Now that Plant has spoken, are you going to listen?”

2015-11-09 10.00.09.png

Plants talk with us by observing us back. This rocks our molecular world, sending shock waves that eventually touch us deeply. 

 

With 7 billion people on Earth, there’s no shortage of conversations we could and should have with humans. Why add plants to the mix? As Isaac suggested to me, plants are great agents of slowing down. This counters our obsession with fast pace, speed and efficiency. Plants are wise in their place. Their insight is from roots firmly grounded for decades, centuries and in some cases, thousands of years.

Of course this introductory Conversation with Plant was just the beginning for me. I have since met people who teach courses on it. I’ve read other blog posts on specific methods for such dialogue. I’ve read scenes in books and seen movies where it is shown how to detect and interact with plant energy fields. I’ve watched videos on plants seemingly having learned how to sing…and then learned the ability to teach this to other plants. Shinrin Yoku (a.k.a. Forest Therapy or Forest Bathing) has a number of invitations where participants are invited to converse with trees or other plants. As a Forest Therapy Guide myself, I can honestly say I’ve witnessed dozens of people completely moved by their conversations with plants.

When I remember the heartfelt confidence and joy with which my Native Elder friend Isaac coached me, I am reassured that this practice is not new. No, no, no. This isn’t new aged bullshit. This is likely a reclamation of a lost art, a retrieval of ancient wisdom gone to the wayside. Two thumbs up from me. Give it a try if you aren’t already in conversation with a plant near you.

2015-07-19-03-36-46

Engaging in another conversation with a tree at a family function. Trees are surprisingly good advisers and confidants. Photo by Cassie Dugsin-Porchuk.

Stay tuned for some more posts to come on other elements and stories about this much needed inter-species dialogue.

*A recovering scientist; striving to breakaway from the thought confines of current paradigms, including the scientific method, the Darwinian paradigm and others (not to say all science is bad and not necessary!).

Look-a-Likes Welcome Winter

Last night the moon was so bright and the sky was super clear. But, was it cold! There’s something about 3 or 4’C that often seems colder to me than when the mercury dips below zero.

This is my ultra-short homage to the greener, warmer days of spring, summer and fall. Enjoy these ‘look-a-likes.’ These are my top three that I’ve found on my travels the last couple of years here in southern Ontario.

If you have come across some look-a-likes yourself, please post in the comment section below….I’m always on the search for a laugh in nature.

 

aligator-rock

What you see here? It was a little startling from further back even! Yes, indeed, it’s a freshwater alligator that has come up out of the Humber River to bask at Boyd Conservation Area in Vaughan, just north of Toronto.

friendly-sand-rainmonster

Once a Sand Castle, I came across this Friendly Sand Monster after a thunderstorm at Pinery Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada. The rain soaked me thoroughly through my rain gear. I can only imagine how big this sand empire once was before the torrential downpours.

goddess

Goddess that appeared on the woodwork of an outdoor canopy where we were eating lunch. I think she dislocated her left shoulder after performing an incredible magical act. This image is remarkably (jaw-droppingly) similar to that used for a tattoo on a certain someone I know quite well. I even love the halo above her head…my mentor Thorn would call this her ‘God Soul.’

 

Deep Connection with Wild Animals: Avenues for Right Relationship with Earth

Being one of millions and millions of ‘living*’ planets now discovered, the Earth, in essence, is a wild animal within a greater population. We’re in sad and yet exciting times. We know a lot. We are aware. We are very skilled, loving and crafty beings. All of this and since I was born (1970) we have killed off over 50% of the wild animals living on the planet.

We’ve caused many substantial problems because we’ve ignored our intimate relationship with Earth. We’ve taken much more than we’ve given. We’ve decided not to notice that she is in sickness, versus health. While we perceive we continue to get richer, Earth definitely becomes poorer. At almost every step, we’ve cheated on Earth, taken advantage of her kindness, taken for granted her forgiveness, and balked at her willingness to start over again in right relationship. If ever there was a relationship that needed therapy, this is it.

ben-cuckoo

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo hit a window and fortunately I was there to pick her up. I held her in a towel against my heart for an hour. She then hopped on my hand, paused for a few minutes and flew away. Oh what a feeling it was to have assisted and shared those moments with a bird of which I usually only ever got brief glimpses.

I see wild animals as great ambassadors and agents of reconciliation. They sense fear and danger from us. They can also sense indifference and love.

More and more, many humans recognize the real possibilities of tweaking our consciousness and energy fields to resonate with those of wild animals. How can we use deep connections with wild animals to foster better relationships between people and nature and thus people and the planet? I begin by looking at deepening connection.

There are many who have retold their seemingly unbelievable intimate encounters with wild animals. There was the Humpback Whale rescued from netting and sure death. In gratitude, it repeatedly breached the water’s surface in joy. A dolphin who sought the help of a few divers to untangled its fin. There was a Baltimore Oriole bird who let my Dad collect nesting material for her, retrieving the substrate one piece at a time, right from his hands. The list goes on and on. Wild animals accept relationship with us and act in ways that often bewilder.

I’m fortunate to have had dozens of authentic, personal encounters, a few of which I share below.  This isn’t to say I can freely go and cuddle a Grizzly or play-wrestle with a Siberian Tiger. I don’t recommend trying such with either of those species. But is it possible? That’s up to a situation that might happen one day and circumstances that could prove to be in alignment to do so. What exists in each case are barriers and opportunities to connection. How each instance unfolds is determined by a thousand or so unwritten rules that become apparent and acted upon in a moment’s notice.

americancrow_emeleg_a16p9305-1

Crow in full ‘Caw’ mode. Photograph by an old friend, Ethan Meleg.

I’ve experienced two general scenarios that precipitate deeply connected, wild animal encounters. The first is when sick or injured animals come to a human for assistance. The other cases occur when one resonates with nature enough to be ‘accepted’ as another benign part of the ecosystem (or natural, spirit world).

For a while, everywhere I went, sick or injured wild animals were presenting themselves before me. While it wasn’t always easy to corral them, I carefully brought them home, did my best to heal them, and returned them to the wild.

Crow: I was on a conference call in my backyard with my portable phone. I paced around expressing myself and in a moment of great discovery in the meeting, a Crow fell out of the sky, landing at my feet. I paused the phone call, picked up the bird and kept it for a few weeks inside until its wing had healed. Crows have remarkable intellect and great personality. This bird chose to malign me, often taunting me, refusing to take food from me. It was hard not to take it personally, but easier because **she did bond with other members of my family. When she had healed, she begrudgingly let me pick her up and heave her skyward to the heavens. What a moment that was.

Great Horned Owl: I was on my way to the beach when I noticed an owl sitting under a wild grape vine in broad daylight. Using my towel, I wrapped him up and carried him back home. He lived in my two room cabin with me for a month, eating dozens of mice I provided. Oh the funny stories I could tell…Eventually he was released after he gained the strength to fly again.

great-horned-owl

This Great Horned Owl moved in with me when he lost his energy from West Nile Virus. Thankfully I stayed healthy while providing him mice (trapped in my little cabin) that rebuilt his strength again.

Bald Eagle: A few mornings later, after a severe thunderstorm, at the base of a large tree at the end of my laneway was  a Bald Eagle. Given his Endangered Status back then, I eased him into a large cooler and delivered him to the authorities. His bruised wing was rehabilitated and I swear months later I saw him fly low over my cabin, as if to send me gratitude for taking notice and assisting.

ben-eagle

A Bald Eagle with a severely bruised wing. Can you see him poking his head out from my comforter? After a few weeks of recovery and release, I think it was he who flew over my cabin and tipped his wings at me!

Other Birds: Dozens of birds in shock, after various traumas, came to my attention and willingly let me assist. This included a Prothonotary Warbler, a Pied-billed Grebe, a Golden-Crowned Kinglet, a Nighthawk and Cardinal and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (see above photo). Often found in shock distress, these birds seemed to give over any sense of fear for what may heal them.

Resonating at nature’s frequency for me has resulted in a slightly different level of connection. In the moments of obtaining deep connection with wild animals in this manner, it has felt less miraculous and more expected.

Manatee: I was swimming once in the open ocean near Belize. Open ocean is the one place on the planet that has always been a serious edge for me. But I had been cooped up in a cordoned off location to snorkel on a coral reef with dozens of tourists and it felt really inauthentic. I like authentic. Slipping under the floating foam-rope boundary, away from the watchful eyes of the lifeguards, I sleuthed silently just at the water’s surface. I felt so much gratitude for my freedom and the life of the reef that I decided I had to give back. Outstretching my hands as though they were mini radars, I gave Reiki to the open ocean. It was peace at its purest.

After a few minutes of gently self-propelling aimlessly, I nervously realized I wasn’t alone; the energy beside me was palpable, to say the least. A large grey animal, at least a few times my size was keeping pace with me on my port (left) side. This information came to me from my peripheral vision. I didn’t have the courage to turn my head and see what it was. Manatee.jpg
Finally, after keeping pace with each other for a good few minutes, **she cut right in front of me, and then headed to the depths (20 feet down) towards the sea grass. I sighed in relief. She wasn’t a shark. She was a southern Manatee. The species was quite rarely encountered in the southern Caribbean; they are Endangered. Realizing I hadn’t kept pace with her, she turned at the bottom of the ocean to see where I’d gone. Her look was as if to say, “Come on, it’s time to feed on this yummy sea grass!” Noticing I wasn’t coming, she then ‘said,’ “Ok, if you’re not hungry, I’ll come back to you.” She swam slowly toward me, until we were just a couple of feet away from each other, gazing into each other’s souls through our eyes.

A Method? I imagine many people would describe technique many ways with a number of common threads. The only way I know how is to first immerse oneself in nature. Deepen breathing. Vacate the driver’s seat of the brain. Find alignment; the place where one knows that place and time are sealed in ‘is-ness’ experience. This is where we often feel multiple sensations at once and watch osmosis take over the body and surroundings. Any connections with wild animals then become both circumstance and the manifestation of one’s commitment to be with what is in the moment. “Being with” means one’s energy field blends, or comes into resonance with the surroundings.

2015-10-02-shelley-hunt

Forest Therapy a.k.a. Forest Bathing or Shinrin-Yoku is a wonderful way to drop into alignment and find resonance with plants and animals in nature. Forest Therapy has been a gateway for me to connect with wild animals. Most recently a Short-tailed Shrew permitted me to stroke the fur on his back for a few minutes in my wild, yet urban garden.

Forest Therapy is an avenue to deep connection in nature. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that I’ve had a slew of recent animal connection experiences since becoming a Forest Therapy Guide. If led by an experienced and ‘dropped in’ (walk the talk) guide, Forest Therapy substantially heightens our nature connection, dispels the many myths of time, and allows us to seamlessly become a part of the encompassing naturescape.  Forest Therapy walks are usually at least 2 1/2 hours long and often over 3. This duration seems to be helpful in ensuring we are disengaged from our brains.

2350

The oak tree near the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, California. Over a three-hour period, this tree allowed my deepened relationship to the surrounding natural world, facilitating my intimate interaction with Lizard.

Lizard: I was on Sugarloaf Mountain in California. The lizards had caught my attention for a week, never letting me approach them closer than about ten feet. I climbed up the tallest peak of the mountain for a medicine walk as the final part of the forest therapy training week. I sat in an oak for almost three hours. I walked down the mountain side like I was walking on helium; I felt the strongest sense of the phrase, nature connected. At the bottom, I spooked an Alligator Lizard. **She fled in a fashion I had grown accustomed to expect. I momentarily accepted it again and then realized, “No, I am in connection with you!” I found her, moved closely and told her I wanted some full facial photographs, I desired to touch her scales, and that I had some mosquitoes to feed her. She accepted all these offers. Our relationship lasted about ten minutes before I moved on.

lizzy

The Alligator Lizard who accepted all of my offers to connect into a deep relationship, feeding out of my hands, allowing my touch and permitting these full frame shots. Sonoma County, California.

I moved on, as did the lizard. What did I carry from that interaction with the lizard and did this make any difference to forging a better Earth? For one, this experience echoed within my psyche now for a year and a half. I’ve often thought of the mountain, the oak, and the reptile with reverence and wonder. I’ve retold the story over and over. Had I come down the mountain without finding intimacy with the lizard, the story likely wouldn’t have been told.  I’ve been so inspired by this and other experiences that I became a certified Forest Therapy Guide, as well as a trainer. I’ve felt and observed the nature-connection influence I’ve imparted on others, who in turn, are blazing the Forest Therapy trails in their circles of influence.

It doesn’t matter how we reconnect with nature, or wild animals. It just matters that we position ourselves to have the opportunity to do so. Finding ways to get people on a walk, to sit by a stream, to listen to bird songs, or to huddle by a camp fire are all means of and steps toward ‘making up’ with the planet. Nature’s half of the relationship is always steady; forgiving, longing, and waiting for us to come back. The bird, the Manatee, the lizard are all willing volunteers rising up to be ambassadors or activists for right relationship. For humans, I think it’s easy too. We have to step into again the other half of right relationship. At these early stages of relationship repair, however, stepping into right relationship effectively means we’re  activists. For some reason activism is really difficult for most of us. Therein lies one of the key challenges of our times.

* Recent discoveries suggest potentially millions of planets situated similarly to ours most likely are ‘alive,’ like Earth (teaming with living plants, animals, etc.).

** Notes on pronouns: in most cases, I knew if an animal was a male or a female (my biological experience and information from the wild animal clinics with which I consulted). In the cases that I didn’t know for certain (like the Crow, Manatee and Lizard above), I have chosen to write the stories using the pronoun that I sensed was appropriate for my feeling of the animal.

Big Impacts Across Small Spaces…Doug Tallamy Photosynthesizes the Case for Native Plants

All photographs by Ben Porchuk.

Tallamy talks nature in Toronto. Toronto… and nature? Yes, Toronto, the city of over 6 million people. It might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of re-building the natural world. But Doug Tallamy,  an entomologist from the University of Delaware, was invited specifically to talk about using native to plants in city gardens and yards to attract insects to create new pockets of teaming wildlife, helping recover the earth’s vastly withered naturescape. With thousands of homes with backyards adjacent to many large natural ravines, Toronto is primed to receive a major ‘nature face-lift’ in all of those front yards.

3626

A couple of buddies in the native plant garden just hanging out waiting for the insects to move in. The acorn that lies underneath these seven leaves is now responsible for a 12 foot oak tree only five years later. The White Trillium is still alive and keeping great company.

Tallamy  quickly became the visiting celebrity ‘landscape chef’ or as local native plant author Lorraine Johnson introduced him, the ‘rock star’ conservationist we’ve been waiting for all along.

Doug and Jarmo.jpg

Man of the Hour: Prof. Doug Tallamy (left) and Jarmo Jalava of Carolinian Canada.

We’ve become more and more aware that especially in our cities, we’ve removed most native plants from the landscape in favour of non-native plants. This has left nature as a mere skeleton of what it once was. Tallamy gave compelling evidence that the loss of diversity has stemmed directly from the loss of native plants and their insect followers.

All we have to do is plant native plants. Let the native insects eat them (little bits of them anyway) and then watch the bigger carnivorous insects feed on the smaller herbivorous guys. And finally, enjoy watching the birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals eat the insects. Do this and watch biodiversity roar back before our very eyes.

In short order, after following Tallamy’s advice based on years of research, we “bring(ing) nature home” again to our cities and nearby crumpled natural areas. Crazily simple, I know.

So I’m one of the guys who bought his earth-altering book (http://www.bringingnaturehome.net) the year it came out in 2007. I was already one of the converted (a devoted Evangelical Ecologist). But I quickly embraced this subtly different fuel for fodder (as did nerds-a-like the world over). In the nearly ten years since, I added 180 native species of plants to my highly urban landscape. I also added water (key to most recipes of this nature) in the form of a series of three small ponds and a waterfall.

our-front-yard

Our front yard transformation in about year 3 of 10; native plants and insects have been welcomed back after a 115 year absence.

How did the recipe turn out? Well given that I’m not the most careful cook/designer, I got the ingredients all over my yard (a messy garden at times)! But the end results? I totally channeled Ray Kinsella all the way. I removed the lawn completely in the front yard, and a quarter of it from the back. I built the native garden. The insects came. Lots, and lots of other wildlife followed and we sat back watching in awe, while snacking on popcorn from the Hog Peanut, and chewing on the fruit from the Mayapples (yep, both native).

giant-swallowtail-caterpillar-1

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar feeding on its host plant, the Hop Tree.

 

In fact, within 20 minutes of planting my first Hop Tree, NA’s largest butterfly, the Giant Swallowtail, landed on it and laid her eggs. I have to add that this butterfly is quite rare in Canada and I’d never seen it in my city before this moment. Now, they seem to know my yard as the regional birthing centre.

giant-swallowtail-caterpillar-2

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar disturbed and sending out defense mechanism that accompanies and strong, pungent scent. Of course, note the bird dropping camouflage.

Then, I planted a few Spicebush shrubs. Same story (obviously worth repeating). A Spicebush Swallowtail came not long after. Seldom seen in this hood, this butterfly is now a regular customer too. Are you seeing a trend here? Enter a bit on the lifework of Douglas Tallamy.

Unassuming, quirky, funny, and obviously very smart, this gentlemen assembled tables and tables of facts, figures and fun images (like the caterpillar that strikingly resembles Donald Trump) that made for nerd-entertainment-extraordinaire. Everyone knows nerd is the new cool (don’t they?).

Among many other thousands of complicated tasks and calculations, Doug’s main work has been to perfect the kindergarten-aged skills of watching and counting. He counts the species (not easy to know how to identify thousands of caterpillars) and overall numbers of insects that flock to native plants. Then, at ‘show and tell’ time, he’s like the kid who surprises everyone by bringing in his firefighter mom (in full uniform!). Everyone in attendance is in total awe!

At his talks, Tallamy throws around these overwhelming facts that make you almost fall face first into your rose bush. Plant an oak tree and you’ll get 557 species of moths and butterflies. Chose a non-native Callery Pear tree instead, and you get zero moths, zero butterflies or no other insects. Translation, why not plant a plastic Callery Pear tree instead so you don’t have to rake up the leaves in fall (Doug’s joke, though it’s no joke). The plastic tree will has the same ecological value as the living Callery Pear (zilch). Whereas, the native oak, cherry, birch or pine, will bring life back to the point of healing nature big time.

giant-swallowtail-adult

After feeding on the host plant Hop Tree as a caterpillar, the Giant Swallowtail metamorphoses into the adult butterfly and then nectars on many different plants. Here one feeds on a native prairie/savanna plant, Wild Bergamot (Orange Coneflower is in the background).

Back to Tallamy’s influence over my garden, say 8 or 9 years ago. After the bewilderment of watching billions (alliteration only, but certainly millions) of bugs hone in on their native host plants that I had seeded in my gardens, I got at the pond construction. Before I could fully install the liner, one of NA’s largest dragonflies, the Swamp Darner, was buzzing all around me frantically finding a water-soaked log on which to lay her eggs.

Dfly Laying Eggs.jpg

Swamp Darner Dragonflies honed in on my urban wetland construction project, seeking out suitable egg-laying sites. I think I heard one say, “Come on! Come on! I could build this pond faster! (which may have been true!)”

A few days later, a hatchling Snapping turtle showed up…toads moved in.. and even a yearling bullfrog barreled into the pond. Madness! All of these animals ‘poofed’ into existence, all in a highly urban-locked place known as Wortley Village. The ‘poof’ of course, was the ‘magic act’ of even the smallest plot of land ramping back into ecosystem status.  The source of magic and thus this ecosystem is the native plant.

20150808_145838

A hatchling Snapping Turtle had to walk about 400m, cross a busy four-lane road, and slip under our fence to join the joy in our backyard pond.

20150612_124225

A female toad sitting all pretty.

What happened next, you must promise you tell no one (X-rated). The toads had sex. Yes, in the backdrop of the symphony of their mood-enhancing trilling calls, in the twilight of the most sensual afternoon delight, I mean lighting, there was literally an orgy of amplexus all over our backyard (thank God the neighbours didn’t take notice). I only write all of this in this manner as it is a well known fact that sex sells, and, well, I really want to spawn this blog all across the nation(s). As such, the word sex is one of the key search terms for this article.

Kids at Pond.jpg

Kids sitting at our almost completed backyard pond system.

pond-shot

A couple of years on, the pond system and its 15 + of native wetland plants have hosted thousands of insects for the urban yard ecosystem.

Altruistically speaking though, sex or no sex, Tallamy’s (not meaning Tallamy here, because you know about rock stars and…well,…. yah) message has to get out…native plants must get back in our urban landscapes.

After the adult toads had finally settled down, the moving and shaking of the youth movement hit the back yard by storm. Shedding their sperm-like tadpole tails, tiny little toadlets flooded out onto the dry lawn, into the native gardens, on the back of my idle electric mower, and godforsaken, right onto the back steps of my very house! Even Tallamy would have had a hard time counting them all. It was wonderful. This set the stage for a series of seldom seen observations.

Out of the blue, a hatchling Screech Owl crashed onto the lawn in broad daylight. It was nearing 5pm. Before one of my daughter’s and I could run out there to ‘save it’, one of the parent birds landed beside it and seemed to help it fly up to the side fence. Then one by one, all three of the young owlets continued this, again with their parents landing beside them. Bewilderment set in yet again. Watching more closely (what I now call a Tallamyian trait) we noticed what was going on. The adult owls were teaching the ‘kids’ how to feed on the toadlets in our yard! Word spread quickly and before long many of our family and friends had gathered in our back room to watch the feeding frenzy.

babyowls

The owlets (Screech Owls) who fledged and grew up in our yard. They are named after the Three Stooges. Guess who is who.

It’s not surprising and so much fun that those owls picked our backyard as their nesting and feeding site. Interestingly, and again in total Tallamyian fashion (this phrase makes no sense, I know), aside from toadlets, what do the owls eat? Small mammals and birds. What do small mammals and birds eat? Lots and lots of insects.  Further interesting in this case is that Screech Owls are direct insect eaters as well. Suffice it to say, had our backyard been replete with Callery Pears, Lilacs, Burning Bush, Tulips, Daffodils and many other non-native plants, none of these wildlife would have set up shop to co-live with us. Almost every year we’ve had the owls back in our yard, with our growing numbers of native plants attracting more insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds.

parent-owl

One of the parent Screech Owls who doesn’t seem to mind the goings on of our family. My friend Pete Burke (bird expert and hockey star wanna be – actually, that was me…) pointed out that this one has a nice mix of the red phase of this species mottled in with the grey. Isn’t she just plainly beautiful?

My family and our home are a living example of how you can transform your little bit into a nature-factory.  Our extended neighbourhood has over 12,000 houses. Can you imagine if a few dozen of them did what we did? What about a couple hundred homes? And therein lies the point of all of this.  Just a few of us could impart “Big Impacts Across Small Spaces,” which, coincidentally, was the title of this Toronto conference. The conference had a surprising announcement; World Wildlife Fund and Carolinian Canada have teamed up to create a program called, “In the Zone” (www.inthezonegardens.ca).  This fun and timely initiative is designed to get more people in cities like Toronto, London and Leamington (core cities where program is launched) to establish native gardens. How fitting. How exciting. How grassroots.

dragonflies-in-a-lineup

Dragonflies were thrilled that we provided a wetland for them…and planted native plants to bring in insects for them to catch on the wing.

Your job: please share this, re-post it, maybe tweat it? That would be great. In the meantime, put in some native plants, buy Doug Tallamy’s books, come to Go Wild Grow Wild 2017! (https://caroliniancanada.ca/grow-wild), check out www.inthezonegardens.ca and lastly, engage in a lot of safe _ _ _ (clue: amplexis).

saturn-moth

An Imperial Moth that requires mature, native hardwood trees, like oaks and maple. I savor the day when this species is common again even in cities!

Appendix 1: A Favourite Doug Tallamy Dish (it’s actually a sweet bar)

“Raise the Bar for what we ask our landscapes to do.”
Ingredients:

– Support life
– Sequester carbon
– Clean and manage water
– Enrich soil
– Support pollinators

Preparation Method: All of this is cooked up by using native plants. If you are at all interested in supporting varied forms of life on earth, in reversing climate change, in eating, in having clean drinking water, then take the simple act of establishing native plants where ever you might live or frequent. It’s an act as simple as 1, 2, 3, or whatever it is that you may see!

acorn-2

One of the most important things you can do to support the recovery of local populations of wildlife is to plant a key insect-loving species such as a native species of oak, cherry, birch or willow. Acorns make magnificent Oak Trees in fewer years that you might think!

 

Who, Me, You? A Forest Therapy Guide?

If anyone out there is remotely considering becoming a Forest Therapy Guide and the upcoming New Zealand training is on your radar, then I’d strongly recommend waiting no longer. But, who am I to say?

It recently occurred to me that every person I have recommended to go to guide training camp has come to me in tears of gratitude afterwards. The trainings are really that good; quality, personal meaning, relevance and applicability to the needs of millions of people in this day and age. But is a training in store for you?

For me, it’s been only a year and a half since I stumbled across nature’s ultimate call on my computer screen. Sounds pretty non-nature, I know.

But think of this ‘call’ as an intricate, finely feathered tree root, infiltrating the internet, sneaking up the mess of wires in my machine, and gently tapping me in my core. Become a Forest Therapy Guide…it said.

Become a FT Guide

Author with Computer Infiltrated by Trees

“A what?” I thought loudly.

This happened while getting lost in the world wide web one day. I perused the association’s web site (ANFT), got a copy of the little handbook describing what it was, and then ‘Wham!’ I was hit with the proverbial arrow to the heart.

had to become a Forest Therapy Guide.

How and why do the steadily growing numbers of people each year choose to become Forest Therapy Guides? It’s a good question.

It’s not like there are shows on T.V., like ‘E.R.’ or ‘F.T.’ profiling the excitement and poignancy of Forest Therapy Guiding (though a couple of guides I know tell more than a few good stories worthy of the silver screen).

Your parents aren’t likely saying, “I really think you need to go to Forest Therapy Guiding School, Hun. We’d all be so proud of you and brag about you to the rest of the family.” At least my parents didn’t say that.

And then those great commercials…’Be! All that you can be!…You can do it, in the Fooooorrrr — oooorrrr —-essst’ have just not been released yet (…get to work Kelsea).

So what gives? Why the sudden surge of all these folks filling up the trainings from Ireland to New Zealand, South Africa to California, and Canada to the Caribbean?

Most of all – it’s about vision. Yeah, that intricate, tendril-creeping root system, brought down from the ether by some human conduit, existing in brilliant awareness and alignment.

Whoooshh.

The vision is sent out like a vulnerable seedling breaking the soil of the forest floor, waiting for the caress of the gentle giants, carefully moving step by step across the wooded wonderland.

Amos

ANFT Man of Vision: M. Amos Clifford

This vision is held tightly, and yet loose enough for those present enough to see, touch, feel, smell and taste.

Attach truth and passion to the vision, and they come.

That’s really what’s going on. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Program’s (ANFT) visionaries have blue skied and green forested it all the way.

Poetically, here’s one artist’s rendition:

Let’s help ease people out of their minds

Let’s tingle their rusty senses

Let’s rejoin the disconnected parts of their bodies to the whole and attach all of this to the willing powers of nature

Let’s get their bare feet on the soft soil and tickle their toes in the trickling creek

Let’s give room for creative expression

Let’s get the guides to hone their own medicines

Let’s sit in wonder, joy and glory in what may unfold next

Let all of this be and much more

Sky.jpg

ANFT Woman of Vision – Sky Buitenhuis

In Forest Therapy guide training camp we often ask each other in circle to pause and give gratitude for one or more of those who made this seemingly unlikely journey possible. For me, it was my wife for whom I gave thanks.

Me: “But it’s not feasible to do it now. The money isn’t there. The planning is off. And what about the…,”…

R (my Wife): “Ben, are you supposed to go?”

Me: “Well, of course I wanna go to California! Who wouldn’t? But…I don’t know…, ahh,…I guess, no, I know…Yes. The answer is yes.”

R: “I agree. The rest will fall into place.”

What happens when you fall into a place? It’s another way of saying, when you get present and start noticing what’s around you.

Take it in. Sample it in many ways. Get as much of the full sense of the place you possibly can.

Group.jpg

Several ‘Mind-Blown’ Guides-in-Training in the Humber River Watershed, at Albion Hills Conservation Area, near Caledon, Ontario, Canada, July 2016.

One of my favourite stories of this (and there are many) comes from a current guide-in-training who felt destitute and could only dream of becoming a forest therapy guide.

She noticed her place. She noticed what was possible and she dreamed of it. She held tightly this vision. One by one, her recently ‘fledged,’ young adult children came ‘back to the nest’ with gifts. They were so moved by their mom’s beauty and passion, that they sent her far away to go to forest therapy training.

She glowed and beamed light the whole week, was grateful every second and seemed destined to move the lives of many.

***

There are still under a hundred certified forest therapy guides in the world – a rare breed indeed. However, this budding practice is growing by leaps and bounds. Participants across the world are dropping in rave reviews. The science proves the healing powers. Humankind’s destructive actions demonstrate the dire need for rebuilding the bond between most of our billions and the rest of nature.

Thus, in all honesty, we need thousands, if not millions of people who will step up and ‘walk through the door’ to become Forest Therapy Guides over the next couple of decades.

Gateway.jpg

I recently had a guide-in-training approach me on the final night of training camp. Overcome with emotion, she pulled me aside.

“I can’t thank you enough. This was everything you said and more. Why didn’t you insist on me coming when I had doubted the choice and investment at one time?” she asked.

I said something like, “The process of becoming a guide is life changing indeed and I’m so glad you’ve experienced it. I’m not in your shoes, however. I didn’t know if it was fully right for you. If you were ready to step in, I knew there was so much opportunity, so much for you to learn about yourself, the practice and how you can combine these to offer this gift to the world in your place, and in your time.”

In retrospect, don’t think I answered her fully. If asked again, my answer might include, “Go to a forest. Get quiet. Quell your mind. When you know you are asking from deep inside, then see what answer you get from this silence.”

Easy to say. Easy to do? As with the rest of life…eating well, tending your body, staying in right relationship, and knowing your next steps are all things that require clarity and decisive choice.

The experience I have had so far with ANFT tells me that Forest Therapy is a real, effective tool, and it really, really resonates with me. If this is all new to you and you are pondering your place, look up a guide in your area. Join a walk to fully sense the experience.

Sunrise Forest.jpg

If you think you have a bigger part to play, then find a woodland and a quiet place within for reflecting .

Where might you fit in?

If you can, avoid thinking about an answer. Let the information just ‘come to you.’ It’s great to think and certainly one of our greatest tools is our brain. It’s wonderful when the brain is in service to our core. When it’s not, it clouds us. There’s nothing better than a healthy, slow-paced walk in nature to put one’s brain back in its place. When that happens, ask the forest. Ask an individual tree. Let the clouds in the sky reflect to you. With daily practice of this, before you know it, you’ll start leading from your core essence and be well on your way to making authentic, ‘true to you’ decisions.

Good luck, good health and maybe see you at a Forest Therapy Guide Training one day!

Tree Down Pic.jpg

When you are physically lost (and found) in nature

Have you ever been lost in nature even for some significant time before you were found? It can be more than a bit unnerving, near fatal, and rewarding all at the same time.

When this occurs, what might you be lost from?  The trail head? The ‘tamed world’? Your home? Often all of these things set up churning emotions. Most often, you galvanize the experience as one of those ‘edge’ times and you carry it with you for the rest of your life.

One such time, in deep wilderness, I went to search for a remote and favoured site with a great friend and colleague. It was a place I had often visited as a wildlife biologist. I had noted several female rattlesnakes returned each year to share a ‘rookery rock’ where they gave birth to their young. You might be thinking, “If I arrived at a rock with 50 rattlesnakes, I surely would be lost!”

20150811_175248

This is what large parts of Georgian Bay (location described in this blog), Lake Huron, look like. Beyond rare snakes, you can see the appeal.

For me of course, the site was sacred. I used to eat my lunch sitting beside probably a cumulative total of 20 feet of rattlesnake (we all pick our poisons). Crazy or not, my heart longed for the landscape, their gentle serpentine souls, and the place I once knew so well.

I have a good sense of direction. Sometimes, however, nature changes the directions. In the ten or so ensuing years since I’d been there, the beavers had played ‘God’ on the landscape. Their engineering efforts played mental gymnastics with my mind. They had enlarged existing wetlands, created some that weren’t present, and deepened a great number that were easily traversed in the past.

Twisting and turning to find dry enough ground, I lead us astray. Dusk approached. Then, I recognized an area. Or at least I thought. One ridge looked remarkably similar to one unforgettable incident I experienced nearly a decade early. On this ridge, I had watched from behind a tree as a wolf trotted by with a blood-dripping bear paw in his mouth. I’m not talking about the chocolate, staying fresh for too long to be good for you, ‘Bear Paw’ cookie you can buy for your kid’s lunch (we all pick our poisons). This was a real bear’s paw. How did a lone wolf get a bear’s paw? Any suggestions?

Starting to feel a bit desperate, I felt like I’d failed my friend and colleague. Together we had been through much adversity in the field before. We had our coping tools. Humour and our playful bravado served us well many times in the past. We’d have to go there again.

In trying to make up time and space, I lead us through what used to be a shallow pond. As the water got waist high we hoisted our backpacks, laden with cameras and research equipment, over our heads on our outstretched arms. We reached a small island in the middle of the wetland. We climbed out of the swampy water for relief, but then shuttered and squirmed at the ghastly site of each other. On our bare legs, arms, and necks were – leeches – and lots of them, writhing on our skin. Our bodies were a ‘bar’ for black, slimy blood-suckers.

B&R-GbayLeech2000s

Here we are emerging the ‘out of place’ wetland with what was a self-timer (pre-selfie era) shot of our bloodied bodies, after pulling all the leeches off one another. (I’m on the right, pal-colleague ‘Doc’ Willson, on the left). This is when I realized we were lost.

The worst part about pulling them off was not that the attachment sites bled profusely. It was the knowledge that we had to get right back in the water to get through the other half of the wetland. Feeling far from home in that moment, I recognized we were indeed, lost.

We’d lost more than direction. We’d lost comfort, safety, dryness. We’d loss hope of finding our intended place. We lost the ability to go anywhere with any sort of acceptable pace. We were forced to go slowly. We trudged in a heavy motion, trying to push time as walked through thickness of the swamp.

We never did find the rattlesnake birthing grounds. That place still lives like yesterday in my heart.

I pause from the drudgery of the soggy substrate and take a deep breath.

I see my targeted place. My mind’s eye won’t let go of the detail; the rock ridges, the low wet spots, and the patch work of the endless connections. I see the young newborn animals take in life, one increment at a time. Stretching their expandable bodies, they cross the crunchy Reindeer Lichen, interspersed with hard pink granite rock and small pockets of soft Sphagnum Moss. This is where they warm up for life.

195

An inquisitive, frightened rattlesnake inspects my water supply and then moves on to find cover.

I didn’t get there physically, but I am there. I am in their home. It becomes my home. I own it for the brief passage of time. I open my eyes. I see my own path. I lead us home in the nearly darkened sky and sleekly silhouetted forest.

Being lost in nature in this manner can spawn feelings of fear of immortality. The basic absences breed hot-button insecurities in us; little food to eat, little water to drink and unfamiliar shelter.

The frustration of the perception of being a poor navigator, and ‘the loss of time well spent’ can become vehicles of ultimate trickery. This can lead to a place of ultimate danger; the mind.  The mind is the place that can take what ought be a lesson from the momentary loss of mindfulness, and turn it into the extreme; loss of life. Coming to one’s senses, when lost in nature is the number one way to find our way back.

Only in rare and extreme cases are people never found (a.k.a lost and sadly never discovered in time). The vast majority of times however, the journey of being lost and the triumph of being found are the norm. These stories become established as legends and common lore of our own personal journeys.

BDP-JD 2014.png

Returning with my son quite a few years later, I was back in the beauty of the water of “The Thirty-thousand Islands.” This time, I was much more prepared. We breathed in the beauty of the landscape and respectfully observed the Massasauga Rattlesnake once again.

As such, we can experience a paradoxical ‘happy time’ whence lost in nature. How so, with the stress that’s incurred with being lost this way?

There are many times when I didn’t get lost in nature. These were times when I had a compass. I had a knife….a container to collect water…food…all of the things that could have kept me alive and ‘found’ quickly. These were somewhat memorable and fun, but I seldom recall in vivid detail or re-tell those stories.

There’s something about the uneasiness of being physically lost and then found in nature that makes such a story long worth telling and retelling.

Even more so, being lost and found in nature ties us closer to nature in ways that we experience for the rest of our lives.

Am I advocating to get lost in nature?  In many ways, it’s more than what any doctor can order (except for the new-aged doctors who prescribe several doses of ‘time in nature’). If it happens you’ll surely be happy to have be found. I also sense you’ll be equally pleased that you had become lost in the first place.