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.

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“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.

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“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.
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    “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.

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    “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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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….

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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.

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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.”

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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!

 

 

Making Southern Ontario Wild Again?

It was a journey a long time ago for me. Wilderness completely surrounded me for hundreds of miles. Sitting on a lichen-covered rock outcrop overlooking the flowing water of a creek, I was in heaven watching a pair of Otters play in the rapids. Ok, in actual fact, I was really enjoying watching these animals, while simultaneously trying to kill several Deer Flies that wouldn’t stop trying to suck my blood!

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Moose sleuthed all around me in the rugged landscape of Georgian Bay in the early 1990s. Not long ago, they used to freely strut their stuff in what is now Toronto. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

All of a sudden, nearby screaming in the opposite direction sent chills down the back of my neck. The Otters scattered. Snapshots of Ravens through the canopy of oaks and maples dappled the sunlight even further, a the shiny black birds scattered the scene.

The screeching stopped as the animal raced through over-sized ferns towards me. I could just see a tall, brown tail shredding the plants as it neared. At the last second before impact, the animal skidded abruptly to a stop. We were face to face for a seemingly long time. It was a Fisher. I was a Human (and still am). In that moment, the small but feisty carnivorous mammal and me stared wide-eyed into each other’s core as one being. It left me with a deep picture of all things. It felt like a miracle view into the connectedness of the rocks, the river, the trees, and animals sharing it all. It was a miracle that likely exists in every moment if only viewed with the proper lens. It was also the kind of experience that deep, widespread nature affords.

It was only a few days earlier that I sat quietly picking Wild Blueberries on the edge of a patch of Sphagnum moss when an Eastern Wolf trotted by with a bear’s paw clutched gently in her mouth.

Forest Creek after Rain

On the road to Georgian Bay, there are many stops in central Ontario that will take your breath away.  Southern Ontario still has a few gems in Carolinian Canada, but we’ve lost thousands of wild treasures that we don’t even know about.

This happened about 25 years ago, in central Ontario’s much celebrated eastern Georgian Bay region, a place that has always had a wild side to it, thanks to the rugged rocky and twisting wetland terrain. While there certainly are development pressures on this landscape, I’m so grateful that in my absence all these years, I know Georgian Bay and all its wildness is still there and likely will be for a long time. It is truly a landscape populated with signature animals that both keep you on your toes, and inspire you deeply at the same time.

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Face to face (face to zoom lense?) with a Black Bear. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

While Georgian Bay is a biologically diverse, vast, and blanketed by a high percentage of land with habitat (over 75%), it doesn’t hold a candle in comparison to the diversity found in Southern Ontario’s Ecoregion 7E. This is the region defined by a trapezoid shaped area covering the landscape from Windsor to Sarnia to London to Toronto and over to Niagara Falls; it is dubbed Carolinian Canada. It’s just about the size of Switzerland. Most of the Carolinian Life Zone’s natural cover has been removed – only 18% of habitat remains in comparison. Even with most of its habitat denuded, it is the richest place in the country for plant and animal diversity, and the dubious winner of the longest list of Species at Risk.

Fishers are few and far between in Carolinian Canada, as are many other larger species that need big tracks of habitat – like Moose, Bears, and Wolves (these three are all fully absent). Maybe 50,000 people live in eastern Georgian Bay, from Midland to Parry Sound. In staggering contrast, about a quarter of the country’s population, or 7 million people, live in Carolinian Life Zone. Similarly, roads are densely webbed in the south, vs. the north that affords much bigger tracts, largely without asphalt and automobiles.

While a few parks are found in The Carolinian Zone, 95% of the lands are privately owned. Georgian Bay and other more northerly areas have is large tracts of publicly owned lands either in Parks or government owned Crown lands.

All of this begs a few key questions; how can we recover nature so that Ontario’s diverse south can provide these types of ‘deep nature’ experiences that inspire, rejuvenate and offer a health-inducing natural landscape? How can we recover rare habitats and missing species in this critical zone when it is largely owned by urban residents in cities and towns, and large farm operations in the countryside? Further, with nature literacy at an all time low, how do we get people familiar with the language and raw experiences of nature? And so, in consideration of all of this, can we ever get back to a largely wild landscape in southern Ontario?

The road to get there won’t be simple, but my five second rule answer (from the guy, not the head) tells me ‘yes’ – we can – get a lot of it back. But as a society, do we really want bears, moose, and wolves in a mix of what may be 10 or 12 million people in the next few decades?

It’s possible, but likely not, at least in the next few decades. This may be sad to some, but a major shift of perception in land sharing mentality would have to have been established. Moose aren’t teddy bears. Bears aren’t always as friendly as Elliott Moose. Cougars don’t always respond without retaliation to intense human encroachment. Cities likely won’t get smaller. Very few roads will be closed, or diverted.

But – there is room for renewed hope. While ecological literacy is low, education on climate change is really increasing. Many people now about the benefits of conservation. And after being an advocate for native plants for some time, it’s plain to see how people are resonating with the message of rebuilding nature, one native plant at a time. Thus, it is more than possible to foresee a future in which the cover in Carolinian Canada moves form 18 to 25% in the next few decades.

Whether this means we get our large predators and keystone species like bears and moose or not, it does mean at least our grandchildren will relish in the return of many smaller species. In the context of Carolinian Canada, this is really encouraging and dramatically exciting. There are many small species that dazzle and inspire.

How will we get there? It actually feels like we are moving into a new renaissance of ecological recovery. In recent years, we’ve seen the resurgence of Badgers in and around Long Point and in Brant County. We all watched Southern Flying Squirrels repopulate a tiny national park just outside of Windsor. A pond I observed being hand-dug in the middle of a barren farm field by high school students in the year 2000 quickly turned into one of the top breeding sites for Smallmouth Salamanders (Ambystoma texanum) in all of Canada. The salamanders were not introduced; they found the site on their own.

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The Smallmouth Salamander; Endangered. They recently moved into a pond constructed by high school students in 2000.

And if you try out creating habitat in an urban centre, be prepared for the onslaught; not before long, you may have Screech Owls nesting in your backyard. Not before long, you may see a fox sipping from the water’s edge of your urban pond. Not before long, you will have dozens of warblers stopping in spring to bath and drink from the water trickle of your urban wetland system.

It might not be a bear or a cougar, but it certainly could soon be a Fisher spotted moving along the edge of a creek in a city’s Environmentally Significant Area. The experience of nature back in our midst is real and happening today, piece by piece in Southern Ontario. Yes, it won’t be as rugged and wild as Georgian Bay for quite some time if ever. But if you’re here, certainly feel free to join the tide, and watch the swell grow as we bring back more and more animals, one experience at a time. And for your own good, and that of the people around you, find a relatively quiet spot nearby and sit there regularly. You’ll be amazed at what you experience in solitude in nature and how you will start to wear this calmness and groundedness with you throughout each day.

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After adding about 200 species of native plants to our urban, land-locked yard, Screech Owls nested in an old tree. Returning most years, the diversity of wildlife attracted by native plants has meant a large increase in local wildlife.

*** Two key programs for gearing you up to contribute are In the Zone Gardens (www.inthezonegardens.ca) and the Landowner Leaders Program (see www.caroliniancanada.ca).

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Kids sitting at our almost completed backyard pond system.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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!

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Lost and Found in Nature – One, Oh, One

101 – The maiden voyage. I hope you didn’t get champagne on your screen or a cork in the eyeball. But let’s be formal: “Welcome to the first post for “L o s t  a n d  F o u n d   i n  N a t u r e (imagine a deep, drawn out announcer voice)!” The ship currently feels a bit empty today, but I appreciate you early adopters (friends following of a forced nature) and you would-be ‘frequent sailors.’ If this resonates with you, please pass it along to my ‘Ideal Reader.’

My ideal reader is anyone who is interested in exploring the benefits of their senses in Nature.* Some of you can’t seem to get out and into it quite enough. When you’re there, you can’t quite get enough of it either. You are a bit self-admittedly strange, but your camouflage blends you into your surroundings relatively well (for some of you it’s a journey you’re about to experience). A few of you are often lost making sense of this world, whether with interpersonal relationships, or in market manufacturing, or overseas tax shelters. You’re quite aware of truth out there, and so you think, “Why wouldn’t everyone operate in it?” Then your self-checks (your own, carefully crafted, ego-less third person point of view, and your close ‘peeps’) reveal where and when you’ve chosen to avoid your own superpowers.

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Photo courtesy Sabrynn Dugsin-Porchuk

Getting back into Nature soothes you…you know, the running streams, the dense, lush forests and the fields teaming with colourful wildflowers. You really do seek, even if you don’t know it, restorative nature experiences** as a kind of re-connection, or ‘binding back’ with Nature. These experiences will saturate you with Vitamin N(ature) you may carry this medicine strongly within. And then, ‘Pooof!’ You return…. you return back to the ‘mostly-human world.’

For many, the Nature we played with as kids slipped away so quickly. Remember. At some point you realize that you need to get back to your own nature just as much as Nature in the forest, the prairie, the swamp or the savanna. This is your pain point (I’m supposed to somehow address this in these posts). Your challenge revealed; rediscovering your own (lost) nature while trying to stay connected to Nature. This relationship is challenged all the time. Many things tug at your time, your energy and cloud your choices. Many barriers, including the destruction of Nature, of which we are all a part of on a daily basis, are placed between our own nature and that greater one which is supposed to feed us (on many levels). “Just what kind of a relationship is this?” No wonder we’re so lost most of the time!

With a bit of luck, self determination, and smart work, we find ourselves from time to time. Our own nature gives us our own medicine that we carry in the world to undertake our ‘task.’ That’s what this blog is here for. I will shed light on ways we’re Lost and Found in Nature. I explore the many meanings of this self-proclaimed clever (one of the top things to do in a blog) title, while opening up my own medicine cabinet to share a dose or two with you. And that’s Lost and Found in Nature 101, first class (well, you be the judge).

*Nature – in italics, with a capital denotes ‘The more than human world,’ where natural habitats predominate instead of primarily humans.
**A Restorative Nature Experience – the title of my business/practice is defined as “An experience within the more than human world (Nature) that facilitates self-discovery.”