Ed’s Corner

December 21st, this coming Wednesday, is the Winter Solstice, the first day of winter, although in times past it was also referred to as mid-winter. That term, ‘mid-winter’, is appropriate because after this day the amount of light slowly increases daily. Early groups of hunters and gatherers thought of it as the sun returning once again. Perpetual darkness – oblivion – has been avoided.

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All of us living on this part of the earth experience this change of seasons. It is something we all share in common. We – Republicans, Democrats, Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, black/white/Hispanic/Asian, men, women, boys, girls – just think, we could have a big Solstice party and without worrying about who to invite, we can ask EVERYONE to it! What a nice coming together that would be, to celebrate our common home.

If we think about the really big picture of the universe, the earth, its movements, space, other celestial objects, we will begin to appreciate how lucky we are to be living on the earth at this time. Thanks to author Bill Bryson for the following thoughts:

* We are the right distance from the right kind of star (our sun). And our star is just the right size.

* If the earth were 1% further from the sun, our planet would be uninhabitable.

* All of the elements (remember the Periodic Chart that was usually displayed in almost every science room?), well, all those elements are present in just the right amounts to enable us to live here … on the earth.

* The molten material (magma) inside the earth released gases that made our atmosphere, which protects us from cosmic radiation.

* Plate tectonics – the process of parts of the earth’s surface moving, sliding, continents changing/rising/sliding over and under each other – all of this makes for a surface upon which we can stand. If not, if the earth were perfectly smooth, it would be covered everywhere to a depth of over 13 feet of water!

* The moon’s gravity – because of its position and its size, influences our planet in such a way that we do not wobble like a top that is running out of steam, slowing down. The moon’s presence keeps us at the right speed and angle as we travel through space.

*  The earth’s climate and surface have been quite different in the past compared to now – freezing, ice, boiling hot, bubbly poisonous seas, constant storms, lightning.

* There is soil where things can grow!

* There is rain that falls.

* Sometime in the very distant past plants began to absorb sunlight, water and carbon dioxide, and thus we have efficient green plants today, making their food (and ours) through photosynthesis.

* The earth has not been hit by giant space rocks or meteors for a long time. The dinosaurs took a big hit (extinction!) after one of these collisions.

* Our ancestors left their watery homes a long time ago so that today we are land dwellers; and quite different looking!

We have much to be thankful for – just the fact that you are here, reading these words, is wondrous.

On Wednesday take a moment out of your busy day and look around you. Maybe notice how short the daylight lasts, and appreciate that from Wednesday onward, up until the Summer Solstice, the light will increase! Although the cold (and hopefully snow) will likely be with us for at least another two or three months, the darkness reaches its apex this Wednesday, and our part of planet earth begins to move slowly into the light.

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Ed’s Corner

Thanksgiving is a time for counting our blessings, feeling gratitude for what we have, for acknowledging the gifts of our life. Perhaps this year it might feel more challenging, for many reasons – political and otherwise – to feel blessed, to feel happy.

And yet, you may be happy at times and not even know it! Kurt Vonnegut (yes, the very same author of Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-five, and more) from his essay “Knowing What’s Nice”, has this to say:

“And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex…His principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’

So, I do the same now and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘Well, if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is! ‘ ”

I’ve taken to doing this myself, and it’s been great for me and others with me.

If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is:

* on a windy day watching the fallen leaves twist and twirl and go racing down the street or over the lawn, almost inviting me to join them.

* my first time this season catching a scent of smoke from someone’s fire place or wood stove.

* sharing hot chocolate or hot apple cider inside after being outdoors.

* seeing the first snowflakes of the season.

* hearing how everybody’s day was during a dinner with all family members present.

* venturing outdoors after a snowfall and being the first to make footprints in the blank, snowy canvas.

* watching a magnificent sunset (these November evenings are especially notable).

* getting up in the middle of a cold night and then quickly climbing back into bed and under the still-warm blankets.

* holding my new grandchild, leaning down, and taking in that indescribable baby scent; if heaven had an odor, it would be that.

* watching my dog run and play and get dog-tired.

* walking home in the early evening, in the cold, and seeing the lights of my home from a distance, knowing my loved ones are there, inside, where it is warm.

You can probably add many more of your own ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’ categories to this list. You could even start a small journal (or keep a list on your phone, if you must) of moments like these. It will certainly help you feel thankful.

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Ed’s Corner

So far this autumn we have had quite a few magnificent blue-sky days. The kind of days that beckon us to come out into nature and to be a participant, to witness, to be part of the changing seasons.  Even just a twenty minute stroll through a nearby nature place – it could be your backyard or Central Park – will make a difference. “A difference in what?”, you may ask. For me, it’s a difference in my general state of being, mood, sense of self, balance, and most of all, an increase in the level of connection I feel – connection to the greater world, to others, and to something more timeless than myself.

This fall has provided more reasons than beautiful days and our hectic lives as reasons to get out-of-doors,. The political climate in this country is one of tension, anger, fear. There are wars, fighting, displaced persons around the world. Global warming reveals itself again through weather extremes.
Yikes, enough already. Let’s go out! I know for myself that the day after each ‘debate’ I need at least a 3-hour hike along the trails in Harriman Park.
In the last two years I have discovered the wonderful poetry and writing of William Stafford. His paragraph below describes to me what can and does happen to us when we are out in nature. May you, too, find your own moments of grace. Go quietly, go slowly, but bottom line,  go.
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If Only for a Moment, by William Stafford
Each of us is blessed with moments of grace, moments when our soul becomes clear and quiet. Our worrying stops. Our yearning and planning and waiting for fulfillment stops. There is nothing to be done since everything is already happening. Grace uncovers the mysterious essence that unites us with all beings.  Through its gift, the place, the time, the sky, and ourselves are revealed in right relation. What is inside of us and what is outside of us comes together, if only for a moment.

Ed’s Corner

Warm, Green, Growing Days

Calvin and Hobbes

That beautiful season, the summer! Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light: and the landscape lay as if newly created in all the freshness of childhood.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

I remember the last day of school when I was a boy, the beginning of summer vacation in June, when we literally ran out the school door and felt, in our exhilaration, that summer would last forever, that time would almost freeze (even with 90 degree days), and that this was the natural state of things, this was how life should be!  Even now, it’s easy to lose myself in such thoughts as I traipse through the green, stretching, sun-filled days of summer.

Years ago I heard a story about the benevolent native American deity, Manitou, and his desire to give something special to his beloved people of the earth.  He called them together and asked them what they would like.  One group wanted an earthly home where flowers bloomed, animals gave birth to their young, seeds in the ground sprouted quickly, bird song filled the sky, and the sense of life swelled in the people as it did in the air.  Another group asked to live in a time and place where the days were long and warm, the Three Sisters (corn, squash and beans) and the wild berries and the animals themselves would provide plenty of food, and a dip in the cooling river would be a welcome relief from the heat.  A third group dreamed of beautifully colored leaves, a time to harvest the wild nuts, acorns and other bounties of the forest, and cooler days and nights.  A fourth and final group longed for a world where the everyday was blanketed with crystalline ice and snow that made it easy to track animals, the air was crisp and clear, and families came together for long evenings of storytelling around the fire.

Well, you can imagine Manitou’s consternation after hearing such different requests.  How could he give all of his people what they really wanted?  He retired for the night with a heavy heart.  But the next day he appeared among his beloved people and spoke, pointing to each of the four groups in turn:  You, who want flowers, birth, morning bird song – I give you Spring.  You, who seek warmth and long, green, growing days – I give you Summer.  You, who desire colorful trees, bountiful harvests and cooler weather – I give you Fall.  And you, the last of my Indian brothers and sisters, who yearn for cold, beautiful snow, easy tracking and cozy fellowship – I give you Winter.

And the people were happy.  They never became tired or bored with their gifts, for while none of these seasons lasted forever, each came and left with the assurance it would come around again and again and again.

Welcome to Manitou’s warm, green, growing days.

Ed’s Corner

Belonging
One of the highlights of The Nature Place Day Camp experience is that of belonging to a community – one that is based on acceptance, inclusion, cooperation, and on the premise that we are all part of the natural world, living together on planet earth. Community was critical in hunter/gatherer societies, obviously for the hunting and gathering part, but also for the sense of belonging and fulfillment of emotional needs, as a place to bring and deal with life’s changes, passages, sorrows and celebrations.

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community

Children – and adults – want and need to feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves. The time we live in presents fewer opportunities than ever before for this to happen. While we can connect to friends across the world through our cell phones and social media, and we can remain in more frequent contact with loved ones through text or tweet or email, the connection and contact often remains hollow, not quite filling our hunger for real, human, face-to-face connection. Have you ever gone on Facebook, hoping to see what’s happening in your ‘world’, and then left feeling just as unconnected as before you logged on? Maybe you then check in to see what’s happening on your news feed again, just five minutes after you last looked, and so continues an often unconscious cycle of searching for connection, obtaining a ghost-like version of it that leaves you still ‘hungry’, and then going back for more.

I find that this yearning for connection is truly met and satisfied while in the physical presence of others. Having someone like your funny post or comment on your beautiful picture feels good, but it feels good like drinking a cold can of Coke feels good, momentarily refreshing and thirst-quenching, until your body responds to the sugar and caffeine by becoming even more dehydrated, after which you drink another Coca-Cola. Interacting in the physical world is often more challenging, more complicated, more messy than communicating digitally, but it is also more profound. A friend laughing at your joke – you actually witnessing their eyes crinkle up, their mouth open, and then hearing the chuckling sounds that come out – does something rewarding that no post like has ever done for me. So too does someone telling me (in person) that I look nice. I might even blush or laugh a little in embarrassment, I’m effected physically in a way that digital interaction simulates, but cannot replace.

connecting

connecting

In this country we are often brought up with the American ideal that to grow up is to become independent and self-actualized. We grow up to become individuals so that we can ‘do it ourselves’, and there’s certainly something important about growing into a unique, separate person.

But I wish that through the process of growing into adulthood, in our search for ‘where do I belong’, we could also be taught, intentionally, how to foster connection with others, to build community, how to become a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Maybe there’s a correlation between our lack of connection with nature and our lack of connection with others. At The Nature Place we find that when we ‘work’ on one, it also helps or works with the other.

There is one community that everyone is a part of (whether they acknowledge it or not), and that is the community of earth. This community will be celebrated soon – on April 22nd, Earth Day, as it has been every year since 1970. If you’re not doing anything special to mark this day, don’t worry. Maybe just take a minute or two and connect, in person, to another human being.

celebrating the earth

celebrating the earth

Ed’s Corner

Staying Grounded

 

The only thing that is constant is change.
― Heraclitus

Our lives are full of change: climate, style, diet, opinion, music, expertise, technology, even our historical contexts…shifting sands at every turn. Nowhere, nowadays, is more in flux than the field of education, with parents and teachers facing a multimedia barrage of conventional and unconventional wisdoms on the care and feeding of happy, intelligent children. There’s the Core Curriculum, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds, A Nation at Risk, Race to the Top, and now STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. The Three R’s might not have served us all that well, but they at least had the virtue of simplicity, of not overthinking matters.

32 years ago, before I started The Nature Place, I visited some well-established day camps and asked their inveterate directors for advice. I was told, among other things, that access to computers was going to be essential; that awards, award ceremonies and trophies – especially trophies – were crucial; that my interest in a non-competitive environment was out of step – and might even be seen as ‘sissified’. On the contrary, I needed to have a full complement of sports programs, and camp would just not be camp without ‘color wars’, a combative week of partisan aggression that was an alleged favorite with the kids.   And a camp could not be financially stable without at least 500 campers, despite the potential for those numbers to make counseling the equivalent of crowd management.

I was advised to arrange rainy day contingencies with local movie theaters, to keep campers as happily dry and entertained as possible. And it would be prudent to include some academics, to reassure parents that the learning paradigm didn’t get lost in the summer shuffle. That last consideration has been steadily gaining traction lately: I understand some camps this summer will be weaving STEM concepts into their activities. We will also be weaving some stems this summer…the non-capitalized kind. 

You might wonder why I bothered to consult anyone, given that I eventually chose to ignore most of what these successful camp owners and directors told me. I really wasn’t being contrary or smug…I certainly didn’t suppose that I was the only one in the parade marching out of step. I was just following my instincts, not entirely confident that they would prove out. Gulp. In retrospect, whether I was bemused by naïveté or imbued by beginner’s mind, I decided to take my own counsel. Let’s just do it and see what happens.

Since then we’ve made many changes and adjustments — every year we re-examine our structure, our programming, our logistics. But even though we ask ourselves again and again whether we’re still doing what we set out to do, our philosophy hasn’t changed. The political scene, the cultural morass, the earth itself may be changing, but what we offer our campers seems to us to be…well, natural.

Ed, young, with troll

Even at a younger age Ed was hanging out with trolls…

Ed’s Corner

A short while ago, right after the first week of February, I heard from others that they saw blooming(!), on our campus both crocus and snowdrop flowers.

Someone else shared they saw a flock of robins. Now granted, the robin flock could have been around all winter, but still, my first thought upon hearing this news was: I don’t feel that winter has even begun. Do you have a similar feeling? (Although this past weekend gave us a cold, seasonal jolt).

Crocus

And for the last three weeks I have seen sapcicles hanging from branches and trunks of the maple trees lining the road in my neighborhood, a definite sign that the sap is moving – flowing – inside the maples! Cold nights and warmer days provide the stimulus for the sap to move, leaking out on warm days from small cuts in the bark or from fresh woodpecker holes or from branches where squirrels have chewed off the buds. This leaking sap then freezes into a sap icicle (sapcicle) during the night when it is colder and the sap stops dripping.

So what does all this mean for the upcoming maple sugaring season?! Some have already tapped a tree or two, and report that the sap is flowing freely. Will this be an early sugaring season? It sure looks like it – I just read last night that Adirondack sugaring operations have begun tapping, collecting and boiling – more than a month earlier than usual. Traditionally, we tap our trees sometime between the third week of February and the second week of March. But with the recent cold (or ‘normal’ winter) temperatures we’ve had, and then the sudden warming of weather, the time to tap is now!

138044 CLIFFSIDE PARK, NJ MAPLE SUGARING DEMONSTARTION 2-25-15 Ed and Daniel Bieber of The Nature Place Day Camp demonstrated maple sugaring at the Cliffside Park Public Library on Feb. 25, 2015. KRYSTI SABINS/FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER

Ed and Daniel thinking, “Oh, please let the sap drip!” CLIFFSIDE PARK, NJ MAPLE SUGARING DEMONSTARTION 2-25-15 Ed and Daniel Bieber of The Nature Place Day Camp demonstrated maple sugaring at the Cliffside Park Public Library on Feb. 25, 2015. KRYSTI SABINS/FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER

If you are a backyard tapper and have everything you need, go for it. Tap – if you haven’t already – your tree(s) now that the day time temperatures are more or less above freezing, and the night time temperatures below that mark.

And if you are waiting until March 5th (our maple sugaring programs!) to become a backyard maple syrup maker, it will be fine to tap at that time, also. Maybe you would have missed the beginning of the season, but don’t worry, there is plenty to go around.

Ed’s Corner

Listening to the Sun

Every year around mid-January I begin to feel that the sunlight has a different quality about it, compared to, say, a month ago. It could be that there’s more of it: in January we gain 1.5 – 2 minutes of sunlight each day, during February we add 2.5 minutes daily. But what I feel in the sunlight seems more related to quality rather than to quantity. The light seems to call to me to get outside, into nature; to take in and partake in the slow reawakening of the natural world.

Being outside in nature at this time of year offers a quiet, slower-paced environment to explore, with or without snow. A prolonged stillness as we head toward the Vernal Equinox.

Beginning sun

Yet within the feelings of stillness and quiet bestowed by the woods in January there is tremendous movement occurring, just outside the scope of what we can observe. Movement within the earth is already brewing to bring forth the snow drops and crocuses of late winter, and the actual movement of our earth rotating through space is adding time and luster to the sun’s rays each day. Even when we are still, we are anything but! Consider some of the things that the earth – with us upon it – is doing:

* spinning around, once in 24 hours, making day and night
* revolving, orbiting the sun, one complete orbit called a year
* spinning around the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, where we are located in one of it’s ‘arms’
* our solar system moving along with our Milky Way galaxy as it speeds through space
* and presumably on and on…

It makes me dizzy just trying to think about it. Dramamine anyone?

Imagine that the earth’s movements listed above had audible sounds connected with them! This time of year would be anything but quiet. Perhaps we’d think of winter as that special season when our world gets quiet enough for us to hear the music of the spheres.

Brightest

Ed’s Corner

Making Winter Buddies

We’re at the dark turn of the year, awaiting the Winter Solstice (the night between December 21st and 22nd) and after that the return of the light, when the sun will be ‘up’ a little bit longer each day. When I walk by the now naked trees and look closely at the branches I’m reminded that they may be devoid of leaves but certainly not the buds we can find along and usually at the ends of most branches. Inside these buds are the flowers and leaves that will ‘be’ next spring. They too are waiting all winter for the warmer, light-filled days of spring. When I’m with children outdoors we sometimes refer to them as packets of promise.

Buds

Now some buds, depending on the kind of tree they are on, will contain just the leaves, some only the flowers, others will have both.
Different buds will have different shapes, colors and be of different sizes. They serve as good guides in identifying winter trees.

Now would be a good time to venture out-of-doors and find some ‘buddies’. Go to a few different kinds of trees and choose some buds that you can check on, be aware of or look in on, whenever you go outdoors. Be patient, not much will be happening for a while but when it does happen, it will feel like magic, a promise fulfilled.

How will you know which are your buds? I like to tag or mark them with a colored piece of yarn or string tied around the branch and on or right next to my buds. You might think of other ways to mark your buds so that you can easily find them.

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Ed’s Corner

I hear people discussing it in our co-op grocery store. Or while waiting to pick up their children from the school parking lot.

The fall –  how long it has lasted, how gentle the temperatures have been and the colors, especially those colors. The reds are so deep it seems like if you touched one your finger would just keep sinking in. And the yellows! Touch one and it feels like your finger might spark! And many trees are holding their leaves longer, releasing them not in a windy maelstrom of hundreds at a time, but slowly, sometimes in small groups; at times, one or two.

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There is lately, in the public school arena, much talk and strong feelings about the Core Curriculum: what should children know? Let’s test them! And then have teachers teach to the test, and then, be sure to test the teachers to make sure they are doing just that.

This kind of fall reminds me of a fleeting and wild thought I had years ago: every school curriculum, call it ‘Core’ or something else, should include, at each grade level, a course or set-aside time, outdoors, naturally, throughout the school year, in every season. Through interaction and experience with the earth – its seasons, customs, and rhythms – each child would have the opportunity to develop a true sense of place and belonging. Of course there would be a test, to be taken frequently:  a) Show up  b) dress for the weather.

My wife, Jill, attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. One day each fall the school’s chimes would ring out at 8 am, the signal for a tradition called Mountain Day. Everyone knew it would happen in autumn, but not when. On this day all classes were canceled, and students climbed up nearby Mount Holyoke for a day spent outdoors, sharing time in nature with friends.

I have often thought that in businesses, schools and such, the concept of a ‘Well’ Day’ is equally important as that of the ‘Sick’ Day. Strongly recommended in this ‘Well’ Day would be a nature component, visiting a nearby park or tending a community garden. A ‘Well’ Day might sometimes include taking your child out of school for the day to accompany you outdoors.

I have a feeling that incorporating ‘Well’ Days into the year will result in less ‘Sick’ Days being used.

Perhaps you have seen recently in the news that all REI stores will be closed on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year.

And, the company is specifically encouraging its employees to get out into nature on that Friday!

Yea!, REI.

Why don’t you join me and all the REI employees as we forego shopping on that day too, and go outside instead?

Burning Bush