Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Preserving Snowflakes

December 16th, 2011 by Sarah Clarkin

Snow softens, silences, slows, suspends.  There is a quietness, a deliberateness as the swirling flakes pass through the world on their way to whatever is topmost in their path.

The simplest snowflake is a six-sided prism with two basal facets and six prism facets.  Depending on how this most basic snowflake develops, it can be long and narrow or short and squat.  As it grows, it can vary greatly in shape and size.  Temperature and humidity determine the type of snowflakes that develop.  The higher the humidity, the more complex the snowflakes.   The diagram shows how these variables affect the type of snowflake created. (The prism graphic and chart are from a Caltech website.)

You can get a good look at snowflakes by using some black felt or construction paper and a magnifying glass.  When it begins to snow, place the felt or paper on the ground.  As snow collects on the material or paper, study them through the magnifying glass, taking note of similarities and differences.

You can also preserve snowflakes to study them in greater detail and, if your heart desires, pull them out on the hottest days of summer!  Here’s what you need:

  • a flat piece of glass or glass microscope slides
  • a can of plastic spray (Krylon Spary Coating)
  • ice crystal identification chart
  • magnifying glass
  • a box big enough to contain the glass

Here’s what you do:

  1. Clean off the piece of glass.
  2. Chill the spray and piece of glass in the refrigerator or in the cold outside.
  3. When it snows, bring your materials outside and spray the glass lightly with the plastic spray.
  4. Catch a few snowflakes on the glass, then quickly put the glass in the box to keep too many large flakes from crowding the ones you’ve already collected.
  5. Go inside and let the slides or glass sit in the box for 15 minutes without touching it.

The snowflakes will melt, but their shape will remain for as long as you keep the glass.  (From a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website)

What Are Your Gift Ideas?

December 5th, 2011 by Sarah Clarkin

We don’t need to look at the calendar to know gift giving season is upon us.  We are inundated with gift ideas in the media, shop windows, stores, and from the younger people in our lives. 

As a child, I would sit at one end of the living room couch, next to the lamp made out of a British shell bucket, and bury myself in the several inch thick Sears Christmas Catalogue.  This annual showcase of riches was a treasure unto itself.  I would convey my wishes to Santa when sitting in his lap and underscore them in a later letter.  My parents also received word of The List.

I received The Lists from my Midwest-based tween niece and teen nephew over the weekend.  Like Charlie Brown’s sister Sally in A Charlie Brown Christmas, my nephew included money in his list.  Gift cards from national chains peppered both lists.  Certainly, they have more than enough stuff.  When they were younger, I struggled to come up with gifts they would use to enjoy some facet of the natural world.  As they’ve gotten older, I’ve found it harder to succeed in this effort.  After all, I’m not there to encourage use of the gifts with an insurmountable enthusiasm, join them on adventures of nature, and, hopefully, pass on my undying sense of wonder and love of the outdoors.

I think many of us have this goal and struggle to achieve it.  I’d like this blog to serve as a resource for nature-based gift ideas.   Share your ideas.  If you’ve seen proof of a successful nature-based gift, all the better! 

One idea, one that doesn’t cost anything up front, is a homemade book of adventure coupons.  Each adventure coupon describes one outdoor adventure you and the gift recipient will experience.  Be fun and creative!  Identify one adventure for each of the next twelve months, an outing to a neighborhood park or a weekend camping trip.  How about volunteering at a local land trust’s trail maintenance day or park cleanup?  Pull out crayons, glue, glitter, and yarn.  Use pictures from magazines or photographs you’ve taken.  Make it personal.  Mark the dates on your calendars.

Snowshoes or cross-country skis are fun to use and enhance one’s ability to explore the winter world.  Sleds, skates, birdfeeders, field guides, binoculars, magnifying glass, a map and compass, membership to an organization.  One of my on-line go to places is the Acorn Naturalists.  A California-based science and environmental education supply company, it offers a wide array of items.  Three of the many headings are Science and Nature Games, Animal Tracking Tools & Techniques, and Astronomy Activities.

I’m anxious to learn your ideas.  Please share them.  I’m sure many are looking for ideas to encourage young and old to get outside!

Exploring the Change in Seasons

November 28th, 2011 by Sarah Clarkin

Fall and winter are battling for supremacy over the North Country. Winter slings its arrows of sleet and snow; fall retaliates with rain and sodden wind blown leaves. Forces of change are afoot. We know from years of observation and experience that winter will eventually win and reign supreme until spring rises to challenge winter’s title.

Now is a wonderful time to get outside, note, and think about the seasonal changes surrounding us; for nature’s dynamism is most evident during times and at places of great transformation. Getting outside with young people can be especially rewarding as they may notice things our older and somewhat hardened senses may overlook.

The first step is to dress appropriately. Like our fellow mammals, additional layers of insulation will protect us from the elements. Layers are preferable to a ski jacket, for example, because we can take layers off and put layers on according to our need. Hats are important; a significant percentage of our body heat escapes through our heads! Warm mittens or gloves, socks, and good boots keep our extremities from getting cold.

I’m a big fan of wool as it keeps us warm even when wet. Silk or synthetic wicking materials, worn next to our skin, promote the movement of heat-sucking moisture away from our bodies and also help keep us warm.

Once outside, wherever you are, be still for a few moments to allow your mind and thoughts to transition. Attune your senses. If you want to warm-up your senses, try one or more of the activities described in the September 7, 2011 post, Using Your Senses.

Now, begin to explore. Look, listen, smell, and feel for the changes around you.

Photo: Gerald J. Lenhard

I’ll use insects as an example. Insects are less prevalent than they were a few weeks ago. (Though, while in New Jersey over Thanksgiving, we heard crickets!) The question that pops immediately to mind is, "Where did they go?" Possible answers I come up with include: they died; they migrated; and, they are in a protective shelter. The next question I ask is, "Why are they no longer here?" My guess is either their physiological makeup prevents them from surviving the harsh realities of winter or their food is unavailable. I could take this a step further by asking what factors determine whether a species dies, migrates, or seeks shelter locally. One guess revolves around the species’ mobility because a flightless insect would have a hard time migrating far enough to escape our winter climate. Another guess considers the species’ reproductive strategies. For example, if the species has laid eggs that overwinter, surviving to spring is less important. In my mind, this then leads to the question, "How does this change enable insects to persist?" Well, if certain insects did not migrate or seek shelter locally, the species would no longer be found in this area.

Frankly, I don’t know the correct answer(s) to several of these questions. It matters more that you question and reason than be right.

To encourage variety, challenge yourselves to note at least one change that pertains to each of the following: sight, sound, smell, touch, plant, and animal. 

I’d love to read of the changes you’ve identified!

We Are Where We've Been

November 21st, 2011 by Sarah Clarkin

I moved yesterday. Sold the house, picked up, packed up, drove a few hours, and landed at a new home.

In the weeks and days preceding the move, I aspired to permanently paste the beloved images of the local open spaces, neighborhoods, and architecture into my mind. While I had taken the time to admire these over the years, I looked at them as though I’d never see them again. I focused on the afternoon sun striking the nineteenth century commercial buildings; the heavy early morning fog shrouding the arched bridge over the pond at the nearby park; the beautiful vertical neon sign hanging outside a local brew pub; the porches of my neighborhood – all of it. During my years there, I became a part of the place. The place became a part of me. Leaving was difficult.

This morning, as I walked Hudson the Wonder Dog, I began to take in my new surroundings. Snow topped mountains and sky were markers. Cold, soon-to-be iced, water lapped against rocks. Commercial buildings, new and old, were anchored alongside sidewalks. Over the weeks and years to come, I expect I’ll become a part of this place, and it a part of me.

The landscapes of my childhood are still very much with me. Many of the homes, backyards, and woods of my New Jersey town have changed or disappeared, but the scenes, sounds, smells, and textures live within me. Similarly, the beaches of New Jersey and Cape Cod comprise part of my being. I returned to some of those beaches in October – a homecoming.

I suppose I didn’t have to consciously paste the images of my old home onto my mind. They’re already there. I am a product of where I’ve been. These places have contributed to the person I’ve become.

I think the same can be said of family and friends. And, as Thanksgiving nears, it’s good to contemplate the values of landscapes, family, and friends … and give thanks.

Easy-to-Make Birdfeeders

November 10th, 2011 by Sarah Clarkin

Photo by: MPF

Birdwatching is one of the most inclusive activities I can think of.  You can travel the world looking for species to add to your life list; or, you can sit at your kitchen table and watch your outdoor feeders and/or plant life for avian visitors.  You can be an expert who identifies birds by sight and sound; or, you can simply look and listen to the variety of shapes, colors, sizes, songs, and calls.  You can be equipped with binoculars or spotting scopes and the latest and best field guides; or you can use only your eyes and/or ears.  You can do it alone; or, you can share the activity with family or friends.  You can be on this earth for twenty-five years, ninety-five years, or five years. 

As the weather gets cold, and it will, believe me … gathering around the kitchen table and making simple birdfeeders to hang on nearby plants will bring you enjoyment and the birds much-needed energy to survive what winter throws at them.

Making pine cone feeders is an easy activity that takes about one hour and is appropriate for ages 3 and older.  An adult is needed for some steps and overall supervision.

Materials needed include:

Pitch pine (l) and white pine (r) cones

  • Pine cones.  Where I live, white pine and pitch pine cones that have opened, having spaces to hold the feed, are available.  Any opened pine cone will work.  Approximately 4 white pine cones or 8 pitch pine cones are needed.  
  • Wax paper.
  • Heavy string.
  • Sauce pan.
  • Wooden spoon.
  • Cheese cloth.
  • 2 bowls.
  • 1 cup suet.  This can be found in the meat section of your local grocery store.
  • 1 cup peanut butter.
  • 1 cup corn meal.
  • 1 cup rolled oats.
  • 1 cup wild birdseed.


  1. Spread one placemat sized piece of wax paper for each person participating on a table.
  2. Tie some heavy string around one end of each pine cone.  You will hang the feeder with this string when finished.
  3. Place a pinecone and some birdseed onto each piece of wax paper.
  4. Cut the suet into small pieces and place in sauce pan.  Melt over low heat, stirring occasionally. 
  5. While suet is melting, mix together peanut butter, corn meal, and oats in a clean bowl.
  6. Strain the melted suet through cheesecloth into a clean bowl.  Cool slightly.
  7. Pour melted and slightly cooled suet into mixed ingredients and blend thoroughly.
  8. Making sure the mixture is warm or cool to the touch, press the mixture into the pine cones.
  9. Roll pine cone in the bird seed.
  10. Hang outside.

I suggest hanging the feeders in or close to protective cover such as shrubs or trees.  If you intend to watch the feeders from indoors, be sure you can see them from the viewing window.

For some more easy-to-make birdfeeders, the Audubon Society website has some great suggestions.

Have fun!

Minds and Eyes Upward!

November 4th, 2011 by Sarah Clarkin

My pre-bedtime outing with Hudson the Wonder Dog is a special time.  While I dislike the reality that colder weather forces me to pile on the layers when I’m sleepy-eyed and ready for the Land of Nod, once outside, I find the elements combine and create an elixir.

The late night hour affords me the opportunity to reflect on the day and simply share some quiet time and space with my four legged canine companion.  One of the biggest attractions of these outings is the night time sky.  The sky and our place in it, changing with time and seasons, is, literally and figuratively, deep.

Photo by: Halfblue

While light pollution hides night sky features, we, in northern New York, are relatively lucky.  Ten or so years ago, during a visit from my Chicago-based sister and her family, I took my then small niece and nephew outside to experience the night time sky.  We lay in the oversized hammock, allowed our eyes to adjust, and wondered at the infinite beauty.  I don’t recall the words we shared; but, the moment remains in my memory. 

Sharing the night time sky with friends and family is a great and, sadly, often unfamiliar way to enjoy nature.  Telescopes and binoculars will enhance visual capabilities but are not required to cruise the cosmos.

Over the next few weeks, there are several astronomical events to ponder and, perhaps, witness.

On Tuesday, November 8, an asteroid having a diameter of 1,300 feet will pass a mere 202,000 miles from us here on Earth.  This is closer to us than the moon!  Named 2005 YU55, it is one of hundreds Near Earth asteroids that circle the sun relatively close to our home planet.  You can see an animation of 2005 YU55’s November 8 trajectory in relation to the orbits of the earth and moon.  It’s been more than thirty years since an asteroid of this size crossed our path.  Described as being the color of charcoal, it will not be visible to the naked eye.  It’s fun to think about though, especially since we’re told there’s no chance of an Earth – 2005 YU55 collision.

Photo by: Luc Viatour

The full moon makes its appearance on Thursday, November 10.  Native Americans call this moon the full beaver moon, acknowledging it’s time to set beaver traps before the waters freeze.

Woodcut print of unknown date. Mechanics' Magazine stated one of its editors, named Pickering, created it based on personal observation of the Leonid meteor showers at Niagara Falls, NY.

Then, the Leonid meteor showers will be at their height the late night hours of Thursday, November 17.  These showers, which appear to originate from the constellation Leo, can generate some of the heavens’ most spectacular sites.  Scientists deem the 1966 Leonid meteor showers, which splashed thousands of meteors every hour across the skies, as one of the most memorable in recent history.  While unpredictable, the typical number of meteors per hour is ten to fifteen.  If clear, the quarter moon will attempt to outshine this year’s showers.  Nonetheless, you may find it worthwhile to venture outside and gaze northward.  The best viewing time is in the pre-dawn hours.

Being comfortable is key to enjoyment.  Be sure to dress warmly, including hat, mittens, warm socks, and footwear.  Bring a lawn chair; the reclining type is best.  And, have some hot chocolate or coffee on hand.

For more information on these and other astronomical events, you can visit Stardate and Earthsky.  Personally, I am very excited about the observatory that is planned for Tupper Lake, New York and look forward to visiting it when completed.

So, pile on those layers, step outside, take a deep breath, and look.

Living a Wonder-Filled Life

October 29th, 2011 by Sarah Clarkin

When Thursday’s first heavenly white snowflakes entered this earthen world of muted golds and reds, I was nearing the end of a woodland walk with Hudson the Wonder Dog.  Oh, how I wanted to pretend we had just arrived so we could walk the afternoon away amongst the quiet soft flakes.  That evening, my eyes frequently went to the window, captivated by the still falling snow in the glow of a nearby streetlight.

Still, after half a century of life, falling snow fills me with wonder.

In my recent conversation with Paul Hai, Program Coordinator for the Northern Forest Institute for Conservation Education and Leadership Training of the State University of New York, College of Environmental Studies and Forestry, and co-founder of Children in Nature, New York (CiNNY), he referred to Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder.  First appearing in the July 1956 edition of Woman’s Home Companion under the title Help Your Child to Wonder, it was published posthumously in 1965 (Harper & Row).  A special edition of the book was released in 1998 (Harper Collins).

In The Sense of Wonder, Carson shares her belief that we enter this life with a sense of wonder about the world.  Sustaining that wonder through life requires at least one adult who can share and nurture it.

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.  It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.  If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in (pages 54-55).

Carson stresses that it is more important to feel than to know.  Facts will likely be lost; wonder will remain.

If you are a parent who feels he has little nature lore at his disposal there is still much you can do for your child.  With him, wherever you are and whatever your resources, you can still look up at the sky – its dawn and twilight beauties, its moving clouds, its stars by night.  You can listen to the wind, whether it blows with majestic voice through a forest or sings a many-voiced chorus around the eaves of your house or the corners of your apartment building, and in the listening, you can gain magical release for your thoughts.  You can still feel the rain on your face and think of its long journey, its many transmutations, from sea to air to earth. … Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you.  It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils and finger tips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression (pages 66-67).

The adults I know, or have known, who have managed to hang on to this sense of wonder hold onto it with ferocity.  They cultivate it and treat it lovingly, for it feeds them.  And, it radiates from them.

A dear friend of mine has survived several types of cancer with a spirit that lives, loves, and laughs.  Recuperating from a procedure that, happily, will not be followed by chemotherapy, I visited her the other day.  After talking and laughing for abit, she suggested we go for a walk in the woods near her home.  She, clad in flannel pajamas adorned with bright orange and pink hearts, put on shoes and jacket and headed for the door.  Along our walk, she pointed out the things she loved, the colorful leaves, ferns, mosses.  She stopped at a stream and, together, we took in the fallen leaves and golden white pine needles resting in a pool, and we marveled.

My mother-in-law was another such person.  Ill and in pain for far too long, she reveled in the beauty and magic of nature.  While I dare not speak for her, I believe it gave her an inner hope, peace, and joy.  Indeed, her presence was comprised of those feelings; it was her aura.

What is the value of preserving and strengthening this sense of awe and wonder, this recognition of something beyond the boundaries of human existence?  Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper?

I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant.  Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.  Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living.  Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts (page 100).

My mother-in-law, Barbara

Interview With Paul Hai – Children in Nature New York

October 20th, 2011 by Sarah Clarkin

At long last, I have waded through my first audio editing experience.  The waters were wide and deep but I am fulfilled having made it to the other side.

Courtesy: School of Environmental Studies and Forestry

In August, I interviewed Paul Hai, Program Coordinator for the Northern Forest Institute for Conservation Education and Leadership Training of the State University of New York, College of Environmental Studies and Forestry, based at Huntington Wildlife Forest in Newcomb.  Paul is also a co-founder of Children in Nature, New York (CiNNY). 

CiNNY represents a partnership between the Northern Forest Institute; the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Great Play! Lake Placid Sport Summit; Come Out and Play! Children and Nature, Saratoga; and, the Wild Center.  It is working to create an integrated network that functions across the state, creating events and opportunities for people to connect with nature. 

I sat down with Paul and spoke with him about our connection with nature, children’s connections with nature, the work of CiNNY, and his thoughts and passions.  To the extent possible, I’ve provided links to mentioned resources.  Here is the Paul Hai interview.  Below, I’ve provided times for subjects discussed:

  • 0:00 – 1:00      Introduction of Paul
  • 1:01 – 4:12      Efforts’ goals
  • 4:13 – 4:48      CiNNY's working group
  • 4:49 – 8:05      CiNNY’s geographic scope and growth
  • 8:06 – 8:58      CiNNY's operations
  • 8:59 – 9:16      CiNNY's activities
  • 9:17 – 14:50    Why Paul does what he does; Its importance
  • 14:51 – 20:37   Resources to connect with nature
  • 20:38 – 21:35   CiNNY's funding
  • 21:36 – 24:24   Importance of defining and marketing nature

I'm off to play outside!

Create Your Own Fall Foliage Story

October 14th, 2011 by Sarah Clarkin

It’s so easy getting caught up in each day’s To Do List.  We power through the hours only to fall into bed and sleep, or toss ‘n turn, whatever our habit.  Eyes turn inward.  Mentally, we walk up and down the aisles, pulling tomorrow’s To Do List items off the shelves, shelves stocked with things we do every day, things we’d like to do but continually pass on, and things we haven’t even noticed because we’re so busy maneuvering the cart.

For me, fall’s foliage is akin to crashing the cart into a display.  I can’t help but stop, refocus, and stare.  It’s big; it’s bold; it’s beautiful.  It’s not to be ignored.  It’s one of the year’s biggest specials and it has an expiration date. 

Enjoy it!  Take some time with family and friends.  Go for a walk or spread a blanket and yourselves.  Look up and down.

There are several Native American stories about how/why the leaves change color.  The one I read most often tells the story of sky-bound hunters who kill a great bear (The Big Dipper).  The bear’s blood, as it falls from the sky, turns some leaves red.  As the hunters cook the bear meat in a big kettle, bear fat splatters and falls to earth, turning other leaves yellow and orange.

It’s fun to share this story with family and friends while admiring fall’s colors.  It’s also fun to create your own stories explaining the season’s palette.  Develop your stories individually or collectively.  Encourage the younger participants to write up the stories and accompany them with drawings.  Dramatizing the stories is another possibility. 

These stories can become part of your family’s or group’s lore and shared every year.  Share them with us if you’d like!

Tonight, while constructing tomorrow’s To Do List, be sure to put Leaf Peeping at the top.  Looking inward is important.  Looking outward is, too.

How To Get Your Children Outside

October 10th, 2011 by Sarah Clarkin

Despite your great intentions, it may be difficult to unplug your children and get them outside.  What are some ideas and strategies to reintroduce, or introduce them, to the beautiful world outside?  I have some thoughts and would like to know yours.  What have you done to unplug your children and get them outside?

From what I’ve witnessed, I think it’s important to start slowly and, to the extent possible, ensure a positive experience. 

If your children are not keen on outdoor activities just yet, plan a one or two hour activity rather than an eight hour activity.  While they may not leap at the idea, they’ll appreciate that it’s only two hours and not eight.  Once outside, if they’re having a great time, make the most of it.

At environmental education facilities where I worked, we thought long and hard before taking children on an overnight camping trip if conditions were less than tolerable.  If the mosquitoes’ numbers and incessant humming were going to irritate the children to the point where they would never want to go camping again, we tried to postpone.  Cold and rainy on hiking day?  Again, we tried to hold off if possible. 

Once everyone is excited about the outdoors, longer outings and inclement weather can add excitement and enhance an outdoor adventure.  I’ve had some incredible times with children in the midst of heavy Adirondack rains.  A long outing and/or the potential of inclement weather present great pre-trip opportunities for group planning and decision-making.  Working together, you can discuss ideas, time needed, appropriate dress, food, and gear.

Before going outside with your children, separate them from their various devices, e.g., phones, i-pods, watches.  They can’t look or listen to what they don’t have.  At one place I worked, before the days of cell phones and i-pods, we took away watches.  When children invariably asked what time it was, we always responded, “5:30.”  Eventually, they stopped asking … and caring about the time.

So, what are some great activities? 

Given the time of year, walking through a wooded area and collecting nicely shaped and colored leaves is fun.  Pressing them or putting them between wax paper and lightly ironing the paper are options.  While collecting the leaves, compare and contrasts shapes, sizes, and colors with your children.  Try to collect as many different types as possible in the time you have. 

If there are publicly accessible wetlands nearby or other known stopping places for migrating birds, go and look for interesting waterfowl or songbirds.  Contemplate their destinations, the challenges encountered, navigational strategies.  It doesn’t matter if you know the answers; you’re exercising curiosity and imagination.  You’re calling upon what you do know and building on that.  Last week, I was on Cape Cod and witnessed thousands upon thousands of swallows flitting along the bayside dunes.  Stunning. 

Courtesy of New York Apple Association

At this time of year, apple or pumpkin picking is a great way to spend some time.  In my mind, the addition of fresh cider doughnuts makes such an outing perfect!

Check the community calendars available in your local papers and on various websites, including NCPR’s, for upcoming events.