A day at Nature Camp: insects, process art, stories

The second day of Nature Camp started with opening circle, as always. Our kindergarteners and first graders sat in a circle, and we sang one of the songs we learned yesterday, “The Earth Is Our Mother,” and the children remembered it well enough that they told me when I sang one of the verses wrong. Abby read a short story about Wangari Maathai, one of our Nature Camp elders. Kris also showed us a slug that she had found that morning, and we spent some time watching it before we released it in a shady place.

Then Kris introduced the them for the day: insects. Kris read some excerpts from Simon & Schuster Children’s Guide to Insects and Spiders. We learned what an insect is, and we learned the three parts of an insect (head, thorax, and abdomen). Kris also read to us a little bit about butterflies and moths, or Lepidoptera.

Kris next told us that we were going to make some pitfall traps to catch some insects, by burying a plastic cup in the ground. We learned the ethics of pitfall traps: you have to empty them regularly (at least once a day) to be sure the insects don’t die, and they should not be placed in full sun (the hot sun can kill any insects that fall in them).

The children enjoyed finding shady places to put the traps, and then digging holes in the ground with trowels and placing the plastic cups in the holes. Each child got to put at least one insect trap in the ground. While we were doing this, we stopped at the plum tree and managed to find a few more ripe plums to eat, enough for every child who wanted one to have one.

The highlight of the morning for me was Abby’s “natural paintbrush” project. The children got sticks (the handle of the paintbrush) and then attached leaves or pine needles or some other natural object to the stick with masking tape or rubber bands.

We taped large sheets of paper on two tables, and provided red, yellow, and blue tempera paint. The children enjoyed mixing their own colors, then spreading the colors with the natural paintbrushes.

It was a great example of process art, since there was no “product”; instead the whole emphasis was on exploring the materials and colors.

After we painted for a while, it was time to walk over to Mitchell Park to play on the trees and eat some lunch. The children particularly enjoy climbing a tree that has a long branch that is almost horizontal the the ground, sloping gently upwards. It’s the perfect challenge for this age group. One or two of the children felt comfortable walking along the branch, but most of them moved along slowly, clasping it with legs and hands. Kris told them that they should only climb as far as they felt safe; at the same time she gently urged them to go a little beyond their comfort zones. One child was pleased to find that he could make it further along the branch than he thought he could.

While we were eating lunch, two California Gulls landed not far away and started fighting over some trash. We talked about how gulls like to eat trash, and I described the gull nesting colony near Charleston Slough. I also expressed my opinion that gulls are not particularly pleasant birds: they are loud, and messy, and kind of aggressive. While we were eating lunch, we also saw some butterflies flying by probably (Western Tiger Swallowtails), but it was breezy and the butterflies went by very quickly.

After lunch, Kris had a book that showed us how to draw slugs and butterflies. The children each drew some slugs and butterflies in their nature journals. One child drew a slug very carefully, trying to make it the same color as the one we had seen earlier in the morning. Another child drew a large number of slugs, and then dots all over them which he said was salt that was killing them. We talked a bit about why salt might kill slugs.

At last it was time to go back for closing circle. We sang “The Earth Is Our Mother” again, which the children knew really well by now, as well as “The Adaptation Song” which has a verse about how California Gulls adapt to their environment. To close the day, Kris read part of an Arnold Lobel book about a grasshopper.

All in all, a very satisfying day at Nature Camp. We worked on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, and knowledge about the natural world. Most importantly, we just spent time in nature, looking, touching, playing, being.

Note: We have media releases for all children depicted above. Nature Camp is sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

Mud puddling

Butterflies, so goes the common wisdom, like flowers, so if you want to attract them you plant flowers that they will like. But butterfly enthusiasts point out that some butterflies prefer “mud puddling”: they are attracted to mud puddles, and like to hang out there.

Carol and I went for a walk in Purisima Creek Redwoods preserve. In places the trail was still damp and even muddy, and in one such place, on a boundary between chaparral and Douglas fir forest, I saw an Echo Blue fluttering along. The trail wasn’t exactly muddy, but I guess it was damp enough, for the insect would light every now and then, put its wings up, and bask.


When I got too close, it unfolded its wings, revealing its attractive bright blue upper surfaces, and flew quickly away, staying close to the trail. I never once saw it go near a flower; so simple observation happened to disprove a stereotype generated by common wisdom. On the other hand, sometimes common wisdom is right. A little further down the trail, a Variable Checkerspot was energetically seeking out flowers.

Variable Checkerspot

“Nature, red in tooth and claw”

The old time Universalists were fond of saying that “God is love.” That statement may be true, but not in any sentimental sappy sense. Many years ago, Tennyson pointed out that he who might place trust in the belief that “God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law” needed to remember that “Nature, red in tooth and claw … shriek’d against his creed.”

On our walk today, Abs and I saw a butterfly that had lost much of its left hindwing, and a part of its left forewing. We speculated that perhaps a bird or other predator had attacked the butterfly, and somehow it had gotten away, and was still flying:


Living things need to eat, and as often as not they eat other living things in order to stay alive. And this is true of you, too, O human being who think yourself an apex predator: there are plenty of microorganisms and parasites and biting insects who feed on you.

“Humble bee”

Abs and I went for a walk in Great Meadows in Concord, Mass. We spent some time looking at native pollinators, of which my favorite was a bumble bee (Bombus sp.) working the blossoms on Purple Loosestrife and goldenrod:


It reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about bumble bees, called “The Humble Bee.” When I got home I looked up the poem; it wasn’t as good as I had remembered, but I did like the fourth stanza, which captures something of the flavor of a warm July day in New England:

Hot midsummer’s petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure….

Geneva, Ohio, to Rensselaer, N.Y.

Of course I awakened late. First of all, I hadn’t gotten into the motel room until 11:30 the previous night. Second of all, the time I awakened might seem late in the Eastern time zone but in the Pacific time zone I got up at six o’clock. When I finally got to Erie Bluffs State Park, it was half an hour before noon.

Erie Bluffs State Park, the largest undeveloped stretch of Lake Erie lake front in Pennsylvania, is mostly fields and woodlands. There is a boat launch, and there’s a tiny beach at the mouth of Elk Creek.


But, as I say, it’s mostly fields and woodlands. I walked down through the woods to the shore. The trees were mostly maples and oaks, with some nut trees and sassafras — typical woodlands of the middle Appalachian region, and very similar to the woodlands I got used to growing up in eastern Massachusetts on the eastern edge of the hills of central New England. The woods felt familiar, more familiar than the town I grew up in which has been so altered by development and gentrification, and so many of the woodlands built up with very expensive houses, that it no longer feels like the town I once knew. But there were still surprises in the woodlands of Erie Bluffs. I came across a downed tree covered with some kind of insect I had never seen before, coming out of its larval stage to its adult stage.


There wasn’t much to see at the shores of Lake Erie except people on personal watercraft bouncing over the chop raised by the northeast wind. I got tired of their buzzing, and the faint stench of two-cycle engine, and head back up the bluffs to the fields. The eastern fields at Erie Bluffs cultivated, with what I think was an annual rye grass, some kind of seed-bearing grass that probably provides good foraging for migrating birds. The western field is not cultivated, and it was filled with birds: Field Sparrows, Blackburnian Warblers, Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, and many more birds took advantage of the ecotone, the edge zone between the woodlands biome and the field biome.


Then, all too soon, it was time to go. I started driving east, and kept driving east.

After dark, I stopped at a rest area somewhere in upper New York state. By that time, there was little traffic on the highway, and few people in the rest area. Just one other person was waiting for coffee at Starbucks, and she and I got into a conversation with the two workers at Starbucks. I asked the workers if they got time and a half for the holiday, and they said they did. But, they said, no benefits. I told them I thought Starbucks had good benefits, but they said they were actually employed by the company that runs the rest area, a company which pays minimum wage, provides not benefits, and does not allow them to take tips. The other customer and I commiserated with them. She — the other customer — said she drove that stretch of highway regularly, because one of her children was involved with Circus Smirkus. We both said we love to drive, and we both agreed that the best time to drive was after dinner, after the crazy drivers got off the road. When I left, I told one of the workers that I wasn’t leaving a tip, because that wasn’t allowed, but it looks like I left some money on the counter by mistake so they better keep it.

Avoca, Iowa, to Joliet, Ill.

I was sleepy today, and had to stop twice in rest areas to take long naps. I tend to drive myself pretty hard at work, even when I’m on sabbatical, and I suspect my body is constantly putting out a little adrenalin to keep me moving fast. Now I’ve been away from work long enough that the adrenalin has stopped, and it makes me sleepy. Because of the naps, I got in late tonight, so this will be a short post.

In the middle of the day I stopped for a walk at the Kuehn Conservation Area in Dallas County, Iowa, three and a half miles along well-graded gravel roads from the interstate. A cold front had gone through last night, with thunder and lightning, and the day was cool and gray; the grass was wet, and the sky still threatened showers. There was not another car in the parking lot. I walked around the upland meadows, looking and listening to the birds, all from the eastern half of the continent — no more Chestnut-backed Chickadees, now there were Black-capped Chickadees; no more Scrub Jays, now there were Blue Jays; no more Western Bluebirds, but rather Eastern Bluebirds.

I walked down a wooded bluff into the Bear Creek valley. The rolling grasslands near the creek were damp and unbelievably green to an eye which has become accustomed to dry, drought-ridden California. You could see the humidity in the air, turning everything a faint blue.


But what really captured my attention were the variety and number of butterflies. I must have seen ten different species (not that I could say what species they were, but they were so obviously different), and a great many individuals: flittering through the grass, basking on the mud or gravel, dodging in and out of the brush in the woods, sitting half hidden in the leaves.



The rest of the drive was uneventful. I drove, it rained off and on, I stopped in Grinnell, Iowa, to find Chinese food and a bookstore, I drove some more, took another nap, it rained, and slowly it got dark. I knew when I was getting close to Chicagoland because there were more buildings, more cars, more people. I have now left behind the lightly settled western two-thirds of the United States, and entered the busy, crowded, bustling eastern third of the country.

San Mateo, Calif., to Winnemuca, Nev.

As usual on one of these cross-country trips, I got a late start on the first day. Carol was going off to Lake Tahoe with her friend Elaine, and I sat and talked with Elaine while Carol finished getting ready. Elaine has lived all her life in the Bay Area. She grew up in the city — that is, in San Francisco. Even though San Jose is more populous and has more land area, San Francisco is “the city” in the Bay Area, while San Jose is not even a place. Joan Didion, a fifth generation Californian, once wrote that the problem with California is that every place is starting to look like San Jose; not a real place, just featureless sprawl; but San Francisco is still a real place, and so it remains “the city.”

Even though I’m a relative newcomer to the area, Elaine and I both agreed that the Bay Area is a lovely place to live — except for the traffic and the cost of housing. Then Carol was ready to go, and they left, and I finished packing the car and started driving sometime after eleven.

I got to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area at a quarter past two, my head still buzzing from the Bay Area traffic. At Parking Lot B, I got out of the car. Marsh Wrens were calling all around me. Through the cattails and rushes I could see that there was still water in some of diked areas. There were flowers everywhere: most prominent were banks of plants in the carrot family — call it Queen Anne’s Lace — with nodding umbrelliform flowers three to seven feet off the ground. I stopped to watch honeybees buzzing around these flowers.


There were plenty of birds, too: Black-necked Stilts, White-faced Ibis, Snowy Egrets, Greater Yellowlegs, and many more feeding in the shallow water. As usual at Yolo Bypass, the birds were very aware that there was a human nearby, and as I got closer they moved farther away.


Then it was time to get back on the road. Up over the Sierras where I could see dark clouds and lightning to the east, then down into Reno where the roads were still wet from a thunderstorm. Thence up through the Humboldt River valley, with dark clouds all around. Everywhere I looked, the hills were washed with a faint green, the desert coming to life after rain. At dusk, I pulled over to get gas near Mill City, and pulled over near the exit ramp to stretch my legs. As I walked through the low grass, grasshoppers sprang to life to get out of my way, and small burrs wormed their way into my socks, and swallows swopped close to my head catching evening insects.


Water striders


This afternoon, I went walking up Purisima Creek Trail, off Higgins Canyon Road in Half Moon Bay. Purisima Creek flows down through a canyon in which grow Coastal Redwoods. It’s a perennial stream, but at this time of year the water is only a few inches deep. I was curious to see if I could find any organisms living in the creek.

The first organism I saw was a water strider, probably Aquarius remigis, Common Water Strider; in a half an hour of walking along the creek, I saw dozens of these water striders, in sizes ranging from tiny (I was barely able to see them) up to an inch or so long. They were mostly quite aware of my presence, and if I moved too quickly, or got too close to fast, they would skate away from me over the surface of the water. The only other organism I saw in the stream was a Banana Slug, which had somehow gotten to a rock in the middle of the stream; it was mostly out of the water.

But I didn’t see anything else living in the water. Most of the plants I saw grew on the steep banks at least half a foot from the water, and my guess is that the bottom of the stream bed gets well-scoured when water comes pouring down the creek after winter storms; any plants that manage to take root there in the summer get torn away in winter. Nor did I see any other insects, crustaceans, amphibians, or other animals living in the stream; though I suspect there are other animals in the stream. I did see several hatches of small insects dancing in a cloud a few feet above the stream; did they hatch from the water? do their nymph forms live in the water? I’ve seen California Newts (Taricha torosa) in this area; I would guess some of these newts breed in this stream, the largest stream in the vicinity, and that the tadpoles must therefore live in the stream for a time.

But today, the only organisms I saw in the stream were the water striders.

Photographing butterflies

I took a break from curriculum development on Tuesday and drove down to Pinnacles National Park. Of course I looked at the incredible rock formations for which the park is famous. But as spectacular as the scenery was, the highlight of the trip was watching butterflies in Bear Gulch. In particular, I spent about ten minutes watching one Western Tiger Swallowtail visiting larkspur blossoms. I took a great many photographs of this one butterfly, getting as close as I could. With a photograph, you can capture narrow slices of time: the position the butterfly’s wings take as it balances on a flower; the way it clings to the flower with its legs and arches its head towards a blossom; the moment when the butterfly is just approaching the flower:

Papilio rutulus

But sometimes what sticks in your memory is not what you actually saw, but the photographs of what you saw. After I left Pinnacles, I drove to Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. When I saw butterflies there, I made a point of trying to sketch them in my field notebook rather than just photograph them, like this common butterfly:

Vanessa atalanta

This sketch, as an end product, is not nearly as attractive as a photograph (and I did take a photograph of this insect as well) — it’s not as attractive, but I learned more about butterflies by making this sketch. By comparing my sketch to a field guide, by seeing what I left out, I learned what I don’t see when I look at butterflies. I suspect making less attractive sketches like this does more towards sharpening my powers of observation than does taking a great many very attractive photographs.