Saturday, November 15, 2008

Spooky, Slimy Secret Woods

A blog about nature class 10/30/08

Secret Woods Nature Center

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

Because it was the day before Halloween, I invited the kids to come in costume - so, we had some witches and skeletons and a couple of knights in our midst. Our mission was to discover some of the darker sides of nature, including crabs lurking in their holes, decay and decomposition, and the inhabitants of the slime in the mangroves. The class was excited and animated throughout the two hours and really enjoyed the beauty of Secret Woods.

The park itself is a small, hidden little treasure, tucked away in Ft. Lauderdale. As you walk down the nature trail from the parking lot, the first diversion is the Butterfly garden. This garden was planted over the last few years and is doing extraordinarily well. Among the many butterflies are the Atala Butterfly, which not too long ago was thought to be extinct. This small, black butterfly lays its eggs in the Coontie plant, the caterpillars feast on the leaves before they metamorphosize into butterflies. The plant was almost wiped out, and along with it the Atala. Now people are planting Coontie and the butterflies have returned. Further along the trail, you come to the Nature Center. It is an engrossing, cozy little center that informs the visitor about the history of the area, including how it was a trading area for indians and settlers before it was urbanized.

The New River used to be a free flowing fresh water river coming from the Everglades heading to the Atlantic. The Seminoles and Miccosukees, and I'm sure Natives before them, used the river as a passage to the ocean. Settlers, including the Stranahan family, later traded with the natives, by way of the river. In 1906, Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, in his mission to drain the Everglades, began dredging the New River to turn it into a canal - so that more water would be diverted to it in order to drain the area. The landscape changed dramatically, this area where Secret Woods lies is one of the last "natural" sections of this once flourishing ecosystem.

You can see the "New River", which is now really a canal, off of the "New River Trail" at Secret Woods. Nature, of course, won't be daunted and has blossomed around this little wild oasis. Mangroves are thriving near the water and act as nursery and home to hundreds of different kinds of creatures, the most often seen are crabs, mullet, and wading birds. Golden Orb Weaver spiders cling to the branches of Mangrove, Cabbage (or Sabal) Palm, Cypress, Strangler Fig, White Stopper, and many more native trees. Along the trail, land crab holes dot the soil and dead and decaying snags play host to all kinds of fungi, lichen, and worms and beetles. Wild coffee, Coco Plum and Spanish Needle embellish the sides of the trail, displaying the wild and natural beauty of Florida.

As the kids and I meandered down the trail, we stopped and inspected life (and death) in action. We saw many different examples of decomposition in its different stages and learned the "Decompsition" song (written by Steve Van Zandt - my old boss). We examined the holes of the crabs and later played the Land Crab Migration game. Each child was a land crab that had to make it to the ocean to mate - despite obstacles such as, urban development and cars. It was very enjoyable for all, including the moms who got to play the part of ocean reprieve. On the way back we played a classic environmental education game, the Burma Shave. Along the trail I layed cards down. On each card was written an instruction , like: "find a spider and observe it" or, "walk or talk like your favorite animal" or, "howl like a wolf" or, "lay down and enjoy nature". Each child either went on their own, or with a person who could read for them. My favorite was the last - "hug a tree". Jules, P.J.'s mom, got some great pics of our tree huggers.

Nature class is fast becoming a favorite; it seems that the children (and their adults) are really appreciating the beauty of south Florida that lies just outside our front doors.

Oh, I can't forget my favorite part. I got very excited about doing something "spooky, slimy" and purchased some items that weren't very "eco" (plastic stuff made in China, I'm sure)! I conjured up some slime soup and filled it with eyeballs and worms and spiders and bats. The kids got to dig into the slime and pick out their treats to keep. The slime was made of corn starch and water, very easy to do.

Overall, it was a very spooky, slimy, secret day.

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