Monday, December 29, 2008

An Enchanted Winter Solstice in Florida

An Enchanted Winter Solstice
Thursday, December 18 2008
Enchanted Forest, Elaine Gordon Park
North Miami, FL

Nature class focused on the return of the light and the ancient history of celebrating in winter this week, in honor of the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year and the beginning of winter). We met at the Enchanted Forest (not Santa's Enchanted Forest) in north Miami. The park is a staple to the community and has been around for a long time. One of the highlights of going to the park is the horse stables, there are many beautiful horses waiting to be touched and loved by all the children. The kids couldn't get enough of them.

We met on the boardwalk, overlooking a waterway of brackish water, probably meandering down from canals and meeting with the water from the bay not too far away. Along the sides of this waterway are some of the oldest, tallest red mangroves that I have ever seen. Ibis were snacking along the sides, turtles were floating meditatively, and a huge orange and green iguana was camouflaged in the tree above us.

I showed the kids a small globe and demonstrated, with a great deal of help from the kids, how the earth tilts and how the northern and southern hemispheres have the beginning of winter and summer, respectively, at the solstice. We talked a bit about how the days are shorter in the winter and how the winter solstice would be the shortest day of the year.

During our nature walk through a lovely hammock filled with ancient live oaks, dahoon holly, strangler fig, gumbo limbo, and wild coffee, we discussed the ancient symbolism of some of the plants we encountered. For example, the oak. The oak is a tree that has been revered for eons. It is the tree of Jupiter, it symbolizes strength and endurance, and is the all important yule log. On midwinter eve, in lands across northern Europe, a fire would be lit with a branch from the oak. That branch would be passed around to light all the fires of the community. It stood for life - continuity and light. Withought light, people couldn't hunt or grow food, so the longer days of the summer were very, very important and people celebrated the fact that they were heading toward summer. Holly is another ancient plant, people believed that it enhanced fertility and cured disease. It bloomed in the winter, which made it a beautiful sight on dark, gray days.

As we walked the kids flaunted their nature knowledge by telling me what plants were what even before I asked. They are becoming expert botanists. One little naturalist even spotted a tiny black racer snake as we stopped to talk about limestone.

After our walk we sat in a semi-circle at the fire pit. It had wonderful benches for everyone - that way I had a "proper" audience! What's an audience without a story? So, we had a story. The kids all voted for a spoken story as opposed to a written one. I told the tale of how Grandmother Spider caught the sun. It is an old Native American myth explaining why we only have full sun part of the year (we have to share it with the other side), why the fox has a black tongue (burnt by the sun), why the possum has a bare tail (also burnt by the sun) and why the vulture has a bare head (again, burnt by the sun). I have to admit that I had an enraptured audience (adults included).

Then, we painted suns and stripes on the kid's faces - got a bit tribal! We passed out votive candles to each child, sat them in a circle, lit the candles and each child said what the sun meant to them. It was a beautiful ceremony.

Finally, I handed some oats and dried berries out to the kids and had them spread them around the forest. I know it was against the rules, but it felt right (except when the boys threw them into the water to feed the birds and turtles - I didn't want to actually "feed" the animals directly). It is a tradition in northern places to do this for the animals, especially when the winter is hard and frozen. This last activity dispersed us and sent us on our different ways, to celebrate our own traditions and share in the beauty and love of this holiday season.

This time of year makes most of us nostalgic. Traditions, customs and memories become center-stage and take over our minds, bodies, and homes. Trees go up, some as early as the day after Thanksgiving (or maybe even earlier - yikes!), lights get strung, red and green decorations adorn our houses. There are many different reasons for celebrating - Chanukah, Christmas, Winter Solstice, Kwanza, Saturnalia, Yule, Ramadan and many more across the world. Celebrating at this time of year is an age-old, timeless tradition and it is due to the light of the sun, or lack of it in the northern hemisphere.

Every year, twice a year, because of the way the earth is tilted on its axis, we have a solstice of the sun - one in winter and one in summer. The origin of the word, "solstice", is the Latin word, "solstitium", from sol, “sun” and -stitium, “a stoppage" - because it has been observed that the noontime elevation of the sun remains the same for a few days before and after the solstice. Astronomically speaking, solstice is when the sun is at its furthest point away from the equator. Here in the northern hemisphere, winter solstice happens when the sun is at the furthest point south of the equator that it will go, due to the tilt of the earth on its axis; that furthest point is when the sun is directly over the tropic of Capricorn. When the sun reaches that point either on December 20 or 21st of each year, the northern half of the earth gets less light and more cold. When the sun is over the tropic of Cancer on June 20 or 21st of each year, we have the summer solstice - the longest day of the year.

This phenomenon will make sense if you take a look at a globe and locate the equator, tropic of Cancer and tropic of Capricorn. Look for the northern hemisphere (above the equator) and the southern hemisphere (below the equator) and find the tropics. The southern hemisphere is opposite of us and they are just about to begin their summer!! They celebrate Christmas and New Years in the summer!!! Look at Australia, which hemisphere is it in? What about South America?

For me, the most important part of all the traditions is the winter solstice. On this shortest day of the year, my son and I got out our "evergreens and holly" - both symbolic of the circle of life and the returning of life, hung our lights - symbolizing the light returning and strengthening after the solstice, and prepared our gifts to be given - symbolizing celebration!

As a nature teacher and mother, I wanted to make the solstice special, a time to remember how the natural order of things influences our lives in so many ways.

Here in Florida we don't notice the dark and cold as much as they do up north, but it is obvious, it gets dark earlier, the air is drier and a bit cooler. We live in the place that people flock to in the winter. Instead of staying home by a warm fire, this is the time of year to get out and play in nature (sans mosquitoes, humidity and horrible heat).

South Florida doesn't have many trees that lose their leaves and hibernate - most of our trees are "evergreens" all year, it's a bit different here. However, most of us come from somewhere else, and we want to be like everyone else in some way or another, so we have blow up snow men on our front lawns (well, not me), we have fake snow on our trees, and we crank up the air conditioner so that we can pretend it's cold outside in order to drink hot cocoa.

And we get outside....

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Nature Class Times and Locations through January

Hi Naturalists
Below is a list of proposed classes, locations, dates and times ( I can only confirm a class if I have at least two families signed up ahead of time) (leave a comment if you want to get in touch and don't have my info.)

Week of Jan. 5-9, 2009:
Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009: 10-12 am
Wakodahatchee Wetlands (repeat)
13026 Jog Road, Delray Beach

Thursday Jan. 8, 2009: 10-12 and/or 1-3
Chapel Trail Nature Preserve
19800 Sheridan Street
Pembroke Pines,Fl
(954) 450-6771

Week of Jan. 12- 16 2009:
Wednesday, Jan.14 and Thursday, Jan. 15: 10-12 and/or 1-3
Anne Kolb Nature Center

751 Sheridan Street
Hollywood, FL 33019
(954) 926-2480

Week of Jan.19-23:
Thursday, Jan. 22: all day caravan, meet at 9am.
Tuesday and Wednesday are options if there is enough interest

Field Trip to Everglades National Park and Big Cypress
Tamiami Trail

Week of Jan. 26-30:
Tuesday, Jan. 27, Wednesday, Jan. 28 and Thursday, Jan. 29: 10-12 and/or 1-3
Oleta River State Park
3400 N.E. 163rd Street
North Miami, Florida 33160
Phone: 305-919-1844

Snake Warrior's Island

December 11, 2008
Snake Warrior's Island
Miramar, Florida

Today we stepped back in time. Even though the islands and wetlands have been "re-created" here at Snake Warrior's Island, it could have looked like this hundreds of years ago. In the 20th century this land was a farm, it was drained and built up to grow oranges. Recently, before the park was built, this residential area was very prone to flooding. It makes sense if you think about it because it is supposed to be wetlands here. The Everglades was dominant here just a little over 100 years ago. Like, Long Key Natural Area and the Pine Island Ridge at Tree Tops Park, this region consisted of mostly shallow, sawgrass filled water, speckled throughout with islands where the higher ground lay. Snake Warrior's Island is one of those islands. Here the ground is naturally higher, part of the Atlantic coastal ridge. This higher ground allowed for harder wood hammocks to grow, like Live Oak in this case, and provided for wildlife and humans inhabit the land.

Long ago, the Tequesta Indians lived in this area, setting up their thriving communities on these islands and using dugout canoes made out of Cypress trees to navigate through the watery world. Later, after the ancient people had been wiped out due to war, disease, and flight, the Seminole tribe moved down here from Georgia and Alabama's Creek tribes. They were on the run from the American government. They chose well coming here to Florida. The Everglades provided them with the perfect place to hide and survive. Possibly, the Tequesta and Calusa Indians that stayed behind shared their knowledge with the Seminoles, teaching them about dugout canoes and how to survive the mosquitoes, snakes, alligators and never-ending water.

The American army, however had no such knowledge and they fell prey to the endless water full of plants as sharp as razors and mosquitoes that attacked in hordes. The Seminoles knew how to hide, and live, on these islands dotted throughout the landscape. They would hide in the trees and ambush the Americans as they came upon them unawares. The Seminole tribe never signed a treaty by force and never surrendered. They are a sovereign nation to this day.

One of the great chiefs was Chitto Tustenuggee, or Snake Warrior. He was a beloved leader to his people. His land was the land here in Miramar. His people thrived here on these islands, they brought agriculture - some of the main crops were corn, sugar cane, and bananas (sugar cane and bananas were both brought from the Spanish in the 1500's).

Eventually, the people were pushed off of this land, moved to reservations in Hollywood and the Everglades. However, their history is continuing to live on thanks to Broward County and the city of Miramar. Re-creating this wetland habitat has not only served to protect the cultural heritage of Florida's people, but it is also providing a much needed home for native plants and animals, a beautiful and healthy place for the local community, and protection from flooding. The wetlands prevent flooding in the neighborhoods by diverting the water into the ponds here at the natural area.

The plants and animals are diverse and healthy. It is a wonderful place to bird watch, we saw a large amount of Common Moorhens, Tri-colored Herons, a few Great Blue Herons, Ibis, and a flock of Great Egrets and some Snowy's. While out on our nature walk through the wetland environment, the kids and the moms and I practiced our sneaking skills. We had a pretty big group, which makes it kind of hard to get close to the birds. Slowly and quietly, and on our tip toes, we got as close as we could to an Anhinga sunning herself. The children did quite well. Some of them ran off, others chased moths, but most tried very hard to fine-tune their bird-watching skills. As we were walking away from the Anhinga, one naturalist noticed a little brown bird hiding in the grasses. This bird knew how to stay hidden until we got close and then flew far to the other side as soon as we came near. He was jumping around so much that we couldn't get a good look to see who he/she was. After researching, I believe it may have been a type of Rail, maybe a Virginia Rail.

Here at the island the grasses are thriving, cord grass, saw grass, and other reeds. Kaya and Lucas were especially knowledgeable of all the plants. Kaya taught me about the red algae growing on the water. The kids learned that they could make a delicious salad out here if need be - made up of Duck Potato, Pickerel Weed, Coco Plums, greens from the leaves of Spanish Needle, Cabbage Palm hearts, Cattails, and even the hearts of Saw Grass.

On the other side of the wetland lies a beautiful, but somewhat young, Live Oak Hammock. It is stuffed full of beautiful, shady trees, making a fantastic home for the squirrels and birds (among many others) and a reprieve for local people. Here, we stepped back in time and became native children. Children who lived in the wild and off of the land needed to be very observant and stealthy and always aware of what was going on around them. They needed to know how to hide, protect themselves, and help provide for their community. Native tribes across the America's had many games that the children would play in order to develop those skills necessary to survive in their environment, and just to have fun.

Our kids became native kids for an hour. We played a few games, with a bit of a modern influence that they really loved. The first game was a memory game. Each child had a partner and a blindfold and a bunch of pennies, buttons, and marbles and such. The child without the blindfold had to create a "pattern" with the items. The partner was then able to "look" at the pattern without the blindfold in order to memorize it. Then the pattern was destroyed and the partner had to re-create it by memory. This game is wonderful to do anytime. Kids love it and it develops observation, memory, and mathematical skills. They did really well at this and could have kept at it over and over.

Next, we played "Firekeeper". One of the jobs that children would have in a tribe was that of fire-wood collector. The kids would be sent out into the forest to pick up the best sticks for kindling. I sent our kids out in the Oak hammock, on a mission to collect two pieces each. Of course they wanted to collect more than that. They were even trying to bring over huge branches. I think it is in their DNA to do this task, I swear they could do this for hours and hours. Then we made a fire circle, or pile of the wood collected. One child was chosen to be the "fire-keeper". The job was to protect the pile from thieves (the other children). The catch was that the fire-keeper is blindfolded. The other children had to sneak up on the keeper and attempt to steal one piece of wood at a time without being tagged. The fire-keeper had to remain seated and had to touch someone if they felt them. Of course, most of the wood eventually gets taken, but sometimes most of the kids also get out. There are always some really stealthy, sneaky kids who plan ahead (in this case - Zak) and get alot of wood. The child who is the fire-keeper has to use all of his senses, besides sight, which helps to strengthen the skills needed to survive. The thieves learn how to be quiet and how to work together if need be. It was great fun.

The last game we played was a version of the "Ball and Triangle" game played by the Penobscot tribe of the northeastern United States. Traditionally they used birch bark and acorns or some other nut, we used cardboard and clay and string. Before class I cut out a bunch of cardboard triangles and cut holes in the middle and attached a string. The kids made a ball out of clay and attached it to the string. The goal of the game is to get the ball through the hole. Each time they got the ball in the hole, the child was awarded with a bean. I was so surprised at how many times they got it in and how excited they were to be awarded with a bean!! I have to compete with video games and such, but am happy to say that kids really do love the simple stuff! They were able to take their triangles home, maybe they are crumpled up in a corner by now, but it doesn't matter because they were well loved for a few short moments.

Friday, December 12, 2008

For the Birds!! Wakodahatchee Wetlands

Wakodahatchee Wetlands
Delray Beach, Florida
December 4, 2008

Well, once again, I'm posting one week after our outing, it takes alot of discipline to sit down and write. Traveling to Orlando, to the land of plastic, delayed my time even more. I know there are beautiful things near Orlando (like all of the springs and lakes), but where we were was all mini golf, water slides, and chain stores. Next time we are going to the springs!

Anyway, back to Wakodahatchee Wetlands. I would rather go there any day!! What an amazing and gorgeous place. It was as if I had called ahead and ordered all the animals to be out frolicking. The wetlands are bursting at the seams with birds, turtles, alligators, and iguanas. Such a tremendous amount of wildlife for a place that just a few years ago was just a water catch for the local utilities company. Well, it still is, but now it is flourishing. A bit over 10 years ago the Palm Beach County Water Utilities decided to recreate wetlands that had once been dominant in the area. In 1996 the task was completed.

Now, about 50 acres of land is designated as wetlands and serves to further filter the water while also providing a beautiful place for native plants and animals. Every day about 2 million gallons of treated water is pumped into the wetlands. The water continues to be filtered as it runs and sifts through the native flora. Plants such as: Pond Apple, Alligator Flag, Pickerel Weed, Duck Potato, Cord Grass, Muhly Grass, Water Lily, Duck Weed, Cypress, Willow, Red Maple, and Buttonbush, make up the wetland plant communities. Along the outside, on the higher ground, you will see Sabal Palm, Live Oak, Dahoon Holly, and many more.

We started our walk with a game, called "Did you know, or D'Juno". I had some cards with rhymes on them, directing the kids to different areas along the boardwalk by clues. When the kids found the area, they had to read the inside information, which was an interesting fact about the wetland ecosystem. For example, one card may have said: "D'juno that "Wakodahatchee" translates to "created water" in the Seminole language? The game was great fun, occupied the kids while also relaying important knowledge. Next time I'll do more, they wanted to keep it up.

As soon as we walked onto the boardwalk, we saw birds. Right along the edge were some cute little Common Moorhens scooting around and yelling at us. The Moorhen is black with a red beak and they make quite alot of noise. Then we noticed something in the water, it was a Soft-shelled turtle coming up for a little peak. Once we noticed that one, we saw maybe 50 turtles, maybe more. The majority were Soft-shelled and the others were Florida Cooters, Yellow-bellied Sliders and maybe some Alligator Snappers that were hanging out on the bottom. The Florida Cooters were lined like sentinels along most of the logs that were sticking out from the water, sunning themselves to warm up and get energy for the rest of the day.

Down below the boardwalk as we walked, we continued to see bird after bird... Purple Gallinules climbing the alligator flag to eat their favorite seeds: little, cute Grebes bobbing in and out of the water; a lone Green Heron fishing along the stems of the reeds; and beautiful, ducks with blue on their wings, called Blue-Winged Teals stopping in along their migration. Up, overhead, an occasional Tri-colored Heron could be seen swooping across the water to land in a favorite hunting spot - no longer visible as its colors melded into the colors of the reeds. Great Egrets and White Ibis dotted the green grasses with their white backs; the Ibis pecking at the ground with their beaks feeling for whatever tasted good; and, the Great Egrets standing still in their silent hunting meditation, preparing to strike as quick as lightning when a fish swam by.

As we stopped to get some shade under the gazebo, we noticed a beautiful and giant Great Blue Heron perched up high in a Pond Apple tree just to our left. At first I was sure it was a Night Heron because its head was all scrunched down, but then it stretched its lovely, long neck and we saw its true form. Later we saw her flying back to her roost with a long branch - an amazing sight. She's setting up her nest. The herons and egrets all have their breeding plumage right now and will be nesting over the next few months -setting up roosts all over the trees. The kids were in awe of this bird and how close we were to her. I thinked they were shocked at how big Great Blue Herons are.

Speaking of big, as we were walking further we saw the king of the skies (or so I think), the Wood Stork. The Wood Stork is not the most gorgeous bird while on the ground and standing still (in fact it is really quite ugly and prehistoric looking), but when the Wood Stork takes off and soars through the air, it is a most remarkable and beautiful sight. Their wing spans can be up to 6 feet long and they are striking with their black and white markings and their long beaks. We only saw one stork while there, which is not encouraging as they are endangered. They make their way to Florida and south every winter to breed.

Now the other king of the wetland is the Alligator. There was a huge, big daddy alligator sunning himself on the bank right in the middle of the first section of wetlands. They are cold-blooded and therefore need to thermo-regulate to become warm and to get enough energy for later - just like the turtles and the iguanas. We also saw another alligator close to the trail, seeming to be people-watching very slyly out of the corner of her eye. I say "her" only because she was smaller than the other, but it's really hard to tell female from male.

Later, as we walked and enjoyed the plants and the abundance of wetland birds, we were treated to two Red-shouldered Hawks cavorting in the skies above us - probably setting up nest. High above them was an Osprey playing in the currents. And even further up were the Turkey Vultures. Turkey Vultures can soar higher than most and can smell death from 10 miles away, so they were on the hunt circling and searching.

The children were fascinated and truly loved the beauty that was shown to us this day. Kim, Lauren's mom fell head over heels for this place, we'll need to get her back there, AND out to the Everglades!