Monday, March 30, 2009

A Day in the Life of a Raccoon - Greynold's Park

ECO - Every Child Outside Nature Class
Greynold's Park, North Miami, Florida
March, 23, 26, 2009

In North Miami, tucked behind the railroad tracks, is a beautiful and stately county park - Greynold' s Park.

As you enter you feel part of an older Miami - the more tropical, overgrown and peaceful Miami.

The road passes by giant Banyan trees,
acres of mangroves,

a tranquil lake,

stretching Gumbo Limbos,

majestic Royal Palms,

and lovely old Live Oaks.

Once upon a time this land was home to the Tequesta people - as was most of the higher ground in South Florida. The Oleta River, which at one time twisted and turned along the eastern side of the land - it is now dredged and runs like a canal, was used as a transportation waterway for the Glades natives. Later, the Seminole Tribes used the river and the dry, high hammocks as a trading post.

In more recent history, after all the native peoples were pushed out to the Everglades or elsewhere, the land was turned into a rock quarry. Convicts were used as a labor force to blow-up and dig out the ancient coral rock below the ground. The rock was then used to build roads and buildings in the early 1900's.

In 1933 the land was given to Dade county. The Civilian Conservation corps is responsible for constructing the park. The rock castle in the middle of the park is one of the structures the corps built; it sits high upon a mound, which at one time was the highest land-point in the area. The rock used to build it, of course, came from the quarry. It is beautiful limestone rock, telling the story of when the ocean used to be here.

When standing on the castle, you overlook majestic hardwood hammocks, mangrove forests, the quarry lake, the Oleta River, the Boat house and the golf course.

Below lies two lovely trails, the Hammock Trail and the Conservation Corps Oleta River Trail. On Tuesday we chose to walk the Hammock Trail first. It was one of those times that I used poor judgement and didn't turn around. There was tons of Poison Ivy - all along the sides, just at hand level to a 3 year old. I haven't heard that anyone broke out in a rash, which I am so thankful for, but am sorry that I chanced it. I was really hoping to see the raccoons in the trees like we did last year - following us from on high, lounging in the bosom of the grand Live Oaks. But, the coons chose not to show themselves (except for very briefly after class) on the day we were learning about them...oh well!

Of course, the hammock trail was beautiful, even with those leaves of three around.

We cemented our learning of hammocks and played the "Who Am I" game, reading a fact about a specific animal's adaptation and trying to guess the animal. For example, "I have 5 fingers on my very sensitive hands and feet and can live almost anywhere." "Who Am I?" Yes, you guessed it...the raccoon. The kids were great at guessing. We discussed how the hammock would be where the raccoons would nest and do some foraging of grubs, fruits, and insects.

Once out of the trees, we came upon the huge field of Royal Palms.
The place is lovely and makes you feel small, no wonder they are royal. We found a raccoon foot print in the mud and talked about when he/she might have been out hunting and foraging.

I returned to the footprint on Thursday without going through the poison ivy. We went the road way instead. After examining the footprint we moved on to the Oleta River trail.

I told the kids how they, too, could one day work for the conservation corps and travel around building trails, I had a lot of excited kids, ready to get to work.

The trail runs along- side the Oleta River
and the quarry lake - through the mangrove swamp.

This swamp is the perfect place for the raccoons after dark, going out to dig around in the mucky muck, feeling for crabs and crayfish, and maybe climbing in nests for eggs. Raccoons are very successful omnivores, eating just about anything - including "trash" as all the kids say. I let the children know that the "trash" is actually un-eaten food left by us humans and that they don't actually eat the plastic, etc. I reminded them that it was up to us not to leave it behind and not to feed them so that they eat what is healthy for them as a wild animal.

One thing I learned about raccoons which I find so fascinating is that they can determine what an object is before they actually touch it - with their vibrissae - whiskers at the top of their fingers. The vibrissae are so sensitive that the raccoons know exactly what they are touching and can almost always find what they want. Their hands are also very adept at digging and lifting and taking apart (as we all know). The reason we think they are washing their food is because it looks like they are when foraging. They are mimicking their natural digging/foraging routine while in captivity, when they "wash" their food.

The trail through the mangroves was peaceful and tranquil. We searched for crabs, but were unlucky. I'm thinking they are quiet, waiting for the heat and rains to come. The mangroves here, mostly red, are quite old and well-established. The water is replenished by both the ocean and the freshwater coming down from the everglades. The Oleta River is dredged, but it still allows flow from the River of Grass. On the eastern coast, the Atlantic rises and falls, sending ocean water up through the intracoastal and Oleta River estuary (see my post about Oleta River State Park). The combination of salt and fresh creates a brackish environment, perfect for the mangroves...and their inhabitant -the American Crocodile.

These quiet monsters are known to live here, but rarely show themselves - due to their shy natures.

We saw evidence of the tides - at 8am the trail was dry and at 10 am it was filling in with water (luckily we were on a boardwalk).

At the end of the mangrove walk we came upon a sign of decomposition - a rotting tree trunk- and had to sing the song "Decomposition, I break down, I get down, muncha muncha". Then we helped the tree along and banged it up a bit.

We got lucky in the "crab-observing" department

and found a Mangrove Tree Crab by the rotting log.

We observed two lovely edibles - the Saw Palmetto and the Elderberry.

The Saw Palmetto has saw-like stems and is cousin to the Sable Palmetto (or Cabbage Palm), the berries are edible. It was flowering and fruiting, so we got to see two stages.

The Elderberry's flowers and fruits are edible, but the berries are toxic.

They are okay cooked or made into wine. If you stand under an elderberry at sunset, you might see the sprites of the forest.

The rest of the trail wound through a higher, drier hammock, alongside the lake, past a rough and tumbley pile of limestone rocks that had to be conquered by our determined explorers,

and across a quaint covered bridge.

Before the quaint bridge there is a floating dock on the river side. The kids became adventurers.

We piled on and they started rockin and rollin.

At first I thought, "STOP", but then I thought, and said, "GO FOR IT". And they did. What fun, they let loose, no one got hurt, and the kids will never forget that feeling.

After the bridge we spied a Knight Anole

(an immigrant reptile from Cuba) and a fiddler crab - strutting it's stuff across the trail. We peeked through the slats of the bridge to the water below to observe fish and oysters - a sign of a healthy ecosystem.

Not a raccoon in sight.

The kids ran and played and climbed, then we headed back to the picnic tables and playground.

They listened to the story of how the raccoon acquired his mask
and some of the kids made their own raccoon puppets out of brown bags. We recited raccoon poetry and sang a song and then we played.

I organized an activity so that the kids could experiment with touch, and understand the raccoons a bit better. I had three buckets filled with sand.

In the sand I buried pennies, rocks, shells, game pieces, and some other random stuff. The kids took turns trying to find stuff.

First, they had to do it blindfolded and with oven mits on, then with lighter gloves on, then with a fork or spoon or shovel, and then bare-handed. Of course, bare-handed was easiest. They could have sat for hours digging in that sand - especially the little ones.

I had a teacher suggest to me once to entertain my son by giving him a big bucket filled with rice or marbles or something -with treasures hidden within.

It was a very wise suggestion.

These beautiful pictures were taken by Kim.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Let's Do the Gumbo Limbo and Celebrate Spring!!

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center
Boca Raton, Florida
March 17 and 19, 2009

Happy Spring from The Nature Teacher and Every Child Outside!!

The Spring Equinox was this past Friday at around 11:34 am. We tried to balance an egg on it's tip, but lo, and behold, it didn't work! We tried again later, it still didn't work!

We did have just about 12 hours of day, and 12 hours of night - with the sun sharing it's warmth and light equally between us and the folks down undah (code for the southern hemisphere).

Spring is the time of birth and rebirth, a time of renewal and growth. Here in Florida it's a bit different then up north where the snow is melting, allowing green buds to spring forth. Down here it is a time of renewal through rain. Last week was perfect! In the beginning of the week we were puckered like lemons due to the lack of rain and moisture (on Tuesday we were about 11 inches below our average rainfall for March), by Friday we were soaked through and ready for the sun to shine again.

Personally, I love the rain. At the end of the dry season I start craving the humidity, the dark and brewing clouds, and the sound of thunder. We had one little weak peep of thunder one of the days, but barely enough to send the dog under the bed!

The lovely spring rain ushered in a new season for us here in South Florida, not quite the Wet Season, but definitely the Spring Season.

Life has come back, the grass is greener, the leaves are perky and ready to photosynthesize, the flowers are blooming and the birds are cheerful. The air is clear and fresh and the skies are blue and we are staying below 80 Degrees Fahrenheit. It's paradise!

It was a perfect time to be visiting the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton. If you haven't been there yet, you must go!! It is a place small in structure, but large in content. There is an extensive nature center and gift store, full of fun stuff for adults and children. Out back is a building dedicated to Sea Turtle research by FAU students, another building dedicated to teaching visiting children from nearby communities, 4 giant tanks full of reef fish, sharks, rays, and turtles...oh, I can't forget the GINORMOUS lobsters that parade around the tanks! There is an adorable Loggerhead Turtle and a much larger Olive Ridley Turtle.

There are cute little baby turtles - Green, Loggerhead, Ridley- donned with cute little backpacks, training to go out into the endless depths of the ocean (they will be tracked by satellite from their little packs). You can learn more about the research programs and watch the turtles movements in the ocean if you go to their site -

They also have a fabulous Gopher Tortoise habitat, complete with several tortoises of different sizes demonstrating their tremendous digging abilities.

I must not forget the hammock! There is a lovely and historic strip of hardwood hammock at Gumbo Limbo. It is a bit different from the hammock we visited in Key Largo - the ground is higher, more rich in soil - the limestone is buried deeper, allowing for taller and larger trees. Because it is quite a ways north, the hammock doesn't have all of the same trees and animals as in Key Largo, but does have many in common; such as, the Gumbo Limbo, the Lancewood, the Pigeon Plum, the Strangler Fig, and more. It is tropical jungle (as I heard a tourist proclaim). The land here was an important homesite for natives for thousands of years - you can see their landfill - a pile of shells left over from ocean harvests and feasts - a waste pile much more ecological then our mountains of waste.

When there on Tuesday it was dry and shriveled, returning on Thursday we met a different place - fresh and lively - it even looked greener!! We climbed the tall tower and got a view of the intracoastal and the Atlantic - blue and sparkling. We looked down to the canopy of the trees, spying for a view of life in the tops of the trees.

There is another trail over on the other side that is home to the butterfly garden and a mangrove beach that lies along the intracoastal waterway. While strolling in the butterfly garden we saw Zebra Longwings and Monarchs and Giant Swallowtails. We observed and collected seeds and learned about birth and rebirth.

Our focus was on new life and how it all starts in nature - through eggs and seeds. They are so alike!

The seed and the egg (the ovums) are patient. They sit and wait - hoping to be sprinkled with the magic fairy dust of the sperm. Then they wait some more - hoping for the perfect conditions - nourishment, light, energy, a place to grow. Then they sprout, or hatch, or are born forth into the world - again, needing the perfect conditions so that they can grow, and then, themselves continue the cycle.

The children were eager to find seeds. Once they knew what to look for, we saw them everywhere - hitching a ride on our pants (Spanish Needle), or blowing in the wind, or hanging in pods on the Cassia tree. We found tiny mango fruits on the shore and opened them to see the seed.

We found Red mangrove propagules (long cigar-like seeds) floating by or stuck in the sand. We then noticed that some of them had taken root and were sprouting new little mangrove leaves - open to the sun.

We looked at a chicken egg and examined it's insides.

You'd think this wouldn't be exciting to most people, even kids, because almost everyone has opened a chicken egg. But, no, it was sooooo, very exciting. We saw the stringy white chord that would attach to the embryo if it was fertilized, we learned that the yolk is like the placenta - food for the embryo, and we noticed how very similar the egg was to the inside of the seed!!

To tie it all together we looked at some beautiful books I discovered while researching: "A Seed is Sleepy", and "An Egg is Quiet" - both by Dianna Aston and Sylvia Long, and "Eggs" by Marilyn Singer. They are gorgeous books with wonderful, detailed illustrations. You will be amazed at the variety of eggs out there in the wide world - the round ping pong eggs of the sea turtle to the unusual "mermaid's purse" of the rays and sharks.
We joyfully sang the song: "Roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds". Then, to the excitement of the children, we had egg races! There were two teams, the first person in line had a wooden spoon, and the lines faced each other - single file. I placed an egg on one spoon and the child had to carry it on the spoon and transfer it to the other team's spoon, and so-on. I added some challenges - like turning in a circle, walking backward or sideways, or stopping. It was great fun, even the little teeny tinies loved and did so well. I think our youngest was 2!!

After playing, we visited the nature center. One of my favorite things about this facility is how well they educate their many, many visitors. The boardwalk is lined with informative signs - describing how we, as people, are destroying what we love. While walking along the boardwalk, we learned that it takes 450 years for a disposable diaper to decompose and 650 years for plastic fishing line to break down! During those hundreds of years, the waste might be the demise of a sea turtle or bird or fish - strangling or choking a hungry animal. We learned that street lights confuse the turtles once they hatch - they are supposed to head to the light reflecting on the ocean (which should be the brightest light around), instead they head toward the street and their likely deaths. We saw that balloons are usually unnecessary and may choke a sea turtle who thinks they are eating a jelly.

We hiked through the "jungle" and learned amazing facts about the life that calls the forest, "home".

Most memorably, we spent a good hour excitedly watching the sea life in the giant water tanks.

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center is an extraordinary place, a place that reminds us just how extraordinary our world is!

You better get outside!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Escape to Key Largo - John Pennekamp State Park

ECO - Every Child Outside Nature Class
A Visit to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Key Largo, Florida

After our wonderful and exotic visit to the Dagny Johnson Botanical State Park hardwood hammock, we were ready for a refreshing visit to the shore. The kids were jumping for joy at the thought of a swim and the possibility of seeing fish. After having lunch at the cool and breezy picnic tables, we visited the wonderful aquariums at the visitor center. Their largest tank is being renovated, but what was left was enough to thrill the little eyes of our students.

Since we weren't able to take a trip in a boat out to the reefs, it was wonderful to see some of the reef life up close. Maybe some of our older, experienced swimmers will be able to go out this summer if we make another trip.

Because of the aquariums we were able to see spiny sea urchins, brittle sea stars, a moray eel and its symbiotic companion, the coral banded shrimp. The aquariums were full of live coral polyps - so unusual and beautiful and of many different colors - giving the children a taste of the underwater garden not too far off shore.

John Pennekamp State Park opened in the 1960's, and was the first underwater park opened in the United States. It is home to the largest coral reef in the continental United States and is protected as a National Marine Sanctuary. The coral reef is an ecologically diverse and extremely beautiful habitat. The reefs provide shelter and food to hundreds of animals (including humans), they provide oxygen to the ocean and it's inhabitants, and therefore to the world outside the water. They provide a natural barrier to hurricane and storm and tidal surge - creating the first wave of defense for the rocky shore nearby. We have enjoyed their beauty, reaped their plenty, and inadvertently (hopefully) almost destroyed them.

Surrounding the reefs is lovely, warm, crystal blue water - leading to the shoreline. The shoreline was once covered almost entirely with mangroves - the second defense for the shore against hurricanes. Mangroves are crucial habitat. They provide a nutritious muck and soup from their leaves - filling the water with nutrients for the baby sea creatures that hide in their branches (above and below the surface).

The park is home to a forest of old, knobby mangroves, creating an enchanted paradise for everyone who enters. The children and the adults in our group were in awe of these majestic mangroves that looked like they had survived many a storm. It was quiet and cool in their depths, I'm sure in about a month or two we won't be able to set foot in there because the mosquitoes will take over. Nonetheless, this day the children were able to climb and play and be a part of the mystery.

Further away from the shore, past the red mangroves, then the black, then the white, then the Buttonwood, the hardwood trees grow. There is a lovely hardwood hammock trail, older and cleaner than the forest at Dagny Johnson. Many of the same trees and creatures are present as at the Botanical Park, making it a unique and fascinating place to visit. There are Poisonwood trees galore, Mahogany, and the smelly Spanish Stopper, to name a few.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in lazy,beachy bliss - picnicking and swimming, climbing the Sea Grape trees and lounging in the shade or sun. The kids frolicked and hunted on the seashore, carrying nets and buckets on their quest, occassionally finding a shell or seaweed of interest - or just digging in the dirt.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Escape to Key Largo - A Walk in the Tropical Hardwood Hammock

Dagny Johnson Botanical State Park and John Pennekamp State Park
March 10-12, 2009
ECO -Every Child Outside Homeschool Nature Class

Escaping to Key Largo is always a pleasure - leaving the hustle and bustle of the city to enter a world of peaceful mangroves and aqua blue water. Just an hour and a half from Ft. Lauderdale lies two of the most unique and beautiful ecosystems left in Florida - the rockland tropical hardwood hammock and the mangrove/coral reef habitat.

We started our journey in Florida City, meeting up to drive together down the secluded and secretive Card Sound Road, Highway 905. Card Sound Road cuts through the southern tip of the Everglades, through the sawgrass marsh - allowing for a view of an occasional alligator, a handful of rare native Royal Palms tucked away on their tree islands, and many patient King Fishers waiting on the telephone wires - looking for fish to scoop up.

After we passed through the sawgrass marsh, and the patches of the unwanted invasive Australian Pines, the Red Mangroves start showing their faces - hinting at an influx of salt water. Driving further along, with the White Mangroves lining the road, there is a quaint little fishing "village"; delapidated and funky boats line the docks, with an occasional one sadly sunken below the surface. After researching the area, I found out that it is not regulated by any one government agency, so the residents are "squatters" and are able to access electricity and sewage. I love it - a tiny settlement, peacefully living and fishing and crabbing (stone and blue crabs), 20 minutes from Miami - practically hidden from view!

We stopped, checked out the mangroves, threw some rocks in the water and got back in the car. Once through the floating village, we came to Alabama Jacks - an excellent little "dive" of a restaurant, built upon a dock over the water. If you want to hang with bikers, hear live music on the weekends, and get a taste of the local flavor (food and people), it's the place to go.

In order to leave the mainland - the peninsula of Florida, and enter the "keys", you must pay the toll. It is one dollar, each way, and you are not able to use your Sunpass. The Card Sound bridge looms in the distance (read Carl Hiassen's "Stormy Weather" for an exciting mention of the bridge). It rises high and spans across the Florida Bay and Card Sound, providing a fantastic view of mangroves and absolutely gorgeous, inviting blue water. The road was originally going to be the route of the Overseas Highway, but the plans were redirected to run the highway along the old railroad ties further west (where it still lies - aka US-1).

The mangroves here are home to our reclusive and surly native, the American Crocodile. South Florida is the only place in North America where they live, and the only place in the world where their habitat intermingles with the habitat of their cousins, the American Alligator. The crocodiles especially love the warm waste-water of the Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant not too far away. They are protected and breeding - hopefully with the proper number of body parts (no nuclear mutants as of yet). The land all around - except for the exclusive retreat for the wealthy, the Ocean Reef Club - is home to the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the adjacent Key Largo Dagny Johnson Botanical State Park.

The crocodile refuge is closed to the public; however, if you are of the more "rugged" type, you can obtain a back country permit to the botanical park and explore some of the more pristine, tucked-away spots.

At one point along the Highway 905, there is a fork in the road, if you go left you will enter the Ocean Reef Club, if you head right, you head to Key Largo and US-1. We went to the right, heading west, watching the foliage change from mangrove to woodland hammock as we drove. The woodlands are some of the last remaining rockland tropical hardwood hammocks left in Florida. The higher grounds of the keys were once covered in these forests - filled with fascinating and exotic trees like, Poisonwood, Lignum Vitae, and Mahogany. Many of the trees are exclusive to the Keys and the West Indies - their seeds spreading on the tides. The Key Largo Dagny Johnson Botanical Park protects these trees and the rare and unusual animals that make them home.

The botanical park was once destined to become a condominium development. The building began and ended in the 1980's. The developers dug a quarry, built a wall, a house, and several roads. Environmental activists, including Ann Dagny Johnson, fought to stop the building due to the presence of 84 protected animals and plants. The construction ceased and the forest was able to breathe and grow; the roads became walking trails and the quarry became an unusual little lake tucked back in the woods.

To the sound of a foghorn (really, it was me blowing through a cut conch shell), I called the naturalists together. We began our hike by learning about conchs (a large sea snail - pronounced "conk") and the other kind of "Conchs" - people who live in the keys. We learned that one of the first successful crops of the upper keys was the pineapple, that, in the past, if an animal stood still, it would turn black with mosquitoes, and that a hurricane without a name blew through on Labor Day in 1932 at 200mph and killed 800 people and destroyed the railroad. We also learned that the botanical park is home to endemic animals and plants (meaning they only live there - evolving away from their mainland cousins), including the Key Largo Cotton Mouse and the Key Largo Wood Rat, and the Schaus Swallowtail Butterfly.

As we walked we searched for signs of the wood rat - who builds tunnels out of scraps of wood and decorates with found shiny trinkets. In the canopy, we looked for Liguus (or Banded) Tree Snails. We only saw a few, as they are "hibernating" - they seal their shells during the dry season (or winter) and don't open up until the first rain. It was bone dry when we were there. The leaves looked so sad and withered, waiting and hoping for the missing moisture (we were 9 inches below in rainfall).

**I'm writing this today, March 18, one week after our trip, and our first rainy day of the year. My whole body is thankful for the rain, and, I bet the forest down in Key Largo - if they got rain too- is a new place, maybe the snails came out of their shells!**

I think the most exciting thing for the kids was the Poisonwood trees and the coral rock wall and quarry. The Poisonwood tree is in the Cashew family and is related to cashews, pistachios, mangoes, Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac, and Brazilian Red Pepper (a much disliked invasive exotic). The tree itself looks poisonous - in some places it is, literally, oozing black sap. It's trunk is tall and thick with patches of beige, golden yellow/orange, brown, and black. If you touch any part, and are allergic, you will likely get an oozy rash that itches like crazy.

The coral rock wall and quarry were an adventure in itself for the children. Unfortunately for the families on our Thursday trip, we weren't able to go back there - too hot and far for the little ones. There is a "nature" trail to the side of the paved road, about 3/4 of a mile back. The front of the trail is lined with a very large and majestic-looking coral rock wall. The children loved it, I'm sure it brought to mind visions of castles and knights and princesses. We examined it, talked about coral and how this area was once covered with ocean water. Then we found the quarry. The kids climbed the rocks, played noble of the mountain, and threw rocks in the water. We ate "sea celery" or purslane and examined the mangroves. We felt special, being in a place that seemed hidden and undiscovered (even though we knew it wasn't).

On all three days that we were there, we had a very special mascot follow us- a beautiful giant green dragonfly (known as the Green Darner Dragonfly), it would fly into the middle of our group, and seemingly look at each one of us, check us out and then fly away. On the way home on Tuesday I saw a white-crowned pigeon flying overhead, but other than that and a few snails and insects, the forest was quiet. The animals were staying still, hiding from the heat and ravaging dryness - waiting for the rains to come...

Our next stop was John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park - the story to follow in the next post.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Among the Tall Cypress - Attack of the Invaders

Tall Cypress Natural Area
Coral Springs, Florida
March 3 -5

Tucked away, amidst shopping centers and housing developments, with names like Turtle Run, there is a beautiful little forest called Tall Cypress.

It is a place that stands for determination. The land was once deemed to be either a shopping center or housing environmental group at a local high school deemed otherwise. They campaigned to protect the forest and won - proving that working together, at any age, will likely prove successful.

Then, a few years back Hurricane Wilma came ripping through the area - making a mess all over South Florida, including Tall Cypress Natural Area. Our native trees are built to withstand such powers, but still may be damaged and stressed. The Tall Cypress forest is showing it's stress.

Invasive exotics have come in full force and are "invading" the ecosystem. There are bushes and vines everywhere - not only invasive, even the Wild Muscadine Grape is going grapey and covering over the forest floor. When the tall trees fall, or lean, the forest floor receives more sun, the small bushy plants of the understory take over and attempt to over-power the forest. The system teeters off balance for a while. Eventually, the tall trees will once again dominate... unless there is such an intense force (wind, fire, bulldozers) that they are wiped out and can't recuperate.

I don't think this is the case at Tall Cypress. The trees are holding strong and hopefully will send the invasive species away or discipline them enough that they aren't a problem and allow the forest to achieve balance once again.

Invasive exotics are plants or animals that are introduced by people. They grow very comfortable and begin to reproduce and grow quickly and fiercely. Melaleuca Trees are an example, we deposited their seeds by plane so that they would grow and drink up all of the water in the wetlands, and now we can't get rid of them. The list is long. It is so important to plant natives adapted to where we live, so that when the wind catches their seed, they won't grow somewhere they aren't supposed to be.

Regardless of invasive exotics and loud pressure cleaners (the wonderful workers of Broward County were cleaning the boardwalk on Thursday), Tall Cypress is a gorgeous little gem and we loved the experience.

We were able to see the first beautiful emerald green leaves of the cypress tree sprouting forth among the branches. Now that spring is on its way, the deciduous cypress will be green once again. The rains will come and the canopy will close in to shade over the wily growth beneath - on the path to balance once again.

The air was cool and the smell of the forest was dry and pleasant. It was so dry and cool on Tuesday that the kids had a very SHOCKING walk (static electricity that is).

South Florida is sooooo dry right now, my bones are aching for the rain...the thunder, the lightning, the dark clouds, the heat...well, not so much.

As we walked, a pair of Red-bellied woodpeckers played hide and seek through the canopy, stopping here and there to listen and peck. We heard many song birds along our way, but failed to see them in the overgrowth.

We learned about leaves - comparing broad-leaved trees to needle-leafed trees. Cypress and pine are needle-leafed trees and luckily enough this place has both. We collected leaves and later turned them into works of art - rubbing their outlines onto paper with crayon. The kids made beautiful creations.

The boardwalk goes through two different ecosystems - the Cypress Hydric Swamp and the Pine Flatlands. The area where the cypress trees grow will become wet once again when the rains return. The land is lower in elevation, maybe only in inches, but enough to fill with water. As the land rises, the Slash Pine and Cabbage Palm take over.

We observed the differences and the similarities of the trees; cypress lose their leaves, pines don't; yet, they are both conifers (bearing cones).

We walked in silence, we walked blind-folded, we searched for colors, we even laid on the ground to see the trees in a different way. We gained perspective.

Perspective is so important - to see things from another angle. In our every day lives we need to see things differently and "do" differently. Despite our past mistakes of demolishing old growth forests across the land, we are still cutting down our trees. Cypress trees throughout the south - Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, are being cut down to make MULCH! Forests and habitats are being destroyed so people can have mulch on their lawns. It is up to us, as adults, as gardeners, home-owners, consumers, children - to stop the trend and save our beautiful forests. Go to: for more information and ways you can make a difference, and gain perspective.

Pine Island Ridge photos

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