Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer Solstice, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

Twice a year, once on December 21st and once on June 21st, we have what we call a solstice. The word, "solstice" translates to "the sun standing still". Here in the northern hemisphere, June 21st is the Summer Solstice - the longest day of the year, the day when we have the most sunlight hours. It beckons in the first day of summer and the slow waning process of the sun - heading to the shortest day which will happen again in 6 months.
The time of the solstice has always been a time of celebration and ritual. The sun is an all important factor in our lives - it is the reason our crops grow and the reason for warm weather - more time to raise food and hunt. People see the longest day of the year as a time to thank the gods for the warmth and the food and to have some fun! It has been the tradition in cold climates, like in Europe, for millenia to build huge bonfires and party all night long to say "thank you" to the sun, to please the gods so that the sun will return again the following year after the winter to come.

I look forward to the seasonal holidays, like Midsummer, so that I can return to my roots, plant my feet deep in the earth, and celebrate the traditions and rituals that have been a part of us for so long. I feel more well-rounded, more whole, when I welcome in ancient celebrations - celebrations that are in tune with the seasons and the movement of the Earth.

Intertwining old stories and past-times into my class routine is essential to my philosophies and goals as a nature teacher. It is so important to reconnect and rebuild the ties to our Earth so that the children can see how everything they do is connected in some way to the rhythms of the planet.

To create a new tradition, I like to take a bit of the old and weave it into a bit of the new.

This year,we decided to make flower wreaths. Flowers have always been symbols of happiness, love, new life, and luck. Cultures all over the world use plants, especially flowers as symbols - it is common to weave the flowers and plants together into a wreath. Wreaths are circles, circles are symbols of eternity- of the cycle of life and death, and never-ending love. The cycle of the sun is part of the circle of life, and therefore, may be part of what is symbolized with a wreath of flowers.

We brought flowers and vines and herbs from our garden, and I was lucky enought to get some inexpensive baby's breath at a road side stand (a common site in Miami) on the way to the park. I know now how to be a bit more organized next time we do something like this (the crafting part of my class is never my forte). It was a bit chaotic, but the kids made some beautiful wreaths. We got in some lovely pictures by the palm trees and then headed to the beach.

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park is on the southern tip of Key Biscayne, surrounded by Biscayne Bay. In April we visited Biscayne Bay - Crandon Park, and scooped up lots of wonderful creatures in the sea grass with our nets. See my archived blog post about our explorations.

This beach is different than the beach at Crandon Park. The bottom is sandier, with less grass growing. However, because of the shape of the beach and the rock jetty jutting out from the lighthouse, there is an accumulation of sea bracken - dead sea weeds floating in on the current. I was hoping the bracken would be teeming with critters, unfortunately it wasn't.

My goal as a nature educator is to encourage nature appreciation and discovery- which we always accomplish; nonetheless, it is still disappointing when you don't find anything, especially when that is the specific highlight of the outing.

Now, I shouldn't say we didn't find "anything". We found lots and lots of beach fleas and other intertidal bugs; we also found one teeny, tiny shrimp, and a Checkered Nerite sea snail. We looked at the different types of sea grass and learned about their importance as a habitat for baby animals and as a food source for animals, such as the Manatee. I told them about the phenomenon that is the Sargasso Sea and showed them the Sargassum Seaweed that was floating around.

The sun began to edge its way downward to the horizon as we played in the water, parents and children swimming and enjoying the warm, calm water and discovering as they went. Children dug and searched and explored, hoping to catch a glimpse of the world under the water.

I called the kids together and offered them a choice of games to play - either Race for the Sun or Sharks and Minnows. As usual, they chose Sharks and Minnows - the in-the-water version. The lone shark had to eat as many minnows as possible in order to reproduce and make more sharks - so they could eat MORE minnows. None of our minnows got away, we had very hungry sharks!

The sun was touching the tips of the Sea Oats in the dunes by that point, but there was still enough light for sitting on the blankets to eat a picnic dinner. We sat and talked and ate while the kids continued to play. After awhile we wrapped up our beautiful almost summer solstice (it was a few days ahead) evening with a walk along the golden dunes back to the cars.

Once again, thanks to all of my young naturalists, their wonderful families, and, of course, the amazing photographers.

See you outside!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ice Cream, Thunder, and the Beach

What a day we had a couple of weeks ago...we talked of extreme weather, walked and played on the beach, and made ICE CREAM!! Well, some might call it slush cream, or something, but boy did it taste delicious!

Our day was spent at John U. Lloyd State Park, on the northern tip of Dania Beach. It is a beautiful beach - an example of a "real" Florida beach. The native plants are thriving there, due to the dilligence of a large number of volunteers and the staff of the park. You can volunteer there to plant dune plants, like Sea Oats, and Mangroves.

During times of extreme weather here in South Florida, the native plants are essential to protection of the waters, coastline, and beyond.

In a hurricane, there might be a tidal surge. First, the coral reefs slow the surge down, then the water runs into the beach; if the dunes are healthy and stable, and secure with dune plants, the dunes will create a barrier to the tidal surge.

Next, the tides would encounter the Mangroves. Mangroves are an excellent blockade against high winds and high tides, and help prevent too much devestation beyond - where taller trees reside and where animal habitation is more prevalent.

The estuarine wetland helps prevent further damage, such as flooding - by absorbing the water into itself, possibly stopping it from flooding higher ground as much as possible.

Not only do plants have adaptations to help them in high winds and tidal surges, but many of them are adapted to fire as well. Florida is the lightning capital of the United States; Tampa Bay has more lightning than any other place in the United States. Africa has the most lightning of anywhere in the world.

With lightning comes fire. The trees and plants must be adapted in order to survive through hundreds of years of fires and storms.

Our class began with a discussion and explanation of thunder and lightning and a brief talk of hurricanes. We found it fascinating that up above us -in the dark clouds, little ice cubes were bumping into each other creating an electrical current. The positive charges, or protons, float up, and the negative charges, or neutrons, move down. Then, just like everything in life, oppposites are attracted to each other- the protons try to get to the neutrons, and vice versa. Then, whammy! An explosion of light happens, which creates a HOLE in the air! We see the light and the hole closes in on itself, creating a large resonating BOOM - known as thunder. Since light is faster than sound, we see before we hear.

We had been having mega thunder storms all that week, so we wanted to head out for our nature walk as soon as possible- before a storm greeted us. We packed up our water, nets and books and headed out. The morning class was happily inundated with Lubber Grasshoppers. One student noticed a large bright grasshopper and before we knew it we were surrounded. They were everywhere, we just hadn't noticed. The kids and parents had a blast catching them, they are very slow and heavy for their size. One mom defied her long-carried fears and held one; she realized it wasn't so bad!!!

That evening, the Lubbers were no where to be seen, but instead we were honored with a view of a Florida Black Racer snake slithering by, heading to the shelter of the Sea Grapes. We continued down to Whiskey Creek, grabbed the nets and tried to find fish and crabs. After a long time of hunting, we did find a couple of crabs, one big one, one little one.

We ate Sea Purslane ( an important dune-creating plant) - what I used to call Sea Celery (it's also called Sea Pickle), to the delight and surprise of the kids and the moms.

The purslane is extremely salty, succulent and crunchy. Sea Purslane is very high in vitamin C and has been used historically as a prevention to scurvy.

We found a wonderful limestone rock and discussed the ancient bedrock of South Florida and its origins.

We walked up and across the path between the dunes, discussing their importance during extreme weather situations and how, here in South Florida, we are having more erosion now since we have bulldozed the dunes and mangroves.

On our way we appreciated the Sea Oats, the Beach Morning Glory

We spotted a Blue lined Racerunner ( a snazzy little lizard) running into the Sea Oats as we walked by and we observed how the horizontal roots of the sea dune plants stop the sand in it's tracks.

We headed down to the shore and looked through the bracken to see if we could find any critters. I never find much at the shore, everything burrows so quickly and gets out of sight.

Of course, the kids couldn't resist playing in the surf. They were in the water body surfing before we knew it. We dug in the sand, peeked under the sea weed - Sargassum seaweed that had made it's way to our shores from the sea of weeds, the Sargasso Sea, out in the Atlantic; and played tag with the waves.

I called everyone in and we reunited at the pavilion. It was time to make ice cream, or attempt to.

I had 2 large coffee cans and 2 small coffee cans, we filled the small ones with organic cream, vanilla extract in one and chocolate in the other, added sugar and mixed it all together. We placed the small can inside the large can, sealed it with duct tape, and put ice and rock salt on top. It was hard to do as the ice was too big and it was melting fast (it's hard to make ice cream in South Florida).

Before we could add the ice, the kids took turns hammering it to try and crush it, they lined up ready to bang it out.

Then we sealed the top jar and the kids began kicking it around - the idea being that they would kick it enough so that it would cream up and freeze. Well, it didn't quite work that way. In the evening I had one our dads shake the vanilla for a long time while the kids kicked the chocolate one, the vanilla one was ALMOST ice cream while the chocolate one was slushy.

Some experienced moms and dads suggested that next time we leave an adult behind to start the process and then let the kids finish it off with the kicking, even doing two rounds of ice and salt to keep it frozen.

Regardless, it was DELICIOUS - organic, kid-made, and yummy! We ate it all up and the kids thought it was the best thing ever!

Thanks to my photographers!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Escape to Jupiter, Part 2, Blowing Rocks Preserve

At the end of the last post, my group had finished a hike along Kitching Creek Trail, this is the rest of the story:
We left the Kitching Creek Trail parking lot and headed out. Along the way, the kids, once again stuck their heads out the windows to access the lovely, cool air and to listen to the sounds of the frolicking frogs.
As we drove on, we were lucky to witness another type of frolicking - that of a brand new baby deer. The fawn was tiny and rambunctious. At one point she looked directly at our line of cars and began running to us, like she wanted us to run and leap and play with her. As soon as she started heading our way, her family, mother at the lead, ran in a circle around her and gently guided her away. She jumped and leapt and put on a great show for us - what a wonderful treat for us city folk!!!

We left the park and headed south and east and then crossed the bridge to Jupiter Island, a barrier island just off-shore. It is a long, beautiful strip of sand, dotted with condos, parks, and beautiful beachfront houses -complete with long and mysterious driveways. Midway across the island you come to The Nature Conservancy's Blowing Rocks Preserve. It is a left-over little piece of what the island was before recent development. Sea Grapes rule here and line the road, creating a natural barrier to the surge of the ocean. On the western side of the island, the Nature Conservancy has its offices and a gallery filled with the most exquisite and creative works of art - unique representations of local animals and landscapes, like bats made out of fabric scraps and leather - really cool stuff! Also on the western side are lovely and sedate trails meandering through the hammock and lagoon of the Indian River.
We decided to hit the beach-side first. The wonderful trails on the eastern side take you through tunnels of Sea Grapes and Cabbage Palm. The ground is a bit higher and very shady - being protected from the sun by the trees.

The breezes coming up off of the Atlantic Ocean were cool and smelled sweetly of the salt and rain. We talked of the plants and trees and wildlife as we went, anticipating the excitement of the beach ahead.
The beaches here are different from the beaches further south. It is a bit cooler on average and the coral reefs less common. On this beach, there isn't any coral, instead the beach is lined with Anastasia Limestone.

Anastasia Limestone is a sedimentary rock, composed of thousands of tiny coquina shells, other shells, and sand pressed together over thousands of years. The forts made by the Spanish near St. Augustine were made of Anastasia Limestone - the bedrock of the area. It is soft when it is dug out of the ground, but when exposed to air for a few days, it becomes extremely hard and durable - as we can see by the still intact structures from 500 years ago. Like other limestones, when the acid in rainwater hits the rock, it leaches through and creates holes in the stone. Our aquifers are holes formed by acid dripping through the limestone bedrock under our feet.
The mini-cliffs of exposed Anastasia Limestone that line Jupiter Island beach are full of holes. Twice a day, the tide comes in and water rushes through the holes, exploding into geysers of water.
The fates were on our side that day - we arrived at the beach very near to the climax of the high tide. The skies were black and wet and thuderous in the distance, the wind was fierce, and the waves were wild. The kids were so excited to be at the beach and the electricity and force of the weather added to their fervor. They ran straight for the edge, amazed to see rocky outcroppings on the beach ( a very unusual site in Florida). My son and I were reminded of California's coasts - but on a much, much smaller scale.
Upon reaching the edge of the "precipitous" cliffs, the kids got quite a surprise. We hadn't realized just how high the tide was and when the water pushed its way in, it burst up and out through those holes with such power and force that it completely showered and drenched those standing by,; and gave them quite a scare I might add.

Screams of nervousness and excitement filled the air, they were so thrilled - all ages running to find a hole to stand by for the coming of the next explosion. After a while, us moms got nervous and encouraged them to sit down so that they wouldn't slide down through the holes into the angry ocean. I'm pretty sure they could have spent the entirety of the day getting sprayed with water. It was a truly explosive experience!

We continued to play, even when the clouds got so heavy with rain that they let loose, getting the dry parents wet. One of our moms joined the kids at the blowing rocks, so she was already wet, but the rest of weren't. We fought it at first and then celebrated the rain and just had fun. Eventually it was enough and it was getting late, so we headed to the showers - everyone's hair full of sand debris from the shooting showers.

Most of us continued over to the gallery at that point. The kids were mesmerized by the artwork being displayed. We spent quite a while admiring the creativity of the artists.

The park closes at 4pm but the naturalist there told us we were welcome to enjoy the lagoon trail anyway. I was very pleased because I didn't want my group to miss out.
The trail was calm and peaceful - after the excitement of the beach. The Tropical Hardwood Hammock is filled with such trees as: Strangler Fig, Gumbo Limbo, Sea Grape, Pigeon Plum and Cabbage Palm - attesting to the rise in elevation. A mischievous,but friendly male Cardinal was flirting with us, playing hide and seek amongst the leaves. Could it have been the same one as at Jonathan Dickinson? Was he following us?
The kids and parents were relaxed and having a wonderful day, we walked slowly and enjoyed each other's company and the smell of the plants after rain mixing with the smell of the estuary. Further along through the hammock going lower in elevation as we went, we reached the edge of the Indian River Lagoon. The river was calm and somewhat grey in color, with perfectly white sugary sand lining the shore.

Mangroves filled in the borders, along with Sea Oxeye Daisy and Sea Oats - to encourage the growth of dunes.
Along the shore, baby Red Mangroves have been planted - reminding us of the work we have to do to make up for what we have lost. At one spot, there is a huge root ball of a tree washed onshore, it is grey and windblown - offering a craggy outcropping for the kids to climb on. They climbed, ran around looking for crabs, and played in the calm water. Before we left we spotted the skeleton of a Horseshoe crab - more closely related to spiders and ticks then to crabs! What an ancient and primitive creature - their very close relatives were on Earth over 400 million years ago.

It was the perfect end to the perfect day! Well, it wasn't quite the end for some of us, half of the group went home, the rest of us went back to Jonathan Dickinson and bunkered down for a weekend of possibly wet camping. On the way to the campsite, my son and I saw a family of wild pigs crossing the road, we listened to the chorus of the frogs, and breathed in the fresh air. We were so glad to be staying a bit longer.
It turned out to be a fabulous weekend of camping, even if we were really wet and sandy by the end!

Thanks once again to all my photographers!