Tracking in the Mud

All things children and nature

Making Fruit Leather from Wild-Harvested Autumn Olives October 21, 2010

Filed under: Autumn,Getting Outside with Kids,Seasons,Wild Edibles — Sandy Beverly @ 10:27 pm
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My husband tells me I’m getting a little obsessed with gathering wild edibles.  But here’s a success story: Max and I made fruit leather from berries we discovered along a local bike path.

The tree is Autumn Olive, related to the Russian Olive and not a “true” olive.  In the fall, it sports tart red berries with silvery spots.  The lone tree caught my eye at 12 miles an hour, and even though I’ve never seen this species before, my brain said “Autumn Olive.”  See, oh doubting husband, those hours spent poring over wild edible books have not been wasted!

Once I confirmed that the tree was indeed an Autumn Olive, Max and I returned with shopping bag and pruners.  In no time at all, we’d filled the bag with small branches.  (Next time, I won’t clip the branches, I’ll strip the berries straight from the tree.  But this plant is considered invasive in many places, no harm done by slowing its growth a little.)

That evening, we were ready to dig in.  Had a fabulous time sitting on the floor and stripping the berries into a large bowl.  The simple beauty of the round crimson berries made me smile, and we had a misplaced sense of pride about the quantity we had gathered.

We washed ‘em, cooked ‘em, ran ‘em thru a food mill. (Hey, nobody said processing wild fruit is easy!  That’s why those pioneer women could birth their babies while traveling the Oregon Trail.  That, and because they had to…)  Then we sweetened the runny magenta mush with lots of honey.  One night in the electric food dryer, some kitchen shears (sorry, pioneer women, technology happens), and, viola, a bunch of beautiful if slightly mouth-puckering fruit roll-ups.

Look out, Ma Ingalls.  I’m after your cookbook, and your husband.

Important aside: According to the Wild Berries & Fruit Field Guide, Autumn Olive has no toxic look-alikes.  But, as always, be careful eating wild plants.  Some are quite poisonous.


Enjoying Nature with Children: No Need for Names April 12, 2010

Filed under: Getting Outside with Kids,Seasons,Spring — Sandy Beverly @ 9:51 am
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Last week, my three-year-old started noticing (and chasing) what he calls “snow butterflies.” These white and very pale blue beauties are typically one of the first butterflies of spring.  They are actually spring azures, but he doesn’t need to know that.  “Snow butterfly” is a perfect name—it’s descriptive, memorable, and Max came up with it himself. Which takes the pressure off of me to identify the next butterfly we spot—which I almost certainly will not be able to do!

In my younger years, I had a short, mostly unsuccessful internship in environmental education.  It was then that I learned this technique of letting children name trees, bugs, flowers, whatever natural treasures they find.  “What would you call it?” is a useful question, in many contexts and for many reasons.

In her amazing essay, “The Sense of Wonder” (available at the Lawrence public library), Rachel Carson reminds us that we don’t need to give young children names and explanations, at least not always.  We simply need to share a sense of wonder and pleasure at what we find.

She writes: If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.  Parents often have a sense of inadequacy… “How can I possibly teach my child about nature—why, I don’t even know one bird from another!”  I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.

And later: If a child asked me a question that suggested even a faint awareness of the mystery behind the arrival of a migrant sandpiper on the beach on an August morning, I would be far more pleased than by the mere fact that he knew it was a sandpiper and not a plover.

So, my job with young Max is simply to reawaken my senses—and my sense of wonder.  No need to know much.  I like the sound of that.  Wonder what crazy-named natural treasures we’ll find today?


Nature AND Nintendo? April 3, 2010

Filed under: Getting Outside with Kids — Sandy Beverly @ 1:09 pm
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Last month, in a story called Nature vs. Nintendo, the Lawrence Journal World asked me and other local moms how we balance screen time and outdoor time for our kids.  Helping my kids appreciate the natural world ranks high among my core parenting values, and I feel like we’re doing a reasonable job in this domain. But we’ve struggled to find the right rules and expectations for screen time.  And it has certainly become harder as my older son ages out of the sheltered preschool years.

A part of me feels guilty because my kids have any screen time at all.  “Wouldn’t it be great to have no-TV kids?” I think to myself.  No worries about the content of TV shows, movies, video games.  No negotiating screen-time rules.  Plus, the sense of pride or satisfaction that I imagine comes from raising completely unplugged kids.  Mostly, there’s a part of me who wants what tracker-naturalist-mentor Jon Young calls “feral” kids: kids who catch frogs, call in owls, build shelters from sticks, and sneak up on foxes.

We don’t have a gaming system, but we do allow certain TV shows, movies, and computer games, and my reasons come down to these:

  1. I need a regular breather from parenting–I can’t speak for anyone else, but, for me, parenting is hard work.  I sometimes struggle to keep my patience.  I always struggle to find enough time for my part-time job, my household chores, and, yes, my sanity-savers, like exercise and walks in the woods.  I struggle to find enough quiet. So, I plan my kids’ limited screen time almost neurotically so that I can have 30 minutes or an hour to myself.
  2. I want my kids to fit in–Although I greatly admire the parents who have chosen to surround themselves with other unplugged families (mainly through home-schooling or the Prairie Moon Waldorf community), this has not been our path.  So of course my seven-year-old has friends who play video games.  It sounds insane, but I believe he needs some basic joystick skills to navigate the world of elementary school friendships.  This seems especially true for boys.
  3. I don’t want to be the parent who always says “no”–My sweet seven-year-old calls me occasionally from a neighbor’s house to ask if he can watch a movie.  Sometimes I say yes, sometimes no.  But it hurts me a little every time.  When is he going to start wondering why he has to call and ask?  When is he going to feel more than just short-term disappointment when I say no?  When is he going to feel real resentment because the limits we set are more limiting than those he sees in other homes?

This last one keeps me up at night.  And I’m beginning to believe that the consequences of too many no’s will be more harmful than the consequences of lightening up.

So…..  I’m trying to find a new set of rules or guidelines—something that gives my son some more latitude when he’s with friends but something I can live with.  I guess my husband and I will never have feral kids.  But, with the right set of rules and relationships, can we still have happy, well-rounded, cloud-watching, owl-calling, earth-loving, frog-catching kids?  Can they wield both sticks and joysticks?  Can it be both Nature and Nintendo?


Getting Reluctant Kids Outside March 17, 2010

Filed under: Getting Outside with Kids — Sandy Beverly @ 9:44 pm
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In my parenting fantasy, my kids spend hours outside a day.  They head out after breakfast and play for a good long while.  They eat lunch outside.  The back yard is their play arena, and the tree house is where they go for comfort and alone time.  We have story time outside and take walks every day no matter what the weather.  Got the image?

Confession: My kids often need to be poked and prodded to go outside.

What’s keeping them inside, I ask myself.  If they want to read, why don’t they take a book outside?  If they’re bored, why don’t they wander out to look at the clouds?  If they want to be in a fort, why not the many outdoor options?

Well, I haven’t put my finger on the causes of this resistance, but I have lucked into a few sometimes-solutions.

  • A backyard clothesline—I love my clothesline, not just because it allows me to ignore my electric dryer, but because it gets me outside.  And when I head outside, chances are my boys will, too.
  • Yard work—Ditto #1, and see my earlier post on raking leaves and mud
  • A backyard fire pit—Especially useful on cool days (like the ones we’re having now, when it should be sunny and warm, grrrrrr!)
  • A good game of hide-n-seek—What kid doesn’t love the thrill of hiding and seeking?  Even more exciting when an adult joins in (at least for my young-ish humans)

All of these work the same way, I think.  My kids cross the threshold, then nature works her magic.

How do you poke, prod, or otherwise encourage your kids to be outside?


My New Love Affair with Rain Boots March 14, 2010

Filed under: Getting Outside with Kids — Sandy Beverly @ 11:50 pm
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This is an “encore presentation” of a blog written in October 2008.  I still love rain boots.  And snow boots…

I didn’t have rain boots when I was a kid.  (Did anyone in 1970s suburbia?)  My older son didn’t have ‘em in his early years either.  We try to keep the shoe count to a minimum, and there have been entire seasons when Simon had only a single pair of shoes.  But this year I have fallen in love with rain boots.

Simon’s pair came to us when he was five, an inexpensive “Well, why not?” purchase at Lasting Impressions.  Boots were pretty nice, I soon realized.  They really did keep out water, they were eye-catching (dark blue with yellow stripes, haphazardly pushing up the pant legs), and they made a nice –clunk! clunk! clunk!- sound.

Big Brother, in his Blues

But those boots really began to make my heart go pitter-patter after I read Rachel Carson’s essay, “A Sense of Wonder.”  Carson writes about sharing nature with her young nephew and recalls that some of their most special moments were at times we moms might consider inconvenient—after dark (i.e., after bedtime!) or during or after a rainstorm (i.e., wet and muddy times!)  Carson’s essay re-awakened my belief that children should go outside in all seasons and all weather, and I vowed to take more walks at “inconvenient” times.  Since then, Simon’s boots have accompanied us in the rain, snow, and mud.  They’ve even gotten stuck in what Simon calls “quick sand” during a winter walk on a local golf course.

Little Brother's Yellows

A pair for little brother moved in a few weeks ago (ankle-high yellow ones, with zippers).  This time, I deliberately searched them out on e-bay.  Max loves them, and I get a giggle out of seeing him clomp around in public when it hasn’t rained for days.

Most importantly, we’re finding our muddy backyard a little less problematic.  And the fact that we all have boots makes me want to go out in search of puddles!  Last week, we found a humungous puddle on a nearby cul-de-sac, so now we can stomp to our heart’s content without worrying about traffic.

It seems like a little thing, I know.  And it is a bit inconvenient to come home muddy and wet.  But my heart tells me that kids need this messy, carefree outdoor time.  Heck, I need it!  And having boots just gives us an excuse.  Hooray for rain boots!


Max, the Mud One March 6, 2010

Filed under: Getting Outside with Kids — Sandy Beverly @ 1:35 am
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Today, on this fine, spring-like day we got out the rakes.  I’ve found yard work to be a great way to get my little boy human (age 3) outside.  (Less so for my bigger boy human, then or now.)

Max says, “Mom, can I rake the mud?”  “Sure,” I reply, as I rake oak leaves from the vinca before it begins to bud.  And he rakes happily for some time.  “Mom, I’m the ‘mud one’; you’re the ‘leaf one’.”  I like the sound of that.

A little while later: “Mom, can I have my work gloves?”  So we go to the shed for the work gloves and then get back to work.

A few seconds later: “Mom, can I have my blue shovel?”  (I kid you not, every sentence out of his mouth begins with the word “Mom”.)  I don’t really want to search for the little blue trowel.  Luckily, I’ve just spotted the little red shovel, which spent all winter in the vinca bed.  This satisfies him, and he meanders somewhere to get a large dump truck.

Now he’s happily shoveling dirt and decomposed wood chips into his dump truck and driving it over to me.  “Mom, I brought you some more mud,” he says proudly as he dumps.  “Fabulous!” I reply as if I want that mud in the middle of the rock path.  But check it out: This little boy of mine shovels til the sun goes down!

Aside: We’ve found that child-sized tools make yard work much more fun.  Now the small humans can be like the full-sized humans they so admire.  Yard sales (and the mother-in-laws who shop them) are good sources for little rakes, gloves, shovels, and wheelbarrows.  The cool, bamboo-looking rake came from        

Also helpful, if you’re actually trying to get yard work done is an implausible tolerance for interruptions.  🙂