Saturday, June 28, 2008

Twenty-three years

When you first get married, you never really think about how long 23 years is. You are just caught up in the love and the now and how it feels right. But on this side of it, many years into a marriage, you have this incredible journey to look back on.
My husband and I met in Washington D.C. and started our lives together in Oregon, writing our vows on the coast and building our relationship on the snowy glades of Mt. Hood. Our first child was born in Massachusetts, just two hours from my husband's parent's home. They were with us the day that my son came into the world, the first and only grandchild that my father-in-law ever knew. We purchased our first home in Kentucky where I planted my first flower garden and began to collect antiques for our home. After that, a move to Illinois, gave us the opportunity to live near my family while experiencing the birth of our second son. A move back out west into the mountains of Colorado, where we spent many hours hiking in the front range, allowed us a chance to experience nature first hand. It wasn't long before we were then off to Georgia with the beautiful bird calls in the morning and the close proximity to the ocean. We now find ourselves once again in Illinois, a kind of coming home for me. I am a midwesterner at heart, having been born in Michigan and raised on cornfields, red barns, summer storms and small towns.
Over the years, this 23 year journey of ours feels full and rich because it has been filled with family and friends and spending time in the natural world. Those are the things that have been important to us and all that we have ever needed. So today, on our anniversary, we will celebrate it in much the way that we celebrate every day, a shared cup of coffee, maybe a walk in the prairie near our home, and time spent with our two boys.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Goodbye Lawn

I am slowly winning the battle of the lawn. Not the battle most wage, where week after week, in an effort to have the perfect lawn, chemicals are applied, blades are cut, and grass is watered. No, my battle involves killing the grass in an attempt to make way for native flowers and shrubs so that I can provide a welcoming environment for the wildlife that calls my place home.

Each year, as more and more prairie or natural areas are lost to development here in Illinois, wildlife is being edged out and valuable habitat destroyed. Sara Stein in her book “Noah’s Garden” was the first person to make me aware of how I could work against this tide by creating wildlife habitats in my own backyard. Places where animals and insects and birds could forage for food or raise their young.
Sara’s dream was that every yard in each neighborhood would leave a bit of their yard natural so that wildlife would have ribbons of interconnected wild spaces in which to live. With that thinking in mind, over the last 3 years, I have gotten rid of 1,300 square feet of lawn and replaced it with plants that provide food or homes for wildlife. Through the National Wildlife Federation’s backyard wildlife habitat program, which provides all the information needed to create places welcoming to animals, my yard was certified as a backyard wildlife habitat.

The NWF program shows how simple it is to provide for wildlife. All you need to do is provide elements from each of the following areas:
Food Sources. For example: Native plants, seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, nectar.
Water Sources. For example: Birdbath, pond, water garden, stream
Places for Cover. For example: Thicket, rockpile, birdhouse.
Places to Raise Young. For example: Dense shrubs, vegetation, nesting box, pond.
Sustainable Gardening. For example: Mulch, compost, rain garden, chemical-free fertilizer.
More information on this program can be found at:
There are also many wonderful books written on this subject. Some of the books that I found particularly helpful were:

Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein
Planting Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein
The Wildlife Garden by Charlotte Seidenberg
National Wildlife Federation Attracting Birds, Butterflies & Backyard Wildlife by David Mizejewsk
Creating Habitat and Homes for Illinois Wildlife by IL. Dept. of Natural Resources and University of Illinois
Landscaping for Wildlife by MN. Department of Natural Resources

When I look out into my back yard, it stands in stark contrast to those yards that surround mine. I find it sad that we value close cropped non life-giving lawn over areas brimming with plants which give so much to wildlife. Obviously Sara’s dream will take a long time to come to fruition.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

80 miles, 4 forms of transportation

In an attempt to reduce my dependence on cars, I decided to implement a plan of car free days at the beginning of this summer. But after finding that car free days simply shifted when I drove but did not reduce how much I drove, I decided to commit to being car free for all trips within three miles of my home. This meant that I would use my bike for all trips to the grocery store, library, coffee shops, and hardware store.

My plan worked for about a week. After many frustrating bike trips back and forth between home and store for forgotten items, I hung it up. I was obviously addicted to the car culture which allowed me to not have to think before backing out of the driveway. So what if I was only buying enough groceries for one day or forgot something for tomorrow’s dinner, I could easily run out later. But this way of thinking did not work when I switched to the bike. I needed to change my approach to all errands and get organized but instead, I got off the bike.

That was until yesterday. My son and I had plans to meet friends in downtown Chicago to see the play “Wicked” and while I knew that we would be taking the train from our town to the city, I figured that I would take the car from our house to the train station. That all changed when the day dawned perfect for bike riding. We quickly shifted gears and rode our bikes the three miles to the train.
It felt so good to be pedaling down the road, and once at our destination, it was especially good to see so many bikes locked up at the bike racks at the coffee shop in town and at the train station just down the street. Obviously, during my time away from my bike, when I had continued to spew CO2 emissions into the air with my car, others had gotten the message and had switched to greener transportation.

The Chicago area is fortunate to have so many great forms of public transportation and bike paths. It really makes it easy to get out of the car and form a different kind of relationship with the area you are traveling through. Our train trip downtown, about an hour in length, gave my son and me some time to talk and connect in a way that would not have been possible had we been in the car. Once downtown, the availability of a water taxi on the Chicago River, gave us time to make a quick trip over to the Lego store on Michigan Avenue, before walking back to the theatre to see the play. We figure that we used four forms of car free travel yesterday- bike, train, water taxi, and walking. Other options that were available to us that we did not use were bus, trolley, and the elevated train. Maybe another day we will do a complete public transportation feast and use them all.

I must say that after yesterday, my interest in getting back to the bike in some capacity is renewed. I just need to come up with a workable plan that does not take on too much too soon. Just like my change to eating organic took place over several years, I think this bike thing will take time too. Slower changes will allow my attitude to adjust in step with what I am trying to take on. Now I just need to figure out a good starting place.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

River Cleanup

A few weeks ago, our town's Natural Resources Committee, of which I am a member, had our 3rd annual River Cleanup. As always, I was most impressed with the youth that participated. Members of our high school football team and a girl scout troop worked many hours hauling debris out of the river and trash from along its banks. It is a credit to their coach and troop leaders that these kids were encouraged to give something back to their community. By working together, we hauled pop cans, plastic bottles, old tires, wood, etc...from the site which went a long ways toward improving the health of the river that runs through our town.

Friday, June 13, 2008

If you don't like the results, consider your actions

Every Thursday morning since October of last year, my son has been taking archery lessons from a wonderful man named Bill. On the first day of class, Bill told all of the kids about how to hunt for mushrooms in the wild and how to
prepare them. Subsequent classes brought more stories about Bill's life, all of which were colorful and entertaining.
Using sound effects and a smile, he told the kids about getting shot just above the eye with an arrow when he was young. Another time he explained what it was like to sleep in bunk beds at his aunt's house right next to the railroad tracks. He would be tucked into bed on one side of the room but by morning, the rumbling of the trains all night would have made the beds bump bump all the way to the other side. My favorite story was about this friend of his that picked up a dead deer alongside the road and put it in his van. It appears that the deer, rather than being dead, was just stunned and it came awake while the guy was driving down the road and began to thrash about trying to kill the driver or get out of the van, whichever came first. Of course Bill's animation and gestures while telling the story, made it especially entertaining.
Bill is also an avid outdoors man and is brimming with hunting stories, how to keep ticks off of you when in the woods, explanations about how to catch fish and clean them, and what types of natural insect repellents are available. The kids in the archery class are mesmerized when Bill tells his stories. They are not the typical stories that kids hear in today's world where many conversations center around shopping and what is on TV. They are stories of a life that my son would know little of if it were not for Bill.
Bill's favorite motto is, "if you don't like the results, consider your actions" and he uses it constantly. He says this motto applies to archery as well as everything in life. In archery, he says if you don't like where your arrow hit the target, consider how you held the bow before you shot. In regard to life, he gives the example, "If you don't like how a person responds to you, consider what you said to them."
Bill has been voicing many varieties of this motto since October and today I finally understood its relevance in terms of environmental stewardship. If I don't like the world I see around me, filled with lack of respect for the environment, I need to consider my own actions and do what I can to enact change. A great motto from a truly amazing and wonderful man.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Outdoor clothes drying

Just after my dryer quit, I saw a wooden drying rack in the trash on a street near my home and figured that it was a sign that I should pursue outdoor clothes drying rather than buying a brand new electric clothes dryer. I was several houses past the rack before I turned around and went back to check it out. As I stood at the curb setting the rack up and making sure that it worked properly, I decided on the spot that I would air dry all of my clothes from then on.

The problem was, I do about 3 loads of wash a week and my new found drying rack was too small to accommodate all of my wash. I needed another option and I wanted it to be inexpensive and if possible not require too many resources to produce. I checked into umbrella drying racks but they cost about $160 and used metal and plastic along with nylon rope in their production. After thinking it over for several days during which time my dirty clothing mounted, I finally decided on some simple clothesline purchased at Lowe's for $8 which I strung between my son's play fort and a well placed pine tree. I ended up with 2 lines by tying the rope on one side of the play fort, running it around the tree trunk and then back again to the other side of the play fort.

I felt quite ingenious about coming up with a great workable plan, but my family was less than enthused. My husband was worried that if he needed something clean for the next day, that it would be impossible to get it washed and dry in time. My older son thought I was being cheap, while my younger son, who had never in his life seen clothes outside drying on a line, couldn't understand why in the world I would want to do it. He was especially worried that I would dry his underwear outside for all the world to see. After I explained the environmental benefits to my family and reassured them that their underwear would be dried indoors on my trusty new found drying rack, they all got on board.

I have been air drying my clothes successfully for several weeks now and have discovered that I am more in touch with weather patterns and even humidity levels than ever before and I have to keep an eye on the weather forecast and plan accordingly. I have found on warm sunny breezy days, I can dry a load just as fast on the line as in an electric dryer. Humid cloudy days take much longer. Clothing smells much better after drying outside and even though it is stiff coming off the line, it eases soon after wearing.

The best thing about air drying my clothes is the process of hanging them on the line. As I grab each article of clothing from the basket and pin it to the line, the repetition of the work allows me time to think uninterrupted, feel the air on my face, hear the birds in the trees, and slow down.

All of my experiences with outdoor line drying can be found by clicking here.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Holding my breath...

Each year as I open my seed packets to plant my garden, I am in awe of how such tiny seeds can result in large abundant plants. It always feels a bit like a miracle when the plants begin to poke out of the ground after germinating. Here is a picture of my garden in that "holding my breath" stage, wondering if the plants will come up or not.
My planting was delayed by two weeks this year due to a cold and wet spring. Then, the day after I put my garden in, heavy rain fell and I wondered if my seeds were going to be washed away. Now, two weeks after planting, many of my plants are up and out of the ground but they seem small compared to last year. I wonder if the constant rainstorms we have been getting is having a negative impact on them.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Braces are like school

The braces that adorn my son’s mouth were put on just after Halloween last year. He immediately took a dislike to them, hating how the metal was forcing his teeth into positions that were different than how they would naturally be. He begged me to have them taken off, proclaiming that he didn’t care if his teeth were crooked, that he should be the one to control what happens to his mouth.

This was the same argument that he used about two years ago when he begged to be taken out of school at the beginning of 4th grade. He wanted some control over what he was learning, when he was learning, and how he was learning. He hated school and having to conform to the school’s expectations. Just as braces keep his teeth imprisoned now, he felt personally imprisoned by the school system and was motivated to find a way to be free.

My son found his freedom from school when I began homeschooling him about a month after he started asking to be taken out of school. Having never considered homeschooling up until this point, I had a lot to learn. I hooked up with a wonderful homeschooling group and started the process of deschooling my son. Deschooling involved letting my son be free to pursue whatever learning he desired and avoiding the use of a school curriculum so that my son’s natural creativity and inquisitiveness that had been stripped by the school would kick back in. It took about a year for him to get school out of his system and to get a sense of who he was and how he enjoyed spending his time.

My son now spends his days reading novels of his choosing, visiting museums, playing board games at a local coffee shop with his homeschooled friends, writing stories, taking archery lessons, walking through prairies, constructing many creations, or playing with the dog. I do teach him math, history and science, but pretty much everything else he does is of his own choosing.

While I would love to free my son from his braces, they are a temporary inconvenience that only molds his teeth. School on the other hand, with all of its rules and expectations would mold my child.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sounds of Nature

My many years of suburban living have caused me to forget the sounds of nature. Evening calls of owls or frogs have been replaced by the hum of air conditioners, bird song erased by the rumble of trains on tracks or cars on pavement. The voice of the wild that I knew as a child as I rambled through wetlands and tall fields of swaying grass on a rural piece of land in Michigan has all but vanished here on the suburban lot that I now reside and has given way to the voice of the modern world. The modern voice loud and brash which covers up the soothing soul- filling sounds of the natural world.

I didn't really notice that the sounds of nature had slipped away from me. I thought that the occasional goose honking overhead or thunder booming in the distance was a true depiction of what nature sounded like. I did not realize that this version of nature, my suburban yard, had been dumbed down, groomed by man with most of the true wildness removed. Each yard in my neighborhood is like the sterilized world you would find at a zoo yet we are the ones in the cages.

The realization that I had forgotten what real nature sounds like was brought home last week when I visited my mother at her new home in rural Kentucky. Sitting on 2 acres of hillside, nestled up against the Daniel Boone National Forest, her place is a paradise for those that love nature. After a seven hour car ride from pavement filled Chicago, I was transported to another world as I wound up the lane through the holler to my mother's house. With the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on, I couldn't hear a bit of sound from outside the car. Imagine my shock when I pulled myself from the car and was greeted with the deafening sound of thousands upon thousands of cicadas and their mating call. The noise was powerful and as it should be. Nature should have a voice as loud and strong as ours. It shouldn't be diminished or quieted by man with all of our building and so called progress.

Slowly, over a few days time, in those Kentucky hills, my ear awakened to the sounds of nature once again. The calls of many different birds pulled at me and the sound of thunder as it reverberated over the hills spoke to me. The splattering of heavy rain upon millions of leaves made me aware of why I love the rainstorms back in Chicago so much. The rain, whether it falls in Kentucky or Chicago is the voice of nature, calling to us and reminding us to open ourselves up to the beauty that it beholds.