Friday, February 5, 2016

Donkey Riding

My daughter's class is doing a BC history unit, and I am grateful to be involved with it. This week they've been looking into some of our local logging history, and have even had my mother, Lyn, in to sing some relevant BC songs with them.

And then we went out to explore our local logging heritage, too!

On the slope of the mountain we found remnants of a steam donkey and its rigging. We took the opportunity to sing Donkey Riding. As always, some were more enthusiastic than others, but those who had been singing it already with my mother helped greatly to carry the song.

And we found so many interesting things! Great cable lies in many pieces here and there along the creek above the donkey's boiler, and one of the blocks from the rigging is slowly decomposing between the tall cedar trees.

If it wasn't for the many giant stumps pocked with springboard notches and iron spikes, you might not realize this place was logged within the last century. But it was. And it's a piece of our shared history.

We were fortunate, this time, to have the great grandchildren of one of the local loggers in the class group, and they led us on a short hike to see their great grandfather's enormous water tank, which was used as a precautionary measure in case the logging machinery might start a forest fire. (And interestingly, was probably built not long after a great fire devastated the other half of our island - caused, unfortunately, by our long-ago neighbour's slash-pile.) All of this is history, now, having occurred many many decades ago, but to visit and touch and sing about our history brings it all to life again, connects us to it, and means that its lessons are not lost to us.

We live in a piece of second-growth west coast rain forest. It is our privilege and responsibility both to know it and to care for it. We look up into the forest and see such enormous beauty, but when we get to know it well we begin to see its fragility and its importance in every aspect of our lives, both as a carrier of our own natural and social history, and in its role as our own ecosystem. I think this understanding is one of the most important lessons life has to give us. I live in gratitude every day for living in the place I do, where the gift of the living land is still available to me, and where I can watch other people receive that gift as well.

(I've written previously about this particular steam donkey boiler here, so follow that link if you'd like to see a video of one in action.)


Have you ever visited the lower Mt Gardner mine? If not, now is the time to go! This old mine adit was put in over a century ago, in the pursuit of gold, among other things.

In 1908, OE Leroy stated that “This mine is situated on the southwest slope of Mt. Gardner and 1100 feet above sea level.  The ore occurs in a zone of fracture in the cherts and chlorite schists, which crosses the strike. The width varies from nine inches to three feet and a half, but in the wider parts the ore is mixed with a considerable proportion of rock. A tunnel has been driven in on the ore body for 300 feet, but no further development has been done.  The ore is a mixture of pyrite, zinc blende and galena and is stated to carry $6.40 in gold, 30 ozs. of silver, and from 25 to 40 per cent lead. Messrs. Hubbard and Elliot of Chicago and Menach of Seattle are the joint owners”. (BC government files)

Of more recent note, you may be interested to know that "Bonanza Resources Corp., an exploration stage company, engages in the acquisition and exploration of quartz and other mineral properties. It owns a 100% interest in the Bonanza property that comprises 1 mineral claim containing 6 cell claim units covering 126.20 hectares located on the western slope of Mount Gardner on Bowen Island, Canada. The company was founded in 2012 and is based in Edmonton, Canada." (Bloomberg)

Large resource companies and interests aside, this mine is an important piece of our local heritage. It's a place where generations of children and adults have gone to learn about local history, mineral extraction, and the amazingly interesting features of a rock cave (insects, amphibians, darkness/light deprivation, acoustics, etc.). It also seems to be a place where some people like to hang out and drink beer, leaving cans, candles, and other detritus behind. Some of it, like the life-sized figure made of stuffed clothing which first sat on a crumbling chair and later lay gruesomely beneath it, was
unsettling at first, but then just plain yucky in its decomposition, as the years went by. Also, the pallets put in as a makeshift boardwalk over the massive puddle at the entrance have disintegrated, leaving many planks with protruding nails in the deep water. Not pleasant or safe, and the mine's glory days as an education venue have appeared to be behind us, lately.

So this week a group of local grade four-to-nine students came and cleaned out the mine. These dedicated and hard-working kids hauled out few hundred pounds of stinky, spiky, soggy wood and rotting clothing, not to mention quite a few slimy candles and other bits of garbage.

The reward? Hanging out in the tidied mine adit, of course! We stood around in the complete dark, where we couldn't even see our own hands in front of our faces, and relied on the breathing and shuffling sounds to know where the others were. We experimented with song (The Hard Rock Miner!) and sound, as we all tried out different vocal and percussive sounds in the wonderfully echoing mine. It seems impossible to get a photo in there but suffice it to say that the rocks are actually varying shades of grey and beige with quartz bits here and there, as opposed to this brilliant orange colour!
 But that wasn't the end of it! Once they'd cleaned out and thoroughly explored the mine adit, the kids decided they could go one step further and drain off some of that giant puddle at the entrance to the mine. The water already flowed out onto the trail, so they worked to improve the flow and to direct it off of the trail as soon as possible. Then they went up and cleared a path to drain the smaller mine above, as well.

Draining the smallest mine adit (video).

When I was young my father organized a group of local youths to build the trails on our beloved Mt Gardner, and I think those people can be quite proud of the gift they gave our community. By comparison this act of stewardship was small, but these kids can nevertheless be pleased with themselves. It's these small gestures that make us part of our community; part of our own local ecology. These kids have cleared the way for many more groups to come exploring and to get familiar with the treasures of our own local and natural history.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Earth Day Every Day: Leap!

Earth Day Every Day is a bi-monthly series of essays I write for the Bowen Bulletin, re-published here for fun!

Last Earth Day I committed to carry on walking through the wilderness regularly, and report back here as the year went by. Well, it's February, spring is here again! It's not the spring of daffodils and tulips, yet; not of bees and bare feet and warm grassy hillsides. It's not even the spring of March storms and robins appearing on lawns. No. This is the more subtle, early spring. This is the spring of tiny skunk cabbage shoots appearing from the mud below the water's surface in the flooded forest. It's the spring of cold grey branches just beginning to plump up and push lumps forth that will soon become buds. It's the uncomfortable feeling of discovering you've worn too many clothes, as walking through the woods into sunlight has warmed you beyond what you planned for, and then the chill as the sun suddenly drops behind the trees and it's still mid afternoon.

This is the time of year some of us like to curl up with our seed catalogues, but outside on the forest floors the seeds do not wait for us. Even quite a long way from maple trees, maple seeds are popping cotyledons up like green candies among the brown rotten leaves and crumbled bark. Grass and annual flower seeds, recently frozen in the meadow's crunchy surface, are swelling with the squishy soil as the creek breaches its banks and floods the meadow trails. Soon the dull green of the winter grasses will be enriched by a growing charteuse from underneath. Everywhere, green is pushing brilliance through the din. This is the season when shoots seem to spring from the ground, and we understand the meaning of the word Spring. Everything is taking a great big leap into action.

Have you heard of the Leap Manifesto? In the briefest terms, it is “a call for an economy based on caring for the earth and one another.” This is a leap year – a time to extend our calendar to align ourselves with the earth's schedule. It can also be an opportunity to extend our minds and actions – to leap forward into a new way of living. I've been writing this Earth Day Every Day series for almost a year. This is the final piece before I begin a new series in April. Next time you hear from me we'll be into the big, intense, no-holds-barred, hang-out-every-flashy-flower-you've-got kind of spring. So here's our opportunity to leap into it.

For ten months now I've been taking walks by myself and sharing my thoughts with you. Now I'd like to leap. LEAP, I say! Seriously – it's getting a little late in the game for my lovely, personal, but not-so-far-reaching little wanders, and thinking about Nature. Yes, it matters what I do. Yes, it makes a difference and the more we all do it, the more connected we all become, and the more we understand the place we live, the community (built and natural) that we are a part of, and the changes we can make by being aware. But I feel like we need to do more. Not something else. More. As in keep walking out on our land and exploring, but also bring others with us. Also make big changes in our lives.

Eight years ago we took a huge leap and pulled our son out of school, completely. We hesitated for ages mostly because I was afraid of telling the teachers, but when I finally did, they congratulated me. Then we took another huge leap and told our very concerned parents and friends that we intended to unschool them – to give them a rich and fulfilling life but to have no agenda whatsoever for their academic futures. No curriculum, no classes. Just life. We were told it was impossible; maybe illegal, even (it's not). We were told it would harm our children and that it was irresponsible. It was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever made, and definitely the most controversial. I was terrified. But it turned out to be a fabulous choice for my children and for our family. We leapt wholeheartedly in, spending lots of time running around in the literal and proverbial wilderness and seeing where we would end up. We unschooled entirely until our first child reached grade seven and wanted more regular social interaction. Then we continued to hold onto our open and free-range parenting principles as he navigated the new-to-him adventure of school. That was a leap, too. Sometimes you just have to go running as fast as you can, and leap without holding on. I think it's time to do that again. I am not sure where the next leap will take us, but it's going to have to make a difference in our world.

Will you leap with us? What difference can you make in your personal, family, or public life? How can you inspire others to jump with you and help us leap as an entire community – an entire culture – to a new and proud future?

See you on Earth Day. The maples will be blossoming with abandon, then.

Friday, January 29, 2016

why I ditched the classroom for the wild

In a world where pedal desks, blended learning and active learning classrooms are gaining popularity, I would like us to ditch classrooms entirely. And technology too, for the most part.

I would like us all - learners from birth through adulthood to end-of-life - to spend time exploring the world together instead of sitting in schools or staring at screens to educate ourselves. I'd like us all to spend a few more hours outside every single day and call it our education. And lots of people disagree. "That's just great", they say, "but my kids aren't three anymore, and they're no longer into sitting in the dirt making mud pies". Or they tell me that our kids need to learn skills for this century as opposed to an antiquated and quaint appreciation of "nature". This is where I get excited.

Let me show you how teens and adults can learn from a good mud pie, a romp in the rain and a quaint appreciation of nature. Let me show you how in just two and a half hours of self-directed wilderness exploration a group of kids, teens, or adults can learn as much or more than they might have in a classroom, and yet go home glowing and filthy with the effort and joy of it all. And because it's a whole body-and-mind experience, they're likely to retain more of it, too.

This is Wild Art. This is explorative learning in the wilderness. It's the foundation of a healthy development as individuals and society, and I think it should form the bulk of our children's education.

Am I saying we should all be unplugged all the time? No. Here I am using the Internet to convey my thoughts. I and a couple of the kids were taking photos during our last outings, just so we could share this adventure and so I could put this idea out on the web. I began our day yesterday by reading some information I found about pea and fingernail clams online, as well as an email from a local biologist describing the lives of these creatures the kids had discovered in a forest swamp, earlier this month. Clearly, technology and the internet are vital to our learning. But it starts with wading in the swamp and digging through mud and algae just for fun, and saying "hey guys! Look what we found in the algae!" It starts with feeling great about getting out in the wilderness and having no agenda at all - just an open-minded group of people learning to see their world; learning to appreciate nature.

What we learned during two and a half hours of playing in the mud and water:

Ecosystems, observation, measurement, quantification and consequence. The big picture. It's obvious we're looking at ecosystems by going out in them, but it's so much more than that, too. These two photos show the same spot (different angle due to change of accessibility!) one week apart. See that little pond emptying into the creek from about 3 feet above, in the photo on the left? That's the same little pond in the photo on the right, but the creek had swollen so much with the week's rain that there was only about an eight-inch difference in height by the time the second photo was taken. And while I stood ankle-deep on a little gravel bar to take the first photo, the second was taken from the other side of the creek, since I would have been nearly waist-deep had I gone to the gravel bar. This observation, made in many places and to many different degrees, had various consequences. First, there was the experiential lesson of learning to observe. Then there was noticing the consequences of the creek's change to the ecosystem it flows through, and to us, our activities, and our thought-processes. We continuously evaluated how deep the water was and how much it had changed in depth, speed, temperature, erosive power and ecological consequence. To make such observations and hypotheses during an extended exploration of a large area is to truly deepen them, and to apply them to a bigger picture. Learning to see and to always consider the big picture is, in my opinion, one of the most essential lessons. In the wilderness - especially in a social group exploring the wilderness together - we naturally see the big picture.

Measurement, risk-evaluation, and problem-solving - not to mention collaboration. The creek, having breached its banks in many places, flowed out into the cedar forest, and although it was generally too deep to navigate, various roots and clumps of collected twigs made it possible to traverse the flooded forest with caution, and the kids found many ways to test, problem-solve, and group-work their way through it. It was also a great exercise in observation, since keen and cautious observation was essential to staying out of the many chest-deep areas. A couple of kids demonstrated this quite dramatically by falling in.

Just an extension of the above thoughts - this turned out to be the safest way into the flooded forest: a very quickly-moving rapid between two islands (and between two trees!). The water on either side was about four feet deep.
There is always, of course, the option to challenge oneself. This brave young soul challenged herself to cross the creek - about five to six feet deep at this location - on a stable but slightly slippery alder. Observation and imagination collided for me as she paused to look at a great blue heron that was digging through the marsh just fifty feet away, and then some of us noticed this young hippo coming up beside the crossing-log... always good to have a little wooden hippo in the temperate rain forest!! I have often been asked how I mitigate risks like this one. And it was a risk - absolutely. As a mentor, this takes my own evaluation of the situation, as well as an on-the-spot assessment of whether I could solve any problem that might arise. In this particular location, the creek was deep but quiet, as the bulk of the flow was happening beyond some piled logs about eight feet away. So I coached her across the log (mostly encouraging her in her own process), and stood very close, ready to leap in and pull her out, if needed. Thankfully such a rescue wasn't necessary, and this crossing will improve her skills and confidence.

Playing with flow and water depth, but also making constant observations about structure stability, weight and holding capacity of the flooded forest floor, and navigating group dynamics.

We made quite a few questions, observations and extrapolations about beavers as we traversed their habitat and noticed many beaver-chewed trees and sticks. This also led to a couple of discussions about Giardia and other parasites; health-risks of exploring the wilderness, how to mitigate those risks, what the outcome might be, and what potential healthcare is available to help should we contract Giardia (not much). Interestingly, this also led to some brief discussion of local wild foods.

The creek didn't stop after flooding the forest - it also flowed out into the meadow, creating beautiful running streams along the trails. Many observations were made about the springy spongy meadow. We rescued a caterpillar and found a few drowned worms. And mostly the open meadow led to conversations about the weather, and some good opportunities for running.

But why just run? The kids wanted to see themselves slow-motion running along this trail, and thanks to the technology I had with me (an inexpensive little waterproof camera), I was able to accommodate, on the spot. As they watched this video they explored anatomy, physics, and technology. And this spot was also an opportunity to discover how various members of our community react to a change in their routine. One of these groups approached the flooded trail from a spot thigh-deep in the flooded swamp beside the trail, and watched various dog-walkers and joggers either turn around at the sight of the water or walk in a short distance to evaluate depth and then turn around. In one case a jogger took off her socks and shoes and jogged through barefoot!

The flooded meadow seemed to inspire some dramatic play, so we went with it.

Sometimes it's difficult to see any immediate curriculum-related value in these moments. That makes them even more important. See this joy? This is the joy that will mean she remembers this day for a long time, even if she doesn't remember the words "Giardia" or "flood-plain".

This joy is the place where friendships are built and developed; where children, teens and adults learn (often through dramatic play) to navigate our intensely social world. The relationships carried on through these kids' lives will carry some of this day's learning along into later stages of life, as these kids trigger each other's memories of shared experiences.

This is the place where the brain is excited into building connections between the many experiences we've given it during this adventure, the many experiences we brought with us, and the many that are still to come.   (This and the following photo generously contributed by one of the students.)

And this is also the place where we learn to know and accept ourselves as part of the world; to let sink in the great learning we're doing, to appreciate where we find ourselves and where we are going, to make great leaps forward and to sit calmly in the current moment - and to appreciate the nature of everything.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

never too old to play in the rain

When the world gives you rain, enjoy it!

The grade 6-9 group took a few minutes to sit quietly and observe, hear, smell and feel the rainy woods.

Plus there was some dam-building and creek diversion.

Once one person is stuck, everybody else might as well join her!


Everywhere mud!

Glorious mud!!


Might as well wash off and have a drink of the rain.

But not for long. The grade 4-6 group became as wet as they possibly could.

...much to their unanimous delight.

Ahhh... Gloves. Or would those better be called sponges?

You're never too old to love water. So when the clouds gift us with it, get out in it!!

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Importance of Printmaking

I am a printmaker. It's one of the things I'm proud to say about myself. Printmaking is not just a craft, but a way of looking at the world. And one of my life's greatest delights is when I can share this craft and lens with others. Today I was fortunate to have the opportunity to share it with a bunch of kids.

How to make a simple dry-point intaglio print:

First scrape down and round off the edges of your plate. Then plan your work with a permanent marker on the plate.

Then use an etching scribe to scratch the design into the plate. We used acrylic plates first.

Then we used zinc for the second round of prints. The scribe cuts a groove into the surface that has a burr on one side (and sometimes on both sides). This groove will hold the ink during printing.

When the plate is run through the press, the wet paper is pressed into all the grooves, and around the plate, giving a noticeable relief to the print. We can take advantage of this by carving the plate to form an interesting 3-D effect when it's printed.

When using only lines for depth of colour, texture, and form, it can take a very long time to get the whole plate finished.

Some scribes are easier to create deeper lines with, but in the end inking is as much or perhaps even more important to the outcome of the print than the lines themselves.

Ahhh... ink. Thick and sticky, it needs to be mixed well on the glass plate using little cardboard paddles. I don't have a photo of the paper, but generally when we start inking a small plate is a good time to start soaking the thick, fibrous intaglio paper. This ensures that the pulp of the paper will be moveable and will push well into all the crannies of the plate.

Then the ink is wiped onto and rubbed into the etching plates.

Using a smooth paper, we then have to wipe all extraneous ink off the plate! Technically, all the lines (grooves) should hold the ink while it wipes relatively cleanly from the smooth upper surface. However, the wiping can be tweaked in many different ways to allow for a lot of rich moody tones and layers of depth.

Finally, the wiped plate is laid on the press bed, hands washed (for the umpteenth time in this process!), the wet paper laid carefully over the plate, and then a sheet of newsprint and three layers of wool felt. And then we slowly and steadily run it through the tightly-wound press.

And this is what it's all for! That moment when we peel back the paper and discover what we've created!! No two prints are entirely alike, and every time we peel back the paper it feels a bit like a gift.

Between 2-hour-long sessions of intaglio practice, we went out for a very wet rainforest picnic, and to see if we could find some nature-made prints. We found our own footprints, first, then the print left by lichen that has fallen off a tree. We found the hole in the ground left by an uprooted tree, and even an owl pellet! We decided it qualified because, like all prints, it's a mark left by something departed - an impression of the past and a clue about past events.

owl pellet

Prints often have a feeling of melancholy, because of the inherent absence or loss involved in their making. We breathed on the studio windows and made prints of our faces in the steam. They were gone by the end of the day. It's good to think about prints; about the impression we leave upon the world and the impact we have. Prints speak also about memory. They remind us that the impression is not always the same as the original. And like memory, every retelling takes on a different character; a different reality. Prints remind us of our importance in the world, of the many different and multifaceted truths, and of the relative changeability of it all.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Taliesin Busking Accordion

This is Taliesin, playing a tune he wrote.

Tali had two assignments for school: Earn $150 towards the school field trip, and support a cause. He decided to try busking, and of course he chose the cause closest to his heart: Trees. He'd never tried busking before, but at the end of this first day he said "I loved it! I don't even care about the money - I just love to see all the people smiling."

When he has busked enough that 40% of his earnings equal $150, he will bring that to his school, and donate the remaining 60% to the Ancient Forest Alliance.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The gift of being seen.

We have multiple food issues in our house, and consequently I cook most of what we eat from scratch. I've never loved cooking. I would love it if I only had to do it for special occasions, but the daily grind of baking and brewing really was old a very long time ago. It doesn't help when my meals aren't appreciated, and I confess to being a leftover queen, and to receiving the kind of hapless hums that one is bound to receive in response to third-night-leftover meals. Over the years my daily meals have become less and less inspired, except when I can get up the inspiration for something truly grand. And to be honest, that inspiration is rarely my children.

Of course this gives me a lot of mama-guilt. I feel like my children's meals should be my greatest inspiration, and I should love cooking for them more than anything. I tell myself frequently that I'm failing them. And I feel like they don't see how much I love them, because I know I'm not expressing it as much as I should be in the food I present to them.

I have to create a lot of recipes to create allergen-free versions of the foods my kids like, so I print a lot of recipes off my computer word-processor. Consequently I have a big sloppy stack of stained, crumpled, disorderly 8-1/2 x 11" sheets which I have to pick through every time I need a recipe. I have some multiples printed, only because I reprinted after being unable to find what I was looking for.

On my fortieth birthday this past November, I received one of the greatest gifts of my life.

My children made me a recipe book. They got a big red binder (my favourite colour!) and a bunch of plastic page-protectors. They searched through about ten years of files on my hard drive and found a selection of food-related photos, which they printed and used to decorate both the binder and the beautiful divider pages they created. And of course they stuck it all together with specially-chosen sparkly duct tape.

Then they carefully sorted all of my many pages into the book, and presented it to me with cards that said they love me, and a coupon for more divider pages or page protectors, whenever I need them. The first picture I saw on the cover of the binder was my 2 and 5-year-old children having a little picnic under a tree. I remember that day so well.

I remember how I helped them put the food together and then left them to go out and picnic on their own, and how proud they felt as they did it themselves. They included photos of their older selves making cookies, of a wedding cake I made, of some special family meals we had...

...and I cried. I sobbed and sobbed as I looked through the book and felt all the stress of not-good-enough just fall away. I felt suddenly like my children saw me. They see how I struggle to be enthusiastic about cooking. They see how much it matters to me to make good food. They see the effort I put into their lives, and mostly they see how much I love them. They see me.

I've already redeemed my coupon once for a section of my Indian recipes. I use my book all the time, and I tell everybody about it. They've seen me cry about the beautiful book on more than one occasion. It is a good and wonderful thing not only to be acknowledged by my children, but for them to see how great is the gift of that acknowledgement.