Monday, May 2, 2016

Wild Food Spotlight: Maple Blossoms

As published in the Bowen Bulletin, April 27, 2016:

Last year for the Earth Day Bulletin issue I began a series called “Earth Day Every Day”, where I explored the island and talked about my discoveries. That year has come full circle, and it's time for this series to evolve, too. I'd like to share some foraging delights with you! So, every couple of months for the next year, I'll explore a seasonal wild food opportunity that we can easily find here on Bowen.

One of the most iconic and bountiful plants we have here is the bigleaf maple. As you walk through the springtime coniferous forest you can see a maple a long way off, as it's brilliant leaves catch and hold the sunlight – chartreuse against the deeper greens of hemlock, cedar, fir and spruce. Even its bulky-looking trunk and often sprawling limbs seem to burst with vivid colour: In early- to mid-spring the moss that covers them is a vibrant rich green, punctuated only with the deep grey-brown and white of the bark, and sometimes with haphazard fields of licorice fern.

Look out to the ends of those sprawling branches, reaching umbrella-like over your head, and if you're there at the right moment you'll see it's blossoms. Maples' blooming times vary according to their geographic location, elevation, and situation in the forest. Although as I write this most of our local maples have finished blooming for the year, if you explore a bit you're likely to find a few still going strong.

A maple blossom cluster is referred to as a raceme, due to the fact that many flowers hang off a central axis (or stem) at approximately equal lengths and distances. The flowers develop first at the point closest to the branch, and successively out to the end of the raceme. Therefore, if you pick a raceme at the height of its development and sample it at various points along the stem, you'll notice that it has various different flavours. (Note: Maples are as delicious to insects as they are to humans! Before you eat it, check the blossom for flies, aphids, ants, etc. and knock them off.) Now start tasting. Any closed or barely-open flowers near the end will have a bitter, astringent taste, due to the oxalic acid which they and many other fresh wild greens contain. Further along, both the stem and the blossoms lose this sharp flavour, and have a much more pleasant, mild taste. The flowers that are in their prime even have a slight sweetness, and this is absolutely delicious in salads! Further up, and nearer the branch, the stem becomes progressively tougher, and the flowers less flavourful. Eventually, where the two pistils in the flowers have turned brown, the flowers will taste very bland, and by the time the whole flower begins shrinking, it's more like dried leaves – not worth eating!

So now that you've familiarized yourself with all the different flavours of the maple blossom... what to do with it? Some people stir-fry them. I've heard of people battering and deep-frying them, too, but I prefer to taste them in all their glory: quiche, rice-wraps or salad!

For a quiche, simply prepare a good savoury butter crust, steam some maple blossoms until they're wilted, and fill the crust with a mixture of the blossoms and some other sweet or mild vegetable such as fennel, mild celery, or spinach. Mix up some eggs, milk, and a bit of sea salt, and pour it over. Cheese is always an option, but I find it overpowers the maple blossoms in this case and prefer to leave it out. Bake and enjoy!

Wraps are as diverse as they are easy. Whether you use pitas, tortillas, nori or rice paper, fill it with some sweet rice, maple blossoms, and a dressing you love. It can be quick and dirty or absolutely elegant, depending on your desire and presentation.

My favourite for last: Salad! Take out the most delicious section of the racemes, and fill your salad bowl half-full of these – flowers, stem, and all. I break the stem into sections approximately one inch long. Now make up the rest of the salad with whatever mild greens you like. Butter lettuce works well, but so do many other seasonal wild plants such as salmonberry or dandelion petals, bitter-cress, or miner's lettuce. If you grow kale year-round in your garden, it may blossom at the same time as local maples, and kale flowers are also a delicious and beautiful addition. I like to make a dressing of grape seed oil, maple syrup, and lemon juice, as well as sometimes a little salt or wholegrain mustard, depending on the ingredients in my salad. Experiment to year heart's delight, and enjoy! I hope you love maple blossoms as much as I do.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Philanthropy Project

Selfie in his favourite climbing tree.
One fabulous outcome of my son Taliesin's school experience this year was the philanthropy project. The kids were basically given free range to support a cause that is important to them, in any way they feel like! They first did some personal inquiry to decide what moved them, then collaborated with other kids with similar interests (where applicable) to decide how to support the causes they chose.

Taliesin had no doubts about the cause closest to his heart: trees. He's been passionately protective of trees since he was a baby, and would scream inconsolably when they fell or when they were cut down. Now he's also been researching plant and tree communication for quite a while, and has various little experimental gardens around the house. It's no wonder, since two of his grandfathers are deeply engaged with plants and trees, and luckily he has support with his passion.

Taliesin's science fair project this year (also self-directed but facilitated by the lovely Pam, his science teacher), was a hand-built polygraph with which he tested various plants' response to stimuli (touch, heat, burning, sounds, and thoughts).
So to protect trees, he decided to raise money to support the Ancient Forest Alliance. He busked with his accordion on various occasions in the city, once walking over to the mainland himself, and other times chauffeured further afield by his camera-toting parents. He had some stiff competition: seasoned musicians and (even more daunting) our younger, charming piano-playing friend at the same time as an enormous blue-tongued chow chow, whose apparent fame and stage presence drew massive crowds. But Taliesin was undaunted. He noticed that people appreciated his music, and told me a few times that even if he wasn't making money, it was worth it just to feel he had made people happy. He had some wonderful audiences, too, including many devoted child fans, some of whom also tried out the accordion, a few accordion players, people who thanked him many times for bringing joy to their village, a woman who called him over to her balcony to toss him ten dollars, and even a man who danced a folk dance and sang along... to something Taliesin swears was improv!

For his efforts, Taliesin made a total of $150 for his school field trip (five days on a tall ship with SALTS!), plus 295.25 to donate to the Ancient Forest Alliance.

He brought the change to the bank, where he was given coin rollers, and rolled most of it up before taking it to the AFA.

At the Ancient Forest Alliance office, he proudly presented his donation, which apparently is quite a big one, and Ken, TJ and Joan not only engaged him in some great conversation about the things he's so passionate about, but also...

... sent along some swag, which he plans to disperse widely, spreading support for the cause that means so much to him.
I would like to express my gratitude to Island Pacific School, and to his teacher Victoria for spearheading and supporting this philanthropy project. It was not only a fabulous opportunity for the kids to learn about philanthropy, but to make meaningful personal connections in the fields they're interested in, and to make a real positive difference in their world. And it was self-directed, to boot! Well done, IPS! And thank you.

I am also grateful to the wonderful folks at the Ancient Forest Alliance for engaging Taliesin so beautifully in this connection. The work you do is very important to him (and to all of us!), and you have done an amazing job of encouraging a teen to follow in your footsteps.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Barefoot Education

So our barefoot day started like this. It's always easier to climb a tree barefoot... the contact of our skin against the bark gives us traction, and while our feet are out of sight we can feel our way around the trunk and branches to find the best and safest footholds.

Once they were down from the tree, they left their boots behind and happened upon a patch of mud. The fragrance of the mud as it squished slightly grainy between their toes was powerful - compared by the kids to poop and compost.

And the feeling of the grass, all dry and sunny but with a soft spongy wetness as the kids' weight pushed water up from beneath to rinse the bottom of their muddy feet.

We thought we'd go check out the flooded forest we'd explored last January, and the kids took a little detour to access it via the creek. (You know... because the other route was too dry!) Getting to the creek required the kids picking their way between prickly salmonberry and holly on the ground, watching carefully for dog and deer poop, and maneuvering between hard branches, sharp reeds and soft muddy holes.

The previously-flooded forest is now mostly dry, but green all over with the soft cool leaves and pungent blossoms of skunk cabbage (AKA swamp lantern, though we don't bother with that term). There was a near injury here, as one of the kids stepped hard on the point of a buried stick in the mud. Luckily it was a bloodless injury, and the play continued.

Platforms, shelves, shops, mats, and all manner of other things were built, mostly composed of sticks, skunk cabbage, and mud.

Various interesting footprints (both human and animal) were discovered, as well as frogs, fresh water shrimp, caddisfly larvae, water beetles, a centipede, and many varied textures and fluidities of mud.

Did I say mud? Wet mud and dry mud.

Truffle-like mud.

And even some beaver-made chips, with a dry wavy texture and a crumply kind of feeling when you happen to walk across them in your bare feet.
There was everything a person could need for exploration and discovery. This is a place this group has visited at least a couple of times this year (and the meadow and creek before it, many, MANY times...), but it changes every day; the sights, the sounds, the lives of plants and animals, and the feeling of it all between our toes.

 Going barefoot is something I find very important. Maybe not in the coldest months, but absolutely when the weather is (barely) warm enough, and we're on a mission of exploration. Has it ever occurred to you how many things we miss as we walk over them with the thick soles of our shoes, unaware? How many insects and plants do we crush? How many different types of mud to we pass over without a second thought? We are missing out!

I often remind the kids to think of all the types of life that are under their feet at any moment, but I see my words drift by them like breeze. The feeling of the world under their feet - mucking and squishing and poking and scraping - doesn't drift by. It's a sensation they can't ignore. Exploring the world in bare feet makes it necessary to be engaged with the rich diversity we're walking on. Even in the city, bare feet make us aware of the various types of man-made surfaces we traverse, and the many activities that may have happened there (is it really clean enough to wear bare feet?). Our bare feet literally get us down and dirty with the world. And that, to me, is the best place to be for learning about the world.

Dr. Kacie Flegal explains that "Feet are one of the most sensory-rich parts of the human body. The soles of the feet are extremely sensitive to touch, and there are large concentrations of proprioceptors in the joints and muscles of the feet. In fact, the feet alone have as many proprioceptors as the entire spinal column! ... It is never too late to encourage the proprioceptive and vestibular systems in our own bodies as we continue to grow new neural connections, even as we age. Often, it is the proprioceptive and vestibular systems that become inhibited as adults. We lose balance and focus in our bodies and our lives and, as a result, may lose profound connections to our environment, ourselves, and other people."

So take off your shoes and run outside! Maybe climb a tree - maybe jump in a creek or a gloriously muddy spot. Maybe walk all tickly through the long meadow grass. The world is so richly beautiful, and just waiting for us to know it!

Sunday, April 3, 2016


We have a cultural tradition of celebrating people after they die - and why not? But I think it's important to celebrate people while they are alive. I want the people I care about to know how important they are to me every single day of their lives. So Pappa turns seventy, today, and there's no better time than the present to write a bit about how much he means to me. How do you measure something that has always been there? How do you describe something that is so central to everything that without it everything changes? 
I know what it's like to be without Pappa. When I was little, he was away often, working in the bush as a forester, and I missed him terribly while he was away. I used to sleep with pieces of his clothing, and jump to the phone when it rang, in case it was Pappa calling on a radio phone and I could get to hear his voice before handing the phone over to Mum. I wanted to say "I love you Pappa" and hear him say "yes, Em" and smile audibly, which was the way he said he loved me too. I just wanted to remember that I had him in the world.

I remember the day I began calling him Pappa. I had always called him Hardy, before that, since he was my step-father, and that's how I had known him before we married him. (Yes *we* married him. My mother asked my permission first, and included me in the wedding.) But eventually I had a brother, who was calling him Pappa, and one day as I was standing in the kitchen, drying my hands at the dish towel by the big window, Mum said that Hardy would really like it if I called him Pappa, too. I imagine I was about five, and I remember thinking of the word: how strange it felt to say it, and how it didn't sound at all like the man I knew as my father. But I tried it out. I walked over to him and said "Pappa" like maybe my mouth was broken, and he behaved as though nothing interesting had happened at all. He's like that. He takes things in stride that to me seem to turn the world upside down.

And things that turn Pappa's world upside down bewilder me. We have a very hard time getting along sometimes. Let's not pretend everything is peachy. I'm extremely sensitive, and he likes strong people. He criticizes me and I turn on him with venom. I imagine he would like me to leave this paragraph out, and I can't write without telling the whole story. He's sensitive, too, of course, and we break each other's hearts all the time. But no matter how much we argue or don't understand each other; no matter how much he imagines I don't care or I imagine he dislikes me, there will always come a day when we find each other present at a time compassion is truly deeply needed, and we can give that to each other. Pappa will say "Like a cuppa tea?" Or he will say nothing at all and hug me strongly like he does. Or he will look in my eyes and say "I'm scared", and I will see his eyes rimmed pink with fear, and he'll accept a hug just until it's time to move onto something more pleasant. It's good to have someone who can walk the hard walk of vulnerability with you when it needs to be done.

Pappa didn't have to be my father. He just was. Throughout my childhood he was there for me at the times I needed him and at the times I didn't want him. He did things that made me very angry in his efforts to protect me (like being very rude to (beloved) boyfriends, and cutting down dangerous (beloved) trees...). He protected my mother fearlessly - even from me, which was not to his benefit, most of the time, but it made me love him more. He shows me consistently that he will stand for those he loves.

I love fearlessly because of Pappa. He chose to love me as his daughter. And he still does. He made that commitment and then followed through like it wasn't a choice at all. Love is like that. 

Thank you for all the love and stability that you are to me, Pappa. Thank you for being mine.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Unschooling to School: Cooperation vs. Competition

You might have noticed a distinct lack of reporting on this "Unschooling to School" adventure we're on. Both of the kids are still enrolled with school programs, and both still choosing to be there. But I'm not happy. I decided it was time to be honest about it on this blog. I don't want to defame the programs they're enrolled in, both of which are run by passionate and caring teachers, so I am extremely cautious in how I word this:

The schools aren't the problem; our cultural parenting is the problem. Schools just teach in the way we expect them to.  

Our culture celebrates competition, dominance and heroism, while as parents we feel successful when our children learn to fit into tightly defined molds and in grading and schooling them we compel them not to deviate. 

This dichotomy sets all of them up for either extravagant rebellion, spectacular success, heads-down drudgery, or catastrophic failure. Sounds extreme, but that's just because most of us have graduated from this system and are still aiming for the drudgery. In both my kids' cases, the programs they're attending are trying very hard to work around the provincial requirements in order to provide an experience for the kids that is more wholistic and more engaging than what the provincial learning outcomes indicate. Even the Province is attempting to make a change, and will be implementing new, more wholistic learning outcomes this coming year. But as parents we still want to see that our kids are measuring up. We want them to compete (and win!). We want them to get in there with all the other parents' competing little geniuses - and WIN, goddammit! We want the schools to make them win. And that situation means that a school is a place where people win and lose. Grades, tests, contests, and teachers' expectations are all venues for our little dears to step up and prove themselves as better than all the rest... or to fail at life. That is an expression my kid has learned at school this year.

My son got a paper back from his teacher, who happens to be well-known for his amazing views on and implementation of education. And my son couldn't understand why he should change a sentence that had nothing wrong with it grammatically, and that expressed what he wanted it to express. The teacher had criticized him for not making suggested changes, and I said to him, "You have a choice. You can either make the change without questioning it, or ask him why, or not make the change and explain your reasons in the margin." He looked at me with a look of bewilderment and stress. He was scared to speak up for his beliefs. In that moment I saw that his experience of school has robbed him of his confidence. To me that is tragic.

My son now questions all of his own ideas. He writes them off as not-good-enough, or impossible. He used to see questions as opportunities to talk about things he cared about, but now often feels terrified when people ask him questions - as if they are already judging his response. So, increasingly, he chooses not to speak at all. The kid who was uber popular when he first joined the school now feels alone in the same group of peers. I've told him that that feeling comes from his own lack of confidence, but that lack of confidence is nurtured by the competition that determines his every move.

My daughter has a far more relaxed classroom. But I see the effects on her, too. She used to excitedly write down every song, story and poem that entered her mind, sharing them either in her self-published magazine or sending them to Cricket. Recently she has begun doubting herself - looking for skills that will fit better into her classroom expectations rather than those she is passionate about.

So here we are at the end of spring break, and I smell the fresh wind of change, again. My daughter has decided to become a pop star and has spent this bounty of spare time tearing her fingers up from practicing guitar for multiple hours every day. My son has found a renewed interest in sciences, and spent the entire latter half of spring break researching physics and dabbling in electronics, chemistry and programming. He also has taken the half-assed science fair project he made for his school science fair to a much higher standard for the bigger science fair he's taking it to next week. He did this not because he was asked to, but because he has found a reason to care about it. Now, to be honest - he might not be going to that science fair if his teacher hadn't chosen him to go - it was something of a competition he won to be among the school's entries in this fair, and the school is paying for it. I don't pretend for a moment that this competitive situation isn't benefiting him in this case.

It's the overall picture that bothers me. What if, instead of feeling afraid that their contributions might be worthless, or feeling glorified that they beat out some other kids to be seen, our kids could just share? The experience of sharing their work with no strings or expectations attached would give them real world feedback from people with genuine interest in their ideas. They could learn from those experiences about what went well for them and what didn't; what felt satisfying and what they might want to pursue further. I am imagining open non-competitive expos - maybe on different topics. I imagine spaces full of enthusiasm and innovation, where everyone goes away feeling valued. You don't feel valued from winning a contest as much as you do from sharing with people who are genuinely interested in hearing and sharing with you. In such situations there will be people who discover that their talents or passions are different than they expected, but this will happen through their own judgements rather than because of the judgements of others.

She had a problem: she wants to listen to her music while walking, but not be shut off from the world by wearing earphones. So they got together to solve the problem, and using some salvaged speakers and other parts, he is trying to create a little wearable speaker for her mp3 player, while she provides tea, snacks, input and musical entertainment. Most awesome cooperative spring break project.

I know some people will tell me (because I've heard it so often before) that this notion of non-competition is useless - that our kids need to learn to win because that's what the real world is like. They need to learn to fight for their goals or they'll never achieve them. The real world is cold and cruel, and only the fittest survive. Yeah, well... what if we changed that? What if we made our real world a place where everyone had value? I believe in that. I have seen in happen in many smaller organizations that happened to (by chance or design) have a lack of competition and judgement. I want that world for my children, and I want that world for me.

I'll finish with some remarks from evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris. Watch the video at the bottom for more details and visuals.
"We have a marvelous example, in our own bodies, of a highly-evolved, decentralized, cooperative economy, which communes as well as communicating. It uses direct transmission of information and it is completely transparent. The biggest discovery I ever made in evolution was to discover what I call the maturation cycle that permeates all of evolution - that any species has to go through a juvenile or youthful phase, in which is has to acquire as much territory and resources as it can, and multiply as fast as it can, and elbow others out of the way, and establish itself in its place on the planet. And eventually, it gets too energy expensive to elbow the others out. The competition becomes very very expensive. And there comes a point at which there seems to be a maturation process in which the species discovers the advantages of cooperation - that cooperation is much less energy consumptive, so that you have lots more energy to use in being creative in friendly ways with others. When they finally reach the mature phase, having solved both global hunger and global pollution, they start building cooperatives with a division of labour, and every different kind of bacterium gives some of its DNA into a central library we call the nucleus, which then binds them to living forever in that cell. And so these cooperatives are actually new on the planet and have to go through their own maturation. And it takes another billion years, after two billion years to reach the stage of those cooperatives, another billion years they're going through their youthful phase - same kind of behaviour - until they reach maturation and form multi-celled creatures. Those, to me, are the two biggest steps that ever happened in evolution: the formation of the nucleated cell and the formation of the multi-celled creatures from them. We, of course, are multi-celled creatures. We are now, as humans, going through our own juvenile phase, into maturation." ... "We're now at the second time when this empire-building phase has become too energy expensive. We've reached planetary limits in using up resources and all kinds of things as we well know. We've created a perfect storm of crises and we've got to grow up. It's as simple as that. It's time for humans to reach the mature cooperative phase. We need not the hero's journey myth that brought us to where we are now - the adventure story - but a story of cooperation."

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter with Allergies!

We've been having a lovely day and I thought I would share some of the successes. Now that we have a bunch of food restrictions, holidays like this one are particularly challenging, since I want both kids not to feel like they're missing out. So this Easter was a collection of traditions and experiments and I thought I'd share it.

Our son is allergic to wheats and various other grains as well as eggs, soy, and beans. Luckily... the Easter Bunny has access to locally-crafted soy-free chocolate eggs, thanks to our amazing local chocolaterie, Cocoa West. But we all like to have an egg for breakfast, and that is the one food that our son dearly misses. So for the past few years I've been making him "bacon eggs"... which consist of potatoes, apple, sausage and herb-stuffed woven natural bacon.

Our daughter is on a strict auto-immune diet to heal her Hashimoto's disease... which unfortunately includes no grains at all, and no sugar! Not even honey. Needless to say, the Easter Bunny's chocolates are not sugar-free. So this year we improvised on those, as well! I based her alternative Easter Eggs (right) on this recipe by Sami Bloom.

And the wheat-eaters in the family do love their traditional hot cross buns, so my mother has obliged once again with a delicacy that smelled delicious. Rounded out with some freshly-invented coconut/almond "hot no-cross buns", some spring flowers and the beautiful eggs the kids dyed with friends yesterday, this was both a beautiful and delicious Easter breakfast. Now onto a dinner of lamb, wild maple blossom salad, and fresh-picked wild nettles. Happy Spring, beautiful world!


musicians with no training

Tali spent years begrudgingly taking lessons for violin and cello. He loved his teachers - he loved his time with them - but he didn't love being taught. Rhiannon learns very analytically, so has taken guitar lessons and joined a children's choir, but she never felt impassioned about either. Then Tali got a concertina, and we decided to just let him play with it. No lessons; no advice. Just play. After all, that is what music is about, right?

So he did play. Everything from sound-effects to classical and Irish music, to his own invented French and Balkan-sounding music that seems to just spawn out of his bellows. And eventually Rhiannon became so infatuated with pop music that she now wants voice and guitar lessons to aid her planned audition for the Voice. As she waits a few months for those lessons, she has begun teaching herself using guitar sheets for the songs written by her favourite singer. I think it helps that I don't like the music very much. There's no pressure on either of them to do anything for me, and both of them fill our house with music most days - purely of their own hearts and ingenuity. And it totally delights me!!

This is one of those beautiful life-learning successes I hope to remember.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Hair Cut!

Rhiannon has been growing her hair her whole life long. When she was around 5 or 6 her plan was to grow it down to her feet, cut it off and keep it, grow it out again, and then attach the first length to the end of the new floor-length hair to wear as a train for her wedding. Then the daughter of a friend of mine went through and recovered from leukemia, and eventually Rhiannon's plans changed. She decided to grow her hair very long and donate it to make a wig for a child with cancer. We haven't been able to find an organization who can specify that it goes to a child, so she's had to settle for an anonymous (and anonymous-aged) recipient, but today she finally made the cut! She now has a 19-inch-long ponytail lying waiting to mail away!

Ta Da! She loved her first hairdresser experience with Jeanette, she loves her new style, and she loves that she feels so light and free!

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, as she has been doing for many lucky children since before I was old enough even to go to school, myself.

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 locals 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.