Thankfulness During Our Journey

We joined friends at the beach on Friday and, as I sat there, chatting and watching the kids play, I felt so blessed and thankful to be on this journey with my kids.  And so, this post highlights a slightly different journey: my ever-increasing thankfulness for the freedom and friendships that homeschooling brings into our lives.

I am thankful I can witness my kids’ curiosity as they explore and study nature, while creating an aquarium at the beach to observe a camouflaged sculpin…

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I am thankful they can cooperate, work out conflicts, and find solutions, while building a rideable boat out of driftwood, tied together with seaweed…

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I am thankful these activities make up their “recess”…

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I am thankful that they are wonderful, kind, happy kids.

I am thankful for all the mothers who support me in this crazy, fun homeschool journey.  Moms who are positive, calm, inventive and energetic.  Moms who share their successes and failures.  Moms who lift me up when I’m confused and frustrated.  Moms who share in the celebration of the successes of our children.  Moms who listen, even if they don’t homeschool.  And, for my own mom, who is so giving and helps me be more mindful of how impressive my children are, in so much of what they do.  Happy Mother’s Day!

I am thankful for all the mentors, friends, and family in my children’s lives, who create amazing learning opportunities and inspiration.

I am thankful for my husband, who helps me be a better mother with his calm presence and makes all these journeys possible!

Learning the Language of Birds

On the trail, Tod continuously encourages us to focus more of our attention on bird language.  We have learned the four baseline communications of birds and their alarm sound, which they make when danger is near.  The baseline communications include: song, contact calls, territorial behavior, and juvenile begging.  After several years, I’m just starting to hear more than their song.

We are all familiar with bird song. Even if we can’t see or identify the singer, we are pleased with the sound.  We have a few birds we recognize with the changing seasons, or get excited to hear as they move through our yard.  We love listening to the golden-crowned sparrow as it sings “Oh, poor me!”; the California towhee’s repetitive chirp; the American robin’s lengthy song at sunset; the chestnut-backed chickadee singing its name.  And, of course, the many we haven’t yet named.

Most of us can identify contact calls and territorial behavior too, if we take a moment to pay attention.  In our yard, the chickadees, junkos and California towhees chatter back and forth with their flock-mates or partners.  They are checking in with each other and staying aware of everyone’s safety and location.

As for territorial behavior, the easiest for our family to see is the in-flight attacks of hummingbirds.  They defend their territory against each other, seemingly all the time.  This spring I also saw a hummingbird dive-bombing a pair of bushtits who seemed to be minding their own business in our plum tree.  Hummingbirds are beautiful, but their aggressive spirit is much, much bigger than their body size!

More recently, we listened for juvenile begging in our yard, the rapid “feed me, feed me” that’s expected from hungry hatchlings.  Tod told us he hears several nests of birds begging every time he leaves his house at this time of year.  We hadn’t heard any!  I made a conscious decision to listen for juvenile begging on Saturday.  Turns out, there are baby birds everywhere!  I heard at least 6 nests of beggars during my walk through the woods.  Awareness and focus lead to discovery!

The last communication, bird alarms, have become more noticeable to the kids and me in the recent months.  Our cats set them off as they walk across the yard.  We set them off when we plow through the forest.  The noise clearly conveys irritation and it is repeated constantly, in an attempt to get someone to go away from their space and to warn others of danger.

Last month, I heard a pair of bushtits alarming intensely.  I fox-walked to the other side of the house to see what was going on and saw a scrub jay tormenting them by sitting near their nest…a few days later the bushtits were gone and the bottom of their beautiful, hanging nest was ripped apart.

I heard another bird alarm this morning at dawn.  An intense alarm was coming from the big oak tree outside our living room.  No birds were singing.  Then, I heard my cat, who had chosen to ignore my calls to come in last night, speed across the deck on the other side of the house.  I jumped up to let her in and she came skidding across the floor, poofy-tailed and aggravated.  The bird kept alarming outside and then I heard something run across my roof…possibly a raccoon?  The bird stopped alarming shortly afterwards and within one minute I heard the dawn chorus of several birds singing to the rising sun.

Listening to the birds can make us aware of activity in our surroundings, whether peaceful or threatening.  We play a couple of games to help remember the different communications. In nature group, each family acted out a type of bird language to remind the group of the five types of communication.   Another favorite game for the kids is Jays and Juncos, where communication through bird alarms is necessary for survival.  And, of course, quiet sit spot time is a great way to listen to the birds…

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Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?   – David Attenborough

Our Journaling Progress & Positive Comparison

On Monday, a friend at nature group told me that her son has a nature journal, but feels that everyone’s art is better than his and doesn’t want to share.  While not sharing is completely okay, I am saddened by her son’s (and my kids’) comparison to others.  Cambria does it with reading; Elijah does it with art.  I do it too, mostly with homeschooling, but I’m consciously trying to stop.

I’m trying to stop, because it is a negative habit and it never makes me feel better.  Comparison to what others have and can do, focuses our minds on what we don’t have and can’t do.  The negativity builds on negativity and, I find, it’s hard to dig myself out of the downward spiral.

If I compare my nature journal art to someone’s journal who has more experience, I see only my deficit, not my progress.  If, instead, I look at the person’s journal and seek out tips and new ideas and greater understanding of my potential, that’s an active, positive choice.  The person who has dedicated more time to a given skill could be looked upon as a mentor, not necessarily a peer in a particular area of expertise.

We are all focusing on different things in our lives and accomplishing different talents that are our individual, favorite ways to spend our time.  In our household, we spend time journaling, but I would never compare my work to John Muir Laws and feel discouraged.  I am inspired.  Inspired to be better at something that I enjoy.  I don’t spend hours a day drawing (or even minutes most days)…How could I reach that level without more investment in myself?  Without more trial and error?   I can’t, and that’s okay, but I do appreciate the progress I have seen in my journal.

On that note, I thought it would be fun to do some comparing on a different level.  Comparisons of our individual journals.  We have changed and grown and progressed and, since we’ve kept journals for several years, it’s fun for the kids and me to see our development — without comparing it to others!

Cambria’s rough-skinned newt in 2013:

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Two years later:

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Elijah’s great egret in 2013:

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Beginning of 2014:

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End of 2014:

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My great egret from January, 2013:

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August, 2014:

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It was so fun to look through our old journals and see our amazing progress!

After-note: A few days after I wrote my this post, I came across this quote by Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist.  (Instead of saying:) “That’s just the way I am,” replace it with, “That’s something I really need to work on.”  Love it!

Nature Connection through “Story of the Day”

This week I missed nature group; I hurt my back and didn’t get out of bed for three days. On Monday, I sadly watched the kids walk out of my room with Trevor in the morning.

Nature group is the only thing our family doesn’t skip – ever – unless we are very sick. And, honestly, I was bit jealous the kids were going with another mom to spend the morning at the beach with Tod. I was also jealous of their ability to sit, stand and walk…clearly, I needed to stay home!

The pleasure of my day (and the end of my moping) came when they returned and rushed into my room. Cambria sat down and immediately launched into the story of their morning, with Elijah adding in extra details. The excitement in their voices was infectious —they had tracked a bobcat ALL morning. Over two hours and one mile down the beach.

Their details and highlights poured out: the bobcat walked across the creek; it walked along the edge of the dunes; it walked through the dunes; they lost the tracks three or four times; Cambria re-found them; Elijah and a friend re-found them; Tod re-found them…perhaps it was more than one bobcat…it jumped down a small cliff (which was pretty high!); it walked over rocks and then we found the tracks in a small sandy area; it walked by a bunch of jellyfish; we tracked it for a MILE in sand!

All of this came gushing out with more details, interruptions and such pride at the extended tracking, that I couldn’t help getting excited. What a wonderful day at the beach! What a thrilling story! They were so passionate about this absentee bobcat, which had led them on a tracking journey. It was like they could see the actions of the bobcat, as it went about its business on the beach.

Without realizing it, they had told me the “Story of the Day”, which is part of nature connection and a Core Routine according to Jon Young in his book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. For millennia, story telling was the main way of communicating between groups of ancient people. We do this all the time, around the kitchen table or on the phone with a distant friend, about our day-to-day lives. However, in the “Story of the Day” a nature experience is the focus of the story. Our nature stories don’t tell us where to find our next meal to survive, but they do share an experience full of discoveries and builds our knowledge of an area.

Tod uses “Story of the Day” at the end of each group meeting. He asks us to tell about our favorite thing. It’s an enlightening experience to hear what each adult and child found important during circle time. We are reminded of parts of our journey that were exciting, but forgotten in our personal moment of telling. Cambria and Elijah did this together, building the story of their “Bobcat Tracking Expedition”.

Understanding Plants (and learning to listen)

I had a physical reaction to a plant this week.  Not a rash, not a cure, but unexplained feelings after handling the plant – I scrubbed my hands and experienced uneasiness.  My body understood the plant’s communication, but my brain didn’t listen.

Tod has talked many times about “feeling” (without touching) a tree in front of us when walking blindfolded, about being aware of our surroundings so we can close our eyes and point to the different plant species, about truly looking at a plant and noticing its individual nuances and more.  All of these exercises bring us closer to realizing a nature connection.

On Monday, Tod stopped beside the trail and picked two leaves.  He asked us to think about how they made us feel.  Then he held them up and said, “Raise your hand if you would rather eat Leaf A (a soft, heart-shaped leaf) or Leaf B (a pointed, thin, slightly jagged-edged leaf).”

I recognized the plants, but even if I hadn’t, Leaf B looked evil.  Most of the group agreed that they would stay away from Leaf B, even the kids who didn’t recognize the plant, which was a type of nightshade.  This nature connection exercise, on the side of the trail, was quick and basic.  Tod illustrated the plant’s communication with us, if we took the time to be aware.

We should NOT eat any plant without an absolutely, positive identification!

The next day, I was having a “I-homeschool-and-never-celebrate-miscellaneous-holidays” moment.  No doubt public school kids would be partying for St. Patrick’s Day.  Cutting out shamrocks, having green cupcakes and golden chocolates, reading limericks with gusto.  All the things my kids are totally lacking from their education.

I needed some St. Patrick’s Day inspiration and, as luck would have it, I remembered some green flowers had just bloomed in a corner of our yard.  Green flowers!  The perfect solution at 6am for an unprepared-homeschool-holiday-mom.  I didn’t know what the flowers were, but they were green and that would help relieve my lack of holiday planning.

What caught me off guard, was my feeling as I was cutting the beautiful flowers.  I felt uneasy.  I didn’t know what they were, and I needed green decorations, so I brought them into the house and put them on the table.  And, immediately, felt like I needed to wash my hands which, honestly, I rarely do after cutting flowers.  Hmmm…what was Tod teaching us yesterday??

To illustrate my lack of trust in my body’s reaction, I left them on the table and we admired them all day.

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The next morning, I laughed off my flower-mistrust instinct over breakfast with Trevor.  Then, I decided to research the green flower, because I suddenly realized I was having a nature study FAIL.

Turns out, it’s of the genus Helleborus.  It will make us and our cats vomit if ingested.  Some sources say it can irritate or burn our skin.  “Poisonous.  Handle with gloves.”  Wow.  How about listening to the nature awareness part of my body that’s been screaming since I cut the flowers??

John Muir Laws has several great journaling exercises surrounding plants.  One of my favorites, which helps us “know” a plant, is called “Zoom In, Zoom Out”.  You can find this exercise in his free journaling curriculum.  The activity creates a study of an individual plant, zooms out to document it with its surrounding plants, then zooms in on the details of one part.

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Butterfly bush. I quickly sketched the plant’s location, studied the leaf and flower, then zoomed in on the individual flowerettes and a cross-section of the stem.

I love this activity!  When doing it, I always find a particular detail I had never noticed before.  It let’s me spend time “knowing” the plant and solidifying the identification in my mind.