Local Enrichment: Learning about the Holland Sand Prairie in Wisconsin.

Local Enrichment: Learning about the Holland Sand Prairie in Wisconsin.

My graduate course in Advanced Interpretive Media Design ended yesterday. It was a three credit course in six weeks, NRES769, via the College of Natural Resources at one of the UW system schools.  It was a very challenging, and yet, enlightening course.  I learned how to make interpretive media using such software programs as Photoshop and InDesign. For our final project, due not yesterday but on the holiday weekend – July 2nd – I chose to make a Wayside Exhibit Panel for a local piece of preserved land called the Holland Sand Prairie. It is a remnant of land located only a few miles from my house formed over 12,000 years ago when the glaciers in Wisconsin pushed down over the state, moving soil and smoothing landforms. The glaciers did not reach our part of the state, commonly known at the “Driftless Area of Wisconsin.”  In any case, the Holland Sand Prairie, one of the only undisturbed, wind-formed pieces of land left, is worthy of new signage. A couple of different brochures exist, one issued by the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, and another – a plant identification guide, compiled and made by a few local girl scouts almost ten years ago. This guide was supported by the Freinds of the Holland Sand Prairie and The Prairie Enthusiasts group. Both are available at the kioske in the entrance to the prairie where a current wayside sign offers a great deal of information. In addition to these three overseeing bodies, The Town of Holland and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources also help to manage and conserve the property.  The reason the sand prairie is important is that it provides the right soil (mostly sandy) for some rare plant species.  There is great biodiversity in this acreage, that boasts over 150 different kinds of plants.  Some of the plants growing on the sand prairie are the sole supporters of species that depend on them for sustaining their life cycles. These plants are milkweed and wild blue lupine.  The lupine is a spring blooming plant that the Karner Blue Butterfly uses as the larval host. Without the wild blue lupine, we would not have Karner Blue Butterflies. This lupine only grows in the sandy soils that happen to be in places like the Holland Sand Prairie. Like the Karner Blue, but more commonly known, the Monarch Butterfly also depends soley on one plant to sustain its species. As you might already know, that plant is milkweed. Common milkweed is easy to spot when you visit the Holland Sand Prairie.

Common Milkweed HSP
Common Milkweed on the Holland Sand Prairie

This past Saturday, my oldest son and I walked the Sand Prairie. I wanted to see if we could spot the variety of Prickley Pear Cactus that lives natively here in these sandy soils.  I was also in search of several of the plants I had read about when I was gathering information to make my wayside exhibit sign. Specifically, I was in search of Silky Prairie Clover and Clustered Poppy Mallow. Instead, I found Lead Plant and Hoary Vervain, along with Butterfly Weed and Coneflowers.  We were treated to at least a few monarchs flitting around us on our walk, a joyful sight to be sure.  Unfortunately, none of the milkweed we saw had evidence of being chewed….a sign there is monarch larva present.

I have gained a newfound respect for quality Wayside Exhibit signs and other interpretive media. There is a lot that goes into making a quality sign!  As my wayside sign asks, we did stay on the trail. If we had gone farther afield, we might have stumbled upon the Prickly Pear or seen some Monarch caterpillars. In any case, it was a lovely – albeit, hot, walk in the sunshine, on the trail, at the Holland Sand Prairie in Wisconsin

HSP2017 copy
Holland Sand Prairie


Almost Unplugged

Almost Unplugged

We got to the cabin just before noon on Friday. It is an easy three-hour trip from driveway to driveway. What a week it was! We have been so busy running around since school got out in early June that I thought all of us needed this long weekend at the cabin. To make it more special, my sister and her family were joining us at our ten-year old timber frame in the woods for the first time!

Prepared to have another couple and their two teenagers with us for three nights took a little planning. What if the weather was rainy? What if they were bored? What if they didn’t get along? My sister lives in Western New York, only a few hours from where we grew up. They were traveling a long way to see her husband’s family and us for a vacation.

I stocked up – wine, wine, wine. Oh, some beer. Three alarm pepper cheese, stick salami and pepperoni, chips, salsa,  stuff for s’mores, coffee, milk, freezy pops, and of course food for meals.  A trip to Michael’s Craft Store was made for tie dye supplies. A few games were packed, books and magazines thrown in for good measure. My camera. My computer. I would need to continue to work on my final course project during their visit, I explained to my sister over a text. I tried to get it done but was unsuccessful. I needed my computer to final my wayside panel design and submit it. She understood.

Shortly after arriving, the Northwoods began its magic. I saw a Monarch Butterfly! It is the first I have seen this season. I have a milkweed patch in our yard at the cabin and spied the iconic orange and black butterfly flitting amongst its stems when I looked out our kitchen window! Next, I found a monarch caterpillar! It was only a few days old for sure! Very tiny!

Soon, my sister’s family arrived. Would you believe that for three full days, the television/DVD player was never, ever turned on?! It is true! Three teens and no T.V.. We even offered to have them watch a movie. No, instead, they found the canoes, the kayaks, fishing, making s’mores, playing ping-pong, air hockey, and pool all more interesting than a screen!

The weather cooperated and we took walks, had campfires, and boat rides. We even got in a little star-gazing last night! Each afternoon, we had pre-dinner snacks and a relaxing glass of wine with some great conversation. Sometimes the kids joined us, sometimes they didn’t. But, they were unplugged! For the most part, the three teens – two 15 year olds and a 17 year old were keeping themselves busy by engaging in nature and each other – not through snap chat or instagram or Facebook, but real-live interactions!

It was both rejuvenating and restful to spend time with my sister, her family and mine, in the Northwoods where we were able to forget about soccer practice, job responsibilities, and the stress of daily life. We were unplugged. I highly recommend you try it!

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace

At the end of April, I presented to one of our elementary schools on Forests as part of their Environmental Day celebration. Our forests are one, if not the, most important natural resource we have in the world today. The children heard an impassioned description of what the forest does for humans. The single most important function of our forests is to provide and clean the air we breathe. This is such an abstract concept for eight year olds!  Although, through our discussion, I realized that many of them do understand that without trees and our forests, human life, and most other life dependent on oxygen would perish from the earth.  After reminding the students of the very important role the forest plays in all of our lives, all over the world, the discussion then turned to what we can do for the forests!

You can imagine my surprise when less familiar to the students was the concept of “Leave No Trace.”  Life experience is short when you are 5-11 years of age. Therefore, I ended up explaining what this term meant for us and for the forests.  Just as the clean air and abundant oxygen provided to us by trees and the forest is invisible, we need to be sure we are not leaving something visible behind in the forest. Most adults realize what “Leave No Trace” means. You know that it means do not litter or do not leave anything behind that indicates you were there. It means what you carry into the forest, you must carry out.  This is a more concrete concept that of trees providing a gas that sustains our life on earth. It made me wonder why the children were not more familiar with “Leave No Trace.”

Perhaps we need another public service campaign like the very successful Smokey Bear media coverage of the 1970’s. Some might say we need talking trash cans, similar to those installed in popular amusement parks frequented by tourists.  I just think we need to visit the forest with our youth – our children and grandchildren – to begin to show appreciation for what the many trees provide. Studies have shown that the best way to protect a resource is to use it.  If you use something and enjoy it, you will be more likely to fight for it, if you need to. What’s more worth fighting for than the very air we breathe? Not much, I would say.

Forest behind Evergreen

So, as you visit the forests where you live – and you really should visit – it is healthy to do so. Talk to your children and family members about what it means to “Leave No Trace.”  We receive so much from the forest,  the least we can do is to take everything but our footprints with us.

Inspired by the WordPress Daily Prompt: Trace

A Student’s Heartfelt Gift

A Student’s Heartfelt Gift

I always wait with the students as parents arrive to pick them up from our garden club meetings. Invariably, there is a student, usually one of the younger ones, who becomes nervous that their adult will not arrive to take them home.  Pick up was from outside the school this week, as we planted the butterfly garden. And, this was the cause of concern for at least one of my students.  As dismissal time drew near, Lewis voiced his concern over his mom not knowing we were in the garden, not the library.  Intentional or not, this student also left his backpack inside the building, not following my direction to bring everything outside because we would dismiss from the garden. His concern grew as he realized he was the only one to have left something inside.  As more and more students were retrieved,  I told Lewis I would take him back into the library to pick up his backpack.

Just as we were headed up the hill, his mom appeared! I asked that she take him into the school to get his backpack and told him good-bye. It was our last garden club meeting. I could not bring myself to tell the students this. The twelve-year-old club has always been joined anew, each year, in the fall. So, I felt that emotions would be less close to the surface for both the students and I, if I chose not to let the students know the club was ending. To not tell, was a selfish decision, I know. But, one that I really felt was in the best interest of all.

Just as I was cleaning up, Lewis came running back to the garden. “Mrs. L., Mrs. L.,” he shouted, “wait!”  He ran up to me and immediately started digging in his backpack.

“I have something for you,” he said.

Digging, and more digging, in the bottom of the backpack. I started to wonder what it was that he had for me.  After a few minutes, he pulled out a penny, a dull, worn down, obviously used, penny.

“This is for you”, he said as he placed it in my hand. “This is for the future, so you can make a difference, and have people stop spraying pesticides. You can change the world.”

Wow! I really didn’t know what to say. These words of inspiration came from a third grader! He had listened to our lessons. He had synthesized the material.  He knew that the problem of habitat loss for monarchs or other species was a global problem. I smiled.

All I could say, was thank you. A big hug followed. But, the smile on my face told it all. The seed of environmental stewardship had been planted in at least one of my students. It was a great way to end our group. I always will treasure that penny and especially, the words that came with it.

What a heartfelt gift. While I never talked directly to the students about saving the world, it seems that is the message that was received. What a great idea! Yes, Lewis, save the world.


*The student’s name in this story has been changed to protect his identity.*

Busy Finch on a Morning Filled with Birds

Busy Finch on a Morning Filled with Birds

This morning I was able to watch a female purple finch work on making her nest. She caught my eye as I looked out my kitchen window and saw movement in the garden below, near an ornamental Korean Lilac tree close to blooming. Busily, she kept adding pieces of mulch and plant debris to the clutch in her beak, obviously approving of the quality and availability.

Not making the connection at first, I soon realized her nest was being made in tightly woven confines of branches in the soon to flower lilac. She nearly disappeared when she entered the rounded crown where her family would  grow.

After a brief period, and maybe realizing I was watching, she flew out of the tree, off to another place to collect treasures of twigs that might strengthen her soon to be nest.  In the time I sat waiting for her return, now with camera in hand, I noticed other birds were checking out Miss Kim II (fond nickname of the Lilac Tree). Several robins visited, barn swallows, and at least one tiny black-capped chickadee.  The swallow, or at least what I thought was a swallow, was really checking out the tree and sat in it for several minutes. The lady finch had returned, now only ten feet away, sitting on our deck railing, again with a mouthful of the newest nest components. She patiently sat, waiting for the other birds to leave. Again, I assumed she could see me, now the lady with the camera, and wanted to be sure I was there to do nothing more than take pictures.

Eventually, the purple finch flew back onto the very top branches of Miss Kim II, still holding her precious oral cargo. There, she very obviously checked around the yard for what I imagine she thought were any signs of potential predators. After looking thoroughly, I saw her fly into the tree once again to add to her nest.

There was a flurry of song bird activity in our yard this morning. My observations all started with noticing a very plump Eastern Blue Bird siting on our deck rail, in the very same spot the finch subsequently patiently waited to return to the popular, odiferous, and soon to bloom lilac tree.

The beauty of the birds, the color of the tree, and the persistence of the finch, all attracted my attention today. It’s the little things in life. Notice them.

Everyday is Environmental Day

Everyday is Environmental Day


Friday was Arbor Day.

Friday, April 28th, yesterday, was Environmental Day at our school.

Approximately 24 hours ago, 375 students visited with me in K-5 grade level groups for 35 minutes per grade level,  at our local Elementary School, Evergreen Elementary, to hear me talk about the importance of Forests. Yes. I talked about forests for an entire school day!

What was my motivation? As an environmental educator, I want to inspire our youth to take care of our earth. It is theirs to inherit, healthy and sustainable, or decaying and uncared for. It is theirs.

We have a couple of  special  outdoor places at our school. One, is our butterfly garden, of which I am very familiar. In 2006, students in our garden club, lead by my facilitation, researched and planted host plants to support local butterflies. Two years later, we were certified as a Monarch WayStation by Monarch Watch.  The garden has been our base for the club’s activities for 12 year.

But, the other place we have that is special at Evergreen is what I call the Pine Tree Forest! The forest is full of Eastern White Pines, essentially a temperate coniferous forest in an area of our state that more typically nurtures broadleaf forests. Yet, it is there. It is beautiful. It is unused. I am not sure that it is even seen on most days, yet is it right next to the playground.

Forest behind Evergreen

So, what was my message to our elementary students?  My message was simple. People take from the forest everyday, with every breath. We all use multiple products from the forest, everyday, with almost every action. Yet, do we really appreciate our forests? Could we live without them? No. The answer is no; we could not live without forests.

I shared what the students might do to become or be better forest stewards.  To help keep the forest ecosystem healthy and sustained, for not just all of us, but for them, for their future earth. They learned some facts about the web of life that exists in the forest and how it is a community where everything has a job and a purpose to help it function in a healthy way. I pointed out how this was just like our communities of families and classrooms where everyone has a responsibility to help things run more smoothly.  They learned a little about our state history in Forestry and how very early on, Wisconsites learned that you can not cut down every tree in the forest. I told them how this was done and how this was a mistake. By the 1840’s we were well on our way to managing sustainable forests.

Due to climate change and the important role trees and forests have in carbon fixing, we are at another point in our history globally that we must take care of our forests. They sustain human life. We must make sure the forest is sustainable, for we are part of the forest ecosystem – whether that forest in the U.S., or not. The forest connects us all. It is the invisible connection of the breath of life.

Lastly, the students were given concrete examples of how to be a forest steward. This included using renewable products (if you cut down a tree, replace it with another),  recycling products, reusing products like cloth grocery bags, plastic spoon, and paper. Reusing helps you reduce. The students were introduced to the importance of rotting. The debris on the forest floor rots with the help of decomposers. I shared that I think this is the most important part of the forest because as the soil is enriched with the materials decomposed by fungi, bacteria, and worms, it provides a place for new pine tree seeds to germinate.  New trees. New life.

The students heard the importance of the phrases, leave no trace, and carry in – carry out.  They were encouraged to share information with their families, talking with others about the importance of forests and trees. They seemed to know it is important to live in a way that does not hurt trees or plants.

But, my take away message to this group of young people was to use the forest! We have the good fortune of having many beautiful forests in our state. Being outside and unplugged, is healthy for humans. And, studies have shown that the more forests are used for recreation such as hiking, camping, and geo-caching the more we will appreciate them. Appreciation leads to love, and love leads to protection.

I hope the students learn to use our Evergreen Pine Tree Forest, learn to appreciate it, and learn to love it.  Then, they will protect it.  Protect if for their own future.

For Everyday is Environmental Day.