Fabulous Ferns: How We Approach Nature Study

Like many homeschool families inspired by Charlotte Mason, nature study is a major component of our curriculum.  As I have a degree in science and was previously an elementary science specialist, I am very comfortable in the outdoors and can answer most questions my kids will pose to me.  “What does a slug eat? Why is the sky blue? How is a rainbow made?”  are just a few examples of inquiries my kiddos have initiated.

@ Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

While I allow their interests to lead us, I try to incorporate a nature lesson each week.  This begins with spending quality time outdoors – going for hikes or nature walks, playing in the creek near the lake, building imaginary worlds in the backyard, and even climbing trees.

We have been seeing a lot of ferns this spring, perhaps due to the more mild climate we have been experiencing.  I’m sure it also stems from the fact that we have living in a new area and are exploring new trails.  One of the April Outdoor Challenges focused on ferns – and we certainly have had many to choose from.

@ Fern Grotto in Santa Cruz

When we are outdoors … on a nature walk or a leisurely family stroll … I rarely instruct the kids to look for anything in particular.  Generally, I allow their natural curiosity to lead them and take advantage of whatever crosses our path, so to speak.  Each month, I print off the nature grid that Barb publishes in her monthly newsletter and we discuss it as we glue it into our nature journals.  The kids thereby have an idea of what the upcoming topics are and this essentially sparks their interests.

Our Journal Entries

When we return home and I can manage to sit them down for a formal lesson – to be honest, I frequently use nature study as the carrot to bring them to the table – I’ll pull out the Handbook of Nature Study and begin to read aloud excerpts as suggested by Barb.  I will also gather our field guides and other resource materials and allow the kids to peruse the photos, read excerpts they find interesting aloud, and ask questions.  The book and Barb’s Outdoor Hour challenges provides the framework for our studies but also allows for open-ended discussions and further exploration.

Baby Goats & Lambs :: Nature Study

My girlfriend has a small farm and every year, they have new baby goats and lambs.  This year, due to a few unforeseen circumstances (not unheard of in the world of animal husbandry), she has had to bottle feed two baby goats and a lamb.  This past week, we were fortunate to be in Central Oregon (an unexpected trip … and a long story) and we were able to stop by for an impromptu visit.  
The little ones were eager to nurse – due to our unexpected arrival, “mom” was a little late getting out to feed them.  Once their bellies were full, they were as curious about us as we were about them.  They kept jumping up onto us and bleating for attention.  It was obvious that the three of them were bottle babies.  So sweet.  

We pet them for a good time and then left them to frolic with their cousins as we moved on.  We checked the chickens for eggs and observed the horses and cows across the pasture.  We have walked out during past visits, bringing fresh apples and treats for the horses, but we were short on time.

When we got home, I read aloud pages 266-270 from the Handbook of Nature Study.  We discussed our observations and made references to other times we have seen sheep or goats – both domestic and in the wild (we saw both in the Rockies – from a distance – in Banff & Jasper National Parks in Canada).   We then listened to the audio version online of the Burgess Book of Animals (chap 38).  

To top off our study, we enjoyed a few slices of gjetøst (Norwegian for goat cheese), sometimes referred to as brunøst (Norwegian for whey cheese).  It is made by boiling a mixture of milk, cream, and whey carefully for several hours so that the water evaporates.  The heat turns the milk sugar into caramel which gives the cheese its characteristic  taste.  It is ready for consumption as soon as it is packed in suitable sized blocks.  It is then sliced very thin with a cheese slicer and served frequently with Scandinavian sour cream waffles.

Shasta Dam :: Field Trip Friday

I keep a list of local places we want to explore and adventures we hope to someday take part … essentially a  field trip wish list.  I’ve had ‘hydroelectric dam’ on the list for some time … and this week, we were finally able to check this one off the list.

View of Shasta Dam and Shasta Lake as you approach the dam site.

We joined up with a charter school to take part in an organized field trip to Shasta Dam – located north of Redding on the Sacramento River.  It turned out to be a fabulous experience.  We all learned so much – each of us connecting with something different the interpreter said.  The kids were intrigued and listened attentively the entire hour of the tour. We had previously studied energy resources and electricity so this field trip helped to clarify many things for us.

The view overlooking the dam as we walked to the tower / elevator for the start of the tour.

Initial construction of the Shasta Dam began in 1938 with excavation and the relocation of the Southern Pacific Railroad that ran through the dam site.  A tunnel was blasted through the nearby hillside to temporarily detour the train during construction, moving it away from the excavation work.  Along the Sacramento River in Redding, California, aggregate was gathered and delivered to stockpiles near the dam site by way of a 9.6 mile long conveyor belt, the longest of its type in the world.  The conveyor belt transported tons of gravel that would be used in the concrete mix to build the dam.

The conveyor belt that brought gravel from Redding to the construction site of Shasta Dam.

With excavation complete, construction on the dam began.  Freshly mixed concrete was delivered to forms (50′ x 50′ and 5′ deep) using 8-cubic yard buckets suspended from a cableway system used to move the concrete to waiting crews.  The massive blocks were built one on top of another, first to form the abutments, and finishing the dam by completing the spillway.

As the abutments rose, crews were busy building the permanent relocation track for the Southern Pacific Railroad, above where the new lake would be formed.  When this track was completed, the train was moved to its new location and the spillway construction began.  Before this could happen, an earthen coffer dam was built across the river upstream of the dam site, causing the river to rise and find the now empty railroad tunnel.  The river was allowed to flow past the dam site through the tunnel, just as the train had years before.

We stood in the south end of the tunnel (it has since been mostly filled in).  Inside, you could see evidence of soot on the ceiling and despite the fact that they dug down several feet from the train bed, the water level came to nearly the full height of the tunnel. The water level was evident where the soot had been scoured off the wall.  Buddy was intrigued by this tunnel and was delighted to have seen the redesigned locomotives (cab forward) that were necessitated due in part to this tunnel at the California State Railroad Museum earlier this year.  The tunnel was so long it would take a train more than five minutes to travel through it. As result, Southern Pacific rebuilt the train locomotive, putting the cab in the front and the tender and smoke stack behind to prevent asphyxiation.

While walking inside the dam, we were lead through this 300 ft hallway.  The acoustics were so good here that we could stand at one end and not only hear the echo at the other end of the hall, but literally the sound wave as it went past. This was a highlight of the tour for me.

The generators at the base of the dam, capable of producing 710 megawatts of power.

Buddy was also intrigued by the generators.  As we walked through this area, he turned to me and began a lengthy narration of one of his favorite episodes of World’s Toughest Fixes, the Columbia River Dam. I love it when their natural interests blend with our learning.  Unschooling Rocks!  🙂

Admin Note :: I want to emphasize that I understand the construction of a dam is controversial.  It dramatically alters the landscape and affects not only the wildlife but also prevents Native Americans from accessing sites of cultural importance.  I share this with you for educational purposes and want to clarify that I also share with my children the perspectives and opinions of the local Wintu people.

Friendships Reconnect in Santa Cruz

I attended Lane Community College after high school, earning an Associates of Arts Oregon Transfer Degree (thereby satisfying all undergrad requirements at a four-year university).  While there, one of the many required courses I took was Writing 121.  My professor turned out to be not only a great teacher … but also a life-long friend.  
I loved his teaching style and through him, I was introduced to a genre of literature to which I had not been previously exposed.  I thereby took another course he taught .. Black American Literature.  Later, when I took another writing course (taught by someone else, sadly), I was inspired to write an anecdote about him:
“Good afternoon,” were the only words he said as he walked into the room, removed his leather hat, and took his place behind the podium. His strong, husky voice enraptured the class and held the attention of us all.  The room was small, seating maybe twenty-five students.  The desks were tightly arranged in a semi-circle around the podium and the man who would soon become an inspiration to me.

He preached the power of words and advised us to be skeptical of the things we had always taken fro granted and to question that which we are taught.  He would proudly tell us stories of his childhood and of the many adventures he had experienced in his life.  He could make us laugh and then within a moment, stare in shock and surprise.  

He challenged conventional Western society, dared each of us to open doors to new worlds. I began to indulge in the literature of African American writers.  Seeing society through their eyes changed me … I became more aware.  

The more I got to know him, the more I realized that he wasn’t as intimidating as I had initially  expected.  It was clear to me that he was a man to be taken seriously and one who could teach me a lot about myself, life, and the world around me.  He has become a great friend and one I will cherish always.  

His wisdom and courage to fight ignorance continues to burn through me.  My hope is that I too, will become an inspiration to young minds.  To challenge them to experience life from new perspectives.”

After I transferred to Oregon State, I would drive down to visit him on occasion during his office hours.  He continued to be a mentor and confidant.  As the years progressed, our exchanges dwindled to the annual Christmas card until eventually we lost contact.  I would think of him often – wishing I could reach out and reconnect.  My mom shared with me that she had read of his retirement.  I didn’t know how to find him.   

I looked for him through Facebook .. and to my delight, found his son .. who helped to reconnect us.  To my surprise and chagrin, he lives not far from me – so we made plans to drive down this past weekend.

It was such a delight to see him and his wife again. They gave us a tour of the city … shared with us stories of their children and grandchildren.  They took us out to lunch whereby I was able to personally thank his son for his role in helping me to connect again.  It was indeed a wonderful day.  Sadly, though, I was so engaged in conversation, I didn’t think to take pictures of us together despite having a camera available.  I’m still kicking myself for that … however, I’ll never forget the image of the two of them standing in their driveway with their arms around one another as we drove away that evening.

Butterfly Tree :: Book Sharing Monday

We enjoyed a remarkable weekend in Santa Cruz this past weekend (I’ll post more soon).  One of the things we most looked forward to seeing were the Monarch butterflies at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary.  From our research, we learned that the butterflies begin arriving here in October and stay through the winter, generally departing around March.  We envisioned trees awash in orange and black, concealing the leaves beneath.  Sadly, this was not to be.  We’ve had such a mild winter this past year that the butterflies have departed much sooner than usual.


An enchanting story, Butterfly Tree written by Sandra Markle and illustrated by Leslie Wu came to mind while we were there.  In the story, a young girl named Jilly is walking on the beach with her dog when she looks up in the sky and sees a wispy mist that turns into something orange.  What could it be – a fallout from a distant volcano, smoke from a faraway fire?  She teams up with her mother to follow the orange cloud overhead into the woods.  All along, I have the feeling the mother knows but plays along and adds to her daughter’s curiosity.  At last they come upon a tree covered by thousands of Monarch butterflies.   Through words and pictures, this book demonstrates the importance of children experiencing the many mysteries of the planet.  We didn’t share quite this same experience, however, it was memorable nonetheless.  

One of the pleasures of parenting is being able to create such memories with our children.  We look forward to visiting this area again as well as to a new film documentary, The Butterfly Trees

Old Time Holidays :: Field Trip

Each year in early December, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and Old Shasta State Historic Park team up to offer numerous holiday activities for families. Ever intrigued by living history opportunities, we were eager to take part.

 Our first stop was at the historic Camden Tower House, built in 1852, the Camden House is the oldest house in Shasta county.  Here, the kids cooperated together to create a Christmas wreath of evergreens. We then toured the inside of the house (though it is furnished minimally in only two rooms).  It was fun to imagine living here in the late 1800s and looking out upon the orchards.  Upstairs, we enjoyed listening to a Christmas story read aloud by a volunteer in modern clothing.

Returning outdoors, the kids selected a old-style picture postcard and used a feather quill and ink to write a seasonal greeting to a family.  We had tried to make our own feather quills some time ago … the directions had stated to bury the feather in an aluminum pan of hot sand.  We did so … but apparently the sand was too hot and the feathers blistered, warped, and burned.  The kiddos were thereby very excited to give this a go.

We then made our way to Old Shasta where we were able to walk along the row of old, nearly-ruined brick buildings.  Once the “Queen City” of California’s northern mining district, these ruins and some of the nearby roads, cottages, and cemeteries are all silent today.  Volunteers dressed in period attire introduced the kids to numerous children’s games – Hoop & Stick, Game of Graces, and Jacob’s Ladder.  Sweetie asked if perhaps we could volunteer here, “I miss dressing up and pretending I lived in 1880.”  I promised I would inquire, but sadly the park is one of several state parks slated to close in May.

We then walked down to the Blacksmith shop where kids could try their hand at forging a piece of iron into a wall hook.  Sadly, we arrived late in the day and the last visitor they would have time to tutor was just getting started.  Buddy was fascinated … as I’m sure any young boy would be … and he begged to come back another day.

We were able to dip candles, however.  As there weren’t many children at this late hour, they were even able to get back in line a second time.  Each of the kiddos brought home two hand-dipped candles.

Everyone had a great time and it was a fun way to kick off the holidays.  We hope that funding or alternatives can be found to keep the museum accessible.