Sunday, March 5, 2017


I love trees. As a photographer, I am drawn to the beauty of trees - the stark curving winter branches, the textures of bark, the varied colors of leaves, the movement in wind, and the habitats they create for the many animals I like to photograph. As a nature preschool teacher, I spend a lot of time in the woods with children and watching them brings back some of my own childhood experiences. I've always loved trees. When I was a child I played at the roots of huge elm trees along our boulevard in St. Paul, before Dutch elm disease decimated the elms in the 1970s and 80s. Those trees, which formed a lush green tunnel down the block, had been places to play "house," watch birds and squirrels, observe ants and other insects on the bark, dig for worms and millipedes in the soil, and just sit and daydream.  I remember feeling so sad when I started seeing red rings painted on the trunks and later watching the trees come down.

These things were on my mind as I drove to a Master Naturalist class about Tree Biology. Geek alert... I learned some fascinating things about what makes a tree a tree, how trees grow, and how they survive winters. Here are a few snippets:

  • The height a tree can grow is based on many factors including genetics (think of the differences in two dog breeds for example - a dachshund will never be as tall as a lab), environment (the amount of space and competition for light), and a tree's ability to move water through its system (pressure system from roots to leaves).
  • In order to survive winter, trees begin a process of acclimation. In Minnesota, this usually begins in mid-July when light decreases and trees stop growing to prepare for winter. The growth process ceases and next year's buds are set at the ends of branches.
  • Want to help your trees survive winter? Water them in the fall. Roots are not as cold hardy as the rest of the tree. At 15 degrees Fahrenheit, roots can die. If you water well into the fall, that water around the roots will freeze at 32 degrees and surround the roots. A thick layer of snow will act as an insulator. 
  • Palm "trees" aren't really trees and are more closely related to grass. Heart of palm, a vegetable that many people enjoy, is the single growing bud of the palm. Harvesting it kills the palm.
  • Trees do not grow from ground level up, but from the top. So if the lower-most branch is five feet from the ground, and the tree continues to grow taller, the lower-most branch will still be five feet from the ground in ten years.
  • A gingko tree is biologically a conifer whose fruit is a fleshy (and stinky!) cone.
  • A burl on a tree is caused by bacteria or fungus that get into a tree and cause the tree to create a lot of bud tissue in one spot. The fungus or bacteria then feeds on that tissue.
  • City boulevard trees tend to grow bigger and faster than park trees, possibly because when rainwater hits hardscape (sidewalks, parking lots), it flows across that hardscape to the soil where trees are planted. Trees get all that water and have less competition.

One final bit that I found fascinating and can't stop thinking about... The molecular structures of hemoglobin and chlorophyll are incredibly similar. Hemoglobin moves oxygen through our blood, and chlorophyll, through photosynthesis, helps a tree absorb light and transfer energy through the tree. Both are crucial in getting nutrients through systems, human and tree. Hemoglobin, with iron at the center, gives us red blood. Chlorophyll, with magnesium at the center, gives trees green leaves. 

That got me thinking about my love for trees and the emotional connections I feel. When I look at trees, especially trees in winter that have lost their leaves, I often imagine human forms.

Darwin, of course, saw a myriad of connections. He used a tree as metaphor in his theory of evolution to show the relationships among organisms. His tree of life looked like this:

I am a big believer in the interconnectedness of everything. So when I take classes to learn more about particular subjects, I think about how that knowledge enriches my life. Today I'm considering connections with my preschoolers and their play (their cognitive, physical, and emotional development) on and around trees. Here is one of the many trees of life I see in my work:

Young children experience the world through their senses. They need to touch, see, hear, taste, and smell the world. This develops spatial sense. They manipulate the world through touch. They learn cause and effect. They create bonds with the natural world based on those experiences. When I take young children outside and watch them play in, on, and around trees, here are some of the things I notice:
  • Trees become magical places of dramatic play. Children make forts, they play house, they turn a tree stump into a throne, they become characters in imaginary play, try out new roles, and experiment with their own power.
  • Trees provide ample opportunities for physical challenges and growth. Moving your body across a fallen tree trunk implores a child to take risks, learn balance, improve strength, and deal with different heights.
  • Sticks. I could write a book on stick play. Many adults shy away from allowing children to play with sticks because of the potential danger. Yes, sticks can cause injuries. The tips can be sharp. Play can turn aggressive (think swords and light sabers). But I've learned not to assume that a stick is being used as a weapon. Sometimes they're being used as tools (drill, lever, walking stick, measuring stick). Often when I ask children what their stick is, I find out it's a magic wand, a giant pencil, a unicorn horn. Even play with sticks as "weapons" is ok with me as long as we've set some ground rules: You have to ask the other child if they want to play a fighting game. You have to keep enough space between your bodies so the sticks don't actually touch (use your voice for sound effects). The stick has to be a length you can control (waist high at most). You have to be in a space where others aren't going to get hit when you swing your stick. This allows children to play out those good versus evil games that they love, in a way that minimizes risk.
  • Trees are places for scientific inquiry. Think of all the things you can discover by turning over a log, or comparing different kinds of leaves, or watching squirrels chase each other around the trunk of a tree. Children are mesmerized by all of the life in and around trees. They learn so much by observing insects, worms, mushrooms, and birds. They notice details. They ask a ton of questions. They are motivated to find out more.
  • Then there is the solace of being in wild places. Yes, wild places exist even in urban spaces. Even at the nature center where I work, we can see and hear cars, airplanes, and other signs of our proximity to urban life. That is one of the incredible gifts of trees. I think of the boulevard trees I played near as a child. I could completely tune out the street noise and transport myself to another place in my mind. Children do this all the time. I often see a child sitting beneath a tree, lying across a log, staring up into the sky. They look so peaceful, so calm, so happy. That is what trees can do for us, even as adults, when we take the time beneath a tree to just be. 

Go ahead. Take a walk. Find a tree. Give it a hug if you want to. I guarantee it will make your day better.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Your work with children in nature is sacred."

Wow, it's been a long time since I've written a blog post. A lot has changed in the two and a half years since my last post. My commitment to working with children in nature has not. If anything, the last two years have given me more experience, a broader perspective, and a deeper appreciation for the work of the early childhood teacher with nature as the classroom.

I work for Dodge Nature Preschool, in West Saint Paul, MN. The preschool is located on the grounds of Dodge Nature Center, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. We recently hosted an evening with Richard Louv at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, during which a great conversation unfolded about the value of nature in the lives of children. If you are not familiar with Louv's work, he coined the phrase "nature deficit disorder" in his book Last Child in the Woods. Since its publication in 2008, we've seen a movement driven by educators, researchers and parents to bring the importance of nature to the table, to advocate for nature in schools, in the workplace, in healthcare, housing, and more.

If you're reading this blog, chances are you already understand the value of nature for healthy individuals and communities. Here are some of the things I took away from the conversation that evening, some ideas I'm still pondering and trying to figure out how to expand on in my own work.

  • Regarding the importance of getting children outside early in life... Truly, parents often end up rediscovering the wonder of the natural world right alongside their children. It happened for me. Shortly after my daughter was born, I put my teaching career on hold to be home with her. The days can feel incredibly long when you're a stay at home parent. Getting outside was crucial for my own mental health as well as for her development. The fresh air, the change of scenery, something about just walking around the block to clear our minds and lift our spirits was the antidote to many tough moments. Even better, the more we were outside the more we wanted to be outside. Everything was new and wondrous to my toddler - every rock held the potential of exciting new discoveries beneath it. Every new sensory experience was magical. It was those tough but precious years that drove me back to school to earn a Master's degree in Environmental Education.
  • "Nature teaches compassion, hope, and acceptance." One spring my daughter found a robin's egg on the ground. Whole, beautiful, blue, delicate. She was sure that if she brought it home, placed it under a warm blanket, and watched over it that it would eventually hatch. Of course it didn't and that was a hard lesson for her. But in the process of trying to hatch the egg, she learned about life, death, empathy for other beings, care for another, to hope, to try, and to accept that sometimes there were things she could not explain or change. 
  • Everything is connected. We are not alone. We need other species. Consider this study from the United Kingdom. Researchers found that city parks with higher biodiversity actually have a larger positive impact on mental health than parks where there is less diversity of species. Kind of makes sense. Being surrounded by more forms of life means a healthier ecosystem, of which humans are a part. We know that monocultures are not a good thing. The emerald ash borer epidemic in Saint Paul is a perfect example. Plant a large portion of your city boulevards with the same tree and when an insect specific to that tree starts to kill them, you've got no trees left.
  • Cities can become engines of biodiversity. Think of rooftop gardens, inner city parks, pollinator gardens, and schoolyard gardens. When you plant a garden or protect green space in a city you create habitat for species other than human. And having those species around is important not only because they have a right to exist, but also for human well-being.
  • In terms of nature being beneficial to child development, here's an interesting, and alarming, finding: Spatial sense atrophies in children who don't spend time outside. Do we want to raise children who are so dependent on technology that they can't navigate in the real world without it? Check out The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, by Gary Paul Nathan and Stephen Trimble.
  • "Your work with children is sacred" (Richard Louv, 2/9/17). It isn't often that we speak of the sacred in public discourse. We seem hesitant to talk about spirituality because it gets mucked up by religion. But this isn't about a particular faith. Yes, the word sacred is used in reference to worship or religion, but it is also defined as "something highly valued and important." So what nurtures the spirit? What can we do in our work with young children that is deserving of the label sacred? To me as a teacher and parent, it is taking children outside and letting them lead, watching them discover, explore, and observe, helping them test boundaries and take risks, encouraging them to ask questions and make connections. That truly is sacred work. And it is an honor to be part of it.