Mindfulness in the Woods

By Susan Olcott

I loved the calm that followed the October wind storm – no sounds of machines or even music playing in our dark house, save for the whooshing of falling leaves – and only the flickers of candles to see by once the sun had set. I wanted more of the simplicity that being without electricity had provided. Our girls also felt a bit shortchanged when the power came back, bringing an end to unexpected family time spent playing board games by the fire and evenings carrying lanterns up to bed. It encouraged our family to focus on each other – my husband and I couldn’t work without the internet and many of our daily routines like bathing ourselves and washing clothes and dishes were suspended without hot water and the use of our electric machines. We were all truly present in the moment and it got me thinking of ways to replicate this in our daily lives.

Mindfulness is becoming a common term in more circles than just yoga studios. In school, even in first grade, our girls practice breathing techniques to calm down and focus their brains on the learning that they need to do. And, in a recent meeting of a nature playgroup that we are a part of, one of the mothers led a lesson on mindfulness in nature. Each child walked along a short stretch of trail by him or herself in silence. And us parents had a chance to stand quietly in the woods along the trail by ourselves as well. Rain dripped off of leaves, birds chirped, clouds moved – there was much to observe. Then we shared that one of the reasons we adults love to be outside is nature’s ability to settle our often-busy minds. In addition, the motion of walking keeps our bodies busy so that our minds can become calm. This is particularly true of children who can often focus better while in motion!

Lili and Phoebe in the Labyrinth

This led me back to the labyrinth. I had walked the labyrinth with my girls before – at events like its opening ceremony and the lantern-lit solstice walk, and several times in between. But, I wanted to do it again since they had been working on the practice of mindfulness. This time, as before, they silently walked back and forth. They looked carefully for the stones, many of which were covered in wet leaves. But, when they reached the center, they each picked a different bench and sat quietly. They continued to be silent even after I reached the center, not seeming overeager to see what might happen next and what I might have brought in my bag (which often contains goodies). After a few moments, I motioned them over to sit on either side of me and I was the first to break the silence – amazing! We shared some cider while we also shared the thoughts we had while walking. Lili daydreamed of tiny fairies that could bring back to life those we have lost in our lives; and Phoebe thought of how grateful she was to have food and a warm house to live in – serious stuff for six year olds! Phoebe reminded me that mindfulness included looking outward as well as inward, so we spent a few moments looking and listening. Lili noticed that the trees that had fallen made the woods look more interesting and Phoebe said the circle of trees around us reminded her of the circle of life (cue “The Lion King”).

A drawing of the Labyrinth and mindfulness in the woods.

On our way back out, I asked them to focus on what the labyrinth looks like – its shape and patterns, and told them that they would have to draw it when we got home. I told them they could draw what they thought of as the labyrinth but that it didn’t have to look like exactly like it. What they drew was full of whimsy and imagination both from their inside thoughts and from their natural observations.

This all took place in less than an hour but seemed to fuel us for the rest of the day as if we had smoothed out the squiggles in our brains by tracing them with our feet – well worth the time and I hope to do it again soon. And this year, more than ever, I look forward to the December solstice walk to trace the labyrinth’s patterns by the light of lanterns in celebration of the darkness.

Quarry Trail to Market and More!

By Susan Olcott

The Quarry Loop is easy to miss as it is the only trail on the “other” side of Woodside Road – separate from the bulk of the trails at Crystal Spring Farm. You reach the Quarry Loop by  starting from the little spur of the East Trail at the corner of the parking lot for the Farmer’s Market (from the trail head near the porta-potties), taking a right onto the short Quarry Trail link that runs behind the farm, and crossing over Woodside. It’s only .2 miles from the parking lot to Woodside Road, and is flat and has good footing. Along the way, you might see an assortment of animals on the farm and also peek at some of the things growing by the farmhouse. After carefully crossing the road, you will find the short Quarry Loop, just another .2 miles or so around. When we went recently, there were blackberries and black-eyed susans along the way, and there’s a nice granite bench to sit and rest as well.

One great thing about the Quarry Trail is that it provides a safe link to walk between Woodside Road and the Farmer’s Market. If you’ve been to the Market, you likely have noticed that you are not alone, but a part of the throngs of others coming to enjoy the cornucopia of goodies on Saturday mornings. Parking is always a challenge and many park along the busy Pleasant Hill Road. But, Woodside Road is an alternative place to park that many people don’t think of. Perhaps it is because they don’t know about this lovely short linking trail. 

A great thing about the Quarry Loop is that there is a lovely secret pool that has fresh, cool water in a shady spot. Often after nibbling on delicious pastries and sipping hot coffee while dancing in the sunshine with my girls to sweet fiddle music, we are ready for a little cool forest reprieve. And, this is a great spot to find it. On a recent visit to the pool, we were surprised by multiple plops as frogs hopped back into the water upon hearing us. Swimming on the surface of the water were giant solitary water beetles and flotillas of water boatmen with oar-like appendages paddling along. And, tiny silvery minnows darted back and forth under the surface. My daughter took this watercolor-like photograph of the still water reflecting the clouds and a frog peeking up. We were amazed at how much life was in this little pool. We even found tree frog eggs in a thick jelly on a few leaves dangling above the water, waiting to hatch and drop down to their aquatic home.

The rock surrounding the pool is smooth pink granite flecked with silvery mica and there are lots of little outcroppings. If you’re looking for ideas for kiddos on this trail or any others at Crystal Springs, you can print out a copy of a neat little Activity Book that Bowdoin Environmental Studies students put together with BTLT and the farm. We were satisfied just studying pond life and taking pictures. But, next time I’ll have to bring a net.

So, next Saturday when you find yourself heading to the market, leave a little extra time before or after to park along Woodside and follow the Quarry Trail over to the market and then on your way back, cross over the road to walk the Loop Trail to see the Quarry and its abundant life – and dip your toes.

Jewelweed Forest

That’s what my girls named a stretch of the Town Landing Trail descending from Elm Street in Topsham down to the Androscoggin River – Jewelweed Forest.  We had had a drizzly evening before our hike, so the plants were moist and dewy as we brushed through them and the bright jewelweed blossoms stood out under a gray sky. They were just about as tall as my girls, making it seem like a forest just their size.

There are few quiet riverfront places in Brunswick and Topsham, and this short trail culminating in lovely views was a nice discovery.

The trail starts at Elm Street and descends quickly into soft grasses and then opens out along the river for a short stretch. It was a treat to look across the river back towards Brunswick’s Pinette Park, where we’ve often played in the field before or after a trip on the bike path. We remembered sledding down the hill and watching ice fishermen, though at this time of year people were wading out in the water to fly fish.

On our way back through Jewelweed Forest I got to thinking about the variety of habitats along the BTLT trails (this trail belongs to the Town of Topsham, but the Land Trust played a pivotal role in designing and building it last summer). Last week, we’d been blueberry picking at Crystal Spring Farm (click HERE for more details on picking at the farm) and that reminded me of the edible and medicinal plants in many of these places.

Jewelweed is one of those plants that are quite useful – and pairs nicely with its adversary, poison ivy, which is often found in similar areas. I will say that we didn’t see any poison ivy on this hike, just to allay any worries. But, aside from having a striking orange flower that looks like a dragon and is much loved by humming birds, jewelweed can be used to relieve itchiness caused by the oils of poison ivy. You can simply crush the leaves and rub on the itchy places, or collect a bunch of jewelweed, blend it in a blender, strain, and rub the juice on the affected area, take a bath in it, or freeze it into ice cubes.**

The name “jewelweed” is because droplets of water bead up on the leaves, giving the appearance of tiny jewels. Another endearing feature of jewelweed is that in the early summer, the seed pods are great fun to pop open.

They are touch sensitive, so that if you touch the bottom of the ripe pods, or put one in the palm of your hand and poke it gently, it will burst open and the seeds will fly out – as seen in this VIDEO. This gives them their other name, touch-me-not.

So, all those pretty flowers along the trail aren’t just adding color and variety
to the landscape, but can serve practical uses and be lots of fun to play with!

By Susan Olcott

** Please use caution when trying any herbal remedy – seek expert advice on your ailment as well as the identification and preparation of all herbals, and keep in mind that each individual may have unique sensitivities that can make certain remedies inappropriate.

A Morning Birding at Crystal Spring Farm

by Kris Ganong, BTLT Board Member & Volunteer

On Friday, May 12 at 7:30am a group of 16 gathered at CSF to bird watch with expert birder, Jan Pierson.   The morning was gray and cool but not rainy.  At first we noticed the plentiful bird song while standing in the parking lot and slowly made our way down the East Trail to a pond.   I cannot begin to list all of the names of the birds we saw and heard, but Jan is truly amazing.   He can stand quietly listening and then list the birds we just heard.  He breaks down their calls to make them recognizable and knows many facts about each bird.  Most incredible is how far some of them travel!

We saw male bobolinks, solitary sandpipers in the pond, a scarlet tanager, and a blue bird nesting in a box.  We heard an ovenbird and tried hard to catch sight of him.   We walked from the pond past the farm buildings and onto the Quarry Trail listening and observing as we went.  Jan had a scope which he would focus on a bird and we could get a very good view.  Many of us had binoculars and reference books as well.

This calm insightful activity was a wonderful way to start the day.  Don’t miss an opportunity to bird watch on one of BTLT’s properties – it was terrific!

This event was part of our annual Spring Birding Extravaganza, a free series of birding events held in partnership with Merrymeeting Audubon, Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, and Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.  Read more about this annual series and the upcoming events at www.btlt.org/spring-birding-extravaganza-2017

Osprey Watch

Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust Invites Midcoast Citizen Scientists to Join Osprey Watch

The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust (BTLT) recently convened a group of enthusiastic birders at the Topsham Public Library to learn about osprey, citizen science, and how to get involved in the Osprey Watch Program.

Emily Anderson, a BTLT volunteer, described how, for many people in Maine, osprey are a familiar sight, though just a few decades ago, that was not the case. Increasingly, though, it is common for people living in or visiting Maine to see osprey circling waterways and soaring, with fish in claw, back to their nests where hungry chicks await. Those lucky enough to have osprey nearby often become very attuned to their habits, even knowing when they are most likely to return north to breed in the spring.

In addition to the natural wonder and beauty of getting to observe osprey, Anderson explained that scientists are also very interested in the osprey and the observations of regular citizens.

“Their near-global distribution, migratory patterns, and place at the top of many aquatic food chains – the great network of who-eats-whom in natural environments – make osprey a key indicator of global environmental health. If there is a problem in their environment, such as a change in climate patterns, a fish shortage, or pollution, the effects will be very visible in the osprey populations.”

Although each of these three threats is often on the minds of those concerned about humanity’s impact on the environment, their direct effects can be challenging to monitor. According to the Audubon Society, osprey are expected to lose 79% of their breeding territory by the year 2080. This is due in part to warming temperatures, which will extend their ideal wintering range northward, while rising sea levels will limit the amount of land where temperatures are suitable for raising their young in the summer. Fish species that osprey rely on could move into deeper, colder water or die out completely, leaving less food to be found. The impact of tiny plastic particles, medications, and other pollutions on aquatic ecosystems is significant, though how osprey will respond to these relatively new pollutants is not yet clear.

Scientists can get a better understanding of how climate change and pollution  affect the way natural systems function by monitoring when the osprey return each year and their overall health. However, due to limitations in funding and time, it can sometimes be challenging for scientists to collect an in-depth, up-to-date, truly global data set.

“Citizen science is becoming an increasingly popular way for scientists to collect large volumes of high-quality data that in the past may not have been easily obtainable. Because citizen science relies on passionate volunteers to collect data, it is easier to gather information on a larger scale.”

If you are passionate about osprey and protecting the environment, or are interested in contributing to a global scientific effort, please consider becoming involved with Osprey Watch, a global community of observers focused on breeding osprey. By watching an osprey nest throughout the breeding season and recording what you see on their website, you can make a meaningful contribution to a project that hopes to monitor the effects of climate change, overfishing, and pollution. Visit  www.osprey-watch.org to learn how to get involved.


This presentation was part of our Spring Birding Extravaganza: a free series of birding events held in partnership with Merrymeeting Audubon, Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, and Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.  Read more about this annual series at www.btlt.org/spring-birding-extravaganza-2017

 

Bird by Bird, The Avian Population is Shrinking

This is an article by Nat Wheelwright, Bowdoin Professor of Natural Sciences and Chair of the Biology Department, who will be presenting the lecture Backyard Changes on Tuesday, March 29 at 6:30 at the Topsham Public Library, as part of our ongoing Local Look at Our Changing Climate series.

Forty-three years ago, when I reached what my grandfather imagined to be the eve of puberty, I was summoned to spend the weekend with him at his house in rural Connecticut.

I knew what to expect because my four older brothers had undergone the same rite of passage. The climax of the weekend would be the ceremonial presentation of a double-barreled shotgun, followed by sober instruction on firearm safety and general manliness. Next, my grandfather would take me on an excursion into the woods and we’d fire off a few rounds.

But when my turn came the ritual had changed. Instead of a gun, I was given a double-barreled pair of binoculars, and then my grandfather took me on my first bird walk.

I was bewildered. But within an hour my disappointment was forgotten, shoved aside by sheer awe at the sight of a redstart hovering in midair, the sound of a wood thrush’s flute music, the swoosh of chimney swifts rushing in formation overhead.

Out of the cacophony of the dawn chorus, my grandfather taught me to pick out the rhythm of a dropped ping-pong ball in the field sparrow’s song and the towhee’s exuberant “drink your tea!” By their silhouettes alone I learned to distinguish a phoebe and a kestrel.

That weekend my grandfather lifted the veil to a world that had not existed for me before.

I didn’t want our time together to end because I would have to go back to my family’s farm where, to the best of my knowledge, there were no birds.

Of course, back home in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I found all the birds I’d been introduced to in Connecticut and many more, ambassadors of every color: electric-blue indigo buntings, blood-red scarlet tanagers, earth-toned veeries. I still remember the first blackburnian warbler I ever saw, his throat and cheeks so vividly orange, his face looked like it might burst into flames.

Spring and summer mornings thereafter, I’d wake up and listen to the birds singing in my backyard. If there was a sound I couldn’t recognize, I’d throw on a shirt and pair of pants, grab my binoculars, and track it down, something I still do today.

In his later years, my grandfather used to grumble that birds were becoming scarcer and scarcer.

It was tempting to write off his gloom as the natural tendency of the elderly to romanticize the past, or maybe just an old man’s deteriorating hearing and eyesight. But it was true that the whippoorwill that had kept me awake nights when I visited him as a boy had gone quiet, and the woods and fields of the Northeast felt emptier to me.

Earlier this summer, the National Audubon Society released a definitive study of population trends of North American birds, a monumental effort based on decades of Christmas bird counts and breeding bird surveys. The study confirms what my grandfather feared and what most of us now know. Birds that I used to see routinely growing up in New England – evening grosbeaks, eastern meadowlarks, northern bobwhites – are in free fall. The losses are mind-boggling.

Since my grandfather introduced me to birds just half a lifetime ago, once-common species have declined by as much as 80 percent due to the usual suspects: habitat loss, pesticides, introduced species, and climate change. The songs of tens of millions of birds have been silenced. It feels as if the lights are dimming.

In one sense, extinction is hugely overrated. The vast majority of animals and plants that disappear hardly leave a ripple in the pool of life. Species become rare, they disappear, yet ecosystems persist. In some cases biological communities are fundamentally altered because of the missing pieces, but most of the time the ecological effects of extinction of species like Bachman’s warbler or even ivory-billed woodpeckers are hardly measurable.

The true loss is spiritual and aesthetic, not functional or economic. Life would go on if every Shakespeare play and Beethoven sonata were destroyed, but to use the words of the Audubon report, our skies would be “a little quieter and the landscape a little drabber.”

Of course, we’ll always have CDs of bird song and DVDs of bird behavior to fall back on – a digital memory, as it were – but will that be enough?

I can see now that my grandfather’s rite of passage was really about connecting us with the land. It was about learning how to become intimate with our world’s signs, smells, sounds, textures and rhythms. It was about knowing where we are and who we are. How wonderful it would be to be able to pass that gift on to my own grandchildren.

Become a Plant Conservation Volunteer with New England Wild Flower Society!

downloadNew England Wild Flower Society is seeking enthusiastic people interested in plant identification and exploring interesting natural habitats to participate in their Plant Conservation Volunteer Program.

Plant Conservation Volunteers (PCVs) puts the skills of citizen science to work collecting information on rare plants and their habitats across all six New England states. There are also opportunities to assist with invasive and habitat management projects that benefit rare plants and botanical surveys. The New England Wild Flower Society provides annual training for those interested in becoming PCVs. The Society also offers free field trips and learning opportunities to PCVs often interacting with professional botanists to learn more about hard to identify species and the ecology of various habitats.

Good candidates are motivated, interested in plant identification, and a little adventurous. It’s an excellent opportunity to develop your botanical skills and put them to work, learn more about the flora of New England, meet others with similar interests, and help preserve your state’s natural heritage.

Training sessions will be held on a weekend in March/April for each of the New England states. Interested applicants with some botanical knowledge and are outside of Eastern Massachusetts are encouraged to apply.

For more information and to apply visit our website at www.newenglandwild.org/volunteers/plant-conservation.html/ or contact:

Laney Widener

Botanical Coordinator

New England Wild Flower Society

508-877-7630 ext. 3204

lwidener@newenglandwild.org