Nature Connection | Deborah McArthur

Writing – Consulting – Education

Kitchen Chemistry

Cookie-making is a favorite part of the winter holidays. This year, we took on a kitchen chemistry challenge: to identify the materials and ingredients involved in the baking process down to the level of some of the elements and molecules. Like marking off a bingo card of letters and numbers, we characterized twenty elements involved.

Our cookie making starts with a stainless-steel bowl made from an alloy of metals ssbowlincluding iron (26Fe) with some chromium (24Cr) and nickel (28Ni)*. We measure out our flour made up of carbon (6C), oxygen (8O) and hydrogen (1H) chains. Our glass measuring cup is made mostly of silicon (14Si) with some calcium (20Ca), magnesium (12Mg) and aluminum (13Al) added for strengthening and heat-resistance. (*Note: the number before the element’s symbol is the atomic number = how many protons are in the nucleus.)

baking sodaThe addition of baking soda checks sodium (11Na) off the list. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) – most important to make the cookies fluffy when it reacts and forms carbon dioxide gas bubbles.

Flavor-enhancing table salt adds chloride (17Cl) to our mix. Table salt crystals are also known as sodium chloride (NaCl).

A teaspoon each of nutmeg and cinnamon are organic carbon-hydrogen-oxygen molecules which add that holiday flavor and float into the air when baked as a fragrance of the season.

Our second mixing bowl is made of glazed ceramic. Its origin may include silicon, aluminum and some of the alkali metals – sodium (11Na) and potassium (19K) – and alkaline earth metals – calcium (20Ca) and magnesium (12Mg).

320px-saccharose.svgWe measure out the sugar (C12H22O11) and then the triglyceride a.k.a. butter which includes a very familiar molecule – H20! Water is trapped in butter’s solid fat matrix.

Then to crack a nutrient-rich egg which adds calcium (20Ca), iron (9Fe), phosphorous (15P), and zinc (30Zn) as well as vitamins and minerals containing nitrogen (7N) and sulfur (16S). Mix it all up with a wooden spoon (long chains of carbon-hydrogen-oxygen atoms).

Seasonal fruit such as persimmon adds potassium (19K). Pumpkin is a source Iron (9Fe), magnesium (12Mg), Phosphorus (15P) and Copper (29Cu). Some nuts contain selenium (34Se) and calcium (20Ca). Add some oats – a great source of manganese (25Mn).

And what would cookies be without chocolate? Theobromine C7H8N4O2 is the chemical formula of this important compound.chocolate

Does this simplistic breakdown make the cookies taste better? Yes! But don’t forget to supplement your cookie diet with truly vitamin and protein-rich vegetables and wholesome foods this season. May your 2019 be full of awareness, curiosity, understanding and connection (and even more cookies!) Happy holidays.


A Visit to the Recycling Center

‘Tis the season of Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping deals. 12-year-old guest columnist Ronja McArthur reflects on a field trip to the Dimeo Lane Resource Recovery Facility and encourages thoughtfulness this holiday season.

Have you ever had a can that you get at a birthday party filled with lemonade? You take a long sip and it tastes so refreshing and good, but then it is empty. You search the bottom for a last droplet and then walk over to recycle it.

A couple days later a truck comes and takes it to the recycling center. The truck drives around to where they dump. A school group in orange vests watches eagerly as the driver opens the hatch. Part of the truck rises into the air and all the recycling comes pouring out, including the lemonade can.

recycling2The school group follows their guide up the stairs to see the recycled items pulled up and churned by giant gears. A conveyor belt transports some of the recycled items to a group of workers. They sort some things that go to the landfill (a term we learned called “wish cycling” where people put things in the bin just hoping it can be recycled) and they let the items to be recycled go by.

Suddenly, there is a beeping sound and the conveyor belt stops. The school group gasps. A worker cuts away a cord of plastic that jammed the wheel. The tour guide talks about how long strings damage the machine.

As the school group goes on, a can speeds down the conveyor belt and gets sucked up and dumped into a bin filled with other cans. The cans travel to a big machine that compresses and binds them into huge cubes to be shipped somewhere to be made into something new. The school group plays “I spy” as they find plastics and other things that don’t belong with the aluminum. The sorting process is not always perfect. The students move on, seeing a mountain of metal and a hill of glass.

After going through the tour and learning more about the process of recycling, I learned that each recycling center accepts different things. You can’t recycle a lot of items even if it has the three arrows triangle symbol on the package.

Try to make good shopping choices. Pre-cycle and buy fewer packaged products. Refuse plastic straws and bags that could become harmful to the environment. And the next time you go to buy lemonade for a party, instead of getting individual cans, try making your own. You can change the world by helping to reduce, reuse, and recycle.


Middle school students from Alternative Family Education (AFE) don hardhats, orange vests and radio headsets to tour the Dimeo Lane Resource Recovery Facility and learn how the city sorts and sells recyclables. Photo by Leslie O’Malley, Waste Reduction Educator, City of Santa Cruz Public Works.

Scared by Nature

Ghosts, skeletons and zombies in the graveyard. Vampires, mummies, monsters, creepy clowns and witches lurk around each corner. Your heart races. Blood pumps rapidly through your veins. Breaths are shallow and more frequent. Boo!

Halloween for many includes an aspect of scaring ourselves and others. Haunted houses, gory costumes and make up, playing into fears of spiders, scorpions, snakes and bats. The holiday is a good opportunity to look at some phobias that haunt us throughout the year.

How about this: you are walking along a trail and come to a wide meadow. It’s overgrown with waist-high grass. Are you afraid of what might hide along the path?  A rattlesnake! Ticks! Poison oak! A mountain lion!rattlesnake.jpg

Many people fear elements in nature and consequently avoid contact with the wild outdoors. These nature-phobic folks miss out on experiences which provide benefits for the mind and body. By recognizing, learning about and then challenging these fears, we become stronger and more resilient individuals.

First, identify and acknowledge the concern. In the ocean, are you scared of a shark attack or being stung by a sea jelly? Perhaps it is a fear of drowning or the unknown of what lurks in the depths.

In the forest, what causes anxiety? Bears, a skunk, biting and stinging insects such as yellow jackets, bees or red ants? Even plants can be scary: poison oak, stinging nettles, vines with thorns, brush with burrs.

In a wetland, do you fear mosquitoes or leeches? Is it dirt, microbes, or the dark that you dread?

The next step is to gain knowledge of your source of trepidation. Know about how to be safe in the wild. When crossing the meadow with the tall grass: be vigilant, make noise when going through thick brush to scare off animals that might be a threat, know how to identify dangerous plants, do a tick check for your personal safety.

scorpionFinally, challenge those fears regularly so they don’t inhibit you from opportunities to experience wonder and adventure. Fears are learned and with enough exposure, one builds up tolerance. Pushing past fears empowers, instilling confidence to take on challenges.

At Halloween – once a year – find fun and joy in the fright of the fantastical as coffins spring open and ghouls jump out of the dark. But when the holiday is over, let us not be afraid of the wild and natural. Instead of living in fear, live bold, strong and resilient. Less stress, less anxiety. More joy, more fun.


Self-awareness through nature

Fall equinox is transition time from active summer to cooler, darker days. It is a time to return to studies, reconnect and self-reflect. We each have different aptitudes for learning; diverse approaches work for us. How we experience the natural world can be a reminder of unique “smarts” and strengths.

For the musically smart, it is the sounds of nature that draw a deep emotional response. Bat clicks, howling coyotes or the depth of a frog croak resonate. A wave crashing on sand lingers as the strongest memory from a walk on the beach. The musically adept distinguish song intricacies not obvious to others; a gull call differs from the tern.

For people who are body smart, movement is the biggest thrill in nature. When hiking a trail, the body understands and responds to the topography. For these kinesthetically adept, climbing rocks with all four limbs resonates and peaking the mountain highlights the nature experience.

group hike.jpgThe socially smart love nature when it includes other people. Sharing stories around the campfire, group hikes, meeting others on the trail and exchanging experiences is essential. Folks with strong interpersonal skills have a deeper connection when they can discuss the landscape or a wildlife sighting.

Some are self-smart, thriving with solo time in nature. Driven by strong intrapersonal intelligence, you find time to journal, reflect and plan for the future. Solo nature experience offers the opportunity to understand oneself, challenge boundaries, learn to pace, meditate.

The art-smart learn best through visual stimuli. Moved by the colors of the seasons or light levels between habitats (i.e., from woodland to deep forest), this strength inspires photography, sketching, and nature illustration.illustration_nature_art

The verbal and linguistic smart use language to connect. Nature poetry or natural history stories resonate. Imagine understanding wildlife courtship or alarm vocalizations. These folks are the Lorax who “speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues!”

The mathematically-minded connect to the numbers in nature – the height of a peak, distance of a trail, lines on the contour map. These logical thinkers ponder population dynamics, the balance of wildness and development, critical thinking and problem-solving.

The naturalist intelligence feels most at home in the wild. S/he nurtures the desire to identify, group, label and find relationships in nature through touch, sight, taste, smell, sound and intuition.

These learning intelligences exist on a unique spectrum for each individual. May nature be a catalyst for your self-awareness. Honor your strengths. Follow your heart.

An annual backpacking trip

Tighten boot laces. Adjust the pack straps. Check the map. By the third day, the morning routine is set. Back on the trail, we are ready to discover what is around the next bend and over the next ridgeline. Ready to find a perfect, remote swim hole or stumble across a chance encounter with local wildlife.

redwood_trailBackpacking allows one to go deep into the wilderness to connect and become part of the landscape. It is a wonderful summer tradition that challenges and rewards.

Preparation is one of the biggest tasks, requiring conscious choices and detachment from everyday comfort items. It requires getting down to the basics.

A lightweight pack is key to an enjoyable trip. The right sleeping bag for the weather should compress to take up as little compartment space as possible. A reliable sleeping mat is invaluable. Add a good water filter and a simple stove.

Food must meet a list of requirements: high-energy, healthy, hearty, non-perishable, doesn’t melt, light-weight, compact, and little to no packaging. Does it all fit in a bear cannister?

Learning about the terrain and choosing a route is important; figure out how many miles to travel in one day. Are streams flowing to resupply water bottles?

Don’t underestimate the importance of knowing the weather patterns. Prepare for windy afternoons, cold nights, even possible thunder and hail storms. Pack layers.

Once on the trail, keep a steady pace – perhaps pushing some physical limits. Eventually you can get into the zone, forgetting about the distance and the weight of the pack. The rhythm of footfalls becomes a walking meditation. Breathing fresh air and connecting with nature through movement and sensory awareness is what it is all about.

Why is being able to carry all your basic needs so satisfying? There is beauty in the simplicity. A successful backpacking trip leaves one with a sense of accomplishment and confidence. Everyday challenges seem easier, knowing you can be self-sufficient in the wild.

tree_climbersBackpacking at least once a year is a good and healthy practice. It’s a great way to reset.

Looking for a local backpacking trip? Scope out the trail camps at Big Basin, Henry Coe, Castle Rock or Butano State Parks. Delve into the Ventana Wilderness in Pine Valley, Arroyo Seco or along the Big or Little Sur rivers. National Forest lands in the Sierra Nevada offer countless opportunities to explore trails and camp under the stars.

family trip




Journey Downriver

Don your non-slip shoes to swim, slide, hike, float and crawl through a river canyon. Ford upstream and then follow the current down to spectacular views around every bend, getting to know the wild bugs, birds, trees and rocks.

Discover dynamic dragonflies zig-zag feeding at a favorite pool where aquatic nymphs hatch into winged adults. Watch for damselflies, a smaller species who fold their wings together when they land. Two fly in tandem when a male holds onto a female to keep her from mating with another until his eggs are deposited in a quiet pool.

stonefly exoskeletonFor the river insect scavenger hunt, look for the crunchy exoskeletons of molted stoneflies, double-decker water striders, and populations of black fly larvae that look like soft, black moss on flat rocks under gently flowing waterfalls.

DipperMove slowly through the river canyon to observe birds. A close encounter with an American dipper is enchanting, as it blinks – as if flirting – feathery eyelashes flash white. As the name suggests, dippers “dip” up and down on skinny legs. Short wings help it dart rock-to-rock. A short, thin beak acts as pinchers to pick off aquatic insects.

Mergansers float along the river banks, their sleek bodies and long necks adapted for diving. Serrated beaks grab fish, crawdads, and aquatic insects for lunch. The mom and juveniles have rusty-orange heads with a flare of feathers off the back like a stylish mohawk.

A journey through a river is a tree tour. Sycamores’ broad, lime-colored leaves filter light into a pastel glow. The small leaves of live oaks shade the river with speckles of sunlight. Willows’ thin leaves grow low and bushy along the banks. Identify cottonwoods, alders, redwoods, big-leaf maple or box elder.

Tree roots are sculptures, twisted and bent by water flow and rock movement over time. A root system growing in a crevice works hard to hold on and gain nutrients.

yuba rock jumpingRocks are a memorable part of a river adventure. Jumping off a high bank, maneuvering through a boulder crevice, hopping from one to another, or sliding along algae-covered obstacles as you navigate downriver over riffles and falls.

Stones offer their own entertainment: skipping the flat, round ones across a pool, looking for the shape of a heart or dog or shark tooth or sitting on a bank, aiming to hit a target with a palm-sized projectile. Put a pebble to your ear and listen for its story…

Don’t let the warm water months pass without river time. Whether it is the San Lorenzo, Yuba or Arroyo Seco, exploration and summer memories await!


Garden veggies and their cousins

Tending a summer vegetable garden is a great way to observe and understand plant diversity. Note the growth form, color and texture of leaves, the flower color and how the fruits and vegetables develop on each plant. Connecting with garden veggies provides an opportunity to learn about similar, related wild plants.

poison_hemlockCarrots are in the same family (Apiaceae) as parsley, fennel and celery. Outside the garden, a dangerous relative grows as a common weed. The feathery leaves of poison hemlock look like carrot tops. Identify the hazardous species by the red at the base of the stem – a reminder of “Socrates’s blood” (as the philosopher chose to die by drinking hemlock tea!)

wildcuke-viningCucumbers are in the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) with other summer garden favorites: melon, squash, pumpkin and zucchini. The vines and curling tendrils of garden cucumbers weave up and over bamboo trellises. A wild cucumber plant – commonly called “manroot” – thrives outside the veggie garden gate, climbing into willow and oak branches, creating a dense tangle. The wild cucumber fruit is a ping-pong sized green ball with long spines. It is not edible.

deadly-nightshadeTomatoes share a plant family (Solanaceae) with potatoes, eggplant, chili and sweet peppers. Outside the garden, get to know its wild, weedy cousin the “deadly nightshade”. Both plants grow 3-5 feet tall with alternate leaves and tiny pinwheel flowers. While tomatoes have yellow and white flowers, these nightshades have blue or deep purple flowers. Instead of plump, juicy tomato fruit, the flowers develop into small, dark poisonous balls.

raphanus-raphanistrum-wild-radish-english-schoolKales, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, radish and turnips are all members of the mustard family, Brassicaceae. Outside the garden, wild mustard and radish grow across fields. Another wild cousin, watercress, is common in our local creeks.

A few more garden to wild plant links: Snap peas and green beans (Fabaceae) are closely related to wild lupine, vetch and broom. Cultivated spearmint and sage (Lamiaceae) are cousins to wild yerba buena and hedgenettle. Artichokes are in a family with summery sunflowers (Asteraceae). Artichokes relatives are those thorny and omnipresent thistles making crossing a field a scratchy challenge.

Strawberries and raspberries are veggie garden perennials in the rose family (Rosaceae). Delicious, wild cousins include thimbleberry, California blackberry, and wood strawberry. California and wood rose grow along the trail. Many fruit trees are also in this family – note the similarity of flowers on apple, pear, cherry, plum, peach, apricot and almond trees.schematic_rose22

In the garden and in the wild, get to know your plants and enjoy the long, sweet days of summer.

Road trips Rock

A recent geology immersion road-trip included exploring an ancient cavern, descending the great Colorado Plateau staircase, and touring landscapes of sand dunes and cinder cones. We hiked, biked, river slogged, and drove through millions and billions of years of Earth’s history.

hwy50From the high Sierra Nevada granite expanses off I-80, our route branched onto Highway 50 in Nevada. Heading due east, one can’t help but feel the rhythmic pattern of the landscape. The needle-straight road traverses sagebrush desert, then winds up and over a snowy mountain pass. And repeats. Linear across the desert, winding up, twisting down again over a dozen sets of basins and ranges. Dubbed “the loneliest road in America,” for over 300-miles across the state, we greeted rare on-coming cars with an empathic and enthusiastic wave.

cavesJust before the Utah border, the remote Great Basin National Park surprised us with a spectacular cavern displaying limestone and marble stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, shields and “cave popcorn.” A park ranger led the tour through the Gothic Palace, Music and Lodge rooms of this spectacle that dates to the early Cambrian, 600 million years ago.

Finally in Utah, we camped above the pink cliffs in Bryce Canyon National Park at an impressive (and chilly) 8000-foot elevation. Here at the top of the Colorado Plateau, the Claron Formation is 40 million years young. We explored the magical Bryce Amphitheater of towering rock walls, fins, windows and hoodoo spires on the Peak-a-boo trail, weaving through ponderosa, limber and bristlecone pines.

zion.jpgTraveling south, we descended elevation and like traveling back in time, the sandstone rock got older and older. Entering Zion National Park from the east entrance, the crisscross patterns of Checkerboard Mesa welcomed us. These were ancient sand dunes in the Jurassic era when dinosaurs roamed – 180 million years ago. Sneakers stick satisfyingly on the steep slope sandstone.

narrows.jpgA bike ride up Zion’s Virgin River valley to the slot canyon of the Narrows was the most dramatic immersion of our trip – deep red Navajo sandstone embraced us as we cruised among the cottonwood trees.

A final camping night before returning home brought us through the Mojave National Preserve with its diversity of attractions including Hole-in-the-Wall labyrinth, Kelso sand dunes, black rock cinder cones and lava tubes. Some rock in the Preserve is 2.5 billion years old – that’s over half the age of planet Earth!

As the foggy redwood coast welcomed us home, we’ve refuse to wash the back window of the van. It’s a reminder of the radical rocks, vast views, washboard dirt roads and juniper campfires of our recent adventure through geological time.

Special thanks to Scout for hosting us on our trip. We loved Hurricane Mesa and we love you!

A model coastal town

A 3×3-foot environmental landscape model draws immediate attention. It includes a shallow basin on one side, representing the ocean and our Monterey Bay Sanctuary. Toy sea creatures – a dolphin, gray whale, anemone, octopus – create the scene.

Block buildings define different parts of a community across the contoured model. A red barn sits near a field. A resort hotel rests on an ocean bluff. A factory with an outflow pipe is on the opposite side of a harbor with toy boats. A car, a tractor, and a giant dog can be moved around from a gas station to a house to the

The model is the perfect Earth Week educational tool. It provides a platform to simulate human actions, observe cause and effect, discuss environmental issues and problem-solve.

A student shakes out a layer of red cake sprinkles onto the agricultural field in one corner. This is pesticide applied to a crop of vegetables. Next, a sprinkle of green sugar crystals representing chemical fertilizer. Cinnamon dusts the field as loose top soil.

Leify_sprayingThen the rain begins –  a spray bottle showers the field. Green chemicals, red “bug spray” and brown dirt course down the contours, tainting the water in the estuary inlet and flowing into the ocean. As the contaminated water runs toward the ocean animals, students instinctively reach out to move the animals away.

Students have fun playing with the colored and textured ingredients. A pinch of rainbow sprinkles scattered along the beaches and streets simulates wrappers and debris. Chocolate sprinkles look surprisingly like dog poop. Soy sauce dripped under the toy car is an oil leak. A few squirts of foam soap covers the little car getting washed. Cinnamon dusts the construction site.

watershed dogThen it rains again. Soap, oil, garbage and pet waste wash into the storm drains and funnel into the Sanctuary. Erosion of the loose soil turns the water brown as it all flows downhill and mixes together.

The discussion turns to solutions: creating vegetation and buffer zones around fields and construction sites. Organic farming. Preserving wetlands to filter run-off water. Keeping cars tuned so they don’t leak oil. Consumer choices and being very responsible with waste or refusing and reusing to reduce.

Playing with a landscape model brings awareness and connection. It suggests stewardship projects for Earth Day (and everyday): a beach clean-up, plant restoration, gardening, tree planting. It stimulates discussion of environmental careers which require communication and problem-solving: engineering, wildlife biology, farming, city planning, politics, teaching.boys&watershedmodel

May we all work toward being model environmental citizens in a model community. “Make every day Earth Day” by recognizing our impacts and working toward positive solutions.

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