Nature Connection | Deborah McArthur

Writing – Consulting – Education

Rock Skipping Mindfulness

Reconnect with Mother Earth this week by getting in touch with the stones underfoot and the wonder of physics on our planet. Take a little time to break down the elements of how to make a rock bounce.

my_kind_of_rock.jpgPicking a rock. The search for an ideal rock to skip engages deep observation skills. What is your personal ideal size, shape, weight, texture? Do you prefer one as thick as a sandwich or as thin as a pancake? Honor an irregularity along the edge – a notch allows for a good grip. Turn the stone around in the palm a few times and flip it to test how it sits. Do you prefer a lighter density disc the weight of a tennis ball or one with the solidity of a baseball? Ponder the origin of the rock and look for minerals, crystals, layering, color. Is it chalky, smooth, muddy, sandy to the touch?

Preparing for the throw. Consider the elements of the throw before the wind up. A fast rock will go the farthest as each point of contact will slow it down. How can you get the most velocity out of the throw? Do some stretches to warm up the shoulder, the elbow, the wrist. Give thought to the spin. A good wrist snap and rotation – like with a frisbee – will give the rock stability and help it lift. How many rotations per second can you achieve with an ideal throw?

Now contemplate the angle of attack – around 20 degrees above the waterline is a good goal. You’ll have to stretch out the legs and knees now too to get a good, low lunge position. Like a practice swing with a golf club, try out a couple of side arm throws around the height of the knees to see how you can get the angle just right. Next to consider is how far to aim for the first touch. Do you want to keep it close – 5 feet – or will the first landing be 15-20 feet away?

skipping rocks_beach.jpg

Observe the wind and waves on the water’s surface. Consider which direction to aim – perpendicular or at an angle to the wind? Do a quick scan of the surrounding, acknowledging the beauty and peace of the moment. Then take a deep breathe, wind up and let it go.

However the rock flies, practice non-judgment and acceptance. That was a unique rock and throw and it was perfect in it’s own time and place!

May you find some time be grounded and add the satisfaction of an epic rock skip to your celebration of Earth week.

round and flat.jpg


Bugs in Rome

We woke up to the chiming of church bells tolling outside the window of our rental shutters_rome_bugs.jpgapartment in Italy’s capital city. We looked forward to making an espresso and exploring the sites: the Forum, Colosseum, and Vatican Museum. Opening the shutters to let in more light, we noticed a dot about the size of a tomato seed and just as flat, moving across the crisp white sheets. Recognizing it at once, we grabbed our bags, shook out our shoes before putting them on, and left as quickly as possible.

This is the second time in our traveling days that we have met bedbugs. While not pleasant, by understanding them, we could quickly gather our wits, problem-solve and move on from the unfortunate encounter.

hemiptera bugsBedbugs are in the order Hemiptera along with cicadas, treehoppers and aphids. While most of the “true bugs” in this group suck plant juices, some are hematophagous (blood sucking). Two common species feed on humans: Cimex lectularius – the common bed bug – (lectualarius meaning “bed” in Latin) and C. hemipterus.

Pliny the Elder wrote about the medicinal value of bed bugs in his work Natural History in 77 A.D. in (ironically) Rome. The insects were recommended to treat snake bites and ear infections. Aristotle also referenced bed-bug-origins-pliny“those insects which are not carnivorous, but live upon the juices of living flesh” in book five of The History of Animals around 350 B.C.E. Archaeologists have found fossilized bed bugs thought to be 3,500 years old.

The buggers aggregate in a shelter – called a harborage  – a crevice in a bedside table, crack in the wall, even an electrical socket or a laptop computer until dark, which makes them hard to identify when first inspecting a room. Like mosquitoes, they are attracted to CO2 and warmth. When they bite, it’s often in a line of small red dots – their “breakfast, lunch and dinner.” A bed bug can actually survive for over a year without feeding on blood.

Dogs’ sensitive noses are used to sniff out the pungent odor – described as rotting raspberries – of the Cimex species. Related, the word cimicine means “smelling of bugs”.

Other animals deal with cousin parasites. Bats, swallows and chickens have their species specific roost and nest invaders. Genome sequencing shows that bats are the ancestral host of the bed bug species that affect humans – most likely from times when humans and bats coexisted in caves.

The bites, while annoying and unnerving, gratefully do not transmit disease. Fear not. Know thine foes. Be vigilant. Sleep tight…

penny bug.jpg

The colors of rain and light

Kaleidoscopic streamers across the bay. A polychromatic half circle stretching from peak to peak. A pair of matching arcs exploding from the horizon. This winter’s rainy weather has been wonderful for sky watching and rainbow connections.

Raindrops act as prisms. As a wave of white light enters a sphere of water, it refracts, or bends, separating the white light into its rays of color – each with its own wavelength. Blue light takes a shorter wavy path and bends the most; red light has a longer wave pattern and bends least. The spectrum of ROY G. BIV colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) reflects off the back of the raindrop, sending the light to our anxious eyes.

What we see depends on the kind of storm and time of day. Light sprinkles – as small as 0.5mm in diameter – produce a faint rainbow apparition, whereas large raindrops – as big as 5 mm diameter – create brighter and more intense color displays. The angle of the sun hitting the raindrops affects its appearance. A mid-day rainbow, the sun high in the sky, highlights the blue and purple spectrum. Sunrise and sunset rainbows with more red and orange light waves reaching our vision, create dramatic crimson illusions.

double rainbowDouble rainbows form when the light reflects twice within the raindrops. The lower, or primary arc, is brighter than the secondary arc. Notice in a double rainbow how the lower arc has the red as the top band and violet on the bottom and the upper or secondary bow has the colors in the reverse order from violet to red (VIB G YOR)!

When double rainbows appear, there is the sinister, dark gray area of unlit sky between the primary and secondary arcs. This is called the Alexander’s band – honoring the Greek philosopher who first described the phenomenon in 200 A.D. The raindrops between the two arcs do not send light to your eye, so it appears dark.

Another rainbow spectacle to the meticulous observer is the presence of supernumeraries.jpgsupernumeraries. Look for extra purple, green and pink color bands like fringe that make the rainbow appear thicker on its underside – most common around the top of the bow.

May you enjoy the interludes between rain showers. Take a walk on the beach or a hike on a ridgeline to see the horizon and experience a rainbow connection.

Amazed by Molluscs

A hand-strung shell bracelet jingles on the wrist. Each delicate pinkie-nail sized bead is unique, like a snowflake. One has a white center that spirals into a light pink. Another starts tan then blends into a brown and white checkerboard pattern. A third has a hole in its top, weathered while washing up and back in the waves.

The shells are void of the living inhabitants that define these molluscs. Mollis in Latin means “soft” – counter intuitive when examining the bracelet of hard shells without the squishy snail bodies curled up inside.

The phylum Mollusca is the second largest in species diversity in the animal world. Our recent travels to the tropical waters of the Gulf of Thailand has given us a renewed connection and appreciation for this varied group.

tridacna-giant-clam-from-koh-phangan-thailandFrom the shoreline where we collected the tiny bracelet shells, we snorkel out to the reef and see the snails’ soft-bodied cousins, the giant clams. These molluscs reveal their presence in brilliant blue, green, purple and yellow sine-wave mantles. The clams’ double-shells are imbedded in the rocks so only the opening with the siphons show. One boulder may host several different colored curvy smiles of clams. A shadow or movement causes them to close up like a kiss. of underwater exploration are the “naked” molluscs – the nudibranchs or sea slugs. Typically only as long as a finger, these creatures come in an amazing array of striped and spotted patterns and wild color combinations. A perfect example of evolution through natural selection, nudibranchs often match the sponge and anemone substrate in their habitat, camouflaged. Once you spot a nudibranch, the added bonus is finding its eggs in a frilly rosette or spiral ribbon.

THAI SQUID SALADAlso within the Mollusc phylum are the cephalopods: octopus, cuttlefish, nautilus and – frequent in our day-to-day Thailand travels – squid. Each night, off-shore boats with green LEDs illuminate the horizon. The light draws plankton – and consequently their mollusc predators – to the surface. Plahmuk (Thai for squid) is a prevalent ingredient in street food when we enjoy squid in fried rice, pad thai, and curry noodles.

Traveling is a wonderful opportunity to compare animal diversity with species at home. Familiar molluscs in the redwood region and Monterey Bay include the infamous banana slugs, abalone, California blue mussels and the Pacific giant octopus.

May we always work to preserve biodiversity and understand the connections among species at home and around the world!


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




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