Nature Connection | Deborah McArthur

Writing – Consulting – Education

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.

The taste of spring

Nature exploration in spring is a sensory explosion.  Listen to the birds warbling and trilling their complex mating songs. See the bright buds of new growth on bare branches. Smell the rain on the trail and feel the mud and spongy ground underfoot. And what about the fifth sense? How might you enjoy the diversity of nature’s tastes to celebrate the arrival of spring?

During a hike along a ridgeline, we delight in the first blossoms of orange sticky monkey flower. A pinch at the base of the tubular flower reveals the glistening syrup that attracts hummingbird and butterfly pollinators – and the taste of sweet nectar.nectar sticky monkey flower

Kayaking through the slough, the lime-green, segmented, succulent pickleweed plant lines the channels. A nibble on a round stem is a taste of the sea –  satisfyingly salty.

Under the shaded redwoods, the ground is covered with clover-like sorrel. The leaves are purple underneath, green on top. A white line down the center of each heart-shaped leaf looks like a folded valentine. A sample of one leaf causes puckering lips – a sour flavor.

Across a meadow, green leafy plants abound with the spring rains. While tall grasses reach to the sun, the toothed leaves of dandelion greens grow flat on the ground at the base of the stem. A pinched leaf delivers a stimulating, bitter bite.

oyster mushroomsSweet, salty, sour and bitter are tastes recognized throughout history. A fifth taste – only characterized in the last 100 years – should not be forgotten. This one, we satisfy with a fungus foray. A harvest of oyster mushrooms sauteed to perfection sates the desire for savory – also known as umami.

The five tastes have their corresponding receptor cells in the mouth – primarily on the tongue but also along the throat and roof of the mouth – bundled in clusters: the taste buds. When the receptors sample small molecules such as sugars, electrolytes, toxins, and amino acids, they report to the brain through nerve fibers. Combined with signals of texture and smell, the brain assigns a food’s flavor.

Taste perception evolved to protect animals from ingesting toxic foods. Imagine how each animal lives in its own “taste world” with unique flavor perceptions and preferences.

Herbivores have the greatest number of taste buds (10-25,000) to allow them to distinguish among the huge diversity of plant species – many of which produce poisonous compounds. Carnivores, such as cats, have 500 or fewer taste buds and omnivores range in the middle. Humans mouths contain up to 10,000 taste buds.

Enjoy tastes this spring and throughout the year. Safe foraging!

The love of a dog

She would tilt her head when we said “beach” or “ball.” Her obsession with stick-fetching was as adorable as it was intense. Her big, dark eyes, wet tongue and howls of happiness greeted each return home.

Our family dog was a constant loving presence. She brought joy and laughter, calm and balance. Her actions gave us insight into canine instinct and how wild dogs behave and perceive the world.

Most memorable are the moments of play.  A curtsy or “downward dog” bow initiated the activity.  She enjoyed tug-of-war with an old sock as if it were a piece of wild-caught meat. Her eyes would follow a ball or stick as if it were prey running its course.

She enjoyed caching her bones and rawhide – common behavior of many wild animals. Not so pleasant was finding a half-chewed sinew under the couch pillows, in a slipper, or weeks later as a rotting glob in the garden.

dogWe gained insight into dogs’ masterful sense of smell as our girl found the smallest of crumbs on the kitchen floor. Snout to the grass, she traced the path of visiting wildlife in our yard with zig-zagging patterns. At the beach or along a forest trail, her nose would find any dead animal (so she could roll in the stench.)

Canine communication was fun to discern. Growls of unease. Yips of discomfort. Barks of warning. And the favorite, the welcoming howl of happiness when we returned home, conveying joy that the pack is all together again.

Perhaps what we will miss most is watching her nap. Muzzle sneering and relaxing, paws bending and twitching in her dreamy runs, we would tell stories of what in her doggie subconscious stimulates these movements; were they triggered by survival instincts from her wild canine genes?

Our dog modeled strength, hardiness and resilience – characteristics wild dogs must possess to survive. When sick or working a bone through her system, she would pace, eat grass, pace more. She seemed to know what she needed.IMG_1994

After so many years of love from our family dog, she inevitably stopped hearing her name, seeing thrown sticks, even feeding herself. In nature, this wild dog would not have a chance.

The last words we say to her are “thank you.” We feel gratitude for her sweet nature, for modeling the simple life, for encouraging us to go to wild places: the beach, the forest, across an open meadow, and for the love she gave to the pack.

cassie picasso'ed

In Memory of our dear Cascade who blessed our lives June 10, 2004 – February 22, 2018.

Slow down and watch the ducks

A perpetual New Year’s resolution: slow down, find more moments to breathe deeply, be more aware and find the balance between an inevitable busy lifestyle and calming moments in nature. Bird watching helps to achieve this goal and some of the easiest birds to watch are our local, native ducks.

mallardsMallards are omnipresent at park ponds and along the river. “Look! A headless bird!” we joke, as they dabble feed, their comb-like mouths sifting out a meal of aquatic plants and insects.

Molted out of the brown eclipse plumage of the fall, male mallards are ready to impress with green heads brilliantly flashing in the winter sun. Even this early in the year, mallards perform courtship displays. Watch closely for subtle movements that ducks perform – a shaking head, a waddling tail.

nod swimmingA female swimming with her neck outstretched, skimming the water with her lower beak is inviting males to show off. Males and females do a rhythmic head pumping motion like a dance move as they swim around each other. One may slyly lift a wing to expose the bright blue feathers on its trailing edge.

A favorite location for urban duck watching is Neary Lagoon Wildlife Refuge near downtown Santa Cruz. Look for the wood ducks. Males have green helmet-shaped heads with brilliant white lines etched around their neck and up the cheek – accents that look like an artist’s paintbrush. Females are helmeted with gray plumage – a white eye ring and tear drop pattern distinguishing her species. Wood ducks are smaller than mallards and may perch on low branches in the willows along the bank. Their clawed webbed feet help them hold on when they nest in tree cavities.

merganserAlong the San Lorenzo river levee or crossing the bridges downtown look for sleek ducks playing in the riffles, diving for small fish – the mergansers. Males sport green head feathers – spiked out the back in a crest – and a thin, pointed red beak. Females have ruddy red-orange heads – also slicked back with a spiked crest. Watch for the small jump they make when diving underwater.

Ducks are endearing perhaps because they bring back childhood memories of time spent observing wildlife. When the year gets crazy, take a walk, hang with the ducks and add a bit of balance to a full day.

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