Nature Connection | Deborah McArthur

Writing – Consulting – Education

Caribbean Reflections

Tropical sky. Warm sea. A diversity of wildlife. Good food, music and kind words. ‘Tis the season for holiday craziness or…for escaping to another part of the world to experience an exotic ecosystem and culture.

The winter sky in the Caribbean features thunderheads towering along the horizon. Evening electric storms include lightening forks reaching to the sea. Flashing cloud banks add to the light show. A special green flash sunset is a gift to behold.

The night sky from this tropical latitude shifts the view of Orion, Pleiades, Cassiopea, and Pegasus. While sky-gazing one night, we happened upon the Geminid meteor shower. Short-tailed “shooting stars” darted high over head, while longer, more dramatic meteors fell closer to the horizon.

jamlizardIsland wildlife adds variety to each day. Geckos run upside down on the ceiling. A turquoise anole lizard poses along a rock wall. Bats appear at dusk as the tree frogs begin their high-pitch chirps which continue until early dawn. Along the shore, a night heron hunts crabs, while it’s cousin egrets adorn the river bank. Over the sea, tropic birds skim the surface of the water picking up small fish as frigate birds glide on huge pointed wings. Green parakeets fill the trees and fantastically iridescent hummingbirds hover at tropical flowers. We pause and admire the butterflies that cross the volleyball court.

The turquoise, 85-degree Caribbean Sea offers a magical underwater world to explore. Focusing just in front of your nose introduces dramatic plankton such as comb jellies with cilia reflecting rainbow ribbons and ice cube jellies looking like they spilled from an onboard cocktail. Keen eyes in a snorkel mask search among the rocks and corals. jamseaObservations fill a check list of spectacular species from trumpetfish to angelfish to an eel popping out of a hole in the sand. A green sea turtle, a reef shark, an octopus and two cuttlefish are favorites until an eagle ray glides gracefully along the bottom. Sponges of every color, waving anemone tentacles, beautiful feather duster and alien-looking polychaete bristle worms decorate the reefscape. Tiny, spiral Christmas tree worms remind us of the season.

jamaica_veggiesThe red ackee fruit hangs on trees everywhere; it fills patty pastries and complements saltfish. Bananas, papaya, pineapple and coconut blend into cool smoothies. From a street vendor we purchase island-grown ingredients for dinner: pumpkin, yam, carrots, onion, garlic, ginger, thyme, turmeric, red beans, callaloo greens; all topped with toasted peanuts. For the omnivores, curried goat and jerk chicken.

Island travel in mid-December oversets some traditions. While these experiences are impossible to put in a stocking or under the tree, they will be the most memorable, the most valued. Ya mon. One love. Happy holidays!



Crafty Gift-Giving

Holiday carols are playing. Winter lights are going up. One relative has already asked for a wish list. With enough time to prepare, the gift-giving season is great motivation to get crafty and creative. Forage for natural materials on the river, at the beach, in the forest and field during Thanksgiving; lay out supplies to play with during the long, dark evenings. By the end of December, you’ll have homemade gifts. And avoid the plastics, packaging, highways, parking lots, lines of shoppers, online websites and headaches.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Easy-Straw-Stars-600x600Tree ornaments. Tall grasses have dried in meadows and empty lots. Dried stems are great for crafting into star patterns – an old Scandinavian holiday tradition. Use colorful embroidery thread to connect the middle of the straw spokes. Weave in and out to bind the straw, then cut the points to different lengths. Cones and seed pods make great tree decorations – try to collect from a diversity of local trees: redwood, cypress, Douglas fir, eucalyptus, cedar, juniper. “Wood cookies” are a great base for homemade ornaments: Use a saw to crosscut a 3-4-inch diameter branch into rounds. Drill a hole in each to loop through a festive ribbon. Draw or paint the discs with holiday themes or kind words: “Joy”, “Love”, “Peace”.wood_cookies

Room accents. Driftwood collected during walks along the river and beach can be made into simple picture frames or artsy hanging mobiles. Search for pieces just right to carve a hole and plant a couple succulents in sandy soil. Evergreen wreathes and garlands are simple to make with a supply of wire to twist and bend woody stems together.

Persimmon-Gingerbread-RecipeFood items. Homemade chocolates, cookies, and quick breads are personal, unique, and heartfelt. As we prune the plants in the yard, we collect mint and lemon verbena leaves to stuff paper tea bags. Each year we find a source of persimmons to dry with cinnamon and nutmeg. And a new endeavor this year, we shall tap our big-leaf maple tree to collect sap and make syrup – perhaps to add to oats, seeds and nuts for a wholesome granola mix.

Reusable wrapping. Fabric bags with a festive ribbon tie are wonderful for presenting gifts. Cloth bags last decades and a small time investment now to make a variety of sizes, pays off years later. Packaging in cloth is quicker than cutting, folding and taping paper corners.gift_bags

Make a conscious effort this year to have a low-impact holiday season with thoughtful home-craft gift giving. The earlier you start, the easier it will be!



Being electron aware

A warming fire burned in the woodstove. Oil lanterns cast glowing light onto the couch and a game of chess on the coffee table. A few tea candles in glass jars added to the atmosphere that resembled a scene from Little House on the Prairie. Without electricity during the planned power outage, we became resourceful and very conscious of our energy use.

40-hours without electricity gave us time to think about each appliance and alternatives to constantly drawing out those flowing electrons.

The afternoon sun and gentle breeze dried the laundry hung on a line in the garden. Had we used the clothes dryer, the machine would have sucked 5000 Watts and for at least an hour of tossing our garments around. With 4 loads of laundry per week, by hanging our apparel, sheets and towels, we save $5/week or $20/month (well worth the small investment in time when that amount buys ice cream sundaes for the whole family).

Extra blankets on the bed kept us warm through the crisp powerless nights. Downy layers are a much better choice than running a space heater which would draw 1500 Watts through an 8-hour night (at a rate of 25 cents a kilowatt hour that equates to $3 to heat one small room!)

We hand washed our dishes and let them air dry. We kept the refrigerator cold with a small array of solar panels, recognizing that the new model runs on an impressive 200 Watts, while the ancient one from the 80s, which we finally replaced, would have drawn up to 2000 Watts.

With the power restored, the discussion of energy efficiency continues (and some fun math application). For example, which appliance should we use to bake a potato? The electric oven runs at 4000 Watts and takes 1 hour. At 25 cents per kilowatt hour that’s 4 kilowatts x 1 hour x .25 dollars per kilowatt hour = $1 (seriously?!) The microwave runs at 1200 Watts and takes 5 minutes: 1.2 kilowatts x .08 hours x .25 dollars per kilowatt hour = 2 cents to cook that baked potato (just don’t forget to poke holes so it doesn’t explode!)

The connection of how our actions relate to respect for our atmosphere and helping to combat climate change comes with constant awareness and continual reminders. May the “new norm” of planned outages be another nudge to replace incandescent light bulbs with LEDs, upgrade to more energy-efficient appliances and shift to solar energy for the home.

We may also choose to have more powerless evenings to play candlelit chess by the fire.


Musical Harmony

A dock backed by a turquoise sea leads to an iconic Greek Island scene. White-washed walls, cyan window shutters, flower boxes overflowing with bougainvillea, terra cotta flowers pots along a cobblestone street frame the doors to “The Taverna.” Park Hall – the home of Mountain Community Theater in the small redwood town of Ben Lomond – welcomes all to its production of Mamma Mia!

Before the house opens to the patrons, the actors spread out on the stage warming up their voices, bodies and minds.

Vocals warm ups begin with lip trilling or “buzzing” scales to loosen the jaw muscles, vibrating the vocal chords. Visualize the voice box – a 2-inch long tube lined with muscle tissue – through the lower, deeper notes created by loosing the laryneal muscles, to higher tones reached by tighter vocal chords creating higher frequency, shorter wave length notes.

A deep yoga breath expands and stretches the diaphragm muscle used to control the release of air pressure that streams across the vocal chords. A strong, conditioned diaphragm supports the gradual release of air to hold notes – especially important with accompanying leaping and jumping choreography.

More vocal exercises warm up the resonators – the chest, the throat, the nose – cavities where the sound is amplified and modified to produce full and crisp timbre. A full-body experience, the music originates from the earth itself, flowing through the souls of the feet, through the torso.

Warming the body includes heightened auditory awareness, listening to the tempo of the music, the blending of voices, the cues. Back and leg stretches loosen and relax the limbs for flowing, natural movement on stage.

A preshow review of dance sequences, tough lyrics, the where and when of set changes, and costume details keep the brain sharp and on task. The mind needs to be flexibe with an ability to adapt if something is out of place – to problem solve.

Readiness to perform includes cultivating high energy. Aside from an initial adrenaline rush, actors sustain exuberance by having fun, connecting with a castmate and responding to the audience. In Mamma Mia!, the incredible music of the iconic 70s Swedish band ABBA creates an unparallel vibrancy.

Singing group harmonies and moving with a pack taps into a part of human nature. Creating art with a strong community is intrinsically satisfying and deeply joyful.

Back-to-School Brain

“Allways,” “wihle,” and “thurseday” appeared on the first writing assignments of the school year. While outdoor activity, unstructured time, camping, beach and river play dominated the summer, the shorter days of approaching fall help reel in the focus to more structured learning. It’s time to reengage those neurons and take advantage of the incredible learning capacity of the developing brain.

Preschool through college, education prepares youth to be well-rounded, smart citizens, able to understand the world and make wise decisions. Parents, teachers and the community together help our youth succeed. Here are some things to keep in mind to provide support and encourage environmental literacy to our young community members through their academic year.

river_kidsNature clears the head. In our competitive, digital world, one of the best ways to support students is to encourage them to take breaks from the rigor and routine of studies and clear the mind in nature. A walk in the park, watching the sunset at the beach, riding a bike along the river, provide effortless attention to familiar landscapes which restores cognitive function. Exposure to nature is linked to greater impulse control and self-discipline. The disconnect from electronic devices and social media help youth stay balanced, well-rounded and feel less isolated.

Help young people make the connections. Some of the most valuable lessons for my kids come from friends engaging in conversation about real world issues. This helps them build upon what they learn from books and lessons. A short engagement with a young person in the grocery store about consumer choices of buying organic or choosing not to buy a product because of too much packaging, encourages an environmental ethic. Discussion about the solar panels on your house gives a personal reference to something that may still be abstract.reading in garden

Praise for good choices. It’s not easy to learn what is respectful and responsible. Kind words from adults, “I’m glad you recycled that can” or “Thanks for carpooling,” promotes thoughtful behavior. There are opportunities daily to remind youth that their actions have consequences: every straw they refuse could reduce marine debris, biking instead of driving reduces air pollution. Teens and college students still have a developing frontal lobe responsible for judgement, insight, and impulse control; they benefit from guidance and encouragement from the community at large.

While parents and teachers take care of many of the basics of education (we’ll be drilling the times tables and editing for capitalization), everyone in the community can support the development of the environmentally conscious student. Invite a young friend to get outdoors, have a conversation about a current event and reinforce good choices to help our youth find balance, reduce stress and make better decisions. It takes a village.

Getting to Know a Mountain

4amDebz&Ronja.jpgThe wake-up call came at 2:45 a.m. Time to layer up in thermal underwear, wool socks, snow pants, ski jacket and gloves. Hat, hood, headlamp. We strapped spiky crampons on freshly beeswaxed leather boots. A leash around the wrist attached to an ice ax is a reminder that this is not just a backpacking trip but a mountaineering adventure. An alpine wind whistled through our 8,300-foot basecamp. By 3:15, the 9 in our expedition party were on our way up the steep slope toward the stars.

lake viewTwo days before, we admired the brilliant snow-covered Mount Shasta while swimming in Lake Siskiyou on the west side of Interstate 5. The snowy summit at 14,179-feet graced the deep blue afternoon sky. Call it “mountainlust” – a desire to feel the terrain of a distant landscape, to set foot on the snow and understand the mountain.

The Clear Creek route to the summit, on the southeast slope, is considered the easiest and least technical approach. Even the first week of July, we found snow by our trailhead at 6,390-feet. The trek to basecamp started in a red fir forest; snow patches made following the path a bit of a scavenger hunt. Emerging out of the forest, we met the ridgeline and an incredibly scenic view of Mud Creek Canyon and Falls and the majestic Shasta above the snowfields.


We tripped and slipped in the sun cupped snow. It was crusty in the shade, slushy in the open and tinted watermelon pink with algae. We made basecamp on a gravel outcrop among bent and twisted krummholz whitebark pines. A few anemone flowers bloomed in the volcanic soil. Beetles, gnats and moths brought the early-season alpine to life. Birds called from the pines. A hummingbird zipped by.

melting_snow.jpgEvening clouds built up around the mountain, greying out any sunset. We melted snow for dinner, looking out over the southern Cascade range to Mount Lassen. We talked about the next day, debating what time to wake and start the ascent, what should be a turnaround time and who would buddy with whom.

The mountain affects everyone in different ways. Some take it slow and steady and reach the summit. Some feel the draw of a warm sleeping bag at basecamp and decide they have gone far enough. For others, the altitude and exhaustion force descent before the top.


While having seen Mount Shasta over a dozen times driving along Interstate 5, finally spending time getting to know this magical, potentially active volcano satisfied that “mountainlust.” Traversing the snowfields, sharing time with friends and watching a spectacular sunrise made this an incredible lifetime memory.


Special thanks to Sean for organizing the Shasta trip, to Stacy and Marty for mountaineering leadership, to Kai and the kids for the family support, to Thomas and Leif for waiting for us in town. Huge gratitude to Ronja for being my ascent partner and an amazing and courageous companion!

Contemplating Canine Companions

Summer is a prime time to travel. It’s also an opportunity for our family to dog sit as our friends go abroad. As different doggie personalities mingle with our lifestyle, we study their traits and behaviors, similarities and differences.

Luna1Luna is a small, blonde terrier. She follows her favorite family member like a shadow. She gets upset when her favorite person shows affection toward another – wanting to be the focus. She’s reluctant to trust just anyone. Following her terrier breeding, she is fantastic at sniffing out the rodent trails through the garden. Her big brown eyes are adorable and make everyone smile.



Dottie is a labradoodle. Instead of locking onto one favorite person in the household, she is happy a belly rub and spending time with all the different members of the family. She enjoys sitting in close contact – her favorite place is the couch. A good listener, Dottie tilts her head with understanding at key words “beach” or “walk.”

The dog species, Canis familiaris, is thought to have branched off of its closest wild relative, the wolf Canis lupus, some 14,000 years ago. While wolves have a genetic inbred fear of humans, domestication has been selecting for social and useful behaviors. The big boom in selective breeding has been recent – the last 200 years – resulting in nearly 350 recognized breeds worldwide. It’s amazing to think with all the diverse looks and behaviors among dog breeds (the “genetic phenotypes”), individuals of C. familiaris have very little variation in their DNA (the genotype).


As our family prepares to adopt a dog again, we consider the key aspects of what we value in a canine companion. We will need to find a dog that fits our style: outgoing and adventurous, attentive and smart, mellow and affectionate. We know the huge responsibility to select a breed (probably a working/herding dog) and personality that we can handle. We accept the time it will take to train; establishing the alpha role as the pack leaders, to keep the hound and others in our community safe.

As a dog owner, respecting nature is a huge consideration.  Not chasing wildlife, managing excrement (not leaving plastic bags of poop along a trail for another to pick up!) and respecting land use boundaries and regulations demands constant awareness and effort.

While the energy investment is significant, discovering how a domesticated Canis fits into our human landscape is greatly rewarding. And it can help us balance our own wild versus tame instincts.

cassies tongue.jpg

Weekend summer getaways

The long days of summer beg for adventures in nature. Santa Cruz has amazing options for day trips and weekend getaways. Here are a few suggestions to kickstart planning some river, lake, ridgeline, redwood and coastal escapades.

creek 1For a river adventure close to home, nothing beats the full immersion hike and swim up Arroyo Seco creek through the magnificent “gorge.” Water shoes, drybag, wetsuit and sun and wind protection are all recommended for the trek up this slot canyon in the Ventana Wilderness of our closest National Forest. Start early and plan for the whole day to reach the waterfall at the end of a 150-foot swim.

For lakeside relaxation, visit our local Loch Lomond reservoir. Pack a hammock, fishing pole, and picnic basket and set up a hub for the day at a picnic table along the shore. Hike the 4.3-mile loop trail through the surrounding woods. Rent a paddle, row boat or a canoe to explore the little island and lake shoreline. The only downside is no swimming in our city drinking water – accept the view of sparkling sun on the water surface as a fair trade-off. With some imagination and humming a tune “I’ll take the low road and you take the high road…” you might think you are in Scotland. Keep an eye out for osprey.

To adventure into the oak and chaparral habitat and along the ridgelines of our coastal range, plan a day in our closest national park. Pinnacles is spectacular for its caves, high rocky peaks, wonderful views over the Salinas River valley and home to our recovering California condors. Splashing in the creek, finding seasonal wildflowers, gawking at the lichen and moss diversity on the rocks and scrambling up the sandstone boulders included.

redwood_trailRedwood forests keeps everyone cool in the summer. To escape the crowds coming to the coast, plan to get deep into the valleys. Make an overnight reservation and backpack out to the trail camp at Butano State Park. A loop trail in the backcountry rewards you with a quiet peace and solitude in the embrace of these millennial giants.

wavesBeach camping in the summer is tricky when sites are reserved months in advance. A favorite way to sleep by the shore is to strap a tent and sleeping bag onto a bike rack and pedal the coast to New Brighton State Beach. If you arrive on two wheels, a handful of bike camping sites are available – no reservation required.

Commit to your weekend nature adventures now before the calendar fills up. Enjoy the long days of summer!

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

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