Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Whispers from the Fir Trees

As I walk to my sit spot across the freshly plowed fields, I am called with a whisper of the fir trees to come to the North East of the woodlot. I normally sit to the East under a big walnut tree, but today, I made my way to a depression under a fir tree.

It has been a busy and stressful year, my body and soul took the brunt of it and now all signs are pointing to a more peaceful and healthy year. It has taken its toll though, and now I am healing holistically with my mind, body and soul.

That is what it felt the firs were whispering to me. Sweet encouragment to come and join them and enjoy the peace they were feeling today. So I did, I walked over and sat under one of the largest trees. Its long trunk reaching far into the sky towering over all the other trees and outstretching it branches.

It was windy and as I leaned my back onto the trunk, I could feel it moving, swaying back and forth with the wind. Like it was dancing with the wind, so I decided to close my eyes and enjoy the dance. I envisioned the roots of the fir tree, solid in the earth. Like a foundation it doesn't move, no matter what is going on up above, it stays put, rooted in the soil and keeps the tree from falling over. I take note, that  it is like me, through my own jouney of building my own foundation, through guidance from my mentors, questions asked, events, experiences, revelations and emotions, I have built a strong foundation of who I am. And that looking back on those experiences and events that have happened to me in the last few years and this year, I see that when I resisted them, I felt broken, defeated and overwhelmed. Like when I let all the stress get to me. But when I finally realized that all those things did not define me, that I can accept them for what they are, bend with them and let them blow through me, I was ok. I was not so broken or defeated. I could reflect and process and move on. I could even be thankful for the lessons and growth that occurred through it all.

So today, I would like to give gratitude to the trees. Thank you trees for reminding me that through building a solid foundation of your own character and sense of self, things that happen and obstacles that come up are part of life and to get through it, you bend and let the yucky stuff flow through and bend with the rest.

Friday, 10 May 2013

A Squirrel's Tale

For the month of May, I am facilitating a Sit Spot Challenge and through this challenge, the 160 participants share their stories. As I read through the stories, one really stood out and I would like to share it with you. It is written by Deanna Hergert, a Sit Spot Challenge Participant. Enjoy.

A Squirrel's Tale

I arrived at my new rental residence on May 1st, just in time to begin my sit-spot from the fantastic porch in the residential neighborhood backyard. First thing I noticed was a squirrel nest by the hydro pole which has been taken over by European Starlings. I noticed the squirrel had made a fresh, new nest in an adjacent Basswood tree, but I did not realize the importance of this until today.

This evening, as I sat "sit-spotting" in the back yard, I watched as a squirrel carried a curiously large black object in her mouth from the old hydro pole nest area to the new nest in the Basswood tree. I investigated only to find that this large, black object was one of her young! This youngster seemed to be nearly her size, yet she manages to carry it in a curled up ball, holding it with her mouth. With such a disproportionate front-end weight, Mama squirrel cannot maintain her fragile balance and agility required to traverse the finer limbs of the tree top where her new nest is. She carries the babe partway up the trunk, then eases her youngster out of her grip and encourages it to take hold of the barks and make its way up the rest of the tree to the nest. The a display of "watch and learn", "squirrel see, squirrel do"-type behaviour. She displays for the babe how to do it, then makes her way to the nest from where she coerces the young to climb up to her. Reluctantly and shakily the babe clambers its way into the high stretches of the tree. Trembling with (likely) a combination of fear and weakness, the young squirrel struggles for a solid 45 minutes, as I get pulled deeper and deeper into their story (this is better than a film!). Occasionally Mama comes out from the nest to help and encourage where she can, but this is a journey that the youngster must take much on its own if it is ever going to learn to survive in the wild. 

Suddenly, as Mama squirrel and I watch, the young squirrel loses grip and slips from the branches of the tree. Falling a staggering 20+ feet from the tree, the squirrel lands SMACK onto the wooden platform of a child's treehouse which lies below!!! My heart drops!! That had to be a certain plunge to death! How does this happen?! Where's Disney when you need him?! Mama squirrel runs down the tree to the rescue, picks the young squirrel (incredibly still alive and moving - phew) up in her mouth and carries it, again, partway up the trunk before easing it back onto its own feet to finish the climb.
The poor wee gaffer is more frightened and reluctant than ever (you can imagine!), and keeps trying to climb down the trunk of the tree to the ground, desperately wanting to abort the mission. With nightfall coming on, such exposure would surely mean the demise of such a vulnerable creature. Mama know this, so keeps hopping out of her luring position in the nest to coerce the youngster to keep trying ("come on junior, get back on the horse, you can do it!"); She literally pick the babe up in her mouth for a moment to reposition its aim, dragging it for a brief moment to set the momentum back in the direction of the nest. 

Another 45 minutes passes. Junior has now overcome its insecurity and seems to be crawling more confidently than ever up the trunk of the tree. It takes the nest from a different approach this time (instead of coming in from above and trying to drop itself into the nest like its mom, it is coming up from the bottom; This seems far more promising to result in success. Stronger, faster, you see the squirrel bounce back from its frightful endeavor. Alas, the babe reaches the bottom of the bulging round nest, and now must work its way up around the sides of it and up and over the edge into the its safe confines. Things are looking good - come'on' lil' guy - almost there! I watch more closely than ever when LO! The poor little bugger slips from the edge, plunging the 20+ feet! Again, SMACK! The sound startles me as the delicate creature hits the solid tree fort platform, again! My heart drops and tears fall from my eyes - this is the most dramatic thing I have ever watched! Mama comes running down the length of the tree to the rescue.

By this time, iIt is almost completely dark outside and I struggle to see what happens. Rain is setting in - we know its coming soon - but only threats for the moment with a light sprinkle. Mama is getting desperate and there is not enough time to raise her disheveled youngster back to a confident and capable state to make the climb before nightfall (and rainfall). This new nest location isn't looking like prime real estate right now. Mama decide to abort the lesson for the day, and just picks Junior up (incredibly still alive and moving - Phew) and tries to carry it into the fine branches of the tree toward the nest. Her balance staggers as she is pulled to and fro by the heavy weight of her load, each time nearly tipping off the branches. I see Junior nearly drop from her grip as they get closer and closer to the nest in the high reaches of the tree. My eyes are frozen on the scene - I cannot possible look away or blink. Come'on Mama - you can do it! Her dedication and strength is astoundingly beautiful - nature, nature - this is life! Every cell of her ancestral existence is on her side - this is just what a mother does. With all her might, she grips the limbs and she grips her offspring with the ultimate dedication and perseverance. Tragically her babe slips from her grip and plunges, once again, the shocking 20+ feet through the limbs and lands SMACK on the tree fort platform!! 

For a brief moment, Mama hops into the nest this time, rather than rushing to her youngsters rescue immediately. ...catching her breath? ...a sobbing, heartbeat of a moment of the ultimate blow to her ability as a mother? The poor female hops out of the nest and darts to the rescue of her babe. It is getting too dark for me to see now - but I hear two sets of claws scratching the surface of the treefort platform. 

Mama seems to succumb to the idea that this is just not going to happen tonight; She needs to come up with a B-plan...and fast! She picks her youngster up in her mouth and hesitantly, almost aimlessly scales down the side of the Basswood to the ground. The rain is beginning to come down harder now - more of a steady sprinkle. She drops the babe partway across the lawn and runs off towards the fence - ...desperately looking for an idea perhaps? The young squirrel doesn't seem to move much, but I see a twitch of the tail in the darkness. Alive, but not looking so great. Mama comes back, scoops up her young, climbs the fence and retreats into a hedgerow of cedars for the night. 

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Friday, 12 April 2013

Expect Nothing

It has been a while since I had the chance to get out into nature to my sit spot... ok, to be honest, I just didn't make time for it. Today however, I did. Why today, I have no idea, the weather wasn't very nice, the buses had been cancelled and the roads and cars and trees were covered in ice this morning. But, I was called to go out today, very strongly. So I listened.

I started out, just happy to be out on the very wet and muddy fields listening to the birds and seeing if I can guess what they were by their song. I wasn't expecting much. It was nasty, cold and wet. Past experiences have ended up in a very quiet sit spot. So I thought to myself, you know, perhaps this is a day to just quieten my mind. I have been busy the last few months without time to just be..... quiet.... calm... and in the present.

As I walked along the muddy fields, my wellies slopping in the water and mud, I looked up to listen to a song that was a bit different, but familiar to me. I searched the tops of the trees to see if I could make out who was making the pretty song. A hue of red through the trees was all I could make out and as the bird turned its head, I could see a tuft... a red cardinal... interesting, never heard that call before.

I continued on and found an old sparrow's nest nestled in the old goldenrods from last year's summer. I
remembered how last year I startled a nesting sparrow from its nest and bent down to take a closer look, thinking I wasn't doing any harm. The next day, the eggs were gone... feeling bad that I certainly did impact the nest and now more aware of these nests in the grass fields. I walk along animal trails to minimize my impact and keep my curiosity at a distance.

I am lead by the trail that is not flooded and it takes me to my old anchor spot, under a big walnut tree by the pond. I sit down on the wet ground and lean up against the old tree. I take a deep breath and close my eyes... still thinking not much will be seen. Sometimes I feel I should find a feather, or a skull to have a successful sit spot... but today it was more subtle than that.

I closed my eyes and focused on my hearing senses to pick up on sounds around me. To the East I hear the chipping of a sparrow, I hear the chirping of a wood thrush, the call of the red-winged blackbird. to the Northwest, I hear a robin singing so happily and from the Southeast I hear the killdeers in the fields.  Wow, my senses took me far from my spot and I opened my eyes just in time to see two mallard ducks come in for a landing on the pond. I watched the pair as the male stretched his green head up over the old cattails to ensure I was of no threat.

I am calm, my thoughts run over all the great things to be thankful for and I whisper my thanks under the walnut tree.

I decided to explore and see what else is awaiting for me in my sit spot area. It has been a while, snow covered the ground last time I was here, so now I am eager to see what other gifts were waiting for me to discover.

I see some patches of white and green amongst the old farmstead ruins. Snowdrops I believe they are, and they are covered in the ice and water from the morning rain. I see daffodils as well and feel grateful for the signs of spring. I see a tree with ice on one side of it... very interesting.

Then as I was coming out the other side of the property, I come upon
something that in the year I have been exploring have never noticed before... old farm equipment, left on the property to rust. I also found an old turned over boat that was a home for some animal at some point but was now waterlogged. The trails leading in and out of it told me it made a good shelter.

As I walked on, I looked down to see red in the brown stalks from last year. Red? What were these?
I picked one up and looked at it, not knowing where it had come from. Was it plant in the golden rods? But if it was, it looked fresh? I looked around and saw many scattered around. I was puzzled and was ready to march home to figure out what the mystery was when something told me to look up. I looked up and on the branches of this tree, were hundreds of these red flowers.... Thinking it was the walnut tree, but the other walnut trees do not have these flowers.... hmmmm, what kind of tree is this? A mystery for me to discover and find out.

So I went to my sit spot expecting nothing, and was rewarded with many
sights and sounds and a nature mystery. You just never know what you will find when you take the time to be calm, quiet and in the moment.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Guest Blog for Mompreneur Ontario: Vitamin N for Success

Nature (AKA Vitamin N) is an ancient vitamin lacking in many of our lives. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘nature’? Some may say a forest, a sunset, animals or a meadow. When you picture it in your mind, what type of feelings do you feel? Words often heard are calming, happy, inspired, or serene.

In today’s society, it is a busy life. The kids need to be fed, homework done, house to clean and if you own your own business, you wear many hats that sometimes feel ongoing without a break. The stress builds up to a point where you wonder if it is all worth it.

What if there was a way you could distress, take a break, take a beat, a breath and it wouldn’t cost you a penny and it is all around you no matter where you are.

Sounds amazing don’t it?

Well it is all around you, we have just forgotten about it. It is nature. Spending time out in nature has been proven to alleviate stress. William Bird, a professor at Oxford University and Chief Health Advisor for Natural England talks about the flight or fight reflex we encounter during a stressful situation.  He says “The fight or flight reflex is a normal response to stress caused by the release of catecholamine’s (including adrenaline) and results in muscle tension, raised blood pressure, faster pulse, diversion of blood away from the skin to muscle and sweating. All of these factors help the body to cope with a dangerous situation. However without rapid recovery this stress response would cause damage and exhaustion with limited response to a repeat dangerous situation.”

Taking a stroll that exposes you to nature quiets the mind to a calmer relax state. The time spent outdoors elevates the stress you may be feeling from anxiety, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) some feel this time of year or from the day to day grind.

It isn’t just stress that a healthy dose of Vitamin N is good for. Exposure to nature, be it through a stroll, looking at pictures, sitting outside on a quiet street looking at a potted tree or laying down on a blanket in a park, it increases the senses and higher work productivity.  A study at the University of Michigan demonstrated that after an hour of interaction with nature, memory performance and attention spans improved by 20 percent. Another research showed a 5 per cent boost in creativity for people who immersed themselves in nature for a few days.

I encourage you all to spend time outside in nature; whatever forms you can find and get your weekly dose of Vitamin N. You will be feeling rejuvenated, refreshed and ready to take on the next task at hand and feel more successful in all aspects.

About the author: Rhonda Ursulak
Rhonda Ursulak is a nature educator with Nature’s Backpack in the Halton Region. Through her understanding and knowledge of the natural environment, she leads children and families into the thrilling and unknown mysteries of nature. Through her programs, children are offered various opportunities to learn about their environment, move in it with ease, grow confident, increase social skills, motor skills, balanced lifestyle and foster community connections.

Monday, 28 January 2013

The Why.

I love telling stories. Most favourite one is why I started Nature's Backpack, because back then, I was a teacher assistant by day and make-up artist by night and on weekends. Both jobs I really enjoyed and thought I was living my passion.

It wasn't until I took the nursery school children to a local conservation area when I realized that a bigger purpose was waiting for me.

Nature has always been important, and I understood that we, as humans, are part of the whole circle of life. Having a background and education in environmental sciences gave me the foundation and  understanding of ecology and the benefit nature has in our lives.

I knew that people were not going outside as much, but I didn't fully appreciate this until that day.

As we were waiting for everyone to arrive, the children were sitting on a bench while the parents were chatting in the hall. That is when I heard it.... a piercing scream from a little girl. When I turned around, I saw that she was swatting a fly... a common housefly and screaming "It's going to bite me!"

It didn't stop there. When we walked outside with our nature interpreter (whom I worked with in the past many times) took us to the nearby pond. A frog leaped out in-front of us and I was expecting the children to run and try to catch it... one child tried, but the parent quickly squashed the curiosity and told the child not to touch it.


The rest of the time, I was keen to hear how this outing was going to go and was shocked. Shocked at the fear and the misunderstanding of nature these people had. When I went home that day, I went on the internet and found Richard Louv, who wrote the book "Last Child in the Woods". He called this disconnection Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). I bought his book and read it through, shaking my head in agreement throughout.

I felt I had to do something... even if it was small. And I did just that. I started a free family hike and called it Nature's Backpack.  The goal was to get people out into nature with a guide, model free curiosity and play outdoors and hopefully inspire families to go outside on their own and explore nature.

Through feedback from families and further research in nature connection, I wanted to take Nature's Backpack further. Connection to nature is powerful and through nature children will develop confidence, a sense of place, ownership of their surroundings, connection and love for nature and all living things, compassion, a sense of self, not to mention the physical attributes of being active outside. Studies show that when people spend time outdoors, they are more creative, focused, less stressed, happier, grounded, and calmer. If you are interested in this research, visit Children and Nature Network.

It all started with the observation of the disconnect from nature, but has turned into a mission of rebuilding our culture and communities through connecting to nature, to each other and to thyself.

Starting with our children, mentoring them to learn through their own passion to learn, to be curious about that frog, plant, tree or animal, to ask questions and to put your best guess forward. To bring out the gifts within each child and nurture it.  In doing so, guide them into knowing who they truly are and where their place is in the world.

Nature's Backpack is more than a program for children, it is a life long journey from birth to teens that guides and nurtures our children to build better communities and culture. It is about regenerating our culture, and building in the attributes of well rounded adults connected to their surroundings.

It is my passion and mission in life and one I do everyday through learning more skills and knowledge to pass along to the future generation.

It is the why behind Nature's Backpack and I do hope to see you on one of the hikes, programs or hear about how this has inspired you to do something similar.

Nature's Backpack has new programs coming in April, Oaks and Acorns (birth to 3), Wild Things (after school program 5-9), Chicks in the Sticks (girls club 9-14) and our popular program Young Explorers (3-5) 

Monday, 14 January 2013

Success in Failure (Guest Blog)

I met Michael McCarthy last year at the Headwater's Gathering at the Kimbercote Farm, ON. We connected and became friends right away through our love for all things nature and working with kids. That following summer, I had the honour to work along with Micheal at The P.I.N.E. Project. Michael is a natural mentor and nature educator for our youth, engaging them with his enthusiasm and patience.  I learned a lot from him and continue to do so. The life skills learned are usually hidden with the type of mentoring Michael does, and it is through example that the true lessons are taught. 

Here is a story of a time when Michael taught a valuable lesson about failure, working with the Pine River Institute.  I will let him tell you the rest of the story....

A True Story told by Michael McCarthy

The success in failure, or, how to celebrate when things don't go as planned. 

On Thursday night I spent an hour preparing a beautiful fire and getting my bow drill kit prepped. This was for a nighttime bonfire for 50 grade 6/7 students who were on a 3 day school trip at Mansfield outdoor centre. 

When the time came, I led them all to the unlit bonfire and proceeded to perform a most spirited and dramatic telling of how coyote stole fire. I rocked it and had the kids in the palm of my hand. I moved to my bow drill kit, getting one of the kids to shine a light on me. I have done this hundreds of times. First try - no coal. Second try - just a thin wisp of smoke. I ask the kids to look up and note the fog covering the stars and how the dampness would impede the lighting. 8 mins go by. Kids were chanting my name, telling me not to quit. I finally put the bow down, sweat pouring off my face, my body spent. I almost cried. I lit some birch bark with a lighter and we gave thanks for fire together. 
I thought I had failed them and lost my status as the 'bush-man'.

One of the teachers came up afterwards and thanked me for showing them how to try my best and for modeling that its okay to fail. She said that she noticed how much the boys looked up to me and how failing really gave them a great gift: being a man means not being perfect, and being humble enough to dance with the great mystery of life - where things don't always go as planned. 

Letting these words in, I really had to move past my bruised ego and rest in the fact that coyote had been present all along, teaching me that failure can contain hidden jewels - but only if my heart is receptive enough to see.

It is through these types of teachings and role modeling that our youth are taught to be confident with who they are, to take risks, fail and learn. Through programs at Nature's Backpack, our youth are giving opportunities to do just that.