Category Archives: Nature

Weather Sticks-Mother Nature’s Psychrometer

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I first saw a weather stick years ago and was intrigued by how reactive a tree branch might have to humidity. I’ve been wanting to write this blog entry for years, since before I knew about blogging actually, if that’s possible. Basically, the more humid it is, the more your weather stick (tree branch) will react.

This could be a fun way for you and your kids to make connections between weather and how it affects living things (and dead things)! Collecting weather sticks is a great excuse to go on a hike and explore the woods together.

How to

1. Go enjoy a day outdoors together and begin your hunt for your weather stick.

2. I have only tested branches from conifers so far: a Balsam Fir and a Cedar tree. It could be fun to grab a few different kinds to see how different species react.

3. Try to collect from those trees that have already died and/or fallen to the ground that way you don’t have to kill a tree. It is not necessary to kill a tree to find a good weather stick.

4.Once you locate your desired tree, you can cut the trunk above and below the branch you wish to have as your weather stick. I used a set of pruning shears for this. If using a saw or knife, please be careful and children should be supervised while doing so.

5. Once you have your stick chosen, cut away all excess branches and twigs extending from the weather stick.

6. Shave off the bark if there is any left on the branch. This can be a delicate process since weather sticks are typically thin. Be careful not to snap your branch.

7. Once the bark is removed, your stick is ready to be mounted.

8. Mount stick as you wish, see what works and what doesn’t; just make sure that nothing will inhibit the movement of of the branch as the humidity fluctuates. I once set one up along a windowsill, so that while indoors, I could write details about the weather on the window to track the stick’s changes. Whenever the stick moved up or down, I would make a mark on the window and write the temperature and whether or not it rained or snowed that day.

Now watch for changes in your stick(s)!

Photos

Notice the Changes

In the first photo you will see two thumbtacks in the wall where the tip of the weather stick used to be. The thumbtacks represent a day where humidity was recorded to be %100, on an overcast day. The thumbtacks are at the base of each drawn arrow. The branches in this photo are where they normally go during dry, sunny weather.

*you will notice that the cedar branch (top weather stick) went down in high humidity (typically “poor’ weather) while the Balsam Fir (bottom branch) went up. There is a scientific theory based on wood-cell physics that will explain why some branches go up and others go down in identical weather conditions, if you follow this link.

http://www.new-potato.com/wstick/Science/science.html

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* Arrows indicate movement from overcast, high humidity to dry, warm conditions.

In the next photo, I have overlaid two snapshots of the sticks during different weather conditions, taken 2 days apart, so that you can see how much movement you might notice from day to day.

sticks-overlay

* Black dots beside thumb tacks indicate high humidity conditions.

If you do end up using a Balsam Fir (as I have a few times) and you want the stick to perform by rising in “good” weather (dry) and falling in “poor” weather (high humidity), simply install it upside down 🙂 How we feel about the changes in humidity is relative though: A farmer might see high humidity as an indication of rain to come (good for crops) whereas too many dry days means drought and potentially a crop burned by the sun. Install your stick so it performs the way you wish.

Happy weather monitoring!

Bird Seed Bells

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Bird Seed Bells

After wandering through the aisles of a local hardware store and examing bird feeders I decided to try and recreate those popular rock hard birdseed bells that come ready to hang. They seemed perfectly mysterious, I didn’t know much about them; all of those seeds magically bound tightly together, a pleasing shape, I found my challenge. If I could make these bells, this could be a fun activity to do with children and help them learn about birds.

These bells make great gifts because; they can bring enjoyment to anyone who enjoys seeing birds in their yard, they are inexpensive to make, and the gift receiver doesn’t have to keep your gift forever. Sometimes fleeting gifts are nice, especially if you’ve gotten a gift before and cringed at the thought of having to keep it on display somewhere in your home. We spend our whole lives accumulating “stuff”. Don’t underestimate the gesture of a gift that has a short lifespan.

Recipe 1

Prep time: 15-20 min

Baking time: 60-90 min

What you will need

  • Small terracotta pots
  • Loose birdseed
  • Eggs
  • Oven bags, parchment paper, or tin foil (to line the pots)
  • wire/ribbon/string/hemp cord (something to use as a hanger)
  • I used a piece of a coat hanger, snipped with metal snips.

 How to

Separate the whites from the yolks.  Discard yolks.  Beat eggs until fluffy (not too stiff or the bell won’t hold together).  The ratio is roughly two egg whites per cup of bird seed.

  1. Pour bird seed into egg whites and stir until it resembles a thick paste.
  2. Line your pots and then scoop the mixture in until the pots are full and level.
  3. Loop one end of your wire (this will be what the bells hangs from).  Insert the wire into your bell (up through the little hole in the terracotta pot) and bend the straight end against the bell’s bottom so that the wire does not slide out while baking.
  4. Bake for 60-90 min at 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  Check once in a while to make sure they are hardening-Careful they’re hot.  (Press top with spoon to check for hardness).
  5. Once they are finished baking, take them out of the oven, remove bird seed bell from pot and allow the bell to cool.
  6. Once your bell is finished, you may want to decorate the wire loop by tying a piece of ribbon to it.

After trying this recipe and found that the mixture was spongy; maybe I didn’t bake it long enough for it to harden throughout? The wire insert didn’t want to stay in place, because the mixture was spongy/crumbly.

That being said, I may have not done it properly. I decided to move on and find another recipe because the idea of working with hot terra-cotta pots and children at the same time made me think of little burned hands and teary eyes.

After contacting one of the leading manufacturers of the popular bells in stores, without divulging their secret recipe, they suggested trying an animal safe binding agent like gelatin.

Recipe 2

Prep time 15-20min

Setting time: 2hrs +

What you will need

  • Loose birdseed
  • Knox Original Unflavoured gelatin
  • a mould to form the shape of your bell (I re-used the little terra-cotta flower pots)
  • wire/ribbon/string/hemp cord (something to use as a hanger)

How to

  1. mix two envelopes of Knox gelatin (approx. 4 Tbsp) to 1 cup of water
  2. simmer this mixture on low until gelatin has dissolved.
  3. Stir in 2 cups of birdseed to the mixture, stir until completely mixed
  4. Pour/scoop into molds (consider applying a non-stick baking spray or butter to molds before putting seed mixture in, for easier removal).
  5. lightly pack the mixture into your mold and allow to cool in refrigerator for at least 2 hrs.

The woman I borrowed this recipe from used a ring-shaped cake pan for her mould. This resulted in a wreath shaped feeder, which looked easier to hang using a piece of ribbon or twine.

It is worth noting that some people prefer to use animal fats or suet to bind their seeds, this is especially good for winter feeders that will stay cold and hold their shape. I decided to avoid using animal fats, worried that it might melt under the hot sun in warmer months, potentially getting soft/rancid.

These recipes might require some tweaking depending on how your mixture behaves but I hope that they are enough to get you started. I am sure you can come up with clever moulds from things in your kitchen. I liked the terra-cotta pots (dollar store) but I also made a few in muffin tins as well.

Good luck!

More info 

Here are a few links for anyone curious about how to attract birds to your yard or what kinds of feed to use to draw in certain species:

http://www.naturecanada.ca/bird_cons_involved.asp

http://www.hww.ca/en/issues-and-topics/bird-feeding.html

http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/AboutBirdsandFeeding/BirdFoods.htm

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/page.aspx?pid=1138

Nature Stones

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Nature Stones

For outdoor educators, parents, camp counselors or anyone who plays with children in nature, these stones are a nice compliment to a nature hike with children or a scavenger hunt. These are decorated with nature drawings using a black, fine tip sharpie marker. The more smooth the stone, the easier it will be to draw on.

I liked to have a little cloth bag of them on me during our hike. At the end, we would sit in a circle and debrief (talk about the experience) where everyone gets a chance to share something they learned, saw, wanted to see, whatever they want to share. This is especially nice to do around a fire. After each child has an opportunity to share something, he/she may reach into the bag and pull out a nature stone to take home with them. The bag gets passed around the circle until everyone picks their keepsake.

It’s a nice touch when there are enough drawings so that no more than two children might have the same stone, and if the drawings are of things the kids might have seen on their hike. For a hike of 20+ kids, I used a dozen different drawings.

I like to encourage the children to close their eyes, and really “feel around” until they can tell they have chosen “their stone”, especially if they are younger children. They end up taking their sweet time deciding which stone to remove from the bag, it becomes a process for some of them.

I haven’t done this with anyone over the age of 12 (except for the teachers who accompanied their classes on my hikes, and I will admit I was surprised at the eagerness of the teachers to pick a rock for themselves too! I was glad to have drawn up extras).

How to:

1. Collect some stones. The more smooth, the easier to draw on. Stones found along river beds tend to be more smooth than those found along roadsides and forest hiking trails.

2. Decorate stones using a black, fine-point, felt-tipped permanent marker.

I found that certain stone shapes would lend themselves more readily to certain drawings (i.e.: a compass fit well on a round or oblong stone, while the squirrel fit well on irregular shaped stones, and the bone-fish on kidney bean shaped stones). This made me wonder, if similar personalities in the group would be attracted to similar stones (it is by feel after all). Having more than 20 children under your care, means these finer details often go unnoticed, in the buzz and hum that such a little tornado of children creates, so that question remains unanswered.

Depending on the season, you could draw whatever suits, here are some ideas.

  • squirrel
  • acorn (Incidentally, none of the kids wanted to keep the acorn stone. I did this twice, and each time, the acorn was returned to the bag for a trade-in! It’s not so popular yet, but I still put it in because you never know who might decide to like it, and it’s good to have variety).
  • various leaves
  • trees
  • bone-fish
  • compass rose
  • raven
  • bear paw
  • wolf paw
  • campfire
  • sun
  • moon
  • star
  • lady bug
  • spider
  • snowflake
  • flower
  • mushroom
  • dragonfly
  • butterfly
  • bow and arrow
  • various flowers
  • various bugs
  • fox
  • bear
  • moose
  • deer
  • lynx
  • turtle
  • snake

Have fun and good luck with your stone drawings!

Mancala

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Mancala

Mancala is played in many cultures. From what I understand it is a seed sowing game. Some cultures use holes in the earth with seeds in them, some use stones in carved wooden boards, and I’ve seen pictures online of children using egg  cartons they have decorated and versions made using pottery. This board game would make a great, inexpensive gift. Including a set of rules on how to play would complement the board game nicely.

For my game I scavenged a piece of ½”plywood from a pile of discarded construction supplies. My game is roughly 21” long and 5 1/2’” wide.  It has 2 parallel rows of 6 holes (called bowls), with a collector hole area at each end (called a Mancala).

I used an adjustable wood bit to make my holes. The downside to this is that the bit has a point that creates a hole in the center, of each puck shaped hole, that goes deeper into the wood (and I wanted my holes to have flat bottoms). I filled these holes with wood putty and sanded them flat. I made my collectors by using the same adjustable wood bit: drilling two or three holes side by side. I used a chisel and mallet to remove the excess wood between the holes and make the collectors pill-shaped. After getting the main form to the game, I sanded it and sprayed a coat of black paint on it. I would have preferred to stain it; however, with the amount of putty I put in the base of those holes, I figured the stain would highlight those less-than-perfect areas.

If you aren’t familiar with using tools like the ones mentioned in the instructions below, have someone help you who is familiar, or do some research/watch videos to better understand. Don’t go and use a power tool unless you know how to or you are being supervised by someone who does.

How to:

  1. Find a piece of wood. Try to stick to untreated wood (some wood is pressure treated and can contain chemicals hazardous to your health. This is not wood you want to be working with and making a board game out of).
  2. Draw in a rough idea (in pencil) of where you want your holes to be.
  3. Make sure the bit you are using will allow you to put two parallel rows along your board.
  4. Drill two rows of six holes. Don’t forget to leave room at each end of your project for the collector holes.
  5. Drill to make your collector holes and use a chisel and mallet to remove the excess, or create some straight edges.
  6. Sand it to remove splinters and rough edges/areas.
  7. Paint it or decorate it however you wish. I’ve seen ones with funky paper placed in the bottoms of the holes, and paper along the face of the game. I’ve seen ones that are painted a solid colour and then decorated with contrasting details after.I finished mine with a coat of black spray paint. Once it dried, I sanded the edges of the holes to give it a rustic, worn appearance.

There are more precise ways to do this. Anyone who works with wood will probably make a game board way nicer than mine, taking more care to measure and plan, and use the proper tools. I used what I had at the time (not what I would have preferred to use), and wasn’t sure how much effort I should put into the game because I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to get anyone to play it with me! I would have preferred carving the bowls so they are actually bowl shaped as this makes it easier/more smooth to swipe the games pieces out. I figure if some cultures play this game by digging holes in the earth, then maybe rudimentary wooden version will do just fine.

I have also seen all of the holes, for bowls and Mancalas, drilled completely through a piece of wood. Then glue a thin piece of wood or masonite board to the bottom (this layer will give “bottoms” to your bowls and Mancala holes).

Some friends and I went on a nature hike along the Bow River in Alberta, and everyone collected a few stones to use as game pieces (48 in total, 4 per bowl). This was a nice way to involve other people in the process, and it also made them more interested to play the finished game.

This is a board game that really comes from the earth!

Mancala Game Play:

The rules vary from culture to culture. The rules I play by were told to me by a friend and so far they work well.

  1. Place equal amount of pieces in each bowl (Mancalas start empty). I use 4 stones per bowl.
  2. Sitting across from the other player (board between you), the 6 bowls closest to you belong to you, and the other 6 belong to your partner.
  3. Your Mancala is the collector on your right, same goes for your partner, his/hers will be the collector on his/her right hand side.
  4. Until the stones are dropped into the Mancalas, they belong to nobody.
  5. The game is played in a counterclockwise fashion.
  6. To begin, one person removes all of the stones from a bowl (leaving that bowl empty) and drops one stone per bowl, going around the board, until there are no stones left in your hand. Then the other player does the same thing. Take turns doing this until the game ends.
  7. If the LAST stone in your hand lands in your Mancala, you get to go again.
  8. If the LAST stone in your hand lands in an empty bowl, across from a full bowl, you get to take the stones from the full bowl and promptly add them to your Mancala. (When we play, a person’s turn ends if they get to steal a full bowl).
  9. The game ends when one side of the board is completely empty.
  10. Leftover stones are discarded.
  11. Count the stones in each Mancala, whoever has the most wins.

There might be a turn where you have so many stones in your hand that you place one in each bowl of your opponent and end up placing one in his/her Mancala before you’re finished dropping your stones. It is ok to drop a stone in your opponent’s Mancala, it simply means he/she gets to keep it.

After playing this game a couple of times you will begin to develop strategies: for lining yourself up to steal a full bowl, for making sure to have your last stone land in your Mancala many times in a row, and to set up your opponent for desired moves.

Burl Bowl

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Burl-Bowl

I was walking across a clear-cut and I stumbled upon a burl. A burl is a formation on a tree (looks like a big round growth) where there is deformity, and the grain grows in different directions. I was really excited to find such a treasure on the ground because usually they are attached to mature trees.

Unsure of what to do with my burl, I hoisted the branch with burl over my shoulder (picture your classic hobo caricature, with a handkerchief of belongings, on a stick) and continued on my way. I came across a knowledgeable tree planter who suggested I make a bowl out of it. I immediately pictured hacking at this thing with rudimentary tools back at camp, and then I pictured bandages and blood. After raising these concerns, she said I could make a bowl using a coal out of the fire, and lucky for me, mine was dried after spending a couple of seasons in the sunand ready to burn.

And so began the creation of my first burl bowl. I brought it into town on a day off and had a kind gentleman saw the branch away from it using a chop-saw. He sawed across the top and bottom of the burl so that when he was done, I had a round object with a flat surface on which to sit, and a flat surface on which to place a coal. I brought it back to camp and built a fire. We placed a hot coal from a bonfire on top and blew air underneath of the coal. Gradually (very slowly in the beginning) the coal would start the bowl on fire (only in one little area) and the wood burned away. The burl became a communal project, since many evenings in a planting camp are spent relaxing around a fire. Each time we placed a new coal into the hollow from the night before, people would pass the burl around the fire, taking turns blowing under the coal, and the coal would leave emptiness in its wake. Eventually we could place two coals inside the hollow that was forming, and the process quickened. After a few nights of passing the burl around, a significant void developed, large enough for a man to stick his fist inside. It was done.

The last part of the process was to remove the burnt layer of coal that lined the new bowl. For that I simply stuck a stick inside, held it tightly, and moved it around in a circular motion (like a witch stirring her cauldron). This removed the inside crusty black stuff from the inner walls and left a dark, rough interior. Last came some sand paper for a smoother finish.  I probably only spent half an hour sanding it.

This bowl isn’t one I would eat out of, it’s more of a catch-all, to throw your keys or spare change in. Applying a lacquer might make it more food-safe, if that was your aim. I like mine because it still has dark spots, evidence of the process it underwent, and it still smells burnt which makes me nostalgic for the folks around the fire who blew life into it.

How to:

  1. Find a burl, you might need to let it dry depending on how fresh it is. Mine had a little sap running from the middle, but mostly, the wood was dry (this is important so it burns).
  2. Saw a portion off the top and the bottom so it can have a base, and a place to put your first coal.
  3. Have a nice fire with friends! Pull a coal out of the fire and place it on whichever surface you decide will be the top of your bowl.
  4. Gently blow air under the coal (this feeds a tiny fire between the coal and the surface).
  5. Keep blowing until you have achieved the bowl you desire. We had a divot the size of a teaspoon the first night, and then the process went progressively faster as the bowl took form.

You may need to roll the coal around to different areas of your hollow to even out the bowl shape.

Caution: 

At some point, you might find that blowing into the bowl causes ashes to blow back and could land in your eyes. This is why it is helpful to use a straw or some equivalent to direct the air under the coal, and to keep your face a safe distance away from the action. Using a straw (or pen with ink cartridge removed) maintains air where it needs to go and doesn’t waste your breath, it can make you lightheaded similar to blowing up a child’s inflatable pool toy.

I have heard of someone using an air compressor on a large burl (he was making a coffee table). Having had a couple close calls with a coal during this project, I would be wary of this technique.