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10 Creative Writing Prompts to Boost Your Nature Journaling Skills

My writing desk looks out over Lake Erie. When I am stuck and staring at a blank screen, I take a break and walk on the beach near my house. Every day is a new scene. I may encounter a flock of seagulls squawking and tussling on the pier, or a bald eagle scanning the shore for his next meal. I’ve seen a man baptized in the shallow water, while children make sandcastles on the beach. I may greet a neighbor or make a new friend. Whatever the case may be, the stimulation of the sights, the sounds and the people I meet, all refresh my perspective and even trigger new ideas.

For me, nature is a stimulus for creative thought and, as a result, better writing. By the time I am home again and facing my computer, I am usually free from whatever was blocking my flow of ideas … even if I’m not specifically writing about nature. I return more in tune to my surroundings and aware that I am a part of something much larger than myself. Being out in the natural world reminds me of who I am … and that keeps me from trying to be something I’m not. And I think that’s the key to good writing … conveying your thoughts in an authentic voice that’s true to who you really are.

American essayist, poet, philosopher,and naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote,“It is the marriage of the soul with nature that makes the intellect fruitful, and gives birth to imagination.”

I agree.

So here goes… pick a writing prompt you like and make it your own.

  1. Describe your most significant experience with nature. Try to remember the sights, sounds, smells and other sensory details of the experience. Did it have a positive or negative effect on your relationship with the natural world? Did the experience change you as a person?
  2. Tell a story or describe a hike or nature walk that you’ve experienced. Who were you with, what did you bring, and why do you remember it so well? If you never have, tell an imaginary story about a hike you would like to try. Have you always wanted to try to hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail? Or, do you enjoy walking in your community park? Describe what your see and how it makes you feel.
  3. Buy or make a bird feeder and hang it in your backyard or on your windowsill. Purchase a field guide to local species (or find one at the library) and note the type and number of species that come to your feeder during the week. Observe the type of seeds they like to eat and whether they eat from the feeder or from the ground. Do any other species of animals visit the feeder? Note any other observations you feel are relevant to your study. Save your observations for future creative writing projects or stories.
  4. Imagine that one day you took a walk and the trees began to talk to you. What would they say about their relationship to humans and how would you respond? Would it change the way you interact with the natural world? Tell a story about your experience.
  5. Think about some aspect of nature in you community that needs improvement and write a rough draft of a letter to the mayor of your city. Why is this important to you and to other members of the community. Include a viable solution to the problem and how you are prepared to help out.
  6. Take a walk and pause for a moment in a place that feels comfortable to you. Capture one aspect in nature. It can be as small as a raindrop on a leaf or as expansive as an approaching thunderstorm. Write a haiku poem about your observations.
  7. If you had a choice of any place to live on the planet and money was not an issue, where would you live? Would it be a rural, suburban or urban setting? Would it be important to you to live near a park or other type of natural landscape? If so, why? How would it be similar or different to the place you live now? Tell a story about your first year living in your new home.
  8. What is your favorite season and why? Describe a memory from the past that may have contributed to these feelings. If you live in a place where you do not experience significant seasonal changes, what subtle differences do you notice?
  9. Your favorite natural area is about to be changed into a housing development. What do you do to stop it and how do you get the community on your side? Write a speech that you would give at the town hall meeting.
  10. Write a story about an animal rescue from the perspective of the animal. Research using a “story arc” or “plot diagram” to structure your story, including beginning, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

Remember, first and foremost, nature journaling should bring greater joy and creativity to your life. It is liberating to be able to express your inner thoughts and it’s fun to experiment with different forms of writing to find your true voice. img_6941

Happy Journaling! 

Elizabeth


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Nature Journaling for Environmental Awareness and a Balanced Life

img_7268The natural world is filled with seasons and cycles that provide predictability to life. Plants and animals depend on it. However, sometimes humans forget we are a part of nature too. We believe that the law of the land doesn’t apply to us. That somehow we can outsmart Mother Nature, creating a man-made place apart from the natural world rather than a part of it … Cutting down trees and clearing fields to make way for houses and businesses with little to no regard for how it affects other species. Damming rivers and using more than our share of fresh water. Creating products that take hundreds of years to biodegrade, if they do at all … while we dump the same products in to landfills and buy more … products that are produced in factories that pollute the air, the water and the land in a different kind of cycle…a man-made cycle of destruction. All the while we have become more and more disconnected from nature at a time when we need it the most.

We make excuses for why we don’t take time for nature study. Our family schedule is too busy. It’s too dirty or too dangerous. Studying nature isn’t going to get our children into the right schools or on to the best teams and takes valuable time away from homework and practice. However, taking time to get outside and experience the lessons that nature teaches, doesn’t need to take the place of these other activities and it may even enhance them. Connecting with nature allows us to connect with ourselves – to access the quiet place within us that gives us wisdom and strength – and keeps us happy, healthy and feeling secure … all important aspects of a balanced life. img_6845

What is a Nature Journal?

Keeping a nature journal helps us to translate what we experience in nature into how it makes us feel, resulting in a deeper and more sensitive awareness of the world around us … which can help us in so many different ways. Writing or drawing in a nature journal is much like keeping a diary, only where a diary or records your feelings about yourself and others, a nature journal primarily records your responses to and reflections about the world of nature. But actually, it can be whatever you want it to be and serves a wide variety of purposes. With a subject as vast as all of nature, the sky is the limit!

 

Here are a few examples of different types of nature journals to get you started:

Simple (Personal) Record: A personal journal is a general account of sensory experiences in nature. This type of journal helps the observer to learn about the natural world while also discovering important elements of their own nature. Keeping a personal nature journal can be a story, a poem or an observational record … or a combination of all of the above. One of the most notable journalists in this genre was Henry David Thoreau who wrote about his experiences in in the natural world starting on October 22, 1837, just a few days after his graduation from Harvard. He wrote in it nearly everyday until November 3, 1861, seven months before his death on May 6, 1862. His journaling progressed and evolved until it became the main focus of his life. He grew into an expert naturalist and learned to live well on the land. He used his journal to record his observations of the life cycle of plants, the sequence of plant growth, animal behavior, the weather and more. He made very simple sketches and maps to illustrate an observation or an event. Thoreau’s journals are filled with simple nature essays, character sketches, news events, stories, quotations and snatches of conversations along with his social commentary on human society. Thoreau’s journals are still used as inspiration for nature journal keepers worldwide.

A Travel Journal: Travel journals are used to chronicle a trip. This is a great way to capture your feelings and impressions of a place. Such first hand accounts are fun to share with others upon your return and also can be used for inspiration for future creative projects. Many notable artists and writers have used their experiences in a particular place as the focus or topic of great works. John Muir is well known for his travel journals written between 1867 and 1913. They include his thousand mile walk through Yosemite in 1867-68, his travels to Alaska, and his voyage to South America and Africa in 1911-1912 . The journals offer his personal perspective on a wide variety of topics including native populations of people, their culture and their relationship to their surroundings in his own words and drawings.

A Phenology Journal: Phenology is a segment of ecology focusing on the study of plant and animal life-cycle events that are influenced by climate and seasonal change in the environment. A phenology journal keeps a regular account of daily changes to a particular place. Observations of the timing of seasonal life events in plants and animals has been utilized by farmers, gardeners, scientists, and people who care for nature for centuries. An excellent example of a phenology journal is A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. The Aldo Leopold Foundation is an excellent resource for keeping a nature journal: http://www.aldoleopold.org/Programs/phenology.shtml

A Grinnell Journal: The Grinnell method of nature journaling is designed to aid scientific investigation. It is the method most often used by professional biologists and field naturalists and was developed by Joseph Grinnell (1877-1939), a field naturalist, teacher and the first director of the University of California’s Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. His method included detailed observations on specific species, species counts and keeping a record of where and when specimens were collected.

Materials Needed for Keeping a Nature Journalimg_6833

Materials you may want to bring along on your next nature hike:

  1. A Sketch Book: The perfect size is 5 x 7 with 50-90 lb paper so it will hold up to watercolors, but any notebook will work just fine.
  2. Pencils (of varying hardness and color), a sharpener and white eraser
  3. Watercolors and paint brush
  4. Bottle of water
  5. Paper towels
  6. Ziploc bags for collecting treasures such as pine cones, leaves, shells or seeds to keep or sketch later
  7. Field bag or backpack to hold supplies

Optional Items:

  1. Binoculars
  2. Camera
  3. Compass
  4. Measuring tape
  5. Field guides
  6. Map

img_6836So once you’re packed up and ready to go, just get outside and enjoy. You don’t have to be an artist or a writer. You don’t have to be a scientist. And you don’t have to have all the items on the list. Nature journaling is more about capturing what you see and how you feel rather than what you create. Feelings are an important part part of learning … not just about nature, but learning about ourselves as well. Plus, you’ll have a keepsake to treasure for years to come.

Interest in nature helps us to understand it and also teaches us to appreciate it. Not just kids, but adults too. Once people are outdoors and engaged, they are more likely to develop a feeling of connection to the plants, animals and natural spaces surrounding them. Maybe it starts with experiences in backyards or community parks. Or maybe it’s a vacation to the beach or the mountains. Whatever the case may be, once positive associations are attached to a particular place, you’ll be more likely to care about it and preserve it for future generations to experience and enjoy.

Thanks for reading and happy journaling!

Elizabeth

“The forcible writer stands bodily behind his words with his experience. He does not make books out of books, but be has been there in person”

  • Henry David Thoreau (Journal, vol.3, February 3, 1852)


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The Home Team Advantage: Beware of the “Summer Slide”

Snapshot 2014-08-13 23-20-24We have reached the time during summer break when kids are bored and many parents struggle to find ways to entertain them until school starts again. This seems counterintuitive to me. It has been well established that American students have slipped in the international education rankings. As a result, the Common Core State Standards were created in order to better prepare our children for college and careers in a global economy. We are constantly demanding that school systems and teachers do more with less. But they can’t go it alone. It’s time for families to make some additional adjustments and raise the standards at home as well. Instead of filling free time with meaningless activity, why not use some of it to prepare students for the challenges they will face under the new system?

Parents are a child’s most effective teacher. We need to find time in our busy schedules to build on the information our children learn at school and bring these lessons to life at home. This begs the question…

What is the responsibility of parents in preparing their children for success in the 21st century?

Summer Enrichment Helps Prevent Learning Loss
Summer vacation always seemed like a mixed blessing to me. On one hand, it’s the perfect opportunity for kids to take time away from their studies – time to play and explore, time to observe and experience the natural world around them, and time to “just be kids”. On the other hand, too much time spent away from a structured environment can result in learning loss, sedentary habits and other problems. According to the National Summer Learning Association:

• All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer and typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer (White, 1906; Heyns, 1978; Entwisle & Alexander 1992; Cooper, 1996; Downey et al, 2004).

• Students can lose two months of grade level equivalency in math skills over the summer months. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains (Cooper, 1996).

• Children lose more than academic knowledge over the summer. Most children—particularly children at high risk of obesity—gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school during summer break (Von Hippel et al, 2007).

• Parents consistently cite summer as the most difficult time to ensure that their children have productive things to do (Duffett et al, 2004).

Nature as Context for Learning
With summer break drawing to a close, now is the perfect time to fill idle time with activities that will ease children back into learning mode. You don’t need expensive programs or a degree in education to create meaningful learning experiences at home…and it doesn’t have to be summer. There are so many ways to turn after school or weekend family time into a teaching moment. Nature has proven to be a great context for learning and it’s also the perfect way to get kids outside and active. Once you get started, I think you (and your children) will find it very rewarding…and fun!

Simple Ideas for Year-round Family Enrichment

Start a Family Book Club
The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort among dozens of foundations, lists summer learning loss as one of the three major obstacles to reading proficiency at the end of 3rd grade. Children (especially low income children) are losing ground at an alarming rate and the negative consequences reach far beyond elementary school. In fact, according to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “one in six children who are not reading proficiently in 3rd grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers”.

I have found my own children were far more likely to “do as I do”, not just “because I said so”. Thus, it is important to encourage family reading time and also important that children see their parents reading along with them.

So, pick a topic and get started. Find beginning readers for the little ones and more in depth materials for your older children. Set a time frame to complete the reading assignment and reconvene to discuss your findings. Then you’ll be ready for a family field trip to personalize the learning process. This brings the topic of their assignment into the realm of their real-life experience.

Keep in mind, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Create a program that works for your family and your schedule…so long as everyone is reading and engaged in the process. I think you’ll find that these sessions will open up new lines of communication that will not only promote good reading habits, but also enable parents to instill positive family values as well.

Family Field Trips
A family outing to the zoo or a local park not only creates happy memories and strong bonds between parents and their children, but this special time can also can become an extended learning experience with a little forethought before you go. Call a family meeting (possibly at the dinner table) to plan your field trip. Be sure to get the input of each family member (even the little ones) to learn more about his or her interests. Then, make a plan. Once you have decided on your destination, have everyone do some research and reading beforehand. Use you imagination. Go online or visit the library to find books, maps or articles that relate to your outing. Even young children can participate. Older children or parents can help younger children find age-appropriate materials and explain more advanced concepts to jumpstart their reading comprehension. Learning how to access useful and accurate information is an important skill they will need for success in school and beyond. This will also promote strong bonds between siblings that provide them with immeasurable benefits throughout their formative years and even into adulthood.

Once the day of the field trip has arrived, be sure to provide ample time for spontaneous discovery and play. And by all means, take your electronic devices along…but have children use them to expand their world, not insulate them from it. Technology is a tool, not the evil babysitter. Teach your children how to use digital cameras to record their observations. Tuck a tablet or smart phone in your backpack. It’s a great way to take notes or learn more about things you discover along the way. And remember, using technology is not intuitive (children won’t automatically know how to use it properly); it is a learned skill that requires adult guidance and supervision to produce positive learning experiences.

Create an Eco-journal
People throughout history have kept written accounts of their experiences in nature. From primitive inscriptions on cave walls to the detailed journals of early explorers like Lewis and Clark, John Muir and Charles Darwin, detailed descriptions of their experiences have made an incalculable contribution to many scientific principles we know and still rely upon today.

With a topic as broad as the natural world, eco-journals lend themselves to many different forms of creative expression. Keeping a nature journal is also an excellent way to for students to hone their writing skills and begin to think critically about the world they live in. Young naturalists may start out by noting simple drawings of their observations. Later, they can add detailed descriptions and tell about their experiences. As their reading abilities improve, they can learn to research and record additional factual information to support their perceptions. Finally, as they develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, they will begin to form opinions about the world around them. All of these writing activities are excellent practice for when they return to the classroom. Be sure to bring your eco-journals on family field trips!

Adopt a Cause and Volunteer
Just as learning is a progressive process and basic concepts are needed to understand more complicated subject matter, the same is true of learning about nature. Environmental education is best understood through experimentation and hands-on experiences. First, children need to experience and learn about the natural world in order to care about it. (See my earlier blog “A Sense of Place”) Once they do, it is interesting to note that children are quite willing and enthusiastic to become stewards of the environment and active participants in green initiatives. At this point, make a family decision to get involved in a cause and volunteer your time together.

Remember, you don’t have to live on a farm or near the park to learn about nature or get involved in the green movement. In fact, some of the most innovative “green” ideas are being tested in urban areas where space is limited and the need is greatest. One way budding eco-journalists can really make a difference is by recording (and reporting) the effects of human activities on the environment within their own neighborhoods. It’s already happening in cities all over the world. So, join in! Your children could eventually provide valuable information to environmentalists who are looking for ways to minimize our impact on the environment.

And it is here that we arrive at our intended destination – learning brought to life – raising children who are prepared to enter adulthood armed with the knowledge and skills they need to live healthy and successful lives.

Isn’t that what every parent wants for their children?

Oh yes, and before you know it, the only “summer slide” you’ll need to worry about will be watching your home team at the ball park.

Enjoy the rest of your summer and thanks for reading.

Elizabeth


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Cleveland’s Oldest Publicly Owned Market

As populations migrate to city centers and sustainability has hit the mainstream, the demand for fresh, affordable and readily available produce in urban areas continues to grow. In response to this dual shift in the American mind-set, innovative ways to produce and distribute food closer to consumers are cropping up in cities across the country and around the world. Urban gardens are greening empty lots, not only providing local residents with fresh fruits and vegetables, but also creating jobs and the opportunity to learn new skills. Rooftop greenhouses are emerging as an efficient way to maximize freshness, while minimizing the carbon footprint of produce transportation costs. Local farmer’s markets are also gaining popularity, offering city-dwellers better tasting produce with greater nutritional value. Buying local just makes good sense, both economically and ecologically.

Great idea. Why didn’t we think of it sooner, right?

Well, in Cleveland, this idea is hardly new. In fact, the West Side Market has been providing the city and its surrounding suburbs with affordable, locally grown food for over 100 years.

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article on “food deserts“, a term used to describe urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. I received tremendous response and interest on the topic. In the meantime, my daughter Sarah, who is studying Integrated Marketing and Environmental Science at John Carroll University, created an excellent photo feature of Cleveland’s West Side Market. I feel her journalism project captures the true essence of what this landmark means to our city… both as a healthy resource of fresh food for some and also a refuge for many more. I would like to share her article with you here:

The West Side Market
by Sarah Milli

page-0The West Side Market, Cleveland’s oldest publicly owned market, has been a one-stop grocery shopping experience for Clevelander’s and tourists for over a hundred years. Located on the corner of West 25th and Lorain Road in what is known as Ohio City, this market contains everything from fresh meat to local seafood, fruits, vegetables, candy, bread and much more. It is a hub for Cleveland businesses and possesses an abundance of rich culture and heritage. Whether it is tourists from out of town or people who have lived in Cleveland their entire lives, the West Side Market is a bustling place to get groceries or grab lunch. The market has been recognized by the Travel Channel and Food Network for its unique market-shopping experiences and ethnic food selection. In the market’s centennial year, it was estimated to have had close to a million shoppers come through its doors.
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The West Side Market is open on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and offers the true feel of market shopping. Anthony Sudano, a local Cleveland resident states, “I come to the market a few Saturday’s out of the year to get fruits and vegetables. It’s a great opportunity to buy locally and spend the day with friends and family.” During the week, the usual shoppers who return to buy their weekly groceries take advantage of smaller crowds and better parking, whereas a Saturday shopping experience can be crowded with people wanting to grab lunch before an Indian’s game or spend their day in the city. The Market is essentially funded through each business and organized by the Market’s office. Each vendor pays for their spot, inside or outside the Market, and the cost varies on the size of their stand.
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“A little help from the homeless”, are words that can be heard shouted outside the West Side Market by a homeless man named Raymond Jacobs and other homeless people living in the Cleveland area. Jacobs, a Cleveland “resident of the streets” can be seen and heard selling newspapers in order to raise money for himself and other homeless people living on the streets of Cleveland. But this newspaper, unlike The Plain Dealer or Sun Newspaper is completely composed of articles and columns written by homeless people. “We stand outside the market here because we know it’s a place that Clevelander’s come every week to buy their food”, says Jacobs. “We want shoppers to know we’re doing something to get donations from people instead of just begging.” This newspaper called “Cleveland Street Chronicle” has been around for more than 20 years. What started out as photo flyers and stories of the lives of each homeless person, turned into a small newspaper filled with stories of all local Clevelanders. Jacobs stated that to write for the paper, contributors must be drug and alcohol free, an incentive that the money earned from the paper would only be used for necessities such as food or clothes.
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The West Side Market, being around for more than a hundred years, has become many Clevelander’s source of livelihood, fresh food, and civic pride. John Busch, 82 years old and born just down the street from the market on Franklin Avenue, has been buying his groceries from the market for 65 years. Busch said that his favorite stand in the market is Foster’s Meats, the stand pictured to the right. “Honestly, they are all my favorite”, said Busch. “The market has everything I need from meat to cheese, chicken, steak, and vegetables. The best part is that I know my food will be fresh.” Many West Side Market shoppers like Busch return to the market each week to buy food for their families because of the freshness of the produce and to support local Cleveland businesses.
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Classic Seafood, one of the market’s more recent stands, opened up six years ago and is one of the few stalls at the West Side Market that offers a wide variety of fresh and local fish. They pride themselves in the selling fish from Cleveland’s own Lake Erie, as well as seafood they have flown in overnight from Pacific and Atlantic regions. While they have a wide range of ocean selections such as shrimp, scallops, cod, caviar and mussels, they also offer the local catch of catfish, perch, walleye, and white bass. Many of the workers at this stand have extensive culinary training and pride themselves in the freshness of their seafood. Anthony Cunningham, 19 year-old Cleveland resident and newly hired employee of Classic Seafood stated, “I have learned a lot working at the market and dealing with people who know their seafood.”

I want to thank Sarah for allowing me to use her photo essay on Teach Green. I appreciate her power of the pen and keen eye for human interest stories. We hope to work together more often in the future.

In a speech on November 13, 1974 (40 years ago) at a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, Moses Henry Cass, the Australian Minister for the Environment and Conservation cautioned, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” It is up to us to teach them how to take care of it. I believe that providing them with a place to test their ideas and find their voice is a step in the right direction.

Thanks for reading!

Elizabeth


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Introducing The Green Beans & the Litterbugs: A Multimedia Approach to Environmental Education

1525366_695396423825150_1412516447_nIn celebration of National Environmental Education Week and Earth Day next Tuesday April 22, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the people who read my blog in the United States and around the world. TeachGreenBlog now has readership in over 30 countries! I appreciate your continued support and shared interest in environmental education.

Today, I am pleased to announce the launch of The Green Beans & the Litterbugs at www.getgreenandgrow.com. For the past three years, I have been working with three of my talented and accomplished cousins to develop a unique model of interactive green entertainment for young children and their families. We envision The Green Beans & the Litterbugs as a franchise of engaging children’s programs, trade and ebooks, online games, webisodes, toys and other associated products. The Green Beans stories are designed to entertain young audiences, while promoting basic environmental themes, cultural diversity and positive social behaviors.

We have carefully constructed The Green Beans & the Litterbugs with an international worldview. We adhere to environmentally sustainable practices and support the United Nations’ definition of sustainability, “to meet the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Initially, we are using our newly launched website and social media to spread the word.

Teach Green with Ecofriendly Characters
It is well documented that children like learning activities more if they involve beloved characters. When they see them on television or online, they want to imitate their behaviors. So why not use these influences to encourage good habits rather than unhealthy ones? In addition, popular characters can also be influential in shaping the ideas, behaviors and purchasing decisions of families with young children.

The Green Beans & the Litterbugs features five members of the Green Bean Team – Ruby Monkey Bean, Bella Brontosaurus Bean, Bentley Bear Bean, Gibbon Monkey Bean, and Crawford Crab Bean. With the help of their roving satellite Bloorb, the Beans travel the globe solving environmental emergencies caused by the Litterbugs. Each Green Bean story highlights a different ecological issue that becomes part of the plot. Real world environmental challenges are placed in the context of animated action that children can absorb and understand.

In order to shape a positive message, we created the Green Beans content with two important themes that run through the story lines. The first is a “green” theme highlighting an environmental issue in a specific geographical location that becomes the setting of the story. Young viewers will have the opportunity to observe how the Green Beans work as a team to respond to the problem, determine its cause and use logic to find a sustainable solution.

The second element that runs through the stories is a “character” theme. Virtues such as truthfulness, helping others and the importance of family are just a few of the positive traits that are subtly embedded into the plot to reinforce pro-social behaviors. These traits are demonstrated in the actions of the Green Beans and help children learn tolerance and conflict resolution by observing their positive example.

Children Virtually Explore the World
Each episode features a different location where a local child and indigenous animal assist the Green Beans in solving the ecological problem. As a result, viewers gain a global perspective of the challenges other kids may face in their part of the world. The stories are fictional and fun, but environmentally, culturally, and geographically correct.

The Green Beans & the Litterbugs is designed to also provide factual information about nature and the environment that can even be used as a supplement to classroom curriculum. Our website is full of interesting “field facts” pertaining to geography, habitats, flora, fauna and cultural influences on the environment. We host “Bloorb’s Blog” with up-to-date information on green events, activities and crafts, as well as sustainable tips for healthy living. We also welcome feedback from children who are making a difference in their communities. It is truly a green movement designed just for kids.

It is our ultimate goal to lead young viewers to a better understanding of the world around them in order to prepare for a sustainable future. We are seeking to partner with like-minded organizations that will join us in further developing The Green Beans & the Litterbugs for the benefit of kids everywhere. I hope you will visit our newly launched website at www.getgreenandgrow.com and “like” us on Facebook.Green Beans Logo

Thanks for reading.

Elizabeth


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In the Garden: A Universal Sanctuary for the Body, Mind and Spirit

The next time our leaders plan to discuss important issues that affect all of humankind… maybe they should meet in the garden. Throughout the ages, its virtues have proven to be common ground that everyone can agree on.

A Blue Morpho butterfly on an orchid at the Cleveland Botanical Garden

A Blue Morpho butterfly on an orchid at the Cleveland Botanical Garden

So, what is the common denominator that brings us to the garden?

I believe that connecting with the earth in direct and meaningful ways helps us to connect with what is best within ourselves, making us healthier people overall. Throughout time, gardens and parks have not only served to nourish and heal our bodies, but also to feed our minds through the study of the natural world, and replenish our spirits with its beauty.

The First Gardens: Food Security
Forest gardening is the world’s oldest form of food-based plant production. Although this is not a term that is widely used in modern horticultural circles, the early humans responsible for the development of forest gardens may have been more sensible than we give them credit for. During pre historical times, forest gardens first emerged along tropical riverbanks and in the foothills where monsoon rains drenched the earth at regular intervals. Families transitioned from a hunter-gatherer existence and began to improve their immediate environment by identifying and protecting useful fruit and nut trees, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which were of direct benefit to humans. Foreign species were also incorporated into these early gardens and walls were built to protect family plots from animals and intruders.

The Healing Power of Plants
Over time, people looked to nature for ways to treat diseases and alleviate pain. The origins of plant-based medical treatments cannot be attributed to one specific civilization, but developed concurrently in cultures around the globe. Natural healing systems can be traced to the traditions of the Ayurvedic and Unani people of the Indian subcontinent, Chinese and Tibetan cultures in Asia, the Native Americans of North America, the Amazonians of South America and several local tribal systems within Africa. There is also evidence of medicinal plant recipes from Egyptian and Middle Eastern cultures. In fact, the oldest written evidence of the deliberate use of plants for medicinal purposes was written on Sumerian clay slabs found in area south of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in modern-day Iraq. The artifact included formulas for various ailments using 250 plant species.

A fresco from the Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, 18th Dynasty

A fresco from the Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, 18th Dynasty

The Gardens of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and Asia: An Expression of Cultural Beliefs
The first recorded examples of formal gardens created for reasons other than subsistence, date back to the early civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and Asia. They began for a variety of reasons beyond basic food production. Pleasure, prestige, power and possibly even prehistoric instincts of our nomadic beginnings, made people yearn for wide-open spaces to experience and enjoy. Later, formal gardens were rooted in the divine and reflected the timeless quest for the meaning of life and our place within it.

Ancient Egypt
Gardens were essential to the lives of ancient Egyptians. They created neatly ordered green spaces filled with fruit, nut and ornamental trees as well as flowers, grape vines and papyrus. Gardens also had religious symbolism associated with specific gods such as Orisis, Nut, Isis and Hathor. There is evidence of elaborate cultivated grounds around tombs and temples to honor the deceased and provide them with natural spaces to enjoy in the afterlife.

Hand-colored engraving of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, 16th Century by Maarten van Heemskerck

Hand-colored engraving of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, 16th Century, by Maarten van Heemskerck

Mesopotamia
The imperial gardens of Mesopotamia were grand…even by modern-day standards. In fact, the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon were once considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, although no archeological evidence remains to prove their existence or original location. The Assyrian garden differed from the symmetrical Egyptian garden, because they incorporated the natural terrain into their cultivated spaces. Assyrian kings brought back animal and plant species from foreign invasions and used their imperial gardens as evidence of their conquests and military might.

The Persian Chahār Bāgh
Traditional Persian gardens may have originated as early as 4000 B.C. The Persians are known for the chahār bāgh style garden layout, (chahār meaning “four” and bāgh, “gardens”). The Persian garden was designed to emulate Eden, with four rivers and four quadrants that represent the world. Typical designs often feature water channels that run through each of the four quadrants and connect to a central pool. The idea of the garden as an expression of an earthly paradise (derived from the Old Persian word “paridaida”), spread through Persian culture during the Achaemenid Dynasty (550-330 B.C.). The Persians also influenced garden design in other cultures from Andalusia to India and beyond. The Taj Mahal is one of the largest Persian garden interpretations in the world, from the era of the Mughal Empire.

Asian Garden Traditions
The earliest Chinese gardens were created by emperors and aristocracy…and were designed to impress. These modified landscapes could be more accurately described as vast parks filled with select plant and animal species that were used for hunting and leisurely indulgences. Later, gentleman scholars, poets, government officials and merchants began to create more intimate spaces for personal reflection and escape from the outside world. Over time, the gardens and parks took on a sacred role and have been influenced by Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Daoist, Shinto and Modernist beliefs.

A typical Chinese garden has enclosed walls, a water feature, rock formations, trees and flowers, all arranged in halls and pavilions connected by winding paths that lead visitors through a series of composed landscape scenes. These spaces are meant to evoke a feeling of being part of the natural world and reflect the traditional Chinese values of sensibility, self-confidence and harmony between man and the universe. The constantly changing scenery, altered by the effects of the seasons and changing light, is believed to promote philosophical inspiration and intellectual thinking.

Dry garden in Koyoto, Japan April 2004 by Stephane D'Alu

Dry garden in Koyoto, Japan April 2004 by Stephane D’Alu

Japanese gardens were developed under the influences of their Chinese neighbors. However, the Japanese gradually began to create designs based on the unique terrain of their island archipelago and the Shinto religion. Their gardens first appeared on the island of Honshu, and were shaped by the distinct characteristics of the Honshu landscape with rugged volcanic peaks, narrow valleys, mountain streams with waterfalls and pebble beaches.

Japanese garden styles serve many different purposes. Zen gardens are designed to promote enlightenment through meditation and minimalist design leaves room for spiritual thinking. Roji are simple gardens with teahouses, where the Japanese tea ceremony is conducted. Promenade gardens feature carefully composed landscapes along a winding path.

Throughout recorded history, the creation of gardens and cultivation of plants is universal to civilizations around the world. Although designs vary due to religious beliefs, cultural heritage, climate and landscape terrain, gardens and parks all share a basic unifying element. Experiencing the pleasures of nature make people feel better, both mentally and physically.

The Roman Empire in the 3rd Century A.D.

The Roman Empire in the 3rd Century A.D.

The Age of Exploration and the Business of Gardening
Over time, societal structures became more organized and people began to categorize and cultivate useful plant species for their healthful and healing powers. As people ventured beyond their immediate environment, they began to share their knowledge with other cultures, thus ushering in a new era of international commerce and trade.

The rise and fall of the Roman Empire had a great influence on horticulture. Romans were avid gardeners. From the grand landscapes of imperial country estates to the most humble private plots behind city houses, they treasured gardens both as places for relaxation and as plots to grow ornamental plants and trees, as well as fruits and vegetables. Like the ebb and flow of a great wave, as the Roman Empire expanded to include huge swaths of the Eurasian continent from Britain to North Africa and Portugal to Asia Minor, they flooded every corner of their newly conquered lands with gardens. Later, as their influence began to recede, they left behind the seeds of their horticultural practices that remained rooted in place long after they were gone.

The Romans also influenced the monks. Foundation documents of numerous Christian monasteries, note that gardening was seen as an act of humility and also a necessary vocation. From a utilitarian standpoint, vegetable and herb gardens helped provide both nutritional and medicinal crops, that were used to feed or treat the monks and, in some cases, the outside community. These gardens became the model for the physic gardens (medicinal herb gardens) that would later appear in Italy and other areas of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Another powerful wave swept the globe in the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th centuries. Marco Polo’s expeditions to Persia, China and Southeast Asia, along with the discovery of America in 1492 and Vasco De Gama’s journey to India in 1498, eventually led to the beginning of European overseas expansion and the rise of colonial empires. As a result, contact between the Old and New Worlds produced the Columbian Exchange: a wide transfer of plants, animals, foods, human populations and culture between the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

At this point, the Age of Discovery enveloped the world, and with it, the rise of international trade. Organizations such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid were set up to try and cultivate new species that were being brought back from expeditions to tropical locations. They also helped found gardens in tropical regions to cultivate newly discovered plant species for commercial use. These distant tropical plantations were created almost solely to receive and cultivate commercial crops such as cloves, tea, coffee, breadfruit, cinchona, palm oil and chocolate.

Down House, the former home of the English naturalist Charles Darwin and his family

Down House, the former home of the English naturalist Charles Darwin and his family

The Charles Darwin Era and The Origin of Species
As trade routes expanded and new lands were being surveyed, botanists and naturalists were commissioned to accompany these expeditions and document the flora and fauna along the way. By some twist of fate, Charles Darwin, a seemingly ordinary young man encouraged by his father to become a country parson, instead accepted a commission (without pay) as a naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, a scientific ship assigned by the British Admiralty to survey the east and west coasts of South America. As the Beagle cast off from the shores of England, no one could have predicted the ripple effect that would be created by this monumental journey…washing away traditional beliefs of divine providence and the immutability (unchanging nature) of species and replacing it with new findings that would uproot the scientific community worldwide.

Darwin spent the next five years on a voyage around the world, collecting natural specimens, including birds, plants and fossils. He had the rare opportunity to study the principles of botany, zoology and geology through a wide-angle lens. The varied nature of ecological systems from South America and the Galapagos archipelago to the Pacific Islands, gave Darwin unique insights into nature itself. He began to see patterns of adaptation that countered established creationist theories. Upon his return to England, he fine-tuned and double-checked his theories through detailed experiments, anticipating a strong backlash from the church. With much trepidation, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection in 1859, and created a tidal wave of controversy between science and religion that remains to this day.

Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history. Why? Because he discovered nature’s golden rule…in order to thrive, we must adapt and live as part of our environment, not apart from it.

21st Century Gardening and the Green Movement
Scientific research has come a long way since the days of Darwin. And yet, we still resist basic ecological principles that ensure our continued health and wellbeing as a species. We are more knowledgeable and connected than any other time in human history. Information and ideas circle the globe at the speed of thought. Food, medicine and other plant-based products are imported and exported in a complex network of international trade. However, even knowing what we do, the earth’s natural resources have been exploited with little thought given to the consequences of our actions. As a result, a new wave of change is looming on the horizon. Climate change…and this time nature is at the helm.

Certain human activities have been identified as causes for recent changes in climate patterns on the Earth and the results of these changes may have a significant impact on fragile ecosystems around the world. According to the United States National Research Council’s report titled America’s Climate Choices: Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change; National Research Council:

“Science has made enormous inroads in understanding climate change and its causes, and is beginning to help develop a strong understanding of current and potential impacts that will affect people today and in coming decades. This understanding is crucial because it allows decision makers to place climate change in the context of other large challenges facing the nation and the world. There are still some uncertainties, and there always will be in understanding a complex system like Earth’s climate. Nevertheless, there is a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities. “

Today, the nature of gardening is returning to its roots. Environmental education programs are now being offered in schools, parks and botanical gardens around the world. Innovators are building rooftop greenhouses and retrofitting high-rise buildings with vertical gardens and green spaces. Urban gardens are replacing blighted neighborhoods and there is renewed interest in the family farm. According to the World Health Organization, currently, about 80% of the world’s population relies on plants for their primary health care and some 35,000 to 70,000 species have been used as medicines. In today’s global pharmaceutical market, more than 50 major drugs originate from tropical plants. There is also an increasing amount of evidence that humans derive direct psychological benefit from exposure to nature. In retrospect, this should come as no surprise.

Time spent in the garden reaffirms the fact that our body, mind and spirit are deeply rooted in the natural world, regardless of how complex our lives may become on the surface.

Thanks for reading.

Elizabeth
TG13_White Orchids


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What is a Food Desert?

I was planning to write about urban gardening next. However, as I began my research, I ran across a term that was unfamiliar to me…food deserts… so I dug a little deeper. I wondered. What is a food desert, exactly? On the surface, it seems to be a contradiction of terms.

By some serendipitous twist of fate, later that same day (really), I took a break from my work and made a quick trip to the grocery to pick up a fresh loaf of bread. My local store was busy with people stocking up for an impending stretch of extremely cold weather. I quickly completed my shopping and made my way to the exit. I walked past the first few cashiers, swamped with customers, to the last checkout where the line was surprisingly short.

As I began to empty my cart onto the conveyor (I can never leave the grocery with just a loaf of bread), I realized that the young woman ahead of me was paying for her groceries with food assistance checks (a rarity in my suburban neighborhood). The cashier kept up a friendly conversation with the woman, complementing her on the beautiful baby that was wrapped in blankets and sleeping in her cart. It took a little longer for her to complete the transaction, but the cashier’s pleasant demeanor never wavered. An older woman, who I presumed had accompanied the mother and daughter, stood off to the side and watched. When the cashier was finished, she wished them well and the three women left, smiling.

As I continued to unload my cart, the older woman returned to the cashier, gave her a big hug and thanked her for her kindness. It turns out that she was a Good Samaritan who offered to drive her neighbor to the grocery when she ran out of baby food. She had been stranded without a vehicle and the woman offered to help. In the parking lot, I saw them again. The wind was howling and blowing the snow sideways. I thought about the baby wrapped in blankets. As I pulled away, I noticed that my car thermometer read -2° F.

Right then and there, I reminded myself to be more aware of the people around me. I also realized that food insecurity isn’t just a problem reserved for the urban poor or developing countries; it exists in communities all across the United States… sometimes in places where we least expect it.

Food Deserts in the United States

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According to a report to Congress prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 2.3 million households in the United States are more than a mile from a supermarket and lack access to a vehicle.

That’s not 2.3 million people… that’s 2.3 million households. Think about that. Your refrigerator is empty and the nearest food store is more than a mile away. Now, if you’re living in the city, you may have the option to take a bus or the train to restock your food supply. But what if you live in the suburbs or in a rural area? What if it’s -2° F and you have a hungry baby and no car? What then?

The main measurement used to classify a food desert is the distance from nutritional food retailers. Further, proximity is not the only factor, as individuals may live close to a retailer that provides nutritious food, but the healthy food selections may be more expensive, creating an additional barrier to access. The physical distance from full service supermarkets also leaves residents of these areas more likely to purchase food from convenience stores or fast food restaurants that offer mainly processed foods that are high in fats and sugars.

In 2010, Michelle Obama brought national attention to the problem of food deserts during the launch of her Let’s Move! campaign. This initiative is dedicated to giving parents helpful information about maintaining a healthy diet and links to programs that promote active lifestyles. It also advocates for nutritional menus in our schools and is working to ensure that every family has access to healthy, affordable food. Recent findings show nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese. If we don’t change our current habits, one third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and asthma.

Solving Problems at the Local Level
Part of the problem stems from the fact that we have become a nation dependent upon others for our food production. We rely on imported products and ship domestic produce thousands of miles from its original source. This has not only increased our transportation needs and carbon footprint, but it has also put local farmers out of business. Although we will realistically never return to the agricultural roots of years past, we can all make an effort to increase the amount of locally grown products we consume. This is not a problem that has a one-size-fits-all solution. We need to address the issue at the local level and tailor solutions according to each region and specific growing season. As the trend toward sustainable lifestyles continues to grow, seasonal farmer’s markets, home food delivery programs, backyard gardens and urban farms are cropping up in communities across the country.

Creating a healthy relationship with food doesn’t have to be all work and no play. It may quite possibly serve a dual purpose. Researchers recommend that creating a direct connection between fresh produce and the consumer is an excellent way to promote healthy and sustainable lifestyles. Examples of this include urban farm programs; learning how to a start backyard or patio garden; and school programs… all great ways to experience nature and get outside and active.

Green Schools Can Play a Role
Schools can play an integral part in developing sustainable food delivery systems within the community. One of the most efficient ways to implement wide-scale change to society is through our education system. There are many ways a green school can work with the community to address important issues that affect the health and welfare of children and their families, including:
• teaching students about the impact of their eating habits on their bodies and on the environment
• incorporating healthy food choices in the school cafeteria
• creating edible gardens in schoolyards and local parks
• building kitchen classrooms within the school to demonstrate healthy food preparation
• using green curriculum to give kids hands-on experiences in growing a garden
• utilizing the insights and resources of business leaders and other community stakeholders to meet the needs of the community
• making school the center for community activities and an example of sustainable practices

As Americans, we are blessed to live in a country where the rights and privileges of its citizens are protected by law… Where nearly anything is possible if we are willing to work hard in order to achieve our goals. However, the system and its citizens are far from perfect, and with these rights come responsibilities to each other. Unfortunately, we are often quick to defend our rights, but much more reluctant to live up to our responsibilities. There needs to be a more equitable balance between the two. There is no reason that a young mother should wonder how she’s going to feed her baby in the middle of a snowstorm. It takes a village to raise a child and that should still be the number one priority of communities not only here in the United States, but around the world.

I know this may sound like an antiquated notion, but I took a couple of minutes to go online and read our Declaration of Independence. I was reminded of the monumental effort and risk the signers of that document put forth with no assurances they would ever succeed. The last line sums it up best for me:

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

I hope you will join me in helping others in need. CBG_Desert FlowerI believe they come across our path for a reason. At the very least, offer a smile to someone who could use a little encouragement. Like a flower in the middle of a desert, it may just brighten their journey.

Thanks for reading.

Elizabeth