Thursday, April 17, 2014

Elk Rock Garden

Elk Rock Garden is stunning in the spring.  Camellias,  rhododendrons, magnolias and hundreds of other flowers burst into bloom.  The garden is on a private estate overlooking the Willamette River which was given to the Episcopal Bishop of Oregon on the condition that the grounds be open to the public.  There are no public restrooms and it's prohibited to picnic or play games on the lawn.  But if you're in the mood for a quiet walk in a tranquil spot, this is perfect.  There is also a small stream where hundreds of rough skinned newts are always to be found.  It's near Tryon Creek State Park, but it's hidden away in a quiet residential neighborhood and is never crowded.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Camassia Natural Area

Camassia Natural Area in West Linn is stunning in the spring.  We roamed around with friends to see the park's famous camas flowers beginning to bloom.  The Missoula Floods tore over this high bluff, carrying off topsoil and leaving huge glacial erratic boulders that may have been carried here from as far away as Canada.  Rainwater takes a  long time to filter down through the rocky ground, so plants that like it damp such as camas thrive here.  Majestic Pacific madrones and Oregon white oaks festooned with lichen grace the edges of the meadows.  This lovely spot will only continue to get lovelier in the next few weeks as the camas flowers turn into waves of blue, so don't miss it!
Blue eyed Mary.
Rosy plectritis.
Oregon fawn lily.
Camas flowers.
Chickweed monkey-flower.
Fairy bells.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Getting Muddy- Investigating Ponds and Creeks

We were at a local park with a pond recently.  There are no posted rules and the pond is not fenced off.  We had come there with our homeschool group and brought nets and jars for the kids to catch pond critters, and a microscope for examining them up close.  Of course we were putting everything back when we were done.  This is an activity I've seen volunteers do with groups of kids at this location many times.  After we'd been there for a while, we were approached by park rangers who informed us in no uncertain terms that it was strictly against the rules for anyone but authorized personnel to collect water samples from the ponds.  So we would have to cease what we were doing immediately.  We were told that we could come back on an authorized field trip to do the same thing, but trained volunteers would scoop the water instead of the kids doing it for themselves.  (And of course the park does not bring microscopes on field trips. So all those little moving dots would stay just that- little moving dots.)  One ranger told us, a bit defensively, that for our information, the volunteers receive 40 hours of training.  So all of us parents clearly lack the proper education and technical expertise to fill a jar with pond water. Or -gasp!- allow mere children to do so.  There was no discussion of what harm we were causing, or what acceptable way we might do this activity ourselves. Rules are rules.

And this wasn't the first time.  Once we were at a formal garden and a toddler was screamed at for simply touching a rhododendron bush.  Another time a boy skipping rocks into a river was yelled at because he "might harm macroinvertebrates". (I guess we shouldn't walk across grass, either?) I encountered the weirdest park rule of all last summer. A whole group of us parents were sitting at a picnic table next to playground equipment, watching our kids play.  A park ranger informed us that we had to move because we were sitting at a reservable picnic table.  He admitted that no one had reserved it that day. But he insisted that it wasn't lawful for us to sit there since it was, in fact, reservable. Rules are rules.

When you were young, did your parents send you outside to play and tell you just to be home by

dinnertime?  Did you have free access to the great outdoors, to explore on your own terms?  I remember having free reign to splash around in creeks and ponds to look for tadpoles and crawdads.  But now that I'm a parent, I don't own private land with a natural area on it.  So I take my son to public land.  I've discovered the hard way that more often than not, people have the idea that nature is like a pretty painting for us to admire but never touch, and there are often security guards to make sure you don't!  Something crucial is missing.  Unless our kids really get to know and love nature through a close connection with it, they won't care about it when they're adults.  I'm not saying kids should be allowed to kill things or break things.  I'm saying they should be allowed to touch, examine, and explore respectfully.

I get it that public land is there to preserve nature, and that preserving it means protecting it from human
damage.  But if we never give our kids a chance to really interact and engage with nature on an up close and personal level, they are never going to be passionate enough about it to care.  Sorry, but that's simply a reality.  I feel strongly about preserving nature.  But in my heart I also believe strongly in preserving good mental health.  I believe that it's wrong to give my child the sense that humans are filthy and contaminated; that touching nature is profaning the sacred.  I know that it's factually correct that if you remove any part of any ecosystem, it has a profoundly negative impact on the rest of that ecosystem. The sole exception is the human race.  If we were obliterated, life everywhere would flourish.  Yet I cannot and will not give my child the message that his very existence is somehow wrong; that his suicide would be more beautiful than his life.  We are creatures of this earth, and we are far healthier and happier and better able to love the earth back when we feel that truth profoundly. 

There is at least one small but practical thing  I can do to help.  I have created a list of all the places I know of in the metro area where there are creeks or ponds and families are unlikely to get yelled at for letting their kids wade and explore. A few are notable spots to explore in rivers.  Most of these places I've been to myself; friends reminded me of many and recommended some new ones. I've found that public land near Portland where this is possible generally falls into three less than ideal categories. There are parks that are kind of on the outskirts of the metro area and  may be a bit of a drive, but for many are easier to get to than Mt. Hood, the Columbia River Gorge, or the Oregon Coast.  There are heavily manicured urban parks where there is enough sense of artificiality that people no longer feel justified in accusing you of messing with nature if your kid is wading in the water.  And there are places that have a significant amount of urban blight and people know the park's got bigger problems.  If you're not there to do drugs, and you don't leave your trash lying around, your credentials as a good citizen won't be questioned.  But of course you will have to supervise your kids a bit more closely than you might somewhere else.

How do you make head or tail of what you find in the ponds and creeks? Pond Life (Golden Guide)   is actually quite a good reference, especially for aquatic insects and crustaceans which are rarely mentioned in nature guides. All those little moving dots can at last be named!  For tadpoles and salamanders, Amphibians of Oregon, Washington And British Columbia: A Field Identification Guide (Lone Pine Field Guides) is wonderful.  They have photographs and identifying tips for all life stages from eggs to adults.  Remember that garter snake adults mainly eat amphibians, so where you find frogs, salamanders and tadpoles you will find garter snakes.  No snakes in Oregon are venomous except rattlesnakes, which no longer make the Portland metro area their home. And remember that rough skinned newts are tough customers; they excrete the strongest natural neurotoxin in North America from their skin when they are terrified enough. So don't eat them! If you handle them, be sure you don't have any cuts on your skin, be gentle and all will be well.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lacamas Lake Park

Woodburn Falls.
Wood duck.
Lacamas Lake Park is a famous spot to see camas lilies, and we wanted to see them during their brief blooming period.  This park has a little of everything, with a big lake that is obviously a very popular spot for boating and fishing, a swimming hole, scenic waterfalls and a camas lily field.  I had pictured the park as being much larger than it actually is, and the camas lily field seemed smaller than that at our old favorite, Camassia Natural Area. But this meant it was easy to see all the noted spots in the park in one visit. We found the camas lilies just beginning to bloom, so we just wandered around enjoying the park.  Most of the trails are very well marked.
Lacamas Lake Dam.
Lacamas Creek from the dam.  The creek has interesting "potholes" in the sandstone creekbed and in the summer it's a popular swimming hole. 
Snail eater beetle. 
Pothole falls.
Oregon fawn lily. 
Camas lily.
Rosy plectritis.
Camas lily.  Photo by Jasper. 
Red spider mite.  Photo by Jasper. 
Oregon fawn lilly. 
Bleading hearts.
Bleeding hearts.
Sword ferns.
At the Round Lake Dam.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Nature Walk in North Plains

Northwestern fence lizard.
 Our homeschool group had a gathering at a farm in North Plains to collect stinging nettles, which have many culinary and medicinal uses.  On the way we saw lots of neat things.  I was especially excited when a fence lizard was spotted, because lizards like it dry and are not a common sight in the damp Pacific Northwest.  Here's some pictures from our ramble.
Seven spotted ladybug. Photo by Jasper.
Trillium.  Photo by Jasper.
Pacific chorus frog.
Northwestern salamander larva.
Red-legged frog.