• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming and home schooling. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 16/Grade 11, 14/Grade 9, and 13/Grade 8.

    Contact me at becky.farmschool@gmail.com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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  • Copyright © 2005-2012 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

Basement walls, part I

We postponed pouring concrete until yesterday — last week’s highs were in the -20s C but they started to warm up on the weekend, with daily highs just under freezing. Much easier on the people, not to mention the concrete. It was an all-day project, from about 10 to 5, and then checking on the heaters and tarps.

All photos by Davy with his new camera (the old one had spots on the lens from within somehow), which explains why he’s not in any of them.

One of the concrete trucks arriving Monday morning. All together, three trucks came with a total of six loads,

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Laura and Daniel,

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Daniel in the chute helping to clear it out,

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The concrete starting to dry,

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Laura in the turret section,

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Davy took this under the tarps and between the forms and excavation,

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Covering the concrete with insulated tarps,

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Footings and more forms

Pouring concrete for the footings last week,

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The forms, with braces, for the basement walls; looking to the east,

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Same view, a tad closer,

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Looking to the south,

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Beginning the basement

This past weekend Tom and crew, including the kids, prepared the forms for pouring concrete on Tuesday,

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The bump-out, above at left, is the dining room. We’ve decided, based on our recent addition, that we prefer a dining room with windows on three sides — lots of light and lots to see. On the second floor, the bump-out will be our bathroom. The smaller rectangle at the bottom of the picture is part of the garage where our cold storage and three large plastic tanks/cisterns for rainwater collection will go, under the garage’s main floor.

The orange insulated tarps were for the cold weather and snow expected, and received, on Saturday night and Sunday,

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We needed more tarps, and when Tom couldn’t reach the local fellow who rents insulated tarps in time, Daniel found a deal on some tarps on Kijiji (Canadian Craigslist) and we made a quick, unexpected trip to the city Monday afternoon.

Tom was well pleased with his deal, and at least until it got dark, I was able to start reading Natasha Solomon’s latest, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands. I finally read her The Novel in the Viola (published as The House at Tyneford in the US) over the summer and enjoyed it very much — I have a weakness for stories about Vienna, and about England between and during the wars. The kids were happy because the tarp location was near the Cabela’s store, so we stopped in on the way home and somehow a pop-up ice fishing shelter ended up in our cart. We’re considering it an early Christmas present for them…

Speaking of the holidays to come, just received an email that Lee Valley is offering free shipping from today, Nov. 7th, to the 14th, in Canada and the US, on orders of at least $40.

June

Harder

Saw the above today at Grain Edit by Muti and I love it. Available from Society6 as prints and as stretched canvases.

April and May zipped by alarmingly quickly. April was winter and May was summer, and spring somehow vanished. We’ve had hail already, and some fairly ominous weather.

The kids had the play (Wizard of Oz) which went very well, we all survived three days of 4H Beef Club achievement days/show/sale combined with a celebration of 4H’s centennial (the kids sold their steers, Laura won a showmanship award, Daniel received his silver award of excellence and Laura her gold, Davy and Laura won awards for their project books), we seeded our crops, planted and watered 985 little trees, planted two gardens and the potato patch, got the greenhouse up and running, are moving cattle to the various pastures, sorting out bulls, fixing fences. And oh, yes, school, along with some college/university planning, estate matters, and a variety of bird-related projects and trips for Laura. Our nest boxes are almost all occupied (Laura kicked some house sparrows out), and we have eggs and hatchlings everywhere.

Speaking of which, Laura was thrilled to that see her favorite birding radio show, Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds (which we first discovered as a podcast before wifi let her listen live on Sunday mornings), was the subject of a lovely feature article in The Boston Globe. There might be a quote from a young birder we know…

Also, if you’re in Canada and feeling inclined to support Bird Studies Canada in their national, provincial, and regional conservation and research efforts, Laura is participating in their annual Baillie Birdathon; her 24-hour birdathon was last week (she saw 84 species, four more than her stated goal), but donations will be accepted until the end of July.

This weekend the kids have their 4H Outdoor Club’s achievement day overnight camping trip, which they’re all looking forward to. Much scurrying about, sorting out sleeping bags and making their survival kits. Next week Daniel might be taking his learner’s permit test, which means that between him and his sister, I won’t be driving myself too much.

Some good books we’ve discovered:

Letters to a Young Scientist by E.O. Wilson (April 2013): somehow I stumbled across this in March and ordered it before publication. An inspiring, very personal little book for young scientists and their parents by the celebrated biologist and naturalist. Particularly helpful if the young scientist in your household happens to be especially keen on biology.

Two Laura found for her work with a Young Naturalists group, trying to get younger kids outdoors and interested in nature:

Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Candlewick, March 2013): brand new and delightful. Perfect for kids who think they might be interested in birds, and also for those who think there isn’t anything particularly exciting in their own backyard.

The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book: 448 Great Things to Do in Nature Before You Grow Up by Stacy Tornio and Ken Keffer (Falcon Guides, April 2013). For parents rather than kids, just the ticket if you need specific ideas on how to get started with your kids in the great outdoors.

I’ll leave you with another nifty poster, by Biljana Kroll, also available from Society6. Words to think about as some families’ formal studies come to an end for the summer.

NeverStop

Happy Easter

from Farm School.

Spring on the farm (all photos by Laura):

The 4H Outdoor club was asked by the local Habitat for Humanity to build some birdhouses for HfH to sell as a spring fundraiser. We had all the kids over to build 45 nestboxes in our shop, 36 for HfH and nine for members. Tom and the boys cut all the pieces ahead of time,

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Besides school, 4H, curling (today will be the end of the season), and the music festival, we’ve been busy this month with calving, made considerably easier for the new mothers and the rest of us by a new portable (on skids) calving barn we built. Tom was worried that if March came in like a lamb, it would go out like a lion. He was right. Davy (now 12 and a half) with a barn resident,

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One of our new babies, on a snowy morning (we had another dusting early today),

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February fun

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We had a full weekend here — a six-hour hands-on calving course for the kids at the local agricultural college (which meant missing 4H district public speaking, which no-one minded because the class was likely the much more educational endeavor, and good fun to boot). They were the only kids registered, along with four adults, only two of whom made it. The instructor had a fiberglass model of the back end of a cow available, one cow in the college herd conveniently calved during the class, and there was also an actual cow’s reproductive track on hand, provided by the local butcher (it’s kept frozen in between classes). The course also covered some medical procedures, including injections and tubing a calf, and artificial insemination. Kids found it all fascinating and helpful.

Also dogsledding with the 4H Outdoor Club (Sunday afternoon), and the Men’s and Ladies’ bonspiels at the curling club from Friday evening to Sunday evening.

Tom and the kids had planned on curling together in the Men’s (girls and women can curl in the Men’s, but men can’t curl in the Ladies’); they curled together Friday night, and during the kids’ class he found two substitutes. But Saturday evening, after the big dinner, Laura was “borrowed” to curl on one of the ladies’ teams. Tom and the boys, and Laura and new team all made it to second place after curling two more games on Sunday afternoon. Tonight the kids are in the finals of the junior league playoffs.

Next up with the Outdoor Club — building bird houses for the local Habitat for Humanity project to use as a fundraiser.

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Family Day fishing derby

Tom and the kids made it home after 10 pm last night, with fish, all sorts of prizes (jackets! ice fishing tackle! exercise equipment! tape measures! a toque!), and leftovers from a very tasty dinner. The weather was lovely, just above freezing, but it made for very slushy, very wet fishing. About 200 people at the lake altogether.

Davy had the best luck, catching two northern pike (known as jackfish in these parts), both over three-and-a-half pounds, the smallest of which won the prize for smallest fish by the youngest angler in the 11-15 age category. The prize for biggest fish caught all day went to a 4 lb, 11 oz jackfish. Davy of course arrived home quite excited and ready to go ice fishing again. Very soon. And fish on the menu here very soon, too.

All photos by Laura, except for the last one (two fish), which is by Davy,

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Breathe

We’ve survived all the May activities, and are now looking forward to a less hectic few months, though the fair is at the end of next month and we have to start preparing.

We got all the shelterbelt trees planted; the kids had fun in the play (“Alice in Wonderland”) and despite some grumbling from the boys about not doing theater next year (the thrice weekly rehearsals for the last few months get to be a bit much), they now think they want to do theater again in the fall; we got to the city for the provincial music festival even though the two days away was quite disruptive with 4H; Laura passed her learner’s test after two tries and has her license; the spotting scope Laura bought arrived and has been pronounced excellent; our naturalist society had the May species bird count (for which Laura was awake and in town for 6:30 am); and all the cattle and kids comported themselves well at the 4H show and sale. Daniel in particular got a very good price for his steer, and Laura and her heifer won reserve champion for showmanship.

Davy and his steer,

Laura was rather distracted on the last performance day of “Alice” after learning that she’s accepted for the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop and is very, very excited, especially since only six kids from across Canada are selected each year. We’re all tickled and proud. The participants live at the field station with staff and learn to band birds and go on a variety of excursions. And she’ll finally get to meet other young birders. Now we have to get her to Long Point, Ontario, on Lake Erie, and while she’d like to have us drive — more birds to see, and the chance to stop at Point Pelee — it’s a poor time to leave the farm, and Tom’s construction work, for so long, so we’ll put her on a plane.

Usually the kids get the day off after the long beef club Achievement Days weekend to sleep in, but one of Tom’s apprentices called in sick  just as Tom was hoping to finish one of the many roofs to reshingle. So the kids were pressed into service to help. Then Laura was up for 24 hours the next day as part of the Baillie Birdathon. She saw 79 species in one day, and so far has raised around $800, including a very generous donation from Edmonton’s Wildbird General Store, which we were lucky to be able to visit on our way home for provincials.

As far as activities, we have 4H achievement day left to do, for the baking club. We’re hoping for a quick and easy cookout with members, families, and friends. The boys have been contracted to do some gardening and landscaping jobs for neighbors, and Laura is planning to disappear into the fields and trees with her scope and camera.

I’ll end off with some quotes from author Zadie Smith’s recent blog post on libraries in The New York Review of Books; the council in her mother’s London neighborhood intends to demolish the library centre along with a bookshop, in order to replace them “with private luxury flats, a greatly reduced library, ‘retail space’ and no bookshop”:

What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell. Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact every single student in here could be at home in front of their Macbook browsing Google Books. And Kilburn Library — also run by Brent Council but situated, despite its name, in affluent Queen’s Park — is not only thriving but closed for refurbishment. Kensal Rise is being closed not because it is unpopular but because it is unprofitable, this despite the fact that the friends of Kensal Rise library are willing to run their library themselves (if All Souls College, Oxford, which owns the library, will let them.) Meanwhile it is hard not to conclude that Willesden Green is being mutilated not least because the members of the council see the opportunity for a sweet real estate deal.

All libraries have a different character and setting. Some are primarily for children or primarily for students, or the general public, primarily full of books or microfilms or digitized material or with a café in the basement or a market out front. Libraries are not failing “because they are libraries.” Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.

In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep re-stating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.

I don’t think the argument in favor of libraries is especially ideological or ethical. I would even agree with those who say it’s not especially logical. I think for most people it’s emotional. Not logos or ethos but pathos. This is not a denigration: emotion also has a place in public policy. We’re humans, not robots. The people protesting the closing of Kensal Rise Library love that library. They were open to any solution on the left or on the right if it meant keeping their library open. They were ready to Big Society the hell out of that place. A library is one of those social goods that matter to people of many different political attitudes. All that the friends of Kensal Rise and Willesden Library and similar services throughout the country are saying is: these places are important to us. We get that money is tight, we understand that there is a hierarchy of needs, and that the French Market or a Mark Twain plaque are not hospital beds and classroom size. But they are still a significant part of our social reality, the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet [emphasis mine].

Read the rest here.

May daybook

No, I have no idea what happened to April. A very short, very fast month.

Outside my window…

Spring was springier in March, which came in like a lamb and went out like a lion. April very lionish as well, at least weatherwise — cool, blustery, and dry. May so far is cool, blustery, and wettish.

We’re finished calving and that went fairly smoothly. The kids are busy working with their steers and other cattle (they each have a steer and Laura also has a heifer and a cow-calf pair) for 4H beef club achievement days at the end of the month. Yesterday was the annual 4H highway cleanup, where kids clean up months’ of litter tossed out of vehicles by irresponsible adults.

From the schoolroom…

I think I mentioned in my last post that we read To Kill a Mockingbird which the boys in particular seemed to enjoy. We followed that up with the movie, and then, because everyone quite liked Gregory Peck, we had a special screening of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” with a discussion of anti-Semitism in North America. Next up in American movie studies, and continuing with courtroom drama, we have “12 Angry Men” with Henry Fonda.

For political science/current events, between the American presidential campaign and our recent roller coaster provincial election (the Progressive Conservatives were a lock to win, the Wild Rose Party all of a sudden came out of nowhere and was poised to win a majority, the PCs ended up winning a majority, oy), the kids are all now old enough (Daniel just turned 13) to make it through George Orwell’s celebrated 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”, which they are now reading, writing, and discussing their ways through. I also managed to find a copy of Frank Luntz’s Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear in the library system, which is good, because I had no desire to further enrich Mr. Luntz by having to purchase the book. I disagree mightily with his methods, all the more reason it’s important to understand them, and how to parse the rhetoric, especially for young future voters.

For something a bit lighter, our new readaloud is a rereading of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, which Davy scarcely remembers.

I let Laura pick the Shakespeare play for spring, and she chose Romeo and Juliet. Although Davy had his reservations, he and his brother were transfixed by a story that had more violence and adolescent hotheadedness than romance. In addition to readings, we also watched the Zeffirelli version, followed by the Leonardo di Caprio version which all three kids found very unsettling for various reasons (Florida, the music, the abridging, and “That’s Temple Grandin?”). We’re going to add in a showing of  “West Side Story”, even though it’s in fairly regular rotation in this house, and also tossed in another viewing of “Much Ado” this time for comparison purpose the benefits of age, maturity, and waiting a bit). We found “Shakespeare in Love” at the library the other week, which is centered around Romeo and Juliet, and Laura now wants to see “Twelfth Night”, which is mentioned at the end; we’ll see what versions the library has. And I discovered that our library system has a DVD copy of “Romeo and Juliet” with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer; I think the boys are Romeo’d out, but Laura would probably enjoy this version if only to see what it looks like with MGM’s long-in-the-tooth teens.

We are beavering away at math, with decimals, percents, pre-algebra, and algebra. This year isn’t as easy for Laura as last year, but I’ve seen the lightbulb go on about having to work on a subject despite the difficulties and drudgery with her realization that she likely will pursue some sort of career in wildlife biology.

Which reminds me, have just ordered a copy of the newly (as in last week) published Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture by Robert Bruce Thompson. Mr. Thompson has a biology lab kit available for those living in the US, and is also working on his forthcoming title, Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (which will also have an accompanying kit available). According to Mr. Thompson, the Illustrated Guide is “intended to be used in conjunction with a standard first-year biology textbook. The book coordinates well with Miller-Levine Biology and the free CK-12 Biology, which are the two texts we recommend, but it’s easy enough to coordinate with any of the common homeschool biology textbooks”.

For whatever it’s worth, we have and use Stephen Nowicki’s biology text (bought cheaply secondhand at Abebooks), in great part because we have his biology course on dvd, and also Trefil’s and Hazen’s The Sciences: An Integrated Approach (also cheap secondhand at Abebooks). Throw in a couple of out-of-print Charles Harper books for the boys (The Giant Golden Book of Biology and The Animal Kingdom, and it’s a bit of a mishmash, but it works for us.

Here’s a link to a free PDF of a draft version of the Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments.

In the next few weeks…

In extracurriculars, besides getting ready for beef club achievement days, the kids are in the home stretch for this year’s play, “Alice in Wonderland”, with opening night a week from Thursday. Laura got off her application for the birding internship in Ontario, and we get word on the 15th whether she makes it or not; only six kids nationally are chosen, so our fingers are crossed. She’ll take her learner’s permit test tomorrow, so more fingers crossed for that.

This year’s batch of shelterbelt trees, somewhere between 900 and 1,000, are arriving at the county depot on Friday, so we’ll be planting them on the weekend. As usual, Mother’s Day tends to be more like Arbor Day around here…

I’m thankful…

The kids all did very well at the local music festival in March, and had some good fun. The boys each recited two poems, and Daniel surprised himself and us by winning one poetry category (lyrical) instead of his sister. He also won best speech arts for 12 and under. Laura sang two art songs, performed “Worst Pies” from “Sweeney Todd” for musical theater (she did a wonderful, very funny job, especially with the double portion of pizza dough I made for her to sling around), and had half a dozen speech arts entries. She won a number of awards, including best overall speech arts, and she and Daniel were recommended to the provincial music festival for speech arts, and Laura for musical theater. Unfortunately, provincials are the week after the play and a few days before achievement day, and Davy’s session is on Wednesday and Laura’s sessions on Thursday, so we are spending the night in the city, not the best time to be away from home. We will probably have to leave Daniel at home with Tom’s parents, so he can do all the farm chores and especially look after the 4H animals.

Laura’s been getting more and more wrapped up in her birding. Unlike her mother, she’s a dedicated blogger and keeps up with her birding posts. She joined a listserv for provincial birders last month, and was welcomed warmly by members who seem happy to see someone younger as well as outside the two main urban centers. Invited by one of the members, we attended the town of Tofield’s nature day and Snow Goose chase last weekend, organized by the big city nature club, and Laura was able to meet some listserv members in person. More on the day below.

Around the farm…

Late in April, I had a phone call from the big oil company putting in another pipeline across the road through our neighbor’s pasture. The rep asked if we would give permission for a two-man wildlife biology survey crew to come on our land and check for various species. We can’t do anything to stop the pipeline  – and at any rate, we’re dependent on our vehicles and the pipeline oil that powers them, living too far from town to walk or even to bike, especially from November to April and especially with any purchases too large for a bicycle basket. But we can do our small part to make sure that various animal populations and habitat are taken into account and looked after before, during, and after construction.

So I said yes, and also asked if Laura could go out with the crew, because I thought it could be mutually beneficial. She knows the land and wildlife like the back of her hand and could help the crew get the information they need (for example, they were looking for sharp-tailed grouse here and there are none), and I thought it would be good for Laura to see first-hand the work wildlife biologists do in the field. Apparently, asking to go along was fairly odd question — we were the first ever landowners to ever ask — but the pipeline company checked with the survey company, and everyone said yes.

The two young men who turned up on Monday are dedicated professional biologists and personal birders; in fact, one spent a fair amount of time going back and forth with Laura about their year birds and spring migrants they’ve seen so far. If I’ve learned anything about most birders, it’s that they are dedicated list makers and keepers. The other biologist, when he first arrived around 5 am, while standing in our driveway, quizzed Laura by asking her what birds she could hear at the large slough (pond/wetland) across the road in our neighbors’ pasture. Since it’s filled with thousands of Snow Geese, it’s pretty hard to make out much besides their honking, but Laura listed a number of other birds, including one (Green-winged Teal) the biologist hadn’t been able to hear. So with that, off we went, and spent some time in the pasture recording early morning birdsong. We met later in the morning for several hours and Laura led the way to a good viewing spot by the slough where the crew set up their spotting scopes, much to Laura’s delight because she’s been wanting a scope for a year now.

And based on comments in her letter of reference for the internship, from the local college biology instructor who leads our naturalist society and has been Laura’s unofficial mentor, and from the survey crew (as well as their boss, the company’s senior wildlife biologist) about her levels of knowledge and interest — Tom and I don’t know any other young birders so we weren’t sure if her interest and abilities are average or above average — we’ve decided to let her go ahead with the purchase of a spotting scope. She’ll be using her own money, and has decided to get one of the top-level Swarovski scopes, though not with HD to save some money. She’s decided that she’d rather pay more for a top quality scope she should be able to use for a good long time, through her university studies and as she starts a career. The fellow we’re working with at the store said Laura’s selections should give her at least 20 years’ enjoyment.

This TED talk by Canadian professor Larry Smith, “Why you will fail to have a great career”, which I heard on last week’s CBC Sunday Edition radio show, is as good a reason as any for encouraging Laura to pursue her present hobby as a career. Last week, the Sunday Edition also ran David Martin’s essay, “My Government Valedictory”, which along with the recently announced federal job cuts are all good reasons to consider avoiding government jobs; some of the cuts will be at bird, and birders’, haven Point Pelee.

I am thinking...

By the way, I’ve been adding any birding material, all of the writing and some of the photography, to Laura’s high school portfolio, inlcuding the letter of recommendation and nice email note from the survey crew’s wildlife biologist, who turned up on the provincial listserv and wrote her offlist. Laura also wrote a blog post about our nature day visit last weekend to Tofield. She was asked if her post could be used as an article for the club’s newsletter, and she’ll receive a published copy, so a copy of that will go in the portfolio as well. I think it might be helpful in the next year or two to make a book of her blog with Blurb or some such, as a record of her birding and writing.

Aside from the birds to be seen outdoors, there were many wonderful exhibits in the town’s community center: several owls and hawks from from the city zoo; well-known Canadian naturalist John Acorn (who used to have a marvelous children’s show on CBC, “Acorn the Nature Nut”, now available on dvd); here are the two nature nuts together,

a live Burrowing Owl from a nearby bird observatory, which Laura got to hold,

a Bugs & Beetles wetland display; and a gorgeous taxidermy display of mounted owls from the Royal Alberta Museum. My favorite, though, were the yard-long garter snake, enormous Malaysian katydid, and scorpion, also from the Royal Alberta Museum; here is Katy,

displayed by the enthusiastic Pete Heule, the Museum’s Bug Room Co-ordinator (know as the Bug Guy on his features for CBC radio, which we enjoy very much).

In the kitchen…

Plans for tonight include Banana Batter Cake with Coconut Caramel Sauce, apparently an Asian variation of sticky toffee pudding, found in last November’s issue of British House & Garden magazine, originally from Australian chef and restaurateur Bill Granger’s book, Bill’s Everyday Asian (recipe here).

Some books we’re reading…

Designing Your Perfect House: Lessons from an Architect by William J. Hirsch (me)

The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds by Julie Zickefoose (Laura), new and very good

All of Baba’s Children by Myrna Kostash (Tom), a personal and general history of Ukrainian Canadians

Finally, Friday night the whole family went to see “The Artist”, which was playing at the little movie theater in town, which is owned and run by a friend of ours. We don’t get a lot of first, or almost first, run movies in town, so this was a huge treat, especially since we’d seen lots of clips at the awards shows earlier this year and were quite eager for the movie to come out on dvd. Next month on the big screen — either “Bringing Up Baby” or “The Philadelphia Story”, two favorites which would be wonderful to see on the big screen.

Canadian Curlews

After 17 years in Canada, I’m still not entirely up on my CanLit and find lots of surprises. The latest one is Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, published in 1955. So for anyone looking for some modern CanLit for older students, a living book on extinct/endangered species, and a modern classic movie (adapted from the book) for younger children about extinct/endangered species, we have a couple of recommendations.

A bit of background to explain. For her two 4H clubs, Laura is writing two speeches, one on birds that are extinct, the other on birds that are virtually extinct. Going over her speeches with her, I learned about birds I’d never heard of (not hard for me, since unlike Laura, I don’t sleep with a copy of Sibley’s and read almost exclusively about birds). One of the extinction stories I found quite moving is about the Eskimo curlew. I’ve borrowed a bit from Laura’s speech.

The Eskimo curlew, a medium-sized shorebird in the sandpiper family, is said to have been among the birds that guided Christopher Columbus to the new world. But the curlew is so rare now from overhunting 100 years ago that it’s very probably extinct. If there are any still in existence, scientists think they number fewer than 50 adult birds, when once the population was in the millions and they flew in flocks so thick they formed dark clouds one kilometer wide and long.

If it sounds rather like the story of the passenger pigeon, there are parallels. Nineteenth century American market hunters in need of a replacement for the pigeon, which they had hunted into extinction, looked about and proceeded to do the same sad thing to the Eskimo curlew, which they called “doughbirds” — the birds, heavy from gorging themselves on berries, fruit, and insects in their breeding grounds in the Northwest Territories and Alaska, would put on a thick layer of fat in preparation for their journey. The curlews, again like the passenger pigeons, were so tightly spaced as a flock that a single shotgun blast could easily kill about 20 birds. The survivors had an unfortunate habit of circling back for their injured or dead flockmates, giving the hunters yet another chance. Hunters first starting shooting the birds on their spring migration, then, looking for even more, headed for the curlew breeding grounds, where men would blind the birds with lanterns and then club them.

The Eskimo curlew’s migration, we read, was one of the longest and most complex in the animal kingdom. The winter journey involved a large clockwise circle, starting at the subarctic Canadian tundra, through the western hemisphere, east through Labrador, down through the Atlantic, across the southern Caribbean, and finally to the Argentinian pampas and Chile.

Another strike against the Eskimo curlew, just as it should have been rebounding from overhunting, was the loss of one its important prey species, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, or locust. If you read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Banks of Plum Creek”, you might remember the almost biblical plague of locusts in the chapter, “The Glittering Cloud”:

The cloud was hailing grasshoppers.  The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground an dthe house with the noise of a hailstorm.

… Grasshoppers covered the ground, there was not one bare bit to step on. Laura had to step on grasshoppers and they smashed squirming and slimy under her feet. …

Then Laura heard another sound, one big sound made of tiny nips and snips and gnawings.

“The wheat!” Pa shouted. He dashed out the back door and ran toward the wheat-field.

The locusts were the farmers’ scourge on the Great Plains in the 1870s, and their obliteration was as accidental as it was complete, as well as devastating for the curlew population. In fact, entemologist Dr. Jeffrey Lockwood has called it “the only complete elimination of an agricultural pest species”. What happened, Dr. Lockwood discovered, is that

Between outbreaks, the locust hid out in the river valleys of Wyoming and Montana — the same river valleys that settlers had discovered were best suited for farming.

By converting these valleys into farms — diverting streams for irrigation, allowing cattle and sheep to graze in riparian areas, and eliminating beavers and their troublesome dams — the pioneers unknowingly wiped out locust sanctuaries. They destroyed the locust’s equivalent of [the Monarch butterfly's] Mexican forest wintering grounds. They doomed the species.

For the rest of the fascinating story, you can read Dr. Lockwood’s article here.

Last summer, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service said it is seeking any information about the Eskimo curlew, and will review whether the bird should continue to be classified as endangered or formally designated as extinct. The last sighting confirmed by the Fish and Wildlife Service was in Nebraska in 1987.

Getting back to the point of this post, while helping Laura, we discovered a celebrated Canadian novel written in 1955, Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, which is part of Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart’s New Canadian Library line; I just ordered a copy. I like the idea of the book as a bridge to fiction, especially modern classic Canadian fiction, for her since she reads so much nonfiction (especially so much bird-related nonfiction), and also as an entree into CanLit for an older student who’s ready for a bigger challenge, but not quite ready for some of CanLit’s heavier offerings — though like most CanLit, this book is sad.  Here’s an excerpt from Chapter One:

The Arctic day was long, and despite the tundra gales which whistled endlessly across the unobstructed land the day was hot and humid. The curlew alternately probed the mudflats for food and patrolled his territory, and all the time he watched the land’s flat horizons with eyes that never relaxed. Near mid-day a rough-legged hawk appeared far to the north, methodically circling back and forth across the river and diving earthward now and then on a lemming that incautiously showed itself among the reindeer moss. The curlew eyed the hawk apprehensively as the big hunter’s circling brought it slowly upriver towards the curlew’s territory. Finally the roughleg crossed the territory boundary unmarked on the ground but sharply defined in the curlew’s brain. The curlew took off in rapid pursuit, his long wings stroking the air deeply and his larynx shrieking a sharp piping alarm as he closed in on the intruder with a body weight ten times his own. For a few seconds the hawk ignored the threatened attack, then turned back northward without an attempt at battle. It could have killed the curlew with one grasp of its talons, but it was a killer only when it needed food, and it gave ground willingly before a bird so maddened with the fire of the mating time.

The sun dipped low, barely passing from view, and the curlew’s first Arctic night dropped like a grey mist around him. The tundra cooled quickly, and as it cooled the gale that had howled all day suddenly died. Dusk, but not darkness, followed.

The curlew was drawn by an instinctive urge he felt but didn’t understand to the dry ridge of cobblestone with the thick mat of reindeer moss at its base where the nest would be. In his fifth summer now, he had never seen a nest or even a female of his kind except the nest and mother he had briefly known in his own nestling stage, yet the know-how of courtship and nesting was there, unlearned, like a carry-over from another life he had lived. And he dozed now on one leg, bill tucked under the feathers of his back, beside the gravel bar which awaited the nest that the bird’s instinct said there had to be.

Tomorrow or the next day the female would come, for the brief annual cycle of life in the Arctic left time for no delays.

It sounds as if it would make a wonderful living book choice for conservation and natural history studies, too. There’s another edition, a 1990s reissue, which came about because “Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin found this slim 1955 novel on a shelf in the house of friends, and, struck with the ‘plain, succinct evocation and beauty’ of Fred Bodsworth’s writing, suggested its reissue to a publisher.” That volume has a foreword by Merwin and an afterword by Murray Gell-Man, with J.J. Audubon’s painting of Eskimo curlews on the cover.

And for younger children, Last of the Curlews was made into a one-hour animated movie in 1972 to teach children about conservation. I was surprised to learn that it not only featured Vincent Van Patten (I’m old enough to remember “Apple’s Way”), but was also the very first ABC Afterschool Special, winning an Emmy for children’s broadcasting. I don’t read entries at IMDB much, but the reviews for, and memories of, Last are poignant. The animation by Hanna-Barbera is lovely, not at all what comes to mind when I think of H-B (primarily the Flintstones, etc.). We were hopefully optimistic when we heard about this, and delighted to find that it’s available, in several parts, on YouTubePart 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. But a warning that the cartoon version doesn’t sugarcoat the story, which is not a happy or hopeful one. Extinction is extinction. We found a box of Kleenex helpful.

Also on YouTube is a little video blurb by Canadian eco-photographer Edward Burtynsky on Last of the Curlews for the Toronto Public Library.

Digging around online, we learned that Charles Frederick (Fred) Bodsworth is an internationally renowned naturalist, journalist, and novelist. Born in Port Burwell, Ontario, in 1918, after apparently spending some time working on tugboats and in tobacco fields, he became a reporter for the St. Thomas (ON) Times-Journal at the age of 22 and later was a writer and editor both at The Toronto Star and at Maclean’s magazine. Mr. Bodsworth left Maclean’s in 1955 to focus on magazine and nature writing, and novels. He also served as president of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists from 1964 to 1967. In 2002, he received the prestigious Writer’s Trust Matt Cohen Lifetime Achievement Award. I didn’t see any mention online of an obituary or his death, so I hope he is still hale, hearty, and watching birds at 94.

In other school-related news, work on the other speeches and presentation is going well, we’re in the midst of musical festival registration (both as registrars and registrants), the kids are happily galloping through more of Life of Fred, and in the phys ed department, curling season has picked up dramatically and the kids are curling quite well. Laura is also working on a summer internship application, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed for that. Oh, and roles have been handed out for Spring’s theater production of “Alice in Wonderland” so there is lots of singing throughout the house.  That and Davy’s cooking — he made baking powder biscuits yesterday and today some delicious gravy from our moose roast — are keeping us warm in this week’s cold snap. And -51 is verrrry snappy.


A laughing sound

That would be me, delighted because Colleen Mondor in her latest Bookslut in Training column recommends as her Cool Read The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound: A Birder’s Journal by Sallie Wolf.  Delighted because next month is Laura’s 13th birthday, and the book — a “blend of poetry, field guide and nature notes” — sounds perfect for her.  Colleen, who also blogs at Chasing Ray, writes,

Wolf arranges her entries by season, and includes bird lists, haiku, observations, ruminations, watercolor illustrations and drawings on every page. Essentially, she is inviting the reader into her life, providing a space at her window and her desk. It is a very personal work, for all that it does not share about Wolf’s actual personal life. You are merely seeing what she sees, and perhaps altering your own conclusions about art and nature through her influence. Teen readers who might be wary of their own creativity, and are reticent to face the blank page, will find a sympathetic fellow artist here — someone who uses the barest of brush strokes to capture the creatures she sees. Exquisitely designed by Charlesbridge, The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound is one of the more elegant books to come across my doorstop in a long time. I hope a lot of young birders and artists and poets find it.

I think the book might be a bit young for Laura but I still think she’d enjoy having it, and she can always use another journal.  There’s another bird book I’d really like to get her, too, and while it shouldn’t be listed at an online bookseller for a decent price, it is.  I’ll post the title if I manage to get my mitts on it*.

The publisher’s page with various links and downloads is here.  Sallie Wolf has a blog and a website (where I learned that much like Davy, as a child Sallie loved Ben Hunt books and wanted to be a Mohawk. Davy wants to be an Iroquois, but why quibble?)

You can find all of Colleen’s warm weather reading titles for your favorite children and young adults in this post, Summertime, and the Reading Is Easy.

* Apparently the book is still in stock and winging its way to me:  the hardcover edition of Tim Birkhead’s The Wisdom Of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology, for $10.11 CAN, much cheaper and sturdier than the paperback edition coming out in March.  And for some reason the copies at Amazon.ca are  $26.92 and $39.57 — odd.

Child’s play

David Elkind, professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times prompted by the decision of many American schools to hire “recess coaches” to oversee schoolchildren’s time on the playground.  As “someone whose scholarly work has consistently reinforced the idea that young people need unstructured imagination time,” he writes, “I’d probably have been opposed to recess coaches in the past. But childhood has changed so radically in recent years that I think the trend makes sense, at least at some schools and with some students. Children today are growing up in a world vastly different from the one their parents knew.”  Dr. Elkind writes further,

A Nielsen study last year found that children aged 6 to 11 spent more than 28 hours a week using computers, cellphones, televisions and other electronic devices. A University of Michigan study found that from 1979 to 1999, children on the whole lost 12 hours of free time a week, including eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities. One can only assume that the figure has increased over the last decade, as many schools have eliminated recess in favor of more time for academics.

One consequence of these changes is the disappearance of what child-development experts call “the culture of childhood.” This culture, which is to be found all over the world, was best documented in its English-language form by the British folklorists Peter and Iona Opie in the 1950s. They cataloged the songs, riddles, jibes and incantations (“step on a crack, break your mother’s back”) that were passed on by oral tradition. Games like marbles, hopscotch and hide and seek date back hundreds of years. The children of each generation adapted these games to their own circumstances.

Yet this culture has disappeared almost overnight, and not just in America. For example, in the 1970s a Japanese photographer, Keiki Haginoya, undertook what was to be a lifelong project to compile a photo documentary of children’s play on the streets of Tokyo. He gave up the project in 1996, noting that the spontaneous play and laughter that once filled the city’s streets, alleys and vacant lots had utterly vanished.

For children in past eras, participating in the culture of childhood was a socializing process. They learned to settle their own quarrels, to make and break their own rules, and to respect the rights of others. They learned that friends could be mean as well as kind, and that life was not always fair.

Now that most children no longer participate in this free-form experience — play dates arranged by parents are no substitute — their peer socialization has suffered. One tangible result of this lack of socialization is the increase in bullying, teasing and discrimination that we see in all too many of our schools.

Bullying has always been with us, but it did not become prevalent enough to catch the attention of researchers until the 1970s, just as TV and then computers were moving childhood indoors. It is now recognized as a serious problem in all the advanced countries. The National Education Association estimates that in the United States, 160,000 children miss school every day because they fear attacks or intimidation by other students. Massachusetts is considering anti-bullying legislation.

While correlation is not necessarily causation, it seems clear that there is a link among the rise of television and computer games, the decline in peer-to-peer socialization and the increase of bullying in our schools. I am not a Luddite — I think that the way in which computers have made our students much more aware of the everyday lives of children in other countries is wonderful, and that they will revolutionize education as the new, tech-savvy generation of teachers moves into the schools. But we should also recognize what is being lost.

Dr. Elkind concludes that “We have to adapt to childhood as it is today, not as we knew it or would like it to be”, since the “question isn’t whether recess coaches are good or bad — they seem to be with us to stay — but whether they help students form the age-old bonds of childhood.”

Here’s an idea.  Rather than adapting to something that doesn’t work, dare to do something different.  For those who are able, join those — dare I say it — supposedly unsocialized home schoolers and show your kids that it’s not necessary to buy into a failing system.

A peach tree grows near Brooklyn

but perhaps not for much longer.  In Friday’s New York Times, Susan Dominus writes,

Close to 40 years ago, Michael Goldstein, then a young dad, rented the top floor of a building on the corner of Broome and Mercer Streets, and plunked a sandbox and kiddie pool on the roof. Such was the humble beginning of what would eventually become an elaborate, fantasyland garden, complete with convincing-looking synthetic grass, peach, apple and cherry trees, blueberry bushes, and Adirondack chairs nestled among the fragrant boughs.

Long before green roofs were hot [GreenRoofs.org], long before Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg declared his goal to plant one million trees [MillionTreesNYC] across the five boroughs, Mr. Goldstein was doing his part to green New York with his 2,500-square-foot aerie atop the ninth floor.

Until now, Mr. Goldstein’s garden has been governed mostly by the quick-changing whims of the seasons. This week, his birch tree is losing its leaves, and his apple tree has been bearing sweet, mild fruit. The seasons may be intractable masters, but Mr. Goldstein, now 71, has come to expect their tyranny. Much harder to accept: that a piece of paper pinned to a door should govern the fate of the small ecosystem that he considers an extension of his home.

In July, Mr. Goldstein, who runs a merchandising business from a small, sunny office mounted on his roof, found a troubling notice from the City Buildings Department on his building’s front door. From a roof nearby, the notice read, visual inspection revealed “small housing structures built on top of this roof,” along with other concerns, including “foliage resembling a small forest.”The building was not code-compliant, the notice went on to say, and the owner would be required to provide an engineering report documenting the structural soundness of the roof.

Then Mr. Goldstein received a letter in the mail, dated Aug. 28, from the bank that bought the building when its previous owner went bankrupt. The bank was terminating his lease to the roof. He would have until the end of September to deconstruct Eden and return the roof to its natural state: black tar, the kudzu of urban surfaces everywhere.

It is no small thing to plant and maintain foliage resembling a small forest in New York City — it requires two hours of watering a day, said Mr. Goldstein, who pays $1,700 a month in rent for the roof. He never leaves town in the summer, because a day or two of arid heat would take too heavy a toll.

Nor would it be a small thing to remove said small forest through the building’s cramped elevator, to disassemble a living, photosynthesizing community. Mr. Goldstein said he has told officials at the bank that he would hire an engineer to test the soundness of the roof, and remove whatever weight was deemed problematic. But he said he has been given no leeway, just orders to remove years of history and a space that is considered home not just to him and his neighbors, but to the two mockingbirds and three robins that feed off the fruit, and to an owl that occasionally surprises them with a visit.

Read the rest of the article here. And see Mr. Goldstein’s lovely, lovely rooftop garden here,

ATrees

From the website for Mayor Bloomberg’s MillionTreesNYC program (emphases mine):

MillionTreesNYC, one of the 127 PlaNYC initiatives, is a citywide, public-private program with an ambitious goal: to plant and care for one million new trees across the City’s five boroughs over the next decade. By planting one million trees, New York City can increase its urban forestour most valuable environmental asset made up of street trees, park trees, and trees on public, private and commercial land — by an astounding 20%, while achieving the many quality-of-life benefits that come with planting trees.The City of New York will plant 60% of trees in parks and other public spaces. The other 40% will come from private organizations, homeowners, and community organizations.

How does the city plan Getting to a Million Trees? With, among other things, “homeowner outreach”:

The Parks Department and NYRP [New York Restoration Project] will introduce public education campaigns that highlight the economic and health benefits associated with trees. Neighborhood residents will be invited to participate in tree planting workshops, join community-based stewardship networks, participate in volunteer tree planting days, and most importantly register their newly planted trees online.

As a result of this new comprehensive tree planting approach, neighborhoods throughout New York City will see their streets, parks and public spaces, business districts and front yards transformed into beautiful green landscapes-providing New York City families with the positive benefits associated with urban trees.

Can you think of a better community steward than Mr. Goldstein, whose neighborhood has benefited from his trees and plantings for almost 40 years? By the way, Mr. Goldstein and his wife, and other NYC rooftop gardeners, were profiled by The Times 10 years ago, too. 

From the MillionTrees page on NYC’s Urban Forest:

Our trees and green spaces are essential to life in New York City.

Our urban forest totals over 5 million trees and 168 species. It can be found throughout the city along streets and highways, in neighborhood playgrounds, backyards and, community gardens, and even along commercial developments. There are 6,000 acres of woodlands in parks alone!

Trees in such a dense urban environment mean two things: people can directly benefit from them in their day-to-day lives (shade and cleaner air), but also trees must contend with a host of challenges that all city-dwellers face:

Competition for open space in the City is fierce, as residential and commercial developments reduce existing and potential tree habitat. Between 1984 and 2002 alone, New York City lost 9,000 acres of green open space to competing land uses.

Environmental and physical factors challenge street, yard, and woodland trees throughout the City. Construction damage, invasive species, soil compaction and degradation, drought, flooding, air pollution, vandalism, and pests, such as the Asian longhorned beetle, all impact the urban forest.

(Other challenging city pests include lawyers, banks, and city bureaucrats.) 

 … MillionTreesNYC will bring thousands of trees to streets, parks, and forests throughout the City. In addition to adding trees to the urban forest, MillionTreesNYC will raise the profile of trees to the general public so all New Yorkers not only benefit but also contribute. Together, we can create a greener, greater NYC.

Paging MillionTreesNYC, and Mayor Bloomberg too…

A reminder for summer vacation

from author Michael Chabon, writing in the current issue of The New York Review of Books:

As a kid, I was extremely fond of a series of biographies, largely fictional, I’m sure, that dramatized the lives of famous Americans — Washington, Jefferson, Kit Carson, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Daniel Boone — when they were children. (Boys, for the most part, though I do remember reading one about Clara Barton.) [I would think this is the COFA series.] One element that was almost universal in these stories was the vast amounts of time the famous historical boys were alleged to have spent wandering with bosom companions, with friendly Indian boys or a devoted slave, through the once-mighty wilderness, the Wilderness of Childhood, entirely free of adult supervision.

Though the wilderness available to me had shrunk to a mere green scrap of its former enormousness, though so much about childhood had changed in the years between the days of young George Washington’s adventuring on his side of the Potomac and my own suburban exploits on mine, there was still a connectedness there, a continuum of childhood. Eighteenth-century Virginia, twentieth-century Maryland, tenth-century Britain, Narnia, Neverland, Prydain — it was all the same Wilderness. Those legendary wanderings of Boone and Carson and young Daniel Beard (the father of the Boy Scouts of America), those games of war and exploration I read about, those frightening encounters with genuine menace, far from the help or interference of mother and father, seemed to me at the time — and I think this is my key point — absolutely familiar to me.

The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

Chabon writes at the end about the consequences of losing this land:

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children’s imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible. Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride her bicycle. Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it — nowhere that I was willing to let her go. Should I send my children out to play?

There is a small grocery store around the corner, not over two hundred yards from our front door. Can I let her ride there alone to experience the singular pleasure of buying herself an ice cream on a hot summer day and eating it on the sidewalk, alone with her thoughts? Soon after she learned to ride, we went out together after dinner, she on her bike, with me following along at a safe distance behind. What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of our lovely residential neighborhood at that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn’t encounter a single other child.

Even if I do send them out, will there be anyone to play with?

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted — not taught — to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

Read the entire piece here.

Back when Chabon had a website, which I remember a year or two ago, he had a very good piece on kids, Lego, and imagination.  Here’s where it was, in 2006.  Will have to see if I can use the Wayback Machine to get a better link. Aha.  Try this.

(By the way, Chabon is married to Ayelet Waldman, author of the recently published Bad Mother)

A perfect school for learning

Last Thursday, Tom’s already unreliable helper — the Alberta advantage continues in the face of the recession — failed to show up for the first day of a big reshingling job.  All of the shingles needed to be removed and the roof tarped, and it was hot (31 Celsius) so moving quickly with several pairs of hands was much better than moving slowly with only one.  So I suggested he take the boys along, since we’re done with school for the summer.   The three of them worked long days, until seven pm or so, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then Monday with Laura along to make sure the job got finished by the end of the day. Tuesday, the boys begged to go along for Tom’s new project — renovating two bathrooms, which included the demolition of walls, which couldn’t be any more fun if you’re eight-and-a-half and ten years old and are smashing down drywall with hammers and wrecking bars.  And under Tom’s supervision and tutelage, the boys finally got to use the air nailer.  They’re very pleased and proud of themselves.

I was in town by myself yesterday and Tuesday, and at every stop at least one person asked, “Where are the kids?”  Each time I explained that Laura was home (yesterday she took her bicycle off to the corrals and with newborn kittens in her lap wrote her 4H essay) and the boys were working with Tom.  Twice I was asked, “Are they old enough already?”  I was torn between replying “Old enough for what?” and mentioning that our junior apprenticeship program started a long time ago.  The kids have been going off to work with their father, and doing farm chores with both of us, since they were old enough to walk.  When I was pregnant with Daniel, Tom took Laura, who was not quite a year-and-a-half old, to work where he was building a new house.  She would help him by passing tools to him, and kept busy for hours at a time hammering nails into a large styrofoam block.  When Daniel was six months old and Laura two years old, we took off for Toronto so Tom could help his sister and her husband build a  new garage.  Laura had no interest in spending her time in the house with her baby brother and newborn cousin when she could be outdoors helping her father, which she did, much to the consternation of her uncle who wasn’t used to useful and capable young children.  Really, the question shouldn’t be, “Are they old enough?” but “Are they able enough?” And the answer is yes.

It was last night while the boys were enjoying a well-deserved sleep after a hard day’s work at their father’s side that I read Holly Robinson‘s heart-breaking story of her sixth grade son’s experiences in his Massachusetts public school, with school as “a necessary evil instead of an inspiration”.  I want to write to her and say “break the rules”, or “send him to us, sight unseen, for a summer at the farm”.  Here’s some of the article, at The Huffington Post, including the beginning of the article which I confess confuses me:

A couple of weeks ago, I was volunteering at my son Aidan’s elementary school after hours. The building was empty but for a knot of teachers clustered in the hallway. As we entered his classroom, Aidan leaped up to touch the door frame. Immediately, one of the teachers scolded him about safety.

Aidan apologized. As soon as we were alone, though, he rolled his eyes at me. “Teachers don’t like boys, Mom. If I was a girl, she never would have said anything.”

“They’re just trying to keep you safe,” I said.

Aidan is in sixth grade, no doubt old enough to be safe no matter how he leaps or touches a door frame, no? Also confusing, and just plain misguided on the part of the teachers, who seem to have little understanding of classroom management and the nature of children in general and boys in particular,

Aidan earns A’s and B’s in school, yet I’m constantly fighting battles like this one: When he misbehaves, his teachers take away recess. Please. Are they out of their Vulcan minds?

The less confusing, more heart-breaking part:

Now that Aidan, the youngest of our five children, is in sixth grade, I have little hope that the system will change. Our public school curriculum in Massachusetts, as in so many states, is designed to help students conquer basic skills and prepare for the state-administered MCAS exam. Not a bad goal. Just one problem: our teachers now scramble to teach to the tests. This means lots of worksheets get handed out and there’s little time left for creative, hands-on projects.

This is a tragedy, especially for boys. Research tells us what most parents know: boys are apt to be “kinesthetic learners.” That’s educatorspeak for the fact that most boys learn best while they’re in motion. Boys want to get their feet wet and their hands dirty. They want to build things and take them apart, trap small animals and climb tall trees. Or jump up and touch whatever they can.

As Aidan observed once, after spending an entire science class watching a movie about the life cycle of frogs, “We’d learn a lot more if the teacher just brought tadpoles and frogs into the classroom and we could look at them.”

“Send him to us.” Or let him go pond dipping near home, if possible.

Ms. Robinson writes,

But I can’t help seeing school as a necessary evil instead of an inspiration. It’s great that Aidan has learned how to do algebra, read a map, write an essay and navigate social situations without a black eye. Outside of school, though, is where Aidan does most of his real learning. He pursues his interests with passion: rock climbing, coin collecting, fishing, engineering, snowboarding. Our house is one big science lab; in recent months Aidan has built a hovercraft in the driveway, figured out that you could shrink potato chip bags in the microwave oven, and erected a K’nex roller coaster taller than he is. He has memorized the periodic table and taken apart an old computer. He surprised me in the kitchen by saying, “Here’s a cool invention for kids, Mom,” and pushing a cup of milk onto the ice dispenser of our freezer. Instead of dispensing ice, cereal came pouring out of the freezer and fell into his cup of milk. Messy, but way cool.

What would a perfect school for boys be like? Classes would be small and held outside half the time. Boys of all abilities and temperaments would build, paint, draw, take things apart, play computer games and listen to music while reading if they felt like it. If they wanted to write about volcanoes instead of the weather, or study the Civil War in January instead of September, why not let them choose? And, if they wanted to do math standing up or run a few laps between exams, why not?

Oh, wait. Our boys couldn’t do that. That would be breaking the rules.

Yes, break the rules.  Perfect.

Down a lazy river

BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN.
from “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome

* * * * *

As I wrote the other day, the boys were eager to take their new inflatable dinghy (on sale at the hardware store last week) down the river.  I did have some doubts about sending an eight-and-a-half year-old, ten-year-old, and even a 12-year-old, with only informal paddling and sailing experience but strong swimming skills, off for three hours on their own on the river.  No cell phone either.  But they did have life jackets, common sense, and enthusiasm, and the river couldn’t have been any calmer.  Saturday night, after a long, hot (31 degrees C) day most of which was spent helping their father shingle a roof, the boys along with their sister set sail on the river about two miles south of our house, where the river valley backs on to a farmer’s pasture.  The plan was for the kids to paddle the eight to 10 miles in the dinghy to the provincial park in town.  With leisurely paddling along the very quiet waters and lots of animal-watching, the trip took them about three hours.  We collected them just before 10:30 pm, and they were all grinning broadly.  By their count, they noted 30 sightings of beavers (Davy figured only 18 beavers in total, with lots of repeats including one who kept swimming just ahead of the dinghy), six beaver lodges, five muskrats, two deer (one mule, one white-tail), two mother ducks with ducklings, one dead female mallard in the reeds during their only portage, and 20 geese.

The kids were inspired by hearing Tom regale them again and again with his story of paddling contest down the North  Saskatchewan River when he was in his twenties, and by the Arrogant Worms/Captain Tractor song, “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate”.  Here’s to many more summer adventures.

Some pictures from the beginning of the trip.  It was getting too dark for photos at 10:30.

Loading up the dinghy,
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Laura surveying the river valley,

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A curious muskrat,

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Around the bend and away,

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Related Farm School posts:

Paddle your own canoe

But will they change Titty’s name?

A manual for childhood

Why safer isn’t always better

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

Outdoor life, or, How to have an old-fashioned, dangerous summer

Thomas Berry, 1914-2009: Losing, and finding, the universe

Thomas Berry, the writer and environmentalist who considered himself a “geologian” –  “a historian of the Earth and its evolutionary processes” — died earlier this week at the age of 94.

There are biographies of Dr. Berry at his foundation’s website, here and here.  There are obituaries in The New York Times and in the National Catholic Reporter, which noted,

Fr. Thomas Berry, described in Newsweek magazine in 1989 as “the most provocative figure among the new breed of eco-theologians,” was among the first to say the earth crisis is fundamentally a spiritual crisis. His diagnosis of the negative effects of our religious views on our treatment of the planet rang true for many who were willing and able to work for a cure. Many created their own earth ministries, inspired by the work and life of Fr. Thomas Berry.

An excerpt from Dr. Berry’s book The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (emphases mine):

I was a young person then, some twelve years old. My family was moving from a more settled part of a Southern town out to the edge of town where the new house was still being built. The house, not yet finished, was situated on a slight incline. Down below was a small creek and there across the creek was a meadow. It was an early afternoon in May when I first looked down over the scene and saw the meadow. The field was covered with lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something, I know not what, that seems to explain my life at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.

It was not only the lilies. It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in an otherwise clear sky. It was not something conscious that happened just then. I went on about my life as any young person might do. Perhaps it was not simply this moment that made such a deep impression upon me. Perhaps it was a sensitivity that was developed throughout my childhood. Yet, as the years pass, this moment returns to me, and whenever I think about my basic life attitude and the whole trend of my mind and the causes that I have given my efforts to, I seem to come back to this moment and the impact it has had on my feeling for what is real and worthwhile in life. …

It seems to me we all had such experiences before we entered into an industrial way of life. The universe as manifestation of some primordial grandeur was recognized as the ultimate referent in any human understanding of the wonderful yet fearsome world about us. Every being achieved its full identity by its alignment with the universe itself. With indigenous peoples of the North American continent every formal activity was first situated in relation to the six directions of the universe: the four cardinal directions combined with the heavens above and Earth below. Only thus could any human activity be fully validated.

The universe was the world of meaning in these earlier times, the basic referent in social order, in economic survival, in the healing of illness. In that wide ambiance the muses dwelled whence came the inspiration of poetry and art and music. The drum, heartbeat of the universe itself, established the rhythm of dance whereby humans entered into the very movement of the natural world. The numinous dimension of the universe impressed itself upon the mind through the vastness of the heavens and the power revealed in thunder and lightning, as well as through springtime renewal of life after the desolation of winter. Then, too, the general helplessness of the human before all the threats to survival revealed the intimate dependence of the human on the integral functioning of things. That the human had such intimate rapport with the surrounding universe was possible only because the universe itself had a prior intimate rapport with the human.

This experience we observe even now in the indigenous peoples of the world. They live in a universe, in a cosmological order, whereas we, the peoples of the industrial world, no longer live in a universe. We live in a political world, a nation, a business world, an economic order, a cultural tradition, in Disneyworld. We live in cities, in a world of concrete and steel, of wheels and wires, a world of business, of work. We no longer see the stars at night or the planets or the moon. Even in the day we do not experience the sun in any immediate or meaningful manner. Summer and winter are the same inside the mall. Ours is a world of highways, parking lots, shopping centers. We read books written with a strangely contrived alphabet. We no longer read the book of the universe.

Nor do we coordinate our world of human meaning with the meaning of our surroundings. We have disengaged from that profound interaction with our environment inherent in our very nature. Our children do not learn how to read the Great Book of Nature or how to interact creatively with the seasonal transformations of the planet. They seldom learn where their water comes from or where it goes. We no longer coordinate our human celebration with the great liturgy of the heavens.

We have indeed become strange beings so completely are we at odds with the planet that brought us into being. We dedicate enormous talent and knowledge and research to developing a human order disengaged from and even predatory on the very sources whence we came and upon which we depend at every moment of our existence. We initiate our children into an economic order based on exploitation of the natural life systems of the planet. To achieve this perspective we must first make them autistic in their relation with the natural world about them. This disconnection occurs quite simply since we ourselves have become insensitive toward the natural world and do not realize just what we are doing. Yet, if we observe our children closely in their early years and see how they are instinctively attracted to the experiences of the natural world about them, we will see how disorientated they become in the mechanistic and even toxic environment that we provide for them.

To recover an integral relation with the universe, planet Earth, and North America needs to be a primary concern for the peoples of this continent. While a new alignment of our government and all our institutions and professions with the continent itself in its deep structure and functioning cannot be achieved immediately, a beginning can be made throughout our educational programs. Especially in the earlier grades of elementary school new developments are possible. Such was the thought of Maria Montessori in the third decade of this century.

In speaking about the education of the six-year-old child, Maria notes in her book To Educate the Human Potential that only when the child is able to identify its own center with the center of the universe does education really begin. For the universe, she says, “is an imposing reality.” It is “an answer to all questions.” “We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.” This it is that enables “the mind of the child to become centered, to stop wandering in an aimless quest for knowledge.” Then the writer mentions how this experience of the universe creates in the child admiration and wonder and enables the child to unify its thinking. In this manner the child learns how all things are related and how the relationship of things to each other is so close that “No matter what we touch, an atom or a cell, we cannot explain it without knowledge of the wide universe.”

The difficulty is that with the rise of the modern sciences we began to think of the universe as a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects. We frequently identify the loss of the interior spirit-world of the human mind and emotions with the rise of modern mechanistic sciences. The more significant thing, however, is that we have lost the universe itself. We achieved extensive control over the mechanistic and even the biological functioning of the natural world, but this control itself has produced deadly consequences. We have not only controlled the planet in much of its basic functioning; we have, to an extensive degree, extinguished the life systems themselves. We have silenced so many of those wonderful voices of the universe that once spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence.

We no longer hear the voices of the rivers or the mountains, or the voices of the sea. The trees and meadows are no longer intimate modes of spirit presence. Everything about us has become an “it” rather than a “thou.” We continue to make music, write poetry, and do our painting and sculpture and architecture, but these activities easily become an aesthetic expression simply of the human and in time lose the intimacy and radiance and awesome qualities of the universe itself. We have, in the accepted universe of these times, little capacity for participating in mysteries celebrated in the earlier literary and artistic and religious modes of expression. For we could no longer live in the universe in which these were written. We could only look on, as it were.

Read the rest here.

A partial Berry bibliography:

The Great Work: Our Way into the Future

The Dream of the Earth

Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community

The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, with physicist and mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme

The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Berry, edited and with a foreword by Mary Evelyn Tucker (Columbia University Press, August 2009)

Some Berry links:

An 2006 interview with Father Berry: “I did walk in the woods a great deal when I was a child. Already, the woods and nature were the most important things in my life. By the time I was ten or eleven years old, I had a feeling that something was wrong. I didn’t, of course, have the least idea of what this was all about, but I grew up with the feeling that I couldn’t trust the developing industrial world in which I was living.”

A 2002 interview originally published in The Sun Magazine: “Much of the Bible is concerned with how humans should relate to God, and to one another. What’s gotten lost is our intimate relationship with the natural world. Our theology is highly developed, and our anthropology — our study of each other — is highly developed, but our so-called life sciences are still trying to figure out how nature works in order to control it.”

Star party

On Saturday night Tom, the kids, and I attended a stargazing party at our provincial park to help celebrate the International Year of Astronomy. It was our town’s “Galileo Moment”. While we live in a rural area and don’t have a local astronomy club, observatory, or planetarium in where we live — though we do have the benefit of almost no light pollution  — we do have some passionate amateur  astronomers who put together two presentations (including the video “Eyes on the Skies”, more here on it) and set up eight telescopes, including a Celestron 14″ in diameter.

The kids ran from telescope to telescope, viewing the moon, Saturn and its ring, nebulae, and more.  Just after 11 pm, we watched an iridium flare as the sun shone briefly on a travelling satellite. We’re planning on keeping our eyes open for more, since the bigger ones are visible to the naked eye.

As with all the best parties, ours had refreshments (hot chocolate, juice, and cookies to keep everyone warm on a cool Spring evening) and party favors, most courtesy of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada: an assortment of AstroCards to collect (one from each telescope owner); Star Finders; the May/June issue of SkyNews, the Canadian Magazine of Astronomy & Stargazing*, which has a constellation chart for late spring and a 2009 summer star party calendar; promotional postcards and brochures (one for 2-for-1 general admission to Edmonton’s science museum, and Cosmic Journey at the Strathcona Wilderness Center); “Become a Sidewalk Astronomer” booklet, also available to download; and also a copy of a new Canadian children’s astronomy book, aimed at those from grades 1-6, Mary Lou’s New Telescope by Don Kelly and illustrated by Michael McEwing, which can also be downloaded and printed.

If we had such a stellar happening in our little town, I can’t imagine all the offerings and special events available in larger cities to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the telescope, wonderful ways to introduce, or further studies in, astronomy for your kids and your family. At the International Year of Astronomy website, click on your flag to your country’s IYA website and see what’s available in your country; this is Canada’s offering.

And no matter where you live, you can supplement your stargazing with starlistening, with the podcasts at 365 Days of Astronomy, Astronomy Cast, The Jodcast, and Slacker Astronomy.

* For anyone not familiar with the magazine, the editor is astronomer and writer Terence Dickinson, author and co-author of a remarkable selection of astronomy books, including The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the UniverseExploring the Night Sky: The Equinox Astronomy Guide for Beginners, Exploring the Sky by Day: The Equinox Guide to Weather and the Atmosphere, and Summer Stargazing: A Practical Guide for Recreational Astronomers

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Darwin 200: Charles Darwin’s Day

(Previously posted last year as “Funny, you don’t look a day over 198″, with some updates and revisions)

adday

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
Charles Darwin

A very happy 200th birthday, and a big Valentine’s smooch, to Charles Robert Darwin, born February 12, 1809.

(And to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, too, who was born on the same day, in 1884; interestingly, she and her father shared a lifelong interest in human evolutionary biology, and she went on to study the growing field of molecular genetics.)

To celebrate this year, Farm School offers a highly subjective, not at all comprehensive Charles Darwin bibliography and list of resources for the entire family, with serious and lighthearted offerings; remember, I’m not a trained scientist or a biologist, just a very amateur naturalist who likes to read.

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Science historian and songwriter Richard Milner performs a one-man musical show about Charles Darwin, “Charles Darwin Live and In Concert”.  Find him in concert or lecturing at a venue near you.  Milner has been a guest on WNYC (and here‘s his WNYC visit the other year). If he won’t be close by, check the website for a CD or to book the show.  And Milner is also the author of the forthcoming Darwin’s Universe: Evolution from A to Z, with a preface by his longtime friend Stephen Jay Gould and foreword by Ian Tattersall (University of California Press, March 2009).

The Darwin Exhibit

The Darwin exhibition, called variously “The Evolution Revolution” and “Big Idea” is at its final stop, at London’s Natural  History Museum, from November 2008 through April 19, 2009. The exhibit opened in New York in 2005 at the American Museum of Natural History, whose website for the exhibit is still up, with a good list of resources. The exhibit, the “most comprehensive exhibition ever assembled on Darwin and evolution includes rare personal artifacts”, has been organized by The American Museum of Natural History in New York, with Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum; Boston’s Museum of Science; Chicago’s Field Museum; and the Natural History Museum, London, to commemorate the bicentennial. The London Natural History Museum has a good mini website on evolution.

Books for children

Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton

Darwin: With Glimpses into His Private Journal and Letters by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Houghton Mifflin, April 2009)

What Mr. Darwin Saw by Mick Manning and Brita Granström (Frances Lincoln, March 2009)

What Darwin Saw: The Journey That Changed the World by Rosalyn Schanzer (National Geographic, January 2009)

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Matthew Trueman (Candlewick, January 2009). Publishers Weekly starred review here.

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (Holt, December 2008).  Charles and Emma gets a starred review in the January/February 2008 issue of The Horn Book, and in Publishers Weekly here. Ms. Heiligman’s husband is author Jonathan Weiner, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time.

The True Adventures of Charley Darwin by Carolyn Meyer (Harcourt, January 2009); historical fiction about the young Darwin, just setting sail for adventure.

Galapagos George by Jean Craighead George, illustrated by Wendell Minor (HarperCollins, April 2009). The author of My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, and other children’s classics for more than 40 years “traces the evolution of a species of giant turtles on the Galapagos Islands from millions of years ago to the present”.

Animals Charles Darwin Saw by Sandra Markle, illustrated by Zina Saunders; to be published April 2009 by Chronicle Books as part of Ms. Markle’s intriguing new series (Animals Christopher Columbus Saw, Animals Robert Scott Saw)

Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial by Jen Bryant (no relation, I believe, to William Jennings…)

The Tree of Life by Peter Sís

The Voyage of the Beetle: A Journey around the World with Charles Darwin and the Search for the Solution to the Mystery of Mysteries, as Narrated by Rosie, an Articulate Beetle by Anne H. Weaver, illustrated by George Lawrence (University of New Mexico Press, 2007)

The Sandwalk Adventures: An Adventure in Evolution Told in Five Chapters by Jay Hosler (author of Clan Apis). A comic book by Hosler, a biologist and cartoonist, about the Victorian naturalist’s attempt to explain evolution to a family of mites living in his eyebrows. No, really. Something for the whole family to enjoy. Really and truly. Here’s more from Dr. Hosler on Charlie Darwin: Charlie and Darwin Saves the World.

The Adventures of Charles Darwin by Peter Ward (Cambridge University Press, 1986); chapter book about life on the HMS Beagle as told by a young cabin boy

Inside the Beagle with Charles Darwin by Fiona MacDonald, illustrated by Mark Bergin

Who Was Charles Darwin? by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Nancy Harrison

The Beagle and Mr. Flycatcher: A Story of Charles Darwin by Robert M. Quackenbush; apparently out of print in the US (though not in the UK) but worth searching out at the library because Quackenbush is always fun

Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities by Kristan Lawson (Chicago Review Press)

Charles Darwin: A photographic story of a life by David C. King (a Dorling Kindersley biography)

Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution by Steve Jenkins

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters, illustrated by Lauren Stringer

Life Story: The Story of Life on Our Earth from the Beginning Up to Now by Virginia Lee Burton

Mammals Who Morph: The Universe Tells Our Evolution Story by Jennifer Morgan, illustrated by Dana Lynne Andersen

The Cartoon History of the Earth series by Jacqui Bailey and Matthew Lilly, published by Kids Can Press; including the titles The Birth of the Earth and The Dawn of Life

Eyewitness: Evolution by Linda Gamlin (Dorling Kindersley)

From DK, Evolution Revolution: From Darwin to DNA

The Tree Of Life: The Wonders Of Evolution by Ellen Jackson, illustrated by Judeanne Winter Wiley

We’re Sailing to Galapagos by Laurie Krebs, illustrated by Grazia Restelli (Barefoot Books)

The Evolution Book by Sara Stein; out of print but worth checking the library

Evolve or Die (from the Horrible Science series), by Phil Gates

Evolution by Joanna Cole, illustrated by Aliki (Harper, 1989); out of print but well worth finding for the very young

Around the World with Darwin by Millicent Selsam, illustrated by Anthony Ravielli (Harper &  Row, 1961); you can’t go wrong with Millicent Selsam

Books for older children and adults

The Voyage of the HMS Beagle by Charles Darwin, first published in 1845

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (first published in 1859); new illustrated edition, edited by David Quammen

The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin (1871); there is also a new concise edition with selections and commentary by Carl Zimmer (see below)

The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin (1872)

From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s Four Great Books (Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals), by Charles Darwin and edited by Edward O. Wilson

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, edited by Nora Barlow

The Portable Darwin, edited by Duncan M. Porter and Peter W. Graham (from the Viking Portable Library series)

The Norton Critical Edition of Darwin, edited by Philip Appleman (third edition, 20001), first published in 1970 and considered by Dr. Stephen Jay Gould to be “the best Darwin anthology on the market”.

Origins: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin, 1822-1859, edited by Frederick Burkhardt, with a foreword by Stephen Jay Gould.  New anniversary edition published by Cambridge University Press in June 2008.

The Beagle Letters, edited by Frederick Burkhardt, with an introduction by Janet Browne

Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin, 1860-1870, edited by Frederick Burkhardt, Alison Pearn, and Samantha Evans; with a foreword by Sir David Attenborough. New anniversary edition poublished by Cambridge University Press in June 2008. This volume and the foregoing are a distillation of the late Professor Burkhardt’s 15 volumes (to date) of Darwin’s correspondence.

The Triumph of the Darwinian Method by Michael T. Ghiselin (Dover, 2003)

Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, by Janet Browne; Browne’s two-volume biography. She has also written a “biography” of Darwin’s best-known work, Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography (from the Books That Changed the World series)

Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It by Loren Eiseley. Out of print. Find it.

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen

Charles Darwin: The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man by Tim Berra

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution, edited by Stephen Jones, Robert D. Martin, and David R. Pilbeam; with a foreword by Richard Dawkins

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins

River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life by Richard Dawkins

Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design by Richard Dawkins

Galapagos: The Islands That Changed the World by Paul D. Stewart

Darwin for Beginners by Jonathan Miller and Borin Van Loon

Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth, edited by Stephen Jay Gould

The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould, edited by Stephen Rose, with a foreword by Oliver Sacks

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould

The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson

The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth by E.O. Wilson

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner

Evolution: Society, Science and the Universe, edited by Andrew C. Fabian; with essays by Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Wolpert, Jared Diamond, Freeman Dyson, and others (Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith by Philip Kitcher (Oxford University Press)

Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science by the Working Group on Teaching Evolution, National Academy of Sciences

Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives by David Sloan Wilson

What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr; Dr. Mayr’s speech, “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought”, is here.

Evolution by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu (translated by Linda Asher), with photographs by Patrick Gries

From So Simple a Beginning: The Book of Evolution by Philip Whitfield (Macmillan, 1993); out of print

Just A Theory: Exploring The Nature Of Science by Moti Ben-Ari; not specifically about evolution but very useful

Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, edited by Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis, with a foreword by Edward O. Wilson (Belknap Press, February 2009)

Darwin’s Universe: Evolution from A to Z by Richard Milner, with a preface by Stephen Jay Gould and foreword by Ian Tattersall (University of California Press, March 2009).

The Young Charles Darwin by Keith Stewart Thomson (Yale University Press, February 2009)

Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book: Revived and Illustrated, edited by Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway (Glitterati, November 2008)

Darwin: Graphic Biography, a comic book/graphic novel by Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne (January 30, 2009)

Darwin’s Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England by Steve Jones (Little, Brown, January 2009 in UK, March 2009 in Canada); an excerpt in The Guardian, and reviewed in The Economist.  Steve Jones is the author of Darwin’s Ghost.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (Houghton Mifflin, January 2009); reviewed in The Economist

Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin’s South America by Eric Simons (Overlook, January 2009)

Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts edited by Diana Donald and Jane Munro (Yale University Press, April 2009); a “lavishly illustrated book” published to accompany an exhibition organized by the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, in association with the Yale Center for British Art

by Charles’s great-great-granddaughter, Darwin: A Life in Poems by Ruth Padel (Knopf, March 2009).  Ms. Padel is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Zoological Society of London. She will read from the new book, and converse with geneticist Jonathan Howard, at “Darwin, Poetry and Science”, chaired by Randal Keynes, at the Royal Society, Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, Somerset House on Monday, 9 February 2009 at 6:30pm.

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Books by science writer and reporter Carl Zimmer:

Virus and the Whale: Exploring Evolution in Creatures Small and Large, edited by Judy Diamond, with Carl Zimmer, E. Margaret Evans, Linda Allison, and Sarah Disbrow; published by the National Science Teachers Association, 2006. An activity book for teachers and their students, which includes parents and their students.

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, Carl Zimmer’s companion guide to the PBS series of the same name (see below)

At the Water’s Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea

Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins

Mr. Zimmer has a ScienceBlog, The Loom: A blog about life, past and future. Not only is there lots of good stuff to read, but he has a regular feature, Science Tattoo Friday, where some of the tattoos are so fascinating and attractive (such as the Copernicus/scientific revolution ones) that I sometimes forget how much I dislike tattoos.

Coloring Books

Galapagos Islands Coloring Book (Dover Coloring Books); for young children

The Human Evolution Coloring Book by Adrienne L. Zihlman (HarperCollins); this one is similar to Wynn Kapit’s books (on geography, physiology, and anatomy) and is not for younger children.

Book lists

PZ Myers at Pharyngula has some of the best online prehistory/evolution reading lists in a variety of categories — “for the kids”, “for the grown-up layman”, “for the more advanced/specialized reader”, etc. (scroll through the comments for more titles).

Coturnix’s book list for adults; he’s moved recently, and is now at ScienceBlogs with A Blog Around the Clock

Magazines, Journals & Articles

The January 2009 issue of Scientific American, entitled “The Evolution of Evolution”; articles include “Darwin’s Living Legacy” and “Testing Natural Selection with Genetics”; Scientific American also offers on February 12, 2009 a special Darwin Day podcast

Scientific American‘s 2002 article by editor John Rennie, “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense” (including the hoary old chestnut, “Evolution is only a theory”)

New York Times profile of E.O. Wilson, “Taking a Cue From Ants on Evolution of Humans” (July 15, 2008)

Guardian profile of E.O. Wilson, “Darwin’s natural heir” (February 17, 2001)

Verlyn Klinkengborg’s New York Times column, August 2005, Grasping the Depth of Time as a First Step in Understanding Evolution” and his editorial today, “Darwin at 200: The Ongoing Force of His Unconventional Idea

On Film

“Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life”, a one-hour BBC One documentary special narrated by Sir David Attenborough, 1 February 2009; Sir David is described in this BBC press release as “a passionate Darwinian”.

Speaking of the BBC, the Beeb is hailing Darwin this year as “The Genius of Evolution” with a variety of special presentations

Evolution” (PBS), narrated by Liam Neeson. There is also a companion volume, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea by Carl Zimmer (see above); and the PBS program website, with some projects and links for “Teachers and Students”

Dr. Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”(BBC, 1973), new on DVD (five disc set)

“Growing Up in the Universe” on DVD (two disc set, region-free); Richard Dawkins’s 1991 five one-hour lectures for children, originally televised by the BBC as part of The Royal Institution The Christmas Lectures for Young People, founded by Michael Faraday in 1825.

NOVA: Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution” (PBS)

NOVA: Genius: The Science of Einstein, Newton, Darwin, and Galileo” (PBS)

“Inherit the Wind” starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly; based on the play, Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

On the Big Screen I: The film “Creation”, starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connnelly, based on Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution (published in 2001) by Randal Keynes, Darwin’s great-great-grandson. The movie is adapted from the book by John Collee (Happy Feet and Master & Commander) and directed by Jon Amiel (The Singing Detective). To be released in the autumn of 2009.

On the Big Screen II?: a film adaptation by Chase Palmer of the recent book Evolution’s Captain: The Story of the Kidnapping That Led to Charles Darwin’s Voyage Aboard the Beagle by Peter Nichols (a bargain right now at Barnes & Noble, by the way).  Not much news on this one lately, so it may have fizzled.

Music

Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera “Princess Ida”, first performed in 1884, features the song “The Ape and the Lady” (see the accompanying illustration by Gilbert himself below).  You can listen to a 1924 HMV D’Oyly Carte recording; and here are the lyrics from “The Ape and the Lady”,

A Lady fair, of lineage high,
Was loved by an Ape, in the days gone by
The Maid was radiant as the sun,
The Ape was a most unsightly one.
So it would not do ;
His scheme fell through,
For the Maid, when his love took formal shape,
Expressed such terror
At his monstrous error,
That he stammered an apology and made his ‘scape,
The picture of a disconcerted Ape.
With a view to rise in the social scale,
He shaved his bristles, and he docked his tail,
He grew moustachios, and he took his tub,
And he paid a guinea to a toilet club
But it would not do,
The scheme fell through
For the Maid was Beauty’s fairest Queen,
With golden tresses,
Like a real princess’s,
While the Ape, despite his razor keen,
Was the apiest Ape that ever was seen!
He bought white ties, and he bought dress suits,
He crammed his feet into bright tight boots
And to start in life on a bran new plan,
He christened himself Darwinian Man!
But it would not do,
The scheme fell through
For the Maiden fair, whom the Monkey craved,
Was a radiant Being,
With a brain far-seeing
While a Man, however well-behaved,
At best is only a monkey shaved!

abab

Richard Milner (see above) as “Charles Darwin: Live and In Concert”, and also on CD.  At the website, you can listen to excerpts of “When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish” and “I’m the Guy Who Found Natural Selection”.  The New York Times recently discovered Dr. Milner and has a related science blog post by John Tierney for a science song contest offering “a prize to the Lab reader who comes up with the best lyrics to be sung by Charles Darwin or any other scientist, alive or dead.”

“Origin of Species in Dub” by the Genomic Dub Collective. Yes, that would be reggae. Not just a CD and MP3s, but a DVD too and online videos. And a bonus track, “Dub fi Dover”, to celebrate the outcome in the Dover, Pennsylvania trial. Truly amazing.

Charlie is My Darwinby the Torn Rubbers, official theme song of The Friends of Charles Darwin ; and a bonus,The Darwinian Theoryby John Young, C.E. (to the tune of the Scottish ballad, The King of the Cannibal Islands)

British composer Michael Stimpson is working on a classical piece,Into the Unknown, to celebrate the life and work of Charles Darwin.

Timothy Sellers’ band, Artichoke, released a CD several years ago, 26 Scientists, Volume One: Anning — Malthus; the lyrics and a clip of the song about Darwin, who beat out da Vinci and Doppler for the fourth letter of the alphabet, are here. The CD is $10 at the band’s website and you can buy or download the disc at CD Baby, where you can also read more about it from Timothy Sellers, who was also interviewed by The New York Times.

“Evolutionation” by Dr. Art the Singing Scientist (to the tune of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication”), from the CD “Bio-Rhythms III”

Professor Boggs in his Mad Science Factory sings “Evolution (Not So Scary)”; you can listen to a clip here.

By the way, in my search for Darwinian music, I found something MASSIVE, for those who like to learn, and teach, with music. It is in fact called MASSIVE: a database for “Math And Science Song Information, Viewable Everywhere”. The database, which is maintained by Greg Crowther and is part of the National Science Foundation’s National Science Digital Library,

contains information on over 2500 science and math songs. Some of these songs are suitable for 2nd graders; others might only appeal to tenured professors. Some songs have been professionally recorded; others haven’t. Some are quite silly; others are downright serious.

A delight, which you can also listen to all day, all week, all year at MASSIVE Radio — many thanks to Greg Crowther and the band Science Groove for putting it all together. Read more about them here.

Finally, sung to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Model Major General” and inspired by Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements”, here is Amadan’s I Am the Very Model of a C – Design – Proponentsist

The Darwin Day website has a variety of audio files, some from the sources mentioned above

HMS Beagle

Project Beagle website and theBeagle blog

If you or your kids get inspired by Project Beagle and want to build your own — ship, that is — you can, with the HMS Beagle plastic ship model kit (1:96), made in Germany by Revell; “features detailed hull with gunports, deck with hatches, masts, yards, 2 anchors, stairways, sails, railings, wheels, cannon, lifeboats with oars. Also included is yarn for rigging, flag chart and display stand with name plate. Measures 16″ long and 11 3/4″ high.”

HMS Beagle: Survey Ship Extraordinary by Karl Marquardt; part of the Anatomy of the Ship series by Conway Maritime Press, which includes volumes on the Endeavour, Bounty, and Bellona.

Out and about online

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Ask a Biologist

Becoming Human website

The Charles Darwin Forum

The Charles Darwin Has a Posse sticker page, from Colin Purrington. Because you can never underestimate the power of a well-placed sticker or bookmark. As I noted in my 2005 Posse post, “As Darwin himself said, and as you can be reminded daily from a bookmark, ‘Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life as one can, in any likelihood, pursue’.” Colin also has a Charles Darwin/Posse store at Cafe Press where you can outfit yourself completely for the festivities.

The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online: “This site contains Darwin’s complete publications, thousands of handwritten manuscripts and the largest Darwin bibliography and manuscript catalogue ever published; Darwin Online also hundreds of supplementary works: biographies, obituaries, reviews, reference works and more”, including MP3s for your listening edification and pleasure.

Cambridge University’s Darwin Correspondence Project, founded in 1974 by Frederick Burckhardt (see below), with a remarkable online database with the complete, searchable, texts of around 5,000 letters written by and to Darwin up to the year 1865. The project continues despite Professor Burckhardt’s death last fall at the age of 95.

More Darwin at Cambridge, with the Darwin 2009 Festival. Charles Darwin began at Christ’s College Cambridge as a student in 1827, at the age of 18. Four years later he sailed forth on the HMS Beagle. Of his years at university, he once wrote, “The only evil at Cambridge was its being too pleasant.”

Darwin Day Celebration website, with links, events, and other items leading to a celebration of the great man’s bicentennial on February 12, 2009.

Darwin200, a bicentennial project from the Natural History Museum in London, England

Darwin at Downe, his home and neighborhood

Who knew that Darwin had a rose? The gorgeous David Austin series, which sadly doesn’t grow in my chilly garden, includes the Charles Darwin rose, which you can see here.

The Dispersal of Darwin blog, with a long list of Darwin links

Encyclopedia of Life

Evolve2009, commemorating the occasion in and around San Francisco

Colin Purrington is also the force behind the Evolution Outreach Projects page, which includes a wealth of educational and amusing links

Evolved Homeschooling blog — “A collection of evolution and science resources for the secular homeschooler”, webring, and Cafe Press shop

More shopping, over at EvolveFish’s Darwin Day shop

You can join the Friends of Charles Darwin, gratis. FCD has a long list of science and Darwin blogs

National Center for Science Education, and the Center’s page of resources; the NSCE has a new page on the Darwin Bicentennial in the News

Nature Podcast: Darwin

New York Times “Times Topics” page on Charles Darwin

New York Times “Times Topics” page on Evolution

The Panda’s Thumb; Panda’s Thumb Darwiniana links

The Species of Origin

Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science (NY Academy of Sciences)

Understanding Evolution website, created by the University of California Museum of Paleontology; lots of resources for educators and children

Toys for the young and young at heart

(I haven’t ordered from any of the following companies so you’re on your own)

Charlie’s Playhouse: “We make games and toys that teach kids about evolution, natural selection and the work of Charles Darwin”, including a giant timeline floor mat, giant timeline poster, ancient creature cards, and a great selection of t-shirts

Thames & Kosmos Milestones in Science kit

Evolving Darwin Play Set

Charles Darwin bobblehead

Charles Darwin finger puppet

Charles Darwin “Little Thinker” plush toy

Charles Darwin and friends in the Oddfellows Scientists Collection

Charles Darwin fridge magnet

Charles Darwin jigsaw puzzle

Highly evolved Lego: model of the HMS Beagle, Darwin aboard ship, the man, the man in the lab, Origin of the Species

From the Farm School archives

Readers and scientists celebrating Darwin, new books for children

Just a theory, celebrations at Cambridge University

Radio Darwin, radio and television celebrations at the BBC

“Part of nature”, Desmond Morris salutes Charles Darwin as a “Hero for our age”

Science resources for The Coalition On The Public Understanding of Science’s Year of Science 2009. Guess what’s up for February?

Celebrating Christmas with Colin Purrington’s Axis of Evo project

Banned Books Week 2008

The new anti-intellectualism plus scientific illiteracy equals the perfect storm over evolution

Arabella Buckley and Darwin

Lincoln and Darwin together again (2008)

Charles Darwin and Sir David Attenborough, in cold blood

Funny, you don’t look a day over 198 (the original February 2008 version of this post)

I typed this all by myself with my opposable thumbs, a post for the creation museum carnival (May 2007)

Project Beagle (March 2007)

Celebrating Darwin Day: Many happy returns (February 2006)

Charles Darwin Has a Posse (December 2005)

* * *

If you have any additional suggestions or recommendations or corrections (links have moved around by themselves, disappeared, etc. more than once), please add them to the comments below. Thank you!

adday5

Here’s mud in your eye

and on your hands and on the shelf.

It occurs to me that while the kids are mucking about out of doors boosting their immune systems, you could make it an educational experience as well.  Some Farm School favorites, from the shelves (our own and the library’s) and wish lists:

For children:

Life in a Bucket of Soil by Alvin Silverstein and Virginia Silverstein (Dover Publications, under $6); geared toward children ages 9-12, from the authors of A World in a Drop of Water

One Small Square: Backyard by Donald M. Silver, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne and Dianne Ettl

For older children and adults:

Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners by James B. Nardi

Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan

Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life by David W. Wolfe, a plant physiologist at Cornell University

and because while you’re all out playing in the soil, you may as well do something with it:

Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis

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