Connecting with Nature

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Keeping an Eye on Nature — George Honey

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George Honey talks about hiking into fires.

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George Honey – Hiking Into Fires (MP3)

George Honey talks about learning.

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George Honey – Learning (MP3)

George Honey talks about seasonal cues.

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George Honey – Seasonal Cues (MP3)

Keeping an Eye on Nature — Homer Wolfe

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Homer Wolfe talks about hunting.

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Homer Wolfe Hunting (MP3)

Homer Wolfe talks about chickens and Kingbird hawks.

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Homer Wolfe – Chickens and Kingbirds (MP3)

Mudpies, Forts and Frogs: Discovering the Possibilities of Life

July 2010, Nature of Place, NCW Greenways
by Nancy Warner

“He undertook what small children do when stripped of mechanical toys and playmates and placed in a natural environment. They explore. They become hunter-gatherers. If they are fearless … they discover a multitude of creatures of kinds they have never seen in a zoo or picture book or on television, and for which there is no name. Each kind of plant and animal, because of the immediacy and its novelty and strangeness, is for a small child an entity of boundless possibility.” — “Anthill: A Novel,” by E. O. Wilson

Such is the world biologist and writer E.O. Wilson describes for Raff, the main character in his new novel placed in the longleaf-pine forests of Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Wilson grants his character the same gifts many of us enjoyed as kids — unstructured time and freedom to explore the outdoors, get dirty and imagine possibilities.

While these might sound like good outcomes for a fun and relaxing adult vacation, access to outdoor adventures in nature is increasingly recognized as critical for healthy childhood development. We need to be able to connect with nature at an early age to develop our full potential, Richard Louv argues in his book, “Last Child in the Woods.”

Poking around in our backyards, parks and neighboring natural areas cultivates our sense of wonder and curiosity. Exploring open spaces on foot or bicycle strengthens both our muscles and our critical thinking skills. Those connections, in turn, shape our minds, bodies and spirits us as we grow and move down our respective paths in life.

One of eight children, personal banker Eddie Velazquez began his solitary explorations of the Lake Chelan area when he was only 8 years old. “My parents seemed to always be working just to provide and toys were limited, so I did a lot of hiking,” he said. “I’d usually take my two dogs with me and so I always felt safe.”

Eddie stayed close to home at first, keeping his house in sight, and then pushing his limits as the summers passed. “I remember going out on hikes and it would start getting dark. I remember the feel of the forest, being by myself and getting a little bit braver every time. And then I found a place where somebody had already built a treehouse. So that became my treehouse — that was the place I went to hang out,” he said.

Judy De La Vergne
Wenatchee-based wildlife biologist Judy De La Vergne grew up in Western Washington, where she was often charged with keeping track of her younger brother. She recalls building forts in the woods together, collecting frogs and slugs, and walking down to Lake Washington where they hung over the docks to fish for sculpins and rainbow trout. They’d also walk to school and baseball games exploring along the way.“We’d turn logs over and look for salamanders and centipedes, spiders and bugs,” she said. “I always thought it was cool if I found something new. But you didn’t quite know what it was going to do. So if they looked really scary, you didn’t mess around with them. You might mess around with other things a little if you thought it was interesting. I think we developed a range of tolerance there.”

Skip Johnson
It was the Columbia River that captured the imagination of tree fruit broker Skip Johnson as he grew up on his family’s orchard in East Wenatchee. “I walked the riverbank and the mile or so of orchard that we farmed on a fairly regular basis thinking about the steamers that used to come up and what the river might have been like thousands of years ago,” he said.

Skip saw all kinds of wildlife, including ducks and geese. He also tried, more than once, to catch one of the 15-foot sturgeon that live in the deepest parts of the river. “Sturgeon are out there,” he notes, “and those were always things that we were trying to catch. We formulated many different methods of trying to attract a sturgeon to a hook. Many times my mom would come to the freezer looking for a hamhock and there wouldn’t be one because I used it to try to catch a sturgeon earlier in the week.”


Susan Ballinger
While Skip was trying to land a sturgeon with steel cable and a hamhock, biologist and Wenatchee educator Susan Ballinger was catching frogs with her grandmother’s tea strainer at the family’s cabin on Lindbergh Lake in Montana. “Every weekend, we would go up there,” she says, remembering many happy days playing in the lake and woods.

“There was a lot of work to be done too,” she added, noting that she and her siblings helped gather flat rocks for the pathways around the cabin as well as huckleberries for the freezer.

They also spent time making up their own games. “We would go down to the wetland,” she recalls, “and scrape up clay and make mudpie plates and dishes out of it in our playhouse.” As with any good fort or treehouse, Susan’s grandfather built the playhouse with materials at hand — scrap wood and cardboard. “We had endless hours of play in that house … I look back and know that it was a very formative time,” she said.

Nancy Warner is coordinator for the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS) based in Wenatchee. She thanks her parents often for all of the opportunities they gave her to connect with nature while she was growing up.

This website is dedicated to stories of people in North Central Washington (people like you) connecting with nature. Do you have an early experience connecting with nature you can share on this website? Submit your story online.

Early Connections with Nature – Tracy Walsh

Tracy Walsh talks about childhood freedom.

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Tracy Walsh Childhood Freedom (MP3)

Early Connections with Nature – Eddie Velazquez

Eddie Velazquez talks about hiking.

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Eddie Velazquez Hiking (MP3)

Eddie Velazquez talks about finding a treehouse.

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Eddie Velazquez Treehouse (MP3)

Eddie Velazquez talks about the influence of spending time outdoors.

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Eddie Velazquez Outdoor Influence (MP3)

Early Connections with Nature – Judy De La Vergne

Judy De La Vergne talks about being an outdoor kid.

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Judy De La Vergne Close to Home (MP3)

Judy De La Vergne talks about frogs.

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Judy De La Vergne Frogs (MP3)

Judy De La Vergne talks about fishing.

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Judy De La Vergne Going Fishing (MP3)

Early Connections with Nature – Skip Johnson

Skip Johnson talks about walking along the river as a kid.

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Skip Johnson River Kid (MP3)

Skip Johnson talks about sturgeon.

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Skip Johnson Sturgeon Bait (MP3)

Skip Johnson talks about sharing the river experience.

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Skip Johnson River Share (MP3)

Early Connections with Nature – Susan Ballinger

Susan Ballinger talks about weekends at the cabin.

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Susan Ballinger – Montana Summers (MP3)

Susan Ballinger talks about her grandma and the lake.

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Susan Ballinger Grandma and Lake (MP3)

Susan Ballinger talks about being outside.

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Susan Ballinger Outside Happy (MP3)

Then & Now – Connecting Traditions

Judy De La Vergne’s dad used a “hands-on” approach when teaching her to fish. “He would say different things about how to use the pole. You either learned to tie your fly on or you didn’t get to fish. We still go fishing and my kids go fishing with him.”

An avid kayaker, Eddie Velazquez says his early experiences in nature made him really independent and unafraid to try new things. Today he shares his outdoor interests with his family. “I never stop hearing, ‘Hey Dad, can we go out on a hike?’ And I say, ‘Sure!’”

Still happiest when she is outside, Susan Ballinger enjoys many outdoor activities with her family. “I think all the worries of life disappear when you’re outside and take time to listen to the birds and to hike. It’s renewing especially when you share it with other people.”

Skip Johnson continues to be inspired by the Columbia River. A leader of the Complete the Loop Coalition he says, “I just had to be part of the effort to allow others to enjoy the river once the Loop Trail opportunity arose. Having the Loop out there today means other people can have the opportunity to enjoy the river as I did when I was a kid.”

Chipmunks, Fire and Forests Spring to Life

April 2010, Nature of Place, NCW Greenways
by Nancy Warner

Look at the ancient, burned-out stump of a cedar and imagine what the land was like 100 years ago. Watch a chipmunk stuff its cheeks with things dug from under a log and picture how this small creature survives the deep snows of winter. Drink in the smell of the warming earth and imagine mushrooms — a taste of spring — sizzling in a pan on your stove.

It was musings such as these that led me to seek out those who could help me get a better sense of the Little Wenatchee and White River area that I fell in love with while camping last summer. I wanted to take what I could see and imagine about this diverse part of Chelan County and hold it up against the observations and knowledge of those with more background and experience in the place. Fortunately, longtime White River Valley resident Paul Gray and U.S. Forest Service research biologist John Lehmkuhl agreed to share their insights.

Born in 1941 and raised in the White River Valley, Paul Gray has learned about the land through direct observation and stories passed down through his family. He remembers quieter times when the grass grew between two wheel tracks in front of his family’s house on White River Road.

Settlement patterns and logging have affected the landscape we see in the Little Wenatchee and White River valleys today. In the White River, Paul says, “there were a lot of people who lived up there between 1900 and 1915 — probably 15 to 20 families.” These early homesteaders cleared and sold the cedar trees for lumber. “After that,” he adds, “someone was a little careless with fire and that pretty much ended the logging by 1915.”

By the late 1930s to early 1940s, the war effort increased the market for lumber. The wetlands at the mouth of Nason Creek were filled and a road was built to support the logging business, Paul says. “That was in the Little Wenatchee because it had the best prime timber. They didn’t start again on the White River until the early ’50s.”

It was during this time that Paul became a “valley watcher” old enough to be aware of the cycle of change he was witnessing. “Fire is an integral part of the whole thing,” he says. “You’ve got willow brush in the bottom and a certain amount of vine maple which resprouts after fires.” Cottonwood and quaking aspen come along later, he notes, followed by white fir, Douglas fir and cedars.

John Lehmkuhl looks at the cycles of change that characterize our forests from another angle — that of a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest research station in Wenatchee. He studies the role that small mammals, including chipmunks, play in the forest ecosystem. “They are a pretty important little animal in the forests around here,” he says. They time their emergence from burrows each spring to coincide with that of the mushrooms and truffles they feed upon. The chipmunks eat the truffles, underground fruits of fungus that are beneficial to trees, but they don’t digest the spores. The spores are disseminated throughout the forest in the chipmunks’ feces, explains John.

John describes how chipmunks and their ability to spread fungal spores contributes to the restoration of the forest. “Mycologists (mushroom specialists), have found that trees that have these fungi are much more productive and grow faster and survive drought conditions better. So if you think about climate change and drier conditions of the summer time you can see how these guys contribute to forest productivity,” he says.

“There are two kinds of chipmunks living in the forests around here,” John explains, “depending upon the density of the forest canopy. There’s the yellow pine chipmunk that lives in the more open forests with ponderosa pine and the slightly larger Townsend’s chipmunk that’s found in the denser forests more like those on the west side of the Cascades.”

Years of fire prevention have increased the proportion of closed-canopy forests in North Central Washington, creating more habitat for Townsend’s chipmunks than probably existed in the past, says John.

“And when we go in there with forest restoration projects where we’re thinning and burning and basically opening up the canopy, we’re reducing the habitat for the Townsend’s chipmunk and increasing it for yellow pine chipmunk,” he says. “I think as we do these treatments, we’re seeing the Townsend’s chipmunk being pushed back toward the crest to where they originally were 100 years ago or more in the closed-canopy forest.”

Connecting With Nature is a program of the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS) that engages the community in telling the story of the diversity of life that makes our region unique. Nancy Warner is the IRIS coordinator.

IRIS