Friday, July 31, 2009

“The sky is blue because. . .”: 5 summer weather lessons

Ursula and Virgil have been asking a lot of weather questions lately. This makes sense: It’s been a particularly “weathersome” summer, and they’ve been outside a lot to notice.

One recent wet afternoon, I went through our bookshelves to try to answer one of Virgil’s questions. As is often the case with rainy-day research, I found many other interesting questions along with the answer I was seeking, including the mother of all weather queries, Why is the sky blue?

Here, then, is the science behind one classic question, two weather sayings, and two weather smells.

Why is the sky blue? When sunlight enters the earth’s atmosphere, it comes into contact with gases, water vapor, and dust particles. Passing through the atmosphere splits the light into the colors of the rainbow. The seven colors, each with its own wavelength and intensity, scatter in every direction like billions of colored billiard balls. Blue and violet rays bounce around more because they have the shortest wavelengths . Blue light is also very bright — 8 times brighter than red light. Those extra-bright, extra-bouncy blue “balls” of light give the sky its tint.

When the wind is in the west / The weather is at its very best. In most of the United States and Europe, the weather comes to us on a west wind and leaves to the east. That is, we live within the latitudes of prevailing westerlies. High pressure systems maintain the flow of weather from west to east, bringing fair weather. But winds that shift announce a change in the weather, often for the worse.

Red sky at night, sailors’ delight / red sky at morning, sailors take warning. At sunrise and sunset, the sun is near the horizon, so its light passes through more of the earth’s heavier atmosphere than at midday. The shorter blue wavelengths are scattered beyond our line of sight, letting the longer red wavelengths reach our eyes and creating those beautiful red skies at dawn and at dusk.

How can a red sky mean fair weather when it comes before sleep, yet mean rain when it comes after sleep? We should really be saying red sky at night, red sun in morning. Brilliant red sunsets often occur during warm, dry weather, when there are more dust particles in the air. So a reddish hue to the sky in the evening means good-weather air coming toward us. But when the air contains moisture, those dust particles absorb the water. The larger particles make it even harder for those short blue billiard balls to reach us, turning the sun a fiery red. Seeing a red sun in the east signals the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere and tells us that rain is on the way.

What’s that smell before it rains? The smell before rain is caused by ozone, a gas that is formed by high-voltage electrical discharges in thunderclouds. Wind carries the ozone out ahead of the rain, bringing us that smell of rain on the way.

What’s that smell after it rains? I’ve seen Ursula and Virgil out in the yard after it rains, just smelling . . . I’ve done it, too. Now I have a word for that smell: petrichor, a word coined in 1964 by two Australian geochemists. Plants produce oils during dry periods. When it rains, this oil is released into the atmosphere, producing the distinctive musty odor that we call “the smell after rain.” My grandmother used to say, “My, that smells fresh!”

This weather information came from Born to Explore: How To Be a Backyard Adventurer, by Richard Wiese; How Come? Planet Earth, by Kathy Wollard and Debra Solomon; and The Old Farmer’s Almanac Book of Weather Lore.

I’ll say more about Born to Explore in my next post.

Learn more
Kathy Wollard writes the "How Come?" column for Newsday. She and illustrator Debra Solomon have compiled the column into several books. The How Come? website contains answers to the newest questions and encourages people to submit their own questions.

Read a detailed description of the ozone smell of approaching rain by an MIT grad student.

“Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Nurturing constructive boredom

“I’m bored.” I think of those two words as summer words. I can hear myself saying them as a child, sunk into a chair at our cottage in northern Wisconsin, too hot to move. I’d already been swimming, I didn’t have a book to read, my brothers were annoying: “I’m bored.”

My mother’s response: “Good.” Her one word beat my two every time. “Good” could mean that I was about to help her shuck corn or do the dishes. Or it could mean that I was going to have to think of something new to do. Maybe it was after such an exchange that I first canoed into the swamp or made a fort in the woods or worked up the courage to meet the kids two cottages down.

Now it’s my turn to see a frowning child flop onto the couch and announce, “I’m bored.” I’ve noticed that I often hear it, usually from Virgil, within minutes of returning from having been somewhere or after he’s spent time online or watching a video. I’m surprised by how quickly he seems to fall into boredom.

I came upon a possible explanation for Virgil’s behavior while reading Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Author Richard Louv describes an “insidious, new kind of boredom” that arises from over-stimulating yet mind-numbing (and often violent) entertainment that children can easily find on computers, televisions, and movie screens. “Like a sugared drink on a hot day,” Louv writes, “such entertainment leaves kids thirsting for more — for faster, bigger, more violent stimuli” — and increasingly being prescribed medication to deal with “the loss of interest and joy in their lives.”

Louv’s wonderful solution is to fight boredom with boredom. He offers three steps for helping our children get rid of negative, mind-numbing boredom by nurturing constructive boredom:
  1. Try spending more time with a bored child: “Parents need to be there for their kids . . . to help them detach from electronics long enough for their imaginations to kick in.”
  2. Turn off the TV. And the computer. And the video games.
  3. Find a balance between adult direction and child boredom. If a child’s days are heavily scheduled, parents may need to schedule “unstructured time” to make room for creative boredom. 
Thinking back over the last week, I can identify times that I followed Louv’s advice, like when I asked Virgil to pick me some mint from the backyard to make mint tea or played a game with him before sending him outside. And of course, I still have my mother’s one-word mantra at the ready.

Learn more
Find more ideas for encouraging “constructive boredom” on the Children & Nature Network. Richard Louv is the chairman of the non-profit network, which supports people and organizations working to reconnect children with nature.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Adventures very close to home

Never go by the forecast. How many times was I reminded of that old woodsman’s adage when I was first learning my way around the outdoors? It was far better to be at the trailhead, prepared and ready for a break in the weather, than to bail out ahead of time and wake up to blue skies.

I learned that lesson again this weekend. I’ve been waiting for a dry day to climb Mt. Cardigan and pick blueberries, but the paper, the radio, and the web all called for rain coming in early both Saturday and Sunday, building to thunderstorms. Jim was busy both days; the kids were happy to stay at home after two weeks of day camps. I figured it was a good weekend to do the laundry.

Suckered! Saturday started out gray and murky but cleared by mid-morning and blossomed into a perfect summer day. You’d think I could have switched plans midday, grabbed the kids and the berry-picking buckets, and hiked in to the blueberry patches on Cardigan’s southern flank, but I didn’t. I stuck to folding clothes. Tomorrow, I thought; tomorrow, we’ll hike.

Except that we woke to drizzle on Sunday, caught twice by the forecast. Once again we stayed home.

Sunday night, Ursula helped me salvage some squishy peaches for a cobbler. While we peeled and sliced, she told me she’d spent the weekend checking in on each of her special places around our yard: the aged apple tree behind the house, with the branch that droops down low; her tree house back at the edge of the woods; the phlox patch by the mailbox where she likes to sit; a secret tunnel through the raspberry canes. Her “most magical place” centers on a fire-blackened tree that stands not five feet from the road in a small grove of pine and maple. She’s been going there since she could walk, in all seasons. I asked her what made that place so special, and she told me, eyes glowing, happy to share its beauties with me. She described a perfect hollow in the burned tree, the trails that she and Virgil and their friends have made between the trees, and how the pine boughs make a bower. That’s what she said: a bower.

Her “magical place” occupies an area no more than ten feet by four feet. But to Ursula, it is a world — a world she has explored and mapped and to which she orients herself. She might have enjoyed picking blueberries on Mt. Cardigan, but she didn’t need that hike to be outside.

In The Geography of Childhood, the ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan tells a similar story. “It is amusing to me,” he wrote, “that when I wished my children to have contact with wildness, I sent them ‘out,’ to climb high upon ridges and to absorb the grand vistas. Yet when they wished to gain a sense of wildness, of animal comfort, they chose not the large, but the small.”

A growing body of research tells us that children learn about the natural world and learn to feel connected to it through small-scale exploration — “nestlike refuges in microhabitats,” in the words of environmental psychologist Mary Ann Kirby. In a 2003 study, researchers from Cornell University found a “protective impact of nearby nature”: when children have access to nature, they handle stressful life events better and are less likely to be depressed, anxious, or suffer from behavioral disorders.

Ursula would resist hearing her woody, grassy, brambly places described as a kind of protective medicine. But I think she’d like naturalist Robert Michael Pyle’s phrase: He called them “places of initiation . . . where a sense of place gets under our skin.”

One of the beauties of these small places is that Ursula doesn’t need to go by the forecast, or even a trailhead. She needs only to open the front door and step outside.

Friday, July 24, 2009

You might fall, you could die: teaching about risk

I ran into a friend (another outdoorsy parent) earlier this week. We exchanged news of our summer so far — trying to catch this year’s rare sunny days, family visits, camps, and on my end, our camping trip, which I wrote about in my July 1 post. I told her about hiking, waterfalls, our encounters with wildlife. And I told her about teaching the children how to climb. Just a little, I said; the basics, unroped.

When she asked me what I taught them, I told her that I showed them how to stand on what seems like nothing, how to be efficient with their strength on vertical terrain. She asked more questions, and I warmed to my subject. It’s been a long time since I’ve used a climber’s vocabulary. I talked about dihedrals and open books, laybacks and barn-doors, flakes and dishes. And cracks, which climbers size in gradations, much like drill bits or wrenches: finger, thin hand, hand, fist, the aptly named squeeze chimney and its wider relations.

Then she asked me, Did you teach them about risk? Her question stopped me. Not because I hadn’t thought about the risk of climbing, but because I’ve thought about it so much.

The short answer, which I gave her, is Yes. Yes, I told them that climbing is dangerous. I told them that a fall, even from only a few feet up, can injure or even kill, and that climbing down is often harder than climbing up. I insisted, I said to my friend, that they reverse their moves and spot each other, and told them they couldn’t climb anything steep without getting me first.

I didn’t tell her that my heart crowded my mouth and I could barely breathe the first few times their feet left the ground, even though I was right there to spot them. Or the terror I felt one afternoon when I followed a sixth sense, rounded a corner, and came upon Virgil, eight feet up a granite slab and shaking, mere moments from losing his grip and falling. Never mind that he’d ignored all my safety advice. Right then, I felt that I had handed my child a loaded gun and told him to go play with it.

Most of the time, I think of myself as occupying a middle ground on risk. I want my children to learn how to stretch their limits — to take risks — and I want them to be safe. I don’t want them to avoid risk and I don’t want them to be cavalier about it. I recently spoke about risk with Bruce Lessels, who is an AMC author, a former national-team whitewater kayaker, a parent and a teacher. “The world isn’t risk-free,” he reminded me. He believes we should teach children how to manage risk, and that we risk not preparing our children for life if we try to keep them from it.

Fundamentally, I agree with Bruce. But incidents like the one with Virgil on the rock remind me that teaching children to take risks is itself a risky business. After the fact, I realized that I’d given Virgil the same instruction as his much older sister and her friend. At 11, Ursula and Kirsten had been able to gauge what rocks they could climb safely; at 6, Virgil couldn’t. He’d followed the low-angle slab and gotten stuck where the angle steepened.

Virgil and I were both lucky to get another chance to think about risk. After I got him back down to level ground, and after I hugged him, hard, I told him, No climbing at all without me, none.

“Got it,” he said. Me, too.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Outdoor stimulus package: fee-free weekends at national park sites

Speaking of national parks, I just learned that the National Park Service is waiving entrance fees this coming weekend, July 18 and 19, at all national sites that charge an entrance fee. The “fee-free” sites include Acadia, New England’s only national park; the Cape Cod National Seashore; and in New Hampshire, the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the three free weekends a month ago at a news conference at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. He noted that most Americans live less than a day’s drive from a national park and referenced “these tough economic times” as a reason for the initiative.

Senator Max Baucus, who represents Montana, gave a pithier statement: “Folks should be able to enjoy our outdoor heritage without going broke.”

The first weekend was over Father’s Day. The third and final fee-free weekend will be August 15-16. Now that’s a stimulus package!

Learn more
For more information about fee-free weekends, visit the National Park Service website.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Michelle's Next Mission: getting America's children outdoors?:

If you read The New York Times on Sunday, you might have seen Timothy Egan’s opinion piece, “Michelle’s Next Mission.” That’s Michelle as in Michelle Obama, our first lady. Egan points out the ripple effects of her every action: When she put in a kitchen garden at the White House, vegetables — growing them, eating them — became the new cool flavor. Not that there wasn’t already a robust local-food movement, but the photo of her digging in the garden drew attention to the trend and boosted it. Egan wants her to do the same for the country’s national parks.

More fundamentally, he wants the First Lady to use her superstar power to get kids outside. Anyone who follows the news knows that many measures of children’s health show serious declines over the past 15 or 20 years. Some of those problems are directly linked to the food children eat and to the physical activity they don’t get. Here’s one scary statistic from Egan’s essay:
“A Nature Conservancy report a few years ago linked the decline in children’s interest in the outdoors to their being under ‘virtual house arrest’ to electronic media, spending 6.5 hours a day face-planted in Facebook, Xbox, television, a text-tablet or some other device.”
I read the op-ed at the end of a long day at a lake with Jim, Ursula, Virgil, and my father, who was visiting from western New York. Ursula and Virgil were in and out of the water and in and out of the woods all day. Other than a short hike to show Grampa the view from some ledges, we were simply hanging out together outside. Even when the adults went inside to make dinner, Ursula and Virgil lingered outside, having discovered a small grove of trees next to the house where we were staying. They and a younger child from next door had some elaborate game of make-believe going in there right up until bedtime.

Apparently, this kind of free-form, lengthy child’s play is what we have too little of in America. I know there are many reasons for the decline in outdoors play, and I also know that our family is not immune to the problem. Sunday was a good day, but on other days — days when I’m carting the children from one errand to another or during the school year when time and daylight always seem in short supply — they’re outside only to walk from car to building and back again.

I hope that the Obamas do vacation in our national parks and that Michelle Obama helps make playing outside as cool as kitchen gardens and video games. But it’s going to take more than one supermom, even one as powerful as she is, to get our kids outdoors again. Much needs to happen beyond individual families — in our schools, neighborhoods, and communities — so that all children are able to discover the joys of playing outside. We can start, though, we parents of America, by asking ourselves, as I did on Sunday night, if we’re letting our children discover the outdoors enough on their own.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Girls on granite

We returned late last night from an eight-day camping trip in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is not in New England, I realize, but it was nonetheless a Great Time in the Great Outdoors with Great Kids.

This was our second trip in as many years to the park of granite cliffs and glacier-polished domes, waterfalls, and wildflowers. Last year, we visited in August and spent most of our time in the high country around Tuolumne Meadow. At the end of that trip, when we dropped down to the valley, Ursula was disappointed to see that Yosemite Falls was more seepage than falling water. We promised her a return trip when the water level was higher, which is how we found ourselves ricocheting from end-of-school activities late last month straight into our first overnight hiking trip of the year. Not only that, it was the very first trip in which both children carried packs — and group gear in those packs.

Our packs are still on the front porch where we dumped them last night, and the laundry room smells like a dusty trail. Our hiking clothes may not be fresh, but my memories are. One I’ll hold onto is the morning that Ursula, her friend Kirsten (who joined us on the trip), and I walked around the base of some cliffs near Yosemite Falls and practiced simple rock-climbing moves. I showed the girls how to balance one foot on a quarter-sized indentation in the rock, known as a “dish” in climbing parlance, how to press in opposing directions to hold themselves in place, and how to hang thumbs-down in a hand crack. We rarely got more than a move or two above the ground, so they also had many opportunities to practice proper spotting technique.

After an hour or so of this, we climbed a low-angle descent gulley to a ledge shaded by a large manzanita bush. From that high perch, we looked out over the tops of the trees and across the valley; we felt mist from lower Yosemite Falls on the breeze. Down on the ground again, we walked to the base of the falls, where we found the site of a small cabin built by the great American naturalist and conservationist, John Muir, and a plaque with these words of Muir’s:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

That pretty much sums up the trip for us, although this morning Ursula was already climbing the walls. . . .

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