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Homestead happenings: wild child

May 2, 2011

Last week my parents (who were visiting for the week, hooray!) asked me about this homeschool co-op I’m putting together with some other families for the upcoming school year. It’s an evolving idea that we’re are composing like an improv jazz jam, each parent adding his or her own riff, sweetening the melody.

“So, what areas of expertise do the other parents have?” My father asked over tamales at Cocina Linda’s.

“Well, David’s a geologist, Melanie speaks several languages, Cody does outdoor education, Lianne is a professional cook, I know a lot about plants, and Dan loves wildlife, tracking and primitive skills.”

“Okay. Sounds like you’ve got the nature studies covered,” my dad commented, pouring tomatillo salsa over his tamale.

Oh, the multitudes of learning opportunities that exist in the study of nature! I see math in picking apples, science in a dandelion flower, art in the shades of a river. This fall we’ll (hopefully) study anatomy through butchering an elk, and in the winter: the chemistry of snow. But beyond this, connecting children to nature touches a deeper place that’s more feeling than words. It’s like scratching an itch that flared up several million years ago.

If children learn the names of birds, the uses of local plants, the nuances of their bioregion, I believe they will feel more connected to their own humanity and the Earth. And if our children feel connected to humanity and the Earth, they will take better care of both.

Spring visitors. WC Sparrow = white crowned sparrow, and that towhee may be the first ever spotted in the yard.

*** ** ***

On the homestead:

Dan cut one of our sheds in half and reconfigured it into a bike shed for the kids. Underneath the old shed, Col found a small, decaying skull at the entrance to an underground burrow. Dan, instead of saying “don’t touch that,” set up an archeological dig site for the kids.

Col found claws and a patch of skin and wanted Dan’s opinion on what the critter was. Dan replied: “Col, do you think the Leaky family just blurted out ‘Australopithecus’ after finding a few bones? You gotta keep digging, kid.”

The slender, curved sticks of ribs and 2 triangular scapula were recovered, also femurs and a whiplike tail. When Col found a sunflower seed-filled poop and a set of canine teeth, light flooded the small scientist’s brain and he proclaimed, “omnivore.”

It wasn’t until Col leaned down for a whiff of the assorted bones that the animal was indisputably declared skunk. Dan bleached the bones and they’re drying for further observation.

*** ** ***

We watched Ghost Bird with the kids recently, the haunting documentary about the alleged ivory billed woodpecker sightings in Arkansas. It was exciting to find a movie we were all interested in, despite Col’s frequent whisper-shouts, “WHAT DID HE SAY?” Or Rose fidgeting and announcing, “I want to go play but I don’t want to miss anything.” But mostly it was just sad to think that we’ve lost such a magnificent bird forever because of our unchecked consumption.

***  ** ***

The evening grosbeaks are back at our feeder; it’s so good to see them again.

*** ** ***

The 5 tomato plants I put outside in mid April have endured multiple nights at 20F and look like Keith Richards at 4:00 in the morning. The tomatoes in the greenhouse however, look like they’ve just walked out of the salon (they’re flowering already).

*** ** ***

Dan’s been hot on the antler-hunting trail. I’m going to make him little placards that he can tack up at select seasons to simplify our relationship. This month’s placard would say: this is it Rachel – the window for elk antlers, right now! In another few weeks all the shrubs will be leafed out  – and you won’t be able to see the ground. Can I go out tomorrow?

*** ** ***

Dan and Col have been reading Kon-Tiki, the book about the modern recreation of a primitive ocean voyage from South America to Polynesia. They’re getting super nerdy about it, assuming names of the sailors (Col is Torstein, who’s toe got bit by snapping dolphins) and building their own log rafts.

Rose is more interested in the sensory pleasures of creek water than the construction of anything.

Also, the loveliness of sun-warmed sand.

*** ** ***

Sometimes I wonder how our values will change as we age. Will Dan and I settle into some facsimile of adulthood that includes matching our sheets to our pillowcases, and picking apples from the store instead of from trees? Will we laugh nostalgically at the romance of making the weekly batch of cheese from a gallon of raw milk? Will we be more interested in producing money than broccoli and raspberries? And if so, wouldn’t we just use that money to buy broccoli and raspberries?

There’s a scene early in the fantastic book, The Dirty Life, when the author Kristin Kimball, who lives in NYC, meets her future husband Mark on a story assignment at his wildly abundant farm. After spending a few days interviewing him, working on the farm in heels, and eating the freshest food in her life, Mark sends her back to the city with boxes of dirt-spangled produce, homemade butter and farm eggs. Kimball realizes that the stock market could crash and planes could fly into buildings, and Mark would still live like a king.

*** ** ***

My friend once told me about a study where adults were asked to name—without giving it too much thought—a happy childhood memory.

The answers overwhelmingly involved unstructured play, outside.

Mine is making mud pies for the dinosaurs on the hot sidewalks of Prince street with my neighbor Leif.

Tell me yours.



34 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2011 8:02 am

    My uncle was studying paleontology and my aunt, his wife, was studying biology. He spent lots of time in the Middle East, and the American desert. They would bring Hefty bags of sand, giant ant hills, home over breaks, and taught me how to sift sand on a tray under a bright light to find tiny fossils. Once they’d gone through a few trays of sand, they’d dump said sand in the church parking lot that was the border of our yard.
    I would then spend untold hours, around the age of 5, sitting on the little hump of our yard that met the gully of the parking lot and continue to sift through that leftover sand to see if anything had been missed, if I could pull just one more rabbit tooth or small vertebra from the pile.
    Aaaahhhhh….. good times, good times.

  2. May 4, 2011 8:25 am

    Entire summers in the lake at Ossipee, New Hampshire.

    And, as for nature, it’s everywhere. Even here! The Critter’s latest obsession is with ants. Also, the mourning dove. He can do the call of a mourning dove more or less as well as I can, which frankly isn’t all that well, but hey, it’s a hard call to imitate. And, I think, the loveliest bird call in the world. Except maybe for the early morning song of robins?

  3. May 4, 2011 8:27 am

    Nice to drop in and catch up over here. Excited to dig my hands in the dirt this morning, finally. If that much is already growing at 6512, then surely I can get moving at 5280!

    Love your group homeschooling concept. During my college days I worked at a very grassroots co-op preschoool-highschool. The concept you guys are working out sounds very similar to the philosophy of this school. The children there thrived. I always thought it was such a beautiful way to grow.

    A happy childhood memory ~ my childhood spent on the sea’s shore.

  4. May 4, 2011 8:46 am

    PS Rachel,
    This is a GORGEOUS post. The photos, the experiences your children are having – truly gorgeous and inspiring.
    In Seattle, we were part of an unschooling co-op. It was amazing! The parents offered their expertise, the kids thrived, and learned about things ranging from Native American history and archeology to clowning and doll making. Wonderful days!

  5. Ellen permalink
    May 4, 2011 9:20 am

    Lucky lucky kids!

  6. ike permalink
    May 4, 2011 9:46 am

    Great blog and photos.
    I agree that learning of all kinds can stem from being in nature, enjoying it and trying to understand the numerous mysteries that we see around us.

    On life choices:
    there are so many possibilities. Buying raspberries and broccoli from organic farmers is a mutually beneficial action. Not everyone has the conditions, skills and desire to grow their own food.


  7. May 4, 2011 10:24 am

    Beautiful post. If you think about it, nature was the precursor to all the core subjects in school: science, math, reading, writing…all invented in an attempt to explain what we were seeing around us and pass it on to another generation. Love the unschool concept.

    My grandmother had a huge blue spruce in her yard, and she owned a flower shop. They used to use the cones in arrangements, and my grandmother asked me if I would go collect cones for her. I climbed all the way to the top of the tree, which was higher than her roof, and picked off every single cone. I had sap in my hair, scratches on my arms, and smelled of spruce sap. I was happy as could be. I was about 6. Bless my mother and grandmother for letting me climb that tree.

  8. Christy permalink
    May 4, 2011 10:25 am

    One summer my little sister (age 7), our cousin (age 9) and I (age 10) decided to harvest polk berries (which we knew were poisionous to eat) and make dye from them. My mother found us various old cottons (socks, underwear, dish towels) for our mission. Days were filled with picking the berries, mashing them using some kind of old grinder, then soaking the cloth inthe juice. We determined a day soak left a delightful purple with out the juice getting too stinky. We did this for days before moving on to something new. (I bet I was reading Island of the Blue Dolphin at this time.)
    My second is harvesting black walnuts with my mom and dad. Both involved getting dirty outside.

    Children only benefit from being connected to their enviroment.

    And that picture of Rose with the chicken…sigh. The combo of the rubber boots and bird skirt just kills me. The same with Col digging in the dirt.

  9. 6512 and growing permalink*
    May 4, 2011 10:37 am

    Everyone, thanks for your beautiful comments. I feel the need to say, this blog is like the Unitarian Church – room for everyone’s beliefs, including yours.

    I got a little soap-boxy in this post, and just want to say that as much as I do feel strongly that humans benefit from connecting with nature, most of the time “nature,” for the kids and me, is our 1/8 acre backyard. Nature is everywhere, as Rachael from Brooklyn says.

    Last time we were in Oakland, California, Col spotted a pigeon grubbing in the street and said “Mama, look at that beautiful bird!”

    • May 5, 2011 1:13 pm

      Col! I think pigeons are pretty too! I don’t know why people call them “urban rats.” Prettiest rats I’ve ever seen!

      I love this blog so much. You make my chest ache. This made me want to get up and shout YES! “If children learn the names of birds, the uses of local plants, the nuances of their bioregion, I believe they will feel more connected to their own humanity and the Earth. And if our children feel connected to humanity and the Earth, they will take better care of both.”

      My favorite memories involve playing in the fields behind our house, picking blackberries, playing tag with our doberman, Stryder, and digging in the dirt behind the house to find tons of trinkets left by some other small child. The electric hum of summer, the cool crunch of winter, the exploding scents of spring and oh! the colors of fall.

      Now I’m all homesick.

  10. Molly permalink
    May 4, 2011 10:39 am

    A few weeks on a dairy farm with my family. Fresh butter, eggs, milk, bread. There was a red scooter and a long driveway. I recently bought myself a scooter on sale, and use it every morning to cross campus from my daughter’s day care to my office and back. My girl has one, too, and we pause at the river trail and flat sidewalks for random scoots (they live folded up in the trunk of my car most of the time).

    If your wonderful preschool needs a visiting facilitator of lessons in law, race and social justice, let me know. My girl and I are also expert pretzel, bread and cheese cracker makers.

    I do not think that middle aged materialists are made from your stuff. You will deepen in your ways, maybe toss in some more meditation and/or larger scale political involvement as the kids get bigger. You and your family will act upon the world in far more significant ways than it will change you.

  11. May 4, 2011 10:50 am

    I love your thoughts on learning and nature. I can think of very few things that can’t be learned outside, with ones toes in the earth. I’m really looking forward to hearing how this homeschooling co-op of yours develops. I see myself forming something similar in a few years. We shall see.

    As for memories, it’s funny you should mention raspberries, because my best are of hikes into the woods to see if the wild raspberries are ripe yet, and later hikes into the woods to see if the deer have left us any wild raspberries. I always seemed to find the raspberry bushes just when I thought I had gotten myself hopelessly lost.

  12. May 4, 2011 12:46 pm

    Beautiful post. Favorite memory growing up? “Tracking” deer in the woods behind our house.

  13. May 4, 2011 1:31 pm

    Hi Rachel,

    Just wanted to let you know that one my readers recommended you as a “juicy blog.” You can see the full list of 22 juicy bloggers here:


  14. May 4, 2011 2:00 pm

    You’re right. My fondest memories are out in nature. In England climbing apple trees to eat green apples, popping and popping english peas like candy straight from the garden (they never made it to the table, all the hedges were various berry bushes. In Albuquerque climbing the Sandia Mtns, finding fossils, neat rocks, tubing down snowy banks in winter, and roaming the desert out on the mesa top of nine-mile hill…

    Sounds like you have quite a group there. You could get together a lesson plan and offer day camps to city kids and their parents.

  15. Melissa permalink
    May 4, 2011 2:11 pm

    Ah, Rachel. Prince street (probs well below where you played) is a block from our new place on Acton (: and we have the last surviving Dutch Elm (at least, that’s what we think the tree is though it doesn’t exactly look like the photos online) out front. Avi is making lots of memories with sidewalk chalk and this tree. . .

    It’s too hard for me to come up with my own memory in a pinch but the ones floating through quickly at this moment all involve summer and being outdoors . . .

    My efficient father in law recycled the box you sent before I could grab your return address–I have a tiny (handmade!) something for you . . .

    I love your homeschool co-op and wish we could do it, too!

  16. May 4, 2011 4:07 pm

    Never commented before, but oh how I love reading your blog! It helps give me hope for my future children, because as I watch my nephews and niece and see how little time they spend outdoors, in nature, and how they fear dirt and insects and the sun and need constant entertainment with gadgets… I worry that it’s inevitable in this day and age. But your blog helps me believe that my children won’t have to experience that disconnect from nature and unstructured play – it’s still possible for one’s kids to grow up outdoors :)

    I think I practically lived outdoors 24/7 as a kid – several summers I spent weeks at a time sleeping in the tree house rather than come inside at night! Very few of my childhood memories don’t take place outdoors.

  17. Kristen permalink
    May 4, 2011 6:36 pm

    Love the Keith Richards comment – there is always something in your writing that makes me laugh out loud and spew whatever liquid I am drinking at the time through my nostrils!

    My favorite memory is the entire neighborhood gang having a huge fort in an old, downed tree. It was magical! Spent many summers in that tree. We had a whole little community/economy/social structure.

  18. May 4, 2011 8:00 pm

    Playing in “the dirt pile,” in the backyard, for hours, making streams, aphid traps, castles, etc. The dirt pile was eventually replaced by a proper sandbox, but in my memories, the dirt pile was far superior.

    I’m also part of a nascent homeschool co-op for next year! We’ll be doing kindergarten, though, so far, so there really won’t be much in terms of curriculum–just a continuation of the child-led, interest-led, seasonal-based learning (translation: life) we’re already doing. As far as I’m concerned, you guys have everything you need for a homeschool. I can’t wait to hear all about it. Will Col be in first grade? I can’t remember, but I should know this as a faithful reader!

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      May 5, 2011 2:48 pm

      Yes, Col will be in 1st grade next year. He’s been at a private Montessori kindergarten which has been sweet and wonderful, but we can’t afford it anymore and I’m excited for Col to have more time at home next year, he seems to need it.
      Col and Rose have their own dirt pile, too! They were sneaking dirt out of my garden beds way too much, so it was time for their own pile. They love it. I love your comment about the kindergarten curriculum, “translation: life” So beautiful and true!

  19. Kathy permalink
    May 4, 2011 8:26 pm

    walking to school through the woods along the creek near Greenbelt, Maryland, when I was in second grade, and the 5th grade camping trip into the Colorado mountains, the starry starry night, the bonfire, and the cold…

    One year we studied all the plants in our yard and surrounding acreage in West Texas, and Robin created a menu of edibles, including mesquite beans, which are ground into a sweet flour. We also watched and studied the wild animals living there.

    We have some really great home school memories, including discovering the many wild places between West Texas and Durango.

    Teaching our children to love learning is the goal and the prize.

  20. Maribeth Harris permalink
    May 4, 2011 9:05 pm

    I can’t get enough of the picture of Rose packing the chicken! Makes me grin every time I look at it!

  21. May 4, 2011 9:12 pm

    Eating ice cream sandwiches on the hot pavement of the driveway, taking the old radio flyer wagon down to the neighborhood cul-de-sac where we would examine cactus blooms, and riding my bicycle around the block with the other neighborhood kids.

    I love, love, love the first part- and completely agree.

    Here in TX I am about to pick my first ripe tomatoes- early girl and big boy- my mouth is watering for that first bite!

    Glad to see you all are getting some sunny weather after the snow showers :)


  22. Jen permalink
    May 4, 2011 9:29 pm

    I’d spend hours fishing for marbles in the snowmelt streams down our street, and we built amazing tunnels in snowpiles.
    I really enjoyed “The Dirty Life”. Another great book is “How to be Free” by Tom Hodgkinson, a slightly more urban/witty brit philosophy of how to live free of the things that society seems to decree we have to do (like accumulate debt, have cars, own houses, buy things, etc).
    Also loved the Keith Richards tomatoes. Wish I felt a little less like Keith myself some mornings….

  23. May 4, 2011 10:23 pm

    SO so happy to have found you through a friend of mine who shared this post on facebook~

    beautiful post, in every way.

    One of my favorite childhood memories is climbing trees and running around with my across-the-street neighbor in my next-door neighbor’s back yard, pretending the tiny little creek (a ditch, probably, really) was a rushing river and we were washing in it and cooking with it and pretending to be taking car of our dingos (? don’t know where that came from) while hunting for food.

    hadn’t thought of that in a while.

    I also loved to draw pictures with earth worms after it rained, but then got sad when I asked my mom why they’d stopped moving and she told me it was because they had died from all the stretching and handling….. so that was something I enjoyed…. although briefly

    I love your post on your “about” page, too- such a great way to put into words exactly what goes through my mind so often!


  24. May 4, 2011 10:37 pm

    Awe, what a fulfilling post. Tons of great, inspiring stuff in here…I love:

    “If children learn the names of birds, the uses of local plants, the nuances of their bioregion, I believe they will feel more connected to their own humanity and the Earth. And if our children feel connected to humanity and the Earth, they will take better care of both.”

    Goodness do I believe this. I want to be a part of your preschool. Do you take seamstress-photographer-artist-gardening types via skype? xo

  25. May 4, 2011 11:00 pm

    Watching swallows fly. Listening to the spring frog chorus in early spring, and being excited by the potential of the season, and the still-absence of biting bugs (that came a bit later). Exploring to the edges of my map (topographic) on my bike, and then needing a ride home.
    Such a lovely post. I love the dig, I love what he knows!

  26. May 5, 2011 12:14 am

    You’ve said so much here. I found myself nodding *right on*s all along. In my teaching program we learned of that study after everyone had shared their outdoor memory. Mine was on the shores of Wardrick Wells in the Bahamas, barefoot, looking at hundreds of bottles with notes in them. It was tradition that if you stepped on the shores of the island, you had to write your story and stick it in a bottle. At six years old, I was so curious what words were in all the bottles. I still remember how the wind sounded across the glass bottles.
    Have you read Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson?
    Can I be a part of your co-op? You’re so right, learning needs to take place outdoors and when it can’t, you need to bring the outside in.

  27. Katie B. permalink
    May 5, 2011 11:14 am

    As a kid we lived in Loveland next to a small lake. We neighbor kids built a raft from driftwood and rowed around the lake picking cattails and finding frogs, crawfish and the like. I was maybe 8 and my brother was 5 or 6. No lifejackets and no supervision. Best, best memories, but who would let their kid do that now??

  28. May 5, 2011 6:09 pm

    Australopithecus- priceless quote from dan there. we’re having parallel contemplations, though yours is so beautifully written i hesitate to make the comparison. but there is a sparrow (yellow crowned in our case) and a skull in my post, and i have the dirty life on hold from the library so i can hopefully read it soon. but you nailed something i have yet to put into words, the stuff about how we’ll change as we age. it is so hard to imagine not valuing this real honest to goodness food making and growing type of life. but maybe i suppose… we’ll see.

    my memories of childhood are nearly all outside, in spite of public schooling. climbing haybales, hide and seek in the apple orchard, swimming and climbing mountains in the adirondacks, building igloos on snow days, wildflower walks with my mom…

  29. Rachel permalink
    May 5, 2011 9:01 pm

    A happy memory would be climbing our backyard dogwood tree (in a dress up gown, of course!) while my sisters played fairies in the sprawling pumpkin patch that took over our yard. I think we all cried when that tree fell down in a storm.
    Love the homeschool co-op idea, the dig (and the omnivore! realization) and the memories of huge pumpkins and old trees you brought back. You sure have some lucky kids!

  30. May 6, 2011 12:48 pm

    A happy memory would involve roaming about the streets of our urban neighborhood, looking for puddles and the tadpoles that swim in them. Back then I wasn’t as squeamish as I am now. I wonder what happened…

    And I loved the excavation and how you connected nature to the education that your kids will truly benefit from. It’s so much better than knowing calculus and doing absolute nothing with it if your heart isn’t in math.

  31. May 6, 2011 8:26 pm

    Ok, I have to comment again.
    I catch myself thinking I am failing my kids, in that they have an urban dwelling. I grew up initially on a dairy farm in southern Germany, and then on hundreds of acres in Northern Ontario, half of the year at a lake, with cliffs and forests at my back door. That, to me, is a good childhood. Yet, the kids grub in the back yard every single day, there is a patch of dirt there that will never be grass or garden, because it is their patch. They watch and help me garden. We talk about the critters we see, and the critters we don’t. We saw a woodpecker today, right in front of the house. AND, they get to go to the library at least once a week, and to the pool, and to a variety of parks, and somehow, it’s not what you have, it’s what you make of it.
    Thanks for the reminder!

  32. May 16, 2011 12:41 am

    Best of luck with the co-op!

    I often talk with my husband about what we’ll be like many years from now or what we’ll be like if we ever have lots of excess money. Will our values change? Who knows, but it’s a fun thought experiment.

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