Nature neuroscience

Every day I set out for the forest with my dog. I’ll admit that I am often vexed or grumpy when we enter the woods, having dealt with hours of computer frustration or human stupidity. But somehow, the forest fixes it all. If I walk long enough, my world is set right, and I wonder why I do anything but walk in the woods.

So this NYT article caught my attention: Get Out of Here: Scientists Examine the Benefits of Forests, Birdsong and Running Water.

Imagine a miracle drug that could ease many of the stresses of modern life — a combination mood enhancer and smart pill that might even encourage the remission of cancer. Now imagine that this cure-all was an old-fashioned folk remedy: Just take a hike in the woods or a walk in the park. No prescription necessary.

That’s the proposition of Florence Williams’s fascinating “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.” We suffer from an “epidemic dislocation from the outdoors,” Williams writes, and it’s destructive to our mental and physical health. The therapy is straightforward. “The more nature, the better you feel.” (…)

It’s all very encouraging, but how exactly does nature have such an effect on people? To answer that question, Williams shadows researchers on three continents who are working on the frontiers of nature neuroscience. [continue]

A floating home in the wilderness

Have you heard about Freedom Cove? It’s a floating home on the west coast of Vancouver Island, near Tofino. But “floating home” doesn’t do it justice. These guys have a four greenhouses and a garden, for instance, all on floats in the middle of the cove. Mashable describes it as a floating sanctuary that provides artistic inspiration:

Walking through their home for the first time is a bizarre experience. You enter through a front gate made of two whale ribs. You sit and relax in the living room, with a hole cut in the floor so Wayne can catch fish from his couch. The whole house, tethered to the land and floating on armored foam, is always moving with the ebb and flow of the tide. [continue]

OK, that fishing-from-the-couch thing sounds really fun.

What do you think? Could you live like in a floating home like this one?

Here are some more articles about Freedom Cove, some with fantastic photos.

On sending kids to summer camp

Did you go to summer camp as a kid? I did, and it changed my whole world.

None of the summer camps around here are for the whole summer – kids go for a week or two, that’s all. But it was still a pivotal experience to be away from routine and parents, and to be able to try new ways of being. Summer camp gave me strength, skills, and experiences that have been important to me ever since.

So I liked this Slate article: My Daughter Went Away to Camp and Changed.

The best moments of childhood—the memories that stay with you into adulthood—are ones where your parents aren’t there. They are moments you experienced truly for yourself. In Homesick and Happy, Michael Thompson writes about a study where people were asked about their happiest childhood memory; more than 80 percent name a parent-free moment. Thompson explains that kids are better off when they accomplish something without having to think about how their parents would view it. Those memories are also more indelible. The self-confidence that comes from that accomplishment sticks better because it is completely earned.

So, as a parent you should want to push your kids out of your space to where they can rack up these 80 percent experiences—to explore, take risks, and try new identities. We are not invited, which is a paper-cut echo of the truth at the heart of parenting: You’re doing it best when you’re teaching them to leave you. Camp is an intensive course in how your children can do this successfully. [continue]

Kindergarten in the forest

This sounds so much better than sitting around in a classroom. From Beyond Recess: How to Explore the Forest as a Kindergarten Class

Every Monday morning, the kids suit up for a day outdoors. Rain or shine – even in the bitter cold – they go out. They head to the woods next to their school where they’ve built a home site with forts and a fire pit. (…)

Kids run around and do all kinds of things they’re not allowed to do at school, like yell and throw things. Down by the stream, two boys are working together to build a dam. One boy, pushing with all his might, tries to move a downed tree onto the dam. “We can roll it!” insists the other boy. They push and push, to no avail. Eventually, one of the boys realizes he can get leverage using the tree’s branches. Teacher Eliza Minnucci is standing about 20 feet away, watching.

“We’re supposed to study force and motion in kindergarten,” she says, noting how the boy just had a real world experience of that when he figured out how to use the branches to move the tree. “Outside offers so much,” she says. “It is sort of the deepest and widest environment for learning that we have.” [continue]

Zipping through the treetops

From the New York Times: Zipping Through the Treetops.

"Basically, Dad, you freak out, then you go for it." This was the advice my daughter Lily, 16, had for me on a sun-bathed early-autumn day, as we perched on a platform in a tulip poplar 35 feet off the ground, facing my first-ever zip line. Ahead of me was a trip that would hurtle me through a cleared channel in a Pennsylvania forest at speeds approaching 50 miles an hour. It was the first of four zip lines that our group of adventurers would ride down from the summit at the Spring Mountain ski area that day.

"Clear!" came a call from a guide on a tree platform far below. A guide beside me clicked the two lanyards from my climbing harness to a pulley on the zip line. He nodded to me.

"Ready to zip!" I shouted with bravado.

"Zip away!" came the call from below, and I vaulted into the unknown. "Whoa …!" I screamed, as tree trunks, leaves and flashes of sky rushed by me. [continue]

Well, what do you think? Would you have the nerve to do this?


If you were here I would take you to the beach in the mornings, right after coffee. In addition to the usual seaside delights, we now have Dead Jellyfish Season: every morning there are dozens of dead Lion’s Mane jellyfish sparkling on the beach. Some are small — just a foot or so across — and others are two or three times bigger.

Most are right side up; those ones are smooth blobs of jelly. It’s the upside-down jellyfish that are really interesting. Here, look:

(The jellyfish photos are no longer here. But one of these days I’ll post some new ones for you.)

I’ve been busy making desktop wallpaper out of the close-up jellyfish photos I took this morning. Here’s a tiny peek — just a small section of much a much bigger image:

The best thing about our digital camera is that it lets me see this kind of detail.

To see what Lion’s Mane jellyfish look like when they’re alive and swimming, visit
this photo by Sergiy Kostenko and this one by Mark Thomas.

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Smokey got it wrong

From the National Post: Smokey got it wrong.

Splashed with drops of burning fuel gel, trailing from a helicopter concealed by a roiling column of smoke overhead, the giant pines of Mount Nestor fire up like roman candles. A few kilometres away, on the eastern slope of Mount Nestor, Kevin Topolnicki’s team unleashes a necklace of fire from the Terra-Torch — a truck-mounted flamethrower — attacking the trees that survived an earlier air assault.

One of the men on his crew pulls over his nose a faded yellow bandana with a silk-screen of Smokey the Bear. The legendary enemy of forest fires would not be pleased about this arson attack on Alberta’s Spray Valley Provincial Park. But then, deadpans Mr. Topolnicki, duty officer for the province’s sustainable resource development ministry, "Smokey was wrong."

At least, that is the opinion of forest managers in Alberta, who have rediscovered fire in a big way after decades of working to eradicate it from virtually every last tree. [continue]

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Intertidal connections

At the beach we see marvels: zillions of starfish, peculiar sea creatures, otters, sea lions, and herons. Eagles land near us on the rocks, tiny silver fishies squirm out of the sand, and seagulls come for lunch. I keep meaning to take some photos to share here, but I’m not that organized yet.

No matter! Today I found Norman Rich’s Intertidal Connections, and this is just perfect. His photos are of things I want to show you, and they’re stunning shots. He writes:

This series of photos was made while exploring secret bays and shoreline sanctuaries along several hundred miles of wild and natural B.C. coastline from a dinghy, and an old 30 foot steel sailboat. Intertidal connections is a gallery featuring expressive light, and color from the northwest coast shoreline. Here I found an interconnected abundance, and considerable beauty in the nature of things expressing themselves. In these coastal realms, timeless themes of flow and forming, tides and life cycles are ever present.

Norman has many other photo galleries, and they’re all worth exploring. Oh, and don’t you think this is the best eagle photo ever?

Make your own outdoor gear

Perhaps we’ve got it all wrong when we head off to the outdoor store to spend big bucks getting reading for a camping trip. Suppose you need a two-person tent, two sturdy packs, two sleeping bags, and a stove. Basic list, yes? According to the store catalogue I browsed through tonight, you’ll probably spend over $1,000.00 on those items.

The alternative, of course, is to make your own stuff.’s homemade outdoor gear pages might be all you need for inspiration; they’ve got patterns, photos, and suggestions. I’m quite taken with the Ron and Don Cat Food Can Alcohol Stove, though I haven’t yet seen the other 25 stove designs on the site.

This DIY site includes directions and patterns for back packs, sleeping bags, hammocks, shelters, stoves, and other stuff.

Natural swimming pools

From the New York Times: From Europe, a No-Chlorine Backyard Pool.

Natural swimming pools (or swimming ponds, as they are called in Europe, where the concept originated 20 years ago) are self-cleaning pools that combine swimming areas and water gardens. Materials and designs vary — the pools can be lined with rubber or reinforced polyethylene, as in the case of Total Habitat’s, and may look rustic or modern — but all natural pools rely on "regeneration" zones, areas given over to aquatic plants that act as organic cleansers.

The pools have skimmers and pumps that circulate the water through the regeneration zone and draw it across a wall of rocks, loose gravel or tiles, to which friendly bacteria attach, serving as an additional biological filter. Unlike artificial ponds, which tend to be as murky with groundwater runoff and sediment from soil erosion as the natural ponds they’re modeled on, in a natural pool the water is clear enough to see through to the bottom. [continue]

Here’s more on the idea from The Ecologist’s Natural Swimming Pools article:

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Slime mould

From E-Flora BC we have this fascinating article on slime mould.

In an environment that is varying hues of brown and green, hot pink or coral red is hard to miss, so even the most preoccupied of hikers will stop agog having come across a slime mold, one of nature’s most mysterious creations.

The typical first reaction is to mutter, "What is this stuff?" The typical second reaction is to poke it with a stick.

Slime moulds are mysterious. They have been considered animals, protozoans, fungi or space aliens. Were they larger, they would come to life in cheesy 1950’s sci-fi flicks.

They are usually classified within a group called the Myxomycetes. (Note that reading this column will greatly increase Scrabble scores.)

Slime moulds have several life stages. Perhaps the most interesting is the plasmodium, which is basically a single enormous cell with hundreds of nuclei.

Experiments have shown it can find its way through mazes to find food. More amazing, if chopped into pieces that are then returned to a previous maze, the plasmodial bits will reassemble and start to move, avoiding dead ends and heading directly back to the food again. Intelligent slime? [continue]

In other news, New Scientist reports of a Robot moved by a slime mould’s fears.

A bright yellow slime mould that can grow to several metres in diameter has been put in charge of a scrabbling, six-legged robot.

The Physarum polycephalum slime, which naturally shies away from light, controls the robot’s movement so that it too keeps out of light and seeks out dark places in which to hide itself. [continue]

Pretty weird.