Our family stepped on the floating platform, wide grins crossing our faces. The Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, Hastings, Lucky and Balla, frolicked in a saltwater lagoon off Duck Key in the Florida Keys. Then Haley Merritt, one of the nine educator-trainers at the Dolphin Connection, motioned for one of the dolphins to swim our way. For the next twenty minutes, we worked alongside her, practicing “target training”, hand signals, even cradling the 500-pound dolphins in the water.
Drawn in by the experience, our son, Liam, interacted with the dolphins as if some magical Harry Potter spell had been cast upon him – allowing him to “speak” to the playful mammals. Truth be told, this was the only way to interact with the dolphins responsibly. Chasing down dolphins from a boat is definitely not the way to go. That Lucky earned its name because he was rescued after being caught in a shrimp net off the coast of Texas brought the experience full circle.
“We’re creating an emotional interaction between our participants and the dolphins,” shares Terran McGinnis, back in the classroom area where we first learned about the dolphins, their behaviors and training. “It’s this emotional experience that forever changes how we think and act toward marine life – and the planet.” While based at Hawks Cay Resort, the Dolphin Connection is open to anyone with an interest in dolphins, offering a range of experiences in addition to being the only dolphin facility in the Keys offering educational displays and a free dolphin viewing area.
Florida Keys Ecotourism
And so began our Florida Keys adventure, filled with iridescent-colored fish flickering in the sunlight on coral reefs, soaring ospreys, gentle Key Deer, and a glimpse of a few fleeting sharks. The more than 1,700 islands that encompass the Florida Keys provide refuge to hundreds of bird species, a spectacular diversity of tropical plants and abundant sea life. In other words, it’s the ultimate place for tropical adventure without leaving the continental US. No passport needed. Since there’s so much to see and do, I’ll cover it in three blogs.
Stretching along the largest living coral reef in North America and the third largest in the world, the Keys are essentially a patchwork of wildlife preserves divided by the Overseas Highway that hops through the string of islands connected by forty-two bridges. From Key Largo, where America’s first underwater preserve was established, to Key West, vast off-shore sections of the Gulf or Atlantic, along with terrestrial areas, are designated as wildlife refuges or marine sanctuaries. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary alone make up the 2,800 square nautical miles of coastal and oceanic waters and submerged lands.
Whether we were atop the water, in the water, or on dry land, nearly everything needed for adventure we found somewhere along the 128 mile highway. But stepping off the pavement, sometimes by hiking less than a few minutes off the main road, we found ourselves lost in a labyrinth of mangroves in the “backcountry” – or bobbing around in a boat in either the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean.
In the Water
“Pool’s open,” invites Captain Ron of the Fury Water Adventures’ Cruzan Cat catamaran. While some of the eleven passengers descended into the warm, turquoise waters from a ladder at the back of the boat, others, like us, jumped off the side, hanging onto our snorkel mask. We coasted along the surface to a patch coral reef known as the Western Dry Rocks, nestled within the Key West National Wildlife Refuge about seven miles from Key West. To get to the reef anywhere in the Keys requires at least a three mile journey off shore.
The sun bathed the rainbow-colored parrotfish and angelfish in light, shimmering off the Fire, Elkhorn and Staghorn coral. Elaborate sea fans waved with the current. Visibility was over 60 feet. Crew member Stephanie not only prepped us prior to us jumping in, she was right there alongside us, pointing out a nurse shark resting on the sandy bottom and confirming our glimpse of a reef shark -- before it sped off. “You’re much too big to be a possible meal for them,” confirms Stephanie, smiling off the encounter.
Woman Key Mangroves
The reef wasn’t our only stop on the Fury’s six-hour “Island Adventure” eco-trip. Next, our captain took us to Woman Key. To get to a spectacular shallow sandbar off the island, we climbed into sea kayaks and paddled ashore. Stephanie took some of our group to explore the mangroves while the rest of us hung on the sand bar, spotting a bonnethead shark and sea biscuits.
Later in the week during a stretch of calm winds and plentiful sun, we visited another patch reef closer in, aboard Sabago’s catamaran sailboat. This was followed by a trip in Danger Charters’ 65-foot skipjack sailboat, uniquely able to put us in five-foot-deep seagrass meadows, dotted with huge sponges, around which we spotted squid and stingrays.
“There are those captains that admit they’ve run aground and those that have yet to run aground,” laughs Captain Christian, steering Danger’s Prize with one foot while peering over the side at the four-foot-deep waters. “And then, there are the ones who lie about it.” While snorkeling is the most readily accessible way to explore the reef and ocean, for the PADI-certified, thousands of people every year go SCUBA-diving to patch or bank reefs or at the more than 1,000 shipwrecks scattered along the Keys.
My next blog will cover the adventure from on top of the water or on dry land.
Dolphin Photo: Courtesy of Dolphin Connection.
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. Ivanko writes and contributes photography to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living.” They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son, Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10-kW Bergey wind turbine.
With frigid temperatures gripping many parts of the U.S., some people are turning to fireplaces and wood-burning stoves for warmth. It may smell good, but wood smoke can impact indoor air quality and your health. Smoke is a mixture of tiny particles and gases produced when wood burns – the fine particles can get into your eyes and lungs, where they may aggravate some health conditions like lung disease, bronchitis and asthma.
Use these “best burn practices” at home to minimize wood smoke and protect your health:Before you burn, make sure your chimney is clean. A clean chimney provides a good draft and reduces the risk of a chimney fire:
Have your chimney inspected by a professional at least once per year and regularly clean ashes from your fireplace or wood-burning stove to increase efficiency.
Only use seasoned wood for burning. Seasoned wood looks darker, has cracks in the ends and sounds hollow if smacked against another piece of wood.
Use newspaper and dry kindling to start a fire. Never use gasoline, kerosene, charcoal starter or propane.
Build hot fires, which are more safe and efficient than smoldering fires.
Never burn garbage or cardboard, coated or painted wood, particle board, plywood or wood with glue on it. Burning these materials can release harmful chemicals into the air inside your home.
If you burn wood at home – even occasionally – install a smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector to keep you and your family safe. If you already have detectors, check the batteries to make sure they are working properly.
(Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Burn Wise: Consumers – Best Burn Practices. http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/bestburn.html) Read more Tips of the Week at www.earthgauge.net.
These tiny Australian spiders are one more example of just how amazing Nature can be. This video shows how these male jumping peacock spiders display the stunning color patterns on their abdomens during their courtship dance.
YouTube video posted by Peacockspiderman
According to Wikipedia:
"The jumping spider family (Salticidae) contains more than 500 described genera (like the Maratus genus, also known as peacock spiders) and about 5,000 described species, making it the largest family of spiders with about 13% of all species. Jumping spiders have some of the best vision among arthropods and use it in courtship, hunting, and navigation. Though they normally move quietly and fairly slowly, most species are capable of very agile jumps, notably when hunting, but sometimes in response to sudden threats. Both their book lungs and the tracheal system are well-developed, and they use both systems (bimodal breathing). Jumping spiders are generally recognized by their eye pattern. All jumping spiders have four pairs of eyes with one pair being their particularly large anterior median eyes.
Jumping spiders range in size from a body length of 1 to 22 mm.
In addition to using their silk for safety lines while jumping, they also build silken "pup tents", where they shelter from bad weather and sleep at night. They molt within these shelters, build and store egg cases within them, and also spend the winter in them.
Jumping spiders are generally diurnal, active hunters. Their well-developed internal hydraulic system extends their limbs by altering the pressure of body fluid (hemolymph) within them. This enables the spiders to jump without having large muscular legs like a grasshopper. Most jumping spiders can jump several times the length of their bodies. When a jumping spider is moving from place to place, and especially just before it jumps, it tethers a filament of silk (or 'dragline') to whatever it is standing on to protect itself if the jump should fail. Should it fall, for example if the prey shakes it off, it climbs back up the silk tether. Some species, such as Portia, will actually let themselves down to attack prey such as a web spider apparently secure in the middle of its web. Like many other spiders that leave practically continuous silk trails, jumping spiders impregnate the silk line with pheromones that play a role in social and reproductive communication, and possibly in navigation.
Certain species of jumping spiders have been shown by experiment to be capable of learning, recognizing, and remembering colors, and adapting their hunting behavior accordingly."
For more exceptional and colorful pictures, see this article on more species of peacock spiders from Peckhamia.
The MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff has been featured in videos covering topics from seed starting to skin toner. Check out our full collection of wiser living videos on our video page.
Ever curious about the world around me, I picked up some of the rocks on the table in Susanna’s music room and turned one over and over in my hand. Immediately, I began asking Susanna a series of questions: Where did you get these? How are they formed? Can we go get more?
Susanna — herbalist, organic farmer, owner of Raven Crest Botanicals, and the amazing woman who said yes when I asked to volunteer on her organic farm earlier in the year — patiently answered all of my questions in the music room of her house that sits on 250 acres of beautiful farmland in upstate New York.
I learned that the rocks are called concretions and Susanna had visited a woman named Stephanie a few miles down the road from her farm to pick out a few. Susanna and my other friends from the farm, Yoav and Thomas, explained that no one is quite sure how the rocks are formed, and that they are only found in certain parts of the world. Some believe that the energy of each planet is held in place by a mysterious grid and that the concretions mark this grid of energy. Other theories have to do with concretions being fairy stones or serving as the currency of aliens. Clearly, there is a wide spectrum of speculation on the matter.
Susanna and Yoav had brought home dozens of rocks and together we marveled at their simple, yet complex beauty. Before the end of my visit to the farm, I promised myself I would visit Stephanie to pick out my own concretions and hear her thoughts on their existence and formation. A few days later, Thomas, more farm friends Ashley, Peter and Ben, and I went to visit Stephanie who we referred to as “the rock lady.”
We pulled up to her quaint, white house off one of the busier streets near the farm. Stephanie had set up all of her rocks for us on the porch in containers organized by price. I learned that the rocks are monetarily valuable and that Stephanie makes some of her living from selling the concretions to museums and collectors on the internet.
Her passion for the rocks came through in her excited voice and wide eyes. Stephanie explained how the thousands of concretions that she holds dear were found in creek beds of Schoharie Creek tributaries. She would not tell us her secret concretion spot though and explained how some folks are so interested in finding the rocks that they threatened to GPS her location.
Also on her porch were rocks that resembled turtle shells. She said that they are extremely valuable to collectors because of their connection to Native American folklore.
The myth of the “Great Turtle” or “Turtle Island” is believed by Northeastern Woodland tribes including the Lenape and the Iroquois. The Iroquois believe that Sky Woman (also known as Atahensic or Ataensic, who is the sky goddess that was carried down to Earth by the wings of birds at the time of creation) fell down to the earth when it was covered with water. Many animals tried to swim to the bottom of the ocean to bring back dirt to create land. Muskrat succeeded in gathering dirt, which was placed on the back of a turtle, which grew into the land we know today.
I thought the story of the ‘Great Turtle’ was beautiful and I chose a concretion that had a turtle shell pattern on the top from Stephanie’s collection. I was thankful that I had asked so many questions about the concretions and that we all went on a journey to learn more about them and their origins.
In 2014, I resolve to stay curious about the incredible world that we live in and continue to ask plenty of questions each day. I resolve to learn new things and stay informed and aware of global issues. I will write letters, sign petitions, speak at public events, attend rallies, make phone calls and spread the word about problems that need attention. I will advocate for causes I am passionate about: the environment, education, sustainability, real food, organic farming, and social equity. I will volunteer; I feel that I am my best self when I am serving the community. I ask you all to join and make impact on the world we live in. Together, we can make 2014 a year for the books.
If you prefer a geological approach to the formation of concretions click here and for turtle rocks click here.
I wouldn’t consider myself a spiritual person. I wasn’t born in the Amazon jungle or in a tribe of Native Americans on the Great Plains. But there is an idea that originated in many of these ancient cultures that has struck a chord within me: The Plant Ally. I had heard of this term before but it didn’t resonate with me until I listened to an interview with a Brazilian herbal healer. She spoke of asking her plant allies for their assistance in curing one of the villagers’ sick children. She prayed to her plants for protection against the incurable disease the young one suffered from, the same disease that had taken all the other siblings already. This child survived and the healer almost overnight became bigger than Michael Jackson (in her country anyway).
My growth the past few years has brought countless other similar stories to my attention. At one time I would have dismissed it as “some crazy jungle hippie talking to her herbs” and moved on. But the way this woman spoke about her plants hit me from an angle I never looked at before. She spoke as if this plant was a friend helping her move on Saturday. A friend you pick up from the airport after watching their house and feeding their cat. The more I thought about this old idea and the feelings this woman shared in the interview, the less crazy it sounded to me. We all have plant allies. We just don’t acknowledge them as such.
The Benefits of Plants Throughout the Year
In springtime we all feel the buzz of new life. The grass greens up while the trees start growing leaves and flowers. Tulips pop up from their hibernation and add color to the landscape. Everywhere you turn there’s fresh, new plant growth and it puts a little skip in our step. It makes us feel good. It energizes us by just witnessing everything come alive after a long, cold winter.
Summer arrives and the plants ramp up into high gear its harvests for us to enjoy. Cherries and Peaches start showing up at the farmers markets and grocery stores, and we race down there with our mouths watering. Maybe your own garden is what you look forward to like myself. Picking those first strawberries of the season and eating them up before you can get inside to wash them off. Eating fresh watermelon and cantaloupe during the fourth of July. Waiting patiently for those first ears of corn to be picked and enjoyed. All the joy and excitement that accompanies the bounty of summer on top of the beneficial nutrients and vitamins you receive is more than enough to be thankful for.
Fall creeps in and we drink more teas as the air cools to a crisp. You feel a cold coming on and you eat some raw garlic or swallow Echinacea tablets to help fight it. You pull the carrots and potatoes from the ground and add them to the stew that slow cooks all day, filling the house with its fragrances. Pumpkins are ready during this time, and not just for carving but baking as well. Who goes through Thanksgiving without a Pumpkin pie?
We get joy and comfort, and a whole range of other emotions throughout the year from our plant allies. Studies have shown that touching house plants or spending time gardening can be calming and relieve the anxiety and stress that our plastic, material world creates. Many of our medicines have their origins from plant chemistries, or still contain parts of them in the medicine themselves. Metamucil is marketed as a multi-health fiber that helps lower cholesterol, promotes digestive health and “maintains healthy blood sugar levels”. It does this with only a few ingredients: Sucrose, Psyllium Husk, Citric Acid, Natural and artificial orange flavor, and Yellow 6. So basically its sugar, preservatives, flavoring, coloring and plant material (Psyllium), but without the plant in this mixture you would have nothing useful.
If you look at the latest science and not just the corporate influenced government standards, a plant based diet is gaining strong ground as the best diet for overall health. If you look at the antibiotic-resistant bacterial crises we are racing towards, we can look to plants that have strong antibacterial and antimicrobial properties as a possible savior. Everywhere you look there are plants assisting us with ailments and illnesses, keeping us fed and nourished as well as comforting and energizing us with their presence. But what do we do in return?
Being an Ally Is a Two-Way Street
If anyone in our life did so many of these good things we would do something to repay our thanks. We would want to show our appreciation. Even if our dog does well we give him a treat. But since plants don’t have faces or speak English we sort of just take without asking or use without a thank you. That isn’t being an ally, that’s being an overlord. If you garden then providing a space for them to grow is a big step towards being an ally. You do a little for them; they do a little for you. It’s a two-way street. Many tribal cultures have ceremonies asking for protection from their plant allies or pray for permission to go hunting in the jungle for food, though most of us in the west see this as silly since plants don’t have a brain.
Do a little research on Cleve Backster, who in 1966 discovered with a polygraph that plants respond electrochemically to our emotions or intentions, and you may start to question what’s possible. Even the show “Mythbusters” proved this response when they just imagined setting the plant subject on fire and the polygraph needle went wild.
Like I said before, I don’t consider myself a spiritual person. I don’t feel there is some plant spirit that I need to pray to for healing. But if they are sensitive to negative feelings then maybe they are sensitive to positive feelings as well. What would it hurt to give a little ‘tip of the cap’ to my Chamomile as I pass by it on the way inside the house? What would it hurt if I mentally thanked my potatoes for feeding me and my family while pulling them from the ground? Appreciating something doesn’t take anything more than just acknowledging how good the world is to have them in it.
Headwater streams are small streams or tributaries that carry water from the upper reaches of a watershed to a river. They are the beginnings of an interconnected stream network that eventually combine and form bigger streams and rivers downstream. Many of these headwaters are fed by rainfall, runoff and underground waters, and may not flow year-round. Even though they often appear insignificant and some are so small you could jump across them, they are very important to downstream river, lake and estuary ecosystems. Among other benefits, headwater streams retain flood waters and reduce the amount of pollutants making their way to waters downstream.
Viewer Tip: A stream is a stream, no matter how small it is or how frequently it flows. A river can be fed by different types of headwater streams: some flow year-round, some flow several months during the year and some flow at the Earth’s surface only periodically. Just because a stream is small and does not flow year-round doesn’t mean it can’t have a big impact on the health of streams or rivers downstream. Protecting all kinds of waters upstream will help protect waters downstream. Learn more about different types of streams and their importance.
(Sources: EPA, “Little Streams, Big Impact,” www.epa.gov/sciencematters/january2011/little-stream.htm; Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District, “Headwater Streams.”)
Winter is woodstove season at our house. Almost 40 years ago a GrandMa Bear Fisher woodstove took over heating my house. It was a heavy welded-steel unit lined with fire brick. When fully stoked up with my favorite (well-dried osage orange, AKA hedge or bodark) firewood, that baby could really pump out the heat. One of my great pleasures in life is backing up to a good woodstove and warming myself after a long work session outdoors in the cold. The infra-red waves that come off the stove make the whole space cozy. With those rays in mind we started calling our stove the macro-wave.
A second great pleasure is not hearing my furnace running, something a good woodstove can provide in spades. That Fisher stove moved with me to five different residences over the years until finally finding a permanent home in New Mexico. Today's house warmer is a 70s vintage Earth Stove insert in my suburban fireplace. It was modified to fit into the fireplace and some bricks were removed for the flue to work properly. In addition the four noisy propeller fans have been removed and replaced by a special housing and a dual squirrel cage fan that moves more air and is much quieter.
I also "lined" my clay-tiled flue with an eight inch stove pipe to reduce the excessive draw the 12-inch tile produced. With these modifications the old Earth Stove has kept our 1,300 square foot living area warm all night without the furnace running even with lows in the single digits. As a bonus I sift out the charcoal from the ashes (after they cool) and put that into my garden. I have too much ash to put on my garden and there are some concerns with applying wood ash continually so mine go to the landfill.
Heating With Osage Orange Firewood
The Osage Orange firewood comes from my family farm where the first settlers planted it in the 1840’s in rows for fencing, decades before barbed wire. They would slash the trees to encourage sprouts that were woven (yes, with those vicious thorns) according to the traditional English guild of hedging. We're practicing sustainable harvesting as our two households seem to make no difference in the stands of trees after my nearly forty years of cutting. We've been cutting 3 to 8 inch limbs and trees because the larger trees are grown together and very hard to split. Osage Orange sprouts vigorously (making it great for a living fence and) ensuring that our coppicing yields lots of the smaller limbs we prefer. They also make the best fence posts in the country.
This pergola is made from ten foot long straight 8-inch hedge posts. It will be there for a long time.
During the most recent ice age, mastodons ate the “hedge apples” and scattered the seed over much of the Midwest. With the retreat of the ice and demise of the mastodon, the range of Osage Orange is shrinking back toward a home turf in western Missouri. The leaves are a favorite of cattle, the wood is dense, slow growing and hot burning and I’ve grown to love the bark and shape of the trees, even with the thorns.
These days I don't hunt much but I love the afternoon sessions out in the fresh air cutting and loading firewood from the family farm. They say that burning wood warms you at least twice and I love them both.