Tag Archives: nature

Scouts of Honor

July 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lillian Henry heard something scratching on the rolled-down screen of her cabin door at Camp Catron. She cautiously peered out into the pitch black night. 

Screech…screech.

Lilly jumped when she saw glowing eyes. A lot of eyes. Raccoons? But raccoons couldn’t possibly be way up here. Lilly, along with four other Girl Scouts, were packed into a sky cabin. The wooden structure elevated them into the trees well above the ground and out of reach of raccoons.

“We are all going to die,” one girl freaked out, screaming.

Lilly couldn’t blame her. Lilly wanted gum. It always calmed her down. Her sister, Genavieve “Evie,” had what she needed, but she was far away. Outside was whatever had the glowing eyes and was scratching on their door.  Bravery or impulsiveness rushed through the then-12-year-old-girl.

“People don’t make good choices at 3 a.m., even Girl Scouts,” Lilly, now 14, recalls, laughing.

Along with a friend, Lilly walked out in the cool night air. She banged on the door and woke up her sister.

“I was having a scary dream about a bear eating me,” Evie says.

But she didn’t get angry at her sister and laughed it off.  Pawprints on the screens confirmed the girls’ fear in the morning. The sisters believed the raccoons wanted to share in the fun, be honorary members of the squad. This camaraderie and adventure are two of the reasons why the pair have been in Girl Scouts well into their middle and high school years.

Evie, a sophomore at Gretna High School, started as a Daisy Scout, skipped Brownies, and returned as a Senior Scout. She plans to become an Ambassador. Lilly started as a Brownie. The eighth grader at Gretna Middle School is now a Cadette with Troop No. 44640. They are on the fence about camping. It depends on the weather or the mosquitos.

“Mosquitos get you in places you never knew existed,” Evie says.

This doesn’t deter them from zip-lining, tubing, and other outdoor escapades. In fact, the entire Henry family bonds over their love of all things Scouts. Heather is the leader of Evie’s troop, No. 43855. Matt leads his youngest two sons’ Cub Scouts Pack No. 244. Nick, 12, spends his time in Troop No. 282 with the Boys Scouts.

“It’s definitely a shared experience,” Matt says.

The sisters, dressed in their badge-adorned vests, are adamant their Scouts rule. Boy Scouts focus more on camping while the girls’ program offers a diverse mix of fun and education. It doesn’t matter if someone is a girly-girl or a tomboy.

“It [Girl Scouts] balances the love of outdoors and spa parties,” Heather agrees. “Girls just like to have fun.”

Nick, though, enjoys pitching a tent surrounded by the fresh air of the wilderness.

“You hear the crickets. You look up into the night sky and see a ton of stars,” Nick says.

Nick tells stories around a blazing campfire set by his own two hands. Along the way, he is gaining knowledge about being a leader and speaking in front of a group.

Signature programs are offered for boys and girls all the way to senior year and includes such topics as college applications, conferences, or leadership skills. 

Lilly believes the educational opportunities and activities empower women. She made a car out of candy on Engineering Day and learned how to put together a toilet from the only female plumber in Lincoln. Scouting has opened her eyes to a world of possibilities for young women.

Evie loves to help the younger children and meet fellow “sisters.”

“They are full of energy and have these cute ideas. They don’t know the world will fight them every step of the way,” Evie says.

Evie was once that little girl, sitting around the campfire terrified of her first time without her parents. Only 7 or 8, she wanted to go home.

“Why don’t you have some s’mores,” a leader told her. She helped Evie through her fears while they munched on sandwiches of toasted marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers. Leaders like these have inspired Evie to become more extroverted.

Wendy Hamilton, a senior development director, met the sisters through the Girl Scout Advisory Group (GSAG) two years ago. The girls connected with Wendy’s gung-ho attitude, determination, and her love of all things pink. 

“Lilly is so positive and represents her age group in a mature way. Nothing scares Lilly, ever,” Hamilton says.

Except maybe raccoons at 3 a.m.

She says Evie is “always supportive of other girls.” Hamilton has seen her become more comfortable with herself. The sisters couldn’t be more different. Evie wants to be an engineer or a dentist. Lilly wants to be an English teacher or writer. The two still fight over things like socks, but the friendship is tight.

Volunteering, including selling those famous cookies, can stack on the hours, but it’s worth it.  The girls earned a trip to Washington D.C. to immerse themselves in history. The family works together to sell Christmas trees or popcorn. It can be chaotic with five children, but it works when the family can unite over shared interests.

Some days are wilder than others, but the Henrys are happy being together.


This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Front row, l-r: Nick, Johnny, and Daniel Henry
Back row, l-r: Heather, Genavieve, and Lillian Henry

Campfire Stories

July 2, 2018 by

Stories for Kids

Here are two campfire tales guaranteed to captivate those peering into the night sky or glancing over shoulders into the shadows…

The Fisher Stars

Constellations have fascinating histories, and different cultures have their own takes on the figures that can be seen in the stars. One of the more famous constellations is commonly known as the Big Dipper, but the Big Dipper wasn’t always known as such. In the early 1900s, a family might have called it the plough (a cultural remnant from England and Ireland). One of the more interesting explanations of the Big Dipper is this sacred story from the Ojibwa (also known as Chippewa):

Once there was a great man named Gitchi Odjig, and Gitchi Odjig was a great hunter. This was a good thing, because at one time on Earth, there was only winter. The world wasn’t completely unpleasant—if you worked hard, you could get enough; but all the days were cold, and all the days were icy. Your life was basically the freezing and thawing of your fingers. Gitchi Odjig’s skills served him well in this cold world.

Gitchi Odjig and his family had heard a story that explained that the sky they looked to every day wasn’t only a roof, it was a floor as well: a floor to a world in which winter was not present. The water in that world was free of ice. The trees wore green glossy things called leaves. You could walk during the day without a coat or hat. It was a beautiful story to hang on to, but even if people believed it, they didn’t think there was much anyone could do about the cold. Things were the way they were.

Gitchi Odjig’s son, however, didn’t think that way. He wanted to do something to make things better. He thought it would be wonderful if the warm world above somehow opened to this one. He held on to the idea.

Then, one day, Gitchi Odjig’s son was hunting, and he got a good bead on a squirrel. The squirrel stood up and spoke: “Please put away your arrows. There is something I think you’d like to know.”

Gitchi Odjig’s son was surprised, but he dropped his weapon and listened.

“You know and I know the constant cold we both live in is no picnic,” began the squirrel. “This frozen ground doesn’t yield much and is incredibly unforgiving. But there is something called summer, and it exists in the world above us. There is a weather that is warm and abundant. Instead of killing me, let’s work together to see how we can somehow bring that world here.”

The son took this information to his father, who felt that this was a sign and that it was time to hold a feast and discuss the matter. He invited all the animals he knew, and together they decided that they would travel to the highest mountain peak, and break through to the summer world.

They found the peak, and cracked through the top of the sky into the world above. They all climbed through. Gitchi Odjig couldn’t believe what he was feeling—the wind wasn’t bitterly cold; the trees rustled with beautiful drifts of leaves instead of clattering and whistling their bare branches; the ground was lush and green, and hummed with the music of insects; the water in the streams and rivers wasn’t cluttered and scabbed with ice. He was standing in the middle of summer.

But the people of that world did not appreciate these intruders, and they did not appreciate that the edges of the hole these intruders had climbed through had cracked and crumbled, and now summer (and spring, and fall) gushed down onto the earth in a giant torrent of colors, and life, and change.

They fixed the hole and started to chase Gitchi Odjig. In order to go faster, he turned himself into a fisher (which is a like a badger, or wolverine) and he was almost caught when he recognized that the people of this world were some of his distant relatives. He called on this connection, and convinced them to let him go.

Although he had gotten free, he could not break again through to the Earth. This saddened him, but beneath his sadness was a deep peace and satisfaction. He had brought the seasons to the Earth. He laid himself down at the scar where he had entered the sky, and was happy.

You can still see him laying there in the night sky, with the four points of the Dipper as the four points of his body, and the handle of the dipper his lithe tail.

The Cornfield Spider

You might have heard of the Jersey Devil, a beast that haunts the woods of New Jersey. That story involves a woman who was in league with evil spirits. She gave birth to a child which appeared normal at first, but then began to grow and change at awful speed, its head transforming into a goat’s head, its body becoming long and winnowed and serpent-like, and its back sprouting great leathery wings.

This area also has a legend like that. At the heart of this story is a beast that makes the Jersey Devil seem tame. This story involves a 12-year-old boy in league with shadowy forces:

One July night, a farmer who tended 500 acres west of Omaha saw his son at the edge of a field talking to a strange figure. The farmer called to his son, and the boy and the figure turned. The figure dissipated into thin air, but the boy ran, setting off up a slope into the knee-high corn. The father gave chase.

He again called to his son. The boy reached the top of the ridge and turned to look at his father. Then he disappeared down the other side. The father ascended. When the farmer was nearly at the top of the wide hill, something rose up from the other side—but it wasn’t his son.

It was a terrible thing with a long thin torso, great long arms, and wild long fingers that ended in thorny claws. It bent over long thin legs. According to the farmer, it was covered in wiry brown hair, and had an almost spiderlike body, with a small long head, like a human’s head that had been pulled in a taffy puller, then given sharp long teeth and wide lidless eyes. The farmer turned and ran. He could hear the thing loping after him. He made it back to the farmhouse, slammed and locked the door, and heard the wild scratching. Then, nothing.

He never saw his son again. However, a handful of people have seen a similar creature on summer nights, sometimes standing still and watching, sometimes giving desperate chase.


This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Seeking Counsel of the Wilderness in Summer

May 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Spencer Hawkins has encountered bears 24 times in his life.

One encounter happened when he woke up early to fish. Pausing to change his lure, he says, “something felt wrong. I turned over my shoulder, and from where I had just walked, a grizzly bear was walking into the water right at me.” With nowhere to go in deepening river, Hawkins called out for fellow camper Ben Bissell, who immediately came to the rescue, bedecked in nothing but boots, boxer shorts, and a shotgun. Then, the bear picked up a dead salmon from the riverbank and simply walked away.

The vast expanse of nature can be intimidating for some, but for Hawkins, it is his summer home. In the remaining nine months of the year, Hawkins is a counselor at Andersen Middle School. He enjoys telling his students about his travels, enriching their lives with his stories while imbuing them with a respect for nature and its beasts. 

Hawkins’ thirst for adventure started in college, when he and three friends began traveling to national parks in Utah and Montana to rock climb. One friend wanted to fish in the location of the film, A River Runs Through It, which gave birth to their new pastime. This gave way to a rock climbing trip to Devil’s Tower in northeast Wyoming.

The friends’ first big trip to Alaska was prompted by a friend about to enter medical school. They spent 35 days in the wilderness, relying on nothing but each other and their intuition for survival. Hawkins says, “We were really remote, so we had no help. You couldn’t call on your cellphone, we didn’t have anything that worked, so we just relied on each other, caught and ate a lot of fish, moved camp, got rained on, made a fire, and [moved to a] new camp.” Floating down the river for three weeks, the explorers ate only the plants available and fish they caught, which lead to noticeable weight loss.

Fishing has probably made them more attractive to bears. Once, while Hawkins and his travel companions were sleeping, they heard a rustling outside of their tent, and the sound of something rummaging around the surrounding brush. Hawkins, springing from his tent suddenly, saw a 500-pound black bear that had been rifling through the camper’s equipment take off through the forest, snapping trees in half like they were twigs. Luckily, Hawkins recalls, the bear hadn’t found their inflatable raft full of supplies down at the riverbank, which could have easily been destroyed by the massive beast, stranding them in the Alaskan wilderness with no way to call for help. 

Bears aren’t the only animal Hawkins has seen. While cooking freshly caught fish in the dark one night, Hawkins heard noise coming from the other side of the campsite. He shone a flashlight into the woods, where about 10 pairs of glowing eyes stared back at him from behind the foliage. A pack of wolves had come to investigate the culinary aroma. Following a one-minute stare-down that seemed like ten minutes, the winner of the fish supper was the humans.

Hawkins’ days of asking friends to run after a bear in their underwear may be behind him. These days, his trips tend to be more family-friendly, although he continues to frequent national parks.

“When you are rock climbing you have to focus only on what you are doing and the rocks and trees around you. The worries of the world, your everyday life, you don’t have time to worry about.”


This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Nettles, and Ivy, and Ticks—Oh My!

April 28, 2017 by

Christine Jacobsen likes to see parents taking their kids outside. “There’s more of a risk to keeping them inside,” she says, citing obesity and other problems. Jacobsen, the education specialist for the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resource District, often heads summer camp programs and outdoor field trips for students. Jacobsen says she took her own children outside frequently “from the get-go.” When her children were infants, her husband and she would take them on hikes in carriers. Her children now appreciate the outdoors. Jacobsen says that the more parents can get their kids outdoors and learning about their natural world, the better.

Many parents fear what dangers may lurk outside. Jacobsen says, “Here in Nebraska, especially in eastern Nebraska, there’s really not a lot to be worried about,” noting that any venomous snakes, such as rattlesnakes, are restricted to western Nebraska. However, one should learn to identify and avoid minor perils such as nettles, poison ivy, ticks, and mosquitoes.

Nettles

Jacobsen advises that nettles are a common plant hazard. She describes nettles as a woodland underbrush, about 2-3 feet tall, with green “sawtooth leaves.” She says they are invasive and often establish in disturbed places such as areas that have been mowed or tilled over. “They move in and take over an area,” she says. The bottoms of the leaves contain irritating hairs that cause redness and itching, she says. Jacobsen’s nettles remedy in a pinch: “put mud on it.” She also advises wearing long pants when in the woods.

Poison Ivy

Like nettles, poison ivy irritates the skin. Look for “mitten shaped” “leaves of three,” says Jacobsen. She also says poison ivy is typically seen in the woodlands, where it grows as a short, understory plant and as vines. “It’s the first vine to turn red in the fall,” says Jacobsen.

Reactions to poison ivy can include blisters, inflammation, and swelling. Jacobsen says the oil in the leaves is the cause of these reactions, and that the oil can be transmitted. Jacobsen’s remedy: washing the site to lift the oil. She advises seeking medical advice for severe reactions.

Ticks

Ticks are another nuisance. Jacobsen says that although the incidence of tick-spread lyme disease (typically by deer ticks) is low in Nebraska, hikers should be mindful of ticks. These arachnids are tear-drop shaped and have small heads. Dog ticks are generally larger and light brown with an “hourglass shape” on the back. “Deer ticks,” she says, “are like pepper—they’re tiny.” Use insect spray as a precaution. She acknowledges that many parents don’t want to put DEET on their children, but Jacobsen recommends it, noting that after being outdoors children should take a shower to wash it off and to look for ticks that may have attached.

Mosquitoes

Nobody likes mosquitoes, but they can be avoided. Jacobson advises using DEET to avoid them as well. She says mosquitoes are most active at dusk and dawn.Mosquito bites can be irritating. “Don’t scratch,” she says, noting that breaking them open can introduce infections. Jacobsen recommends cold packs and calamine lotion for bad bites.

Even with these minor hazards lurking outdoors, it is worthwhile to let children explore nature. They will form happy memories of hiking in the woods, playing in the mud, or catching their first fish, and develop an appreciation for active living.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Austen Hill

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Austen Hill knows that camping is an exciting, even vital, part of kids’ summers. He does his part to make sure the Papio NRD camps stay exciting.

“I like to do different activities that they may not get to do every day,” Hill says. “Many of the camps I’ve been to are kind of cookie-cutter in that they do they same activity each year, or each day.”

Hill’s camps include a variety of activities, and while the campers might see a snake each year, Hill makes sure to talk about different snakes so kids who may have come before learn something different.

It’s an amazing idea, especially realizing that Hill is a one-man show. He coordinates everything from spring registration to summer counseling.

He uses Pinterest and other internet sites to find fresh ideas and learn new things himself. Of course, many of his ideas come from his own life experiences. Hill grew up in West Omaha, in an area that included a cornfield and a wooded area where he ran around as often as the weather permitted, fishing, hiking, and pursuing other activities.

It’s that interest in the outdoors, and in learning new things, that drew him to this position at the NRD. While earning a degree in wildlife and fisheries, he thought he would pursue research as a career. A summer job at Fontenelle Forest showed him his true calling of education.

Now, Hill is the education assistant at Papio NRD. His school-year job is coordinating programs for students. He helped to produce 250 programs in 2016, working with schools four out of every five days during the academic year. Some schools come out for field trips to the NRD, while many other days Hill travels to schools.

“We’ve worked in a lot of inner-city classrooms,” Hill says. “Not every school can be outside … at least I can bring the environment to them.”

One of his favorite parts about working with kids is teaching them about animals. His menagerie at Papio NRD includes nearly 30 reptiles, an owl, and amphibians. It is one of the kids’ favorite parts as well.

“A lot of people talk about keeping kids’ attention,” Hill says. “I never have that problem.”

Kristen Holzer, a zoology and biology teacher at Millard West High School who has worked with Hill at camps and at her school, concurs.

“It’s amazing how much kids get excited,” she says. “They love hearing about the animals. He’ll let them handle them, so he passes around the snakes and things. Of course, the kids all get out their phones and take photos with them.”

At least, they take photos during school visits. The camps involve a lot of old-fashioned fun … spending time and energy hiking, kayaking, learning archery, and many other activities away from the often-ubiquitous screens.

“They can’t have cell phones,” Hill says. “We take those away first thing so the kids aren’t tempted to look at their phones while we’re doing other activities.”

While many parents want their kids to be connected, Hill says he finds the parents of his campers often embrace the idea of unobstructed time in the woods. The kids are always supervised, and the exposure to the environment gives them a chance to learn and grow.

Hill himself is part of the reason why NRD camps and programs are fun.

“I think what makes it so cool is that he has the ability to relate to young kids and high school kids,” Holzer says. “He has a really good skill set for his job. I enjoy working with him too.”

That ability to relate allows him to help kids confront their fears, and learn new things themselves.

“Kids are fearful of everything,” Hill says. “I’ll have kids who are scared of a tiny bug that can’t even fly. Then I’ll show it to them, and they get first-hand experience, and they learn this is not something to be afraid of.”

He also teaches environment classes, from tree planting to an annual Water Works field day for fifth-grade students. Papio-NRD also hosts the metro’s Envirothon Competition, an annual environment-themed quiz competition by the National Conservation Foundation aimed at high school students.

Conversely, his perspective becomes refreshed thanks to the kids.

“We get dull to things,” Hill says. “We step right over earthworms. Sometimes it takes a four-year-old to get awed by earthworms. That’s a good feeling.”

Visit papionrd.org for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Artist Erin Blayney

October 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For visual artist Erin Blayney, who grew up in the great outdoors, it’s all about light and space. She has plenty of both at her Old Market apartment that doubles as her studio.

Natural light from six large, south-facing windows cascades over her easel and houseplants. “Not only is that perfect for the type of lighting I need to do my best work, it’s healthy for my overall well-being,” says Blayney.

erinblayney2Exposed brickwork, high ceilings, and an open floor plan contribute to a sense of spaciousness. Extra-wide windowsills provide great perches for her collection of succulents.

“I love nature and the outdoors,” she says. “This apartment allows me to integrate that love into my living quarters, and not feel cramped or experience cabin fever.”

Her spot above Urban Abbey in the historic Windsor Hotel building puts her right in the thick of things. “The Old Market for me is very welcoming, unique, and nourishes a diverse group of people of all ages and backgrounds,” she says. “It’s urban yet has some aspect of a small neighborhood as well.”

A Florida transplant and Art Institute of Chicago graduate, Blayney creates figurative drawings and paintings. She previously worked as an art preparator for California museums.

Her mother preceded her to Omaha to be near a sister, and Erin followed. “My mom lives three blocks away from me, so it’s wonderful to conveniently meet for coffee or go for a bike ride together,” she says.

This self-described “people person” is drawn to the human form. She variously works from live models or photographs.

“Drawing and painting people, mostly gestural, seems to be pretty consistent for me,” she says. “It’s capturing the physicality of a person expressed through facial expression or movement. I love capturing the realness of their character, even if it’s subtle.”

Recently, Omaha restaurant mogul Willy Theisen commissioned her portrait of his granddaughter for his new Paragon eatery in Dundee.

When approaching a new work, she says, “I never know how it’s going to look, so it’s a little adventurous. If I stop thinking about what I’m doing and just let it flow, it comes out naturally. That ‘diving into it’ mindset is what I have to be in for the work to really evolve. It’s mysterious.”

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Blayney’s work is not all figurative. “Occasionally, I’ll do still life,” she says, gesturing to an in-progress oyster shell rendered in a swirl of pastels. She is contemplating an oceanic-themed series motivated by her love of the water, marine life, and nature.

“I was brought up on water. I swam in the Gulf of Mexico. So that’s in my bones.”

In Omaha, she has twice worked at Jun Kaneko’s studio (most recently in 2006 as a painting assistant). Of the celebrated artist, she says, “We had a good connection. He’s very quiet, polite, observant, receptive. He was very trusting of me. Like when I did some mixing of colors, pigments—he trusted my instincts. I’m not a ceramicist, but I felt in my natural element.”

She feels at home in Omaha, where she says, “The connections I’ve made are so important.” The same for her day job at Alley Poyner Macchietto, where she curates art shows. She admires the local art-culture scene.

“I feel the creative community in Omaha is very supportive rather than super competitive. The friends I’ve made here are very authentic, genuine, and loyal.”

She enjoys what the Bemis and Joslyn offer as well as how “smaller, contemporary, progressive galleries like Project Project and Darger HQ are pushing the envelope. I’m a huge fan of Garden of the Zodiac. 1516 Gallery is just gorgeous.”

In the spring of 2016, Petshop Gallery in Benson exhibited her portraiture work. She regularly shows in the Bemis Benefit Art Auction and had a piece in the October 28 show (she described the colorful abstract portrait as “a little mysterious looking”).

Blayney also contributed to the Old Market Art Project; hers was one of 37 banners selected (from nearly 300 submissions) to be displayed outside the Mercer Building as renovations followed the M’s Pub fire.

“It’s an abstract painting that took forever,” she says. “There’s a lot going on in it. Finally, it just came together. I collaborated with another artist in the process of painting it, and then I finished it.”

She sees many opportunities for local artists in Omaha, but there is room for improvement, too. “There’s definitely room to grow—I’d like to see even more galleries because there’s so much talent here,” she says.

Going into the fall, several commission projects were “consuming” Blayney’s time. Her projects come from anywhere and everywhere. “Lately, it’s been more people coming to me and asking either for a portrait of themselves or of a family member. I can be surprised. I’ve given my card to someone and then a year later gotten a commission. It’s unpredictable.”

Visit erinblayney.com for more information.

Encounter

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Under a Full Moon

March 3, 2016 by

The hiking trails at Platte River State Park are a jumble of twists and turns, ups and downs, forks and choices. Each junction—each meandering tendril—offers a different destination.

I know the waterfall is down this path, I recall thinking on a recent night hike with my young grandsons, Easton (6), and Barrett (4). The haunted tepee (haunted because I made it so in a campfire tale over s’mores the evening before) is up that trail. And the choo-choo trains that rumble past the edge of the forest what seem a million times a day are best viewed if we instead take that other branch of the trail over there.

The boys relied on Grandpa to know which direction to go, and a full moon lit the way for us in making navigation easy that night.

But the rest of life’s decisions won’t be so easy.

Easton and Barrett will have many choices to make in selecting the paths that will be their life journeys. My hope is that they will always make wise decisions at every junction, but I know that this is wishful thinking.

Along the way I hope that they learn humility, fairness, love, and compassion. I hope they fight for what they believe in. I hope they contribute to their community. I hope they learn how to make a slingshot. I hope they develop an appreciation of the arts and that which unites all of mankind. I hope they hate their first taste of alcohol. I hope they come to learn that peanut butter and salsa sandwiches are delicious. I hope that one day they will tell me about their favorite author. I hope they visit me when I am a broken-down pile of musty old bones. I hope they remember me when I am gone.

I hope they are strong, safe, healthy, and happy—and have families of their own someday that are the same.

I hope they are curious. I hope they find passion. I hope they reach. Reach for something. Anything.

Most of all, I hope they become exactly who they want to be and are comfortable in their own skin.

Like the trails at Platter River State Park, life for them will be a jumble of twists and turns, ups and downs. The footing will sometimes be treacherous and slippery, but I hope they always have a full moon to guide their way.

Moon2

For the Birds

November 26, 2014 by
Photography by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services

Fall is the perfect time to make a 40-minute road trip north to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge and get the family back to nature for a couple of hours. You may end up witnessing a pelican feeding frenzy, beholding the mind-boggling sight of tens of thousands of mallards flocking together, or even spotting a “convocation” of eagles. Every day brings new wonders, says Tom Cox, project leader for the refuge.

“This time of year is prime for seeing different wildlife on the refuge. All wildlife will become more visible but the main reason—the purpose of the refuge—is that it is an inviolate refuge for migratory birds,” Cox says. “The numbers and species will continue to diversify as we continue through fall.”

The refuge, established in 1958, is located in the migratory bird corridor of the Missouri River floodplain and serves as a habitat for resident, migratory, and endangered species. The grounds cover 8,365 acres in both Nebraska and Iowa, “a mosaic of floodplain habitats that includes wetlands, forest, bottomland forest, and grassland/prairie,” Cox says. Visitors can enter the grounds 30 minutes before sunrise and stay until 30 minutes after sunset year-round, and the visitor center
is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.

“For regular family visitors, weekends are a great time to come. If you have binoculars, you should bring those along,” Ashley Danielson, visitor services specialist, says. “And if you really want to see large concentrations of wildlife, early in the morning and later towards the evening is the best time; anywhere up until 10 or so in the morning and 3 or 4 in the afternoon.”

The DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge is one of the top-visited refuges in the region, but the welfare of the wildlife always takes precedence, so visitors won’t get as close to the fauna as they might expect, Cox says. The tradeoff is being able to observe migratory and nesting birds in an entirely natural habitat.

“It’s a natural area, so the wildlife should act accordingly. The national park system is set up with more of a philosophy that it’s for the people; our core philosophy is that a refuge is where wildlife comes first. We are a federal entity set up to protect species that are protected by the federal government,” explains Cox. “We manage the wildlife that is either threatened or endangered or migrates across state lines.”

Plus, it’s a natural outdoor classroom that has a lot to teach students through established, year-round partnerships with Blair High School; the West Harrison school district in Mondamin, Iowa; and Omaha Public Schools’ Edison Elementary.

“I think the education program is one of the best in the nation,” Cox says.

“We really try to take what they’re learning in the classroom and take it to our outdoor classroom,” Danielson adds. “We really try to make it so that coming to the refuge is not a field trip; it’s school outside.”

The staff strives to ensure that other school groups get a meaningful learning experience when they visit, too. That means less lecture time and a more hands-on, interactive experience.

“We offer a variety of things for our one-time visitors,” Danielson says. “We have a curriculum-based activity guide that the school can use inside the visitor center. With a lot of our programs now we’re trying to use inquiry-based learning, where the students have the chance to experience nature and study it from their own perspective.”

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Butterflies are Free

September 20, 2014 by

As a small boy growing up in the ‘60s I lived off of a steady diet of comic books. The action stories told on cheap pulp in cheaper ink placed me squarely in the midst of super heroes saving mankind from all manner of diabolical evil, but the advertisements found in those 25-cent comics had the same power to fuel the imagination of a young lad being raised in the Atomic Age.

X-ray specs would allow me to see straight through walls! Bodybuilding panaceas were available for 98-pound weaklings who were tired of getting sand kicked in their faces by beach bullies! Chattering teeth, slingshots, whoopee cushions, and piles of faux feces filled the pages.

Unbelievable! Incredible! Amazing! And all for the princely sum of $1.98!

None of the offers was more captivating than the very, very creepy ad for sea monkeys—the one showing wildly inaccurate cartoon depictions of a nuclear family of the creatures (little Sis Sea Monkey even had a bow in her hair)—that turned out to be nothing more than microscopic brine shrimp. The very notion of live animals being shipped through the mail was mind-blowing to me, so it was with no little trepidation that I learned all these decades later that my wife, Julie, had ordered a live butterfly garden for our grandsons, Easton (4), and Barrett (3).

Unlike the cheesy come-ons from the ads in vintage comic books (A seven-foot Polaris submarine for under two bucks? Really?), our butterfly garden turned out to be a real world adventure showcasing one of nature’s most astonishing transformations. The boys took charge of every step in the process of the care and feeding of the inchworms. Multiple readings of the kid-lit classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, acted as something of a field guide for understanding what we were witnessing as exoskeletons were shed before upside-down perches were established so that a miraculous metamorphosis could unfold before our very eyes.

Julie, a para-educator at Hartman Elementary School, skipped the summer session this year so she could care for the boys. The babysitting schedule meant that our little junior entomologists would get only Monday-Wednesday-Friday lab time with their chrysalide charges. The timing was such that they missed the emergence of all five butterflies, but nothing could dampen their enthusiasm as they raced to the butterfly cage upon each new arrival to see what new wonders awaited.

Being of a certain age, I fondly recall a hippie-era flick featuring Goldie Hawn as a free spirit who invades the world of a life-challenged neighbor. And just as the name of the film was Butterflies are Free, our little investigation into insectology would naturally culminate in a big-big-big butterfly release party.

Easton, after doing his squealing, tippy-toe, flailing-arms dance of nerding out the way only a small child can do, had the honors of unzipping the top of the butterfly garden. But he didn’t quite yet grasp the concept of “free.” All he wanted to do was bury his face in the opening for one last, close-up peek at the Painted Lady butterflies he and Barrett had nurtured along.

But a sense of serenity—or as close to the word as any 4-year-old can hope to attain—soon prevailed as he leaned back and watched as, one-by-one, a quartet of winged beauties fluttered onto the lawn. The last of the butterflies needed a little coaxing before making his jailbreak, and that one landed gently on Easton’s hand for a moment—just one split second—before darting away.

“Look, Easton,” Julie exclaimed. “He just gave you a butterfly kiss!”

The metamorphosis was complete. But there was also a parallel transformation playing out that day and all throughout the experience. The minds of young boys were going through a metamorphosis of their own as they were filled with a reverence for nature and the world around them.

And that’s pure magic in the eyes of a grandparent. Even more magical than sea monkeys.

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Walk of Life

September 19, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

We all have that one special relative in our lives whose powerful influence forever alters our being. Whether it’s an eclectic taste in music or a fondness for French Impressionism, that enthusiasm is contagious and makes us all unique in our proclivities.

In the case of Terry Price, whose decadent Fairacres garden was one of six featured in the 2014 Munroe-Meyer Garden Walk, that one person was her Great Aunt Ruby Hall.

“She was an old maid, as they say, school teacher in Boone, Iowa,” Price says. “We always loved her gardens.”

So when Aunt Ruby reached the ripe age of 82 back in 1987, she gifted her famous gardens, plant-by-plant, to Terry and her husband, Tom. “We were ecstatic beyond words. We took the two cars we had, a station wagon and a Honda Accord, and the two kids. There was barely enough room for us to sit in the cars to get back,” Terry says.

She describes an old photo of her Aunt Ruby. “She’s standing at the back of the station wagon. You can see it’s just loaded with plants. And she’s kind of waving. It’s cute.”

To prepare for the transfer, Aunt Ruby helped Terry and Tom compile a chart describing each plant. “We sat for the longest time one afternoon. You know, here’s a Phlox. It likes sun. They get tall. There’s pink and purple and white.”

They also received some plants from other relatives, as well. “I think the fact that there are family plants in here make it really special,” says Tom.

Nebraska’s clay-like soil posed a problem at first. So they took a tip from one of their horticulturist friends by adding playground sand on top of the garden.

 Nearly 30 years later, and thanks to the sand and decaying mulch, their soil is win good shape.

“It’s amazing,” Terry says, “how a grain of sand can work its way down through clay.”

Their garden features an intoxicating array of peonies, hostas, phlox, coral bells, sedum and daisies. Let’s not forget lady’s mantle, astilbe, hydrangeas and several ornamental trees. The list of species is endless, and those who are lucky to visit are treated to a gardener’s delight.

The Prices add their own surprising touches, like an old gate from a bank purchased at an antique store. A piece of a broken clay pot planted on its side peeks out from the soil like a Roman ruin. Their walkway features a bit of Omaha history with cobblestones and pavers from the Jobber’s Canyon historic district in the Old Market.

The Garden Walk is hosted annually by the Munroe-Meyer Guild, a group whose mission is to improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities through fundraising for the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Munroe-Meyer Institute.

The Price’s passion for gardening is simple.

“It’s just nice to be outside and dig in the dirt,” Terry says. “The old commune-with-mother-nature-thing.” 

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