A Remedy for Nature Deficit Disorder

Guest blogger Dawn Slack wrote the following piece about Letha’s Fund, a terrific program of Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS). The fund facilitates schoolchildren’s nature-based excursions and youth-led projects. I am always happy to hear the latest on Letha’s Fund, because my Dad, Donovan Miller, was instrumental in setting it up. Check it out, and lend your support in his name if you feel so led.

Guest Post by Dawn Slack, Youth Outreach Chair for Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS)

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Kids initiated a garlic mustard pull with the help of Letha’s Fund

Knowledge Is Power

An essential INPAWS role is teaching our youth the value of our natural world, and connecting them to nature. Our members understand how nourishing it is to watch the sun rise and set, to set your hand in a riffle and watch water course downstream, to witness a flower blossom, or glimpse a dragonfly skimming the water’s surface.

We understand that experiencing nature enhances our ability to reason and solve problems. We know how being immersed in nature relieves our stress and energizes us.

We need our youth to understand these things too.

School outing at Winterhaven Wildflowers and Monarch Preserve

School outing at Winterhaven Wildflowers and Monarch Preserve

We Save Only What We Love

Our youth have little opportunity to bond with nature. Bombarded with technology that, sadly, discourages outdoor activities, they need encouragement and assistance getting outside.

In 2013 Letha’s Fund enabled almost 2,000 youth to visit natural areas or participate in outdoor experiences. And over the past five years Letha’s Fund has facilitated approximately 6,800 youth to learn about our amazing natural world.

Cold Spring students dig in, planting 400 plugs of forbs and sedges

Cold Spring students dig in, planting 400 plugs of forbs and sedges

Help Us Empower More Youth

Help us invest in a healthy future for our environment, one full of diversity and natural splendor, understood and loved by its future caretakers. Take a moment to learn about Letha’s Fund, share the flyer, and spread the word about such a wonderful program that is possible because of your aid.

Learn about Letha’s Fund on our website or send us your questions at lethasfund@inpaws.org or call us. Remember, knowledge is power. So pass it along, and help us help the next generation get into nature.

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Harshman kids plant seedlings grown by Cold Spring School students with the help of INPAWS stalwart Donovan Miller (my dad!)

We will save only what we love;
We will love only what we understand;
We will understand only what we have been taught.

Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum

All photos courtesy of INPAWS.

Postscript: To read my dad’s invitation to INPAWS members to share their love of nature with children, click here and search on “Expertise Not Required.”

 

Like to Eat? Thank a Bee.

Kate Franzman, beekeeper and urban farmer

Kate Franzman, beekeeper and urban farmer

Kate Franzman is one of many fabulous people who keep the “indie” in Indianapolis. Concerned about the die-off of honeybees, she started Bee Public with a goal of increasing the number of honeybees in our city. The organization has placed hives at several urban farms, including one right in my neighborhood.

She’s a writer too, and her first-person story is featured in the current issue of Indianapolis Monthly. I generally don’t shrink from bees myself, but her description of capturing a swarm as a novice beekeeper is truly impressive.

Swarm on a fence post in summer 2013. Kate scooped them by (gloved) hand into a box before transporting them to their new home at South Circle Farm.

Swarm on a fence post in summer 2013. Kate scooped them by (gloved) hand into a box before transporting them to their new home at South Circle Farm.

Her passion for these pollinators leads her to give talks and workshops emphasizing their importance. “Since 2006, we’ve lost more than one-third of our honeybee colonies nationwide, due in major part to Colony Collapse Disorder, an alarming phenomenon that occurs when the bees mysteriously desert their hive and die,” she writes.

“One out of every three bites of food we eat was made possible by a bee. So no bees, no food.”

Kate and a few of the creatures on whom our lives depend

Kate and a few of the creatures on whom our lives depend

The unusually harsh winter killed all the bees in Bee Public’s hives, so Kate initiated a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to replace the honeybees. The response has been one of “unprecedented generosity,” prompting her to pledge to purchase replacement bees for other urban farmers and expand the network of hives.

On May 10 at Pogue’s Run Grocer, Kate will present Bees 101, an overview of how to create a bee-friendly backyard. And if you want to take it further, Bee Public offers consulting and hive setup for local restaurants, community gardens, and urban farms. There’s even a sponsorship option for people not in a position to have a hive. Check out Bee Public’s site and Facebook page!

All photos courtesy of Bee Public.

Portal to the Wider World

“An environment-based education movement―at all levels of education―will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”

―Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

A few weeks ago I had the chance to stop in on a special activity at Avon’s Hickory Elementary School. Jen Davies from Avon Outdoor Learning Center—a total rock star in the kids’ eyes—had come to talk minerals. By day’s end 120 children would make the connection between minerals and something they encounter every day, toothpaste.

In each hour-long session, Jen touched on Coke cans’ recyclability, Lunchables’ sodium content, Crest’s new products—and the broad appeal of minty-tasting toothpaste.

Discussing the sodium content of common foods.

Discussing the sodium content of common foods.

Throughout, Jen telegraphed the absolute awesomeness of minerals. These third-graders were right there with her.

This time of year, most of Jen’s work takes place in the classroom, but the Outdoor Learning Center is true to its name in every other season (and on some milder winter days).

Jen Davies leads a group of small learners on a winter outing to catch snowflakes and look at their shapes.

Jen Davies leads a group of small learners on a winter outing to catch snowflakes and look at their shapes. Photo courtesy of Avon OLC.

On seven acres belonging to the Avon School Corporation, students encounter the real-world stuff that makes science, math, and history come alive. Over 9,100 students, parents and faculty members visited the OLC in 2012-13, exploring two miles of trails and habitats spanning prairie, woodland, and wetland. A beehive and 7,000-square foot vegetable garden—tended by a garden club of 85 budding gardeners—offer further learning opportunities.

Back at Hickory Elementary, Jen divided the kids into groups and funneled them to one of four tables to make toothpaste. At one table they measured a half teaspoon calcium carbonate with a quarter teaspoon baking soda, according to the recipe. At the next, they could handle crystals, stones, and a Coke can in the “mineral museum.”

Geologist-in-the-making

Geologist-in-the-making

The final two stations were the most exciting: droppers to add the coloring and flavoring of their choice.

Adding flavoring with help from a volunteer.

Adding flavoring with help from a volunteer.

Would it be tutti-frutti, traditional mint, or maybe cherry, coco-lemon, or some other variation? And what color should it be? Tints of cherries, neon green, and ice blue bloomed in the paper cups.

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Blue proved to be a popular color.

Wrapping up, Jen told them, “Minerals are really cool—you might decide on a career using this, where you can do something like make toothpaste.”

When I spoke to her afterward about why she’s so passionate about her work, she told me she wants the children “to see themselves as part of this amazing whole.”

“We are all just circles within connections within circles. We need healthy soil and clean water and clean air to be able to thrive. The choices we make on a daily basis affect not only us but everything around us.”

Sadly, Avon OLC faced major budget cuts in 2011. Jen has been raising money and finding grants to pay her own salary. Late last year word went out that funding had dried up—without help, her position would be gone by this month. Since then several thousand dollars have been raised. It’s enough to keep her, for now, until the end of the school year, but the future is uncertain.

As Jen wrote me in an email, “It’s just so innovatively unusual for a public school district to have such a resource, we are giving it all we have to keep going.  When kids bring me their entire piggy bank, how can I not try everything I can think of?”

Several fundraisers are in the works to keep the center going. Visit the center’s site to see how you can help.

Update: After I posted this, Jen was awarded the 2013 Donald H. Lawson Award for Conservation Education from the Hendricks County Soil & Water Conservation District.

My Dad, Who Made the World Better, Take 3

Tomorrow, Feb. 2, used to be just Groundhog Day to me. Once I keyed into the seasonal festival days celebrated in ancient times, I knew Feb. 2 as Imbolc—a day to take a walk and look for the first signs of spring.

But now it’s forever associated with my dad, who left this world on Feb. 2, 2012. On that day the snowdrops bloomed and the sandhill cranes flew low. I like to think that his spirit took stock of those harbingers of spring—and that they released him to fly away.

It broke Dad’s heart to leave us, and he hated to leave all his wonderful volunteer work behind. Since his retirement he’d launched all kinds of projects. Possibly the hardest thing to give up was his connection with schoolchildren.

You can't see Dad but you can see how the kids looked at him.

You can’t see Dad but you can see how the kids looked at him.

It all started when he began tending the grounds of Cold Spring School, the environmental education magnet, just because it looked like somebody ought to.

Dad doing what came naturally.

Dad doing what came naturally.

Because he took an interest, he eventually found himself in stewardship of the school’s greenhouse. This was a dream come true for him. (I remember many times in my childhood, he would talk about his dream of putting up a greenhouse.) His passion made it easy to engage the classes who came in for units on seeds, soil, and other such things.

Dad showing grade schoolers the wonders of aloe in the greenhouse.

Dad showing grade schoolers the wonders of aloe in the greenhouse.

After he got sick, when confronted with kudos for his volunteering, Dad liked to say, “I was just having fun.”

Having fun on a wet day at Cold Spring School.

Having fun on a wet day at Cold Spring School.

Just looking at these photos again, I’m swamped with sadness.

No one can fill the void he left. But maybe by having our own brand of fun, we can each take up a tiny spot of it. As the days get imperceptibly longer, what can we bring to the earth, to each other?

Photos courtesy of Friends of Cold Spring School.

My Dad, Who Made the World Better

Father’s Day meant a pilgrimage to a few places special to my Dad, who died last year. His handprints are all over this town, but I chose a couple places with personal meaning:

1. Holliday Park, down by the river. Because he used to take the grandkids out into the water with a seine to see what they could catch. Also, he kayaked that river many a time. (Once with me. I was not in the best shape then, and he ended up tying a rope to my kayak and towing me into the wind, all the way back to our put-in place.)

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The water is not this muddy and high in my memories of Dad taking the grandkids out. All the rain lately.

2. Holliday Park Nature Center. Just to visit his brick.

We honored Dad with this walkway brick at Holliday Park Nature Center on his retirement.

We honored Dad with this walkway brick at Holliday Park Nature Center on his retirement.

3. A pocket park where he and I picked juneberries. Sweet memory. I picked yesterday in his honor.

In truth, Dad is ghosting about the edges of nearly every blog post I write. I see him in the anonymous man in the Keystone Pipeline protest photo—he used to wear that kind of cap, and he marched for important causes. I see him in Keith Johnson, sharing his passion for the natural world.

And I see him in David Forsell, facing death too soon, knowing that what counts is giving back.

A few months before he died, he received the Hoosier Environmental Council ‘s Land Steward of the Year award for his volunteer work (though “work” is a misnomer—he often said, “I’m just having fun.”) A sampling of his fun:

  • He started a multi-year restoration project to return Indiana State Museum’s Turner Gardens to Indiana native prairie (still going on now).
  • At Cold Spring School, he was “chief gardener” and caretaker of the greenhouse, introducing grade schoolers to the marvels of the garden.
  • He took student groups on rafting trips, and led them on tours of natural places.
  • He spearheaded Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society’s Letha’s Youth Outdoors Fund, funding field trips to get schoolchildren out into nature.
My dad at the kitchen sink. You can't tell but he's wearing his favorite "Life is Good" Shirt, the one with the dog wearing the backpack.

My dad at the kitchen sink in 2010. Strong as an ox. You can’t tell but he’s wearing his favorite “Life is Good” shirt.

Now and then my mail brings evidence of his impact, and it always makes me happy and sad. Two examples:

From Friends of Cold Spring School: The fifth-graders have adopted the prairie he led students in planting around “Mr. Donovan’s Greenhouse.”

From Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society: At Dad’s urging, a Gary-area nonprofit working with urban youth applied for funds to visit the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore—a wild place largely unexplored by these kids (who live less than a mile away!). The funding allowed 40 young people to experience the beauty of this national park.

I remember when he met these folks and encouraged them to seek funding. It was at the Hoosier Environmental Council luncheon where he received the award. He was quite frail by then, but still networking, still advocating for kids and nature. It didn’t matter that the title of INPAWS “Youth Outreach chair” had long since passed to someone else.

That’s my Dad to a T. Sure do miss him.

Addendum: I forgot to include this recent piece published in the Boiler Journal, describing a day soon after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.