Three Hours North

I was born the same year as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

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Oh of course, we both were in existence long before this birth, but 1966 was when our current recognized incarnation began: When my soul consolidated into this body, and the Dunes were designated as National Lakeshore.

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I’m only three hours south of this incredible place, something I allowed myself to forget for way too long. Recently we became reacquainted. Exploring the trails and shores for a couple days, I felt restored.

Walking the beach you might see trees pressing down across the sand and into the water. The brushy ones make it look like you can’t get past, till you arrive and find: Here you can walk under the tree, or here you can go up higher on the sand, or here just hoist yourself over. Or go a little deeper than you mean to, out in the water.

Or here maybe you just want to savor standing on a downed tree and feeling its smooth skin with your feet. The water doing its dauntless polishing, tempting a toe.

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To the east or west from the beaches lie the trappings of industry. Lakeshore and I were both born under the shadow of human folly, which continues still to this day.

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But there is peace even in the smokestacked encroached-upon existence. (Not-so-fun fact: Lead pollution, like that of the steel mill described here, fed into my health problems a dozen years ago, when high levels of both lead and mercury were found in my body.)

Still: These waves. Their power feels truer than anything. Sitting here you can’t hear industry, you can’t hear vehicular hum, or any of the ubiquitous noises of civilization that just.never.stop.

The waves are like breaths—sometimes slowing, sometimes racing each other but constant, the sound of moist, fluid, rhythmic life. Every single wave and breath its own experience.

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The answers are within, say the sages. Sit still long enough and you will find your answer. Or at least find a newer more pregnant more potent version of the question.

Sit still long enough and you contact something like eternity, the thing that goes on long before and long after this small understanding of a life.

A Biodiversity Birthright

Last week’s Indiana Master Naturalist class has put me into a state a little bit like that dream … the one where you suddenly find a whole section of your house that you didn’t see before. “This was here all this time?”

Since the week-long intensive ended, I’ve been noticing things that previously weren’t on my radar. I’m hearing (sometimes identifying) distinct birdsongs that had largely been a sort of background chitter-chatter. Who knew there were indigo buntings around here? I had never heard of the Kentucky Coffee Tree, which I’ve seen on my walks (if my budding tree ID skills are on target).

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Sunfish. Photo by Sara Long.

On one particular day we saw fish in Lawrence Creek that were simply stunning, and a green frog to boot. Now I’m curious what wonders lie under the surface of the creek I cross every morning on my rambles.

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Green frog. Photo by Sara Long.

It’s common for Hoosiers to agree with people who denigrate our state. We seem to come at the bottom of every list measuring quality of life, particularly when it comes to environmental issues.

But: It turns out that my state is actually pretty fascinating, geographically and ecologically–with incredible (often unsung) biodiversity.

That’s largely because of a thing called the “ecotone.” This is a place where two edges overlap, such as woodlands and wetlands. More species live in these spaces, naturalist Amanda Smith told us.

And Indiana, I learned, is lousy with edges. We have the Great Lakes edge in the north. Eastern Seaboard forests terminate in Indiana. Prairies had their eastern edge in Indiana. And the swamps of the south begin in Indiana.

Finally, we have glacial edges from retreating Ice Age glaciers. (I did learn this fact as a child as the reason for the way Indiana turns hilly south of here.)

I now have a long list of Places to Visit in my Own State. Part of being a naturalist is simply appreciating the natural world. Another part is sharing wonder, to get other people out and appreciating alongside us, so they can have their own epiphanies.

Another part is dirtying up the hands. A host of volunteers and organizations and nature preserves are working to conserve our ecological heritage—to support the coevolving native plants and bugs that form the foundation of life (not to mention beauty). So much habitat has been lost to development. The wilder corridors are so fragmented and invasive species so pervasive that many native species are imperiled.

The good news is that we can be part of habitat restoration in our own places. Our yards can become “our largest national park,” urban tree advocate Holly Jones told us, quoting native plant proponent Doug Tallamy.

Because, as Holly put it, “if you think your life is independent from the black-capped chickadee*, you are wrong.” (These perky little birds are on the decline in many areas.)

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Bumblebee on milkweed. Photo by Sara Long.

“Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. Every time we force a species to extinction we are encouraging our own demise.”

—Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home 

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Milkweed bug. Photo by Sara Long.

A long time ago, the elderly mother of a friend questioned me about my vegetable garden. “Do you have a lot of BUGS in your garden?” she said, and all but shuddered at the word BUGS. It was sort of comical, but sad too.

Now I want to plant a native garden that will unapologetically attract “bugs” to support the biodiversity that is Indiana’s birthright.

*A classmate just informed me that Black-capped Chickadees are in northern Indiana. South of Lafayette we have Carolina Chickadees.

All photos courtesy of my hugely talented classmate Sara Long. Check her photography website out, or follow her on Instagram at @longacres.

Preserving Timeless Arts

Last weekend I had two encounters that felt like variations on a theme.

One was at Kheprw Institute, where we were discussing Charles Eisenstein’s book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.  Kheprw co-founder Imhotep Adisa suggested that our over-reliance on technology compromises our more intuitive ways of communicating and knowing.

“Reality is not limited to that one way of knowing,” Im said, speaking of scientific inquiry and measurable phenomena. (Besides: Who determines what’s worth being measured? Who sets up the arbiters, institutions, and gatekeepers of scientific findings?)

It’s definitely possible to communicate instantaneously without benefit of a text. Many of us have had that experience from time to time. And for those of us in the energy work arena, merging with someone else’s energy field is a skill we cultivate.

But the more we rely on texting to do the work of instantaneous communication, Im suggested, the more we atrophy our native abilities.

Speaking for myself, I know that distracting myself through technology can seriously gunk up my intuition. To be quiet and still enough to sense information differently, I have to spend time away from the addictive barrage of information and communication.

Later it struck me that Im’s words had their parallel in an earlier encounter, with a friend who’s devoted to preserving another dying art: traditional willow weaving. Viki Graber, a fourth-generation willow basket weaver, spent the weekend constructing a living sculpture at Salamonie Reservoir.

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The tunnel will grow thicker and more elaborate with time.

We drove up to see her, and she told us about the project. She received a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to build living willow structures at three parks this year.

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To make her baskets and sculptures, she grows her own willow bushes—14 different species!—on her property in northern Indiana. For this project though, she harvested wild willow shoots from along the lakeshore. She planted these in the ground about eight inches deep along the muddy bank of a pond, where they should take root. She bent the willow into a tunnel, complete with round windows.

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Me and my old friend Viki

For the next few years she will come back to weave new growth into the structure. A true collaboration.

Viki is passionate about sustaining traditional folk art in general (and willow-work in particular). She wants to keep these skills alive and pass them on to the next generation, and she loves to teach others.

As a functional artist, Viki makes beautiful objects that people want to use. Surely we all have the aptitude to create beauty for each other, whether that’s through physical creations or acutely attuned knowing.

Penney Peirce, in her book Frequency, suggests that we are all equally sensitive, with the very human ability to feel and sense and know things instantly. It’s just that some of us are consciously sensitive, and others unconsciously so.

I would add that some of us, like Viki and Im, are consciously invested in preserving useful, beautiful, timeless arts that the dominant culture tends to devalue.

What traditional, lost, or dying arts/skills call to you? Where do you make your mark in preserving ways that aren’t supported by our acquisitive go-go-go culture?

Made of Sunshine

I first heard about Healthy Hoosier Oils when shopping at my food coop, Pogue’s Run Grocer. As a local food enthusiast, I was thrilled to find out that there was a new local alternative for culinary oils. I didn’t know much about how the product was made, but after I took home my first bottle of sunflower oil, I knew it was delicious. Seriously flavorful.

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Once you’ve tried it, you will crave its buttery flavor.

I ended up buying bottle after bottle of sunflower oil as we drizzled it on our salads all through spring and summer. And popcorn popped in the stuff is amazing. It’s great for stir-frying too. Then there’s canola oil, which has a more neutral flavor and a higher smoke point.

Eventually I suggested to my Farm Indiana editor that we do a story on the Boyer farm in Converse, Indiana. That’s where the seed crops are raised and turned into this fantastic staple of my dinner table.

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Sunflower fields forever.

Yes, this is the amazingly fortunate position I find myself in at this stage of my life: I get hooked on a particular foodstuff, and get to go visit with the folks responsible for it. I write a story about them and collect a (smallish) paycheck.

I met Craig Boyer, the 81-year-old patriarch of a family that manages to stay tightknit and geographically close in an age where that is rare. (All of his and wife Nancy’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live within just a few miles of where the above photo was taken.)

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Craig Boyer with a section of the filtration system for the culinary oils.

The land has been in the Boyer family since 1848, farmed for six generations and counting. The culinary oil enterprise is fairly recent, and arose partly out of Craig’s health crisis. He had to semi-retire after a major cardiac event, and he was supposed to watch his diet. His sons Mark and John experimented with converting their biodiesel operation into culinary oil production, in part because of the market—but also because their dad loved his fried foods.

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Brady Bolen bottles and labels the freshly pressed oil.

I was pleased to hear that the oils are free of solvents and additives. I actually was a bit clueless about how conventional oils are extracted (through a nasty-sounding process involving hexane and high heat). Healthy Hoosier Oils go through a cold press.

The oil crops themselves grow in a minimally-tilled row-crop setup, in rotation with the corn, soybeans, and wheat that the Boyers also raise. “We use zero chemicals,” Mark told me, speaking of the canola and sunflowers. I asked about weed control: “It actually is relatively easy in that both canola and sunflowers eventually will canopy. When they canopy, they cover the ground and protect themselves from invasive weeds to a certain extent.”

Honeybees are key to the Boyers’ strategy too—they partner with a local beekeeper to make sure that honeybees are working their magic on the crops.

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Honey from Bastin Honey Bee Farm of Knightstown is sold onsite along with the oils.

 

I enjoyed my tour of the operation that July day, even the sweltering 1940s-era corn crib (repurposed to store the oil crops). Here’s the writeup for Farm Indiana, if you’d like to read more. Locally, you can find Healthy Hoosier Oils in Kroger stores, Pogue’s Run Grocer,  and other independent grocers.

 

Walking As One

Walking is a time-honored way to meditate, ruminate, and otherwise seek clarity. Walking a labyrinth gives each footstep even more meaning. And walking in community brings added sweetness to the experience.

On World Labyrinth Day, May 7, people all over the world gathered to “walk as one at 1” in the afternoon. The idea behind this annual event, according to the Labyrinth Society, is to “create a wave of peaceful energy washing across the time zones.”

The Rivoli Park Labyrinth hosted a potluck and group walk, representing the local community on a day when some 200 public events took place across the globe. An intermittent drizzle didn’t keep us from sharing soup and salad while we made new connections and renewed old acquaintanceships. At 1 it was time to drift into the circle of the labyrinth as we each felt ready.

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Walking the labyrinth as one

I had never participated in a communal labyrinth walk before, and I found it quite lovely to share the labyrinth with others. Each in our own space and yet connected, some chatting, some silent. Sometimes meeting on the path and clasping a hand as we passed each other with a smile. At one point I found myself walking next to an acquaintance who gave off motherly vibes, and I impulsively decided to take her hand until our paths diverged.

When I enter the sacred space of a labyrinth, I like to set an intention or ask a question. My intention for this particular labyrinth walk: To take nourishment from all quarters. I was feeling depleted after a busy week and several short nights. The meal we shared was one source of sustenance, and I wanted to see if I could also be nourished by the air, the rain, the soil, the plants, and the beings around me, both human and nonhuman—and the movement of walking itself.

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The boulder in the center is a perfect resting spot.

Afterwards, I did feel restored.

What makes this labyrinth unique is the fact that it is a pocket park situated on a vacant lot in the heart of the city, a public space developed and managed by volunteers. Lisa Boyles, Rivoli Park’s founder, strives to bring people together through art, so the park has numerous community-made art pieces displayed. (Note the paintings on the fence in the photo above.)

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Walkers can record their thoughts in a log book at the start/end point of the labyrinth. Lisa sees the logbook as a way to encourage reflection and sharing, and to build community among solitary walkers as well.

In fact, creative expression is built into the design of the labyrinth itself.

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The “pole of possibility”

According to Lisa, the pole at the entrance to the labyrinth marks one of three “focus points” in the labyrinth. Volunteers from 2015’s Indy Do Day (citywide service day) decorated the bricks. “The poles at the three focus points,” she says, “were handmade expressly for the purpose they are serving now as delineators of the focus points. This tall one at the entrance of the labyrinth I like to call the ‘pole of possibility.’”

In keeping with the art theme, Lisa invited the “Seeds of Common Sound” music bus to take part. On board the bus, we could add to communal art pieces, play instruments, and get inspired.

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Communal art on board the music bus

Care for creatures is another role of this labyrinth, as it was just designated a certified wildlife habitat. Here is our little group with the plaque.

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I plan to visit Rivoli Park often over the growing season to watch the plant, animal, and insect life flourish there. And to seek nourishment for my soul in this place of quiet reflection.

Living Proof

Yesterday at Rivoli Park Labyrinth, I met up with a riotous party of plants, insects, and birds.

The park, which formed on a vacant lot thanks to community organizer Lisa Boyles, has gotten overgrown this rainy summer—but it is also a haven for life.

"Queen Anne’s Lace provides beneficial nectar to insects during this dry part of the summer when they don’t have many options. Caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves, bees and other insects drink the nectar, and predatory insects, such as the Green Lacewing, come to Queen Anne’s Lace to attack prey, such as aphids" according to Chiot's Run. (Click photo for more.)

“Queen Anne’s Lace provides beneficial nectar to insects… Caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves… and predatory insects come to Queen Anne’s Lace to attack prey,” according to Chiot’s Run. (Click photo for more.)

Some plants we call weeds and others we call ornamentals. Some we consider natives, wildflowers, edibles, or another elevated status. Some we designate as invasive, others as desirable.

What I realized yesterday: These divisions are more important to humans than the rest of nature, which seeks its own balance.

The plants called “weeds” are the ones we pull out. Still, the grasshoppers, bees, and spiders find food and shelter on plants of all stripes. They are the epitome of nonjudgment, our guides in an insectile anti-labeling initiative.

Friendly pollinator

Friendly pollinator

So often I am quick to judge something good or bad.

Just now I went to strike that sentence, gauging it too trite! As testament to my new commitment to allowing things to be messy and imperfect, I am leaving it there.

Lisa and I talked about this very thing: In my writing, I declared my intent to finish my book while letting go of the need for it to be “perfect, balanced, and comprehensive.” Lisa swept her arm toward the “weedy” labyrinth and said, “Here’s living proof that a project doesn’t have to be perfect—just look at it!”

What I saw: voluptuous plants abuzz with happy pollinators. Abundant living entities in ongoing conversation, all encircling the glorious hibiscus at the center. The idea of perfection doesn’t really apply when we’re partnering with life, does it? So it can be with writing.

I told Lisa that the labyrinth didn’t have to reach some ideal in order to be a marvelous contribution to the community. Uh, hello. Maybe I should write that down and stick it on my computer monitor.

Repeat after me: We don’t have to reach some ideal in order to be a marvelous contribution!

Deep Learning Continues at Avon OLC

Guest blogger Jennifer Davies updates us on her work at Central Indiana’s Avon Outdoor Learning Center. We first posted about this phenomenal program last February, in Portal to the Wider World.

Guest post by Jennifer Davies

For those of you who have been following me and my stubborn refusal to walk away from my job teaching at and coordinating the Avon Outdoor Learning Center since our funding was cut in 2011, I have some good news! I first should point out that Carol Ford and I basically made up this position when I stumbled across the place, back when I moved to Indiana in 2006…and they let us, just to see what we had in mind.

We had just planted the garden (built with grants & volunteers), and hosted more than 7,000 students for the year, when a town referendum failed and the district had to shave $9 million from its budget. Since then I’ve relied on grants, fundraising and donations for my salary. Last year we served 9,100 children with programs designed to supplement classroom instruction with active, outdoor activities.

Planting garden at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

Planting garden at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

We’ve had fantastic community support, with students literally giving me their piggy banks and tooth fairy money. A new Superintendent is behind us. We have a rock solid belief that this patch of earth shows how public education can inspire lifelong learning—and a deep connection to one’s community. (And by “community” I mean local and global, human and otherwise!)

With the current administration turning over every rock, squeezing every penny, and encouraging this community to urge changes in recent school funding legislation, positive change is afoot: The district will be able to hire 20+ teachers to ease classroom sizes, and they are going to fund two-thirds of my position. I’ll still need to raise the remaining one-third, again looking to this community for their help in doing so.

A career path I’d recommend? Probably not. Job satisfaction? HIGH. I had a kiddo tell me two days ago that he tried three new foods (radish, green onion and spearmint) during his visit and he liked them all. Can you test that? Nope. But I’d be willing to bet the experience will be with him for a lifetime and might even help shape the way he looks at the world around him and his place in it.

Harvest time at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

Harvest time at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

For those of you who have mixed your blood, sweat and tears with mine over the past few years—couldn’t have done any of it without you. For my family, for putting up with me and my loopy path—BIG Love. And for those cheering from a distance—Thanks! Can’t wait to see what next year brings!

If you need me, or have an idea for fundraising, I’ll be in the garden…

Note: To contribute volunteer time, fundraising ideas or donations to Avon OLC, email olc@avon-schools.org

Photos courtesy of Avon Outdoor Learning Center.