Yesterday I got to enjoy the sun-dappled loveliness of Brower Lake Nature Preserve with a Belmont family consisting of a mom, dad, and 3 adventurous children. We met at the preserve’s entrance where a small meadow of rocket flowers and staghorn sumac are thriving. We entered the woods and immediately I could see the signs of joy as the kids’ faces lit up with wonder. I looked through their eyes as if this woods was new to me, and I appreciated anew the flickering shadows of oak leaves as the early evening sun shone between the trees. At one point, C., the 13 year old boy, paused and whispered reverently, “Oh! This is so beautiful!” My heart just filled at his ability to still be touched by nature’s magic, even at such a transitional age.
I opted to take them across what I call the ridge trail, which lends itself to conversation about forest management. We observed where soil erosion had happened and I pointed out how the West Michigan Land Conservancy had rerouted the trail in an effort to minimize erosion on the steep slope of a hill. Another sign of forest management that sparked questions were trees that had a strip of bark cut out of them all the way around the trunk. I explained that this technique is called, “girdling,” and it is a quick and easy way to kill a tree within just one year. I admit that this makes me sad. The trees that were girdled were those that were either invasive or non-native. Some trees and logs showed signs of having been burnt recently. This is due to the use of prescribed burns which are used to thin some of the underbrush and help with enriching the soil. The management of this forest is focused on restoring it to an oak barrens, a rare ecosystem in Michigan. This year the forest has shown dramatic changes since the burn 2 years ago. With more sunlight there are more berry bushes already loaded with hard, green berries.
Along the ridge trail there are two, huge, old, pine trees that frame a sad picture of the remains of the only sizable beech tree that used to live in this woods. The kids noticed its remains and I briefed them on the beech scale disease that is killing these beautiful trees. Changing the topic and sensing that these were some kids with wonderful imaginations, I showed them how the two, big pines form a sort of doorway and I told them how kids in past Woods and Wetlands groups have been certain they are a portal to an alternate world. A. marched right through them with no hesitation. But to return to us, she went around the trees, which led to an excited discussion about whether she left a version of herself behind in the alternate universe! I was right. These were kids with living and active imaginations, just as I had at their age!
We took our time getting to the wetlands, stopping to notice and wonder about various sights and sounds. Along the way we sniffed sassafras, tasted sorrel leaves, and nibbled on tiny, green, wild apples. Once we arrived at the swamp, I showed the kids the “Vine Playground,” a well-loved area where wild grapevine holds tightly enough to the trees that kids and adults can swing and bounce on it without fear of it breaking. A. was excited about trying more edible plants, so I showed everyone the plentiful wintergreen and we chewed on some of the new leaves of it.
I loved wading into the swamp with C. (once he’d given up on trying to get past the thorny, wild, rose bushes that mingle with swamp blueberry bushes.) After demonstrating how to use the net to scoop from beneath the water and gently dumping my findings just on the edge near the water, the kids were excited to see the tiny crayfish-like creature that was found wiggling amongst the decaying leaves. I popped it into my 2-way magnifying viewer, along with some water, and we all took a close look. It looked just like a tiny lobster. A. asked whether they are good to eat. I laughed and told her I had never tried. One of the kids carefully returned the tiny lobsters to the water once everyone had a look.
This was an extended session as the family had opted for a 2-hour time frame, so we were able to take our time and enjoy everything we encountered. On our way back we took the back loop near what I call “The Labyrinth,” and each of the kids took turns getting inside of “my” tree, imagining what it might be like to become part of a tree. When we reached the tree portal again, everyone was suggesting what might happen when A. returned to the alternate universe where she may meet a clone of herself! It was such fun to spin out these fantastical imaginings with this delightful trio of children!
I really enjoyed this family and I am so glad that I will be getting multiple opportunities to continue taking them on nature adventures!