Dirt Under Our Fingernails

A post hole digger isn’t a tool that’s used every day by most folks, and, as such, it is typically used with one of the appropriate adverbs: strenuously, arduously, and laboriously are all commonly associated with that particular implement of excavation. With my wife and me, though, “spontaneously” can be added to the list.  

It almost always starts with a book, in this case Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children by Sharon Lovejoy.  Books lead to ideas, ideas lead to pondering, pondering leads to discussion, discussion leads to a decision, a decision leads to a trip to the home improvement store, and that trip leads to a post hole digger.  Now, my wife isn’t one to shirk away from work (on the contrary), but my greater size usually means I get to do the digging.  And I love it.

We’ve always gardened, with varying degrees of success.  Houseplants really aren’t our thing, but we consider our yard space to be an extension of our living space. Our style is “eclectic,” which means a little of this, a little of that, and someday we hope to tie it all together.  We’ve got our chickens and their coop, we’ve got a few blueberry bushes and pecan trees, and we’ve got a lot of shade because of the trees we’ve planted over the years.  We’ve got a nice side porch and a growing number of places to sit in the yard.  And, as of a few years ago, we’ve got grandchildren. Grandchildren in whom we hope to foster a love of the outdoors and all things natural.  Thus, the post hole digger.  

Gardening with chickens requires a fence, either to keep them in or out, depending on the situation and one’s perspective.  So yesterday, racing against the oncoming rain, we started the fence that will soon surround a garden of dreams (My wife, Lisa, walked around yesterday singing the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams”).  Dreams of ours, and, we hope, dreams of those little kidlets, as my daughter calls them.  A garden with sunflowers to sit amongst, a garden with pumpkins to watch and measure as they swell, a garden with flowers turning their faces toward the Alabama sun.  A place in which we can plant hopes for the future.  A place where, with a nod to Wendell Berry, we can know the peace of both the wild and the cultivated.

All that said, my coffee cup is empty, so it’s time to get back out there.  I give thanks for the opportunity.


Thank you, Betsy Hubbard, for these words in your post announcing this week’s Slice of Life: “There is always something in our mind or on our heart that we can write about.”  This slice is just that: What’s in my mind and heart this day.

When I stop to think about it, the best example of personal growth I’ve seen since committing to writing on a regular basis is my ability to recognize the stories that go on around me all the time.  They’re everywhere, which, I suppose, is the whole idea behind the “Slice of Life” story challenge.  We live it–now we need to write about it and share our stories.

This week has been no exception.  I’ve experienced big stories that practically write themselves: Exploring wood firing kilns with my artist friend, taking my granddaughters (a wealth of stories, they are) to see the dinosaur exhibit at the local botanical garden, and surviving as a bachelor with my wife out of town are all worthy of writing about.  I’ve experienced countless small stories: Helping a friend through a minor crisis, purchasing a trailer through Facebook messenger, and any number of student stories all come to mind.  Okay, buying the trailer sight unseen might be a big story.

None of those, though, are resonating with me this week.  I wish they were…really, I do.  My mind, it seems, is spinning and I can’t get it to slow down (now that I think about it, wrapping up a school year might have something to do with this…).

As I go on, this isn’t a political post, though it has been inspired through the events of the last week.  Please don’t read too deeply, looking for a position on my part.  This isn’t the place for me to share that sort of thing.

I remember when I was a young junior in college.  Young, as in my late thirties (teaching is a second career).  I was floored by being introduced to the concept of critical thinking and critical literacy.  The ideas weren’t new, and I believed I’d always tried to practice both of them (don’t we all?); what was amazing to me is that they were actually things–things that some people did, things that some people didn’t do, and things that needed to be taught.  Objectivity, people, objectivity.

In the nearly 15 years since I’ve had this awareness, I’m regularly blown away by just how difficult it is for most people I encounter (me included, I’m sure) to think and consume information critically.  It’s hard to be objective; it’s hard to see the other side of any story; it’s hard to be empathetic when an opposing view is in your face.

Read the news lately?

Like many teachers, questions are a huge part of my life.  My two favorites, I tell my students, are “Why?”  and “So what?”  I regularly marry those questions with words that gain more and more importance as I continue to grow older.  Attributed to Mary Lou Kownacki and brought to me by Fred (Mr.) Rogers, they are, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”

As much as possible, I let those questions and words shape how I see the world around me, how I think and consume information critically.  They help me to stop and understand “the other side.”

May we stop.  May we think.  May we love.  Let it start anew with me.


Note: Since posting this, I had someone ask me what I was talking about when I mentioned the Slice of Life Story Challenge.  Here’s a link so you can check it out: https://twowritingteachers.org/challenges/

Reading the Stories the Land Has to Tell

As the rain slowed to a gentle mist and the last bit of daylight faded from the north Alabama sky, a river otter stood next to a small pool of water just off a tributary of Limestone Creek.  Confident in its apparent solitude, it dropped into the water and quickly swam to the other side, its powerful tail allowing it to cross in just seconds.  Recognizing the easiest path available, it left the water and stepped onto the smooth mud of a beaver slide that was worn between the pool and the nearby creek.

Not quite running, it moved at a quick pace with a sense of self assurance.  It slowed and ducked slightly as it passed beneath a low-lying branch, its right front paw crushing a tiny plant into the soft mud as it did so.  Having cleared that small obstacle, the otter moved quickly once again up the slight incline of the slide before flowing gracefully into the dark, cool waters of the creek.  It disappeared with hardly a ripple as it went on its way, watching for predators as it sought prey of its own.

That’s what the story says, anyway.  The story written in the mud of that particular beaver slide.

I was recently able to spend a morning learning basic tracking skills from Nick Sharp, a friend who’s a wildlife biologist with Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.  He and I both serve on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s environmental education committee, and we were spending time together preparing for an upcoming children’s workshop.  He’s the expert on tracking, and I’ve got a bit of experience translating adult-level material down for an elementary-aged audience.   

I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors and know a thing or two about temperate hardwood forests, but this was a new and eye-opening experience for me as I’m now able to see things I couldn’t see before.

We started our morning together with Nick quickly walking me through some printed resources he uses with adult learners.  After a short discussion about how they could be used with children, we were off, heading across an open field and into the woods to see what we could see.  

Evidence of animals in the wild falls into two broad categories: tracks and signs.  Tracks are just that–footprints cast into soft dirt, sand, or snow.  Signs, however, can be so much more, and are plentiful in comparison to tracks. As we traversed the countryside, Nick’s words and tutelage helped me read the stories the land had to tell.

When an animal moves through grass and other vegetation, it bends and breaks the plants in the direction of its travel.  This is called flagging.

Flagging was easy to see as we started walking across the field we shared with a small herd of cattle.  I certainly didn’t have the ability to follow the trail of a single animal from the herd, but the experience was akin to reading from a children’s book and gave me the basics that I’d be able to apply later in the morning.  We saw flagging again later, this time apparently caused by deer or armadillos.  It wasn’t nearly as easy to see, but there it was once I knew what to look for.

The way this vegetation is shredded lets you know that deer probably browsed here.  Deer don’t have teeth in the front of their top jaw.  They have a hard palate that they use with the teeth on their lower jaw.  This means they can’t bite cleanly when they eat.

It was neat to think and learn about the ways animals find food and eat.  Larger squirrels like the grey and fox squirrels will chew the shells of different nuts to pieces.  It’s not uncommon to find the shell pieces of harder nuts like black walnuts, while softer nuts like acorns may be shredded. Smaller rodents like flying squirrels, chipmunks, and mice can’t begin to do that kind of damage to a nut, but will chew holes in the sides and eat the nut meat through them.  Deer browse, shredding vegetation as they go, but beavers and other, smaller rodents shear vegetation at a near-45 degree angle.  Squirrels dig small holes the size of a saucer as they bury and dig up hidden nuts, armadillos disrupt the soil and vegetation of an area the size of a dinner table, and wild hogs basically plow areas the size of the whole dining room–and then some.  

What we’re doing is reading the woods…reading the forest.

The story was fascinating as we did just that: read the narrative that was laid out before us.  Whether it was dissecting bird droppings or tracing the oft-traveled trail of an armadillo, the tale of the otherwise unseen was there for us to decode.  Examining the chewed bark of a squirrel stripe on a tulip poplar and spotting hair plucked from the tail of a passing horse by a protruding branch all helped us piece together the recent past as if we had been there to witness it.  Even listening to the warning chirp of a distant chipmunk gave us a sense of the fauna all around us.  

If you get the chance, take a walk and open your eyes in a new way.  You’ll be glad you did.


Note: The ideas expressed in italics are Nick’s, but the paraphrase is mine.  I’m sure the lessons were expressed more clearly when he gave them.



An Old Friend of Sorts

It’s the busy season for teachers, isn’t it?  As May gets underway, we’re preparing for the end-of-the-year everything: Report cards, parties, assessments, lessons, sanity savers…the list goes on.  In the busy-ness of things, it’s nice to have a moment of calm pop up every once in a while.

I oftentimes start my mornings in our school car-rider line, helping direct traffic and keep kids safe.  One of the bright spots of the spring (and there are many) is the first red-winged blackbird of the year.  They usually show up around late March, and I love it when I hear one sing his song to me after the months of absence.  I listened to one just this morning, and it inspired me to bring out this poem to go with my short introduction.

Red-winged Blackbird

It’s like seeing an old friend

Across a crowded room
Across a field at woods’ edge

You know his voice
before you recognize his face
You know his voice
before you see him, just a glance

His carriage, familiar in a subconscious way
His tipped head, bringing a smile to your face

Remembering the walks, the talks, the dialog
Knowing this time you’re only there to listen

A moment shared before good byes
A brief time, ending in a flash

of red. Until next time, old friend

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