Journal Archives

Lightning in a Bottle: A Chronicle of Wonder


Your Brain, Unplugged

Lately, there's been a steady stream of research, reports and news articles on the perils of media consumption and—more importantly—the benefits of time spent outdoors. Here's a quick recap of just some of the more noteworthy pieces from the last couple of months.

In its series, "Your Brain on Computers," the New York Times has taken an in-depth look at how the use of technology is changing the very makeup and function of our brains—and how our dependence on media and devices diminishes our capacity as parents and ultimately impacts our families. See both Attached to Technology and Paying a Price and Plugged-In Parents for more.

But there's plenty of good news, too.

A report released this spring suggests that exposure to bacteria in the soil may improve learning—good news for all of us who like to get our hands in the dirt. The new findings build upon earlier research that associates exposure to bacteria in the soil with elevated levels of serotonin and a lift in mood. For more, see Can Bacteria Make You Smarter? and Getting Dirty May Lift Your Mood from Science Daily.

And, several pieces confirm the importance of regular exposure to the natural world, even for short amounts of time. UK researchers have found that combining exercise with nature yields a quickly-occurring elevation of mood and self-esteem. A separate study found that simply spending 20 minutes a day in nature—whether a wilderness setting or the local park—boosts feelings of vitality. Lastly, those daily doses of nature—and sunshine—may hold the key to one's personal health, and to reversing the rising trend of Vitamin D deficiency. See Green exercise quickly boosts mental health, A daily dose of nature significantly boosts feelings of vitality, researchers find, and What Do You Lack? Probably Vitamin D for more.


What's the Buzz? Cicadas.

The last few days, with slightly cooler temperatures and occasional rain, have given us a bit of relief from the slow-cooker that is Virginia in August—but there's still no mistaking the fact that the dog days are in full swing around here. Thoreau holds a dog-day cicada.Even when the heat is less than oppressive, the sound—the buzzing, whirring racket of cicadas—still hangs heavy in the air, adding to the lazy haze of late summer days.

The culprit? Dog-day cicadas, those big, bulky insects with wide-set bulgy eyes. If you haven't seen them, you might have noticed their "shells"—the weird, crackly exoskeletons left behind by the nymphs as they turn into adults—clinging to the sides of trees, posts or walls. (And, if you live where there are cicadas and still haven't seen them, you almost certainly will have heard them!)

Naturally, Thoreau is fond of them. Back in 2004, when the so-called "Brood X" periodical cicadas emerged by the millions, he collected them by the bucketful and made some pretty sophisticated observations for a 3-year-old—that some of the cicadas felt heavier than the others, for instance. (He was right; the abdomen of male cicadas is hollow, most likely to serve as a resonating chamber to amplify their high-decibel calls as they seek mates.)

The cicada hitching a ride on Thoreau's hand in these photos, taken yesterday, might not have made it to today. Once emerging as an adult, a cicada lives for only a couple of weeks—and this docile fellow didn't seem to have much left in the tank by the time we'd found him.

But though his time may have been brief, he did something I think we all can admire: he made a big noise while he was here.

Seeing eye-to-eye with a dog-day cicada.



Life Less Ordinary

Maybe it was the soul-soothing retreat to New England, just completed. Or perhaps it was the quickening I begin to feel at this time each year—despite the languid days—as the seeds of autumn, still hidden, contemplate sprouting.

Whatever it was, it brought to mind Thoreau. And when I heard that today was the anniversary of the publication of Walden—155 years, and going strong—I was compelled to pull it from the shelf and revisit it.

After all, it had been quite a while; a re-reading was long overdue. The text remains the same, of course, but I've changed, and therein lies the magic—it's at once comforting and somehow unfamiliar, like a baseball mitt worn for the first time after an idle winter. There are few touchstones as powerful, as far as I'm concerned.

Any reminder to live deliberately, any exhortation to go confidently in the direction of our dreams, any admonition to live a life less ordinary is a welcome one... but who delivers such wisdom better than Thoreau?

When it comes to philosophers—to each his own, I say. But I think one could do much worse than the soul who, when in his final days was asked whether he'd made his peace with God, famously replied: "I did not know that we had ever quarrelled."

Oh, Henry.



A bed of warm grass
and a pillow of dog 'neath
a blanket of sun


Double Word Score

I’ll admit to sometimes taking a game a bit too seriously. Baseball, for instance—which its detractors might view as an old-fashioned, languid pastime, but which I would defend as a compelling living parable played out over nine (or more) innings. 

A good game, after all, is more than just fun; it is at its heart a kind of moral exercise, requiring all who participate to abide by an established code of conduct. Within a set of ground rules, we test ourselves against our opponents—and, more importantly, ourselves—and learn determination, compassion, and fair play. We taste victory; we taste defeat. We find that attitude and aptitude win the day—except when fortune decides otherwise. Psychology, sociology and ethics all rolled up into one. In the end, you make the most of what you’ve got, and it’s a pretty good metaphor, all around.

All this to say that I’m rather disappointed to learn that Scrabble, that venerable game of criss-cross wordplay, will be changing its official rules to allow, for the first time ever, proper names. The first sets with the newly-relaxed rules will ship this summer.

Ostensibly, this would be a positive step—making the admittedly old-school game more appealing to a broader and younger audience. But it’s hard not to see this as the dumbing down of yet another cultural institution, albeit a trivial one.

There’s a certain purity to the game I always admired, a quiet affirmation of words for their own sake. And, as a writer, I always found it incredibly gratifying to hold that tray of wooden letters—elemental as runes or glyphs—and try to coax words out of them. I would imagine this same sort of appreciation for raw material from an architect taking the weight of bricks or stones in hand, or a chef assessing the color, texture and aroma of farm-fresh produce.

Well, then. Part of the trouble, as I see it, is that sometimes—in life, in games—you’re simply dealt a hand that’s difficult to play within the framework of the rules. (That’s why the Q and Z in Scrabble are worth the full 10 points, after all.) With the greatly expanded universe of legal words comes a great deal of wiggle room. Ho hum.

But more troubling is to imagine what the thinking behind the decision must be—that opening up the game to the celebrities and brand names that define (or, at least, that marketers think define) the culture of younger generations somehow makes it more appealing to them. It reminds me of a passage from the preface of The Green Hour, which relates how the Oxford Junior Dictionary recently dropped everyday nature terms like dandelion and violet and replaced them with technological terms such as database and voicemail—but, again... to describe the world for today's children, or to define it?

I'm not naive; the game, the dictionary—both ultimately are simply products to be marketed. But those products trade in words, even if their makers seem to have forgotten just how powerful words can be.


For more, see Game Changer: Scrabble Amends the Rules : NPR


Three Seasons in One Day

All dog walkers are astronomers at heart, I think—stargazers, at the very least. And, as someone who spends a fair amount of time under dark skies with a canine companion, I’m pretty well acquainted with the coming and going of the stars.

I’m happy to report that recently, as we slipped across the threshold of spring into perfect weather, the skies around here have been spectacular—clear, dark and dry, from dusk to dawn.

But about dawn: I’m no fan of Daylight Saving Time. Mother Nature grants us longer days perfectly well on her own schedule, thank you very much, and that sudden loss of an hour leaves me reeling for days. Even worse is to suddenly have to rise again each morning in the darkness that had been so reassuringly losing its grip to daylight.

So to start these days under a blanket of stars has been somewhat disorienting, especially when the constellations are as familiar as the faces of old friends. How strange to say good night as the landmarks of the winter sky—Orion, the Pleiades, Sirius—slip away to the western horizon, and to step outside into the twilight just hours later to find the stars of late summer—The Eagle, The Swan, The Lyre—already high overhead.

As I try to wrestle some larger meaning from that, all I’m left with are simple truths. The world keeps turning, and things are looking up. And that’s enough for me.


(The title “Three Seasons in One Day” is inspired by “Four Seasons in One Day,” a song by New Zealanders Neil and Tim Finn. It appears on the terrific album Woodface by Crowded House.)



A Little Bird Told Me

In Chapter 3 of The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids you’ll find an illustration of a singing sparrow. This is just one of the many splendid drawings by John Dawson that give the book so much of its visual charm.

But in the caption appearing below that illustration, it looks like we may have goofed.

Two birds of similar appearance are mentioned in the accompanying text, but the caption below the illustration should rightfully say “White-crowned Sparrow” instead of "White-throated Sparrow."

Physical resemblance notwithstanding, on this count, as stated in the text, there’s little room for error: the song of the White-throated Sparrow is as unmistakable as it appealing. To listen to its song—and to see the difference between these two similar species—check out the All About Birds guide from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Many thanks to Richard Schinkel of Michigan, a dedicated naturalist and educator, who wrote in with this correction!


The Green Hour Trailer

Trying to capture the essence of the movement to reconnect kids and nature—much less your book offering guidance and ideas for doing so—in a mere two minutes is no small feat.

Still, I hope this video trailer for The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids finds its way to a new audience and helps to spread the word.

 If you enjoy it, please share it with a friend or embed it in your own page!


Kids & Media: Tales From the Front Lines

I've stumbled upon a couple of interesting articles recently. Remember "Baby Einstein"—that once-ubiquitous and ostensibly beneficial series of camcorder-grade videos of toys and puppets set to Casio-tone versions of classical music pieces? Seems the founders of the franchise, which had long since been sold to the Walt Disney Company, have sought a court order for the release of records by University of Washington researchers who have linked early television viewing with attention problems and delayed language development. Those findings, the founders contend, don't jibe with other research studies.

And I suppose that may be. But while working on The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids, I found the rising wave of creditable research linking children's increased media consumption to a host of negative outcomes—attention problems and academic achievement being just two of them—to be simply overwhelming.

And the beat goes on. In fact, the Kaiser Family Foundation just last month released its new report, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds, which updates the already astonishing figures from its original report released five years ago. Incredibly, the average young person today now spends an average of 7 1/2 hours per day with entertainment media—and, by "multitasking," fits nearly 11 hours worth of media consumption into that time.

Turning the tide won't be easy, when clever products like the Fisher-Price iXL—the so-called "iPad for the pre-school set"—bring their touch screens to a toddler near you this summer.

Getting some fresh air, sunshine, and grass beneath your feet? Well, kids... I'm sure there's an app for that.


Happiness is a Warm Puppy

I've fallen a bit behind lately; it's been more than three weeks since my last post here.

Not coincidentally, it's also been just over three weeks since we brought home Charlie, the little ball of energy and fur who's been filling our days with the highs and lows of puppihood.

This past weekend brought more snow—a surprise in that the inch or so in the forecast ended up as nearly five inches of light, fluffy powder. Here's Charlie, now eleven weeks old, exploring his first snowfall:

And here's a look at Charlie and The Bean, getting ready to romp in the snow together:

And, ever resourceful, Thoreau came up with a good use for the cardbox box in which Charlie's crate was packaged—a surprisingly efficient homemade sled. (That's my boy!)


Winter Wonderland

Talk about impeccable timing.  Winter break for Thoreau and The Bean began with the end of the school day on Friday, December 18th.  And, just a few hours later, the first of the snowflakes began to fall.  And fall.  

By the time we turned in for the night, our neighborhood was already feathered in white.  By the time we woke up Saturday morning, it was an alien world cloaked in at least a foot of snow.  And at the time this photo of our backyard and patio was taken, there were several more inches yet to fall.  Our best guess at the final total was somewhere around 16 inches—maybe more.

Much snowThree-quarters of the way through the snowfallIt was almost too much of a good thing.  The Bean, confronted with snowdrifts nearly up to her waist, could barely navigate the stuff—but was having the time of her life, nonetheless.  

Shoveling the driveway took place in several passes over two days, but once I'd created a large enough pile, Thoreau had fun tunneling through it, as you can see here:

When we arrived in southeastern Maine for the week between Christmas and the New Year, it was strange to find it green, having grown accustomed to the white blanket of snow back home.  But on New Year's Eve, it did snow—giving us a postcard-perfect glimpse of Green Acre as we left Maine and headed to Pennsylvania to ring in the New Year with my mother, brother and sister-in-law. 

And while it was only a couple of inches, fresh snow greeted us there, too.  On New Year's Day, The Bean set to work on the red-nosed reindeer, seen here:

Rudolph the red-nosed snow-deer

Meanwhile, Thoreau and Gabby were hard at work building a snow fort from giant snowballs—and demonstrating just why kids sleep so well after a day spent playing in the snow:

The snow was all but gone when we finally returned home, but Thoreau discovered a bit of it preserved in this unique find—a "snow fossil" etched into the underside of his sled:

Snow fossil


Growing Up Global

Last summer, during a wonderful week spent at Green Acre in Eliot, Maine, I reviewed and edited the complete manuscript for The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids.  And, as luck would have it, I wasn't the only writer there.

Homa Sabet Tavengar, author of Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World, had just received finished copies of her new book and I had the privelege of previewing it a few weeks before its official release date.  

I also can't recommend it highly enough to any parent hoping to raise children who truly respect and appreciate the beautiful patchwork quilt of cultures and traditions that blanket our ever-smaller world.

As the new year—that time of resolutions and new beginnings—approaches, consider adding this title to your wish list... as a gift for your entire family.

On Amazon: Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World