All posts by Helene Lohr

Technology and Nature: Life Through the Lens

  

 Out on a forest trail, I was just closing on a particularly gorgeous specimen of Passiflora Edulis  with my iPhone camera when the phone gave the morose little beep of a dying battery. What?? It was fully charged when I headed out! I glanced down with surprise at the glowering red battery icon… How I could have used up that much battery in the last 2 hours? 

The answer was pretty simple. I was completely immersed in experiencing the world through my viewscreen- a couple hours of continuous use was more than enough to use up the battery. Thinking back, I realized that lately I had been spending far more time behind the lens of my phone’s camera than I had directly experiencing the sights, smells and sounds of the world around me. I recognized then I needed to once again re-evaluate my use of tech in nature- to find a balance that enhances my connection, rather than detracting from it.

Here are some key steps I use to help me find my personal balance between technology and nature: 

1. Realize that Modern Technology is not inherently nature’s enemy– it’s just a tool. 

Used correctly, Tech absolutely can help us connect better with nature: Online nature photography can motivate us to visit a beautiful place. Google Earth can help us plan our expeditions. Hiking forums, web based meetup groups and amazing outdoor photo communities like Yonder can inspire us to join together with others.

At the same time, unaware usage can narrow our experience of nature; shut down our senses, funnel our experiences through the lens of our camera, have us checking our social media or chatting on the phone while out on the trail. 

In order to see if you need to rebalance your personal relationship with tech and nature, ask yourself: which side of this equation do you usually fall? 

2. Test for addiction. The instant gratification of snapping a photo provides your brain with a quick shot of dopamine. If you’re not sure where you stand, try this simple test for addiction: Shut your camera in your pack for the day. If you find yourself automatically reaching for it at every beautiful view, instead of letting your eyes explore and caress the mountains and valleys, then you might just consider a more extreme digital detox for your addiction. 

3. Leave it behind. As a digital detox, choose designated times or trips that you will leave your tech (cameras, music, etc) behind and just experience nature through your own eyes and ears. No matter how useful your tech is, it should not become a replacement for your own senses. Using our own eyes and ears helps us develop and strengthen mental pathways that actively connect us to the patterns of the world around us. 

4. Take time to Interact with Nature without your tech. Sitting down on a rock and drawing what you see, writing or even just deeply listening to the world around you are all far more intimate and revealing interactions with nature than simply snapping a photo. Photos are so quick and convenient, we don’t have to be really there to take them. A more committed form of ‘recording the moment’ may ask more of you, but also can gift you with far more connection with your world. 

In the end, technology is only a tool. It offers the opportunity to get closer to nature- and an equal potential for separation. It is in how we use our tools, our technology- mindfully, that we define our relationship as addicts or independents. 

Hiking with kids: Olivine Tide Pools, Maui


The Olivine Tide Pools offer great (if remote) little hike with beautiful tide pools embedded in a craggy lava shelf. The pools were named after a semiprecious gem found lodged throughout the lava and sandstone cliffs. They range in size from serving bowls to swimming pools. The color of several of these has a brilliant green cast in the right light- a beautiful contrast to the turquoise and indigo blues of the nearby waves and surging whitecaps.

Olivene Tide Pools, Maui
A larger tide pool glows green against a bright blue sea.

 

These luminous green Tide Pools come complete with intertidal residents including fish, miniature hermit crabs, periwinkle snails and a crew of cantankerous crabs. A small, but enthusiastic blowhole may be active if you are lucky enough to come at the right time.

Olivene Tide Pools, Maui
Luminous green tide pool warming jn the midday sun…

TEACHING POINTS:

Teaching your little ones (and yourself) to be awake to your environment can bring up all sorts of interesting questions… here are the answers to just a few.

1. Why do the larger pools have more life than the smaller? Because Hawaii has such a warm sunny climate, the smaller pools tend to get overheated and not have as extensive and varied life as the larger ones. Also, the larger pools can store a greater amount of resources to support life. The location and size of the tide pool in the intertidal zone will greatly affect who can and will choose to live there- such a frequently changing environment requires hardy species!

Here’s a link to a pdf of many of the local Hawaiian residents.

2. How does a blowhole work?

How does a Blowhole work?
How does a Blowhole work?

According to Wikipedia:  “In geology, a blowhole is formed as sea caves grow landwards and upwards into vertical shafts and expose themselves towards the surface, which can result in blasts of water from the top of the blowhole[1] if the geometry of the cave and blowhole and state of the weather are appropriate.”

3. How does new (fresh) water get into the pools? What happens when a pool is not refreshed often?

These pools are submerged by the sea at high tides and during big storms, and can even receive spray from larger waves. If a pool is not refreshed as often (due to location further away from the water, it can stagnate, with higher bacteria, lower oxygen in the water and far less renewal of nutrients, any residents of this pool may die or be stunted in their growth.

See what other things you notice about the pools and their natural patterns- can your little ones come up with a hypothesis why or how something occurs?

HIKING TIPS: 

1. Safety First. The ocean waves crashing into the lava cliffs housing the pools are unsafe. Don’t try to swim in the area (other than in the larger calm tide pools) and don’t stand too near the edge. Some of the rock cliffs nearby can be unstable. Keep younger and less sure- footed little ones nearby.

2. Solitude seekers should plan ahead. A generous roadside pullout for parking, a common desire to stretch legs midway along the coastal drive, and the relatively short hike down the steep jagged lava encrusted terrain encourages a larger number of visitors. If you are looking for solitude, either go early in the morning or arrive late.

3. Consider Tidal Timing. Come at the right time (NOT during the peak of high or low tide) to experience a cool (if smaller) blowhole that never fails to fascinate young ones.
4. Bring a swimsuit! On weekends you will likely meet other people there, quite a few choosing to take a cool dip in the largest pool.


Olivene Tide Pools, Maui
Waves crash and churn against a jagged volcanic shelf.

 

5. Snorkel Gear: Although the water can be a bit cloudy, this is a great location for snorkel gear or goggles will allow you to get a better view of the local pool residents.

6. Surefootedness is a plus due to the steep, uneven and sometimes jagged terrain. Good shoes are a plus, although Keen/Teva type shoes are passable with careful foot placement. Flip flops (slippers) not recommended.

7. Get to know the locals: Do your research on intertidal zones and the local Hawaiian residents.  If you have kids (and even if you don’t) taking the time before you head out to get to know the various tide pool species can turn “oh, look, another fish” into an exciting treasure hunt for familiar friends.

8. Guard your stuff! As always at trailheads, please don’t leave visible valuables in the car.

Old Friends in New Places

 

It was a great morning. Fluffy omelets, multiple refills of rich dark coffee, and a chance to reconnect with old friends under tropical skies. I’d been on the road for the last few months before finally landing in Maui. Meeting a couple of other displaced mountain dwellers for breakfast got me thinking about the oddly comforting experience of meeting old friends in new places. I’d been feeling cast adrift lately and it felt good to find an anchor, a familiar connection to the known, in a place of so many unknowns.

Breakfast was over, and I felt sad to leave my friends. But it was time to head out onto the trail… Makawao Forest Reserve on the east face of the volcano. Climbing ever higher on an unvarying slope, a tunnel of indecipherable tropical greenery looms around me… It’s beautiful, but it all seems so hard to connect with, so alien.

Vibrant red mud squooshes out from underneath my soles as I plod ever upward, somewhat unsure if I want to continue. Before I can turn around, the canopy opens up above me, the slope evens out slightly and a meadow appears out of nowhere. At my feet a small plant with serrated bright green leaves catches my eye. Suddenly, I realize that I am looking at an old friend… Blackberries! There’s a whole ripe hedge here!

After a quick flash of warm recognition, (and wolfing down quite a few berries) I start to look around me and realize that a decent percentage of the incomprehensible ‘wall of green’ I had been wandering through are really just old friends…

Fiddlehead ferns, taller than any we have in the high country, dominate the meadow, just unfurling their broad spans from tightly curled bundles on the tops of stalks. Pines tower on the edges of the clearing (planted on Maui to serve as ship’s masts), Blueberry’s close cousin the Nene berry is sprouting up all around, and the sharp sweet smell of eucalyptus leaves rises from the forest floor. With a sudden grin of renewed confidence I have all the energy I need continue my exploration. The recognition of familiar plant friends has somehow made the challenge of connecting with new ones far less daunting.
Looking back, I have to laugh at myself- I realize that I had been given the same lesson in two different ways.

Feeling so adrift, I had forgotten that there is always a seed of the familiar in everything -if we care to look past the obvious differences.

Reaching out and finding a way to connect with your old friends, the knowns, the commonalities, helps you create a bridge to the unknown. Looking for ways to connect with “old friends” (human, plant, or informational, etc) can help you find a foothold in new territory, make things more comprehensible and give you the confidence to explore an entirely new world. This works not only when traveling or on trail, but applies in just about every disorientingly new experience we have in life.

Kids activities: Nature’s Soundscape

I was recently hiking a rugged mountain trail when I realized that a man was approaching from behind me. I realized this when he was still over half a mile away, since the individual in question had obviously taken the advice to use his “outdoor voice” far too literally. I prefer to think that he was not completely inconsiderate, but instead a person who had never had the chance to get more ‘in tune’ with nature and see himself (and his voice) as part of her natural soundscape.

Much as the bright lights of the city obscure the flickering glow of stars, so too our modern sounds drown into oblivion the delicious lilt of nature’s own subtler soundtrack… Double paned windows, while keeping us warm, isolate us from the sounds of nature. Leaf blowers, cars, jets and other engines of their ilk confound our ears and not so subtly assault our souls. So we compensate, by becoming ever louder ourselves, and listening ever less to our surroundings.

The dance of sound through the wilderness tells a story millions of years old- the insistent mating calls of songbirds, the yip-yowling midnight rave of a coyote pack, a rolling wave of wind sweeping through the pines… Each of these sounds has a context, a ‘backstory’ that, long ago, we used to know how to read….

Luckily these stories haven’t been lost! Listening to nature is a skill that can be regained. Here’s some play centered suggestions to help get you (and any little ones you have in your life) back ‘in tune’ with your natural soundtrack:

1. Take a Bird (Sound)bath… Ever have trouble telling the difference between a raven and a crow? Listen to their individual calls and there’ll be no doubt!

Do a little research and find out who the common local birds are. The local ranger station usually can point you to some good birding resources. Recordings of bird calls are generally available on Internet birding sites (or even in your smartphone App Store).  Choose several for you (and any little tagalongs) to identify. Then take a walk and have at it!

2. Silence is a Soundscape. Vegetation softens sound- millions of little pine needles disperse sound waves in a jumble of directions, softening the edges of close sounds and deadening them over a distance. Hard, flatter surfaces like rock will reflect the sound back more uniformly, keeping it crisper and more intact. (Anybody ever heard rock climbers on Half Dome yelling to each other – all the way in the valley below?!) Knowing this, ask your little hiking tribe what is the quietest space(s) they think you can find on the trail? What would be the loudest?

3. All sounds have their place. Record the sound of your feet on the trail in different (unique) spots for segments of 10-20 seconds. Play them back: walking on gravel has a distinctly different sound than sandy soil, rock or pine duff… Who in your little tribe can guess where you were at for each recording?

4. Can you be as quiet as a deer?  There are a lot of ways to train children that their “outdoor voices” (and movements) shouldn’t necessarily be loud ones. One fun game:  Using a decibel meter (available at music stores or for free on your smartphone App Store) try moving through the terrain and measuring the sounds you make.

Who in your group can talk the most quietly and still be understood? Who can move the most quietly?  How fast or slow do you have to move? Are you louder in hard soled boots, soft shoes or even barefoot?

This exercise helps kids (and adults) truly get why choosing each step carefully is a natural part of a wild animal’s life! Turn it into a game and reward points for the quietest traverse of a particular terrain.

So next time you’re outdoors stop for a moment to sit on a rock and stretch your ears out to hear… Nature’s soundscape is a richly textured story, if only you care to listen.

Kids Activities: Yucca Uses: making soap!

Want to have some fun with your kids making soap out in nature? Here’s how to make cleansing suds from yucca spines. 

Yucca roots and spines both contain the compound saponin, which has detergent properties. It will not only suds up and help to clean your skin and hair, but anything else you decide could be a just a little bit fresher! 

Roots vs Spines? 

The roots contain more saponin, and thus more sudsing potential, but harvesting your soap that way means death for the plant you take it from. I prefer to harvest some of the green spines- it may be more work for me, but means less damage to the plant. 

Soaping up in the field: 

1. Cut spine(s) from the plant, being careful to move slowly and avoid their sharp edges! OUCH! (Careful! Don’t get cut by your soap source!)

2. Pound and scrape the spines between 2 smooth surfaced rocks to break open the surface of the spine and separate the fibers. 

3. Once the fibers are adequately separated and no sharp edges or points remain, the yucca is ready to suds up. 

4. Add water and rub it between your hands. The first suds will be green as the spines give up their chlorophyll, then gradually turn clear/white as you continue rubbing and adding water. 

There you go: all clean!

Soaping up at home:

1. Gather up your spines as before

2. Use a knife or sharp rock to scrape off green waxy skin of the spine and save it to the side. 

3. Put your scrapings into a sealable container with water and shake vigorously for a few minutes to combine the saponins with the water. 

4. Pour the mix through a filter or mesh to separate out the scrapings. 

5. Store in the container of your choice- tip: hand soap pumps can work great! 

6. Enjoy your natural suds for anything from shampoo to dishwashing detergent. 

SAFETY NOTE: always test the first time of any topical plant use with a small patch of non-vital skin to make sure you’re not one of those with the rare but serious reaction!