Spring into Nature (at last!)

I was beginning to feel like Spring was never going to properly arrive.  It’s been a right wee tease this year with some days of warm sunshine and blue skies immediately followed by the return of chilly, damp air and grey skies and flat light.  At last, however, it seems as if Spring has finally and fully-fledged arrived.  Not a moment too soon either as I was beginning to feel like a hermit and really felt a need – not just a want but a need – to get out and wander around in nature for a good chunk of time.

The kids were vehemently opposed to a long car journey so we stayed local and went for a wander in one of our usual haunts.  It felt good to be among the trees and see the sunshine beating through the leaves, plants beginning to bud, and insects buzzing around.

We played Pooh sticks – increasingly competitively and with a little bit of cheating here and there – and the boys climbed trees and clambered across fallen logs.  We saw wildlife too.  I only managed to capture a turtle on camera but we also saw birds galore, lots of insects, and a running groundhog – which was one of the cutest things I have seen in a while.

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The boys were able to get manky and be freely feral and I was able to complete relax allowing them to do so.

Spring is freedom.

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Frog Hunt

Yesterday morning we set off on an expedition to hunt for frogs.  While we have all manner of other wildlife wandering around our garden, we have not yet had any amphibians so we have to go elsewhere in search of them.  We know a spot where, at certain times of year at least, we are guaranteed to see frogs.

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My oldest son was also hoping we would encounter a snake, as we have found them in the same woods before, but we had no luck.  My kids have yet to comprehend that the more noise they make, the less likely they are to meet any critters.  Their constant scampering and foghorn voices give any animal within range ample notice to scurry and hide.  For instance, we saw the flash of a white tailed deer’s rump as it fled from us a nanosecond after my youngest had bellowed something about climbing a tree.

We were, however, entirely successful in our mission to find frogs.  My ten year old must have the best vision out of all of us as he was quickly able to spot frog after frog after frog among the green pond weed.  We could hear the bellow of bullfrogs all around us.  We managed to spot one particularly chubby chappie sitting on a fallen branch, sadly too far away for a clear photograph, but there were some smaller specimens swimming around in the water or sitting just out of the water.

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Some of the frogs were very bright green, blending perfectly with the pond weeds, but others were darker brown with mottled patterns on their backs and rear legs.

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We left the pond and wandered off in search of other interesting beasties.  We saw birds and dragonflies galore – including some stunning neon blue ones with black wings – and some nonchalant squirrels.  Everyone was getting a bit mopey and hot and fractious, forgetting that this was the proper outdoors and not a zoo park.  I could sense a rebellion beginning to foment.

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Happily we found a stream that was safe enough for pootling about in.  The boys liked having fish swimming around their feet but they liked the cooling effect of the water and the shade of the trees even more.

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Then, much to everyone’s delight, we spotted another frog and this one was in hand’s reach so they picked it up out of the mud to have a brief closer look before letting it hop off back into the water again.  I think it may be a juvenile green frog but I am not confident in my identification, not being much of a herpetologist.

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Much cooled down, a little rested, and buoyed from the unexpectedly close frog encounter, the boys’ spirits lifted again and we continued on our stroll around the woods like a band of Merry Men.

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Locust Lake State Park

Memorial Day weekend seems to be the traditional starting point for all things summer in these parts – outdoor swimming pools open, people crank up their barbecues, people start wearing less clothing, sunglasses are donned – and this Memorial weekend was a scorcher, a welcome dose of sunshine and heat after such a dreich (dreary) Spring.  We Picts decided this was the perfect opportunity to go an explore another of Pennsylvania’s state park so we headed towards the mountains and to Locust Lake State Park.

The area had been deforested in the 19th Century because of mining and lumber operations in the area.  It was reclaimed in the 20th Century as an area for fishing and I assume has particularly recovered since it became a state park in the 1960s.  Now there are trails through woodland, camp sites, and a decent sized central lake where people can boat and swim in designated areas.  It was this latter activity that the boys were especially looking forward to – especially after a long drive in a warm car.

Our first stop off was at a play area in the woods.  After being stuck in the car for quite some time, the boys had energy to burn off so the climbing frame was perfect.  The youngest two practiced their simian skills on the monkey bars and then they copied their ten year old brother in trying to find a route climbing over the frame rather than using it how it should be used.  There were points where they freaked themselves out a bit by getting stuck but they persevered and found a way up, over, and down on their own.  Good confidence building stuff.

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A hop, skip and a jump through a wooded glade brought us out onto a stretch of the lake shore that had a beach.  This was not a sandy beach, however.  It was more like coarse grit.  It was not entirely pleasant underfoot but then again I am not the best judge since I generally loathe sand of any kind.  The Pictlings certainly did not mind the gritty sand at all and were soon paddling in the water and enjoying how cool it was.  The area roped off and designated for swimming is pretty shallow so the water had actually been nicely warmed by the sun.  That way it was cool but not chilly.  Perfect swimming temperature actually.  Now that all four of my boys are good swimmers, it is a much more pleasant experience to take them somewhere like this.  Mr Pict and I can just sit back and relax while watching them swim and splash and play rather than feeling like we are in a constant state of high alert, reading to spring into Baywatch mode at any instant.  The kids had a wonderful time swimming back and forth in the water.

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Once they had finally had enough of the water, we decided to take the (very) easy trail around the circumference of the lake so they could dry out and we could all stretch our legs before getting back in the car and heading home.  They did their usual thing of complaining and moaning about how boring the walk would be and then absolutely loving it and not wanting to leave.  My kids are pretty feral – you might have noticed – so within reason we let them go bare foot and get off the beaten track.  They, therefore, turned what might have been a brief stroll into a miniature adventure assault course.  There were some outdoor exercise equipment staging posts that they incorporated into their wanderings but mainly it was about balancing along fallen trunks and wading through burns and shallow creeks.  We didn’t encounter any wildlife beyond that which we find in our own garden (squirrels, chipmunks, and birds) but they did find some freshly hatched gloriously blue robin eggs to study.

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We had a really lovely day out.  We have not had much time for whole family activities in recent months as there have been so many commitments and schedule clashes and such like to contend with.  We, therefore, really welcomed some uninterrupted time as a family of six, especially since there was no phone reception.  Locust Lake was a charming spot and we will definitely need to return some time, maybe in late summer.

Wissahickon Valley Park

Given it is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from where we live, it is embarrassing that we had never visited Wissahickon Valley Park in the 2.5 years that we have lived in America.  It was, therefore, time to go for a woodland wander during last week’s Spring Break.

The area that encompasses the Park comprises 1800 acres.  It is going to take a few visits to thoroughly explore the area so we opted for an easy dip into the landscape by taking a trail that led to the Thomas Mill covered bridge, the only remaining covered bridge in Philadelphia and indeed the only one left within an American city.

We wandered along a path that followed the shape of the Wissahickon Creek as it runs towards the gorge.  There were a number of fallen trees along the route which the boys enjoyed climbing and scurrying along.  The youngest two also scampered up a leaf and twig strewn embankment only to realise how steep the climb had been when they had to make a slow, stumbling, and careful descent.  They also tried to skim stones along the surface of the creek and had running races along the trail path.  Lots of energy being burned off.  Just what we parents like to see.

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The covered bridge itself was a wee bit disappointing, I must admit.  Although it was built in 1855, I doubt that any of its original parts remain.  It was restored by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression and again in 2000.  The wood trusses all looked distinctly new and, as such, it was a tad lacking in character, little history seeping from it.  I do love covered bridges though so it was still well worth seeing.

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We crossed the bridge and decided to walk back to the car on the opposite bank of the creek.  Whereas the path there was completely level and stable, this path was made up of outcrops of large boulders, swift changes in surface level, and tree roots.  It was quite frankly all the better for it as it made us feel as though we were more immersed in nature and the boys could do all their nature parkour larking around on the trail and the surrounding embankments.  We stopped for a while beside a small waterfall and rocky pools so the boys could splash around and leap from rock to rock.  Amazingly, only one of them fell in.

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Now that we have finally visited Wissahickon Valley Park, we will definitely be drawn to return time and time again and explore more of its trails and features.

Ridley Creek State Park

Happy New Year!

My first post of 2016 is about our final Pict family outing of 2015 when we went for an exploration of Ridley Creek State Park.  Located near Media, the park comprises over 2000 acres of land but we confined this first visit to one particular trail.  We had visited the adjacent Tyler Arboretum in April and I must admit that I was bracing myself for similar levels of moodiness from the four boys.  However, the opportunity to roam free, climb trees, battle with sticks, and generally be their feral little selves meant they were stunningly well behaved and agreeable throughout the trek.

We parked up by the Jefford Mansion, a beautiful stone built building from the early twentieth century which now serves as the park offices, and the kids immediately scurried off into what was a cross between an artificial grove and a portico of trees surrounding a formal fish pond.  They soon had it turned into an imaginative playground where heroes were doing battle with mythological monsters, twigs brandished, roaring, and racing around.

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From there, we ventured into the woods.  The ground was still sodden and boggy from the previous night’s deluge of rain but we all squelched along quite happily.  There were lots of good climbing trees which the boys were soon scaling and even better were lots of felled trunks that they could shimmy along.  It soon became a competition to see who could complete an obstacle course of tree trunk running in the quickest time.  The smallest Pict is nimble, fleet of foot, and quite frankly impulsive and reckless so he easily won each and every time.

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It was because of the 6 year old’s intrepid ways that we stumbled across the highlight of the trip.  We were veering off the demarcated path anyway in order to run along logs but the wee one plunged off into the woods even further and, in doing so, chanced upon the skeletal remains of an adult white tail deer. Well, you would think my boys had just discovered pirate treasure!  They have inherited my macabre fascination for decay and mortality so the fault / credit is almost entirely my own but it seems my children are rarely happier on an outdoor adventure than when they stumble across a corpse.  The body parts were spread across the clearing so they had fun trying to find all the different parts, like a slightly gross jigsaw puzzle.  The skull was the easiest fine after the spine and rib cage but the two middle boys literally jumped up and down with glee when they found the two parts of the mandible.  Each hoof was located and identified at which point my youngest son declared that the deer must be a lady because it had high heels.

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Animal autopsy over, we kept on with the looping track.  We found interesting fungi, including a lump of gelatinous brown slime, like a tree hugging sea anemone, but we did not spot any more wildlife, either live or dead.  Wandering through the woods with four loud children never presents the best opportunity for spotting critters but perhaps there was not much to encounter at this time of year anyway.  I will just tell myself that.  It is a lovely park so we will have to return in the Spring when the flora and fauna are bursting with new life once more and perhaps we can explore another trail.

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Back to Blighty #8 – Falkland

We crossed the border between England and Scotland in order to go and spend some time with my family in Fife.  My parents came out to stay with us last July but I had not seen my siblings or their kids since we emigrated almost two years ago.  Thankfully tools like Skype and Facebook have shrunk the Atlantic.

One of the first places we headed out to was Falkland, a short drive from my home town.  It has been one of my favourite spots since I was a tiny wee person.  I have fond memories of visiting the palace, playing in its gardens, of climbing the Lomond hills, of wandering through the woods of the estate and of my Gran taking me to have a tea of scones with cream and jam.  In my mid-teens, I did some work experience in the Palace, taking visitors on tours.  There was a goat on one of the tapestries that used to freak me out when I was wandering around the building solo.  In 2012, when the Pict clan were holidaying in Fife from Argyll, we actually rented a gorgeous little white cottage next door to the Palace as the base for our explorations.  As I said, I have lots of fond memories of Falkland.

The whole village layout revolves around Falkland Palace.  It was built in the 1500s by James IV, on the site of a previous Castle and hunting lodge.  It is a striking Renaissance Palace, well worth visiting for its wonderful architecture, beautiful rooms and its rich history.  Under James V, the gardens were developed and a Royal Tennis Court was installed.  Those courts are one of the Palace’s main claims to fame as it is the oldest in Britain. The Palace was occupied by Oliver Cromwell’s troops and it was during that time that a fire broke out which completely destroyed the East Range.  That section was never rebuilt, remaining a ruin open to the elements.  The rest of the building was restored in the 19th Century.  The Palace’s other main claim to fame is that it was there in 1542 that James V died thus making his very newborn daughter the reigning monarch.  Said daughter was, of course, Mary Queen of Scots.

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I had taken my kids for an extensive tour of Falkland Palace and Gardens when we had visited Fife in 2012 so we did not visit this time.  Instead we decided – we being the Picts, my mother, my sisters and three of my nephews – to go for a walk around the woodland that once formed part of the royal hunting estate.

The boys all had a grand time running wild through the woods.  They threw “sticky willies”* at each other, climbed trees, hurtled athletically over puddles, turned twigs, branches and pine cones into weapons, and spent time watching a herd of cattle pee and poop.  An awful lot of time was, in fact, spent spectating the bodily functions of cows.  Boys.  We also stumbled upon an area where local school children, undertaking their Forest Schools education, had constructed various shelters out of branches and leaves.  All seven boys had great fun playing in and around those structures plus clambering over fallen trees and sliding down their mud-plastered roots.

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One of the side benefits of all the children being free range in the woods was that it allowed we grown ups to just chat and catch up with each other, punctuated obviously be children yelping that they had fallen and were hurt or by the need for one of us to yell at the kids to please not throw that really large stick, thank you.  On our loop back to the village, we stopped in at the Pillars of Hercules, an organic cafe and store set in the woods, to buy the kids a snack.  Artisan chocolate is an expensive treat.  They wolfed it down like it was cheap as chips too, little scoundrels.  Once back in the village, the kids had fun playing with the fountain and then we headed off to see the War Memorial that was just unveiled last November as part of the First World War centennial commemorations.  We also saw a park bench dedicated to Johnny and Roseanne Cash who felt an affiliation for the area since the Cash ancestors originated from the Howe of Fife.

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*What we call the plant whose scientific name is apparently Galium Aparine.  What did you think they were throwing?

 

 

New Art Challenge – Into the Woods

I have finally made a decision about my next art challenge.  It is going to be “Into the Woods”.  That theme allows me enough scope to work in different media and cover a wide range of subjects.  Since my last art challenge involved a lot of time pressure, I am not going to impose a timetable or deadline onto it.  I will just create whenever my artistic mojo strikes but I will – mostly – create in response to this theme.

My first work on this theme was a lino block print I have titled “Worried Bunny”.  You can read more about it here.

Worried Bunny - Red and Blue Block Prints - Phase 2

I will be sharing the art I produce in response to this theme on my art blog, Pict Ink, so make sure you visit there if you want to see more.