nature Feed

Springing into Sprinter

Busy buzzing bees enjoying the Australian sprinter season. Little eco footprints

My bee hives are buzzing after months of quiet. The wattles and eucalypts have burst into blossom. Mornings begin with a crescendo of birdsong. And there's an energy in the air that assures me that winter is over. Sprinter has sprung.

If you look at the calender, there's still almost a month until spring begins. But according to Tim Entwisle, author of Sprinter and Sprummer: Australia's changing seasons, the traditional four season system does not make sense in Australia.

"We shouldn't expect an imported seasonal model to work in an entirely different climate on the other side of the planet" writes Entwisle.

"Indigenous communities have always known that Australia's climate is more complex than a simple four-season arrangement....Aboriginal communities around Australia have for tens of thousands of years recognised five to seven seasons, depending on where they live".

Entwisle suggests it's time for us to "adopt a more realistic home-grown system...We should have seasons that reflect our local climate, not that of a continent 16,000 km away."

He proposes some modifications to our current four season system.

"A tweaking if you like. The familiar anchors, summer and winter, are there but the bits in between and the duration of the seasons are adjusted for the southern Australian climate."

According to Entwisle's proposed five season system, what we are experiencing now along the south east coast of Australia is sprinter: "the flowering spring".

"It's when we see the start of a profusion of flowers and it's when wattles reach their peak in most parts of Australia".

Sprinter celebrates this early flowering of Australian plants. It's a two month season from 1st August until the close of September.

Then there's sprummer, "the cantankerous weather time", in October and November.

Sprummer is followed by a four month long hot summer spanning December until March.

A brief two month autumn happens in April and May, followed by an equally brief winter during June and July.

Sprinter is "the first season of the year" suggests Entwisle.

"It's a time of new beginnings...A time of renewal in the natural world".

I like that idea. This time of year feels more like the start of a new year to me than during the exhausting heat of January.

It feels like a natural time for a fresh start. I've been sprinter cleaning and enjoying the awakening that’s happening in my garden.

Sprinter is an apt name, not just because it falls between the traditional winter and spring, but because I feel like I'm sprinting most days. I'm collecting and digging in mountains of manure. Garden beds are being prepared and the contents of my seed boxes are spread across the kitchen table. 

I like acknowledging Sprinter. It helps me get a head-start in the garden and gives me a second chance at keeping my new years resolutions.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 10th August 2015.


Making a Nature Drawer: to help kids explore their world {Milkwood}

Nature-drawer-7

Wishing you a weekend full of wandering and exploring. 

Just in case your kids come home with their pockets full of bits of nature - and then want to display their treasures on a table - here's a neat alternative: a nature drawer. 

Nature-drawer-mess-milkwood and little eco footprints

An increase in bits of dead animals on Little Eco's nature table (Can you see the dried headless lizard above?) inspired me to hide away her nature bits in a drawer.

Her nature drawer has become such a worthwhile addition to our home that I reckon all kids deserve their own nature drawer.

I'm sharing more on making a nature drawer over on the Milkwood blog.


Dirt glorious dirt - and why you should be playing in it more often

Scentists have discovered that playing in the dirt makes us feel good - thanks to a seratonin boosting bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae. Little eco footprints

I've long recognised that digging in the garden makes me feel good. No matter how tired or stressed I am, a few minutes with my hands in the earth and my mood improves. I had assumed the boost was due to being outdoors and active and doing something I love. But it may actually be tiny micro-organisms causing my good mood.

Unintentionally picking up a microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae can make us feel good. Scientific trials suggest this soil dwelling bacteria can decrease anxiety, improve our ability to learn and may work as an antidepressant.

We pick up this serotonin boosting bug by playing in the dirt or eating it with our fresh fruit and vegetables.

Mycobacterium vaccae is one of 10,000 or so species of microbes that may call your body home. And many of them are just as valuable, or more so. Some produce inflammation-fighting chemicals and others help regulate your immune response. Microbes also help you digest particular foods and assimilate nutrients.

We evolved with microbes. And it’s starting to look like we don’t function properly without them.

Scientists are only now starting to discover just how important microbes are for our health. Rob Knight in his book Follow your gut: the enormous impact of tiny microbes suggests that "microbes are not only more numerous than we thought ... they’re also more important than we ever imagined, playing a role in nearly all aspects of our health, even in our personality".

Rob writes that: "You are made up of about ten trillion human cells – but there are about a hundred trillion microbial cells in and on your body. Which means: you are mostly not you ... We are not individuals; we are ecosystems."

But there’s a problem. We’re destroying our useful microbiota by being stressed, overusing antibiotics, using antibacterial cleaning products, and indulging in processed food, artificial sweeteners, and sugar.

We also have fewer opportunities to pick up beneficial microbes. We’re playing or working in the dirt less. We try to sterilise our homes. And industrial-scale farming and widespread use of pesticides has depleted soil microbe diversity – reducing the chances of us picking up a diversity of good microbes from the foods we eat.

There are suggestions from researchers that our modern-day disconnection from soil microbes could help to explain the rapidly increasing frequency of food intolerances, allergies, asthma and diseases involving inflammation, such as diabetes, arthritis, and even depression.

So what can you do to boost your good microbes?

1. Play in the dirt. Dig in the garden. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

2. Grow your own food organically. Gobble a few carrots straight from the soil. You’ll likely pick up more beneficial bugs from a fresh barely cleaned homegrown carrot than from popping an expensive probiotic pill.

3. Buy fruit and vegetables that have been grown on small organic or family farms. You are more likely to pick up a greater diversity of beneficial microbes from fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides.

4. Enjoy fermented foods. Make your own yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha or kimchi.

5. Repeat. The beneficial bugs we gain from playing in the dirt or eating homegrown food wear off after a while. A couple of weeks after contact with Mycobacterium vaccae – and it (and its feel-good feeling) is gone. 

I like the idea of playing in the dirt being good for us.

Playing in the mud is a great way for kids to boost good microbes. Little eco footprints

It seems mud loving children know what's good for them.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 18th May 2015.


Do your children get enough wild time?

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Natural gym. Little eco footprints

There's plenty of things we can do to help our children grow into creative, happy and resilient adults. There’s after-school tutoring, music lessons and a suite of extra-curricular activities. But one of the best things we can do is let them play in the natural world. Let them climb trees, jump in puddles and walk along logs.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Little eco footprints

Our children need to take risks.

The term ‘risk-taking’ often has negative connotations in our risk-averse society. But, age-appropriate outdoor risk-taking plays an important role in childhood development. It helps children find their limits and develop confidence, resilience and creativity.

Our children need to fall, pick themselves up and be able to recognise why they fell.

Small risks taken early [and the natural world is a good place to take those risks] can prepare children to avoid more onerous risks later in life.” Richard Louv.

Natural spaces are a great place for risky play.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Complex playgrounds. Little eco footprints

Natural spaces are more complex and calming than the plastic primary-coloured playgrounds popular these days. It’s almost impossible to take risks in those predictable playgrounds. Every risk has been carefully designed out.

The natural world comes with other benefits. Time in nature improves children’s ability to learn, reduces stress and improves concentration.

Increasing opportunities for nature-based play 

Play in natural environments and risk-taking used to happen automatically. Climbing trees and spending the whole day outdoors exploring nature was common only one or two generations ago. I spent much of my childhood roaming local bushland, building cubbies and playing in the local creek. I’m guessing your childhood was similar. Today, children are more likely to be indoors, busy with structured activities, or confined to the safety of their backyard.

School holidays offer the perfect chance to catch up on wild time.

There’s an increasing number of nature-based adventure playgrounds and school-holiday programs that give children the space and time to be a little wild. Little Eco and I visited two of them these school holidays.

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 1. Little eco footprints

First, we visited Newcastle Treetops Adventure Park. This adventure playground lets children move from tree to tree on suspension bridges and fly through the air on flying foxes.

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 2. Little eco footprints

Kids can push their boundaries and take risks – all from the safety of a continuous belay system that keeps them harnessed in at all times.

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 5. Little eco footprints

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 4. Little eco footprints

Little Eco and her friends loved this place. What surprised me most was how calm they were. Being in the treetops had them mesmerised. They made their way quietly around the course again and again – concentrating on the challenge.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Barefoot bushwalking

Then we immersed ourselves in nature through a three-day Wildcraft Kids Camp with Wildcraft Australia.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Learning how to use all senses when bushwalking. Little Eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Learning how to make a spear. Little eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Making a speak. Little eco footprints

There was barefoot bushwalking, tree climbing, swimming in the creek, fire-starting and spear making. All these risky activities were safely supervised by guides Nikki and Sam.

Parents can tag along for the day or drop their children off and treat it as a vacation care program. I joined in and learnt almost as much as my daughter.

The kids started the camp tentatively, tiptoeing and squealing at the leeches. By the end of the camp they were confidently and mindfully striding through the bush and playing with leeches.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Leech. Little eco footprints

The children’s interaction with leeches demonstrates the transformation that happened. It’s easy to fear something you don’t know. At first there was panic each time a leech attached to someone’s leg. But as the children learnt how to remove the leeches, the fear slipped away and was replaced by wonderment. At one point they were wrestling over a leech. "Mine. Mine!"

Treetops Adventure Park and Wildcraft Kids Camp are going to become school holiday traditions for us.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 19th January 2015.


Connecting with your wild side - Wildcraft Australia bush skills courses

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Learn how to start a fire without matches. Little eco footprints.

I’d like to take my connection with nature to the next level and learn a few bush survival skills. My hunter-gatherer aspirations must be contagious because Little Eco also wants to “learn how to survive in the wild”. So I was pleased to discover Wildcraft Australia – a Hunter based wilderness survival school.

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Natural face painting. Little eco footprints

Little Eco and I met with Wildcraft Australia guides Sam New and Nikki Brown to find out more about their courses.

We were in bush crafting heaven. Within minutes, Little Eco was making body paint and having her face painted.

Woven natural hat. Nikki from Bushcraft Australia. Hunter Valley Australia. Little eco footprints.

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Twine made from plants. Little eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Sam's bush tea set. Little eco footprints

I admired hats, twine and tea sets - all made from natural materials. I was impressed with Sam’s bush tea set. He boils water in a bush billy made from a palm leaf, uses leaves from a native shrub as tea, and serves in cups made from coconut shells. 

Nikki tells me their courses are "for anyone who has an interest in bush craft and wilderness survival skills. We help participants develop bush confidence, a stronger connection to nature and help break down any fears".

Each course varies, depending on its target audience. Their Wild 101 introductory bush skills weekend jumps in the deep end of wilderness survival and includes barefoot blindfolded bushwalking. Apparently walking barefoot and blindfolded will teach me to slow down and awaken all my senses.

Their family-friendly wildcraft kids camps treads more gently into wilderness survival with face painting, exploring, tree climbing and nature craft.

“All of our courses include learning how to find bush tucker and shelter building. Participants also get to have a go at making a fire without matches” says Nikki.

Wildcraft Australia Bush Tucker March Fly 1. Little eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Bush Tucker March Fly 2. Little eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Bush Tucker March Fly 3. Little eco footprints

We got a tiny taste of what their courses include – literally. Nikki showed us how to eat March Flies - a survival skill that we’ll hopefully never need to depend on. I didn’t have the courage to try, but Little Eco tells me they “taste a little sweet”. 

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Sam making a tinder bundle. Little eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Tinder bundle for lighting a fire without matches. Little eco footprints

Sam and Nikki also demonstrated how to light a fire without matches – using the hand drill technique. Sam first made a tinder bundle from paperbark and the silky insides of a seed pod. 

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Hand drill fire starting equipment. Little eco footprints.

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Hand drill fire starting equipment - showing notch. Little eco footprints.

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Hand drill fire starting. Little eco footprints.

Wildcraft Australia bush survival courses Hunter Valley Australia. Hand drill fire starting - smoke. Little eco footprints.

Then they worked together, spinning a spindle on a baseboard, swapping every few moments to maintain friction. There was smoke within minutes and then a spark.

Wildcraft Australia. Lighting a fire without matches. Blowing on ignited char in tinder bundle. Little eco footprints.

Wildcraft Australia. Nikki lighting a fire without matches. Little eco footprints.

They transferred the spark to the tinder bundle and blew on it until it ignited. They made it look easy.

Foraging Native Hibiscus. Edible petals. Little eco footprints.

We only spent around an hour with Nikki and Sam and learnt so much. I can’t imagine how much we would learn in a three day course. Little Eco was already applying her newfound knowledge on the drive home. She insisted I stop so that she could pick native hibiscus flowers to add to that night’s salad.

Wildcraft Australia are hosting a bush skills course for adults in Barrington Tops THIS WEEKEND (5th - 7th December). There will be fire starting, foraging, barefoot blindfolded bushwalking, shelter building, and the lucky winners of a “shelter lotto” get to sleep in a bark and stick tepee. Now that’s a lotto I would like to win.

Other upcoming courses inclusd a wildcraft kids camp, weaving, cord making, and bush food. For more information visit www.wildcraftaustralia.com and check our their courses page.

Bookings for this weekend’s introductory bush skills course close Wednesday. Contact Nikki on 0412 216 485.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 1st December 2014.