Rooftop Fun

September 5th, 2013

rooftopI am so pumped for Saturday! We get to host a temporary Nature Explore outdoor classroom on the green roof of the brand new Cedar Rapids Public Library! We will have a 6 activity areas – a spiral labyrinth music and movement area, a special set of natural science collections loaned by area children, nature art Andy Goldsworthy style, a habitat building area, reading hammocks, as well as hopscotch and a hollow ‘log’ to crawl through! Kids will also get to take home a natural treasure to add to their personal collections.

My friends and co-workers have been so generous collecting, loaning and donating items for this event.  I even have the Linn County Child Development Center loaning us items from their certified Nature Explore Classroom for others to experience that day. I have been planning the design for over a month. By walking and measuring and observing the green roof space a few times, I think we have the right combination of books, materials and activities for children to connect with nature. They will use all of their senses to experience the wind, the sun, the view of the unique Cedar Rapids architectural skyline and the magnificent trees of Green Square Park.

My ultimate goal is for parents, grandparents, child care providers, teachers and others to see how simple it is to arrange an outdoor space with a few inexpensive ‘props’ and lots of loose natural parts. Combine that with unstructured, unlimited time and kids have the perfect learning opportunity.

Now, the rooftop has its limits.  No dirt digging or sand piles.  No water play or rocks. No walking on the real plants (really – they are not durable for foot traffic) so we have to enjoy them with our eyes and hands (at the edges of the pathways).

The coolest part is I was able to design the activities based on what is naturally available – wind, sun, and lots of sky! So we will have waving grasses, dancing scarves, and pinwheels. We will use magnifying glasses, colored lenses and kaleidoscopes to gain new perspectives on the natural world. We will beat on drums, shake the rattles, tip the rain sticks and sound the chimes to send music wafting down to the Farmers Market below.

Hope to see you on the roof!




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Prairie Palooza

September 1st, 2013

purpleconeflowerI love my little prairie patch! I reconstructed a miniature prairie on a corner of my lot in 2008.  The giant mulberry tree and numerous smaller trees and shrubs were taken out by the utility company.  From this newly disturbed ground sprang a healthy crop of poison ivy, thistles and many other plants that liked this new habitat. This corner of the lot takes the storm water runoff from the intersection of the paved road and where snow is piled from clearing the housing development. As you can imagine, losing the original vegetation allowed erosion to begin cutting the slope.

I surmised that this newly sunny area was just perfect for native prairie plants!  It took 3 years to convert the space, but it is happy doing it’s job filtering water, creating soil fertility and providing habitat for numerous critters including turtles, birds, rabbits, deer and humans!

My prairie grew from harvested seeds from native patches all over the Midwest, gifts from friends, as well as seed mixes and plugs I bought from Prairie Nursery. I learned so much about the early landscape of our state and felt much like a pioneer myself in the process.

Did you know that 80% of our state was covered in prairie a couple of hundred years ago? Now we have only 1/10 of 1 percent native prairie landscape left. I am glad to see a trend in homeowners converting lawns to native plantings for several reasons.

Native plantings are:

1. more economical and lower maintenance.

2. more resilient in drought and wet weather periods,

3.  soil fertility builders and erosion preventers,

4. habitat for wildlife, and

5. beautiful!

Iowa Prairie Heritage week is September 8-14!  There are awesome prairie activities happening all around the state including capturing, tagging and releasing monarch butterflies, seed gathering, geo-caching, bird watching and counting, pioneer cemetery tours, talks, hikes and more!

Find out what is going on in your part of the state at the Iowa Prairie Network website or their Facebook page.

What’s native in your neck of the woods?


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Oaks and Swings

August 26th, 2013

whiteacorns (6)I think my favorite tree is Oak.  At least today.  We planted a white oak tree years ago – it survived girdling from a dog chain, broken limbs by a neighboring fallen tree and the go cart. We just discovered that the white oak in our yard is producing amazing acorns.  My husband says white oak acorns are like candy to deer.  I think that means we will be increasing the number of 4 leggeds that will be hanging out in our backyard as a result.

I grew up with a gunnysack swing tied to the strong arm of a gentle giant oak.  I spent hours  swinging, hanging my head back and gazing into its distinct leaves and branches. I remember singing made-up songs as I spun under the oak’s canopy.  I collected acorns by the scoop shovel-full, made people and animals from the acorns and caps, attempted to grind them into flour, and ‘decorated’ my room with them.  In grade school, Iowa history class included hikes in the oak savannas nearby.  I loved the stately presence of the oaks in wide open spaces. Their spread-out branches created what felt like giant rooms of filtered light in an outdoor house to me. When I think of my early interactions with the oak, I smile on the outside and feel a warm happiness spread through my insides.

I don’t see oak savannas anymore.  I learned that it is because there is no fire to burn away the smaller trees and shrubs. The Southern Iowa Oak Savanna Alliance with working with the department of natural resources to restore oak savannas.  You can also learn more from the Savanna Oak Foundation.

Are there oak savannas in your area ? What are you doing to create a lasting relationship between today’s children and the gentle giant oaks?


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Glass or plastic?

August 15th, 2013

I am in the process of changing over my pantry containers from plastic to glass.  I am trying to reduce my use of plastic wrap and plastic leftover containers for several reasons.  I want to reduced my family’s exposure to chemical leaching from plastic containers, reduce the amount of plastic that finds its way into the landfill – and never decomposes.  Maybe my small action will be part of a larger message to reduce the demand for more throw away containers.

vintage and new glass food containers

vintage and new glass food containers

I find I am coming full circle and using the glass refrigerator dishes that were my grandmother’s. They were used for baking and storing leftovers and every kitchen had them. If you dropped one they broke, so I am amazed that I still have these. I remember the elasticized plastic covers for dishes that came next.  The leftovers all looked like they were wearing showercaps! As plastic technology improved we got cling wrap and Tupperware. And our consumption of plastic went crazy!

I have a great stash of canning jars and glass salad dressing jars that I use for my morning smoothies, carrying my lunch, and

storing leftovers in the frig.

Don’t get me wrong, I still use plastic in other ways. I think our technology has created some valuable products that actually improve our lives. But I am being intentional about how I use it.

How are you being intentional about what you use in your life?


Energy, Environment, Food, Health, Waste Prevention, Water quality & conservation

2 Much Stuff

August 8th, 2013

We got rid of cable TV and put up an antenna!  I was excited to have that money back monthly to add to our savings.  Then, lightning took out the TV. So, a new TV was in order.  This caused a rearrangement of the family room – which meant we had to move a lot of stuff – out.   Well, I took another trunk-load to the used book store, consignment and donation. The old entertainment center will find a new home, soon, too, I hope. We discovered lots of cobwebs, dust and even musty, moldy books (which I tossed in the trash). I didn’t think about the lack of air circulation in those crammed bookshelves.  A full weekend of cleaning resulted in old allergies raising their tiny heads! Too much stuff directly affected our health! Too much stuff kept me from doing things I enjoy!

Although I have yet to enjoy the savings of getting rid of cable because of the new TV, I am loving the new open and healthy space.  I will make a little ‘coin’ on the items I consigned, and get a small tax break on the items I donated.

Now, I am thinking of the cost of keeping the stuff in my house.  I ran the dehumidifier to circulate the air in that musty corner for a week. Although I am not paying for a separate storage unit, I am paying for the cost of maintaining the space that belongings need. My ‘stuff’ requires square footage AND climate control if I want to keep it in good condition.

The Money Tips blog “Ownership Has a Cost” on July 29 was very timely for me as it was the day I loaded my car with our un-needed stuff.  The sentimental items I kept – family photo albums, genealogy and scrapbooks – will be scanned.  My college student moved last week.  She has some items she wants to keep but doesn’t have room for in the next 9 months.  Storage unit or my basement?  It will be my basement for now, but after graduation she will do the same thing, purging what she doesn’t need, deciding if it is worth paying for the space to keep it. Hmmm, I haven’t charged her a storage fee . . .  :-)

What is your stuff costing you in time, space and health?


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Save a Bottle

August 5th, 2013

save a bottleI don’t buy bottled water anymore.  I take my aluminum, glass and BPA free plastic beverage bottles to refill wherever I go. I like to think that I am diverting the equivalent of a case of plastic water bottles each week from the landfill!

This is a water station at the Victoria B.C. airport.  I have seen them in the Iowa City Library and now Iowa State University has several on campus.  It is rewarding to see the ‘bottle-ometer” that tells me that my refill has saved the 200,000th plastic water bottle from being produced and going to a landfill.

One simple act of refilling your bottle reduces energy use, environmental impact, waste, increases health and water quality and conservation.

I am glad that plastic water bottles are now being manufactured with less plastic, and that they can be recycled into floor mats and park benches, but it is still plastic, requiring 4 ounces of petroleum and 3 liters of water to produce just one bottle.

How many plastic bottles are YOU eliminating?


Energy, Environment, Food, Health, Public policy, Waste Prevention, Water quality & conservation , , , , ,

New Shoes

August 2nd, 2013
Shoeshine Time!

Shoeshine Time!

Back to school time makes me think about new shoes.  I remember getting a new pair of school shoes each fall during my grade school years.  They lasted til summer break or until they wore out or I grew out of them.

As an adult I don’t wear out or grow out of my shoes anymore.  I do get tired of my shoes over time. Those go to consignment or are donated.  However, I have some favorites that stay with me. Those favorites are quality made shoes that I take care of by keeping them clean and polished.  I have one pair of leather boots I bought in 1978 and they are still beautiful, comfortable and back in style!  Yes, I know, some of my readers are younger than my boots!

I took an hour one afternoon to shine my cool weather standbys. My father taught me to polish my leather shoes Army style. Wipe off the dirt with a damp cloth, use leather dye to re-color the scuff marks and apply wax polish with a rag. Let them dry overnight and lightly buff with a soft cloth or soft bristled brush.  Dad showed me how to master a ‘swish-swosh-swish’ motion until you can see your reflection in the leather upper. Add fresh shoestrings and inserts as needed and you are good for another season or more . . It’s like getting NEW shoes – they are so shiny and clean.

One of my favorite sandals snapped this spring at a graduation reception.  I took them to my local cobbler who recognized that he had fixed this pair twice before.  He said you can spend another $5 and they may last and they may not. . . I retired them and bought a new pair.

It feels good to get extended use out of my shoes.  I save money and postpone using the energy of creating and shipping a new pair as well as postponing its deposit in the landfill. I suppose I could turn my worn out shoes into a planter or birdhouse. Hmmm . . .

What do you do to maintain, repair or re-purpose your shoes or clothing? Share your stories on our Eco-Family Facebook page or photos of your re-purposed items with our Pinterest page.




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Cut Down a Tree

July 30th, 2013
Ancient tree!

Ancient tree!

I have been accused of being a tree hugger.  I tied a large cardboard sign around my ash tree this summer so the tree trimmers sent out by the utility company knew I wanted it trimmed NOT cut down. My neighbor asked if I was going to camp out all week to make sure they got it right.

Today I learned that the emerald ash borer is officially in Iowa.  This beautiful, but destructive beetle has been slowly munching its way west from Wisconsin and Illinois toward our Iowa ash trees. It is believed that this little critter came from another continent through shipping goods to the U.S. That means that all ash trees are potential food and medium to spread the disease.  I have been judgmental about cities that already cut down their ash trees in anticipation of this infestation.  Now I understand the potential to ‘carry’ the pest farther west when we have host trees.  So what do I do now?

When we moved to our current residence 20 years ago, it was full of elm trees succumbing to the Dutch elm disease.  In a short 18 months our lot was nearly bare and we scrambled to plant something, anything to grow some new shade and soil-holding vegetation.  We planted a diverse array of deciduous shrubs and trees and evergreens to fill the void.  20 years later, some of our evergreens are in decline from a fungus, the shrubs are nearing the end of their life span, and now the ash borer and oak wilt have been spotted within striking distance.

I want to be a good steward of my trees and small plot of land so I attended a woodland management field day at Prairiewoods sponsored by the Iowa DNR and County Conservation departments.  I learned that sometimes you have to cut down a tree or two to give space for the hardier species to thrive.  A healthy woodland consists of  a diversity of trees with the right conditions to be resistant to pests and disease. That means invasive species, or opportunistic as I like to call them, need control as well.  There are many plants like garlic mustard that were brought from other lands for other purposes, that now seriously impact the health of our ecosystems.  In the next year I will be surveying my woods, identifying the trees I want to nurture and which ones will have to ‘go’. I learned how to kill a tree to save another tree(s). And, that doing nothing is doing something - and doing nothing will not likely make my ‘forest’ healthier.  Now I get to ponder my role as a co-creator with nature in my ‘forest’.

I am enjoying the shady ash, stately oaks and beautiful maple trees I have.  I am grateful we made the choice to plant them 20 years ago.  I am also feeling lucky that we still enjoy a couple of sentinel elms that survived the disease decades ago. I am grateful for foresters who understand the woodland eco system and can help educate a tree hugger like me to be active in facilitating the health of my favorite outdoor spaces.

What is YOUR role in your backyard? Are you co-creating with nature or letting the consequences of our actions affect nature?


Connection with Nature, Environment, Health, Public policy , , , , , , ,

Green Roof Inspires Joy

July 18th, 2013

CR Library Green Roof (5)I got a tour of the brand new Cedar Rapids Library Green Roof! It has amazing ecological features including the beautiful sea of sedum plants, state of the art water collection system and solar powered pump for irrigation. I will be creating a temporary Nature Explore classroom up there for the September 7 Grand Opening of the Family Connections Library, a collaboration of staff and resources to benefit families with young children. I will be telling you more about this later this summer.

It was exciting to stand up there and feel like I had the sky all to myself.  The robin’s egg blue sky and white puffy clouds immediately captured my attention. The brilliant green carpet of succulent sedum plants stretched out across the roof inviting my hesitant touch and sparking curiosity.  I wanted to see every corner of the space and linger where I could gaze far, far to the horizon. I imagined flying like a bird, privy to the scene of the tops of buildings and trees.

This experience took me directly back to my childhood- feeling the awe of discovering some new and marvelous outdoors. The feeling has an addictive quality, the desire to stay and explore, the flood of curiosity that rises in the mind, the tingling in my hands and feet to experience this new space. Happiness and gratitude flooded my chest and my face gave way to a great ear-to-ear grin. 

One of the goals of my work with Nature Explore is to help adults remember the joy they experience when they connect with nature so they can inspire that experience for the children in their life.  

I was so inspired by the openness and welcoming feeling of the green roof.  What outdoor places inspire this sense of awe in YOU?


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Disaster Self Care

June 27th, 2013

All is Well snapshot  Recently, I found myself holding my breath as I crossed a bridge on one of the swollen rivers. My heart skips a beat when I see reports of flooding on TV.  Images of the Flood of 2008 stream through my mind when I hear stories of friends dealing with flood waters this week. Although I am not directly affected by flooding, my sympathies go out to those who are experiencing this natural disaster in a very real way. 

The symptoms that I just described are reminiscent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Although I am not paralyzed by my reaction to the current events, I am acutely aware that I need to do some self care to remind my body and mind to relax.  My psyche and my body are reacting as if there is a real emergency.  It’s normal to have empathy,  feel sadness or a sense of urgency to help.  It is normal and healthy to experience and act on those emotions. It is when those reactions don’t get re-set and we stay in alert mode when we don’t need to that makes our response un-healthy.  It is like an engine revving up, using more and more gasoline, but not going anywhere because the transmission is still in “Park”.  Getting all revved up does more harm than good and provides extra wear and tear on the whole vehicle.

The Linn County Mind Body Coalition taught Mind Body skills classes all over the city helping those affected directly and indirectly by flooding.   Thanks to grants through the St. Luke’s Foundation and the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation from 2008 – 2012, hundreds of people and a dozen organizations learned stress management techniques to ‘re-set the stress button’.  I was lucky enough to be one of those trained in Advanced Mind Body Medicine at the Center for ‘Mind Body Medicine to teach those classes.  As a result of these efforts, Iowa State University Extension & Outreach created a dozen Mind Body Skills for Self Care YouTube videos to help people practice these techniques on their own.  You can watch these 2-6 minute videos featuring breathing, meditation and movement exercises for your own stress management.

I practice them everyday, often a combination of skills, multiple times a day to keep me focused, calm and well.  Our climate scientists tell us that weather events will continue to be more intense and frequent.  Although we may not have any control over these events, we do have control over our response to them. Don’t wait until you have more serious symptoms like loss of sleep, headaches, aggravation of chronic health symptoms or depression.

We have heard the directive to ‘put the oxygen mask on first’ before helping another person.  In addition to the warning for flooded roads, “Turn around, don’t drown!” I offer this axiom “The best health care is Self Care.”

Take care of yourself,


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