Fifteen Rays of Hope

Note: The video can only be seen by using Safari.
Last week I participated in an ArtStart* project  that focused on African biomes. For four days I was blessed to be among 15  creative young adults. Students researched their biome, created murals, and recorded information about creatures in their biome. The murals became interactive when they were wired for sound.

Leah Terry  15 years old
I have been with ArtStart* for more than 10 years. Maddie and I did our project on the deep ocean biome. This is a really important one for me because I have always loved the ocean. I am a swimmer and water is vital to me. Learning about the endangered species has always been concerning for me, but I think that ArtStart* camps have helped me connect more and learn about all the issues the oceans are facing today.

Leah Terry
Doing this research has really hit me that there are so many beautiful animals becoming endangered because of how humans are treating our planet. I hope that when people see this art that they will connect with it too. If they listen to the research we did and to the problems that ocean animals are facing, maybe they will be inspired to learn more and to help out, at the very least.

Check out the intensity of the class as they are wiring their interactive boards. This video can only be seen on Safari/not Firefox.

Carter Anton – 14 years old
I envision that I could go into any type of art: cooking, dance, music, sculpting, painting and drawing. Ideally I would like to have a career that I could mesh several of those together.
Kate Lindeman – 13 years old      In the class I learned a lot about all the animals and it helped me realize that I should be doing what I can to help. It was really fun to work together as a group; to make decisions and to paint together.

Isabel Lev – 17 years old. I have trouble focusing in school and always try to take an art class because I can relax and bring the tension down. This camp is very important to me. I can’t even remember how old I was when I started here. It is really nice to teach other kids that art is something that you don’t necessarily have to be good at, but use it as a means to express yourself and express things that can be taught to other people.

Carol Sirrine is the director of ArtStart, and with her vision she has given thousands of young people an opportunity to express their art in camps, festivals, and in schools.

To learn more about ArtStart,  go to:


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Good-bye Blue Whale

photo by Cal Academy of Sciences

In May 2017, a blue whale was struck by a ship off the coast of Northern California. A few days later the creature washed up on a beach in Bolinas, CA. Do incidents like this mean that the endangered blue whales could become extinct in the near future? We will examine this question, but first, one of our readers, Lancey Williams, went to see the dead blue whale with her family and shared a first-hand account of her impressions:


” It was totally surreal seeing a creature so large. Also, I was shocked that it was decomposing so quickly, because the whale had been struck by a ship only few days before. It was very sad to realize that so recently the whale had been living its life in the ocean and now it was decaying on a beach. As my son Harrison said, “There is no way that whale is coming back to life.”


Coming to see this whale, reminded me how interconnected all the beings of the Earth are. All creatures are born, they live their lives and die. I am just sorry that this whale’s life was taken from it before its time. We humans try to separate ourselves from nature. Nature is a part of us, but way beyond the reality of our everyday life.


The boys were really taken aback by the smell from its decaying flesh. We could smell the whale from a long way away. They also really wanted to touch the whale, and figure out where the eyes and other parts of the body were.”

Blue Whale – Monterey Bay, CA.
(L. Wade)


World-wide blue whale numbers could be as low as 2 % of their pre-whaling populations. In Antarctica, 1931, 29,000 blue whales were killed. Conservationist Scott McVay, once said about whaling, “Nothing is wasted except the whale itself”. Sadly, less than 1% of the original Antarctic population (250,000) exists today.

Japan, Iceland, and Norway are still hunting a limited number of minke, humpback and fin whales. But all other countries banned whaling over 30 years ago.  Whales today are threatened by getting entangled in fishing nets, ship strikes, and pollution.

To protect blue whales migrating up the California coast, ship captains have been asked to cut their speed in half as they enter the shipping lanes heading toward the Golden Gate Bridge. In spite of all the potential problems, the future for North Pacific blue whale population is bright. The current population estimate for North Pacific blue whale is 2800 whales, roughly 50% of the original population. In fact the North Pacific Ocean has the largest concentration of blue whales in the world.

Would you like to learn more about whales?  This is a very comprehensive book about whales. It was written by a whale biologist for young people who wish to be whale biologists. To learn more about this book go to:



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Fifteen Minutes with Nature

What would happen if you turned off your phone, iPad and other devices and spent time listening and observing nature? This is the challenge I offered up to 4th graders at Cedar Ridge School in Eden Prairie, MN. The students were spread throughout the school forest and recorded their observations. Below is some of the students’ poetry and art work that they completed back in class.

Student Handout for download:




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A Sense of Place – Journey to the Center of the Earth

To see the video of the river, you will need to use your Safari browser.

This is the third in a series of stories about a “Sense of Place”, where a person can feel the wonder on nature. This story takes us to Niagara Cave and Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. The caves are located within miles of the Iowa border, only 2.5 hours from the Twin Cities.

Courtesy of Niagara Cave

Caves are unknown, mysterious, and have their own beauty.
You are deep inside of the Earth now. There are dark passageways, strange sounds, and the oxygen is pure. This cave is relatively untouched by humans and the rawness of nature is all around you.

Walking through a cave is like walking through the insides of your body: bones, organs, and blood.  You are inside of the cave, but at the same time you can feel the aliveness  and beauty inside your own body.

Courtesy of Niagara Cave

Are you walking through your blood vessels now or a passageway at Niagara Cave?  A river ran through this cave carving passageways and now it is dry.

The energy at this pool was pure and serene. I felt a calmness wash over me. I took it in, like a  camel drinking in the desert.

The subterranean waterfall was breathtaking. I could hear the roaring from far away, as I walked through the passageways.  Just two days before, the cave flooded due to a torrential rain and the cave was closed to visitors .


This is what geologist call “karst” country. The land of sinkholes, disappearing rivers, springs, and, of course, caves. Both Niagara and Mystery Cave appear out of nowhere hidden in the corn fields of Fillmore County, MN.

Niagara Cave was discovered in 1924 when 3 pigs went missing at a local farm and the searchers discovered a crack in a nearby sinkhole. They lowered themselves down 50 feet into the cave and found the pigs (alive) and vast rooms and passageways.

Horn coral, 400,000,000 years old – Courtesy of Niagara Cave

If you love geology, both Mystery and Niagara cave have a fascinating history. This area was part of the great inland sea that covered much of North America roughly 400,000,000 years ago. There is fossil evidence in both caves of gastropods, cephalopods and horn coral.

Mysterious formations are around every turn…


To contact: Niagara Cave go to:   507-886-6606
Mystery Cave:   call 866-857-2757.

If you would like to share your story, where you feel the closest to nature, send me your text and photos. It may one or two paragraphs or an entire posting.

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A Sense of Place – Spring ponds

Note to Readers: The audio can only be heard using Safari. Turn the volume to its highest setting.
This is the second in a series of stories about places where we connect to the Earth. Where our hearts are open and the sound of the earth becomes our sound.
In the previous posting, Dale Antonsen shared his story about the land at Big Woods State Park. To read his beautiful story and see his photos  go to:

To experience my sense of place open up your windows at night and let the trilling of the toads seep into your bones. When I hear that call, I know it is time to don my waders and find the nearest pond.

Trilling of the Toads

American Toads began calling in mid April this year

When I am within 10 feet of a singing toad, I can feel the vibration of its call going into my body.

Gray tree frog resting on cattails (notice suction cup toes).

When I  first enter a pond, there is an adjustment period that occurs. I feel unsteady, and wonder if  I am going fall into the muck. The toads and chorus frogs stop calling, wary of my intrusion into their aquatic home.
Then I see a tree frog hiding in the cattails, a lonely chorus frog starts calling at the other end of the pond. A primeval feeling creeps into my body.





The rawness of nature is in that pond. You can’t feel it unless you physically enter the water. This is when the magic occurs. I become another pond dweller and the creatures that are there return to the business of mating.

An American Toad orgy. Males on males. Males on females. Hormones unleashed.


 Leopard frogs hang by the edge of pond. They are the jumping kings of the frog world.

Leopard frog rests on the shoreline.

Leopard frog mating call


Chorus frogs are about the size of a stone. They can be calling all around me and I can not see them until I  finally enter their world and am not just an observer from the outside.

A chorus frog calling in early spring


Wood frogs are early visitors to the pond. When they are at the height of their mating season, the hormones are raging. I have had them approach me, trying to protect the territory that they have established.

Wood frog calling with inflated calling sacs on it abdomen.

Their call is extremely unique, reminding me of a flock of chickens.

This is the place where I feel the most connect to nature. 

If you would like to share your story, where you feel the closest to nature, send me your text and photos. It may one or two paragraphs or an entire posting.




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A Journey of Wonder and Awe at the Big Woods State Park

This is the first in a series of postings about our relationships with the land and the wild places that are in our hearts. Through text and photographs, Dale Antonson shares with readers his connection with Nerstrand Woods.

The path through these woods leads back to myself.

When I need to replenish and tune back into Nature, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park is one destination that is an hour away, just south of the Twin Cities.

Bloodroot  is a true harbinger of spring. This plant has been a Native American cure-all for centuries.

The 1,280 acre park is representative of the forests in south central MN in the early 1800’s.  Contained within the park are basswood, ironwood, sugar maple, elm and ash.  I am grateful to have this place to reflect and absorb the scenic beauty of the earth’s landscape before the Industrial Revolution.

 This is a quiet knoll of ironwood trees I carry in my heart.

The topography of the park includes both flat and hilly terrain for hiking.  Prairie Creek runs through the heart of the park and has carved through the glacial drift over the centuries to the underlying layer of limestone.  Hidden Falls, accessible from the main parking area is a popular place to see this exposed layer of limestone formed 500 million years ago during the Ordovician Period.

 Snow melt and heavy rainfall directly impacts water flow at Hidden falls

 Northfield Pleine Aire painter, Mark Daehlin, captures some of the magic light of Hidden Falls

There are over 50 varieties of wildflowers within the park, many seen along the stepped path down to Hidden Falls.  Technically, these  wildflowers are called spring woodland ephemeral species. Their quick lifespan requires that they flower early in the spring when sunlight hits the woodland floor before the canopy of the trees high overhead has fully developed and filled in.  The flowers fade quickly and the foliage will go into total dormancy by mid-summer. Prime viewing is late April to early May and weather dependent.  There are some areas of the woods that are breathtaking, carpeted with blooming trout lilies. In summer there are later blooming varieties.


 Trout lily

 Trout lilies get their name by their fish shaped speckled foliage

  Dutchman’s Britches  –  A true spring woodland ephemeral species. “White pants” suspended over fern-like foliage.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit –  This exotic flower transforms into a cluster of red berries in the fall.

 Hepatica  – What a thrill to encounter the quiet beauty of this spring gem, heralding the beginning of this new season of growth.

Trillium – The “tri” in trillium means three and refers to trillum’s three leaf pattern and the three petals on its flower.


In the Big Woods, Nature provides you with an opportunity to immerse yourself into something far greater than yourself.  In Japan this is called “Forest Bathing’.  I came across this phrase and it properly describes this experience for me.  You are literally immersed in a 360 degree panorama of life forms far beyond count.


On one hike with my dog we encountered this female gray fox. She was as curious about us as we were of her.


Marsh Marigold grows along Prairie Creek where the exposed limestone and natural springs join forces.

Lyndra, Dale and Jessie are captured in the exposed limestone outcrop along Prairie Creek.


Whether I’m camping there or just hiking through for the day, the Big Woods always enriches my soul.

Posted in Connecting to Nature, Nature Notes, Photography/Art, Seasons | 3 Comments


Article and photos  by Kelly Shea, who is currently living in Puebla, Mexico, studying Spanish and spending some much needed time as a global citizen.

Similar to the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, I find myself here in Mexico in the middle of my own metamorphosis. I am at a point in my life of BIG change. I left a “Corporate America” job back in Boston that provided a lot of comfort and financial security….but not very much happiness. Perhaps like the monarch, I felt an instinctual pull to make this change. One day, the fear of staying in that life finally became more frightening than the fear of going. So I went.


















After about 4 months of living in the 4th largest city in Mexico, Puebla, and studying Spanish, I took a much-needed trip to rest and rejuvenate. When I found out the monarch wintering grounds were only about 4 hours away and the time of year was perfect for their migration to Mexico, I booked the trip immediately. Beautiful natural wonders, open space, wildlife, fresh air and water were calling my name.

The location of the Monarch wintering grounds is right near the border of two states in Mexico: Michoacán and Mexico state. “Las Mariposas Monarcas” migrate to the same small area of Mexico every year. The migration takes 3-4 generations to complete full-circle. The migration begins in Mexico and through multiple generations, the butterflies travel through the US and north to Canada, and then the 4th generation travels all the way back to Mexico from Canada: one of the longest migrations of any species.

Male – showing the thin wing veins and the scent glands on the lower wings. Bright orange color.

Female – thicker wing veins; dull orange color.









The area they migrate to is high in elevation (approx. 10,000 feet), and the cool temperature, availability of water, and the Oyamel fir trees and other trees and shrubs are perfect for them and keep them coming back each year. And they come in the millions.

Like many parts of Mexico, the economy is not great, and finding work and making a decent living wage is very difficult here. The butterflies bring the tourists, and the tourists in turn, bring the resulting jobs for some of the locals. But the forests bring other economic opportunity as well: in the form of deforestation. And so there is always an element of competition between the two. Over the years, the effects of deforestation and climate change have begun to impact the butterfly populations and the area has seen a decline in Monarch populations that migrate to the area each year.

After a 2 hour bus from Puebla to Mexico City, another 2 hour bus from Mexico City to Zitacuaro, and a 30 minute taxi ride, I arrived in the small town of Macheros (population approx. 350 people). The next morning, we walked across town and met our guides and horses. The only way up is an extremely vigorous 2-3 hour hike if you have cardiovascular ambitions. I chose to take a horse with a guide up the dusty, rocky, steep terrain. My guide and my horse worked extremely hard to get me to the top of Cerro Pelón (the name of the mountain and one of several different sanctuaries for the butterflies in the area). The ride took about 1.5 hours.


During the ride up the mountain, I noticed the turn in the trail when I saw the first butterfly…a hint of what was to come. By the time I got off the horse 10 minutes later, and started to walk on the trail, there were more butterflies…

One of my companions on the trip noted that it felt like we were in the middle of a Disney movie. I couldn’t agree more – it truly felt that way. I was breathless with the magic of the experience. In the morning when the temperatures are cold, the butterflies tend to huddle in large masses in the trees, too cold for them to fly. But as the sun rises and the temperature increases, they begin to fly and it is truly magnificent to see.

You can literally hear the sound of millions of wings fluttering – it sounds a lot like a whispering wind. listen…
My apologies…the video can only be seen/heard on Safari – Go to full screen for best resolution.

When you come up on a particularly dense area, you have to watch where you step or you will step on the Monarchs that cover the ground. In some places the population is so dense that they blanket the entire earth from floor to ceiling: ground, shrubs, trees and sky. In this area, the noise of their wings is incredibly loud and beautiful.

To see this incredible video, you have to use Safari, full screen.

To witness the culmination of this final stage of metamorphosis in the monarch’s life is truly breathtaking. The enormity of inspiration I can take from this experience and apply to my own path is infinitesimal. The journey of the monarch is fraught with risks and challenges, yet their instincts lead them toward the environment they need in order to flourish. Though there is much that is unknown on my path ahead, my goal is to follow my instincts each day by listening to what feels right despite the risks, challenges and discomfort that inevitably lie ahead. There is something hopeful in knowing that what works for the Monarchs and the majority of species on this planet can work for me, too.   And in this way, I hope to move toward a more authentic life.


The impact of this experience will be with me for the rest of my life. I will never forget the sound of a million butterfly wings, the smell of the fresh earth and pine needles, the touch of the butterfly legs on my hands and forehead, and the sights of the Mariposas Monarcas that are now permanently etched in my memory. What an incredible gift.



A great comprehensive article about the current health of the populations and the state of deforestation in the area:!po=40.3846

A blog piece by one of the owners of JM Butterfly B&B regarding the recent population changes:



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The Eagle has Landed

​Story, photos, and artwork by James Gregory, Plymouth, MN. This the second submission Jim has made. To see more of Jim’s artwork and the work of his wife, Kristina go to:

Eagle Wing Imprint

   “While skiing across frozen Parker’s Lake right after a new snow, I came across a solitary imprint in the snow with no tracks leading to it. Closer examination indicated that the feathers of an eagle wing, talons and a prey body had fallen from the sky and then leaped in battle to another area where a terrific fight ensued with snow disturbed fifteen feet across.
Then close by  was another area stained with blood, bits of flesh and fur and the remains of a rabbit’s leg. Studying the layout I could see the pattern of the action and could graphically imagine what had taken place.  There was a great struggle on the frozen lake, this is all that was left afterwards. Also I could see the tracks of the scavenging crows that moved in for the spoils.

  The initial image haunted me with it’s iconic wing feathers and the striking ice showing through the snow where the body had hit. After playing around with some sketches I decided to paint a depiction of the battle as shown in the snow and to tie the scuffle areas together with some sweeping brushstrokes representing the combatants. The final painting is a permanent reminder of what I saw that magical morning and a reminder to watch for inspiration from Nature!”

Posted in Nature Notes, Winter | Leave a comment

My Teacher has Four Legs

Editor note: Gretchen and Dick Alford are people from the Dog Tribe and each share their story.

I just returned from the second of our twice daily walks in the back woods with our now 8 year old British yellow lab Bravo, and decided to reflect on what others might describe as a routine experience.  It’s never that with Bravo, however; as each morning and late afternoon provide new scents, sounds and adventures different from yesterday and ‪tomorrow and impossible to replicate.




The seasons change the woods in such remarkable and subtle ways as do the light, bird sounds, squirrel chases, other dogs, neighbors on walks and kids exploring.  I get to learn and appreciate on a daily basis both the complexity and simplicity of life.  My teacher has four legs, bright appealing eyes, a constantly sniffing nose, ears that can hear through windows and doors and a body that moves effortlessly through the woods’ terrain.  If I didn’t need to occasionally reign him in with my words to avoid his going into the roads that surround this little piece of heaven on earth, no words would be spoken at all to communicate fully and oh so clearly.  What a connection, what a gift, what a day brightener no matter what the weather.  I’m more in touch with the universe wherever and whenever I am with Bravo than at any other time. “Bravo to that”!


Having had 6 labs in the field with me over the years, some attributes of each stand out in my memory. All had exceptional hearing, noses and retrieving ability. For half of the 21st century, our latest, 8 and ½ year old British yellow lab Bravo, has stolen my heart like none other.

When we chose him from the litter, we were told he would eat as fast as possible taking no prisoners. After inhaling the contents of his food bowl twice daily ever since, he proceeds to push it aside to capture any kernels that might have escaped. Yet, when we’re at the dinner table, this aggressive eater sits patiently and silently, large brown eyes fixed on the prize, hoping to lick our plates at meal’s end. That same stare shows up around 4:30 every afternoon, as he finds us and reminds us it’s time for a walk and supper.

On mornings when I attempt to sleep in, he goes downstairs to retrieve a shoe which he then brings up to the bed and drops on my chest. “Time to get up, Dad”. I then ask him to “go get the other one”. Sometimes he hits the mark, but often I’m presented with any one of my shoes or slippers he can find in a hurry. He also senses my moods, and quietly retreats to the stairs or loft if there’s tension in the air. He completely understands many hand gestures and one syllable voice commands.

One morning he followed me with my cup of coffee out on our deck, and as usual put his head through the railing so he could stare out at the small woods that is our back yard. He soon spotted and heard the only rooster pheasant I’d ever seen in that woods. He quickly spun around, raced back in the house and headed upstairs. When he returned, he spoke to me without a sound. He sat in front of me, head and pleading/proud eyes poised upward, with a stuffed pheasant in his mouth that he had retrieved from his toy basket. He then squeezed the toy so it would make a squawking sound. Clearly he had made the connection and presented me with the next best thing any master would treasure.

This precious dog knows us, and is still teaching us to this day with his passion, perseverance and grit!!

Bravo’s Pack


Posted in Animals, Connecting to Nature | 2 Comments

Moments with Nature

Paul Vitko is an artist, and has shared some of the work from his own back yard. If you would like to see more of Paul’s work go to:

The challenge is being present in the moment, seeing, translating, and using your heart to create.  Paul Vitko

Ambush bug
Paul Vitko

Creating photographic images can challenge one very deeply. Nature responds to an inner respect for life forms, finding working boundaries, and learning to be ‘non-threatening’. These are all aspects, besides a  camera, that require developing a second nature so you can be free and feeling in the moment.

Paul Vitko

Creating images with a camera is my passion. Traveling around the world  fueled my passion, but soon the photography journey would come closer to home, like right in my backyard. By realizing what an incredible world is in the immediate environment,  I learned to ‘see’ what I wasn’t noticing

Honey Bee
Paul Vitko

An early image of a bee and flower, was my entrance into starting to grow a wildflower garden for continuous opportunities to create images about bees, insects, and flowers. The first garden was very simple, scratched a patch of dirt, scattered seeds, and then in the summer, photographed whatever showed up.

A pollen-covered honey bee
Paul Vitko

I started using a film camera in my late teens; a degree in fine arts (painting & photography); and took many thousands of images. Now when I create images, it is with my experiences, innate feelings, & knowingness. All this is present when I enter a  “zone” where linear time no longer exists. In this space, I feel ‘one’ with the environment, like I am just another life form, being present in the moment. This is where my best work takes place.

Paul Vitko

Hummingbirds bring me great joy, just to be with those moments, sitting, watching and enjoying their movements. The additional enjoyment is creating images during those moments. Yellow jackets and hummingbirds get very competitive around the feeders, especially late summer and fall, very entertaining.

Paul Vitko

Paul Vitko

Just being present in life exposes one to moments not typically noticed, like an eagle landing in a tree in my backyard. About 4 years ago, around the winter solstice, while preparing dinner, this beautiful eagle with a dead squirrel in its talons, landed on a branch that was visible out my kitchen window. My camera was nearby, I went out back to photograph it,  but unfortunately while attempting to get closer, (broke the boundary issue), the distraction was too much and it flew away.

Bald Eagle
Paul Vitko

In my opinion, one can have the fanciest or the simplest equipment, but it gets down to the eye of the person behind the camera. As with most things, there is a timing involved. Will you be present to notice, compose and create the image? It is important, to know how to use your tools, so you can let go of figuring it out. The challenge is being present in the moment, seeing, translating, and using your heart to create.

Hummingbird Moth
Paul Vitko


I have never been stung or bit by an insect in all my years of photographing.

Hide and Seek with a Milkweed bug
Paul Vitko

Cicada Exoskeleton
Paul Vitko

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