While lying in bed, surrounded with a lot more books now (so I’m feeling better!), what better things to do than dream, despair over how little we’ve done (as a prod), and plan our next moves. One of our priorities is our compost bins.

The Starbucks coffee grounds and the neighborhood orphan pumpkins have filled our two Earth Machines to the brim. So much so that we’ve stopped collecting from Starbucks and are praying no more pumpkins come our way, at least until we’ve set up a “second stage” composting area.

I think I’ve figured that stage out now. It will be further away from the backdoor but closer to the future garden and right next to the fenced-in-area for leaf-mold (thanks Opa!), in the far corner of our backyard for immediate access to carbon.

But what kind of bin? I like that stationary three-bin system, with the plexi-glass lid and all, in Storey’s Country Wisdom (*) (p.438). But really it’s too involved and expensive.


  • Portable wire mesh cylinder

I also like a more portable system, and one that is very easy to turn.  Storey’s also has a circular wire mesh bin (p.437): you roll up some 36″ wide 1″ poultry wire to a diameter of about 3 1/2 feet, place it and set 4 to 5 metal or wooden stakes against the inside  of the cylinder, pull it taut and drive in the stakes there it is, after some cosmetic adjustments. The idea is that when it’s time to turn the pile, you simply lift the cylinder up over the stakes, letting the compost tumble out, then move the cylinder next to it and simply fill it up again.

The wire mesh will allow for a lot of aeration, and we plan on putting in a chimney: another wire mesh tube, or long PVC pipe with lots of holes, that sits in the middle of the pile, sticking out quite a bit so that it doesn’t accidentally get filled. It’s supposed to do wonders and also minimizes having to turn the pile.

One great tip I hadn’t read before was to open up the soil underneath the bins with a fork before you set the bin on it: that helps drainage and  facilitates access for the earthworms.

I’ll need to reserve three spaces: two for bins, and one empty one for the turning process, like so:

O  O  O

1   2  3

Set full bins on 1 and 3, and when it’s time to turn, lift up bin on 1, move  to 2, shovel in the tumbled out compost. Then lift up bin on 3, move it to 1, and fill it up with the tumbled out compost.  As they’ll be close together, 1 and 3 are not a stretch. We just need to take care that there’s enough space in between to accommodate the compost tumbling out.

The proposed site is exposed on all sides, and we’re on a hill. There are lots of trees around but in winter they prove to be a windbreak full of holes. But our neighbor has promised us some free planks (the outsides of the trunks he cuts up) and so we’ll make an enclosure around the three bin spaces on all sides except the south.

This system is so simple and portable that, once we have even more compost we can easily set up more of them, and wherever we want on our property.

  • Some concerns

Do we need a lid and do we need to secure the bottom of the bin to keep the critters out? I hope in this second stage, when most of the contents of our Earth Machine have decomposed some, no critters will be interested in them anymore. We’ll keep an eye on it, and if we see critter activity, we’ll anchor the bottom rim of the wire with screws or stakes into the soil (like our Earth Machines), and we’ll devise a wire mesh lid or hatch. Roll with the punches.

As we’ll be filling up that bin or bins immediately, I will also be able to make the timing of our composting more precise. So far we’ve just been throwing in our kitchen wastes, coffee grounds and pumpkin whenever they come round, and we’ve only used a little of the finished compost for our “Bomb-Proof Mulch” experiment. I’ve read (in Storey”s) that if you leave finished compost too long its nutrients deteriorate leach away, but then elsewhere (about every other book) it says you need to put compost through several rounds of heating before it is “finished”. Needs more study!

In any case, we’ll be investing in a compost thermometer. This news made DH salivate: “Oh, one with several sensors and a digital, wireless reader?”” “No honey, an analog meat thermometer, only longer”. Needs careful attention to purchasing!

Any suggestions are very welcome!

(*) This collection of the many of the small Country Wisdom Bulletins is possibly the most useful book I’ve ever bought. And I love the format: bound large newspaper sheets with lots of room for notes.

Sorry for my absence here. I’m ill in bed. Not the little sickness, which asks for bed and tea and a stack of books and reading all day – that doesn’t happen anymore, with a child too young to care yet: it feels like too much of an indulgence. No, a more serious illness, with much coughing and moaning and strange feversleep, and… okay, I admit it, one, only one book: A Sand County Almanac.

Reading the Almanac is a yearly ritual, mostly in winter (along with Rick Bass’ Winter, which I often also read in summer). It is so full of gems and today, half awake, I read this one and I know I had to stir enough so as to share just one of them with you:

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. (p.96)

Well, food for thought! But the thinking will have to wait for this here addled brain…

{This was written yesterday but I had already posed two entries so kept it for today}

I slept badly last night, or rather not at all (this cold is getting the better of me). Ever since having Amie I can function pretty well on very little sleep, on a certain level. But this morning I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the sequel to my novel. I’ve been rereading A Trail Through Leaves by Hannah Hinchman and she got me all excited about patterns in nature, for instance why it is that leaves curl. On our nature walk yesterday Amie brought home a bunch of dead leaves and… well, see for yourself:


I had never drawn a curled leaf before (I usually go for the easy top-down view) and I was pretty intimidated by all those curving, curled lines. But I took my time and looked as closely as I’ve seen Amie looking. And then there it was!

It felt so good, taking that hour or so to draw for myself and by myself. And to get to use my fancy (and barely used) watercolor set, which I keep it hidden from Amie.

Taking one’s time though isn’t so simple in this day and age of the clock. This is the larger view of the desk (Amie’s art desk):


It’s funny and typical: the cup of tea, the art objects, the journal open, but also the dolls and the playdough and especially that clock-clock-tick-tock. Five more minutes and I need to leave to pick her up from preschool.

Oh, you want to see this?


It’s The Potboiler, all 340 pages of it, before it was sent off to the agent (my first attempt). Everyone keep their fingers crossed, please.


The first Outdoor Hour challenge is simple. Read pages 1-8 (did that, read my “book review” here) and head outdoors! The focus is Comstock’s principle that “In nature-study the work begins with any plant or creature which chances to interest the pupil.”

So yesterday we went for an hour-long walk around our block and we brought a large bag for collecting  things. Amie is very into “collecting” and she gathered wood chips, stones, twigs, leaves, cones large and small, pine needles, maple seeds, and a feather.

As we walked we discussed the colors we saw, the sounds we heard, and even what the wind smelled like (“sour,” she said, but honestly I don’t think she’s even got sweet and salty straightened out yet). We checked out some strange berries, and Amie told me “they’re not for us for eating, but for the birds”.


We looked closely at two trees. One that had three things growing on it: moss, lichen, and some kind of climbing plant. We found it pretty amazing, that those are not the tree’s leaves, but the leaves of a different plant that lives on the tree! The other, otherwise bare tree was hollowed out, and we speculated about what had damaged it and what had been eating it, and whether it lived in the tree. (Click on the pictures for larger image)

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Back home I got Amie’s small table out of the guestroom – it was banished when we acquired her large desk – and baptized it our nature table.  We assembled all our treasures (along with some bugs that had come along for the ride).


Since then Amie has frequently returned to the table to rearrange things or to finger the small piece of bark with lichen on it that we found on our driveway.  the lichen look like tiny plants, but they feel so crusty and crumbly…

Drawing in our field books wasn’t part of this first challenge, but today, when she saw my own drawings of this morning (but about that tomorrow), Amie was keen to draw. It was a true exercise in observational drawing and magic to behold! I took a whole series of pictures, more of which you can see via the Flickr badge in my sidebar.

First it wasn’t clear to me what she was drawing, but it was to her!

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Then she moved on to draw and paint the feather – amid much speculation about which bird it used to belong to.

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The result:


I’m not sure what the two things are that we will be returning to throughout the week (part of the challenge). I’m reading up on the lichen (Comstock, p.715) and the feather (pp.29-33), etc. But I’m going to see where Amie takes it. Like Lori says, Don’t plan ahead, Plan along!

Riot for Austerity fist with Thermometer

We have one month of Rioting for Austerity under our belts.  Let’s see how we did.

1. Gasoline: down but still a long way to go: 19%

We’ve been extra careful with our driving. DH has gone into work a little more often than usual, but for the rest we’ve managed to consolidate our driving into absolutely necessary trips that comprise of school drop-off, DH’s drive to the shuttle, shopping and library downtown once/twice a week, and an occasional Freecycle/Craigslist pickup in town.

The result: 7.939 gallons of oil/person. That’s 19% of the US National Average. Sounds good, only that’s just one month. At the end of this month, for instance, we’re driving to DC: that’ll blow the budget! This is one category that needs to be calculated over a year, though it’s still good to keep a monthly tally, of course.

2. Electricity: 33%

This was another one of our weak points and there’s good news here too: our last meter read indicated our household used up 300 KWH last month, that’s down from 411 KWH in October but still 33% of the US national average. The goal is 90 KWH per household per month.

So let’s see, what is plugged in? Constantly: our oil furnace controls, the radon remediation system, one thermostat, three clocks, our cable modem and wireless, the phone, the fridge (old upright with freezer on top). Intermittently: our  laptops, the lights at night (only where necessary and all are CFLs), the washer (we wash cold and line dry in our basement), our electric stove and oven.

Where can we cut back more? Cooking, for one.  As it gets colder, we cook and bake more. We’re working on a hay box for stew and soups, and a smaller one for the teapot to outdo our present tea cozy, so I don’t have to use the microwave that often. We microwave more (the choice between “cook on high for 2 minutes” and “cook in oven for 30 minutes” is an easy one) even though the results are less crispy. In summer we plan to have our home-made solar cooker ready. Sharon has 25 tips for  saving energy and money when cooking here.

As for some of the less “energetic” appliances, we can unplug them and run them on rechargeable batteries charged by a solar battery charger. We could try this with some  reading lights as well – those in any case are good to have in case of emergency or for camping out. Gotta find a good affordable one first (any suggestions?).

We’re also looking for a way to hook a (solar-charged) battery pack to our oil heater controls – I don’t like the idea that if the electricity goes (if only because a tree falls on the lines somewhere), we’d have no heat.

3. Heating (and Hot Water): 85%

The weather turned nasty a couple of weeks ago, and our usage of heating oil – which also warms our water – shows it. Even though we’ve been Freezing our Buns at 63-64 F during the day and 58 F at night, we’ve consumed almost as much oil in the last month as we did in the previous 4 months: 52.7 gallons. That is 85% of the US National average, but then that average is calculated over the full year, so I’m not too shocked about it.  November, December and February will naturally be our highest oil-consuming months. This is one category we’ll have a better picture of once a whole year is out.

Still, we’re working on this. We’re having the last 10% of the house insulated on the 6th. And there are some experiments in the works. For instance, we picked up an about-to-be-trashed double-paned window today via Freecycle and we are hoping to put it in a solar thermal collector of our own making. This has only just reached our drawing boards, so I don’t know when I’ll be reporting on this one. Lastly, we’re still saving up for our super-efficient wood stove.

4. Garbage: 3%

This is unchanged. We produced 3 lbs. of garbage on average, so at 0.15 lbs a person a day we made the reduction  (.45 lbs) easily.

5. Water: 15%

Our water consumption has gone down: 458.83 gallons of water, which is 15% of the US national average. We’ll keep chipping away at it…

6. Consumer Goods: 44%

We have been following a more or less strict regimen for both consumer goods and food and we have for the most part stuck close to it. Between 1 November and 30 November we spent about $350 on new consumer goods and $50 on used (Craigslist). Most of this sum went to the “homestead” (mason jars, 7 bags of Moo Doo, 2 much needed comforters, candles) and crafting materials (glue and paints) for our Homemade Christmas. Still, they all count. That puts us at 44% of the US national average. Chippin’ – we’re chippin’…

7. Food: at a loss…

We have been extra careful with our food purchases, which account for a large percentage of our monthly expenses. We had two moment-of-weakness-restaurant-take-outs (aaargh!) and one restaurant visit that was made of necessity (sigh).

Now I am at a loss as to how to calculate the three categories. I was doing so by dollars, which gave me this:

a. Local, sustainably grown: 13.5% – where at least 70% is desired.
b. Dry, unprocessed bulk goods: 8.5% – where no more than 25% is desired.
c. Wet goods & conventional: 78% – where no more than 5% is desired.

which is pretty bad. But then I realized that, once we start growing our own, that is, free food, the whole reckoning will be out of whack, unless I assign some sort of dollar value to each item I pull out of the soil… Reckoning by items, which is what the Riot website suggests, is difficult too, because some, like a bag of flour, last months, while others, like a tub of yogurt, last two days… By weight? Keeping score is tough on this one. If I just eyeball it honestly, it is bad, probably as bad as the percentages (by price) above.

Needless to say I am looking forward to growing our own food next year. I think we can make a huge dent in the cost of food while also balancing the 3 categories better. But while we wait for Spring we are working on getting a chest freezer so we can take advantage of local sales. We bought a whole lot of (used) mason jars and are now on the look out for a decent but not too pricey (new) pressure canner. We’re also drawing up plans for a root cellar. So much can still happen here!

Food is the category where we perform the worst, but also the category that gives me the most hope!


Though I am still feeling sick, we went outside. It was a good day for it  and Amie really wanted to.  It was bright, with some clouds moving in, a few gusts of wind but otherwise not too blustery, and unseasonably mild (mid 40s). We bundled up and went for a long walk around the block. Our neighborhood is what they call “semi-rural,” so there are lots of trees and some wildlife,  and very few cars on the roads.

  • Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study

In the meantime I had read quite a bit of Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study (free download here).  The book was written in 1911 for elementary school teachers. First there is a introduction on the philosophy of “teaching” nature to young children. Then it launches right into lessons about the individual objects of nature study (animals, plants, earth and sky). Because it approaches nature study through the eyes of the child, the lessons are simple and I don’t think the more recent changes in biology, zoology and genetics for instance have outdated it much.

It’s a clunker, running to almost 900 pages, so a bit intimidating, but paired with the Handbook of Nature Study website, which offers a flexible framework of weekly challenges, I feel more confident in getting good experiences out of it.

  • Simple

Comstock’s is the kind of nature teaching I wish I had had as a child and that I want Amie to begin (and continue) with. Comstock sums it up:

“Nature study consists of simple , truthful observations that may, like beads on a string, finally be threaded upon the understanding and thus held together as a logical and harmonious whole” (p.1).

A lot in that dense sentence appeals to me. First, the calm and methodical progression from particular and personal experiences, which are nothing but basic observations that employ all the senses of the child, to their slow synthesis by the understanding into a coherent body of knowledge. In fact, I like most of all the beginning of this progression: that color of that bird at our feeder, that sound of that gust of wind through our now almost leafless oaks, as they occur to that child. My child.

Truly, what else is there to a child of three like Amie than elementary pieces of experience? I can indicate, or try to tease from her with questions of “how?” at most some very simple indications of cause and effect, but really she still revels in the particular present. That is where she starts. That then is where her study of nature should start.

  • Truthful

The child should be able to make observations that are “truthful” in that her senses should accurately grasp and process these simple facts. That is not so self-evident, for children or for adults. How often do we come home from a nature walk with literally nothing? Perhaps we were overwhelmed with experiences, but that’s doubtful. More than likely we were simply not tuned in, not paying attention.

Paying attention to the presence of life going on all around us takes practice and, for us adults, some pretty conscious effort. Kids need mostly practice and a little guidance. They’re naturals at sucking it all up, but they’ll stayed “tuned” only if we nurture it from the beginning.

The only way to find out if the child has accurately observed something is to ask her to verbalize her experience. So part and parcel of “getting tuned” is “getting words”. Comstock writes that nature study cultivates in the child “a perception and a regard for what is true, and the power to express it.” It “aids both in discernment and in expression of things as they are”. (p.1) Words should of course never be forced upon the child as vocabulary lessons, but the adult should know them (for instance by reading the “lessons” in the book in advance) and simply use them often and as naturally as she can.

  • Moral

“All things,” writes Comstock (still on page 1), “seem possible in nature; yet this seeming is always guarded by the eager quest of what is true. Perhaps half the falsehood in the world is due to lack of power to detect the truth and to express it.”

Here Comstock embraces the moral dimension of nature study. That is, if the child can see something in nature for what it really is, she won’t grow up in ignorance and falsehood about herself and her fellow beings.

She will first of all be tuned into what is naturally right and wrong. “Perhaps  the most valuable practical lesson the child gets from nature-study is a personal knowledge that nature’s laws are not to be evaded. Wherever he looks, he discovers that attempts at such evasion result in suffering and death. A knowledge thus naturally attained of the immutability of nature’s ” must ” and “shall not” is in itself a moral education. The realization that the fool as well as the transgressor fares ill in breaking natural laws makes for wisdom in morals” (p2).

In other words: the (now older) child will see that we can’t mess with nature with impunity.

  • Life

That brings us to another essential element of nature study as Comstock envisions it: “The child should see definitely and accurately all that is necessary for the recognition of a plant or animal; but in nature-study, the observation of form is for the purpose of better understanding life. In fact, it is form linked with life, the relation of ‘being’ to ‘doing’.” (p.8)

That word, “life”: how we take it for granted!

If the child observes that something is alive, just like she herself is alive, and all that that entails, that it is a liveliness that is unalienable and inseparable from the vast web of everything else… And if the child would then not take life for granted: her own, that of her fellow human beings, that of the earth and of her other creatures… It is too big a hope for me to speak out loud, but I carefully and quietly nourish it within myself.

  • What do I do?

As for my own role, I am eager to accept many of Comstock’s other reassurances:

1. That “nature study is science brought home” (p.21) and that it can unfold in our own backyard and neighborhood.  Good, because that trip to the Grand Canyon is looking less plausible by the minute.

2. That fifteen minute walks are plenty. Also good, because on some days Amie soon asks to be carried, and the more she grows, the less I’m up for it.

3. That “In nature-study any teacher can with honor say, ‘I do not know’.” Phew: I say that all the time. That’s why I have so many books: to look things up in and go “Wow! Listen to this!”

4. That in that regard, the teacher “establishes between herself and her
pupils a sense of companionship which relieves the strain of discipline, and gives her a new and intimate relation with her pupils.” That is what I am looking for: companionship with my daughter.

5. And that we really shouldn’t teach in the usual classroom sense of the word. I don’t want to be her teacher: I want her to be able to teach herself and to teach me.

  • Today then

So today we took up the Handbook of Nature Study’s first Challenge… but I will report on it tomorrow!

Maybe you recall Amie’s observational drawing of her “Owlie bank” last week. It wasn’t finished yet. We returned to it over the weekend and she water colored it in.

She has taken over my habit of trying the paint in the margin, to see whether it’s the right color. Is that the right orange?


She observed that she had left out the orange and purple feathers on the owl’s forehead. But she was cool about it: “It’s okaaaay. We’ll do that next time.”


All finished. Now what?


Besides birds, we have also been observing the resident squirrel eating our three ears of Indian Corn and guarding it from other squirrels. He/she somehow got it down from our porch light.

Amie was enthralled by how he carried a kernel in his mouth, ran along the balcony ledge, then down and through the drain hole, just a little bit out into the front yard, there dug a little hole, dropped in the kernel and covered it with some leaves.

“He’s making little cupboards!” she said. She laughed, seeing him so jittery and secretive and going back and forth and back and forth.

He is very used to us now and often looks in on us. Very quaint. He sits on the balcony’s ledge, on his bum, looks straight at you, holding and rubbing his little front paws under his chin, stretching his body up, up… I love the thick white pelt of his belly. Sometimes he just stops and stays, not moving, for a minute or so. Amie and I wave at him and jump up and down (a mere three feet away, with the window in between) but he doesn’t budge.

On other news: the novel is totally, absolutely, finally finished, edited and formatted and everything. I’m sending it off on Monday.

I’m not going to give too much away. I’m going to try. If you know us, please look away, or not too closely, or don’t look at the pictures (okay, I won’t put any pictures). Sigh…

We are making all our Christmas gifts this year ourselves and out of materials we already have (most of them trash and recycling bin bound stuff).

Funny, writing that: “all our Christmas gifts this year”. We’ve actually never been Christmas gift-givers. True, we don’t celebrate Christmas, but you know what I mean: it’s the holidays, and it’s nice to give, and receive. The reality is that I did always have the ambition to give my loved ones that something special, but when I considered the cost of treating everyone to what they deserved, I was too daunted to go ahead even for my closest friends. In the end not even DH got anything, and neither did I. :(

But now we are doing this frugal living experiment (we spend a max of $125 a week on food and all consumer goods, including books), in the spirit of the Riot 4 Austerity. And when the time to think of gifts came around, I found that I am no longer daunted! Shedding  any considerations of the money cost of gift-giving has liberated me to now get to giving!

Amie and I started early, several weeks ago. We made up a list of what we could give and who we would give to. Then we started gluing and painting and drawing and cutting and sewing, oh it’s been a feast!

The cost as well as the crippling expectations have fallen away. It’s home and handmade, by myself (not known as a particularly handy or crafty person) and a three-year-old… People will just have to love it! Not that that stops me from putting heart and soul into it. On the contrary, oftentimes I find myself still at it while Amie drifted away an hour ago.

Okay, so there are some expectations, but they are not the usual ones that come with Christmas gifts (did I spend enough? is it what they expected? is it the right color? will it get lost in the pile of other gifts, more fabulous than mine?). These gifts, simply because they’re home and hand made by my daughter and I, are of a wholly different world altogether.

You’ll see…


I’m warm because I’m sitting in the sunlight, but it’s coooold out here: 20 F this morning (there’s no wind). The Red-Bellied Woodpecker that is supposed to be in Florida is still here. Can it really be our bird feeder that keeps him here? The day before yesterday I believe I saw a new bird: a Slate-Gray Junco, but I’m not sure. In any case I get pretty excited about it, and Amie caught on.

We spent most of that day and yesterday watching the birds at the feeder (through the living room window), talking about them, listening to their songs “in” this book, and looking them up in the bird guides, mostly Sibley’s Field Guide and also a big book with Audubon’s original watercolors.

Then I said: I’m going to draw that Junco in my art journal. All the while as I drew it, I talked about how the bill is yellow, and the legs grayish and look at those claws and what a small eye that is, and is this the right shade of gray? Amie was hooked.

First she wanted to copy the (made-up) owl I had drawn in my journal earlier (to the right in the picture above). She’s very into water colors now. One of the attractions is that I let her use them all on her own. The acrylic paints are in big bottles and when mixing them even I spill them all over, and they’re of course not so easy to clean up. But the watercolors and water bottle are all hers. I will look out for a nicer set of paints for her. Right now we use a $2 set from CVS.

She drew the big owl in felt pen and spelled the word O W L for me to write. I encouraged her to make it big, to add some legs (how many? two legs and two wings?), and helped by water coloring  in the left wing. The rest is all hers. It is such a powerful image! And then she spontaneously drew that little bird next to it. Can you see it? I was so surprised! She must have been paying very close attention to my more realistic drawings.


Then she wanted to draw the Robin and the Cardinal. We selected a new art journal for her from my stash. The earlier one didn’t work out because the paper is colored and lined. This one is a real sketchbook, “Like yours, Mama!”. This one too is a collaborative effort, though: just like she often draws in my art journal, I (when asked) will draw in hers.

We looked really closely at the birds in Sibley’s guide, which  features not pictures but paintings (which might be easier to copy?). Amie then requested that I draw the bird and she color it in (bird on the right below). While we worked we talked about the look of the birds’ shapes and colors, even what it would feel like to hold one in our hand, how small and soft and scared it must be, and maybe we could feel its heartbeat… We used a lot of words, tried to make our descriptions more accurate, and blended a lot of senses and experiences.

Then she drew and colored in the Robin on the left.


We talked about how it looks very much like a baby bird, with little wings, and a big eye. Notice the claws: she was surprised and impressed that birds have claws. We discussed how they need them to climb and live in trees. We took care to name the bird: Robin is its last name, Tom its first. We also practiced some reading and spelling while we were at it.

We came back full circle when she noticed her “owly-bank owl” observing our doings on the window sill. She wanted to paint that as well.


The painting you see in the picture isn’t finished. She was tired after an hour of painting birds. But she was by now paying such attention to the shape of the object that she was almost drawing blindly: that’s why the lines don’t hook up. It was amazing to see!

In the evening Amie returned to the birds and draw a Cardinal:


For all of this I am of course getting lots of information and inspiration from the Camp Creek Blog. And DH managed to download Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study, and it arrived at the library for me, so we’ll be following the Handbook of Nature Study blog challenges as well.

I hope Amie gets a lot out of this: fun (first of all!), relaxation, skills to express herself in drawing and painting, language and observation skills, and an understanding and love of nature.