300 trees: our carbon-offset plan

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Before our first trip to Ireland in 2017 I hadn’t been on an airplane in more than 15 years. I had literally flown one time since 911 (then barely pregnant with Sage, on a work trip for the conservation organization I worked for).

And not unlike when I was doing a lot of travel for conservation education, I was strangely unaware of the environmental impact of our trip just those few years ago.

When we flew again as a family in 2020 (a 6 week trip to Iceland and back to Ireland once more), things felt different. After I purchased our tickets, my consciousness shifted, and I began contemplating the carbon footprint of both of these adventures (with ever-increasing discomfort).

With climate change no longer a future prediction and very much a here-and-now reality, I had discomfort around my decision to load my family on a plane for the sake of education, life experience, and pleasure.

Honestly, as a lifelong environmental advocate and activist, it felt more than a little selfish.

So while we were in Ireland, I proposed a partial solution to my family: instead of making birthday gifts for me this spring, would they all pitch in and plant enough trees to offset our carbon footprint for our family’s air travel?

Everyone was enthusiastically on board.

We settled on 100 trees, then quickly doubled it to cover our first trip as well. 200 trees. That should do it.

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I ordered the bulk of them from our annual county tree sale before I got a bug to plant willows as well (not offered through the county). Willows are not only excellent at water-uptake (something we desperately need here in this valley), but they’re stars at carbon sequestering, trapping more than most other species and holding it there, underground, even after they die. And I’m getting excited to make baskets again, and don’t want to import reed from overseas to do it, so willow baskets it is.

Lupine and I spent an afternoon in late winter taking cuttings at a generous friend’s willow farm. These we set in buckets of water until root nodes appeared, then Pete planted each in tree flats to allow further growth before planting.

With the willows, our 200 became 300.

300. That felt like a solid number of trees to not only offset our second trip but our first as well, along with a few past family road trips in our vintage RV.

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Black walnut and white pine, willow and sugar maple, black birch, white spruce and elderberry, rose and more. A windbreak, a food forest, a medicine garden, a basketry grove, a bit of flood insurance, and some earth-cooling shade.

Plus a carbon-offset for our travels.

Yes, please. Bring it.

Late last week, the tree order arrived, and this weekend we got to work.

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On Saturday, we laid out a circuitous path from our house to the creek, then lined it with an assortment of shade-giving, moisture-loving trees.

The next day (snow flurries be damned!) we put in a windbreak up the valley from our property, something we’ve dreamed of since moving here more than 7 years ago.

After two days of steady planting, we still have more trees left than we’ve put in the ground.

But I’m not discouraged.

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Planting 300 trees is no joke. I had planned a tree planting birthday party, but: social distancing. So it’s just us. And while our moods shifted as dramatically as the weather, we came out of the weekend satisfied by our accomplishments.

In the past 48 hours we were rained on, snowed on, and pelted with sleet, yet still managed a sunburned. There was dirt in my hair, my mouth, and my ears, and I was so tired yesterday that I accidentally blew my nose in my eyeglasses cloth after forgetting why I pulled it from my pocket.

I’d say I’m a hot mess, but after yesterday’s blustery planting, “cold mess” seems more appropriate.

What a weekend. What a project! Only a couple hundred more to go.

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A quick postscript: we all make changes in our lives with positive and negative environmental consequences. Do I propose everyone do this? Of course not. Just like homeschooling my kids or planting a garden, it is a deeply personal choice. That said, I do encourage each of us to look deeply at the impact of our choices. And then if you have the privilege to do so, choose actions that yield a lighter impact.

From choosing second-hand clothing to biking to work, buying organic food to going meat-free one meal each week, buying a more sustainable vehicle to saying no to air travel: most of us can find small and big ways to begin making an impact.

What about you? Is there a small change you are eager to make to tread more softly on the earth?

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Have you participated in a purchased or personal carbon-offset? Let’s inspire each other. What was your method to lighten your footprint on the planet? 

May Day bouquets: a gift from the Unplugged Family Activity Book

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I have always delighted in celebrating the small in-between holidays, to bring a bit of joy to an otherwise ordinary week.

May Day, or Beltane, is certainly on my simple favorites shortlist.

And while we normally celebrate with our friends and neighbors at our community May Day Folk Festival (complete with a colorful, ribboned, towering May Pole), this year we’re back to the basics of celebrating at home.

Thankfully, we can still keep at our favorite May Day tradition, global pandemic or not: tiptoeing around the neighborhood delivering scrappy bouquets to unexpecting neighbors. (Though full disclosure: after 7 years, they *might* just be onto us.)

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A simple gift of love, cheer, and springtime magic. What could be finer–today more than ever?

A simple how-to for you and your family is below–a gift from my soon to be released Unplugged Family Activity Book.

So make up a few bouquets, then leave them hanging from your neighbor’s fence, front gate, paper box, or doorknob, and celebrate the delight of having delivered a bit of cheer during these difficult days.

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One note before we get to the download: For those who have the means, I’d be delighted if you pre-ordered a copy of my book as soon as you are able. As you may have guessed, launching a book during a global pandemic isn’t exactly idyllic timing (who knew!?). But, eternal optimist that I am, I’m going to take it as a shining opportunity to align families with wonderful ways to lean in and connect with one another and each other during this unprecedented season. Think of this as a homemade version of summer camp, but at a fraction of the price.

The upshot is this: pre-ordering is not only a fabulous way to support my work, but it also ensures that more libraries and booksellers find their way to my work and pick up copies for their shelves. Win-win-win.

Order directly from your hometown, independent book shop, or pick up a signed copy straight from me. Then tell all your friends (because that really helps, too). 

Thank you. It means so much.

Now… enough chatter. On with the tutorial! The simple upcycled May Day Bouquet how-to is below! Have at it, and happy merry-making.

Enjoy, friends. Stay well out there!
Love,
Rachel

click the link below

Neighborhood Bouquet Surprises

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Signs of Spring Scavenger Hunt: a gift from the Unplugged Family Activity Book

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As spring arrives with so many of us hunkered down safe at home, I can’t help but wish that my new book was already out in the world and in your hands. Because what a lovely resource it would be right now, with kids and parents finding their way, searching for new routines and rhythms during uncertain times.

So I talked with my publisher and we decided that the finest thing we could do right now was to pre-release a bit of content from The Unplugged Family Activity Book, not only to those who pre-ordered their copy already but to everyone. So that all of you can enjoy a bit of the simple goodness we tucked into these pages.

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Today, I’m sharing the “Signs of Spring Scavenger Hunt” for you to print out and enjoy with your kids.

Suitable for those in rural, urban, and suburban areas alike, as long as you can still go for walks in your region you can dive in and enjoy.

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While I know too well how difficult it can be to motivate ourselves up and out the door, each time my kids and I have done it in the past two weeks, we have found that our anxiety and frustration drop and our spirits and energy lift.

Here’s hoping you enjoy the same magic when you grab this pre-release and head out the door.

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A lifeline

Before you head outside, can I ask a favor of you? As things rapidly change in the book sales world with current events, the finest thing you could possibly do is to pre-order a copy of The Unplugged Family Activity Book now and spread the word about my new book to your family and friends. (You can read more about the book here.)

If you have the means and will want your own copy eventually, ordering now is the very best way to ensure that book stores pick up copies once my book is released.

And because of the crazy times, we are all finding ourselves in, getting our pre-order numbers where we need them will be challenging at best.

If you have a local, indie book shop in your neighborhood, please order from them. They could use a lifeline right now, and this is a small and simple way to do it.

If you don’t have an independent book store in your area, please order from me! That’s a lifeline as well at the moment. You can find my book pre-order page here.

Spam me with your questions about the book (or anything). And many thanks, dear one.
And now, let’s get our scavenger hunt on! Find the downloadable PDF below.
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Signs of Spring Scavenger Hunt

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Enjoy!

Note: If you don’t have access to a home printer, invite your kids to illustrate their own versions to bring outside, or simply transfer the list of words to a notebook.

The included illustrations were done by my talented friend Lucky Nielsen of Happy Go Lucky Creations. (Lucky also created the sweet herbal paper dolls from Herbal Adventures.) Thanks, Lucky! 

 

 

As spring unfurls

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Spring is unfolding especially slowly this year. We’re still warming the house with the wood stove each morning, and as recently as last weekend there has been a blanket of icy snow on the ground. It makes us appreciate each warm or sunny day that much more, I suspect.

And there’s still warmth enough for tromps through the marsh and foraging expeditions in the pastures; prairie burns and garden prep.

However cold, spring awakens us. Stirs us back to life with the promise of warmer days to come.

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Last week (despite threat of snow) the kids and I loaded up and headed for Milwaukee. My sister lives there and leads a coalition to address children’s mental health needs (The Milwaukee Coalition for Children’s Mental Health). Lupine and I planned to join her for the day to help teach a workshop about herbs and herbal self-care.

It was an energetic day filled with parents and grandparents, community organizers, and some truly fabulous kids. We talked about home herbalism, urban foraging, making remedies, and our general adoration of plants. Together we infused oils, made a balm, and blended an herbal tea from my new book, Herbal Adventures.

We made seed bombs with native wild bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) seeds that I gathered last fall, and engaged in some serious earthworm appreciation (complete with screaming!). What fun!

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Settling in back home yesterday, Lupine and I realized it was May Day, and couldn’t resist spreading a little magic around the neighborhood, as befits the day. Every year we stealthily deliver May Baskets (amidst raucous giggles!) to several of our neighbors. How could we resit?

This small, annual celebration is one of my greatest delights.

Because the truth is, it’s this easy to bring joy, love, and magic to those around us. To lift someone up. And to celebrate the earth and the turning of the year.

A few wildflowers, a sprig of catnip, and a sprinkling of the fairy dust that each of us carries.

Oh, spring. How I love you.

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Fire and wind; sun and snow

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20190331-DSC_3113Spring is prairie burn season.

And up and down our quiet valley, you’re bound to smell smoke most evenings.

There are many restored prairies (or in-process restorations) in our neighborhood. Most are an endangered ecosystem known as “goat prairies”. In the absence of fire, these small, steep, dry, and largely south-facing prairies are readily overtaken by juniper trees.

When this occurs, the rare herbaceous, reptilian, and invertebrate occupants are shaded into scarcity.

But with the help of fire, we can (perhaps counterintuitively) help coax them back to life.

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Don’t get me wrong. It’s terrifying.

Inherently so. Because, of course, you are intentionally creating a leaping wall of fire surrounded on all sides by dry grass and tinder forests. Something that in normal life we do our best to avoid.

But it is also terrifying because the first time we had a prescribed burn, some six years ago, that fire jumped the break and raced across dry grasslands that we never intended to burn.

It was one of the more terrifying experiences of my life.

I didn’t talk about it here when it happened because it was too raw and I felt too vulnerable, and the what-ifs kept rolling through my mind.

What if someone had been hurt? What if it damaged a neighboring farm, cabin, or house? What if we hadn’t been able to bring it back under control? Acres burned, and the half-dozen or so volunteers who were there for the burn worked tirelessly to extinguish it, literally stomping the last flames as the fire trucks arrived.

I can still picture Sage, then ten, beating out flames with his jacket, his face like stone, his eyes flashing with primal fear.

As one friend put it, we call them “controlled burns”, but that’s a little arrogant. It’s fire. So they’re never completely under our control. 

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But that was six years ago. This year (and honestly, every year since that first burn), it went off without a hitch. If you look closely at photos above and below, you can see my family (and one neighbor) illuminated in the firelight. We’ve mostly worked through the fear that took root after that first fire gone awry.

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We’re providing what the prairie needs to continue to thrive.

While it is terrifying, it’s also exhilarating.

This year so far we have two burns under our belts, plus two more for Pete. The first was on adjoining restored prairies that we share with one neighbor; the second with an adjoining restoration in the other direction.

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Since the burns have extinguished and the hillsides cooled, we (and much of Wisconsin/Minnesota) have been hit by a spring storm that is tearing down power poles and uprooting ancient trees, coating interstates and backroads in ice, and generally being moody and unpleasant.

Indeed, we lost a tree of our own early in the morning of the storm. I heard it fall in the still darkness of early morning, sounding something like snow sliding off of a metal roof, and landing with a “whoof” on the ground.

Sage came into the room and asked if I saw it fall. He happened to look outside just as it went down.

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Last Autumn…

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Last Thursday…

But there’s more to that story as well.

You see, we have dozens of trees around our yard, barn, and home, and hundreds more in our woods. Yet last week, walking by the box elder that frames our house, I felt something. I paused, and laid my hands on its trunk.

Pete came around the corner and saw me standing there, listening to the tree. He raised one eyebrow. “The tree wants you to know that it looks healthy, but it’s going to fall soon. And it doesn’t want to fall on our house. And it wants you to know that it’s okay if you cut it down instead,” I told him. “Okay. We should do that,” he replied, somehow rolling with my bizarre and unexpected tree whispering.

One week later it fell.

Unaware of our conversation about this tree, Sage told me that in the night before it fell he woke and looked out his window. He wondered what would happen if that tree fell. Would it hit his bedroom? Then he looked out in the early morning darkness just in time to see it fall. It landed away from the house, thankfully.

I miss that tree already. It was “just” a box elder, sure. But one that I was fond of. It’s been here since long before we moved in, and there’s a hole with it gone. We will use the branches and trunk as a base for a few new permaculture (huglekultur) garden beds that we’re building in the next few weeks. Then this tree that whispered to us can nourish our family as well.

When it fell, it landed squarely on my greatest garden love, a hedge of elderberries that I planted three years ago from cuttings started by a friend. All things considered, the elder looks pretty good, but a few plants were lost to the blow that the storm and tree dealt.

After a friend requested cuttings, I realized that it was a perfect opportunity to transform this two-fold loss into something magical. So this morning I gathered all the broken branches I could find, and made cuttings to root, plant, and share.

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As the old saying goes, “When life gives you a downed tree and damaged elder bushes, make garden beds and propagate medicine.”

Or something like that.

Camp Hygge

The kids and I slipped away for a little “Camp Hygge” time beside the river this week. We embarked last Friday for one week away: our small car piled high with too many books, too much food, and more knitting projects than we could complete in a year. And, of course, three sets of snowshoes and cross-country skis.

We brought board games and sourdough starter; art supplies and wool socks; read-aloud books and bags of yarn. Everything we’d need for a hyggely week away from home, snuggled down in the northwoods at my parent’s cabin.

While it has been a snowy winter, we honestly had no idea how much snow would greet us upon our arrival. I can’t recall the last time we’ve had so much snow! Thigh deep! (And I’m nearly 6′ tall.) So much show, like all of my childhood winter dreams come true.

Needless to say, we’ve spent much of each day outside–snowshoeing, skiing, making ‘camp’ in the woods, and building a quinzhee (our favorite sort of snow fort).

Then back inside we would go, for hot tea, comfort food, and time thawing out by the fire.

Each night, our sleep was long, well-earned, and deep.

On one favorite day, we packed up a can of baked beans, some cold sausages, and a few oatmeal cookies. We added matches, a hand saw, and pocket knives, then strapped into our old woven snowshoes and headed into my family’s woods.

We walked atop of the knee- to thigh-deep snow for some time, then, finding a sunny clearing in the balsams and hemlocks, we set to work clearing snow, gathering firewood, and making camp.

It was only a day camp, but cozy and homey nonetheless.

After a spell, our fire crackled, and our lunch sizzled.

We spent the day in our makeshift camp before extinguishing our fire, packing up, and returning home. We rolled back inside cold and damp, but well fed and contentedly tired, then warmed ourselves with tea and a fire in the fireplace.

After a full, delicious week away, we stumbled back home to the Driftless last night. So happy to reunite with Pete (this is a trip that just the kids and I take each year), Moose and Grandpa (the dogs), the barn cats, and this quiet valley we call home.

We returned much changed.

We are more sore and more fit; more fed and relaxed. We are simultaneously more tired and more rested than we’ve been in a very long while.

And all of it felt just right.

Back home, unpacking our cooler and our car, another adventure is behind and within us; another hyggely winter week enjoyed.

The scent of woodsmoke lingers in our hair, a memento from our magical time away.

Cold weather magic

I posted a video on Instagram earlier this week that caused a bit of a buzz! Shot by Sage, it showed me throwing a pot of just boiled water into the air, the liquid flashing into a cloud upon making contact with the cold air.

Indeed, it was magic.

So when a friend posted his own video of this cold weather experiment, his version backlit by the sun, I knew we had to give it another go.

At sunrise.

On the coldest day I can remember in 46 Wisconsin years.

So this morning I encourage my sweet family to bundle up and head out into the the -30 F/-34 C morning as the sun crested the hills, for the sake of some winter fun and some photos.

Here are the results:


A necessary postscript, because, safety: You can burn yourself terribly while doing this if it’s not properly executed. Because really. You are literally pitching hot water into the wind.

The water does not cool instantly, and if thrown poorly can easily rain down scalding water onto your head. If you try this at home, be safe and start slow. Notice how in the photos of my kids (versus my husband) they are throwing small quantities carefully away from themselves, not overhead. And mind the wind!

Also, this was simply hot tap water. (Possibly not even hot by the time we hiked to the marsh.) It worked brilliantly because, well, -30 F. If you’re using hotter water be careful for goodness sake.

Also, cold this intense can cause frost bite within minutes. We made two brief trips outside to capture the shots above.

A HUGE shout out to Pete, Sage, and Lupine for indulging me with this foray into the cold, and to our friends and Driftless-neighbors Mary G. and Joseph F. for the sunrise inspiration.

What’s the weather like in your neck of the woods?

Stay cozy, dear ones!

Love,
Rachel

To the ridge top

20180930-DSC_7521It’s not always easy- to leave the comforts of fireside and head out into autumn: wind, drizzle, and all. To feel the weather on our skin without the buffer of walls, roof, and wood stove.

But Lupine and I have begun to make a habit of it: heading outside for nature medicine and movement therapy. (I think some just call it “going for a hike”.)

I’ve needed it lately, my heart heavy with the happenings of the day.

So we head to the top of the goat prairie above our house, cleared only last winter of invading honeysuckle and junipers. It might be our favorite perch, with a view of the valley for miles around.

The farm dog (Grandpa) followed. Though he’s old, he can navigate this hill with more grace than I, and we let him lead the way.

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As we headed up the hill, a barred owl in the forest beyond the creek had much to say, and we listened with rapt attention. We felt the thrum in our chests as a flock of sparrows – moving as though with one mind – danced and wove beyond our reach. They’re thinking of autumn, too.

Barely audible, the creek whispered her song to rock and tree. And maybe to us as well.

And I exhaled.

Near the top, I found a cluster of a plant whose identity has eluded me all summer long.

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Despite multiple attempts, I failed at keying it out in books or online. I only took photographs however; never picking a sprig to get to know her subtleties.

Finally, last night (the flowers long since faded) I paused again to wonder at this plant. Who are you? I crushed a leaf between my fingers and inhaled her scent. Normally my first instinct when getting to know a new plant, I had missed this simple, often vital step, and missed the trait that would hint to who this plant might be.

With this fragrance still on my fingers, I found her name after just a moment’s search. Narrow leaf mountain mint – Pycnanthemum tenuifolium. It grows in abundance in our prairie and pasture and the scent is reminiscent of bee balm and oregano. Full of the medicinal components that make thyme such a potent ally during times of cough and cold, we decided to taste for our selves.

The kettle boiled, and I filled our cups.

As night fell on the hillside above us, we sat by the fire (the first of the year), our mugs full of fragrant tea of Mountain Mint. Brewed from the sprig that I brought home, it tasted of summer’s end, of monarda, and of thyme.

It tasted of healing, of autumn, and of home.

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Back home beside the fire again, this wild tea in my cup, I am changed.

My fingers smell of mountain mint, bee balm, and wormwood; my shoulders have softened; the furrow between my eyes has gone. There’s medicine waiting out there – outside – beneath the cloudy sky.

And each time I hike this ridge I leave a heaviness behind, and bring home magic in its place.

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Caterpillar to butterfly

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Remember my little friend, Buddy, the monarch caterpillar? He emerged from his chrysalis!

I found him on a walk a couple of weeks ago on a milkweed patch in the path of the country mower. So I brought him home and set up our butterfly house, and we’ve been obsessively watching him ever since.

He formed a chrysalis a week and a half ago, we’ve been watching closely for days, awaiting his emergence.

Lupine noticed on Wednesday morning that the wings could be clearly seen, folded tightly behind the transparent membrane. We marveled at him for a long while, then stepped outside for only a moment. When we returned, we found him fully emerged!

Needless to say, we were awestruck.

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We watched as he pumped and opened his wings, then rested and dried them, while hanging suspended from the ceiling of the cage.

Finally, it was time to set him free!

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My mom was visiting, so she gathered with the four of us to witness his maiden flight.

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(Last photo courtesy of Lupine.)

I refer to Buddy as “he”, because a friend taught us how to determine gender on a monarch! See those two black spots above on the lower wing in the photo above? And the delicate (thin) black lines throughout? That told us that he was a male, and not a female as we had been guessing all along.

So “she” became “he” in an instant, just after emergence.

The things we learn, side-by-side with out kids! Next up we’re raising Luna moths. A friend gifted us a few luna babies that we’re raising with great excitement. Much to our delight, these amazing chrysalises jiggle and vibrate when you set them down.

They. Are. Incredible.

And a tiny bit creepy.

I shared a video on my Instagram highlights if you want to watch!

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And after that? We have a Polyphemus colony that’s happily munching on oak leaves in our kitchen. Another gift; same friend. This bundle of big fat adorable caterpillars will turn into these beauties.

Needless to say, I’m geeking out on this as much (if not more) than my kids.

Sometimes people ask us when we have our last day of school; do we take the summer off from homeschooling?

Not really. I mean how could we? Life is learning, and our curiosity just won’t quit.

So we don’t have a “first day” or a “last day” of school–not this year, and not ever. Because honestly, we couldn’t stop learning if we tried. And why would we ever want to, with this magic in our kitchen?

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A few postscripts (and a couple of handy afflinks) follow:

1. We were dumbstruck by this podcast and, weeks later, still talk about what we learned from it often. I hope you enjoy!

2. The zippered butterfly tent that we’re using in the photos above we picked up a few years ago. It was a part of this butterfly kit that we really bought just for the house. (Though raising the butterflies that came with it were fun, too.) A friend had one and her butterflies seemed to do so much better than ours did when raised in a makeshift house or gallon jars. Maybe it’s just that I fret about them injuring themselves less in this soft-side tent.

3. And if you’re new to lepadoptera or just looking for a good field guide to caterpillars, this one is a good place to start.

Happy caterpillar hunting, friends!