...is a promise of the resurrection.

Month: September 2015

Out & About: Milkweed

MILKWEED SEED by Wilhelmina Seegmiller

As white as milk, as soft as silk,

And hundreds close together;

They sail away on an autumn day when windy is the weather.



We’ve all seen milkweed “fairies” floating past us on an autumn day, but have you ever looked inside the pod from which those “fairies” came?  It’s a pretty amazing place!  Milkweed plants grow along roadways, in fields, along fencerows — anyplace there’s plenty of sun.  Milkweeds have beautiful pink flowers which are a favorite nectar-gathering source for many insects — most notably the Monarch Butterfly.








After the blossoms have faded, a long green seed pod forms which is visited by several insects searching for food.  The Milkweed Bugs (both nymphs and adults) feed on the seeds of the milkweed plant.






As the seed pod ripens, it turns a brownish-gray color.  If you look inside, you’ll find all the little milkweed seeds attached to their plumes.  They’re all attached to a central core, facing in one direction, and look almost like a pine cone with a white tail.









Each milkweed seed is an akene, which simply means one seed with a tight envelope about it.  When the wind catches the its plume, each akene goes sailing to a new location — sometimes very far away from the parent plant.  And if the milkweed akene lands in the water it’s no problem at all — the rim of the akene is like a life preserver which allows the seed to float until it reaches its destination.

How do you think the Milkweed got its name?  Is it because cows who eat milkweed give sweet milk or because its flowers are white?  No, it’s because of the milky substance that leaks out when the plant’s stem is broken or gashed.  This milky substance is like liquid rubber and when it hardens is so gummy it can seal the wound from which it came.  In fact, the Shoshone tribe collected the plant’s “milk” and made chewing gum of it!  (PLEASE DO NOT TRY THIS YOURSELF!  MILKWEED “MILK” CONTAINS POISONS!)  Native Americans also used it in poultices to draw out poison or infection from wounds.









One more very cool thing about milkweeds — how they are pollinated.  The flowers are uniquely adapted for insect pollination, having waxy pollen in tiny wishbone-shaped structures which hook onto an insect’s leg but come off when transferred to the flower of a different plant.  Here’s an amazing photo from a great nature blog, Nadia’s Backyard, in which you can actually see the tiny “wishbone” attached to a bee’s leg.  You can read the whole post here:  http://nadiasyard.com/our-native-plants/milkweed-common-asclepias-syriaca-uncommon-versatility/








On our excursions, we always try to take time to record our observations.










Some choose to sketch while others may paint what they’ve seen.








Still others prefer to keep a written record of their findings.









And then there are the poets among us!  At our very first class, one of the students asked if he could record his observations in poetry.  I answered that not only could he do so, but if he did I would do a dance of joy!  So Alex shared a short poem which ended, “……and now Mrs. Hissong has to dance!”  And so I did — right there in the meadow!  Here are his observations on the milkweed:

Gaze upon the Monarch’s chrysalis.  Behold.  Admire its colors.  The Jade flecks and the Gold.
Watch the caterpillar change being, bursting out of the chrysalis and taking wing.
this new creature, this butterfly unfolding his wings and flying high,
his glamorous suit of orange and black warning predators not to attack,
flying up north on this incredible migration then going to Mexico on vacation.







To Ponder: A Wayside Sacrament


“Never lose an opportunity to see anything that is beautiful. 
It is God’s handwriting — a wayside sacrament.
Welcome it in every fair face, every fair sky, every fair flower.”  — Ralph Waldo Emerson


Seed Dispersal

In fall the plants are throwing seeds like snowballs at each other,2957029932_eb1d771dd1_z

And each seed is a child being sent off by its mother.

“Goodbye, my dears!  Fly safe, fly free, sleep well all winter snug in soil;

Come springtime……..think of me.”

                                                                                          — Amy Ludwig VanDerwater


Did you ever think of plants as great travelers?  While it’s true that adult plants put down roots and die if they are removed from the soil, infant plants — what we call “seeds” — not only wander far and wide but will die if they don’t!  When plants scatter their seeds we say they are “dispersing” them.  Why do plants need to disperse or scatter their seeds?  Think about what do plants need to grow.  (Light, soil, water and air.)  What would happen if seeds all fell right beside the parent plant?

Plants disperse their seeds in several ways.  Some fly with wings while others are carried by down or fluff.  Some seeds sail on the water.  Others are eaten by animals and travel inside them for a while.  Still other seeds are shot away from the parent plant, and some even hitchhike in order to get around!

Our Nature Study class is embarking on a new adventure into the world of traveling seeds — what Margaret Warner Morley calls Little Wanderers in her book by that name.  I hope you’ll join us!


My favorite books on this topic (written for children, but I learned so much from them):

Little Wanderers by Margaret Warner Morley — http://www.amazon.com/Little-Wanderers-Illustrated-Yesterdays-Classics/dp/1599153173/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1445919370&sr=1-1&keywords=Little+Wanderer

Seed Babies by Margaret Warner Morley — http://www.amazon.com/Seed-Babies-Illustrated-Edition-Yesterdays-Classics/dp/1599153165/ref=pd_sim_14_2?ie=UTF8&dpID=51KazdYsalL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR107%2C160_&refRID=18QGCCJ6GDQM5CC93PMQ

A Seed is Sleepy by  Dianna Hutts Aston  — http://www.amazon.com/Seed-Sleepy-Dianna-Aston/dp/1452131473/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1445919480&sr=1-1

Seeds by Ken Robbins — http://www.amazon.com/Seeds-Ken-Robbins/dp/0689850417/ref=pd_sim_14_15?ie=UTF8&dpID=41GNVOQdLFL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR126%2C160_&refRID=1KQVVP42BQ1JB3Y7M1RX

Flip, Float, Fly:  Seeds on the Move by JoAnn Early Macken — http://www.amazon.com/Flip-Float-Fly-Seeds-Move/dp/054516348X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1445919608&sr=1-1

To Ponder: Solace in Trouble

20150909_143918The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is
     to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone
     with the heavens, nature and God.

Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and
     that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple
     beauty of nature.  I firmly believe that nature brings solace
     in all troubles.
                                                                                                                                                        – Anne Frank  

Out & About: Turtles

THE TURTLE by Jack Prelutskybox-turtle

The turtle’s always been inclined

to live within his shell.

But why he cares to be confined,

the turtle does not tell.

The turtle’s always satisfied

to slowly creep and crawl,

And never wanders far outside

his living room or hall.

So if you wish to visit him

in his domestic dome,

Just knock politely on his shell —

you’ll find the turtle home.


Steele Creek Park in Bristol, TN, was the site of this week’s nature study class.  Hoping to surprise some turtles basking on a large fallen tree in the shallows, we began our time together by creeping quietly down to the lake.  Our stealth was rewarded by finding several specimens of differing size bathing in the afternoon sun.  After sharing some extremely corny “turtle jokes” (Why did the turtle cross the road? To get to the Shell station.  What do you get when you cross a turtle with a porcupine?  A slow poke.) we entered the Nature Center where several species of turtles are kept in huge tanks.  After Jeremy Stout, manager of the Nature Center, fed the huge snapping turtle so we could watch it sneak up on its prey and POUNCE,  the students each chose which species they’d most like to see “up close and personal” and I asked some questions to start their observations.

— Describe the turtle’s skin (what little you can see outside the shell).  (Reptiles have dry, scaly skin (herpetology is the study of scaly things) and amphibians have smooth skin.)

— Compare the upper (carapace) shell with the lower (plastron).  How are they shaped differently?  (Most turtles have a curved carapace but in some species it’s flat.)  Are the shells of different colors?  Why might the carapace be darker and the plastron be lighter? (For purposes of camouflage.  Predators or prey looking UP from the bottom of the body of water would see a light color like the sky, while those looking DOWN from above would see a darker color like the substrate.)

— Make a quick sketch of the upper and lower shell showing the shape of the plates that compose them.  Where are the two grown together? (The carapace is grown fast to the backbone of the animal, and plastron to the breastbone.)

— Describe the turtle’s eyes.  Does the turtle have eyelids?  (Turtles’ eyes have nictitating membranes (“nictare” = Latin “to blink”) — a transparent or translucent third eyelid that can be drawn across the eye for protection and to moisten it while maintaining visibility.  The turtle’s nictitating membrane comes up from below and completely covers the eye.) 

—  Do turtles have ears?  (Turtles have 3 ears — 2 located on the sides of their head (small holes) and one on their nose.  Turtles have “inner ear” mechanisms that other animals have.  The outer ear gathers vibrations which makes the sound louder.  While turtles can’t hear airborne sounds, they do sense and interpret vibrations within their environments.  Meanwhile, the organs in a turtle’s ears do help them feel changes in water pressure that can warn them of the presence of predators.)

— Describe the turtle’s mouth.  Are there any teeth?  How does the turtle bite off its food?  (The turtle has no teeth but strong, cutting jaws called a “beak.”)  Describe the movement of the turtle’s throat.  What is the cause of this constant pulsation? (The turtle is swallowing air for breathing.)

— Describe the shape of the legs.  How many claws on the front feet?  (5) On the back? (4)  Are any of the toes webbed?  On which feet are the webbed toes?  Why should they be webbed?  (To enable the turtle to swim faster.)  Describe the way a turtle swims.  Which feet do you think the turtle uses as oars?  (Those which are webbed.)

I shared with the students that like all reptiles and amphibians, turtles are ectothermic (cold-blooded) animals, relying on their environment for warmth.  Unlike some animals which hibernate (one lengthy period of inactivity) in winter, cold-blooded animals brumate (periodic awakening and temporary resumption of activity and feeding).   In winter, water turtles may bury themselves in the ooze at the bottom of ponds and streams.  Land turtles dig themselves into the earth for several short winter naps.



The shell is composed of hard, bone plates covered by scutes.  The scutes are made of keratin, the primary substance in hair, nails and hooves.  Pigments may form intricate designs and bright patterns in some species.  Although the scutes form the familiar outer layer of the shell, it is the bony layer underneath which actually provides the shape, support and protective qualities of the turtle shell.

The vertebrae of the neck and tail are small, allowing for a high degree of flexibility, while the vertebrae of the central portion of the vertebral column are enormously elongated and inflexible, fused with the bony layer of the shell, acting as a support for the carapace.  If the outer keratin is breached by infection or injury, the turtle can lose its protection and infection can proceed into the bony layer and the body cavity, threatening the turtle’s life.





To Ponder: Unequalled Mental Training

20150909_141638“Consider, too, what an unequalled mental training the child-naturalist is getting for any study or calling under the sun — the powers of attention, of discrimination, of patient pursuit, growing with his growth, what will they not fit him for?”  — Charlotte Mason (I.61)

Out & About: Minnows

20150909_142004-12015-09-09 13_49_17









RIDDLE:                Alive without breath, as cold as death, clad in mail never clinking, never thirsty, ever drinking.  (A FISH)

Bilbo Baggins didn’t stump Gollum with that riddle deep under the Misty Mountains, and I couldn’t stump my students with it either!  To focus on fish, our nature study class met beside Little Limestone Creek at Mill Spring Park in beautiful, historic Jonesborough, Tennessee.  It was a warm, overcast day, but the thunderstorms held off and at least the moms were able to stay relatively dry.  The kids were another story — as you will see!  We started off by collecting specimens from the creek in large, clear containers:  Minnows, aquatic insects and even a crayfish.  We brought them to the gazebo, spread out the quilts, got out our hand lenses, and sat down for a good, close look.



  • How many fins has the fish?
  • Are the fins constantly moving? Do they move together or alternately?  How is each fin used?  How are they used when the fish swims backward? What are the fins doing when the fish is at rest?
  • Is the tail square, rounded, or notched?
  • What covers the fish? Are the scales large or small?  In what direction do they seem to overlap?  Of what use to the fish is this scaly covering?
  • Can you find a long line running down the fish’s side? That’s called the lateral line.
  • Describe the pupil and iris of the fish’s eyes. Can the fish see in all directions?   Does it do so by moving its eye or its body?  Does the fish wink?  Can you see that the eye is spherical?
  • Can you see the nostrils? Is there a little wart-like sac connected to the nostril?
  • What sort of teeth does the fish have?
  • Does the gill cover move with the opening of the mouth?



The fish usually has 7 fins, which play a different role in the fish’s movements:

Dorsal Fin – like a fan, protects the fish against rolling and assists in sudden turns and stops

Tail (Caudal) Fin — propels the body through the water like a scull

Anal Fin – used to keep the fish stable in the water

Ventral (Pelvic) Fins (2) – The pelvic fins assist the fish in going up or down through the water, turning sharply, and stopping quickly

Pectoral Fins (2) – help fish rise or sink in the water

Sight — The eyes of fish have no eyelid.  Fish are nearsighted because the lens is spherical which enables the fish to see underwater.

Smell — The fish’s sense of smell is located in a little sac to which the nostril leads, but the nostrils have no connection whatever with breathing.

Taste — The tongue of the fish is very bony or gristly and immovable, and they have very little sense of taste.  A fish’s teeth can be located on the jaws, inside the mouth, on the tongue and even in the throat!  Fish without teeth expand their jaws and create a huge vacuum so they can literally inhale their food 😉  Check this out!

Hearing — Fish have poor hearing.  They have only an inner ear and it has no exterior outlet.  Instead, it is found inside the fish’s head behind the eye.  Since fish have approximately the same density as water, sound passes right through their bodies.  That doesn’t mean they don’t respond to auditory stimuli, though.  Recent research indicates that fish may exhibit the Lombard Effect when exposed to loud or unfamiliar sounds.  (The Lombard Effect is the involuntary tendency of speakers to increase their vocal effort when speaking in loud noise to enhance the audibility of their voices.)  You read that right:  Fish communicate out loud.  Here’s a short video of minnows “growling” and “knocking”:

Touch – A fish’s “lateral line” consists of different scales that extend along the sides of the body containing small tubes connecting with nerves; it is used to detect motion and vibration in the water – like touch at a distance.  This lateral line is especially important when fish need to gather and/or travel in “schools” because it allows each fish to sense the motions of its neighbors.

The shape, number and position of a fish’s teeth vary according to the food habits of the fish.  Some have blunt teeth suitable for crushing shells; others  have sharp teeth with serrated edges for harvesting vegetables, while some have incisor-like teeth who feed on crabs and snails.  In some species there are several types of teeth, while others (goldfish and minnows) have no teeth at all.  Fish teeth can be on the jaws but also in the roof of the mouth, on the tongue and in the throat.

The covering of fishes varies:  Some have scales, others have a smooth skin.  All fish are covered with a slimy substance which somewhat reduces friction as they swim through the water.

In order to understand how a fish breathes, we must examine its gills.  They are filled with tiny blood vessels, and as the water passes over them, the impurities of the blood pass out through the thin skin of the gills and the life-giving oxygen passes in.  A fish constantly opens and closes its mouth to draw water into the throat and force it out over the gills – the act of breathing.  Fish can’t make use of the air unless it contains enough oxygen, so it’s important that the water they’re in have enough surface area (definitely NOT like Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool!)  McElligots Pool 2



I’ve been so pleased with the progress of our students in just a few short weeks!  They’re paying closer attention and  noticing so much more.   Maybe these nature observation prompts we’ve been using (from John Muir Laws http://www.johnmuirlaws.com/natural-history/deep-observation) have helped played a role.  For each journal entry they are asked to complete these thoughts:

I notice ______________.  (Example: …this flower has five petals, red anthers and serrated leaves.)  Requires close attention.

I wonder _____________.  (Example: …how it disperses its seeds?)  You can help them follow up with this.

It reminds me of ________.  (Example: …the wild strawberries we saw growing by our boat dock.)  This will eventually lead to classifying specimens by leaf shape, color, and other physical characteristics.  It can also help us make connections to previous learning — a poem, story, work of art.

20150909_141638 20150909_143648-1 20150909_143918








My 12yo son’s journal entry this week included a sketch and these observations:
I notice that this tree has shallow roots and the roots are in the creek.
I wonder why the bark is in vertical patterns?  Maybe so rain water will run down to the roots?
It reminds me of elves.  ( He’s a huge Lord of the Rings fan!)











It’s so important to take a moment to make a short sketch or note a small detail while you’re in the field.  If you goal is a lovely nature journal page you can always flesh things out in living color later.  But that tinge of blue on the tip of a wing or the dew drops collecting on an upturned leaf — those lovely bits may be forgotten if you don’t note them as  you see/hear/smell them.

I’ll leave you with image of a single Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) we found growing by the creek and a blue darner damselfly — so very lovely!  (All photos in this post were taken by the lovely and talented Beth Waugh.)


To Ponder: Want of Wonder

DSC01020“I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. 

There are plenty of them I assure you. 

The world will never starve for want of wonders,

but only for want of wonder.” 

— G. K. Chesterton

Out & About: Crayfish

crayfishCrayfish and salamanders and Hickory Horned Devils — OH MY!  What a time we had today at our weekly Nature Study class!  We visited a mountain stream at the  foot of Bays Mountain in Kingsport, Tennessee to learn about crayfish.  But we learned about so. much. more.


The greatest diversity of crayfish species is found in southeastern North America, especially Appalachia (that’s us), with over 330 species.

Crayfish are detritivores (they eat detritus = decomposing plant and animal parts) but they also eat living plants and animals such as worms and insects. Raccoons, snakes, opossums and muskrats are the crayfish’s most dangerous predators.

The crayfish breathe through feather-like gills and tend to inhabit water bodies that don’t freeze all the way through to the bottom. Some species are found in brooks and streams where there is fresh water running, while others thrive in ponds, swamps and ditches. Most crayfish cannot tolerate polluted water, so if they are present the water is probably pretty clean.

Crayfish burrow during the late summer, and spend most of the fall and winter underground in water-filled tunnels. Everywhere you see a crawfish chimney, there is a crawfish living in a burrow underneath. Their tunnels may extend down into the earth 3 feet or more and are full of water. Sometimes the color and texture of the chimney mud is different at different levels of the chimney. Why might this be? This is a sign that there are different types of soil layers below the surface, and the crayfish has burrowed through several layers.

As the crawfish burrows down, it brings up soil from different layers and deposits the pellets of mud at the top of the chimney.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSIY5oUaUr4

During droughts, crayfish routinely plug the openings of their burrows with mud. As the water table drops, or when the temperature drops, the animal moves further down to warmer water levels. Over time, oxygen may be depleted in the burrow water. When this happens, the crayfish may position itself just above the water, thus keeping the gills wet and absorbing oxygen from the air in the burrow.

Crayfish also lay eggs in their burrows. After they mate in open water, (the male depositing sperm into a special sac on the female’s abdomen) the female (and sometimes the male as well) will dig a burrow where the female will lay the eggs, fertilize them with the stored sperm, and hold them attached to little appendages under the tail called swimmerets.

Once the eggs are laid, the male typically stays near the entrance and the female remains deeper in the burrow. As long as oxygen levels in the burrow water are high, the female keeps the eggs under water and swishes them back and forth to ensure aeration (air circulation). As the oxygen drops, the female keeps the eggs moist, but gets them out of the water, thus allowing them to absorb oxygen from the air. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHCWiISnu_4

The eggs usually hatch in the burrows and begin to grow. Since there is a restricted amount of food available in the burrow, the babies eat infertile eggs and the bodies of dead babies. They will even kill each other to survive.


After the hatching, with her brood still attached, the female emerges from the burrow to find food. Once she is in open water, the hatchlings detach from their mother and begin living independently.

A young crayfish molts 11 times before becoming an adult. This takes about a year. They will live another year to mate and produce young. In this video, the carapace (shell) completely detaches about 5 minutes in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mF6NgMBcNCM

In 2011 a new species of giant crayfish was discovered in Shoal Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River.  “A new species of giant crayfish [has] literally crawled out from under a rock in Tennessee, proving that large new species of animals can be found in highly populated and well-explored places,” Reuters reported. Aquatic biologists had been studying life in that little waterway for decades, but it appears these crayfish are not common (only 5 have ever been caught) and their preference for living under large rocks in deep water may have made them easy to overlook, especially in times of high water. After DNA testing and studying a ridge and unique spine between the crayfish’s eyes, the biologists knew they were looking at something entirely new, and named it Barbicambarus simmonsi (after TVA scientist Jeffrey Simmons — the guy who first spotted this giant).

Here’s a video about the discovery which gives some interesting insight into how these creatures are measured and catalogued.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e05nqc1ygYg


We spread out along the length of the creek.  We haven’t had much rain lately so the water was low.  Within 15 minutes the class had collected about 30 samples of crayfish at all different stages of development and a couple of baby salamanders.

Then a shout went up:  Look what was found crawling along on the creek bank!

hickory horned devil





It’s a Hickory Horned Devil Caterpillar that will dig a hole in the ground and after pupating through two winters will emerge as a beautiful, huge Royal Walnut Moth!


And if that’s not enough, look who else came to call:



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