We held our mother's memorial this weekend in Tacoma. So much for which to be thankful.

Cousins, old friends and all us children, in-laws, grandchildren and great-grandchildren filled the pews at my mother's church. Neighbors, friends from days gone by and so many others filled the day with stories, memories and heartfelt thanks for her wonderful life. 

It's hard to live up to her example of loyalty, kindness, generosity and love. She was 94 when she passed (just shy of 95) and had every reason to complain about her lot in life. She was nearly blind, pretty deaf and no longer ambulatory. She never let that get in the way of her living life. She was still listening to books on tape provided by the Washington Library for the Blind through the Library of Congress. 

When friends and family visited with her, she was interested in their lives, always asking about their families.

I feel like I got my love of nature from her. When she was a child, her family made a trip across the country from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, to visit a grandfather who had a celery truck farm there. She was a city girl, but could camp with the best of them.

I still remember the excitement of the Columbus Day storm in 1962, when our basement filled with neighbors and my mother, a cub scout leader, broke out the canned goods and Coleman stove to prepare food for everyone.

I also remember when President Kennedy was shot. I was the only child (of the 5) home by that point, but my mother (a Lutheran in the midst of Catholics) had us kneel down to pray the Hail Mary for the President.

A year ago July, we spent an afternoon at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, at which the dykes had been removed and the refuge was returning to its original beauty, thanks to a partnership between US Fish and Wildlife, the Nisqually tribe and the state of Washington. Then, last Christmas, when my husband and sons were in Tacoma, we all  went to the refuge to visit it together. It was a beautiful day, sunny, warm and busy with all kinds of visitors. On our return to the car, there was a crowd of people around a strange looking bird. Had the shape of a heron, but a shorter neck and kind of squat. When I got home, I did a little research and discovered that it was an American Bittern, apparently a bird that rarely makes a public appearance.

And so, we move on, yet honor the memory of a loyal wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. A life well lived.

Berenice Helen Brockhoff Burke
October 25, 1917 - September 9, 2012

On the cusp of retiring from my position as communications co-chair of the Environmental Educators of North Carolina, I received a wonderful surprise last week. I was selected to receive the organization's Melva Fagre Okun Lifetime Achievement Award. It's not given every year, so it meant even more that I was selected to be the recipient. 

What is a bit ironic is that the entire time I have been on the board, I have been a Virginia resident. My main responsibility has been keeping the website updated (had help with that) and publish a quarterly newsletter (also had help with that).

What kept me returning to North Carolina, were the wonderful people who shaped my career in environmental education. Back when I lived in Los Angeles, I had some soul sucking jobs, like shopping mall marketing.  I had a few good gigs as well, including an early morning at the announcements of the academy awards, and then a night in one of the press rooms. Also worked a few celebrity bike races, polo matches and was at the front end of promoting Wolfgang Puck's frozen pizzas. 

When I got to North Carolina (after a few years in San Diego), my expectations weren't extremely high that I would like my new home. Turns out that I loved it and that it really put me on a path to use my writing skills in a whole new way.

I owe a huge thanks to my sister, Kitty Burke, who persuaded me to complete the certification in environmental education since, as she put it, helping mom wasn't a profession and my small children would eventually grow up and move on. Turns out that this is the last year of full-time, in-home parenting, so it has definitely crept up on me. 

I am thankful to Laura White  and Jackie Trickel for the Nature Nymph program at Hemlock Bluffs in Cary, which turned out to be the preschool program that Dylan participated in when we moved to Raleigh. 

I am thankful to all the EENC board members, past and present, who have been so kind and helpful over the past 6 years. My newsletters were so much better for the careful reading provided by Mir Youngquist-Thurow and Lois Nixon. I am also thankful to Matt Besch of In Your Head Advertising, for his beautiful layouts and patience with fluid deadlines. 

I am touched by the efforts of the entire board to continue on the path of advocating for environmental education and for allowing me to be part of their organization.

I am also grateful to Chip Freund for his experience in computer science and his willingness to take on the communications portion of the board. I know that it will be so much better with a real computer guy at the helm. 

I am also thankful to an assortment of clients who have helped me connect with some paying projects (re: helping mom is not a profession). Jeanne Troy, Anna Wadhams,  Julia Washburn, Dan Meharg, Jeanette Parker, and many others who trusted me with their projects. A special thanks to Ann Silberlicht for her beautiful design work which always makes my words seem more readable.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I had a chance to visit the staffers of my elected representatives yesterday. Despite the stomach butterflies at the start, it turned out to be an incredible experience. Not only did I meet a bunch of wonderful environmental educators from around the country, I met some new people from Northern Virginia as well.

We spent Tuesday, learning how to tell a good story at our meetings. Turned out that it wasn't so difficult. Wednesday morning, we got up and out early, and hit the ground running. 

Our groups' schedule looked like this:

Jim Moran at 9:30. We had a really cordial meeting with Tim Aiken, the Environment Legislative aide. 

Bobby Scott 10:30. We met with Evan Chapman, his agricultural legislative aide. Representative Scott Represents the Richmond and Williamsburg area. 
Quick update: As of this afternoon, Bobby Scott has signed onto the No Child Left Inside legislation as a co-sponsor. Thanks to Evan for his quick work and carefully shepherding of our message.

Gerry Connolly (my Congressional representative) at 11:30. We met with Dominic Bonaiuto. He asked about my certification in environmental education. I got to fit in the North Carolina connection.

Senator Jim Webb at 1:00. Met with Maribel Ramos, his education legislative aide.

Senator Mark Warner at 2:30. Elizabeth Falcone, his education legislative aide.

Representative Rob Wittman at 3:15. His agricultural aide met with us.

We had a final appointment, with the educators from Washington State, at the Department of Agriculture with Harris Sherman, Under Secretary for Agriculture and Environment, who kindly listened to all our stories again, and spoke about the opportunities for students available through some of the job corps programs.

Many thanks to Karen Frick, the director of Epiphany preschool here in Vienna, for providing wonderful stories about how her little kids have benefitted from the Project Learning Tree training their teachers have taken. 

Peter Mecca from George Mason High School in the Falls Church City School district, for his compelling stories about how environmental education helped  his special needs and ESL students pass science. His kids are doing water quality tests on a creek near their school and submitting their results to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Nothing like the authentic research to bring the message home.

Of course, the leadership of Paul Howe, of the Virginia Forestry Association, and Lisa Deaton, our wonderful PLT Coordinator in Virginia were extremely helpful in making all of us feel comfortable in the meetings. 

Finally, a shout-out to Diane Brown-Tapia, from the PLT office, for joining us in our walk-about.

A last thought about the experience. While I've been signing all of those online letters asking my representatives to consider the No Child Left Inside Legislation, it seems that no one has actually asked our Senators to support the legislation. 

Well, a last last thought. Being on the board of the Environmental Educators of North Carolina over the past 6 years, we ask our members to invite their elected officials to events when they are home in their districts. One of the take away messages yesterday was that our elected officials really do want to be invited to events, they really do want to have the photo ops with constituents (including future voters), and they do want to meet with us. It seems that the best way to go about this is to connect with the staff in your district, well in advance of an event, and garner their support in getting your event on your representatives' or senators' schedule. 

They really do work for us, so get your money's worth!

It was a Project Learning Tree weekend at Long Branch Nature Center in Arlington. Saturday was an Early Childhood workshop, Sunday a pre K-8 workshop. 

If you believe everything you read in the press about the dismal state of teaching, you'd think that the passion has been removed from education. 

If you were in both (or even one) of the workshops I held this weekend, it would be honey to your heart to discover so much creativity and inspiration in a group of dedicated educators. 

No matter how many times I've done these workshops, I always come away with new ideas that had somehow escaped my notice. I am grateful to Ann Marie, Miryam, Maria, Carolyn, Anna, Judy, Rosemary and Laura for their dedication to their students,  and their good ideas during the weekend. And double-duty to Carolyn, Maria and Maryam for showing up both days.

Special thanks to Ann Marie, who helped with the Sunday workshop, after taking the Saturday workshop. I couldn't have done it without you!

I'll post pictures from the weekend's Eric Carle inspired art activity. Mine are conspicuously absent, for some pretty obvious reasons. I'm not much of an artist myself, so I prefer to highlight the work of these creative teachers. It always amazes me how real artists have a sense of where they are headed when they  start a design.

So, last month I received this wonderful award from the North American Association for Environmental Education. What struck me was that for every project mentioned, I could think of at least a half dozen people who made it work. 

My North Carolina Certification in Environmental Education? Well that was inspired by my sister, Kitty, who pointed out to me that once my kids were grown, I would only have my career as a helping mom to fall back on. Yipes, that didn't sound promising.

EcoFest at Washington Elementary in Raleigh? I can still remember my good friend and co-chair, Melissa Zeph, saying that everytime I called her with another good idea, it just meant more work for her. 

The HOWL program at Wolftrap Elementary? It was great to head into classrooms and help children understand the complex issues of the environment, from designing the perfect seed package (how does Mother Nature get tree seeds to move away from the competition) to understanding the complex web of life in environments as diverse as streams, woodlands, deserts and oceans. It was, of course, the courage of Principal Anita Blain, who let us wander into the classrooms and, eventually, create some wonderful natural habitats at Wolftrap. The success of these gardens is due, in large part, to the artistic eye of Joanne Hardison, a superb naturalist and artist.

I was able to share my enthusiasm with some wonderful children, first at the Vienna Community Center and then at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. Luke, Bryce, Michael, John Paul, Charlie, and Henry were my regulars, later joined by Lily, another Luke, Isabelle and Thomas. We'd meet once a week at Meadowlark and spend a couple of hours just discovering what was out there. No worm too ordinary nor ant too small to escape our fascination. Of course, it took their parents to loan me their children for a few hours once a week to play. And, without fail, I learned something new every week.

Now, I get to spend some time with the preschoolers at Epiphany Preschool in Vienna. It's easy to forget how wonderful little surprises like spiders crawling around, bugs cleaning their faces and birds can be when you haven't really spent time just looking. 

Of course, with these little ones, it's so wonderful that they have teachers willing to give them time just to look at nature up close. Sometimes we forget that a few minutes to watch and think are minutes well spent.

Then, there are the teachers themselves who learn new ways of providing lessons to their students. I've recently had the chance to work with teachers from Wesley Preschool in Vienna, and teachers at Ashland Elementary in Manassas. I come away from those trainings with a whole new bag of tricks, and the knowledge that their students will be learning about the world outside.

I visited my friends over at Epiphany Preschool yesterday. Every day, a different class spends the day outside learning about nature.

Today, I dropped in on the pre-kindergarten class.  Our first plan was to look at a bunch of tree cookies. But, a daddy longlegs appeared from under one of the cookies. Shrieks and scary human sounds filled the air. Then, when the little guy crawled on my sleeve, things got interesting. We talked about how spiders and other wild things don't really like screaming. 

Then one of my new friends, Alex, thought he would like to hold the spider. Does it tickle when it walks? Kind of.

Will it bite? It's mouth is kind of tiny so I don't know if it would be able to hurt much.

We were surprised to see that its legs were different lengths.

It didn't take long before everyone wanted to know what it was like to feel a spider crawling on their arm. 

Our spider put up with us for a long time before it finally dropped to the ground and headed for a cool dark place to hide.

All the kids felt very brave for having watched the spider crawl around and even crawl on each other. 

Like pretty much everyone else reading this morning's paper, I recalled the morning when so much changed not only in the U.S. but throughout the world.
So, a trip to the compost pile was pretty comforting. The bugs and worms were still doing their business, milkweed beetles were doing what they do best: eat and reproduce. Actually I don't know if it's what they do best, but it is what they do!

I checked out a patch of milkweed and found more monarch caterpillars than I've ever had in the past. I counted eight in all: some clearly closer to their final transformation into butterflies than the rest.

They remain caterpillars for several weeks after hatching from their eggs, but go through instars (molts) before they find a place to hang down, curl up (kind of a "J" shape) and then settle in to become a butterfly.

This is the last generation of caterpillars for the season. When they get their wings, they will be the ones to make the long trip to Mexico; a place none of them has ever been.

Close by was another treasure. One of the spicebush leaves was curled shut.

A quick look inside revealed the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar. It's hard to imagine that this green guy will become a beautiful black and blue butterfly. 


Seeing how nature continues her cycle of life, is comforting. To know that we are all on this little planet together, doing our best to appreciate it, is about as good as it gets on a day like today.
Yesterday, I was making peach pies to take to a Labor Day picnic and spent a good deal of dough rolling time thinking (and writing in my head) about why environmental education matters. I’m pretty much the perfect example. I was never very good at math (that hasn’t changed over the years), but I always liked getting outside to learn about the world around me.


I remember my first brush with science that made sense when I took a marine biology class in high school in Tacoma. Mrs. Thompson's class provided an introduction to Latin, with the keyhole limpet diodora aspera. I had to mount seaweed on paper, so I spent a good amount of time really looking at it. Then in college I had a great biology professor who was the first to introduce the idea that when pollution went away, it didn’t really go away. He challenged us to find "away" on a map. When I worked in Seattle for the CBS affiliate, I hooked up with groups to do marine mammal advocacy.

There were about 8 years in there where I did public relations in Los Angeles, but managed to get outside to explore aquatic environments while body surfing, and terrestrial in the desert and mountains.

Then, I wound up in North Carolina where I braced myself to suffer through life in the south, and suddenly my career changed with my kids and countless Earth Day events. I loved North Carolina and all the strange insects, turtles and snakes that were new to me.

When we were gearing up to move, I got thinking about the state's certification in environmental education. I thought I would take a pass on it, but my sister pointed out that my kids would grow and be gone and I would only have my "helping mom" profession to account for it all. Hmm, that didn't sound very promising.

In addition to doing consulting work with local environmental non-profits and the National Park Service, I've recently started an hourly job with Arlington County Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. My main task has been digging up plants at one nature center, potting them and then taking them to another nature center for a fall plant sale. I see this sign for false sunflower heliantus helianthoides, any my brain goes back to marine biology and the  pycnapodia helianthoides, the sunflower sea star.  
My boys are pretty much grown, but I've been lucky to share my passion for nature with other children and adults as well. At a recent workshop with preschool teachers, we all watched birds through our paper roll binoculars and listened to nature like cats with flexible ears using paper cups with the bottoms cut out. 

Whether with adults or kids, I still see those "Aha!" moments when the ordinary, when observed up close, becomes considerably more interesting. As the preschool teachers and I were heading inside after listening like cats, we stopped to watch a beetle wash its face. A good lesson for preschoolers. Even beetles wash up after a meal.

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