The largest spider I have ever seen in my life *shudder*

Let me start off by saying that I am not particularly afraid of spiders. I spent many of my younger years trail running. As any good trail runner knows, if you are the first person to run the trail in the morning, you get to be the one who breaks through all the spider webs. You either get desensitized or you find a new hobby. And now my favorite activity is gardening, which involves getting up close and personal with myriad spiders, insects, and snakes.

But this afternoon, Elise and I went for our daily hike through the jungle and got a little more nature than we bargained for. This is the largest spider I have ever seen in my life – easily the size of the palm of an adult’s hand – and it was in the middle of the largest spider web I have ever seen in my life – which was flapping the breeze like a giant bed sheet suspended from the canopy above.

I couldn’t bring myself to walk under its blanket of doom, so we turned back. (It ended up working to our advantage, as we would have been caught in a violent summer squall if we had pressed on.)

This, sadly, is the best picture I could get of it. I don’t think it is a golden orb (or banana) spider based on its size and the fact that its web looks like a giant sheet instead of a vortex. But I could be wrong. The joys of Florida wildlife.

Banana trees and a new love of Latin

Today has been a rather unusual day in our household. (Do we ever have normal days though?)

This morning, Elise told me that she wanted to spend the entire day working on her Latin, which is suddenly her new favorite subject. In the past, we had done “math only” school days. She’d wake up, put on her “math day” t-shirt (a shirt she bought at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that says B greater than average via a math problem) and hit the books. I could not believe that Latin has replaced math. True to her word, she worked her way through several chapters of Latin and spent the afternoon addressing us in Latin. She says she needs a t-shirt that says something in Latin.

Mandatory “math day” attire.

Since she was occupied and I was in-between work for our clients, I decided to make a Persian feast for lunch, with shawarma, tzatziki, flatbreads, a salad of tomatoes and cucumber, and a mixture of figs and apricots crossed with plums (they just sounded bizarre and fun while we were out shopping). The food filled the house with the most amazing aromas, and honestly it still smells divine now. I used to cook tagines all the time, and I missed the intense combinations of spices.

My first attempt at shawarma (before being shredded).
And my first attempt at tzatziki ever.
Summer fruits.

At the end of the day, Elise and I took a walk along the esplanade in our neighborhood, which follows the Intracoastal Waterway. She devoted herself to catching lizards while I watched the boats returning from the Atlantic Ocean.

Lizard collecting. (Yes, she only studies the lizards for a while and then sets them free. Our only rule on nature walks is that we do not capture any pollinators.)

As we were walking, a woman we did not know beckoned us into her backyard to show us that her four or five banana trees were now loaded with dozens of ripening bananas. (She was very proud of her banana trees she said, and just needed to share the moment with someone. As an obsessive gardener, I can relate.) This was fascinating to both Elise and me, since we had tried to grow a banana tree in a pot on our front porch this summer. It either did not like the pot or its spot or access to water, because it did not flourish. I asked her if the banana trees did well through the Florida “winter,” to which she responded that she had not had any problems with them except through the two recent hurricanes. She said the hurricanes always destroy the banana trees. When I find a new plant in a nursery one of these days, I will plant some in our backyard. The woman told us that the best fertilizer for banana trees was surplus bananas. Elise has been going around explaining this curiosity to everyone who will listen.

An impromptu lesson on cultivating bananas.

Equally interesting is seeing how exactly banana trees develop fruit. The bananas grow along a sort of flower-rope that dangles down toward the ground. Nature is unbelievable sometimes! We have the loveliest neighbors here in Florida.

A close up of the “flower-rope” that bananas grow along.

Walking away, Elise said to me, “imagine how many banana splits that nice lady gets to make now.” Indeed.

A bonus picture of Elise for friends and family.

A game of chess with Dad while waiting for food at our favorite Mexican/Caribbean restaurant.

A surprise visitor

We’ve been living in Florida for about a year-and-a-half now, and I feel like I have become mostly accustomed to the wildlife. I’ve seen dozens of alligators in the wild. I’m on my second armadillo in my garden. I’ve learned that the monkey sounds I hear at night are actually barred owls. An osprey dive-bombed our Jack Russell terrier, clearly mistaking him for lunch. (Thankfully, Sherlock got away.) I found a scarlet king snake literally climbing the stucco exterior wall of our house one morning. You wouldn’t think that was possible, but a snake can fit in the crevices of the texturing. There’s no taming Florida (or Floridians).

I think my strangest wildlife encounter happened this morning, however. I was about to open the front door to let said Jack Russell terrier out in the yard. Our front door is almost entirely glass, which is oddly useful in Florida. Apart from letting in the sunshine the state is known for, you can see if there’s a snake curled up against the door. (This has not happened to me yet, but it seems to happen to my neighbor all the time.)

Anyhow, there was not a snake. There was an ENORMOUS blue crab. By enormous, I mean about a foot wide. And he had two giant claws, which he was waving in the air, as if to say “hey, lady, let me in!” And, man, those things are fast. He sped off the porch and away into my azaleas the moment he understood he was not alone. I have seen little crabs in the saltwater marshes and bouncing around on the beach before, but not trying to break into our house!

I have since learned that crab invasions in Florida are common, particularly after it rains. Check out this chap, who had dozens of crabs take over his lanai.

Growing mushrooms at home

Apart from raw oysters, E’s favorite things in the world to eat are mushrooms. She has been trying to grow blue oyster mushrooms (haha) in a box in our living room for nearly a week now. It has been a sleepy exercise until this morning. (I’ve gone through several days of E bouncing out of bed, running to her mushroom box, and then sulking because there was nothing there.) They finally decided to take off.

I think they are adorable.

I learn a lot from having an extremely bright and curious child. I have to say, the structure of hyphae has been one of the most interesting things she has made me research.

I had always wondered why we’d get mushrooms sprouting up in the yard along the circumference of a large circle. (Folks often call these circles “fairy rings.”) Mushroom caps are a small part of a much larger, networked organism that spreads underground.

Here is a long, nerdy explanation:

The name fairy ring comes from an old folk-tale. People once believed that mushrooms growing in a circle followed the path made by fairies dancing in a ring. Fairy rings are found in open grassy places and in forests. In grass, the best known fairy ring fungus has the scientific name Marasmius oreades. The body of this fungus, its mycelium, is underground. It grows outward in a circle. As it grows, the mycelium uses up all of the nutrients in the soil, starving the grass. This is the reason a fairy ring has dead grass over the growing edge of the mycelium. Umbrella-shaped fruiting bodies, called mushrooms, spring up from just behind the outer edge of the mycelium. 

Large rings are created when the older mycelium in the center finally exhausts the soil nutrients and dies. On the death of the central mycelium, the nutrients are returned to the soil and grass can grow again. The living edge of the mycelium continues to grow outward. As it grows, it secretes chemicals into the ground ahead. These chemicals break down the organic matter, releasing nutrients so that the mycelium will have food when it reaches this area. For a brief time, the grass at the outer edge of the ring also benefits. The extra nutrients make the grass darker green, taller, and thicker than the rest of the lawn or pasture. This lush grass dies when the mycelium grows under it and steals the nutrients. Fairy rings made by fungi like Marasmius oreades are called “free” rings. 

They will continue to grow outward until a barrier is reached. Sometimes the barrier is another fairy ring! Rings can grow into each other’s territory and die as each reaches the other’s “dead zone.” If there are no barriers, free rings can grow outward at up to 8 inches (20 cm) per year. They can reach a diameter of over 30 feet (10 m). One ring formed in France by the fungus Clitocybe geotropa is almost a half mile (600 m) in diameter. This ring is thought to be 700 years old. Mycorrhizal fungi, which live in symbiotic partnership with trees, also form fairy rings. Their rings are called “tethered” rings. A tether is like a leash. The fungus and its mycorrhizal partner tree need each other to survive. The mycelium of these fungi always remains joined to the tree’s roots. Roots are the “tether” that keeps the fairy rings of mycorrhizal fungi from growing too far from their tree.

What is also cool is that fungi communicate among themselves and with other plants (and their growth is sensitive to electric fields).

Exploring a New Estuary

Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata) Wild climbing vine

Today we explored a trail at the Long Creek Nature Preserve that leads down to a saltwater marsh. The land was not originally a saltwater marsh. Long Creek was severed from its natural connection by a canal, which led to saltwater intrusion (and consequently brought in new fauna and flora).

One of the twists of water in Long Creek Nature Preserve. You can’t tell from the picture, but the water is constantly popping with creatures.
E loved watching these crabs sidestepping around in the mud.

We saw an osprey nest high up in a tree, with two extraordinarily vocal ospreys that E named Spy and Nick. (Who knows if the wildlife folks here have given them formal names.)

Two ospreys keeping guard over their enormous nest. Still only about half the size of the bald eagles’ nest in our neighborhood, however.

The site of Long Creek Nature Preserve is also of archaeological significance. In previous centuries, the area had been a plantation wharf. The wharf was used during the colonial period to load boats full of cotton, sugar, and corn. The boats would then follow the creeks up to Matanzas Bay off of the Atlantic Ocean, where these commodities would be transferred to larger ships and transported around the world. The land was owned by Joseph Martin Hernandez during the colonial era of Florida history.

This is a good introduction to plantation life and infrastructure for E. On another day, I intend to take her to the ruins of a sugar plantation just up the road from our house. (It’s a short drive away, but you have to hike into the jungle to see the actual ruins, which should be rewarding in itself.)

We have been reading The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano as a means of discussing the practice of slavery, so she will understand what she is seeing when we walk around the plantation site. This is the autobiography of a man who was born to a noble family in Africa, was kidnapped by members of another tribal group, and sold into slavery in the Caribbean, Virginia, and England. He talks frankly about the horrors of slavery and the different ways slaves were treated in different regions. The book is accessibly written for a child and is something of a page-turner as well.

Raising a Young Naturalist in the Deep South

The Ashley was the playground of my father’s childhood, and the river’s smell was the smell my mother opened the window to inhale after her long labors, bearing my brother, and then me. A freshwater river let mankind drink and be refreshed, but a saltwater river let it return to first things, to moonstruck tides, the rush of spawning fish, the love language felt in the rhythm of wasp-waisted swells…

Pat Conroy, South of Broad

I was born in Northern California and spent my early childhood on an island in the Sacramento River delta, not far upstream from where the river empties into the San Francisco Bay.

To me, this was a place of magic. I remember going on long evening walks with our neighbors through seemingly endless vineyards and pear orchards. (Even now, in middle age, I find myself picking out delta wines while shopping. I understand what the French mean by terroir, or carrying a sense of the land.) On one walk, I found a patch of blackberries and shoved as many of them in the pockets of my jacket and blue jeans as I could. Much to my parents’ dismay, I had also managed to dye my new clothes purple.

We would swim and splash in the sloughs, with my mother standing on the bank reminding us that these channels still had the powerful undertow of the ocean. We were captivated for days by the plight of a humpback whale that had made its way up the river and refused to return to sea. I passed entire afternoons on a branch high up in some sprawling oak tree, reading.

Needless to say, we did not watch a lot of television.

Eventually, our family moved to Los Angeles and I spent many years thereafter longing to be somewhere where I could have that primal connection to nature again. To be re-enchanted. To return to Pat Conroy’s first things, both literally and figuratively.

True to form, I have not spent my time as an adult sitting in traffic. I have lived in some of the most breathtaking wild spaces that still remain in the United States, including the Rocky Mountains, the wide open heart of Texas, the lush bluegrass and Appalachians. And now, the wildest of all spaces … Florida.

Most folks would assume that we moved to the Florida coast to be on the beach. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Florida still has many miles of pristine beaches, and they belong to the public.

In Florida, there are still beaches where you can walk for
miles and have the whole thing to yourself.

But we also moved to a town with 130 miles of trails through the jungle and wetlands. I have learned that I love these spaces as much as the beach. The best part of living here is knowing that these wild spaces will be our daughter’s “first things” and that she will grow up with the appreciation of nature that I have carried with me across the decades.

There are two long trails in proximity to our house. The first trail leads through the jungle and beyond that into a freshwater swamp. (Freshwater swamps are rare, I have learned.)

They have constructed boardwalks through the wetlands
so people can observe nature without disturbing
these fragile and important ecosystems.

The first time I wandered through the jungle, I was expecting an alligator to pop out of nowhere at any moment. It is a perk of living here that the place is like Jurassic Park with the occasional dinosaur sighting. Our neighbors returned home one day to find a giant alligator sunning itself in their driveway. Another neighbor likes to tell a story about how an alligator ripped a weed eater from the arms of her gardener. We have a couple alligators that float around in a pond at nearby park, right next to the soccer fields. It would seem that alligators like to leave people alone, however (unless they are in the water, and then people can be confused for food).

One of our neighborhood alligators.

I spent most of my life thinking swamps were ugly, desolate places. Now they are one of my favorite places to stroll through. I had seriously underestimated the peacefulness and biodiversity of swamps. Though I would hate to make my way through one without the miles of boardwalks they have constructed here. The number of snakes is unreal. We spent about twenty minutes on a boardwalk one afternoon watching a cottonmouth fishing for minnows below. Best admired from a distance, to be sure.

The second path follows the Intracoastal Waterway, a passage for boats that traces the coast and provides safety from a sometimes ungenerous ocean.

Along the Intracoastal, you can regularly see dolphins, manatees, and sharks of all kinds. Dolphins are quite aware of the people walking along the water and will sometimes follow you. There is a pod of dolphins that like to taunt a couple of dogs that live on the barrier island. They get the dogs to chase them along the water. After they have had their fun, they lead the dogs back to their home. Dolphins are very kind and intelligent creatures.

The birds along the shore are fantastic. Bald eagles nest in our neighborhood and we see ospreys every day. For the first month we lived here, we were totally convinced there was a monkey living in the woods behind our house. I have since learned that the barred owl makes a sound exactly like a monkey. I could sit out on the lanai and listen to them call to each other all night. It is loud and exotic.

Kids aren’t the only ones who love to play in the surf.

Because we homeschool our daughter, we have made nature walks a permanent element of our school days. We collect laminated nature guides and identify birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, turtles, insects, wildflowers, trees… anything we come across. We have collections of rocks, seashells, feathers, nests. We take our art supplies to remote areas and sketch what we see. We listen for bird calls.

There are a couple books that have been indispensable to these projects. This book provides outstanding advice on maintaining collections of natural items. I would have loved to have it as a child.

This book is something of a guided nature journal for kids. It has a litany of activities arranged by month and season.

Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of the Natural World by Julia Rothman is also excellent.

We also read books about great naturalists, including The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies; Counting Birds: The Idea That Helped Save Our Feathered Friends by Heidi Stemple; and The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth by Anita Silvey. (There are so many more….)

Exploring the woods.

One of the best things about being along the coast is the night sky. We have built a 16-inch Dobsonian telescope with a computerized mount. At over six feet tall, the scope was very difficult to move without separating it into segments. My father put wheels on a round table top he found at Lowe’s that we use as a cart for the beast of a telescope. Now we can roll it out of the house and watch the night sky whenever we want.

Modeling Being a Lifelong Learner for Your Children

In chatting with other parents, I often feel like we are the only household on Earth for whom “screen time” is not a major source of conflict. This is incredibly ironic, too, because we work in the tech industry. “No, we do not arbitrarily restrict our daughter’s access to devices,” I explain. My interlocutors clutch their pearls. “Experts say that if you do not have a rule about only thirty minutes of screen time a day, you are a very bad parent,” they respond.

Every time someone brings up the issue of screen time – how their child is “addicted” to video games or social media – all I can think about are those anti-drug public service announcement commercials they would run during kids’ programming in the 1980s. The father finds his son’s drug stash and storms into his bedroom to confront him about it. “Where did you learn how to do this?” he shouts. “I learned it from watching you,” his son replies.

“My kids don’t play outside.” When was the last time your family went hiking together?

“My kids don’t read.” When was the last time you curled up with Pride and Prejudice and some Earl Grey?

“My kid is a junior and still undecided.” They grew up in a household where no one had passions or hobbies, but sure, they might spontaneously identify a vocation when they are twenty years old.

Why does anyone expect their kids to crave something they don’t want to do themselves? Childhood is about constructing an aesthetic, and you are not going to micromanage your child into an aesthetic. If your kid sees you sacked out on the couch after work pounding chardonnay and watching vapid television shows, congratulations, that’s your household’s aesthetic. If you want your kids to be better than that, you have have to be better than that.

***

One of the things I love about homeschooling is that it provides us with endless opportunities to model being a lifelong learner and to form a nexus in our own lives with what our daughter is studying. Here’s an example for you.

For our history curriculum, we use Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series. We are now on the second volume with our seven-year-old daughter, which covers the Middle Ages. We were reading through the history of Australia, New Zealand, and the Polynesian Islands. While no one knows how the aborigines arrived in Australia, the Maori people arrived in New Zealand during the time period corresponding to the Middle Ages in Europe.

Coloring pages from Story of the World history series. I like that this series is not entirely euro-centric (like what we were raised with in school).

Naturally, we covered the legends of Maui in discussing New Zealand. E loved this, thanks mostly to the Disney movie Moana. We compared how Maui was represented in the movie (the Polynesian version of The Rock) versus how he is represented in Polynesian legends (a prankster child).

Disney did not get everything wrong, however. The central conflict of the story – that Moana’s people were historically gifted wayfinders, but for inexplicable reasons, they stopped exploring, is part of the real archaeological record of these cultures.

The story of Polynesian wayfinders is extraordinary. They essentially used Stone Age technology to craft massive canoes from giant trees and wove coconut hair into durable material for sails. And those vessels were mighty enough to cross the Pacific Ocean. They’d load all their pigs and chickens into the boats and skip from island to island. And then they mysteriously stopped for a long period. Then they mysteriously started back up again. No one knows what was responsible for the hiatus. (These wayfinding traditions are still a major part of life in the region.) The green rock Moana carries around is also accurate to the region.

Our discussion of Polynesian wayfinding was so engaging that I ended up buying a book on it myself, On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands Before European Contact. Our daughter’s homeschool assignment thus became my leisure reading. I have the sense we will be talking about the history of the Pacific Islands a lot more in the future.

We are also studying ecology for science this year, and we found ways to connect our history lessons to our ecology lessons. (This happens a lot more than one would think. I have come to imagine the timeline of the world as different empires fighting to control their respective biomes, because those resources are the wealth of nations in its most basic form.) While studying about Australia and New Zealand, we learned about coral reefs, how they impact life on islands, artificial reefs, and conservation. We are in the process of building a model of a reef. When we make it back down to the Florida Keys, E will have an entirely new context for our snorkeling adventures.