Here’s the best way to earn the day’s hot chocolate

by Emily Stone Naturalist/Educator Cable Natural History Museum

“When can we go on a hike with you, Auntie Em?” asked a six-year-old in a shark costume after all the Christmas presents were opened.

Those may be the sweetest words I’ve ever heard. After a flurry of finding boots (here’s one, where’s the other one?), digging grubby old jackets out of the closet, and tugging mittens over small hands, we were off!

With the first big snowstorm still just part of the long-range forecast, we stepped out into a brown world under a blue sky. Zac spotted some pretty flower seed heads and wandered into the restored prairie to pick some for Grandma. “Here’s one of those balls!” he shouted, grabbing a goldenrod gall from among the flower stems, “And it has a piece of corn in it!”

We examined the gall together. Along the equator of the small, brown globe, a downy woodpecker had used its needle-sharp beak to peck a neat hole and extract the sweet, juicy fly larva.

Wedged into that hole was a hulled sunflower seed from the bird feeder. This was surely the work of a black-capped chickadee.

Those energetic little year round residents cache as many as 100,000 food items per year – most of them in the winter when food scarcity is a serious risk.

In order to remember all of those caches, chickadees add new neurons for every hidden seed, berry, or insect. The result is a 30 percent increase in brain volume, which shrinks again during the easy-living days of summer.

Zac has always had a larger than average head, and I could see it expanding just a little more to accommodate this new bit of information.

Thawing dirt squished under our feet as we turned from the driveway onto the minimum maintenance road at the end of the driveway.

The old road was cut deeply into the ridge, with high banks rising on either side. This put cushions of moss at eye level for inquisitive minds. Drawn to the vivid green, Zac got his nose right up into the living carpet. A boy after my own heart. “Helicopter!” was his first discovery, as he grabbed the tiny maple seed.

First he tossed it up, and we marveled at its whirling descent. Then I picked it up and added several feet onto its launch. Zac’s eagle eyes followed the seed into the leaf litter, so we had one more launch.

This time, we passed the seed up to Zac’s twin, Kylee, who had scrambled up to the top of the road cut. Three heads nodded in unison as we tracked the spinning seed. Wasn’t I just saying how nicely maple seeds are designed for human play?

This time, the seed landed near a branch; a long, skinny branch, with a hooked tip, that caught Zac’s eye. Both twins worked on getting the gangly tool vertical, and then Kylee backed off and gave orders. “Pull down a tree!” she encouraged, as Zac struggled to hook the stick over low-hanging twigs.

Up, up, up, he reached, with his every move exaggerated into wide circles at the top. Finally, Kylee couldn’t stand it, and she joined in to help. With four hands, the hook stayed steady, and finally they got it over a small branch. Who needs plastic toys when you have sticks?

As we detoured off the road onto a deer trail, my pockets began to fill up. Zac picked up snail shells, squirrel-sculpted walnut shells, a rodent-chewed chunk of deer bone, and a dozen other trinkets for me to carry back and show Grandma.

Young eyes zeroed in on splashes of color in the drab woods. We examined turkey tail fungi coated in bright green algae, discovered a scarlet cup fungus under the maple leaves, and marveled at a stump capped with tiny dots of lemon drop cup fungi.

Then we found a log populated by puffballs. Once I had demonstrated the effects of poking the deflated brown ping pong balls, the kids took over.

Their small fingers ejected clouds of olive green spores into the breeze. This assistance with spore dispersal was exactly what the fungi were hoping for!

Although I don’t usually bring up scientific names with kids, I just had to tell them that the genus of this mushroom means “wolf-farts.” We all giggled before moving on.

The deer trail took us down into a small ravine, where several fallen logs bridged the gap.

Kylee, gymnast that she is, headed straight for the first mossy balance beam. I scrambled into the dry creek bed to catch her, but I needn’t have.

Zac took the more conservative route, and scooted across another log on his rear end.

Climbing and jumping off banks, poking at things, and swinging off tree trunks, we made our way back to the house.

Zac picked up his bouquet of dried flowers and looked up at me with big brown eyes.

“We earned our hot chocolate today, didn’t we Auntie Em?” Yes, Zac, we sure did!


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