I Spy Something Green

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. – John Muir

Hiking, sleeping, and eating – it was a way of life for three full blissful days. It had been too long since our last vacation, and my husband K and I were overdue for some time away from the obligations and routines of our daily lives. We counted down the days in anticipation, packed up the car, and then hit the road to Hot Springs, Arkansas!

Road trips are the best. I always pack an arsenal of things to keep me busy in the car onlyVersion 2 to spend most of the time gazing out the window and daydreaming. I felt substantially more relaxed just an hour after leaving town, and I think our dog Cora felt the same! Gradually I noticed that the roadside trees seemed to loom taller and glow a brighter green as we got closer to the national park. It was all we could see for hours as we drove down the highway, and I joked, “I spy something green!” That evening after arriving at the hotel, we ordered a giant cheesy pizza from room service and kicked back watching cartoons. We made it!

Version 2We kicked off our first full day in Hot Springs with an indulgent breakfast (a free perk of staying at Embassy Suites), me piling my plate high with biscuits and gravy galore! I had to fuel up for a day of hiking after all. As soon as we hit the trails in the national park, K and I were mesmerized by never ending waves of green. Everything was lush and in full bloom, and we trekked in silence for quite a while, simply enjoying this time together in nature. We hiked uphill and downhill, over rocks, and along well-traveled trails, getting lost in our thoughts and then stopping to take photos of whatever caught our eye and pulled us from our reverie.

Back at the hotel giggling at more cartoons, we drifted off to sleep, Cora included. I am not typically a nap taker, but I lapsed into a deep sleep that day and the following two days of vacation. I slept more than I have in a long time, and I felt more refreshed than I have in a long time as well. We dined out that night at Copper Penny Pub in downtown Hot Springs, inhaling our hot comfort food and enjoying a pint of the local brewery’s wheat beer (my favorite).

We spent the next day at Garvan Woodland Gardens, a botanical garden and natureVersion 2 preserve on Hamilton Lake. Cora was very enthusiastic about the koi pond, wishing with all her might that she could jump in and catch one! We also caught sight of a cute fuzzy chipmunk just before he skittered back to his home under a large rock. Again the waves of green stretched on forever and the brisk wind rustled through the trees creating a soothing soundtrack as we hiked, catching glimpses of the cool blue lake just beyond.

The main attraction of Hot Springs is of course, the hot springs. Historic bathhouse row downtown consists of a string of old bathhouses, some still operational as such while others have been converted into other attractions. Thus, our trip would not be complete without a trip to the spa. We relaxed in the thermal pools at Quapaw Bathhouse before venturing into the steam cave, a dry sauna designed to look like the old thermal caves used by Native Americans believing that the heat from the hot springs had just as much healing power as the waters themselves. It was K’s first sauna experience, and while I don’t think he’d do it again, I’m glad we got to do it together.

IMG_0554We also went to the Fordyce Bathhouse, which has been well maintained and now functions as a museum. Wandering those halls is like a trip back in time to the age when the bathhouses were a highly popular destination and both men and women spent all day there, relaxing and socializing. I loved the old tile floors. We had lunch at the Superior Bathhouse, which was converted into a restaurant and microbrewery that makes beer from the local spring water. It was delicious, and they also played the best music mix of 90’s grunge rock as a backdrop for our meal.

After spending so much time inside however, it was time to return to nature and trek through the forest on our last hike of the trip. It was warm and sunny, so the lizards and squirrels were out. The ticks were also out unfortunately and we spent a good deal of time pulling them off of Cora’s feet, but it was worth it. She had a great time, as did we. Once again we fell asleep that night watching cartoons and slept soundly until the next morning when it was time to pack up and return home.

The best things in life aren’t things – they are experiences. Taking a short vacation to experience nature in all its bright green glory and to spend a few days simply relaxing and enjoying life gave K and I renewed energy and vigor for when we returned home. We all deserve an escape now and then, and an escape into nature is always fun and satisfying.

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A Place

Earth –

It’s a wondrous place, miraculous in its ability to foster and sustain such an abundance of life.

It’s a complex place where all life is connected, where every living entity, big and small, has a purpose in the cycle of change.

It’s a mysterious place we are still trying to understand but know to respect and cherish all the same.

It’s our home.

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In response to the weekly photo challenge: Earth

7 Ways to Celebrate the Return of Spring

The days grow longer as the sun shines high above us, easing us from the winter season into springtime. The snow and frost melt, making way for greenery to grow and encouraging creatures to awake from hibernation. Here in the U.S., the northeast is undergoing the last of winter. Meanwhile at my home in the south, signs of spring have already appeared. We recently came across a squirrel nest in our yard, complete with three babies. Our evenings are cool and breezy, but most of our days are growing warmer.

The first official day of spring, the vernal equinox, is today! While the celebration of Spring takes many forms, here are 7 ways to celebrate the return of the season of growth, nature, and renewal.

1) Spring clean.
It’s called “spring cleaning” for a reason! Spring is the perfect time of year to toss out the old and make way for the new. It’s the perfect time to downsize and donate, recycle, or sell the things you no longer use. After freeing up some space, refresh your home as well with a little extra cleaning. Focus on those neglected areas such as the baseboards, the ceiling fans, and the space under the bed. Reorganize your closets and pantries to make better use of the space you do have. Introduce some new spring scents into your home with candles or essential oils. And don’t forget to open the windows and let in all of that fresh air!

2) Reflect.
Spring is the season that can sheds new light on the world around you. It’s a perfect opportunity for reflection. Carve out some time to think about all that you have accomplished in your life. Think about all the wondrous things that surround you every day and be thankful. Write down your expressions of gratitude. Express those feelings of gratitude towards your loved ones. Share your appreciation and love.

3) Plant something.blog
The earth supports life through the existence of trees and plants and the oxygen they emit into the atmosphere. Freshen the air around you by introducing new plants into your home. They will increase oxygen and add energy and spirit to the room. If you have the yard space, create a garden or tend to the one you already have, planting new things or old favorites. You can even plant a tree! Last year my husband planted a baby burr oak in our backyard.

4) Rebalance.
The vernal equinox is equal parts darkness and light, giving us 12 hours of each. For one day there is balance, and then everything shifts, as does life. Yet we continue striving to achieve balance, “work-life balance” being the most popular these days, though there are many types. What is out of balance in your life? Perhaps you are spending too much time with others and not enough time alone, eating too much sugar and not enough vegetables, staying up too late to watch TV and not getting enough sleep. Recognize the area that needs a bit more attention and make a change.

5) Enjoy the outdoors.blog
As we see the sun for longer stretches of time, the weather grows warmer, the birds sing their sweet songs, and nature beckons us to come outside. Make time to appreciate the shifting of the seasons and enjoy all of the beauty that the outdoors offers.   Spend an afternoon at the park and take a picnic lunch along with you. Visit some local gardens. Go for a hike. Spring is also a great time to go fishing, as my husband can attest. Enjoy the gorgeous weather now while you have the opportunity.

6) Start something new.
Spring is a time of renewal, and it is important to find time to renew ourselves. Are there projects that you’ve been meaning to start but have been putting off? Is there something you want to learn about or learn to do? Is there a personal practice you’ve been thinking about adding into your routine, such as running or meditation? The increase in sunlight as we move from the cold season into the warmer season has a rejuvenating effect on our senses and can revive our motivation.   Spring is the perfect time to start something new!

7) Take a trip.
Spring Break is a tradition for a reason! After hibernating all winter, we are ready for some fun in the sun! Take a vacation and get away from the stresses of daily life. If a long trip is not in the cards for you right now, consider taking a weekend road trip, or even a road trip. Sometimes a few hours in the car is all it takes to travel to new destination or to a place you love to visit.

Spring is a beautiful season, and especially for us in the south, it never seems to stick around long enough. So make time to celebrate, to enjoy the reemergence of nature and the warm sunny days. Take time out for yourself and have some fun!

The Best Kind of Drive-Thru

I never cease to be amazed by the vast array of creatures that populate our planet. The creativity of nature is evident in every species, and to see them up close and interact with them is a treat that fills me with pure joy.

When I was growing up, my parents sometimes took me to a drive-through wildlife park. The park staff handed us huge buckets of animal food to dole out to the free-range animals as we encountered them on our drive. I remember being wide-eyed with both terror and excitement as a buffalo stuck its entire head through the car window to partake of my food bucket. He was an impressive beast, and he left a lasting impression in my childhood memory.

This past weekend the hubs and I along with the in-laws ventured to a nonprofit wildlife reserve spanning 1800 acres featuring a 9-mile drive-through park. I felt giddy sitting in the back seat of the truck with my hubs holding a bag of food pellets, thinking of the times I had visited similar places as a kid. We drove through the entry gates and started our adventure.

Immediately we could see deer and wildebeests wandering the open range and we watched them in awe. I scrambled into K’s lap eager to see the animals on his side of the truck. I leaned over him and out the window to take photos, but as we circled around deeper into the park, we encountered a slight roadblock. K said, “It’s a velociraptor.” and I leaned back img_9582away from the window.

Two emus stood in the middle of the path, their long legs and toes reminding K of a Jurassic Park predator. Their wild amber eyes, feathered scowl, and wide pointy beaks didn’t make them appear any less intimidating. They peered in at us through the windows we had rolled up in our nervousness, but they were incredible to watch as they displayed their curiosity towards us as we squeaked past them.

img_9630I’ve seen deer before in the wild, but it’s a rare treat to get so close them. Along with young bucks and does were sweet little babies, watching with hopeful eyes as we approached. The variance in their colors and patterns and shapes made each one unique, and I wished the park let us dole out more food treats to these small furry creatures with stick legs and soft faces.img_9724

The horns of these creatures were astounding. Some were long and curved, others wavy and thin, some thick and curled, others like tree branches growing out of the tops of the animal’s head, like the fallow deer, which is similar to an elk. The bravado of their antlers balanced with their calm temperament as they patiently waited at the edges of the road for us to drive up to them and give them food. We laughed noting this was like a reverse drive-thru, them waiting and us driving through to bring them something to eat. I locked eyes with an elk as I gave him some food and wished we could be forever friends.

img_9688As we came around the next corner, the graceful saunter of the giraffes brought us to a stop. They stretched their long necks to reach to tastiest leaves jutting from the treetops and then moved towards us with ease, their heads disappearing over the top of our truck, too tall for us to see. One leaned its head down towards our window and ate the food out of our palms before moving on down the road. We watched them in awe and eventually pulled ourselves away to continue on our adventure.

As we drove towards the end of the park, we came upon img_9735a jumble of zebras. They turned out to be the comedians of the place, leaning in through the car windows and opening their mouths wide to say, “Food please! Just toss it in my mouth!” They were incredible with their straightforwardness and their iconic stripes.

We ended the trip as we started it, with a scary bird encounter. An ostrich set us in its sights and headed straight for us. It greeted us by pecking at the front of our truck and then peered in anxiously through our windows, pecking the top of the truck a few times as well. We agreed he was there to make sure no animal food left the park. He was going to make sure he got the last of it! K bravely rolled down the window just enough to toss out the rest of the food. The ostrich gobbled it up and strolled down the road towards the next victim.

No matter how many animal encounters I experience, I always find myself in a state of wonderment at all the different types of creatures that occupy the earth and the uniqueness of each one. It reminds me that we aren’t the only animals living out our lives as best we can and renews my respect and love for nature and all the animals it encompasses.

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A Sanctuary

“By ethical conduct toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the universe.”  Albert Schweitzer, The Teaching of Reverence for Life

The animal rescue organizations in my city work miracles. Teams of people dedicate themselves to taking care of homeless and neglected animals while others donate money or adopt the animals if they can. But what about the animals that are not domesticated? What about the wild and exotic animals, kidnapped from their homes, sold on the black market, used for profit and then tossed aside when no longer valuable? Who helps them, takes them in, gives them forever homes?

The nonprofit exotic animal sanctuary I visited last weekend is a quick turnoff from the rural highway. The rust colored iron gates blend with the muted landscape remaining unnoticed by thousands of daily travelers. We pull into the small, gravel parking lot and check in at the equally unassuming office building for the tour, which costs only the amount you are willing to give, though they recommend $20 per person.

I am not sure what to expect. Perhaps it is like any other zoo in which the intentions behind its existence are good but the disconnection between human and animal is evident. I am relieved to be wrong. It is unlike any other animal place I have visited.

There are bars around the fenced enclosures to keep us from getting too close to the inhabitants. Our guide requests that we silence our phones and not crouch down when taking photos. The predator instincts of these animals are alive and well, and it is ill-advised to trigger them. This is not a zoo. This is not a place where you can shout at the animals or tap on the glass to get their attention. The caretakers do not allow any activities that upset the animals that live here. It is a safe place for them to live out their days in peace and comfort. This is their home, and we are guests.

A wide-eyed lemur greets us from his enclosure as we enter the sanctuary. He is happy to img_8857see us and shows us his long, fluffy tail. He likes visitors and the extra attention.  The bears mostly ignore us. Their enclosures lead to a large plot of fenced acreage where they roam freely. The ones we see through the fence snooze lazily in the shade or snack on fruit.143160330141819img_4158 Nine of these bears were rescued after a PETA sting operation and needed be moved to a new home as soon as possible. With the funding of game show host and animal rights activist Bob Barker, the sanctuary completed the construction of the new bear habitat in less than 90 days.

whitetigerSome of the animals are uncomfortable in the presence of people. One tiger becomes tense when people stand along one side of his enclosure, so we do not linger. We walk to the other side as he follows us, and when we reach it, he begins nudging his giant red ball around and then lies down to gnaw on a huge stick. He is a beautiful creature with thick white fur, brown stripes, and paws the size of my head. Some enclosures we are not allowed to visit at all in an effort to avoid subjecting the animals to discomfort or unease.

The animals here come from all over the U.S. Some were pets. Most were used for profit and kept around only as long as they were submissive and valuable or until they were confiscated. Sadly there are still people in the world who lack respect and compassion for other creatures. So often it is about money and usefulness. It is rarely about a mutual relationship or love.

A traveling roadside circus headed out of town one day stopped by the sanctuary. Their orangetiger2tiger had stopped performing, and they were going to dispose of him if the sanctuary could not take him. It is for this type of scenario that the sanctuary is never at capacity. The caretakers make sure they always have room for emergency rescues. They welcomed the circus tiger with open arms. He lives in the sanctuary safe and sound, never again having to endure the abuse imposed on him by the heartless.

The care provided by the sanctuary includes nutritional plans comprised of whole foods and the occasional treat such as snow cones for the cats and birthday cake for the bears. The animals have toys and pools for play and relaxation. The best part though is the emotional enrichment. The caretakers, including a renowned animal behaviorist, simply spend positive quality time with the animals. It minimizes the animals’ stress and anxiety. The behaviorist spends time inside the enclosures and even takes naps with a trio of tigers he has worked with since they were cubs. For other caretakers though, benches set up outside the enclosures allow people to sit in safe proximity to the animals in an effort to help them grow more comfortable with their surroundings and with human interaction. People who donate monthly to the sanctuary can participate as well. Some people read to them. Some even sing to them. It is a rare opportunity to experience a connection with these beautiful and wild animals and improve their quality of life in captivity.

150160204114634dsc_2620Last year the sanctuary became home to two gray wolves. When they first arrived, they were fearful and skittish, but every passing day they feel more at ease. As I stand nearby, one of them walks through his pool to get a closer look while the other wolf paces back and forth, still a little anxious and unsure. It is through emotional enrichment that they are making progress. They are going to live the rest of their lives here. It should not be a life lived in fear.

It is a relief to know there are people to pick up the pieces of these animals’ lives; to nurture and care for those that have been abused, mistreated, cast aside; to provide a home for those who can never return to their homelands. We must have respect and show compassion for life and nature. The ability to do so is one of the great things about being human.

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Photo credits: most taken by sanctuary but are of actual animals we visited while there

A Trip: Simplicity and Nature

Every day our to-do lists hang over our heads. We have tasks to address today, tomorrow, next week, next month, and our schedules stretch out even farther beyond. We cross one thing off of our list and add two more. These daily obligations overwhelm us. In tandem with work, family, friends, and the high expectations we have of ourselves to accomplish it all, we struggle to maintain momentum, eventually losing pace, and working our way closer to burnout. When we see this breakdown looming before us, it is a sign that we are past due for a break, for a vacation.

When you are away from home, you are free from distractions and can focus on what’s in front of you. You live simply day-to-day, making it easier to live in the present moment. You can fully see and experience everything around you. You have space in your mind to ponder and contemplate.

This year the husband and I opted for a short road trip to Beaver’s Bend State Park, staying in a quaint, somewhat secluded cabin.

We took advantage of the time to enjoy the simplicities in life. We slept in, took naps, watched cartoons, snacked on Froot Loops and shandy beer. We ate lunch outside and watched the small, grey squirrels chase each other up and down the trees. We hiked through the woods, focusing only on the next step ahead and hearing only the sounds of nature around us. We sat listening to the rush of the flowing river in the afternoons and stood in awe at its tranquil stillness in the wee hours of the mornings.

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We had carefree fun, talking, reconnecting, and laughing together. We took a paddleboat down the river to go fishing, and the hubs noted that we should avoid paddling under the IMG_7518trees in case a snake fell on us. Then something dropped from a tree onto the back of his neck, causing him to nearly jump out of the boat. It was a cute, fuzzy caterpillar (with horns?).

Also, I hooked myself in the leg with a fishing lure. That was not so fun. But I did catch some fish, including feisty little perch that were a beautiful bright orange and blue. I thanked them for humoring me and set them free.

On one of our hikes, we encountered a giant stinging insect, forever deemed as “the pterodactyl.” We stood for five full minutes contemplating how best to get around him and the tree on which he was resting. I finally just closed my eyes and made a run for it! I like to live life on the edge.

The hubs and I love all creatures. We respect life and were awed on this trip by so much of nature’s beauty and strength. The hubs caught mini frogs and redirected lost turtles back to the water. A dragonfly with seemingly wings of velvet was not shy when we met in the woods. I steered clear though of the healthy 5-foot black snake.

The hubs and I weren’t the only ones on this adventure. Our dog Cora swam in the river, hiked, fished, and snacked on Froot Loops with us. She even made friends with a pack of Version 2armadillos rummaging through the woods. She sniffed them and introduced herself but still wasn’t sure what to make of these strange creatures. When they took off running, she attempted to chase them and got caught in the thorny brush, much to the husband’s dismay since he had to climb in and free her.

The state park endured massive flooding at the end of last year. The water rose and roared, washing away roads and bridges, but the rock formations that remained once the water receded were astounding. The various strata of the rock revealed colors of red, orange, gold, blue and green. Cora climbed up and down over rocks, exploring the topography of the area. Quartz glittered everywhere. It is amazing what nature can do.

All of these moments washed away my worries. Returning home, I was happy to be back, but I vowed to hold on as long as I could to the state of mind I had while away. I vowed to be more present in my day rather than worry about what is happening in the future, both near and far. I vowed to revel in the abundance of nature around me and better appreciate the simple things in life.

Vacations from our daily routines give us a solid start for better pursuit of mindfulness. We can really see the world around us without all the distractions in our head. Give yourself a break and take a trip. Even a simple one will do you some good.

Where Flowers Bloom: My Porch Project

“Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”
-Lady Bird Johnson

Nature gives us an infinitely flowing fountain of beauty, and it’s a flow that we can capture and bring home anytime we crave more of it.

Lady Bird Johnson grew up in the wide-open spaces of Texas and always felt at peace in the solace of the outdoors. Her love of nature stayed with her when she became First Lady of the United States and began her first city beautification initiative in D.C. through which her organization planted millions of flowers, inspiring beautification movements across the nation. She became the first First Lady to advocate for legislation when she actively promoted the Highway Beautification Act which aimed to limit billboards along the highway systems and plant flowers along roadside areas. Thanks to Lady Bird’s influence, the bill passed, and Americans can relish the scenery of wildflowers while driving through their cities or across the country.

We are drawn to beauty around us, and whether we are conscious of it or not, beauty in nature often provides a sense of peace and solace for us, just like it did for Lady Bird Johnson. We may not always have access to open spaces or fields of flowers, but there are green spaces everywhere. Walking and driving through my neighborhood, I found myself admiring the tidy lawns and decorative gardens and front porches of my neighbors. I decided to start a small beautification project of my own and create a more aesthetic view of my home to give passers-by something prettier to see and to emphasize the sense that my house is truly a home.

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My house is about 56 years old and needed substantial renovations when we first moved into it, including the neglected front yard. With the help of my mother-in-law who loves gardening, my husband did some early work on the front garden bed, planting a few things and cleaning up the shrubs. However, we since let it fall by the wayside, and it was past time to revive it.

Knowing little about outdoor plants and living in a dominantly warm area of the U.S., I began researching plants native to my state that could survive high temperatures. My mother-in-law, forever an invaluable resource, invited us to the local garden club plant sale and walked us through the endless arrays of greenery choices. I was in awe of how much I have to learn.

Back at home, my husband graciously offered to help me with my project. He trimmed the bushes, helped me pull up the 60’s throwback turf from the porch, and teamed up with me on raking leaves out of the flowerbed. We cleared the space, letting the sparse Lantana planted the previous year finally breathe and begin its delayed growth of the season.

Finally, it was time for the best part – planting my flowery finds in pots and in the ground. I skipped wearing gloves; I wanted to feel the thick soil in my hands to stimulate all my senses. I tenderly placed each plant in its new home, admiring the leaves, colors, and blooms. My knees and back protested as I laid down mulch over the flowerbed, but I felt good. Filling up my new watering can and raining water down over the garden, I felt a stronger connection to nature and life. I stood back and admired the new scenery, proud of my efforts and thankful for the time and efforts of my husband and mother-in-law. It feels gratifying to play a part in nature and to add more beauty to my realm.

It’s a good start. Over time with attention and care, the plants will grow and bloom, like the life my husband and I share together inside our home. They have already grown since I first planted them, and I love seeing their bright flowers and shades of green when passing from the comfort of home through my front door and out into the vast world beyond.

How can you play a part in nature, growth, and in nurturing your world? How can you add more beauty to it?