nature Feed

On taking a breather (my midlife gap year)

Two and a half years; that’s a long time between blog posts. I declared 2017 my ‘midlife gap year’—a year off to focus on living life rather than earning a living. A year to pause and ponder before moving onto the second half of my life. I embraced all the ‘r’ words: retreat, reflection, reevaluation, rejuvenation, and restoration. I found the whole experience so worthwhile, my midlife gap year extended to two years. It took that long for my pause to pay off, for me to reemerge—restored, renewed and ready.

Small school visits tiny home 1Liv’s small school visits to measure our tiny home for a maths lesson. 

I know stepping away from paid work is a luxury, but it was made possible in part by us living in a tiny home.

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We’ve been living in our shipping container home for just over three years, but the approval paperwork has only recently been finalised. Our tiny home is finally "suitable for occupation/use." That we were living in our tiny home illegally is probably another reason I was quiet in this space. I was uncomfortable writing about our tiny home life when we could have been asked to move out at any time. But now that we’re legal I suspect I’ll find my tiny home voice.

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It was hard to stop doing, and simply be. In the beginning, I’d cringe each time someone asked me “What do you do?” But by the end I responded with confidence, “Right now, I’m taking a midlife gap year.” If they seemed interested, I’d chat about what I did and what I am going to do, but I was no longer embarrassed about the not doing. We need to respect and normalise the breathers in between.

The breather gifted me clarity about where I am going and what I am trying to achieve. At first, I worried my taking time off paid work was selfish, but I realise now it has helped me to be self-less. I know I’m on the right path, and have become far more patient about how long it will take me to get where I’m going.

I’ve continued writing these past few years. I’m writing a memoir about nature connection. I didn’t feel like writing elsewhere while I poured everything into that. But the end is almost in sight and I’m looking forward to writing elsewhere again.

Nature connection and Shamanic Womancraft 1A few bits and pieces I collected over my year-long four seasons journey with the School of Shamanic womancraft. Each object reminds me of a lesson.

The first half of my breather I focussed on not doing. I retreated and reflected. I created white space and then turned to my intuition to fill it. I found myself studying with the School of Shamanic Womancraft where I discovered that wonderful things happen when we live in sync with the cycles and seasons of life and nature—in particular, when we embrace the dark aspects of those natural rhythms. The moon waxes and wanes. She has a dark phase—a time for retreat and reflection. The seasons come and go. We have autumn—a time for release and harvest. Then comes winter—a time to rest and snuggle. The cycles influence us whether or not we are paying attention. And if we don’t pay attention, if we don’t pause in the darkness, we pay for it.

Autumn Inside Time Outside Nature Connection for women Newcastle NSW 1

Since stepping out of my midlife gap year I’ve been hosting seasonal nature connection gatherings for women in the Newcastle region. The winter series starts soon if you are interested in joining us. More information at itowinter.eventbrite.com.

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Autumn Inside Time Outside Nature Connection for women Newcastle NSW 3

Autumn Inside Time Outside Nature Connection for women Newcastle NSW 4

I’m also hosting two gatherings with Milan Dhiiyaan at our place in the Hunter Valley this weekend (8 & 9th June). An important aspect of nature connection for me is learning about the culture of those indigenous to this land; about how they connect to country. On Saturday we’ll carve our own clapsticks and on the Sunday Wiradjuri & Wailwaan woman Fleur Magick Dennis will teach the women how to connect to Mother Earth through ceremony, while the men and children make a gunya (Aboriginal shelter). And if you join us, you'll get to have a peek into our tiny home :-)

While I was on hiatus, little eco footprints celebrated its 10th birthday. So I thought it was about time I wrote an about page. Only took me a decade ;-)


How to attract butterflies to your garden

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An encounter with a beautiful butterfly has me on a mission to encourage more butterflies. I love the idea of having masses of butterflies flutter through my garden. They are beautiful to watch and perform valuable pollinator services.

The fact that butterflies start their life as caterpillars has some gardeners considering butterflies as pests. But the amount the larvae eat is negligible and is outweighed by their positive contribution as a pollinator and garden ornament.

The first step in welcoming butterflies and other beneficial insects into your garden is to use organic gardening methods.

When you spray pesticides to rid your garden of bad bugs, you are also killing the beneficial bugs.

Learn to expect and accept a few nibbled leaves and focus on building healthy soil using compost and manures.

In a healthy and diverse garden you’ll rarely see any particular insect get out of control.

Next - grow butterfly host and food plants

To encourage butterflies you need to provide resources for both the caterpillars (host plants) and butterflies (nectar).

Grow a diversity of plants and you will more than likely provide host plants and nectar plants for a selection of butterflies.

But you can also be a little more targeted and grow specific plants.

Butterfly larvae (caterpillar) host plants

Some of the most common butterfly larvae host plant families within the greater Sydney region (presumably the picture is similar in other parts of Australia) include Poaceae (grasses), Cyperaceae (sedges), Lomandraceae (mat rushes), and Fabaceae (wattles and peas).

Grow plenty of these plants and you'll be providing plenty of caterpillar food.

Kangaroo_Grass_Themeda_triandra

Thankfully, the bushland area adjacent to my garden hosts a nice range of species within these families. 

I'm also going to set up a small native butterfly garden especially for caterpillar food and butterfly forage. 

For the caterpillars I’ll grow a range of native grasses, sedges, rushes, shrubs, herbs and climbers. On my list so far are kangaroo grass (shown above), weeping grass and species from the following genera: lomandra, acacia, daviesia, glycine, hardenbergia, commelina, bursaria, pultenaea, boronia and pimelea.

A small wild area like this could be set up in even the smallest corner of an urban garden. And many of these plants will do well as potted plants.

Butterfly caterpillars also feed off many of the plants you may have in your orchard or potted garden (e.g. citrus, bay tree, avocado and figs) or vegetable garden (for example lemon grass, peas, and beans). Maintain a healthy diverse vegetable garden and orchard and you’ll likely encourage butterflies by default. 

Butterfly attracting plants

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Butterflies are attracted to bold clusters of flowers in bright colours.

I watched my recent butterfly visitor eagerly collect nectar from purple sage flowers.

Nectar-giving flowers favoured by butterflies are typically long and tubular and occur in clusters. Butterflies have a long, delicate, coiled tongue (called a proboscis) that is good at sucking nectar from deep within flowers.

To my native butterfly garden I’ll add a range of native plants favoured by butterflies, including grevillea, banksia, callistemon, pultenaea, melaleuca, scaevola, and leptospermum.

I’ll also be making sure there’s numerous butterfly nectar plants in my flower and vegetable gardens – including sunflowers, buddleja, marigold, ageratum, daisies and lavender.

Many common herbs also provide nectar for butterflies – including sage, chives, dill, lemon balm, mint, oregano, parsley and thyme.

Interested in learning more about pollinators in your garden?

Join in next week's Australian Wild Pollinator Count.  

The Wild Pollinator Count is a great opportunity to familiarise yourself with some of the beneficial bugs in your garden and contribute to wild insect pollinator conservation in Australia. The next count run 15-22 November. Find out how to join in here

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 19th October 2015.


Using microbat roosting boxes to manage mozzies

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The mosquito season is about to begin. I'm one of those fortunate people that mosquitoes don’t like the taste of. My husband isn't so lucky. A husband bothered by mozzies isn't much fun – so I'm preparing our natural mosquito control arsenal.

Mosquito coils aren't part of our mozzie control kit.

Smoke from mosquito coils contains carcinogens and fine particles that can damage your lungs.

Studies investigating the harmful components of mosquito coil smoke suggest that sitting in a closed room with a burning mosquito coil is equivalent to smoking anywhere from 51 to 137 cigarettes.

Popping a mosquito coil by your table while enjoying a barbecue is as hazardous as having a chain smoker sit at your table.

Thankfully there’s a less toxic way to reduce mosquito numbers – tiny, cute microbats.

In contrast to their larger fruit-eating cousins (flying foxes or fruit bats), microbats eat only insects.

They have a voracious appetite.

One microbat can eat thousands of mosquitoes in a night.

The benefit of microbats doesn’t stop at mosquito control – they also eat many garden pests including moths, beetles, aphids, weevils and crickets.

You can encourage microbats by providing them with roosting habitat.

Most microbats roost in trees – in cracks, fissures, hollows and under bark.

Trees with cavities suitable for microbat roosts are typically old or dead.

If you have an old hollow-bearing tree in your neighbourhood consider yourself fortunate because it’s likely to house any one of Australia’s 80 species of microbats.

The trouble is, old or dead trees are often removed from residential areas for safety and aesthetic reasons.

Combine targeted tree removal with large-scale clearing of native vegetation, and microbats are running out of places to roost.

Thankfully, many microbats don’t mind living in artificial roost boxes.

How_to_Build_a_bat_box_Milkwood

We've made one roost box so far and plan to make many more.

It’s a good idea to install multiple boxes because microbats prefer to move between multiple roosts to confuse predators.

Microbat_roost_box_entrance_Milkwood

If you want to specifically encourage mosquito-eating microbats (rather than larger microbats that eat larger insects like moths), you need to ensure the entrance to your microbat box is no more than 12 millimetres wide.

Microbats prefer entrances that are only just big enough for them to squeeze through – larger entrances are also likely to let predators inside.

Different-sized entrances will attract different species. The smaller microbat species are more likely to feed on mosquitoes – whereas larger species feed on larger insects like moths.

 

Microbat roost boxes are relatively easy to make for someone with a little woodworking experience.

I share how we made our microbat box over on the Milkwood blog. 

They can also be purchased. But a word of caution – some commercially available bat boxes are simply ornamental and are not suitable as microbat roosts. Typical faults include being too small, not being made of durable timber or hardware, and having entrances that are too large. I share links to a few suitable commercially available microbat boxes in the Milkwood article

There are three things that can potentially undo all your good work encouraging microbats: pesticides, electric insect buzzers and cats.

Pesticides and electric insect buzzers don’t just kill annoying mosquitoes or garden pests – they also kill beneficial insects and leave microbats with little to eat.

Microbats are easy prey for household cats. They are stationary during the day and in winter they can go into torpor (like mini-hibernation). Even those cats that owners claim "could never catch a thing" can easily catch a microbat in torpor. Keeping your cat inside night and day, or in an outdoor cat run, will help protect microbats and other wildlife.

More information on microbats and building a microbat box.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 26th October 2015.

 


Getting up close and personal with nature at Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters Bobs Farm Port Stephens Australia Little eco footprints

I usually feel a little uncomfortable when I arrive at a zoo or animal park for the first time. I worry that I may be supporting the inhumane treatment of wild animals. But each time I've visited a zoo or park in recent years I've been pleasantly surprised and have left inspired and reassured.

Our children need to get up close and personal with wildlife in order to care for their environment.

They are not going to care about nature unless they know nature.

We recently visited Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters at Bobs Farm, Port Stephens.

You can safely get up close and personal with wildlife that you would usually not want to encounter – stingrays and sharks.

Little Eco walked away from the experience buzzing with confidence. She also walked away with an awareness of how she can help conserve our marine environment – an awareness far greater than what she would have gained from reading dozens of books or watching a suite of documentaries. Nothing compares to real-life experiential learning.

The kids changed into the wetsuits provided and popped on a pair of water shoes, the latter to hide wriggling toes so that they were not accidentally mistaken for little fish.

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool. Little eco footprints

First stop was the aqua nursery pool, teeming with juvenile sharks and rays. 

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool shark and ray feeding_ Little eco footprints

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool shark and ray feeding2_ Little eco footprints

Little Eco and her friends nervously reached into the water with their feeding sticks.

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool swimming with sharks and rays_ Little eco footprints

They eventually went into the water, standing waist deep while one-metre-long sharks swam around their legs.

They didn't last long, quickly retreating to the shore.

I enjoyed watching their confidence grow as the guide revealed more information about the ecology and conservation of sharks and rays.

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters Ray Lagoon_ Little eco footprints

Second stop was Ray Lagoon, where they could get into the water with larger adult rays.

Their fear evolved into awe and they stepped a little deeper into the water so that they could touch a huge, two-metre, smooth ray that felt like "slimy sandpaper".

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters Fiddlers Flat Little eco footprints

By the time Little reached the next stop – Fiddler’s Flat – all fear had dissolved and she was in love.

"Look how cute they are," she said, sitting in the water among dozens of juvenile Fiddler Rays.

There was a roped off area where the rays could retreat to, but interestingly they didn't seem bothered by all the children and seemed to be curiously exploring their visitors.

Little Eco confidently stepped into the last pool, not even hesitating when she put on a pair of gloves "so that the big sharks don’t think my fingers are fish and bite them off". She got to pat Fluffy, a three-metre Tawny Nurse Shark, and heard all about the devastating impact pollution and overfishing are having on our marine environment.

I was impressed with the quality of interpretive information provided by our guide.

A few days after our visit I asked Little Eco what she learnt:

"Don’t litter. Pick up rubbish when you see it.

Don’t eat flake because it is shark and many sharks are going extinct. And shark is poisonous [she’s referring to mercury accumulation in large and long-lived fish].

Sharks and rays don't want to hurt us. They are really important and if we want fish we need to leave sharks in the ocean."

They're pretty important take home messages. And our guide obviously did a good job explaining the key conservation issues if an eight year old can still remember them days later. 

I know my comments about eating sustainable food or avoiding plastic often don’t make sense to Little Eco. I'm grateful that her encounter with some of our ocean’s majestic creatures has helped her see the connection between her actions and the health of our planet.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 5th September 2015.


Why I'm spending an hour in the garden each day

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 1

I've challenged myself to spend an hour in the garden each day for the whole of spring.

It may seem counterintuitive to add garden time to a schedule that I'm trying to simplify. But I know the benefits will outweigh any inconvenience.

Here's 8 good reasons to spend time in the garden each day:

1. Better than popping a daily probiotic pill

Digging in the earth is an incredibly efficient way to pick up beneficial microbes.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 2

Put your hands in soil (or feet for that matter) and you'll likely pick up far more beneficial bugs than you would if you took an expensive probiotic pill.

These microbes can improve our mood, fight inflammation, boost immunity, and help us absorb nutrients and digest our food.

2. Exercise

Our bodies are not meant to be sedentary. They are designed for moving. Yet many of us spend most of our time sitting.

Getting out in the garden each day is a great way to get regular exercise.

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There's digging, walking, stretching, squatting and lifting.

Regular exercise helps prevent heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, adult-onset diabetes and osteoporosis.

3. Meaningful movement

Gardening appeals to me far more than spending an hour on a treadmill or in a gym class.

It's meaningful movement.

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When gardening I'm actually achieving something. I can see the results immediately. I get a sense of achievement far greater than if I'd spent an hour walking nowhere. A weeded patch or a basket of greens is far more rewarding than a kilometre tally on a screen.

I believe the absence of meaningful physical work is one of the causes of consumerism. Not having meaningful physical work to do each day leaves a gap in our lives that we attempt to fill by consuming.

Garden, forage and DIY and the desire to buy stuff drifts away.

4. Nutrition

The more fruit and vegetables we grow, the more fruit and vegetables we're likely to eat.

If I go to the effort of growing something – I'm going to eat it.

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If I have an abundance of kale - I’ll eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

5. Relaxation and stress-relief

Gardening is a very effective way to calm the mind, relax and relieve stress.

It can actually put the mind in a similar state to meditation.

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All your senses awaken and you become more aware of the present moment. You naturally stop thinking about complications or stresses beyond the garden and instead focus on what you can see, feel, hear, smell and even taste.

6. Brain health

Daily gardening may even decrease the risk of dementia.

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When gardening you need to think, learn and be creative. This type of regular brain activity keeps the mind active and may protect it against degenerative diseases.

7. Grounding

Digging in dirt connects us to the earth – literally.

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You may have heard of earthing. The idea behind it is that that many of us rarely touch the earth with our bare skin. This leads to a build up of positive electrons in our body due to exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). The power to our home, our appliances, lighting, wifi and our mobile phones can all emit EMFs.

Gardeners, by touching the earth are “grounding” themselves and removing this extra charge.

8. A longer life

All these benefits can add up to increased longevity. Gardeners, on average, live longer than non-gardeners.

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Taking that into account, I think I can easily set aside an hour each day to spend in the garden for a couple of months.

Would you like to join me? 

I'm sharing my daily #anhourinthegardeneachday pictures over on instagram. The images above are a selection of the images I've shared during the challenge so far. I'm including gardening tips along the way. 

There's already a few of us playing along and I'm enjoying the peek into other Spring gardens.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 7th September 2015.