Nature Through a 4-year-old’s Eyes Explorer’s Club #2 – Meadows   

img_67902.jpgSome of the first words my grandchildren said were “walk” and “outside”. They always calmed down as soon as the door or window was opened. They quickly forgot all the chaos of being inside and pointed to the sky, the sun, or a bird. Their eyes would widen as they slowly took into account this much larger world outside their home.

Even now when I get the honor of going for a walk with a grandchild, I jump at it because I learn so much from their point of view.

One of the main attractions as they learned to walk was picking and eating berries. Berries are found in meadows, along hedgerows, and on the edges of forests. In berry picking season we head off to pick black and yellow raspberries, wine berries, and blackberries. We also pick and eat mulberries, blueberries, and grapes.

But, of course, it’s tricky. What berry is safe to eat and how ripe does it have to be are always challenges?

“Berries!” My granddaughter cries out.

“Don’t pick the green ones. Make sure they’re ripe. Let me see them before you put them into your mouth.” One has to be diligent.

What’s nice about a 4-year old is that they can almost be trusted in knowing what to pick and when to pick it. They also have developed an ability to pick and not eat everything immediately. They can even share some of their bounty with others.

“No, grandpa, these are for mama.”

So, its great fun to forage for edibles. Now you might think that meadows lose their attraction when berries are not in season.

“Grandpa, lets go pick berries.”

“We can go check but I don’t think there are any ripe berries in season right now. But we can look for other things.”

“Okay. Let’s go.”

Fortunately, there are so many flowers throughout the summer and with flowers come all sorts of insects. Dragonflies and damselflies, preying mantises, cicadas, and butterflies are great attractions in meadows. I love to pick up and examine ones which have died. They are beautiful and if you give your 4-year old a box to store them in, they can create quite a collection.

“What’s this?”

“That’s a Chinese preying mantis.”

“I want to pick it up. Can I touch it?”

“Be careful, it’s alive and can pinch you. You have to hold it like this.” I show her but it flaps away into the grasses like a wind-up toy. It’s pretty exciting.

Now there are two challenges with falling in love with meadows. First is that they are the most endangered habitat in many parts of the country, so they’re hard to find. I dedicated a whole chapter to this challenge in my second book, Saving The Places We Love. We have regulations that preserve forests and wetlands, but in most areas, meadows are just mowed down for farming or development. Where I live we have lost the beautiful sounds and sights of the meadowlark and the Bobwhite. They have left because there is no longer enough habitat for them here.  What a loss! I can still remember how I used to call Bobwhite into my backyard just by mimicking their call (bob…bob…white).

The best meadows we have locally are at nature preserves and under power lines. Some of these meadows are managed as areas where native grasses grow – which of course support many native insects, birds, mammals, and reptiles.

The second challenge when exploring meadows is that you should always check for ticks when you are done. Some ticks carry diseases. We have found a few deer ticks over the years which can transmit Lyme disease. So we have made it a practice to check whenever we go for a walk through brush.

Nature Through a 4-year-old’s Eyes Explorer’s Club #1 – Lakes

I was out and about this summer and spent a fair bit of time exploring lakes. One of my companions on some of these jaunts was a 4-year old. This was great. She helped me see things in a whole new way.


Hey granddad, “What are all these squiggly lines?”

I waded out to where she was standing waist deep (her waist) in the cool, clear lake waters. I still had my glasses on so I bent over and waited for the ripples to subside. As the waters calmed, sure enough there were lines in the sand as if she had drawn them with a stick. They were 5 to 10 ft long and often looped back on themselves. I considered but dismissed hydrologic origins to these phenomena – the lines cut right across the ripple marks on the lake bottom. I started wondering what creature could have done this pattern in the sand.

“Look, they are all over the bottom. What are they?”

The more I looked, the more I came to believe they were tracks. We had seen snails the day before and also small intricately patterned water snakes. They were both interesting possibilities but not quite right. I looked more and more carefully at the lines as she became more animated and started churning up the water, her energetic side overtaking her scientific interest in our discovery.

The flashes of light from her frolicking reflected off shiny nubs at the end of several of the lines. I reached down and scooped up a handful of sand, silt, and pebbles.

As I watched the sand and silt sift through my fingers, I discovered something larger left in my hand.

“Hey, come look at what I found.” She came over wide-eyed, splashing me in the process.

DSCN0810-305px“What is it? What did you find?” She asked. I opened my hand and showed here a bluish-black mussel about two inches across, with a shiny nubby hinge on one side.

“It’s a mussel,” I said.

“I can make a muscle.” She flexed here bicep, grinning ear to ear.

“Not that kind. This is what we call a shellfish. A bi-valve. It has two shells. It moves by filtering water and sand through the edges of their shells. That process propels it along the bottom, leaving these tracks behind. Let’s put several in a bucket for a few minutes and see what happens.”

We put 2 inches of sand and 6 inches of water into a bucket and placed 2 mussels, lying flat on their sides on top of the sand. We then put the bucket in the shade sitting in a few inches of water to keep it cool.

Nothing happened while we watched so she was off exploring other things. Five minutes later we took another look and found both mussels to be standing on edge and puffing water out of their shells.

“They are making tracks in the sand in our bucket! Let’s put some more in.”

She was right. They had already made 4-inch long tracks in the sand. We had tested and proven our theory that these mussels had created at least some of the tracks that we had discovered. She was excited about her discovery.

Someday she will ask more questions about some of these discoveries. She will learn that mussels are important filter feeders that help keep our lakes and rivers cleaner. We did ask the locals about eating them but were discourage from doing so for two reasons. First, they are not as tasty as their saltwater relatives. Secondly, since they are long-lived filter feeders, pollutants from the burning of fossil fuels and storm water runoff that settle to the bottom of our lakes, can build up inside them making them distasteful and potentially harmful. That put a slight damper on things for me.

But we loved talking about our discovery of the day, amazed at how easy it was to discover something new to us, simply by exploring nature.


Can Fiction Save Our Climate?

monkey wrench gangScientists deal in the non-fiction world most of the time. We want to ask questions, collect data, make tentative interpretations, and then test these theories. It’s the old scientific method that has worked so well for creating our modern world. But sometimes it’s too hard to explain the complex details of science and technology to everyone and debate can devolve into a matter of who do you believe.

Can fiction help us in those situations?

Dicken’s prose is lauded for exposing the ugly underbelly of 19th century industrial England. Sinclair Lewis exposed the meat packing industry and the horrid conditions of labor in the United States. Orwell showed what man is capable of doing to his fellow man with his demagoguery. All were and are powerful works of art that exposed our darkest moments.

In looking at the environmental literature, there are landmark non fiction pieces such as Silent Spring, The End of Nature, Collapse, and Earth in Balance. But it’s harder to select nominations for the Great American Novel that deals with climate change. The best known pieces of eco-fiction (or Cli-Fi ..climate fiction) include Flight Behavior, The Water Knife, Odds Against Tomorrow, and Oryx and Crake. But these touch on future dystopian worlds or singular elements of a warming climate.

The most classic novel that reflects the anger many  have in response to unrestrained growth is The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) by Edward Abby. It’s about a small group of people who take into their own hands a campaign to stop the development/destruction of the canyonlands of Utah. As well written and entertaining as it may be, it has been blessed and cursed by it’s impact on decades of budding environmentalists.

Some claim it was the primer to the ecoterrorists of the 80s and 90s. Many of you may have forgotten but there were efforts to prevent the logging of old growth forests and the development of pristine habitats in the west. Some of these efforts were violent, most were not. Just before 9/11 President George W. Bush declared The Earth Liberation Front as  “The greatest terrorist threat in the country.” Then the towers went down and all our attention was focused on Al Qaeda.

I actually believe that Abby showed most of us how futile violence is in the long run and that his book launched a whole generation of advocates that have done a whole lot more working with the system than trying vigilante efforts to stop it. There have been many places preserved in this country since those dark days back in the 1970s when Abby wrote his treatise. In fact the whole environmental movement has matured and has become part of our culture.

Our trouble today is that our population continues to grow and so does consumption, and our overuse and abuse of fossil fuels. Our everyday activities are warming our oceans and our atmosphere. We need another wake up call that all of us will heed so we can all work together to tackle this climate challenge. I would love to see another piece of fiction stimulate a whole new cadre of people to take action to slow down the warming trend that is destroying the favorable climate that we all grew up in. Stay tuned.

Let me hear from you if you have other works of literature that have inspired you to take better care of our Earth.

Turkeys, Eagles, and Pileated Woodpeckers, Oh My!!

Not a bad day. Aside from bluebirds, gold finches, and cardinals fighting over my bird feeder this morning, a full grown pileated woodpecker landed on the top of the pole holding the feeder. He gave me a great display for at least 20-30 seconds. Fabulous.

I was then lucky enough to catch a bald eagle fly by and land in a tree this morning. so I decided to go for a walk and saw a turkey run across the path out of the wetlands by Lake Elkhorn. I had not seen one here in this green buffer before.

Not a bad day, indeed.

The Chesapeake Watershed used across the region by Master Naturalist programs



A copy of Ned Tillman’s book The Chesapeake Watershed: A sense of place and a call to action is presented to each of the participants in the University of Maryland sponsored Master Naturalist programs. If you are interested in these programs contact one of the following sponsoring sites.

There are 31 Master Naturalist program Host Sites in 12 Maryland counties (plus Baltimore City and in Washington, DC) with one program (DNR) using volunteers state-wide. They include:


  • Adkins Arboretum (Caroline)
  • American Chestnut Land Trust (Calvert)
  • Anita C. Leight Estuary Center (Harford)
  • Audubon Naturalist Society (Montg.)
  • Co. Environmental Protection & Sustainability (Balt.) (2017)
  • Banneker Historical Park (Balt.)
  • Bear Branch/Piney Run Nature Centers (Carroll)
  • Brookside Nature Center (Montg.)/Montgomery Parks (Countywide)
  • Catoctin Creek Nature Center (Fred.)
  • Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center (Queen Anne’s)
  • Cromwell Valley Park (Balt.)
  • Cunningham Falls/Gambrill State Parks (Fred.)
  • Cylburn Arboretum (Balt.)
  • Eden Mill Nature Center (Harford)
  • Elms Environmental Education Center (St. Mary’s)
  • Fountain Rock Nature Center (Fred.)
  • Hashawha Environmental Education Center (Carroll)
  • Howard County Conservancy (Howard)
  • Howard CC – Belmont (Howard)
  • Irvine Nature Center (Balt.)
  • Lake Roland Park (formerly R.E. Lee) (Balt.)
  • Locust Grove & Meadowside Nature Centers (Montg.)/Montgomery Parks (Countywide)
  • Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources Wildlife & Heritage Service (A.A./Statewide)
  • Marshy Point Nature Center (Balt.)
  • Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center (Balt. City)
  • National Aquarium (Balt. City)
  • Phillips Wharf Environmental Center (Talbot)
  • Pickering Creek Audubon Center (Talbot)
  • Oregon Ridge Nature Center (Balt.)
  • Quiet Waters Park/Anne Arundel County Rec & Parks (Anne Arundel)
  • Robinson Nature Center (Howard)

If you are interested in multiple copies of The Chesapeake Watershed, volume discounts, or classroom sets please contact:



Don’t Miss These 8 Upcoming Events

daffysIn these challenging times, I would like to invite you to the following events which are designed to build community and to raise awareness of how we can save the places we love.

I will be there and hope to see you too.

Ned Tillman

March 2017 – Events to celebrate Columbia’s 50th Birthday 

  • Friday, March 24, 7pm – Storytelling Performances at Owen Brown Interfaith Center
  • Saturday, March 25, 2 to 6pm – Storytelling Workshop at Owen Brown Interfaith Center
  • Sunday, March 26, 11am, Walk in Downtown Columbia – meet at the People Tree at the Lakefront

April 2017

  • Thursday, April 20, 10 am, Explore Columbia Walk
  • Thursday, April 20, 5 pm, Book of the Year Lecture at HC Central Library
  • Friday, April 21, Storytelling Performances at Conservancy at 7pm
  • Friday, April 21, 2 to 6 – Storytelling Workshop at HoCo Conservancy
  • Saturday, April 22, Greenfest at Howard Community College – 11am to 4pm

For a more complete list of activities and for more detail click here, or contact me at


New Release – Coming of Age and Finding Your Place


Dunlop book-coming-of-age-smallGuest Post by Author Julie Dunlap

Growing up has always been tough. But the millennial generation, my young adult children’s cohort, faced especially daunting challenges. The 9/11 terror attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and SuperStorm Sandy, along with melting ice caps and bleaching coral reefs, have been formative events in their youths and childhoods, shaping their understanding of people and planet along with their maturing characters. As an environmentalist and a parent of four, I wondered and worried how early experiences of a shifting and troubled Earth may alter young adults’ attachments to place and the natural world.

To explore these questions, I joined with Anne Arundel Community College professor Susan A. Cohen (also a mom of two millennials) to collect essays by young writers grappling with growing up in an era replete with environmental and social crises. The result is a new anthology, published this month by Trinity University Press—Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet. The collection’s title alludes to Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature, published in 1989 before many of our contributors were born. In the 1990s, McKibben’s best-seller introduced me and millions of other then-young parents to the looming threats of climate change and humanity’s ubiquitous alterations of our basic natural systems.

Perhaps anger was the emotion I most expected at the project’s outset, and some Coming of Age contributors do rail against their earthly inheritance, against the losses imposed as forests shrink and oceans sully. Yet others question older generations’ ideas, rejecting the view that a tourist-thronged canyon is inherently compromised, and insisting that pristine wilderness need not be the ultimate definition of natural beauty. Many find ways to celebrate remaining pockets of tenacious nature, the return of raptors to urban parks, or the rejuvenation of community through sharing food foraged in the wild. And most heartening of all, woven through essay after essay, are feelings of love, of home, and of commitment to a thriving future. Far from the entitled laggards of media myth, these young people are seizing and creating opportunities to protest, study, plant, explore, build, teach, and of course write about the challenges they face and the solutions they foresee. McKibben, in his generous foreword to Coming of Age at the End of Nature, praises the essays as “mature, reflective, deep, and lovely,” but also and most of all “hopeful.”

Of course, I still wonder and worry about what lies ahead for my children and yours, as places and processes we knew to be timeless transform at an accelerating pace. But thanks to the youthful voices in this collection, I know the rising millennial generation has roots in their Earth, deep and wide, and the resilience to face whatever comes next.


Julie Dunlap is a writer, editor, and educator living in Columbia, Maryland. For more information about Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet, please visit: .

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