New England Utopian Gothic

bare tree with bumpy trunk and branches
Winter tree on Johnson Road, Falls Village, CT by Protopian Pickle Jar (2013) CC By-SA 2.0 on Flickr

This weekend, I am returning to Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT for the ADVA (ADamah-TEva) Reunion. I am excited to reconnect with fellow alumni of these farming and environmental education programs.  I fully expect to use the phrases “transformative,” “sitting with it,” and “liminal space” unironically.  I hope to eat copious amounts of delicious fermented vegetables, hug the goats and tactfully admire the chickens (because chickens don’t really enjoy being hugged all that much.) I want to go for a walk in the woods,tell jokes about lichen, give nitrogen to a tree and pet the moss on the rocks.

And I’m bracing myself for the inevitable (but brief) sense of displacement and disappointment, because the Isabella Freedman to which I expect to return doesn’t really exist outside my imagination. The real Isabella Freedman is pretty great (and I’ll be able to immerse myself in all of the above activities in beloved holy community.) However, Nostalgic Isabella Freedman exists somewhere shared between my mind and the collective memory of fragile New England Utopias.

Colorful compost bucket by Protopian Pickle Jar (2013) CC BY-SA 2.0, on Flickr

While Isabella Freedman is at its heart a Retreat Center for people from the city to come hang out in nature, the life of its farming participants and on-site staff evokes shades of the idealistic communes dotting the landscape of 19th century New England. There’s the Oneida Community (1848-1881), famous for complex marriage and their successful flatware business. Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women)’s father founded the short-lived Fruitlands in the 1840s. Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter), was a founding member of Brook Farm.  Hawthorne based his novel, The Blithedale Romance, on his experiences at Brook Farm.

I first read The Blithedale Romance shortly after my experiences as a ADVAnik at Isabella Freedman. At that point, I missed the place so much I was toying with the idea of writing a series of fan fiction stories about a retreat center called “Isadora Feldman” where crunchy, privileged idealists pet goats, sustain unrequited romantic crushes and eat buckets of fermented vegetables. And maybe encounter supernatural and creepy folkloric circumstances while immersed in a cheerfully gothic New England community.

Anyway, reading the Blithedale Romance made me realize that Nathaniel Hawthorne had beaten me to the punch by about 160 years. I was astonished by Hawthorne’s eerily accurate description of the residents’ sartorial choices:

[W]e all of us seemed to have come to Blithedale with the one thrifty and laudable idea of wearing out our old clothes… in short, we were a living epitome of defunct fashions, and the very raggedest presentment of men who had seen better days. It was gentility in tatters… Little skill as we boasted in other points of husbandry, every mother’s son of us would have served admirably to stick up for a scarecrow.

How did he know that we dressed in a combination of thrift store finds, remnants from the retreat center lost-and-found bin, and communal garments bequeathed from cohort to cohort in the Beit Adamah coat closet? In the words of Kohelet, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

clothing drying on clothesline near pine trees
Clothesline by Protopian Pickle Jar, (2013) CC by SA 2.0, on Flickr

Anyway, so I’m packing my wool socks and long underwear for my trip. My nostalgia is coming along too, with its layer of cracking yellowed varnish. Maybe something new and wonderful is waiting in those woods and fields. I’d also take old and comfortable, like well broken-in pair of boots. And occasionally fizzy, like a jar of lacto-fermented pickles. Because you can never have too many pickles.


Snippy the Leopard Gecko

Noble leopard gecko
A good-looking leopard gecko. Geckos by Mark Brooks (2009) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr.

The internet over the last couple of weeks have been chock full of reports that very hungry caterpillars have been observed eating holes in plastic bags. These caterpillars, known as “wax worms,” have also been shown to make holes in plastic film when applied as a ground-up smoothie, indicating that their digestion is due to some chemical factor inside the caterpillars and not just a solid pair of chomping jaws.

wax worm caterpillar
A good-looking wax worm. Wax worm by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (2015) . Public Domain. via Flickr.

It may be a little too early to hail the humble wax worm caterpillar as a panacea for the Earth’s plastic pollution problem (or that eating plastic is not terrible for wax worm tummies!) This report triggered the memory of an almost entirely irrelevant, but amusing, anecdote from my Shmita Adventures.

During the Summer 2013, TEVA sent me to work as a wandering nature educator for day camps at the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds on Central Long Island. My aunt kindly hosted me in a guest room at her home in the Five Towns. However, I was not the only house guest that summer. It was shortly after Hurricane Sandy that year, when many of my aunt’s neighbor’s homes had been seriously damaged.

The humans and dogs from one family of neighbors’ had temporarily relocated to a hotel until they could repair their house for habitation. However, they needed a quiet place to house their geriatric leopard gecko. That is how my aunt came (who is otherwise understandably squeamish about small reptiles) to host Snippy the Leopard Gecko in her upstairs guest room. Snippy became my roommate when I moved into the guest room for my summer job at HKC.

After Hurricane Sandy, Snippy’s human would come by once a week or so to feed Snippy live food and clean his cage.  However, I had been my aunt’s lodger for about a couple of weeks when I realized I hadn’t seen Snippy’s human the entire time I’d been there.  I asked my aunt when the last time Snippy had food, she was pretty vague on the subject. “I don’t ask too many questions about the gecko,” she said, “but it may have been a while. I’ll give them a call.”

Leopard Geckos are tough little critters, but I had developed a certain amount of affection for my reptile roommate. In the interest of science and roommate solidarity, I took it upon myself to ensure Snippy had adequate nutrition.  After camp, I went to the local pet store reptile section to purchase live food for my scaly friend.

Upon consulting with the salesperson, I returned to my aunt’s house with a take-out container of live crickets, a tube of vitamin powder (for dusting the crickets) and a special treat of high-fat live wriggly wax-worms for fattening up the possibly-undernourished Snippy. My aunt saw me stashing the take-out container with the wax worms (with air holes) in her basement (extra) refrigerator.

“Do I want to know what’s in there?” she asked, warily.
“Nope!” I responded, cheerfully.

Anyway, Snippy enjoyed the wax worms (he ate them immediately when I put them in his cage), and found a newfound-bond with my reptile roommate. I told my aunt that would continue to feed Snippy for the rest of the summer. And my aunt was relieved that she didn’t need to ask too many questions.

Oddly, only friction in my relationship with Snippy came from the crickets:  In order to feed live crickets to Snippy, I would add the crickets to a plastic bag filled with special reptile vitamin powder, and shake the bag gently so that the crickets were well-dusted with powder.

I put the disoriented, white-frosted crickets immediately into Snippy’s aquarium. The crickets’ grogginess and disorientation gave Snippy time to snap a least a couple of them up, but the survivors would continue to hop around the aquarium, disconsolately chirping throughout the night.

I think the re-oriented crickets were generally too spry to be of interest to Snippy. It took several days for him to either get around to consuming them, or for them to succumb to other causes.

When asked how living with Snippy measured up to other roommates, I explained, “He was very quiet and tidy, and I got to feed him live food!”  A win for everyone!

The Rule of Names

Pink slime
Wolf’s Milk Slime by Jason Hollinger, (2007) CC By 2.0, via Flickr.

In Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, knowing a person or animal or object’s “true name” gives a wizard power over him or her or it. Therefore, humans (and other sentient beings, like Dragons) take particular care to avoid sharing their true names with others, lest they be compelled by a power-hungry wizard.

I first learned about Linnean taxonomy, and the practice of classifying organisms by binomial nomenclature (e.g. Homo sapiens) in my middle school science classes. This was also about the same time I was reading the Earthsea books. Not surprisingly, these two concepts, The Rule of Names and the taxonomy of biological naming, remained linked in my mind for a long time.

field notebook sample
My field notebooks looked sort of like this. DG_1_023 Myristicaceae by Aber TREC, (2014) CC By-NC 2.0, on Flickr

In my field science courses in college, I was an omnivorous species identifier. Samples of Sonoran desert plants (well, the ones that would smush flat) made their way into my field notebooks, with carefully labeled common and scientific names.  With each new named species, it felt like I was slowly mastering control over my unfamiliar environment. If only I could learn all the names, I would know everything about the ecosystem.

When I got to TEVA, teaching environmental education, I was surprised that we were discouraged from telling kids an organism’s names (common or scientific) outright in response to the question, “What is that?”

Instead, of answering with “Oh, that’s an Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis,)” our training was to turn the question around to the kids.
“What do you notice about it? What about its color, smell, or texture can you describe?”

The best part was that kids would come up with their own names for plants based on their observations and continue to identify them for the rest of the time we were on the trail. For example, Eastern Hemlock became “Dragon Tree” (because of its large floppy wing-like branches and white-striped scales). It was only later that we told them the “real” names of the organisms, or let them look them up in a field guide by characteristics.

Striped white scales of “Dragon Tree.” Eastern Hemlock by Seabrooke Leckie, (2010) CC By-NC-ND 2.0, on Flickr

Some of my favorite names students came up with were Bubble Gum Slime (aka Lycogala epidedrum – a pink slime mold); Smurf Caps (aka Lactarius indigo – a mushroom that oozed blue goo); Ghost Roses (aka Monotropa uniflora – a flower-like bleached white plant); and Velcro balls (aka Arctium minus – burdock seedpods  covered with tiny hooks that snared hair and clothing.)

Had we told them the “real” name outright, the kids would have heard a name and promptly forgotten it.  Maybe even thought that the label encapsulated everything you could know about the organism. We would have missed a tremendous opportunity for kids’ exploration and engagement with the natural world.

Most recently, I get my nature fix by going on walks outdoors here in Michigan.  Sometimes, if I see something that I haven’t seen before,  (or that just looks really cool), I take out my cell phone and snap a picture with the camera.    I could (and often do) look up the species in a field guide.  I also started uploading my photos to the site iNaturalist, to source community identifications for my observations. By adding my photos, with dates and geographic data to the online database, it provides a record that other members can refer to. It’s a resource for researchers and a form of participatory citizen science.

I also have been learning to identify new species from the system, as well as tagging “Unknown” photos with high level identifications (i.e. “Plant” or “Fungi”) in order to make the photos more widely searchable to community members who can provide more detailed identifications. It’s a form of social media in some ways as addictive as Facebook or online dating sites (but instead of rating pictures of potential dates, I attach a label if I think it’s a vertebrate.) There is also definitely a serotonin hit when other members agree with your identification, or provide additional comments on an observation that is as potent as the “FB like” button.

I wonder (dubious seratonin hits aside), if I am I reverting to an earlier understanding of “Name *ALL* the things” vs. a more nuanced engagement and exploration of the natural world. Sure, the site has leaderboards to track which members have made the most identifications or posted the most observations. Is it a competition ala a birder’s Big Year or just creating a sense of order in a chaotic and messy world? And are either of these appropriate forms of interacting with nature? What about if they are tempered by the sense of wonder and Radical amazement that I feel on my walks, or looking at pictures of really, really cool organisms?

Handmade Recycled Paper

close up of texture of handmade recycled paper
close up of texture of handmade recycled paper
Detail of recycled paper texture by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015)

One of my favorite arts and crafts projects is making recycled paper. It’s a wonderful activity for summer camp or spending a rainy day inside. It is a pretty messy process, so you’ll want a space that you can clean up easily. It is helpful to have access to an electrical outlet and a source of running water.


  • Used printer/copier paper (white or colors), scraps of construction paper or tissue paper
  • Plastic bins or aluminum lasagna pans
  • Blender (that you won’t want to use for food purposes)
  • Cups/containers
  • Sponges
  • Flat, clean piece of corrugated cardboard
  • *Deckles – screens for squeezing out pulp (see notes below)

shredded paper

Rip used paper into 1 inch pieces. I usually just use whatever I can find in the recycling bin. I highly recommend adding colored bits of paper (from scrap construction paper, tissue paper or colored copier paper) to the white copier paper.
Note on combining colors: I usually keeps a “warm” colors batch (i.e. red, pinks, orange, yellow) separate from a “cool” colors batch (i.e. green, blue, purple) because mixing them tends to create a muddy blend. However, I encourage you to experiment and find your own favorite color combinations – some of the most interesting pieces of paper I’ve seen have looked rather dubious when they came out of the blender.

shredded paper plus H2O in blender

Add your shredded paper to the blender. (Make sure this is a blender you will not use for food preparation. It is very hard to clean out the paper pulp residue!) Cover the paper with water. Hot water will help break down the glues and dyes in the paper more quickly and create a smoother pulp (shredded paper and water slurry). You can use hot tap water or heat some up in an electric kettle. However, add enough cold water so that kids won’t burn themselves on the pulp. Make sure lid is on tightly before blending. When blending, every batch will come out a little differently. Experiment with different consistencies.

pulp after blending

After blending, add more cold water to continue to thin out the pulp. Transfer pulp to aluminum pan.
pan of pulp

At this point, take a look at the deckle. Deckles are special screens used to squeeze water out of the paper pulp and create a flat sheet of paper. I made my own deckles out of 4 x 6 inch wooden picture frames I purchased at the craft store. I took polyester pet mesh (for screen doors, also available at the craft store), cut out pieces of the fabric and stapled them with a heavy duty stapler to the wooden picture frames.

Deckle: Flat side facing up
Deckle: Flat side facing up

The deckle has two sides: A flat side and an indented side. You want to hold the deckle flat side up.

pouring pulp

Use a small cup (a repurposed yogurt container works really well) to transfer pulp from the pan onto the flat side of the deckle. May sure you hold the deckle over the pan to contain dripping water.

deckle with pulp

As you cover the deckle with pulp, use your hand or sponge to press the pulp against the screen of the deckle. This will help squeeze water out of the pulp.

Deckle on cardboard, indented side up.
Deckle on cardboard, indented side up.

When you have gotten your pulp as dry as you can from pressing on the flat side, take your deckle over to a flat, clean piece of cardboard. Gently flip your deckle so the pulp-side (the flat side) is against the surface of the cardboard. Use a sponge to continue to soak up water from the screen on the indented side of the deckle. Squeeze the sponge out into a separate container (like a pan or yogurt cup) to continue to remove as much moisture from the paper as possible.

remove deckle

Gently lift up deckle from cardboard. Allow your handmade paper to dry and then carefully peel it off the cardboard. Depending on your humidity and how much water you were able to remove from your paper, it tends to take between 1-3 days to dry. The completed handmade paper using this process will usually be about the thickness of cardstock.

recycled paper

Variations: You can add seeds or crushed flower petals to the pulp before spreading it onto the deckle. You can use leaves to create impressions on the pulp as it dries. An artist friend gave me rag paper scraps from one of her paper cutting projects that make the most gorgeous recycled paper.

Paper I made with kids on a rainy day when we couldn’t go out to the garden:

rainy day paper

Tangents for this post:

We also made a video on recycled paper making, if you’d like more information on the process. It’s a bit long (~9 minutes).

Teva Pants

flowers growing out of planters made out of blue jeans
by Craig Sunter (2014) CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Today’s Horoscope (read while eating breakfast):
Five Star Day! … If you are single, you could meet someone who knocks your socks off. A new beginning becomes possible.

Me: “I’ll wear my cleanest pair of Teva pants!”

I realized recently that Teva pants make up the bulk of my wardrobe. (For my UK Readers: Where ever I have “pants,” mentally replace with “trousers,” if you prefer. I realize “pants” can mean something different.) By “Teva Pants,” I refer specifically to pants that I have worn in the capacity as a farmer/gardener/outdoor Teva (“nature”) educator.

Most of these garments are made of quick-drying synthetic material that is opaque to UV rays and mostly impervious to bugs (especially when the cuffs are tucked into socks.) These are  good for most weather, with addition of warm layers when it’s cold. I also have 2 pairs of ancient L.L. Bean flannel-lined pants that have helped me survive a New England winter. Teva pants are comfortable, allowing me to run, jump, squat, crawl and other bodily contortions without limiting my range of movement. They protect me from sticks and rocks and thorns and sun.

Some of my Teva pants have been purchased new from fancy catalogs and sporting goods stores, others have been picked up at thrift shops. Most of them have multitudinous pockets, which are extremely useful when out on the farm or in the woods. It is also very important to check the pockets of your Teva pants before washing, because God only know what will turn up in there (interesting rocks, magnifying glasses, rubber chickens, used hankies, multi-tools, popsicle sticks, yarn, film canisters, sharpies, etc.) My Teva pants have been washed a lot. They bear the record of hard use. Mysterious stains and wear marks offer clues to the liberal splotches of mud, blood, goat poop, chicken poop, tree sap, strawberry jam, rust, dust, paint, grease and grime that have coated them at various times.

Teva pants are rarely flattering. Aside from being beat-up hard-working pants, shoving stuff in the pockets tends to ruin the nicest of silhouettes. If by chance my Teva pants were becoming, I would retire them as Teva pants and save them for trips into town.

As an educator, I managed to shower at least once a week and put on clean, non-Teva clothes. As this usually coincided with the occurrence of Shabbat on Friday nights, so it wasn’t unusual to hear “You look so nice! You took a shower and put on clean clothes!” as a completely sincere compliment offered to housemates. One of my colleagues termed these “Shab-servations,” since they weren’t really compliments intended to flatter, merely observations of the fact that people tended to clean up before Shabbat.

Even when I’m not working as an environmental educator, I still love to wear my Teva pants out in suburban Kansas City. My well-meaning family members have tried to discourage this practice. They may have a point.

Teva pants don’t belong at a fancy dinner or job interview. Teva Pants are probably not appropriate to wear on a date (unless its a hiking date.) Teva pants do not tell other people, “This is an important person.” Instead, Teva pants favor function over fashion. They may be frumptastic, but Teva pants don’t care. They have rocks to climb and chickens to feed, slugs to examine and kids to teach. In my ideal job, I would wear Teva pants every day.

Edit December 22, 2016: It’s not just me! Writer Stephanie Land on her beloved, beaten-up Carhartts.

Nature Adventures for the Risk-Averse

Have a Safe Day on train station announcement board
“Have a safe day!” At Fairfield Metro-North Station by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015)

I have a voice in the back of my head. I think Freud might call it the “superego.” It’s the little voice that shouts:
“Don’t run in the hall!”
“You’ll poke an eye out!”
“If you open the drawer, something may jump out and bite you!”
“Someone’s going to end up crying!”

This voice is actually very useful. It keeps me driving the speed limit, wearing appropriate clothing for the weather and helps me maintain my physical awareness of my surroundings so I don’t fall into holes or get eaten by predators. In short, it helps keep me safe.

I don’t know how much the strength of my superego owes to parental messages I internalized as a kid or to my temperamental preference for risk-aversion. (Probably both. This requires further study.)

“Risk-aversion” is a description of behavior in economics and psychology, the upshot of it being that risk-averse individuals prefer a predictable outcome over a potentially better (more beneficial/greater utility), but less certain outcome. Most of the studies seem to assess the willingess (or not) to risk losing money in gambling activities, but this willingness to engage in potentially “dangerous” activities is also a factor.

At any rate, when I’m in charge of children’s health and well-being, my protective instincts kick into overdrive. My aversion to danger (or my perception of danger) remains high. My superego voice becomes my actual voice.

As a Teva educator, this was both a strength and a liability. When taking children into the woods, it is important to be aware of the many physical mishaps that you may encounter. These include tick bites, hypothermia, dehydration, being whacked in the head by a rock or stick tossed by a hyperactive child, falling from a height or having an allergic reaction.

As Teva educators, we are trained in the prevention of these possibilities. By wearing proper shoes and clothing (hats, layers, rain gear, tuck your pants into your socks! By carrying a first aid kit and walkie-talkie to summon a medic. By carrying a sufficient amount of water on in your backpack. By enforcing various rules about respecting the forest (Don’t throw stuff. Someone might be living where it lands), respecting other members of the group (If you use that stick for anything other than a walking stick, it will go back into the forest), and your group leader (If I tell you NOT to do something, it is for YOUR safety and well-being!). By having access to an epi-pen and benadryl for kids with known allergies.

On the flip-side, it is also important to let kids explore and experience consequences of their actions. Especially when the consequences are unpleasant, but not necessarily dire. How will a kid know that balancing on a log in a puddle may result in wet socks unless you let her try it? How will a kid find out that climbing on lichen-covered rocks may be slippery and result in ripped pants, but can be incredibly fun if you do it with care? What about touching coals from a fire that has just been banked? (Maybe use tongs.)

My challenge as an educator is assessing both the probability of an event and the general magnitude of the “badness” of an event that might occur, and what (if any) precautions are necessary.
(Legal folks may recognize this balancing act as Judge Learned Hand’s formula in the calculus of negligence).

For example, wet socks and splinters are likely, unpleasant but not seriously dangerous. A kid falling off of a cliff is very unlikely, but invariably fatal. For the first, we tell the kids to bring an extra pair of socks and might have to make a stop by the medic on the way to snack for splinter removal. The latter, God forbid!

Handling my own preparedness for the stuff that falls along the continuum in-between is a continuing process for me, as I balance my own native aversion to danger with the opportunity for my students to explore and learn. The age group of kids I have taken into the woods have been 5th-7th graders. They have at least a somewhat-developed sense of self-preservation and classroom-based conditioning to follow procedures. (Granted, there are always kids like the one who managed to climb a tree and fall out of it, breaking his arm, while I was dealing with another issue in the group.)

My comfort-level with increasing the amount of freedom I allow my students has grown in proportion to both my confidence as an educator and my increasing familiarity with the trails. However, compared with what some of my colleagues allow their group to handle, I’m still incredibly risk-averse.

After spring Teva, I headed out to New Haven to meet up with a friend. Another woman in her office asked me what I had been doing when I explained I had been working as an environmental educator.

I replied nonchalantly, “Running up mountains with 5th graders in the woods. It’s a lot of fun.”

“That sounds terrifying,” she responded.

I paused for a moment. “Yes,” I agreed, smiling ruefully. “If you think about it, it is kind of terrifying.”

Springtime Suburban Sababa Hunt

In Hebrew, the slang word sababa means “great” or “cool” (from the spoken Arabic tzababa, “excellent” or “great”). In Teva, we use the word sababa as a noun to describe “really cool thing we found in the woods.” Finding sababas is an everyday exercise in awareness and wonderment. It does tend to slow the pace of one’s walk to a very, very slow meander as once you begin spotting sababas, you see them everywhere.

This afternoon, as I took a walk around a suburban neighborhood in Southern Connecticut, I marvelled at the amazing selection of springtime sababas I encountered with my senses. I am completely an amateur when it comes to taking cell phone pictures of nature, but I had a very good time uploading the photos into a gallery.