Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Nerd Out with These Three Nature-Focused Resources

Kazoo Magazineimages

This month, I surprised my nine-year old daughter with a subscription to the new magazine Kazoo, billed as a publication for “girls who aren’t afraid to make some noise.” I haunted our dusty red mailbox every day in October until her issue arrived, and managed to slip it out of her room one night after she’d fallen asleep reading it.

Fellow Nature Nerds, it rocks.

In  issue #2, you’ll learn how to make beautiful self-portraits out of leaves and sticks and flower petals and lichen found outside. You’ll study the science of composting to enrich the soil, learn how to make an acorn whistle, examine a butterfly wing up close, and create a pinhole camera with which to document your adventures outdoors. Don’t miss it.

Mystery Science

If I hadn’t started homeschooling my daughter last year, I would never have discovered a wonderful new online resource called Mystery Science. Each short lesson begins with an entertaining anecdote and moves into information and–my favorite part–experiments!

 

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Over the past few months, my daughter and I have learned why some apples are red, some are green, and some are yellow. We’ve investigated whether we could outrun a dinosaur and whether or not a volcano could appear spontaneously in our backyard.

Thanks to the smart people at Mystery Science, we know what happens to fallen leaves, why a hawk might move to New York City, how to identify clouds and track a storm and and tell the time using only the sun and a paper plate and a pencil.

Each short lesson concludes with a page of links and films and books for further study. Science this exciting is addictive!

 

Camp Out!

I’m a sucker for a colorful nonfiction kids’ book, especially if the author can explain in a clear and entertaining manner certain tricky concepts like how to navigate without a compass, and mark a trail, and tell whether a storm is coming. 0fe003a7-2b6d-474d-9a68-54266d89ee96

I found this book at our local science museum, and I’ve read it over and over, both alone and with my daughter. It’s a fun book, packed with useful information. We learned how to make spider dogs and solar oven pizza, how to make seed jewelry, and how to tell a rabbit track from a garter snake track (okay, that one was  easy).

Too cold to camp right now? This book makes for great winter reading while you plan your next adventure. Check out Camp Out here!

These are just a few of my favorite nature resources. I’d love to know yours! Feel free to comment below.

–Melissa

 Melissa Hart is a contributing author at The Writer Magazine and the author of the middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016).

 

 

 

 

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Owl Pellets and Owl Pellet Cookies: Don’t get them mixed up!

I offer you an important lesson today, my friends, one that could very likely save you from walking around with mouse bones stuck in your teeth.

This is an owl pellet:

owl-pellets

And these are owl pellet cookies:

Owl Pellet Cookies.jpg

Why should you care? Because owl pellets are a hoot and a half to dissect.

Here’s the deal. Whenever possible, owls swallow their prey whole. But they can’t digest the entire mouse or rat or songbird or snake. So about once a day, the owl’s stomach makes a pellet with fur and feathers on the outside, and sharp bones of the prey on the inside.

Let me dispel a major misconception right now: a pellet comes out of the beak-end of the bird, people, not the butt! You can find them on the ground under trees when you’re hiking, or order them online, and then pull them apart with tweezers to see what the owl had for a meal.

Here’s a group of kids examining owl pellets after my latest Raptors Rule! slideshow and reading from my novel, Avenging the Owl at the lovely Third Place Books Ravenna, Seattle.

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Dissecting owl pellets is fun, and for a really good time, combine this activity with owl pellet cookies.

Hey, wouldn’t this make for a most excellent birthday party?!

Here’s a deliciously-weird recipe from Jane Hammerslough’s super-fun, super-sciency book, Owl Puke.

owlpuke

Owl pellet cookies

Servings: 36 to 45 cookies

6 cups crispy rice cereal

2 cups semisweet or milk chocolate chips

1 cup sugar

1 cup corn syrup

1 cup peanut butter

2 white chocolate candy bar, chopped into bonelike bits

Foil for wrapping pellets

1. Mix cereal and chocolate chips in a large bowl. Set aside.

2. Mix sugar and corn syrup in a small pan and heat until bubbling.

3. Remove sugar-syrup mixture from heat and stir in peanut butter.

4. Stir peanut butter mixture into cereal and chocolate chips and mix together well. The chocolate chips will melt. When the cereal is coated, allow the mixture to cool.

5. Put 2 tablespoons of the mixture into your hand. Sprinkle 4 to 5 white chocolate bone and skull pieces on top.

6. Squeeze mixture in your fist until it looks like an owl pellet. Wrap, if you’d like, in a small square of foil.

Mmm. So tasty. What’s your favorite owl-related activity? Feel free to comment here!


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Bart King, Author and Bird Lover

You probably know Portland author Bart King from his books, The Big Book of Boy Stuff and the Big Book of Girl Stuff. He’s also written numerous other nonfiction books, and now, he’s got a novel!

Titled The Drake Equation, it’s the story of birdwatcher Noah Grow, a boy who starts out on a quest to find a wood duck and ends up on an intergalactic adventure.

drake equation

On Wednesday May 4th at 7 PM, Bart King and I will host a family-friendly literary event at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing . We’ll talk about his book, and about my new novel Avenging the Owl, then debate which bird is cooler–black swifts or great horned owls.

Learn about birds with our slide show presentation and Avian Trivia game, and stay for our reading and book signing. This event is ideal for anyone who loves wildlife and wit.

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Author Bart King

I caught up with Bart King earlier this week to ask him about his new novel. Here’s what he had to say:

Melissa Hart: What is it about black swifts that intrigues you, and why did you want to include this particular bird in The Drake Equation? Have you seen these birds in person, and if so, where? 

Bart King: First off, I’ve never seen a black swift personally. Almost nobody has! They’re very rare, canny, and private.

About two years ago, I read a short book about black swifts, and was amazed to discover this mysterious, rare little bird that nests behind waterfalls. So I imagined a young birdwatcher named Noah who thinks he *might* have seen a black swift.

But if Noah was secretly watching the black swifts, was it possible that someone (or something) else was watching Noah? (The story took off from there!)

Melissa Hart: Tell me about your relationship to wood ducks.

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck - Brautente)

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck – Brautente)

Bart King: In 1971, I was living in a small town in California called Sebastopol. It has wetlands on its east border (now known as the Laguna Wetlands Preserve), and wood ducks lived there. As a community project, I helped build and install nesting boxes for the birds. (Wood ducks are unusual in that they perch and nest in trees). Anyone who’s ever seen a wood duck knows how absolutely beautiful they are—and I’ve remained impressed ever since!

Melissa Hart: Let’s say you have a whole weekend free to travel to your favorite spot in the Pacific Northwest. Where will we find you?

Bart King: You’re going to think I’m a freak—but I might just stay home and work. (To explain that a bit, I’ll just add that given what we know about climate change, the idea of driving a car somewhere for fun has become completely “alien” to me.)

Melissa Hart: Are you working on another book now, and if so, can you tell us a bit about it?

Bart King: The Drake Equation was conceived with a large story arc with a natural halfway point. That point is where the novel ends. If the story attracts enough readers, then I’ll get a chance to finish the tale I envisioned. (Oh please oh please)

I’ve also just finished a funny novel called Three Weeks to Live (Give or Take). Among other things, it’s a “SickLit” satire about a teen girl named Jackie who nearly gets hit by a meteorite in her PE class. (Her tennis partner is not so lucky.) Jackie finds herself becoming a reluctant celebrity—but she may not be around long enough to enjoy her new status.

For more about author Bart King, visit his website at http://www.bartking.net/. And see him in person with me at Powell’s Books, Cedar Crossing, 7 PM Wednesday May 4th.

BartMelissaBooks


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Raptor Rehabbers Celebrate Birds Every Day

Happy National Audubon Day! The National Audubon Society sets aside April 26 each year to celebrate the life of ornithologist and painter John James Audubon, author and illustrator of this gorgeous book, The Birds of America.

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You can find a chapter of the Audubon Society in or near your hometown and meet up with other bird lovers for hikes and educational meetings and the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Want to take your love for all things avian one step further? Why not visit and support your local bird rehabilitation center? These centers, which serve songbirds and waterfowl and raptors, exist all over the country. You can often go there to learn about how staff and volunteers work to help injured and orphaned bird. Sometimes, you can even become a volunteer yourself! Here’s a list of resources from the appendix of my new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016), to get you started:  9781634501477_p0_v2_s192x300

Hawkwatch International, a non-profit dedicated to preserving raptors and their habitat: http://www.hawkwatch.org/

International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, a great site for education and resources for wildlife conservation: http://theiwrc.org/

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, provides links to finding a wildlife/raptor rehabilitator near you: http://www.nwrawildlife.org/content/finding-rehabilitator

The Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit working to conserve birds of prey: http://www.peregrinefund.org

One of my favorite raptor rehabilitation centers is Wild Wings, in upstate New York. Here’s an article I wrote about it for The Boston Globe a while back. Enjoy!

“New Yorkers shelter and show birds too hurt to go free” from The Boston Globe

The author and her daughter, Maia Hart Smith, observe a snowy owl at Wild Wings.
The author and her daughter, Maia Hart Smith, observe a snowy owl at Wild Wings. (Jonathan B. Smith for The Boston Globe)

HONEOYE FALLS, N.Y. — Wild Wings is a national chain restaurant serving crispy, spicy drumsticks in barbecue sauce. Wild Wings is also a family-friendly raptor rehabilitation center just south of Rochester.

People tend to get their wings mixed up, with humorous results. It’s not unusual for Terry Kozakiewizc, director of the raptor center, to get a call like this:

“I picked up the phone and the caller said he’d like to order three dozen wild wings.’’ Kozakiewizc said, breaking into a wide smile. “I said, ‘We’ve got ’em, hon, but they’re alive.’ ’’

Wild Wings Bird of Prey Facility, at Mendon Ponds Park in Honeoye Falls, houses over 20 raptors including eagles, owls, hawks, falcons, and a vulture. Most of the birds were hit by cars and have permanent injuries ranging from vision loss to damaged wings; they cannot be released back into the wild.

Kozakiewizc makes the raptors available for public viewing five days a week year round, hoping to foster awareness and increased respect for birds of prey. Watching a barred owl soar through the sky is exciting indeed, but getting to see Hunter, Wild Wings’ fluffy resident barred owl, close-up on her perch inspires me to drive more mindfully.

The facility offers educational programs and guided tours. Participants can dissect owl pellets or paint a portrait of a live raptor on its perch. Visitors can stroll along Bird Song trail to feed chickadees, then step into Wild Wings’ colorful Cottage Store with its avian-themed gifts. Just out the back door, a tidy outdoor compound of wood and wire cages houses stately red-tailed hawks, diminutive Eastern screech owls, bald and golden eagles, and an elegant black-spotted snowy owl named Pearl.

Each enclosure gives the raptors numerous perches and room to move about, even to take limited flight. Volunteers have paid close attention to each species’ needs — brightly-colored hanging toys tempt the curious crow, and a pile of low stones provides a perfect seat for the tundra-nesting snowy owl.

My daughter was most enamored of Wild Wings’ resident bobcat, who roused herself from a nap in a bed of straw and dashed up to the fence. Tara, captive-bred and declawed, lives in a spacious cage with ramps and bridges for roaming. But while we stood there, her amber eyes remained fixated on my child.

“She sees her as a toy, hon,’’ Kozakiewizc told me, and so we retreated into the Cottage Store for hot cocoa, coffee, and cookies. Kozakiewizc explained that Wild Wings is a family affair, and that she’s the only paid employee.

“My husband builds enclosures for the birds, and my son Nick does a lot of the educational programs for kids.’’ She pointed to a grinning young man helping to restock a shelf with child-sized footballs in the shape of bald eagles and furry leopard-print purses.

Their affection for each bird is palpable. Kozakiewizc recounted the recent death of Shasta, a 25-year-old red-tailed hawk. “I’m so glad he died before he had to be cooped up for the long winter,’’ she said, and went on to relate the story of how, for the past three years, a wild red-tail had brought freshly-caught squirrels to the aging Shasta, continuing even after his fellow hawk died.

If You Go

27 Pond Road
Honeoye Falls, N.Y.
585-334-7790
www.wildwingsinc.org
Fri-Tue 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Free; donations welcome.


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Banana Slug Slip ‘N’ Slide!

Jakebook

Jake says “two paws up”

I knew I didn’t want to make a traditional book trailer. Typically, a book trailer’s a short video preview of one’s new novel or work of nonfiction or poetry. I’d made one for each of my previous books which, while quirky, followed a narrative about the stories I’d published. But my new book, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, April 2106) is my debut middle-grade novel about a 13-year old boy who’s essentially saved by Pacific Northwest flora and fauna, so I wanted to create a video in celebration of nature–a quick documentary that would entertain viewers and teach them something.

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Enter the banana slug.

I love witty nature documentaries like this one on nutria by Ted Gesing, and funny book trailers like this one by David Gessner. I decided to create an alter ego to highlight one of the weirdest creatures in Oregon’s natural world–Ariolimax columbianus. (Bonus info: As a college freshman, I enrolled at U.C. Santa Cruz because their mascot is the banana slug.)

My husband and daughter and I teamed up to create a three-minute documentary/promotional video for Avenging the Owl. I wrote the script and created a storyboard. Jonathan (who’s a professional photographer) filmed, and our kiddo provided sound effects and some physical comedy along with me.

Click here to watch the video, Banana Slug Slip ‘N’ Slide

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Me and Ariolimax columbianus, BFFs

We spent several winter mornings hiking through Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene, searching for banana slugs. Finally, we found one in the long grass under Douglas firs. The slug became our movie star for 24 hours, and then we returned it to the spot in which we’d discovered it, right next to the Coast Fork of the Willamette River.

For super-cool information on banana slugs, I relied on a brilliant nature guidebook written by Patricia K. Lichen. All of her titles sit on our living room bookshelf.

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Next up, we’ll be working on a three-minute documentary about owl pellets. Stay tuned, Northwest Nature Nerds, and stay outside!

–Melissa


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Backpacking on the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – Travelers of all ages rushed with their stuffed backpacks to the top deck of the M/V Malaspina to secure a camping space in the open air.

For years I had gazed at a Sunset Magazine clipping on my bulletin board describing adventurers pitching tents on the Alaska Marine Highway ferries. Now, my husband and I were on a three-day voyage along the Inside Passage from Bellingham to Juneau, Alaska.

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Since 1951, eleven ferries – the largest of which accommodates 499 passengers – have traveled 3,500 miles of routes along the marine highway. These comfortable ships venture as far south as Bellingham and as far north as Skagway, Alaska, with port stops in between. For many Alaskans, the ferries are a primary source of transportation between small, hard-to-reach coastal towns.

In Bellingham, we filed on board past a pickup truck overflowing with boxes, furniture, and potted plants. I overheard the driver saying that his family couldn’t make a go of it in the lower 48 so they were heading home. They joined us on the marine vessel’s top deck, where passengers were spreading sleeping bags across lawn chairs in the solarium and pitching pup tents outside. (If that doesn’t appeal, travelers can get an inside cabin – small, but warm.)

“You’ll need this,’’ the pickup driver said as he tossed me a giant roll of duct tape, explaining that once the ferry got going, the wind would kick up, threatening to blow tents overboard.

I watched as passengers affixed tent lines to the rough cement with layers of tape and heard horror stories like the one about the guy who had gone below to use the bathroom at midnight and returned in his boxer shorts to find his tent and gear in the sea.

We secured our backpacking tent and went to return the tape. The man shook his head. “Pass it on,’’ he said.

jonferry

My man, Jonathan, roughing it on the ferry.

Generosity was infectious as we cruised along British Columbia’s forested shore. Passengers in the solarium shared pretzels, hummus, and cider (alcohol was forbidden on outer decks). Yoga mats appeared; guitars inspired a jam session.

Initially, I worried about seasickness, but the Malaspina sailed smoothly into the sunset. We walked downstairs to check the cafeteria with its tempting smells of salmon and steak, and explored a bustling bar, small movie theater, and glass-walled observation lounge.

Naturalist Brett Calhoun, 20, delivered four talks a day on topics ranging from the mating habits of humpback whales to survival strategies for bear attack. Between lectures, he showed nature films and handed out maps. Periodically, he or the captain announced photo ops over the intercom. “There’s a school of dolphins off starboard,’’ one would say, or “Breaching orca portside.’’

On our first night we worried that noise might keep us awake. But the ferry’s motor rumbled steadily, lulling us to sleep in our down bags on inflatable pads.

We got up at dawn to commune with a scattering of early-risers toting Canons and Nikons. I walked down to the cafeteria, hatted and mittened against the stiff breeze, for a quarter’s worth of hot water to add to my mug of instant coffee. In a protected outdoor alcove, I watched the sun rise over a bucolic coastal town whose residents waved from their balconies.

A passenger from Alabama said this was his first vacation in 30 years. Cradling his camera lens, he gazed at the view, saying, “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.’’

The pickup driver joined us, jerking his chin at bald eagles perched in a tree. “Dumpster ducks,’’ he sneered at the raptors, so common in his part of the world.

Marine-highway-mapFerry travel inspires an instant camaraderie born of wind and water and periodic port stops. In Petersburg, the captain announced a three-hour layover and passengers headed toward the town’s main drag to share pitchers of Northwest microbrew.

We returned to the Malaspina and stretched out on lawn chairs under a star-studded sky. A teenager who had boarded at Petersburg put up a giant purple dome tent that we nicknamed “the eggplant.’’

“Want to tape it down?’’ I said. He grunted and ducked inside. We crawled into our tent and fell asleep to the ferry’s purr.

At 3 a.m., gusting winds buffeted the tents. Those sleeping outside moved their bags into the solarium or onto the cushioned seats in the observation lounge. I slumbered on.

In the morning my husband recounted the night’s events. He had peered out of our tent to find the eggplant collapsed on top of the teen and had helped to tape it down. “Took us a good hour,’’ he said. “Good thing we had duct tape.’’

This piece originally appeared in The Boston Globe.

From May to September the Alaska Marine Highway ferry leaves from Bellingham, Wash., every Friday at 6 p.m. and arrives in Juneau, Alaska, on Monday morning with several port stops along the way. Top deck $326, cabins $308-$533. Bicycles/inflatable kayaks/cars for additional cost. For reservations and maps, visit www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/index.html.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Interested Interested in taking a writing class with me or coming to a reading of my memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family? See my July schedWild within coverule, below!

July 17th, 2015Reading/Discussion of Wild Within, Paulina Springs Books, Sisters, OR, 6:30 PM. 

July 18th, 2015Reading/Discussion of Wild Within, Paulina Springs Books, Redmond, OR, 6:30 PM.
July 25th and 26th, 2015–“Heal Yourself Through Environmental Memoir,” Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, Otis, Oregon, 10 AM-4 PM both days. Three spots left–still time to register!


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Kayaking on the Oregon Coast with a Terrier in a PFD

I’m not a Mother’s Day brunch kind of gal. Give me a river, a kayak and a beach full of tidepools–I’m good to go. A carving station? Not so much.

My husband, knowing better than to sit me down in front of an all-you-can eat seafood bar, researched the Siuslaw Estuary Water Trail near Florence, Oregon. “It’s an adventure!” he told me and our 8-year old daughter (aka The Spud). We presented our new dog, April, with a terrier-sized life vest and headed west.

April, the intrepid terrier.

April, the intrepid terrier.

You’ve got two choices when you park at Bender Landing at low tide; you can either slog with your kayak through knee-high mud and drop it in the water, or you can rig a line 10 feet up on a retaining wall and lower your boat and climb down a metal ladder to the river. Either way, you’re guaranteed awkward hilarity.

We opted for the ladder, lowered our paddles and peanut butter sandwiches and the terrier, and started off laughing and unmuddied upstream. Paddlers on the Siuslaw can kayak 30 river-miles between Mapleton and the Pacific Ocean. It’s pretty country, I decided, but nothing beats kayaking the Siltcoos River 14 miles south. That’s my true love river, with its old growth and sand dunes that give way to Snowy plover territory and the ocean. We turned our boats around after a while, observed by a preternaturally calm egret, and paddled with the tide.

Egret

Heading south on the North Fork of the Siuslaw, you’ll see farms in the distance, and tractors and horses. We spotted more egrets sailing overhead, and vultures, and what looked to be a Northern harrier skimming the fields. Nutria emerged at the shoreline and scuttled off into tall weeds. Below us, fallen trees stretched out in the water with delicate plants all around them. On this sunny Mother’s Day weekend, the water felt warm enough for a swim. The Spud jumped in to the delight of our new terrier and splashed around a while.

MaiaKayak

It’s possible to kayak to Old Town Florence and tie up in pursuit of a scoop of BJs Oregon Trail ice cream. But we had some serious tidepooling to do, and so we paddled back to our put in and circled around the ladder and the muddy shoreline, weighing our options. Not willing to drag my kayak one-handed up the ladder, I got out on the shore and sunk immediately up to my knees. A pristine kayaker, preparing for a paddle, gaped at me from a picnic table on the grass. “That the only way in?” he asked.

I nodded at the narrow metal ladder and broke into laughter at the sight of my husband mired in the mud.

Our giddy giggling continued later when we walked down to the beach outside the Adobe Resort and discovered two people in the distance gathering up something in bags. A budding journalist, The Spud ran over to investigate.

“Maggots,” she reported back as I bent over a tidepool full of hermit crabs and turquoise anenomes. “They’re collecting maggots.”

I’d spotted five-inch long translucent jelly-like tubes on the beach. Confused, I decided these were maggots of some sort, and the couple had found use for them. I wanted to know just what that use was.

Not maggots–squid eggs.

Not maggots . . . squid eggs.

Not maggots . . . squid eggs.

“What are you collecting?” I asked with a bemused smile.

The man who replied gave me a sober look.

“Agates,” he said.

Turns out this beach, like Bob Creek Wayside a few miles south, offers agates the size of fingernails and fists. The latter, he said, can be worth hundreds of dollars which accounts for the beachcombers who show up hours before low tide to start searching. Those five-inch long jelly-like things? Apparently, they’re squid eggs flung by ocean waves to land among the velella velella (By-the-Wind Sailors).  Here, read this!

Velella vellela (By-the-Wind Sailors)

Velella velella (By-the-Wind-Sailors)

Velella velella (By-the-Wind-Sailors)

By day’s end, I had mud between my toes and tiny amber agates in my pockets. I had the memory of a terrier in a life vest, a child in the river, and a lunch to look forward to the next day at our favorite Mexican food restaurant, Los Compadres in Florence.

A very fine Mother’s Day, indeed.

I’m teaching a two-day workshop 7/25-7/26 titled “Heal Yourself through Environmental Memoir” at the lovely Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Lincoln City, OR. There’s still time to register; I’d love to work with you!