Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Seattle’s Pacific Science Center: Bugs, Bikes, and Musical Flowers

Some families travel to Disneyland. Mine goes to science museums. There’s a family-friendly science museum in almost every major city, and you can find one of the best in Seattle, Washington.

We visited the Pacific Science Center in September on a break from my Avenging the Owl bookstore tour, and spent seven hours investigating every corner of the museum. Here are some of the weird and wonderful things we discovered.

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Insect Village

Love insects? Stick around here for a while. An animatronic housefly invites you to “step right up” and visit an extensive display that will give you a sense of how high a flea jumps, how a beetle’s exoskeleton acts like a knight’s armor, why hissing cockroaches hiss, and—my favorite—how mealworms eat Styrofoam. (Up until I observed this for myself, I thought mealworms were simply food for owls, but now I realize they have other environmental benefits, as well!)

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Tropical Butterfly House

Even on the grayest, rainiest, coldest days, the butterfly house glows with a tropical light. Hundreds of butterflies drift about, landing on flowered plants, on piles of sliced fruit, and on you. The museum gets its butterflies in chrysalis form from farms in Central and South America, and they allow visitors to watch the hatching and study the brief but beautiful life cycle of these insects. Laminated identification cards let you to learn the names of what you’re seeing, but you can also dispense with the fancy nomenclature and simply bask with the butterflies.

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High-Rail Bicycle

So maybe you’re sort of a daredevil, or maybe your great-grandparents—like mine–ran away to join the circus. Either way, if you weigh over 100 pounds, you can pedal a bicycle on a one-inch-wide rail 15 feet above the museum’s courtyard for free. Downward-hanging weights keep it from slipping off the rail.

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Look, Mom! No hands!

Live Science Shows

As a creative writing teacher, I have a crazy admiration for those who can impart the magic of science to kids  . . . and to me. The museum offers a couple of half-hour science presentations a day, classes so surprising and funny you forget you’re actually learning. We saw “The Science of Combustion” in which the presenter lit blew up fuel-filled balloons and lit someone’s ten dollar bill on fire (it managed to escape unharmed), and “The Science of Bubbles.”

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Musical Flowers

After seven hours of fabulously-interactive exhibits on health and archaeology and space and dinosaurs and Legos and 3-D printing and musical instruments, I had to get outside and go in search of a veggie dog. I found one along a line of food stands in the Seattle Center, but not before I discovered artist Dan Corson‘s giant glass flowers sprouting up right outside the museum. As people walk past them, they emit loud tones—some low, some high, all unexpected and weird. But then, that describes the whole science museum, which is much more fun, my 9-year old agrees, than a family vacation to Disneyland.

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Writer Island/Orcas Island

I love traveling with my family—see my new essay in High Country News as proof of how much I adore our adventures together. But once in a while, it’s fun to travel alone—to meditate, silently, on museums or hiking trails or why the train’s three hours late. While no mom is an island (sorry, John Donne), I’m excited to visit one in two weeks.

With Washington author and essayist Ana Maria Spagna, I’ll be teaching the art of compassionate writing for “Writer Island”—a weekend creative writing workshop at Kangaroo House Bed and Breakfast on lovely Orcas Island near Seattle.

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I discovered Orcas 18 months ago while on book tour, and stayed overnight at Kangaroo House (named for the kangaroo that used to reside there). The owners made me a gorgeous breakfast and invited me to teach.

I’ve taught writing workshops in bookstores, in hotel ballrooms, in my living room with four cats, and once, in an old ice house–but I’ve never taught at a bed and breakfast. I’m relying on the resident cat for inspiration. (Intrigued? There’s still time to register for Writer Island, if you’re interested!)

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The resident cat, in meditation.

But what if you can’t stand to leave your family behind? Bring them to the island (the ferry ride’s half the fun) and they can head off adventuring while you write. The hike to Mount Constitution in Moran State Park offers intrigue and excitement and really weird mushrooms! Look for banana slugs around the many lakes and climb the lookout tower to check out the historical displays.

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The rock structure, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936, looks like a medieval watch tower. From the top, you get a hawk’s-eye view of the San Juan Islands and surrounding mountains. I also got a fine look at the back of a red tailed hawk flying below me!

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The view from Lookout Tower . . .

There’s a wonderful bookstore, as well—Darvill’s—perfect for browsing if the weather turns rainy. I loved it so much that I went twice in two days and spent a small fortune.

Can’t make Writer Island this year, but want to meet me and Ana Maria Spagna? We’ll be reading at Lopez Bookshop on Lopez Island with writer Iris Graville on Thursday, February 25th and at Darvill’s on Friday, February 26th. We hope to see you soon!

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