Friday, May 27, 2016

Moving art outdoors

Taking note of the global trend of outdoor education, one local Greenville public school has taken steps towards a more nature-oriented art program with the installation of an outdoor art studio. Stone Academy, in Greenville’s North Main neighborhood, yesterday hosted the ribbon cutting for their new outdoor art space.


Funded partially by volunteer hours and labor, and partially with funds donated through last fall’s Boosterthon event, the outdoor studio will be fully operational by the start of the 2016-17 school year. Landscaped with slate in lieu of mulch in hopes of eliminating yearly maintenance needs, the space will feature 15-30 wrought iron easels, picnic tables and a bright red shade sail.


During the ribbon cutting for the Outdoor Art Studio, art teacher Mr. Benjamin emphasized the importance of bringing the students outdoors in their studies before longtime Stone Academy principal Mr. Ed Holliday cut the ribbon. Mr. Holliday is retiring at the end of the year after 23 years at Stone Academy, and the Outdoor Art Studio features an inscribed stone in his honor at the entrance to the studio.


The ribbon-cutting was the climax of the first annual Stone Artist’ Sidewalk Sale, proceeds of which will go toward the Stone Academy art program.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

On the hunt for the blue ghost

Every year around the middle/end of May a rare phenomenon appears in the southern Appalachians. Wan blueish lights hover above the floor of the forest, appearing by the thousands in undisturbed, high-moisture areas. The appearance of the blue ghost fireflies is a special occasion, as loss of pristine forest has shrunk suitable habitat down to a small area around DuPont State Recreational Forest in North Carolina - but also because they appear for only a month each year.

Blue Ghost Fireflies, North Carolina - photo by Spencer Black

As thousands flock to DuPont to search for the elusive blue ghost lightning bug (phausis reticulata), the NC Forest Service has had to take steps to protect the blue ghost populations within park boundaries. “The temporary trail closures are in response to an overwhelming number of visitors during the 2015 blue ghost season, typically a three-week period in late spring. Forest officials observed a high level of habitat disturbance and disruption by the large nighttime crowds, which could have long-term impacts on local populations of fireflies. Forest officials ask that the public observe trail closure signs and stay out of closed areas” reported Friends of DuPont Forest this spring.


Although Dupont has become synonymous with blue ghost fireflies, there are many public lands in nearby counties where this night marvel can be seen: Pisgah National Forest and western NC, Eastern TN, NE Georgia and our very own Upstate all have documented populations of the firefly. And it’s actually not so very difficult to see them. The good news is that you don’t have to venture far from your car to see them either – although you still want to take a flashlight with (doesn't mean you have to use it)!


Mid-May through mid-June is prime viewing time. Choose a destination, and head out before sunset to scout out an area. Take along a picnic, and enjoy dinner outdoors with your family. Visit one of the dozens of waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, enjoying a popular destination without the crowds. Finally, once the sun sets use the last bit of light to hike a short distance out on your pre-selected trail, and then wait… and wait a little more. Be patient! The blue ghosts come out late – after sunset and not at twilight like all the other fireflies.


Other species appeared around dusk, fireworks against the dark forest that had the boys standing still in silent awe. We had just about given up on seeing the ghosts and were set to begin the journey home when we walked out one last time – and there they were! As our eyes adjusted we saw more and more of them, glowing for up to a minute at a time, hovering above the forest floor in an eerie scene that had us all captivated. The blue ghosts are notoriously hard to photograph, and I didn’t even try – we just soaked in the scene before us, marveling at the rather spooky scene.

photo credit: Rob Travis Photography

In your quest to find the blue ghost firefly, I hope you’ll respect the work that forest service employees and other public servants are doing in preserving the habitat of this seldom seen insect. Please stay on the trail, visit during official hours, park in designated areas and obey posted signs & trail closures. The fireflies are a wonderful opportunity to instill in our children an awe of the beauty of nature, but if we’re not careful, their light will blink out forever. 


Monday, May 23, 2016

Pura vida - a Costa Rica birthday

The birthday tradition in our family is as follows; the birthday boy gets to invite as many guests as he is years-old, and pretty much has free reign over a theme, within reason. So when the almost-6-year-old decides he would like to have a Costa Rica party I started the ball rolling on a rainforest/beach/tropical party to celebrate Lauris turning 6!


For decorations we kept it simple as the majority of the party would take place outdoors: balloons and streamers. Cutting out a few ‘leaves’ from green construction paper and combining with green streamers to form palm fronds, we added brown balloons for coconuts to create palm trees in the dining room. The boys had fun sorting through their Toobs and figurines for animals that live in Costa Rica, and these paired with mini palm trees from a dinosaur set and sea shells helped set the tone. We used these paper plates for dinner and dessert - the set includes a sloth, green tree frog and toucan all in super-bright colors.



While we waited for everyone to arrive we snacked on tropical fruit: mango, papaya, pineapple, kiwi and oranges, and of course strawberries – who could forget the fresh strawberries we had on the side of the volcano in the middle of winter!


I had set up a drink station with lemonade for the kids, featuring these ‘pick your nose party animals cups’ from amazon – a big hit for the goof factor, but also helpful in identifying which cup belonged to which kid. These bamboo-print biodegradable paper straws made for an extra little bit of a tropical feel.


Once all the guests arrived we set off on a treasure hunt. As I told the tale of the strange bearded fellow who had run through earlier with a treasure chest tucked under his arm, I handed the kids a scroll that had supposedly fallen from his pocket –directions to the snake pit!


The kids braved the snakes to find the second clue – a map of crocodile creek. Hidden in the kids’ pool among a giant inflatable alligator and dozens of brightly colored frogs were letters that spelled out ‘beach’ once they had arranged them in the correct order.


Once the explorers had scrambled over to the sand box they immediately dug in, quickly finding the hidden coconut. I had thought of drilling a hole in the coconut or cutting it in half and hiding a map on the inside, but considering as I have zero experience opening coconuts I opted to write ‘bridge’ on the outside in permanent marker.


Our playset had been transformed into the cloud forest, and after crossing the hanging bridges and flying down the final ‘zipline’ slide, the kids found the final stage of the treasure hunt – the piñata.


Once again we got lucky in finding a piñata that wasn’t animal-shaped; we opted for a flip-flop, the universal symbol for the beach. Filled with life-savers, an assortment of colorful plastic frogs and snakes, rainforest animal-shaped fruit snacks and other treats, the piñata was pretty hardy, and all the kids got some good whacks in before we let the birthday boy smash it open.

little brother takes his turn: safety first!

Once the goodies had been picked up it was time for some fun in the backyard. Between the pool, a slip-and-slide, the sandbox and the mud kitchen, the kids had a great time until the burgers and hot dogs were ready. After inhaling the food the kids jumped back into the games they had been playing, reappearing again only for the cake.


As Lauris specifically requested ‘an island in jello water’ for his cake, I borrowed from the pirate party cake with only a minor deviation in toppers – the pirate was replaced by animals.



It was a wild afternoon, but Lauris declared the party a success. The treasure hunt/šķēršļu gājiens is proving a favorite part of our recent parties, and I foresee them requiring more effort as the kids get older. There are also various decorations making repeat appearances at the various parties, although this was much simplified for this specific party by my loose interpretation of the theme. I had a lot of fun in our little ‘Costa Rica’ – happy birthday Lauri, and pura vida!



Friday, May 20, 2016

Five on Friday - Earth Market, Upstate Farm Tour and GrowJourney

The Slow Food Earth Market has a new location! This community-run farmer's market was formerly at the Roper Mountain Science Center, but has found its new home at the Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery. Products for sale at the monthly market are local & seasonal, produced using sustainable methods, and are organically produced in natural environments to minimize environmental impact. Participants include BioWay Farm, Carolina Honeybees, Dahl Farm, Gibson Farms, Henson Farms, Timberock , Walker Century Farms and Forx Farm with their Gouda cheese. For more information on the market and vendors, please visit the Earth Market website.



If Forx Farm sounds familiar, it might be because they were featured here on Femme au Foyer during last year’s Upstate Farm Tour. This annual self-guided tour is organized by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA), a farmer-driven, membership-based non-profit organization that advocate for fair farm and food policies, build the systems family farms need to thrive, and educate communities about local & organic agriculture. Tickets/buttons are now on sale for the 2016 Upstate Farm Tour, which will take place June 18th and 19th. You can register on the day of for a cost of $35 per car at the first farm you visit, or you can register in person for $30 at the following locations: the Greenville Whole Foods, Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery and The Grain Loft. A few of the 22 participating farms are familiar from previous years, but there are also 6 new additions to interest veteran-tour-goers slong with the newbies. Sample itineraries and more on last year’s tour can be found in my articles Upstate Farm Tour part 1 and Upstate Farm Tour part 2, which were featured on the CFSA blog, the sweet potato.


While you are at the Swamp Rabbit Cafe picking up your Upstate Farm Tour button, make sure to grab a copy of the “Wild Plants on the Rabbit” brochure, your guide to the natural and exotic plants growing along the Swamp Rabbit Trail. Produced by the South Carolina Native Plant Society, the brochure has great pictures and short descriptions to help you identify the ferns, grasses, herbs, vines, trees and shrubs on the SRT.


The 30th Annual Greenville Greek Festival kicked off yesterday here in downtown Greenville. Thursday offered several dining options, while today marks the beginning of all the other activities including live music, traditional Greek Dancing, tours of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, a plaka full of Greek goods, the children’s Carnival and traditional Greek Food and Pastries. A few posts on Greece to get you in the mood: Athens, Paros 1, Paros 2, Santorini, Antiparos and Dreams of Greece.


Finally, a local company is in the running for a 2016 FedEx small business grant. GrowJourney is a USDA-certified organic, heirloom Seeds of the Month Club that not only is a champion of organic farming in the Upstate, but also has supported local community and student gardens since day 1. It’s easy to vote, and you can vote once a day until June 13th. For more on GrowJourney and Tyrant Farms, visit their website. Now go and vote! (And if the link below does not work on your browser, just click here to be taken to the FedEx small business grant voting!)



Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A hike up Glassy Mountain

It might seem as if all we are doing recently is hiking… and it isn’t far from the truth! This time of year it feels as if there is such a short window before the summer heat makes trudging through the woods unbearable, and so we are taking full advantage of every beautiful spring day! With guests curious to see more of the area and a small group of moms dedicated to getting out on hikes, we set our sights on Glassy Mountain – part of the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site.


Located in the town of Flat Rock, the park is three miles south of Hendersonville, NC on Little River Road. You might find the route familiar, especially if you’ve visited Sky Top Orchard to pick apples. We parked in the designated lot and packed up our gear, then headed a couple hundred feet down to the ‘contact station’ to meet the rest of our group. The station sits adjacent to the dam on Front Lake, and while we waited we took a look around. The Front Lake Loop trail departs around both sides of Front Lake from this point, and the Kids in Parks TRACK Trail kiosk is at the entrance. We were happy to see that since our last visit a brand new TRACK trail had been installed, the “Citizen Science TRACK Trail” being the first of its kind in the program (it was opened on April 27th, and features pH and other measurement stations around the lake). We chose brochures more appropriate for our hike, ‘Nature’s Hide and Seek’ and ‘The Need for Trees,’ and then took in the view from the bridge over the dam.


While we spotted a few snakes on our way in, it was on our way out that we were treated to quite a sight; two brown water snakes were mating; it was fascinating watching these large reptiles in their natural habitat from the safety of our perch high above the creek.


The short, ¼ mile road that leads up to the Carl Sandburg home features a view of the pasture while climbing the 100 feet in elevation to reach the main house. Carl Sandburg and his family lived in the house from 1945 until his death in 1967. A tour is available for a fee; see the Carl Sandburg NHS website for schedules. The park’s Visitor Center is located on the lower level of the house, and this is where you can purchase tour tickets as well as browse the gift shop and obtain brochures. We were headed past the house to the dairy barn, home of the resident goat herd.


On previous trips to Carl Sandburg we made note to return in the spring to visit the baby goats. Mrs. Sandburg owned and operated a premier goat dairy from 1935 to 1965, the Grade A milk being distributed to local dairies and sold in stores around the community. The goat breeding program that produced champion goats continues today at the historic site, with three breeds of goats calling the park home. Our timing was perfect, as we were able to meet a half-dozen kids, ranging from 10 weeks to 10 minutes old.

This kid had just been born!

The goat farm is unique in that visitors can walk in the pasture with the goats (and in the enclosure with the babies!) as well as explore the barn, not only meeting the goats, but petting them and watching them feed & interact. Although the birth of a kid was just luck on our part, if you visit in the spring you will get the chance to pet some baby goats, and watching them wobble around on uncertain legs was the highlight of this hike.


We spent an hour at the goat farm before heading past the vegetable gardens to the apple orchard. Here at the trout pond Orchard Trail intersected with Spring Trail, which would take us up to Memminger Trail Loop and the Glassy Mountain Trail.

The trout pond

From the House to the Glassy Mountain overlook it is 1.25 miles, a 523 foot elevation change that just doesn’t quit. Although there are several other options for reaching Glassy Mountain from the parking lot, they are all about the same length with the same workout. We paused often, taking the kids’ minds off the climb, which although not extremely steep is steady; there are no breaks other than the ones taken stationary.


It was with profound relief that we reached the top of Glassy Mountain and dug out our snacks, enjoying a long rest to explore, snap photos and soak in the view. The exposed rock makes for interesting plant communities in the various seeps, and the overlook is the only spot in the park with a view of the mountains.


When thunder rumbled off in the distance we were quick to pack up and start our descent. Although getting stuck in a rainstorm wouldn’t have been the worst thing, we didn’t want to be caught on the mountain with lightning nearby. We were back at the trout pond before we knew it, and soon enough the kids were back in the goat barn petting the baby goats.


Our guest tracked our hike and ended up with a mileage of 4.5 miles – about 4 up and down Glassy Mountain with another ½ mile of scrambling after the boys (the best online map of the trails I found was this one on National Park Planner). This hike definitely required a little more oomph than our usual hikes, and with the time spent at the goat barn totaled over 4 hours. The feedback from those with shorter legs was unanimous – not hiking this trail again! The general feeling was that the goats were the main attraction, and although the view from Glassy Mountain was beautiful, similar vistas can be had in the Upstate without the steep hike. Although I enjoyed the hike, I didn’t enjoy the prodding that came with it, and think I would be able to enjoy the scenery along the trail better on a hike without the kids.

A pink lady slipper orchid


We piled into the car for the short ride back into Flat Rock for a stop at the bakery. Along with some pizza baked in the brick oven in the back, we can also vouch for the coffee, croissants and various breads - definitely worth the stop on your way home after a day at the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site!


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