Friday, January 28, 2011

Good work: beautify a school

Is it easier to learn in a setting that obviously values beauty and creativity? Or to put it another way, would you prefer to send your child (or your neighbors' kids) to a school surrounded by asphalt and concrete or to one surrounded by well-tended fruit trees and pretty flowering shrubs? Well, duh!

Thing is, not all schools have the staff or budget to take care of pretty flowers and such. That's where volunteers can help. A few years ago, our garden club (SCLH Garden Club) made a connection with teachers at Lincoln's Twelve Bridges Elementary School.

First, local ranchers donated some small fruit trees—apples, peaches, pears and the like, some three dozen in all. But like a well-raised child, every tree needs care and attention, so today the garden club is back with loppers and shears to prune all 36 trees. Whew!

Two days beforehand, we got a quick review of pruning techniques from a local nurseryman, Scott, of Loomis' High Hand Nursery. "Plants teach us a lot," he believes. "They've taught me patience and toughness, with their ability to survive," notes Scott. "And they've taught me to think about what could be," he adds.

It's a foggy, cold morning, but our small band of volunteers (led by Joyce) is cheerful and eager. After some quick reminders from Mr. Toy, the science teacher and from Beverley (didn't get her last name), another teacher at this elementary school, we're ready to tackle the trees. "Remember to prune halfway up the new growth," says Beverley. "Don't go too far," she notes with a laugh.

I notice one gal pruning an apple tree with a long, yellow handled trimmer; the unusual part is, she has a baby in a carrier on her back. "Yep, she's my little helper," says Mrs. Volmer. You can't start 'em too young, when it comes to volunteering volunteering!

After a mornings' work, our little group has accomplished its mission. I look at the neatly trimmed branches, now bare against the winter sky, and think about the possibility of this tiny orchard: of luscious, ripe peaches or bright red apples. And about the possibilities inherent in the young students who might learn the lessons plants—and beautiful surroundings—can teach us all.
Get involved:
Easy. Call your local school and just ask when the next fundraiser is, and step up to buy baked goods or make a donation directly. Check out Project Appleseed, a national campaign for public school improvement, or the National Coalition for Parent Involvement.

Harder. Want to help out at Twelve Bridges? Check out their website. If you're a parent or adult with relatives in any school, pick up the phone and call their school to ask what you can do to help. Parental involvement is a key factor in high-performing schools. You may be asked to help in the classroom by assembling paperwork, by making photocopies, or cleaning up toys used during class breaks (you may be asked to undergo a background check if you plan to work with kids directly--it's for the kids' safety). Or there may be other work needed; let them know if you have special skills. Read more.

Disclaimer: Note that we don't endorse any organization, but we encourage you to carefully look into any group that you plan to donate time or money to.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A year of volunteering: The giving leaf

I'm committed to the idea of 'giving back' in a meaningful way this year. Think of it as one small leaf added to the giving tree (remember the story in the wonderful children's book The Giving Tree, first published in 1964 by Harper & Row, written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein). So I've asked my friends for ideas on how I can get involved, do some volunteer work that's interesting, preferably local or with a local angle, and realistically doable for a gal like me (ie. not terribly young or fit).

My goal is to do a bunch of things every month and write about it on my blog in the hopes that others will learn about the work these organizations are doing. It may include roll-up-the-sleeves effort (like working all day at a library or soup kitchen); exploration (like working the Audubon bird count or planting trees); or fun (like going to a charity auction or school fund-raiser). The point is, we can all give back at various levels, whatever is achievable—it all counts. Americans are among the most generous people on the planet, and more of us would give if we just knew how.

I've gotten some interesting ideas so far. Check 'em out. Please feel free to add yours by commenting below.

LuAnn says: "Training a service dog...check out my blog at; If my life ended today and you were to ask me of what I had done (other than family), volunteering for Helping Paws would top the list.

Vicky says: "Rebuilding Together.An organization that repairs and rehabilitates the homes of low-income elderly or disabled homeowners.Its all over the world and we love helping them...."

Pettit wrote: "Trail building and maintaining on the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail. :)"

Norma wrote: "Schools always need volunteers. And political parties of the volunteer's choice!"

Cherise wrote: "I think there's an Assistance League in Sacramento... All kinds of community work through them, from calling homebound seniors, to reading to kids, to putting kits together for foster kids and domestic violence victims."

Details: Can't wait for my ideas? Check out the world of giving at the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Friday, January 21, 2011

White swans in the Sacramento Valley

Driving the backroads of the Sacramento Valley, you soon realize you're in rice growing country. Giant red tractors and combines dot the fields which look kind of like boggy lawns: long, green grassy stalks rise from flooded fields. But while they look like monocultures, these fields are alive with wildlife. Crawfish, frogs, mollusks, and other critters thrive in the muddy waters, while hawks, egrets, blue herons, geese, and ducks fly above and winter in the marshlands.

My friend and I picked a sunny afternoon to crisscross the backroads and look for the most majestic denizen of all: tudra swans. Some 70,000 swans migrate through the Central Valley from spring and summer breeding grounds in the far north (from Alaska to the Arctic). With its honking call, long, graceful neck, and black bill, the tundra is unmistakable. At our first stop, pulled off the roadside along a ricefield, we find no swans, but an army of blackbirds perched on the power lines overhead. We pause to scan a few redwing and Brewer's blackbirds before the army spooks. They scatter up into the sky by the hundreds; the scene looks just as if someone sneezed into a bowl of black pepper.

After a few more miles, we hit the Mother Lode of bird-dom: a pond filled to bursting with white-fronted geese (which my friends says the hunters call 'specks', for their speckled appearance), snow geese, and various ducks. "Now, how are we supposed to find white swans amongst thousands of white geese?" I wonder. We set up the spotting scope and scan the pond; all the while, skeins of gees are flying in overhead, coming in to land on the pond. It's so noisy I can hardly hear myself think for all the cackling.

Eventually, we spot a handful of swans, gliding off by themselves among some reeds. They're unmistakable: a pure, snowy white, heads held high, looking for all the world as if they're miffed at having to share the pond with commoners like Canada geese. With a wingspan of up to 77 inches, they're bigger than most of the birds here, which also makes them easier to spot.

I think they're romantic birds, not only for their grace and beauty, but for their loyalty. Like most swans, tundras pair up for life, monogamous until one partner dies. If the cruelties of life in the wild takes one partner before the other, the surviving bird often will not mate again for some years, or even for its entire life. Their journey from the north is arduous and life in the Arctic is hard, but here in the Sacramento rice fields they find a relatively warm, well-earned respite, a kind of Palm Springs vacation for swans.

We watch them glide silently off into the reeds, and hope we'll see them safely return next year.

Details: Not a skilled birder? No worries. The California Department of Fish and Game offers tundra swan tours in the Marysville area the second and third Saturdays of the month through February. They're free, but you must book ahead. Click above or call 916/358-2852.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Celebrate the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

On MLK Day, it's good to remember the role that people of color played in the world of ranching and cowboyin' (and cowgirlin') across the West. Did you know there's a place that honors such folk? Yep, it's called the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum, in Fort Worth, Texas. And on January 21, 2011,the museum marks its 10th anniversary. with exhbits featuring the Tuskgee Airmen, the Buffalo Soldiers, and more.

Closer to home, the California African American Museum in Los Angeles serves up a continuing exhibit called How We Roll (July 28, 2010 - March 20, 2011). The exhibit offers “insight into the engagement and cultural influence of African Americans in the sports of surfing, roller skating and skateboarding. How We Roll celebrates personal stories, cheers on the radicals who changed and blended the sports, and the artistry and livelihoods that have grown out of these respective fields. The exhibit is a mixture of sculptural art forms, intertwined with historical facts, personal accomplishments, vintage and contemporary photos, artifacts and videos.” Cool!

Details: The California African American Museum is in Exposition Park, Los Angeles.
Join docent tours Tuesday—Saturday at 10 am, 11 am, 1 pm and 2 pm. Call to book a tour ($3, $2) at 213/744-2084. There's no entry fee to the museum.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bonkers for birds: Audubon's Christmas bird count

You have to be kind of cuckoo—for birds, that is—to join in the Audubon Society's annual Christmas bird count. This year, I joined the other nuthatches standing in the December drizzle to spot, identify, and count hundreds of birds. And I had a blast. I got to know some neat people, enjoyed a fabulous walk through an oak-filled canyon, and got much better acquainted with my nearby habitat. And I felt like I was making a small contribution to science. Yep--me!

It's a labor of love that has taken place across this nation for 111 years, and now I know what keeps people joining in year after year. You don't have to be an expert bird watcher to take part, thank Heavens, just be willing to help keep eyes and ears open and try to identify and count. What's the point of all this effort? Says the Audubon group, "Each of the citizen scientists who annually braves snow, wind, or rain, to take part in the Christmas Bird Count makes an enormous contribution to conservation. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations - and to help guide conservation action."

And what did we find? In my portion of the Sacramento Valley, we counted a total of 4045 birds (says Ruth, head of our bird group); the species count was 76—about average for the last 7 years. Compared to last year, Ruth adds, some of the species that we counted significantly more of are: wood duck, cinnamon teal, ring-necked pheasant, California quail, white-tailed kite, dunlin, bushtit, ruby-crowned kinglet, spotted and California towhee, and lark sparrow. And while its participants may be amateurs, the annual count helps real researchers spot trends and ends up helping birds. "The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America," says the Audubon's website.

I was happy to hear one of my favorite birds, the bufflehead duck (above), was spotted in our area. But what I wanted to see were wood ducks. The males of this specie are as gorgeous as Tom Cruise (and probably as vain). Dramatic, vividly colored, almost garish birds—this was one bird I was eager to see on my Audubon walk. And I wasn't disappointed. At the end of our morning walk, just as the drizzle was letting up and we were about to give it up for the day, we caught sight of eight pair of wood ducks floating about a small pond just a few yards from us. And thanks to the real experts I was walking with (thanks Don and Maxine), I knew what I was looking at.

Details: The annual summary of the Christmas Bird Count, American Birds, is published each fall and contains the regional summaries for all of the counts conducted; check the Audubon website. And if you want to participate next December, sign up; learn more from the Audubon website or contact your local chapter of the Audubon Society.
COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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