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Hit the Trails — It’s National Trails Day!

June 1, 2013 is National Trails Day!

Since 1993, the first Saturday of every June has been designated to inspire the general public and hiking enthusiasts alike to discover and celebrate America’s expansive trail network — comprising over 200,000 miles of trails. You can participate in a local hike, dog walk, cycle, horseback ride, help in a trail maintenance project, kayak, birdwatch, and so much more. It’s easy to forget how much work goes into trails’ planning, development, and upkeep: National Trails Day thanks the countless volunteers and partners for their support and grueling work.

Trails of the Yamato Scrub Natural Area, Florida

Heading into the lovely trails of the Yamato Scrub Natural Area

Organized by the American Hiking Society, National Trails Day also introduces many people — those who may not otherwise normally visit parks — to all of their benefits. The day further highlights trails that people didn’t even know existed. This was actually the genesis of Serenity Spell; after hearing how so many locals were unaware of the magnificent parks and natural areas in this area (see the much-needed-updating Natural Areas and State & National Parks dropdowns, above — or the Categories section to the right), I was inspired to investigate more on my own. In today’s world, it’s critical to get outdoors and into nature. Hiking, even simple walks, gets the heart pumping, the muscles relaxed and stretched, and is an excellent way to improve overall health and mental alignment. It’s also cheap!

Click here to find an event near you for a National Trails Day event. Celebrate nature and promote our country’s parks and trails!

Oak Trees of the Florida Trail, Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Florida

Oak Trees sheltering the Florida Trail, Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Equestrian Trail, Bluefield Natural Area, Florida

Equestrian trail signage in the Bluefield Natural Area

Pines in the Atlantic Ridge State Park, Florida

Pines along the trail in the Atlantic Ridge State Park

A Heavenly Hardwood Swamp

Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees takes off his shoes. —
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

In honor of the Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, who met after a long correspondence on May 20, 1845…and began one of the most celebrated love affairs in history. After much wooing, Browning finally convinced a shy and skeptical Barrett that he loved her “for naught except for love’s sake only.”

* * *

I readily admit that my sense of direction is horrible. Which makes wanting to explore the more off-beaten trails a bit…difficult, to my family’s tremendous concern. There’s a lot of backtracking! But in visiting these places, a vision of natural Florida is allowed — and it’s divine.

Outside of the *ridiculous* number of gargantuan mosquitoes that swarmed as I carefully crept into this lovely swamp, it was a treat. I only hope that any human male who shows an interest in me in the future, will also understand my occasional mosquito attacks (not pretty). And the spider bites. And occasional wasp stings. I should seriously consider paramedics or forest rangers as potential dating material.

Cypress Swamp, Cypress Creek Natural Area, Florida

A still-dry cypress swamp in the Cypress Creek Natural Area

I recently hiked through one of my favorite habitats, a hardwood swamp. Various hardwood trees and a mixture of hardwoods and Cypress can be found here, including Water hickory, Holly, Maples, Oaks, Cabbage palms and Bay trees, accompanied by a dense understory of vines, ferns and herbaceous plants. Hardwood swamps occur on floodplains or upland areas that are lower than the surrounding area. And it’s home to so much life — the sounds coming from the trees were just lovely.

Hardwood Swamp, Cypress Creek Natural Area, Florida

Looking up into the canopy of the hardwood swamp

Yet another breathtakingly beautiful Florida habitat to witness and love — and above all else, protect and preserve.

Helping the Monarchs, and Florida’s Monarch Mimics

 Monarch Watch Conservation Campaign Poster

Monarch Watch Conservation Campaign Poster, courtesy of Monarch Watch

In mid-March, news of the severe decline in Monarch colonies was released — a record low. Their population has dropped 59% this year alone. That’s outstandingly sad. Although insect populations fluctuate, experts are concerned about the monarchs’ consistent downward trend. Their wintering colonies in Mexico, which once spanned 44 acres, now encompasses less than THREE mind-boggling acres. It was the topic of an NPR piece recently as well: Majestic Monarch Butterflies Under Threat.

Scientists suspect many factors contribute to the decline, including fluctuations in weather, habitat loss, pesticides on milkweed, and Round-up resistant crops — genetically engineered crops. Basically, the fault lies with us.

Monarchs NEED milkweed. During their long and arduous migration spanning several generations, the female lays her eggs on milkweed plants. When the eggs hatch, the larvae in turn feed on the plant. Without this basic necessity, the beautiful monarchs will continue to disappear. This year’s numbers are beyond troubling — but hopefully another eye-opening alert for the GMO industry using the herbicides.

Plant milkweed — it’s pretty! So are the butterflies that will visit…. I’ve planted lots of native butterfly plants, but I’ll be doing more for sure, especially since I don’t see many Monarchs down here in Southern Florida.

Monarch Fall and Spring Migrations Map, Monarch Watch

Monarch Fall and Spring Migrations Map, Courtesy of Monarch Watch

But below are some mimics of the Monarch — the Viceroy and Queen butterflies. The Viceroy, a black-and-orange poisonous butterfly very similar in appearance, doesn’t feed on milkweed like the Monarch, but remains safe because of its similarity to the more noxious-tasting Monarch. Interestingly, the Viceroy has evolved from a tasty butterfly to predators — one that survived on mimicry alone — to one that has adapted further by eating toxic vegetation as well (including willows and poplars).

Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus), Arthur R. Marshall

Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus), Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus), Arthur R. Marshall

Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus), Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

The Queen butterflies also eat milkweed, and the toxins from the plants make them distasteful to predators. Scientists have noted that a bird eating a Monarch will learn and remember that the bright orange coloration and pattern is a signal of unpleasantness — and so a Queen butterfly, with its similar appearance, will be safe. Mimicry! Fascinating stuff.

Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus)

Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus), Hyplouxo Scrub Natural Area

Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus)

Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus), Riverbend Park

Be sure to also check out:

Monarch Watch Shop — Learn how to create a habitat for monarchs

Monarch Watch — LOTS of resources

Flight of the Butterflies in 3D — And how to plant a butterfly garden

Click here to look at the maps and other population graphs of the monarchs, and learn how you can help in their plight

Denise Dahn, artist/writer: An amazing nature artist and writer, here highlighting the history of milkweed and its importance to the Monarch

Inside the Cypress Swamp

On the heels of Earth Day, I wanted to share an *internal* vision of one of the few remaining cypress swamps lining the Everglades…. It’s part of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, and I spend much time there — and you can probably see why. It’s utterly beautiful. Just magnificent. We’re tentatively leaving the dry season here in South Florida (our daily afternoon rains haven’t quite started — that will be May), but the swamp is slowly coming into its glory, thanks to some plentiful April rainfall.

Cypress Swamp, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Cypress Swamp, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Like most of Florida’s cypress, this area was thoroughly logged in the ’40s — so while the trees aren’t first-generation cypress, they’re beautiful nonetheless — and thankfully, they’re now protected by various federal and state agencies! In this swamp, among the bald and pond cypress there are also pond apple trees, as well as different species of ferns, some twice as large as I stand. It’s just magical. I always picture this land covered by such a vista…. Which, in the human timeline, wasn’t that long ago.

Cypress Swamp, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

A dense vista

This wetland habitat supports an incredible amount of life, although much less than it did in years past. Butterflies, alligator, snakes, frogs, bobcats, otter, birds of every variety, and raptors make their homes here. Larger predators, including panther and bear, would have freely roamed. And it’s fantastic: You may HEAR the Great-horned owl, but try finding him. If you’re not quiet and gentle out there — and observant — you’ll miss everything.

Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius)

Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius)

Dragonfly in Cypress Swamp, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Glowing dragonfly

Southern Leopard Frog, Cypress Swamp, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

A Southern leopard frog just missed his meal ticket of a dragonfly, but hasn’t given up… Using his PERFECT camouflage

Red-bellied Cooter (Turtle), Cypress Swamp, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

A Red-bellied Cooter sunning on a fallen log in the swamp = JOY!

Black Racer Snake, Cypress Swamp, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

A well-hidden and quite harmless Black racer tries to sleep

Cypress Swamp, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Looking up into the beautiful young cypress trees of the swamp

Happy Anniversary, Earth!

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not. —The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss

Happy Earth Day, to this one and only, beautiful but non-disposable blue sphere of ours! This year’s theme is climate change: the faces of climate change and its impact on the planet.

Click here for a quick read on the Top 10 Ways to Make Every Day Earth Day — from using less water, to cutting back on printing, to curbing the bottled-water addiction. Incredibly easy tips for the average human! And if you’re up for a more intense viewing on the subject of climate change, here’s a TEDtalks clip featuring Allan Savory: “How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change.” It’s long, but completely fascinating.

The Faces of Climate Change: Earth Day 2013

The Faces of Climate Change: Earth Day 2013, Courtesy of the Earth Day Network

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