Pine Trees and Sticks

By Anna Van Devender

“Did this stick come from a TREE?” asked my 4-year-old. He accepted my affirmation thoughtfully, then inched along the trail again with an 18” pine bough in his grip. “This stick”, along with promises of ice cream, motivated him for the last leg of our family hike around Dogtown Lake. For that, I was already thankful. That my son had just made the connection between sticks on the ground and ponderosas growing all around was as cool to me as the mountain air that lured us to Northern Arizona for this summer’s vacation.

Helping Dad build our campfire at Juniper Meadows

In the span of a week, to my boys sticks were: “inventions”, “secret hideouts”, “nests”, “barriers”, “beaver dams”, “food” in a fake fire, kindling for real fires, digging tools, “poppers”, “microphones”, a walking stick, “fishing poles”, and good ol’ “Can I throw sticks in here?” Our family even tried our hands at fishing with real poles. My 7-year-old was remarkable patient, then turned to engineering seven versions of poles made of sticks and scraps. The 4-year-old most wanted to bob his real pole up and down in the water or use it to poke his bobber. Hence we found spots for stick play out of the way. He made his own opportunities because sticks are everywhere, are tangible, and spark his imagination.

It’s also a matter of scale. Fallen sticks are closer to a child’s eyes than the shade-producing network of living branches above. The pole-like straightness of pine trunks currently relegates them to obstacles around which to step, not construction materials with which to play.

“Microphones” and “nests” captivated both boys at Dogtown Lake.

Bigger than my boys by height and age, I relish the cooling shade, the sweet scent tugging at memories of childhood trips, and the many voices of wind through the wispy needles. On vacation, I am content to be, to rest, to absorb. My experience is expanded, though, by watching the serious work of play.

“Can I put THIS one in?” asks my young hiker as he eyes a driftwood log as long as himself. “Sure,” I say, with an intentional casualness disguising that I think he might not actually be able. Four grunt-accompanied tugs later, the log is in the lake. My son is temporarily out of breath and also satisfied to move up the trail to new stick supplies. We are outdoors, with the larger elements weaving their way through us all, one small piece at a time.

Photos by Tim Van Devender

Bermudagrass Lessons

By Anna Van Devender

“I need to keep digging to find that leak,” I updated my school gardening colleague. “There’s a leak?” he asked, surprised. I remembered he’d been off campus for a week and had seen neither my new dirt pile or the trail of bermudagrass, purslane, and mallow that had suddenly appeared on a soil slope with no known irrigation emitter. It was the trail of weeds that led me to discover water seeping up from underground. A cheerful pink penstemon and a fledgling Texas Ranger had appeared about the same time, so I wasn’t in too big of a rush to remedy the situation. Still, I needed to get two crisscrossing irrigation systems in order before Summer Break. Thank you, bermudagrass, for showing me where to dig.

Bermudagrass has been to me over the years: a front yard lawn to play in, a school field to lunch on, a school garden nemesis to take on, an excuse for exercise, a form of meditation, a topic to educate about, and a red flag for water out of place. Bermudagrass is an amazingly drought resistant, rapidly spreading, commonly planted turf grass in the Desert Southwest. Where it’s wanted, great. Where it’s not wanted, it’s a weed. In fact, bermudagrass is the weed that taught me to love pulling weeds.

Rewind to fall of 2000. I returned to the U of A after interning for 12 weeks in remote Badlands National Park. A senior Honors Thesis project, as yet undecided, loomed ahead. A yearning for the freedom and undeveloped openness of my summer home tugged at me also. Plus I had tests to tackle and romantic drama to reckon with. So, I started a school garden. It wasn’t quite that simple, but it was exactly what I found out I wanted to do.

Among the necessary tasks? The bermudagrass in the corner of the school playground would have to go. Each Wednesday, I fidgeted like a little kid through my Anthropology class until I could help elementary students learn about desert plants and animals and plan our garden. To prepare the way, I went on weekends to dig up the incredibly tough, sneaky, regrowing grass. This became my physical exercise: stabbing a shovel in and grabbing chopped out grass with my hands. It became my time alone in nature, in the middle of a bustling city. It became a way to both think and forget, to cleanse my brain with something like meditation were it not for the accompanying glee at destroying something.

Back in my current school garden, I finally found the responsible uncapped emitter. I had to dig deep, and imagine the removed tree that water used to sustain. I had to take a good look around, finding that bermudagrass on a spectrum – from tan to yellow to pale spring green to deep summer green – persisted all along the ridge where I stood. Add some extra water, and green bursts from tan. Now, the cap is in place, but still I dig. Thank you, bermudagrass, for keeping me alert, for keeping me fit, and for being a living thread from past to present.

Finding Water

By Anna Van Devender

The trees are thirsty.  The kids are restless.  The day is young, and one that will heat up quickly.  I turn the hose on a trickle and then rest easy.  The water promises 30+ minutes in nature for the kids and for me.

The kids are still playing after I come inside and sneak a picture through the screen door. Photo by Anna Van Devender

When I water our backyard’s two young live oak trees, my boys get to play in the mud.  Sprinklers?  Too cold, they say, plus we have fake grass.  Pool?  We had it filled in.  Wading pool?  We call it a bathtub, but that’s another story.   Muddy tree wells with sand, rocks, sticks, and toy cars mixed in?   Their most regular water play.

Water and summer go together in concept: a way to cool off in hot weather.  This becomes messier in the desert.  Our water supply in Tucson is overdrawn.  We receive far less from rainfall than we use, and our groundwater supply is supplemented by the Colorado River.  When we look for ways to cool off, we can also look for ways to mitigate our water use.

Rarely is there mud in our yard without these toy cars plopping into it. Photo by Anna Van Devender

I just learned a new word for what I’ve been teaching in my classes and practicing at home: “stacking”, or serving two or more purposes with one activity.  Katy Bowman presents the concept in her book Movement Matters.  Now I have exactly the word for watering trees and kids at the same time!

On my family’s lovely getaway to Northern Arizona earlier this summer, my husband, Tim, made a similar discovery.  All four of us had been playing in Sedona’s Oak Creek.  “All four” being key. “It’s more engaging.  It’s far more interesting than swimming laps in a swimming pool,” he reflected.  He navigated shallow and deep, slippery and steady with Kid 1 while I dug and splatted luxurious red sand-mud with Kid 2.  We all laughed at wading in and around multicolored cobbles.  We stacked exercise, cooling off, enjoying something together, and time outdoors.  We also found water flowing in the desert, as it does in a few rare, special places.


Red Rock Crossing in Sedona is one of my favorite places on Earth. Our family found and loved it together this summer. Photo by Tim Van Devender

Back at home, I’ll take Kid 2 to his swimming lesson at Demont Family Swim School this afternoon because he needs to learn and we don’t live by a creek.  I’ll water my pots on the patio, talking to the brave blooms and nourishing us both.  Even with creative play and with letting some garden beds go during the summer, I use more water than if I didn’t love plants or my kids.  I’ll keep looking for water to enjoy and to also let seep back into the soil.

Palo Verde Moments

By Anna Van Devender

April 21, 2017

The graceful show now playing in our front yard

“Can we go water the Forgiving Tree?” asks a middle schooler. Her teacher casually answers “Yes,” and two girls head purposefully around the corner of the school building. Next, my eyes question the teacher, who’s supervising her students in the school garden where I recently started working.

The “Forgiving Tree,” I learn, is a young palo verde whose growth is slow due to not being on the irrigation system like its neighbors – yet steady due to the kids’ long-term care. It forgives them. It survives between irregular waterings. It keeps growing. It even produces gorgeous yellow flowers from its low, wispy branches. The Forgiving Tree, it seems, nurtures and rewards those who take time to notice it.

A stop at the gas station becomes pleasant when the parking lot is surrounded with palo verde trees.

Spring is a time for renewal and growth. Spring is also crazy busy. I find myself in need of some nurturing. And palo verde trees have assumed that role on multiple occasions.

When longer and more frequent car commutes wear me down, bright yellow corridors beckon me to perk up and continue to my destination. Magee is such a sight for sore eyes this month, and even long, hot Ina. Palo verdes help me be patient.

In a similar vein, palo verde trees are a model for taking turns. I had read that the various local species bloom in sequence. This prolongs the nectar source season for pollinators, and it serves the trees themselves by improving the chance of spreading pollen within a species. When I noticed our family’s Mexican palo verde was not yet producing flowers like other nearby plants, I remembered that it was a late bloomer last year too. Now, it has a turn! We as human beings have to take turns all the time. We stand in line at the grocery store, jostle for a drink at the water fountain, wait in an invisible cue to receive a payment, and wonder when our kids will reach developmental milestones. Palo verde trees show off a reassuring order.

Leave it to my 4-year-old to remind me to lighten up. He plays with palo verde flowers and got me to try playing too. While I was tuned into the grand show and deep lessons of the branches above and before me, my little one and his preschool friend started scooping up fallen flowers from the sand. Cute voices, small fingers, and the lovely little gesture of handing me the tiny petals were a respite from a long afternoon. I gently turned the flowers into “rain” scattered above his head. He smiled. I smiled, knowing that flowers can brighten both of our days.

“Look! Palo verde flowers blew all over the place!” was my preschooler’s happy discovery at our doorstep.


Outside Breakfast

By Anna Van Devender


We eat our breakfast outside. Every summer morning around 6:30 my two young boys and I schlep a simple meal to the backyard, pick a place to sit, and celebrate the company of birds, opening blooms, and warming-up cicadas. After eating, the boys zoom around on their bikes or invent games that naturally combine toy cars and the fish pond. I water the butterfly garden, marvel at my kids’ energy, and guide that energy as the need arises.

We live in Tucson, Arizona. For a good three months of the year, the heat is uncomfortable by 8:00, exhausting by 9:00, and dangerous without extra precautions by noon. In prior summers, I felt trapped and defeated by the time it took to start the day with a toddler and preschooler while the slim hours of enjoyable weather baked away. Gardening, breathing fresh air, and simply being present for the sun rising over the mountains are core desires of mine. Feeding the kids, getting them dressed and “ready for the day” are equal needs. The challenge became to allow for both time in nature and time for other needs.

Barefoot gardener

Bare feet are OK in the mottled shadows of early morning. Shoes can wait. A muffin can be savored along with conversations about the clouds. Brushing teeth can wait. PJ pants actually help keep off the mosquitoes. Getting dressed can wait. These are the allowances I made starting last summer and have instilled daily in Summer 2016. Time has passed too. My now 3- and 6-year-olds are not only more capable, but also have come to expect breakfast outside.

Deadlines aren’t out the window. We take our selves and our stuff inside and resume preparations for the rest of the day by 8:00 a.m.. My kids’ behavior and my peace of mind depend on certain routines that some parents may feel more free to ease up on. That outside hour or so first thing, though, has become an important part of the daily routine. It is sometimes the only time outside until we emerge again after supper.

The result? My 3-year-old voluntarily practices the words “dove”, “hawk”, and “woodpecker”. My 6-year-old and I briefly speak the same language while checking on his sunflowers. I get my precious fresh air fix. Then, I can better manage myself and my kids inside during the day. My attention is less split while taking care of them or doing my own work. I still take myself outside for the satisfaction of gardening projects later in the morning, but I allow the kids a choice of whether to join me. Because we all got a good dose of “Vitamin N”, a pressure has been lifted from the rest of the day’s activities.

Modified from an essay submitted to Children & Nature Network in June 2016.  Check out for lots more Vitamin N resources.

Second Hand Meets Second Nature

I bought the purple paint new. The durable thrift easel became a custom marketing material, combined with the table, fabric, tote, and planting materials I already owned. Thank you, The Canyons at Linda Vista Trail, for the meet-and-greet opportunity!

By Anna Van Devender

Through Nature to You, I teach lessons that help people enjoy the stuff of nature: soft soil, singing birds, tough plants, diverse insects. My plans do require some man-made materials: pots for planting, books for illustrating animals, pens for taking notes, bug houses for engaging kids. Imagine my delight at finding used pots in all sizes on the clearance table at Rillito Nursery! And what satisfaction to find the lizard book on my list at Bookman’s, right where I expected to find it. One of my first Nature to You students inquired about the variety of containers and manipulatives her son was enjoying for their water lesson – all were thrift store finds from a day I had spend supporting 4 different local non-profits.

All these for $7 + a good scrubbing? Yes, please! Better yet, they include several matching pairs good for setting up survival experiments.

Teaching about the desert environment is second nature to me. I confess, so is shopping. It took a while to realize my shopping habit conflicted with my sizable desire to live responsibly. My first change was to buy products not tested on animals – and some of those Junior High-era choices stick today. During a college internship, I learned the concept of local food, a kick I’m still on even if only part time. It wasn’t until planning my wedding and then preparing for my first baby that my love for second-hand shopping took hold. I wanted pretty things for the ceremony. I wanted a well-appointed nursery. I enjoyed the challenge of budgeting both money and material resources. Dream dress at a resale bridal shop? Check. Tiny star-patterned onesies, tough-to-this-day waterproof pads, and treasured toy boats from consignment shops? Check. Getting to shop and reducing reliance on new products and packaging? Double check.

Grab on! This former dog kennel panel now supports snap pea vines in my backyard garden.

When you pick your project at the end of a Nature to You lesson, you play a part in both re-use and re-sale. First, you get to pick whether to use your own stuff or use my supplies. What do you already have that can be re-used? Old pavers for a new path? An old box for a new garden bed? An old fence for a new trellis? Would you like to turn terra cotta pots into ollas, or take-out containers into seed starters?

Second, the materials I have on hand vary monthly depending on what’s growing in my own yard and on my latest re-sale finds. Say we add a pollinator-friendly plant to your own pot or to one I provide at no extra charge. The plant could be sweet allysum today or bluebells in a few weeks, and always something in season. I’ll see if Goodwill still has the colorful set of plastic pots I just spotted if I use up my earth-toned selection soon. Whatever the project, we’ll use what you already have or that which someone else has given a second chance. You get to learn about your backyard environment, improve your use and enjoyment of it, and channel your creativity through intentional re-use.

These pavers change path as my use of the backyard changes. I re-set them last year to lead to propagation pots and raised veggie beds.

A Grand Tree

 By Anna Van Devender

Grandpa with his coffee – the inviting shade of the tree was a natural place to relax.

We got to use loppers. Chomping the moist flesh of African Sumac shoots had a satisfaction all its own. Weighing choices of which branches need to go and which should grow – that felt big. The tree was big, its two main limbs easily holding 3 of us cousins. The rough bark steadied our hold as we shimmied, stepped, sat, or straddled. Wispy leaves shrouded us slightly from our families below. Leaves became dolls, crowns, brooms. An overabundance of leaves, of branches, of growth, impeded our climbs and crowded the house we called ours. So we pinched off the newest shoots, feeling sticky with fluorescent green tree juice and sure in our work. And Granny lent us her loppers, the prize tool, for the older growth. We were blissfully recruited into trimming her tree.

Were it not for the weedy nature of that African Sumac tree, I may not have grown to love tending my landscape. I love weeds for nudging me to pay attention, be diligent, get outside. I love weeds for not being tidy, for giving me satisfying work to do. As a young teenager, I played regularly in a giant weed. It fed my imagination, my connection with my cousins, my pride in literally reaching new heights.

In 9th grade biology, I picked African Sumac about which to write a report on a favorite plant. The source available to me may have been a book about Arizona plants, or about North American landscape trees. It did not, I discovered, include my favorite tree. I switched subjects to a houseplant I admired instead. In which book might I locate African Sumac now? Of all my own plant books, of natives and not, I only find brief mention of my former favorite in a Sunset guide. The on-line resources I now have at my fingertips would have both satisfied my research and surprised my naïve enjoyment: objective database listings and recommendations for this easily grown shade tree, as well as admonitions against this invasive non-native: a plant to not plant, a plant to contend with.

Granny showcased her flowers in the center of the yard. The tree played practical roles – shade, screen, and playspace – in the background.

Weeds come in all sizes and forms, as do children’s relationships with the outdoors. The hours upon months upon years I spent in my grandparents’ yard in central Phoenix, combined with the trusting relationships fostered there, helped me love stewardship of natural places. My own adult yard looks nothing like that green paradise – xeriscaped not irrigated, wildflowers not rose gardens. It’s a product of a different city, a different time, and different choices. But it has ample places for my kids to play and come up with their own favorite features. Some days they adopt brittlebush seedlings, and other days they beat back brittlebush armies with light sabers. And I enjoy pulling weeds within earshot of their imaginings.


By Anna Van Devender

A tray of cat grass is sprouting on my kitchen counter. These baby oats are 4 days old and 1 inch tall, just a little softer than a hedgehog. My cats will discover them any moment now and aptly devour the plants rather than admire their appearance. But my kids and I got to watch the tiny roots first, then the tiny, brave shoots, and within a day a miniature field. We got a little dose of awe.

I love the wonder of seeing things new again. I can grow the same thing in a new place and time – and catch my 4-year-old’s perspective of eyeballs at just the right height to imagine being IN that field of grass. The start of this new year finds me eagerly organizing my fledgling business. Recent new years’ past aligned with new jobs, new family commitments, or new classes to take. Every one of those beginnings led to this one. I take comfort in the pattern of new starts.

The winter sights outside I see through the new lens of writing Nature to You lessons. The leaves were fluttering down from the giant sycamores and cottonwoods along Swan last week. Who else noticed? Whose season might be brightened by the color and the change, Tucson-style? In our own backyard, each year I anticipate an expanded view of the Catalina Mountains when the neighbor’s desert willow and mesquites become bare. This year, I watched for birds in the branches. An ornithologist I am not, but I do wish to learn more about finches and sparrows in order to reveal them to new students.

Convincing my kids to leave the comfort of our house is a recurring challenge when it turns cold or hot outside. This winter, I am thankful for small successes: taking notice together of the sun’s sparkles just after breakfast (through the window); making time for taking trash out as a way to actually get out; and soaking up afternoon rays by playing in the front yard instead of the back.

Small things can make a big difference. It’s not a new idea. The newness is in continuing to find small ways to feel better, and in determining to make things happen no matter how small. What will you begin this year – or begin again?