Category Archives: Living Nature to You Lessons

Win Some, Lose Some

By Anna Van Devender

November 16, 2017

Mama and baby doves, to whom the tree was home back in May.

The palo verde tree that planted itself, helped shape our front yard and shade our house, and  beautifully flowered each spring, has to come down.  We might have been able to save it if only a few branches were damaged, an arborist gently told me last week.  The wood borers and palo verde beetles are too systemic, and the stress from heat and drought too great, to help the tree now.  This was sobering news.

By letting nature take its course, we will lose a large tree.  By that same gamble, we regularly win many surprising additions to our home landscape.  Watermelon, for instance!  The vine had stealthily started growing this summer out of the gravel under pots I intentionally tend.  A minor mystery, a thing to step over and not dare hope it might make fruit.  And then, it did!

The watermelon fruit that surprised us, with my 4-year-old’s hand for scale.

I spotted the green striped, oblong melon on Saturday while cleaning toys and turning back toward the house.  A new perspective.  My boys and I squealed with delight.  “Dad, come see our watermelon!” shouted my 7-year-old as he ran into the house.  Out came my husband, appropriately amazed.  The watermelon’s stubborn existence, and my family gathered together in joy, tied for great news.

The first firewheel bloom, in June.

A more typical win, that still makes me smile, is finding which species in a seed mix survives.  Which desert flower will take to a pot of good soil, encouraging words, and, er… sporadic watering?  Firewheels is the latest answer!  This beauty has bloomed perpetually since this summer, more so since the temperatures dropped. “Lean on Me” pops into my head as I praise the plant: it flopped over months ago, lived on by several close calls, and now thrives propped up in the adjacent pot of basil.  Plants prop me up.  I can accept garden losses in light of bright wins.

Firewheel seeds and blooms, going strong in November.

It’s a bit harder with people.  My son and I both get stumped by tantrums that overshadow all the right behaviors of a day.  Sore memories of my classroom teaching efforts return more easily than the positive evaluation and photos of eager 6th graders that recently resurfaced.  Even though wins and losses of a day or a career are not on the scale of life and death, in the moment the pressure feels greater.

Button jars as of this morning.

The stars and buttons I give my kids for cooperation are for my sake as well as theirs, a visual reminder that sometimes we get things right and might be getting life figured out.  And sometimes I remember to write down small wins:

  • Listening wonderingly with my 7-year-old at the owl “who-whooo-who-who!”ing from just outside the kitchen window, pre-dawn. My son responding with a spot-on call he’d been practicing.  Waiting, then hearing not only the owl reply but possibly the overlapping hoot of a pair.  A win for my son, who had been asking to go owl calling since reading Owl Moon at Butterfield  Elementary School.  A treasure for me that we shared the moment before rougher edges of the day took shape.
  • My worry dropping away when I picked up my gobbling, prancing,
    “Turkey Race” by Zachary, age 4

    jabbering-goofily-about-all-the-colors-of-his-tail-feathers, 4-year-old from daycare. I had been late and harried, while he was on a turkey-inspired high.  I am thankful for his playfulness and for the “free range” granted by his teacher at St. Mark’s Early Childhood Center by letting him outside.

What went right today?  What went wrong?  If you’ve killed some plants, have there been some survivors too?  If you’ve worried about your kids, have they also shown you they’re OK?  Have you swapped stories with someone, to find out we all lose sometimes?  If you don’t mind trying anyway, the discoveries might make you smile.

My happy place: in the garden. Photo by Tim Van Devender in September.

Photos by Anna Van Devender unless otherwise noted.


Shadows stretch long on our early morning walk to school, a new normal for my 4-year-old, my 7-year-old, and me.

The coyote was an especially good sign.  I know, coyotes can be tricky.  But this one was exactly where it should be.  It was we – my two boys and me – who spotted the shy creature in the wash a block ahead.  It was we who made the intent to notice the life in our neighborhood at 7:20 in the morning.  We – my husband, our two boys, and me – are one of many families trying to balance life, school, and work.  Walking to Kid 1’s school is a change this year.  It is a change paying off in wildlife sightings, lower morning stress, interactions with human neighbors, and the small wonder of holding our kids’ hands.  It is a change towards balance.

Dog, rabbit, and javalina tracks made a strong showing thanks to rain the day before.

Walking helps balance the sedentary parts of the day: Kid 1 and my husband sitting at their respective desks, myself and Kid 2 sitting in the car for later commutes.  It is one reason we recently changed from a nearby charter to our nearer neighborhood school.  Other reasons included other means of balancing: a more comprehensive curriculum, a schedule helpful for me in the morning and for my husband in the afternoon, and hoping to meet both future and present needs of our kids in one place.  But ah, I love our morning walks.  A month ago the coyote ahead, tracks in the sand, and a hawk above.  Last week a gopher snake, spider webs, and a Sedona-esque rock that “looks like a mountain” to Kid 2.  Each day brings new motivation to walk for a mere 15 minutes.  15 minutes we weren’t walking before.

On a recent weekend, a collard lizard and I mused about another kind of balance, that of the human-built and wild environments of my home.  I was removing a bush that sheltered the lizard’s hole, to accommodate a termite treatment of my house.  The thing is, the lizard stayed near me the whole time, darting in and out of the remaining branches and boulders.  Keeping an eye on me?  Maybe.  Snatching up an insect brunch as ants and leafhoppers fell to the ground?  Definitely.  Am I discouraging one form of bug control in favor of another?  With some care, I hope not.  As I teach in my Bugs and my Bigger Critters classes, we can respond to urban animals creatively after we know them better.  I ended up leaving a little bit of the bush – which also serves as shade to the house’ south face should it grow back.  And I requested the nontoxic-to-pets-and-gardens treatment from the pest control company for the sake of the corn growing a few feet away.  How did I know to ask about option B?  From chatting with one of the neighbors I’m getting to know from walking my son to school.

Another predator – praying mantis – startled me from the brittlebush’s inner branches.

Sometimes balance means taking turns – walking, then sitting.  Sometimes it means making a compromise – the lizard and I each making adjustments.  Some areas of life are still pretty unbalanced.  When I err on the side of sleeping and gardening, for example, dirty dishes pile up precariously.  I get to them eventually, so maybe balance can mean teetering for a while first.

As I write this, a monsoon storm is whipping up overhead to balance out an especially hot morning.  The lizard across the yard still guards its domain.  A month into the school year, walking is still working wonders in our busy mornings.  What can you do to balance parts of your day or your environment?

Kid 1 testing out the walk to his new school.

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.


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.


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?