Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Virginia Opossum: Virtual Field Trip

A Virginia opossum, commonly known as a possum. Photo credit: Paul Hurtado.

With its beady eyes, hand-like paws, and taste for trash, some people think opossums (commonly spelled “possum”) are giant rats. Maybe you’ve seen a possum lurking in your backyard at night and thought something similar. I thought raccoons and possums were the same animal for a while.

But possums aren’t rats or raccoons. They are a special type of mammal called a marsupial. And they are the only marsupial in all of North America! If that isn’t enough to make them special, possums also:

  • eat ticks. Ticks latch onto our skin to suck our blood, and can give us Lyme disease.
  • are highly resistant to rabies.
  • are immune to certain types of snake venom.

Pretty cool for such a common critter, huh? Want to learn more about the Virginia opossum? Here are some options for exploring our backyard buddy.

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, February 12th at 10:30 am on Zoom.

Experience what it’s like to be a possum mother by doing this activity.

Read about possum in the rest of this post, or skip ahead to a puppet video summary!

Virtual Field Trip, Feb. 12 at 10:30 am

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll be investigating Appalachia’s favorite backyard critter.

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

What’s a marsupial?

A marsupial is a category of mammals that carry their young in a pouch on the mother’s belly. It’s like having a built-in sweatshirt pocket on your tummy, made just for carrying your babies around.

The Virginia opossum is the only marsupial on this continent. Other continents have marsupials that look very different from a possum. Kangaroos

, wombats, and koalas are marsupials that live in Australia.

A young kangaroo peeking out of their mother’s pouch. Photo Credit: Tatters

Welcome, baby possums!

A female possum will give birth to up to 25 babies, but not all of them will survive. That’s because the babies aren’t ready to enter the world as possums right after they are born. When a mama possum gives birth, her babies are the size of honeybees! They need to grow bigger to survive.

These tiny babies have to crawl inside their mother’s pouch to one of her thirteen nipples. Twelve of them are arranged in a circle, with the thirteenth in the middle. If a baby possum doesn’t make it to one of the nipples, it won’t get enough food to grow big and strong. When a baby starts suckling on a nipple, the nipple will swell in its mouth. This pins the young possum in place until it grows large enough to let go!

Our friend and educator Sarah rescued some baby possums whose mother had died while they were still in her pouch. She shared this photo. It shows what a young possum looks like before it’s ready to leave the pouch.

A baby possum sleeping. Notice how much paws look like our hands? Photo Credit: Sarah Haney.

Think about how you came into this world. Did someone give birth to you and 20 siblings and hope that half of you survived? Possum mamas spread out care and resources between many offspring, knowing that only a handful will survive. Humans put all of our attention, care, and milk into usually one baby. Sometimes we have twins, or triplets, or even quadruplets! But we take care of smaller numbers of babies, working harder on each one. This makes our reproduction different from possums.

Life as a young possum

Once the baby possums grow big enough to let go of their mother’s nipples, they can crawl out of the pouch. Young possums still need their mother, but they’re ready to see the world. To do so safely, they climb up on their mother’s back and take a ride.

Young possums attached to their mother’s back. Photo Credit: Anne Davis.

Eventually, this litter of possums will get too big to cling to their mother for a free trip across town. When her back gets crowded and the young possums fall off, they will start their own lives as adult possums. It only takes ten months for possums to reach an age where they can have babies. Quick turn around time, huh?

Your turn: Pouch pretending!

If you want to know what it’s like to be North America’s only marsupial, this activity is for you. Only a few steps stand between you and being a possum:

  • Step 1: Put on a hoodie or shirt with a pocket on your stomach. If you don’t have one of these, make sure you have pants on with pockets.
  • Step 2: Find out how much you weighed when you were born. You can ask your grown-ups if they know what you weighed. (If you can’t find our how much you weighed, you can use 7.5 pounds, which is the average weight of babies born.)
  • Step 3: Multiply how much you weighed by 13. You can do this by hand for a math challenge, or use a calculator. A grown-up can also help you with this. Multiplying your weight by 13 will represent how much a mama possum would have to carry if she had babies your size.
  • Step 4: Now you have a number. This is how much weight you have to carry as a mama possum with 13 babies. Find items around the house to carry in your hoodie or pants pocket. How much do they weigh?

Can you carry the weight of 13 babies in your tummy pocket? I doubt it. But it’s fun to pretend we are possums, isn’t it? They must have strong bodies to carry that many little ones around.

Possum preferences

Possums are nocturnal critters, sleeping during the day and moving about at night (the opposite of most humans). They choose secluded, dark places to sleep.

Opossums are scavengers, like turkey vultures, so they’ll eat roadkill and other decomposing animals. They’ll also visit our houses to check out trash cans for treats. Last year, I found three possums in my trash can next to my porch at once!

A possum looking for goodies at night. Photo Credit: Urban Woodswalker.

Possums don’t only eat our trash and dead animals. They will also eat grass, nuts, and fruit, and they hunt insects, mice, snakes, and birds. Some people have reported possums eating their chickens.

When possums are awake, they like to spend most of their time high in the sky in trees. Possums are fantastic tree climbers. Their sharp claws dig into bark. And their tail can wrap around branches to hold them, like an extra arm or leg.

A possum making good use of its gripping tail. Photo Credit: California DFW.

But they also like to spend their time asleep in trees. Possums can nest in hollow parts of a tree. They can also sleep in dens in the ground made by other creatures. As long as it’s dark and safe, they’re home.

Possum defense

Have you ever heard the saying “playing possum?” If you haven’t, it means you’re pretending to be dead! Which is exactly what possums do when they’re really scared. The hope is that whatever is trying to hunt it will lose interest if it thinks the possum is already dead. The possum will flop in its side and stick out its tongue. They’ll stay this way for an hour or so.

In this video, a man and his dog come across a possum pretending to be dead:

Did you hear the man say the possum could get up and hiss at him? Well, it could! Hissing and showing off their sharp teeth is another way possums defend themselves from threats. They’ll hold their mouth open to hiss and snarl at predators. This is called alligator mouth.

Another way possums can deter predators is through drooling. Possums can drip spit and blow bubbles out their nose to appear sick and unappetizing. This past summer, I was asleep in my hammock under a cherry tree and woke up because liquid kept hitting my face. I turned on my headlamp to see a scared possum drooling all over me! The next day, I drew this.

How do you protect yourself when you’re scared? Hopefully you don’t drool on people!

Let’s review!

Watch this possum puppet show for a speedy review of all things opossum!

This was a lot of possum content! But if you’re hungry for more like a possum digging in trash cans for a snack, come to the virtual field trip this Friday, 2/12 at 10:30 AM.

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Sarah’s February Book Corner

With all this snowy weather, I love to curl up with a good book! Sarah the librarian has picked out some great books for us about:

  • possums,
  • turkey vultures,
  • and wild plants!

These books pair well with our recent or upcoming virtual field trips. They’re all available at Athens County Public Libraries, or check at your own local library.

Book Recommendations for Young Naturalists:

Children’s non-fiction:

Picture Books:

Field Guides:

You can also check out Sarah’s previous book corner about tracks!

Did you read any of these books? Leave a review or your own recommendations in the comments!

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Turkey Vultures: Virtual Field Trip

“Nature’s Clean-up Crew”

What do you think of when you hear the word “vulture”? Some people may think they are scary or gross. But vultures are unique and important creatures that play a critical role in the ecosystem: cleaning it up. Join us on this week’s virtual field trip to meet these magnificent animals!


Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, February 5 at 10:30. Featuring live vultures!

Listen to a Navajo story that includes a brave deed by vulture.

Learn to identify vultures. We have suggestions for where to find them, and all you ever wanted to know about their life and behavior!

Clean up litter. What better way to learn from nature’s clean-up crew than to help clean up?

Virtual Field Trip: Friday, February 5 at 10:30am

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll have a special guest: a real, live turkey vulture and her caretaker!

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

Can’t make it, or can’t wait? Read on to learn about vulture’s special way of recycling and incredible flying abilities. Hopefully you’ll gain a new appreciation for the amazing turkey vultures!

Hello, my name is…

Like most plants and animals, Turkey Vulture go by many names:

  • Scientists call them Cathartes aura, which is Latin for “cleansing breeze.”
  • In North America, some say “buzzards” or “turkey buzzards.”
  •  In the Caribbean, people say “John crow” or “carrion crow.”

Today I will simply call them turkey vultures.

Turkey Vulture Adult (Tropical) (with Southern Caracara)
Thompson Ian took this photo and submitted it to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The common name Turkey Vulture was formed because some think the birds look like wild turkeys. Take a look back at our “Turkey Talk post”, and let us know if you agree.

Vultures in Stories

Navajo actress and author Geri Keams narrates from her book “Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun”.

Listen to the Navajo story “Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun” in the video above. This is an old story of how darkness was turned to light and the animals that helped.

What is the buzzard character like in this story? Is the buzzard in this story different from how you’ve seen vultures in other stories or movies?

Picture by George Blankenhorn

My favorite part of the story is when Buzzard tries to catch a piece of the sun in his large crown of feathers, but ends up burning off all his feathers leaving him bald with a bright red head!

How to identify a turkey vulture

“Turkey Vultures are large, dark birds with long, broad wings. Bigger than other raptors except eagles and condors, they have long ‘fingers’ at their wingtips and long tails that extend past their toe tips in flight. When soaring, Turkey Vultures hold their wings slightly raised, making a ‘V’ when seen head-on.”

All About Birds
A turkey vulture has white feathers along the edges and tips of its wings. A similar bird, the black vulture, only has the white tips. Photo: George Blankenhorn

When you see turkey vulture from underneath, like in the picture above, the feathers on the tips and edges of its wings are white. This is a key clue that it is a turkey vulture, not another large bird.

Another key clue is the iconic red, bald head. Like the story Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun explains, turkey vultures have no feathers on their heads. This helps them to stay clean since they feed by thrusting their heads into the body cavities of rotting animals!

You might see another kind of vulture in our area: the black vulture. Like its name says, its bald head is black instead of red. Black cultures also have black feathers along the edge of their wings instead of white, with just a few white feathers at the tip.


A large part of identifying animals is learning where they spend most of their time, so you know where to look for them.

Part of what animals look for in habitat is a place to have babies. Turkey vultures don’t make nests for their eggs like other birds. Instead, they find a dark crevice to lay their eggs. Sometimes, they use other birds’ abandoned nests to lay their eggs in. Turkey vulture eggs and hatchlings have been found in rock piles, caves, and hallowed out tree stumps.

The video above was taken at a former abandoned root cellar at Wisteria in Meigs County. In this video you can see a white and fluffy baby turkey vulture!

Adult and juvenile turkey vultures can be found on roadsides, suburbs, farm fields, countryside. They also gather near food sources like landfills, trash heaps, and construction sites. One of my favorite places in Athens is The Ridges, because I can always count on seeing turkey vultures or black vultures there.

Take A Vulture Hike

To see these marvelous birds soaring through the sky, try visiting these places people report seeing them often:

  • Dairy Barn Lane near the Ridges in Athens
  • Highland Park, and the nearby hillside above Grosvenor St, in Athens
  • The hillside with the big white cross in Nelsonville (the cross is accessible by car or walking!)
  • The “Athens” sign by the Richland Ave round-about.

Try checking out these locations, or tell us about a spot where you regularly see them!

One reason people see vultures in these spots might be that there is a nearby vulture roost, or group resting place. Groups of cultures often rest on big, dead trees. That’s because these trees have the height and space vultures need to take off in flight! With their 6-foot wing span, turkey vultures need a wide, clear peak to allow them to open up and catch a thermal current.

We’ll talk more below about thermal currents and how turkey vultures use them to soar through the sky.

One man’s trash is another man’s… dinner?

In the picture below, you can see an adult (red head) and a juvenile (dark gray head) turkey vulture scoping out a dumpster.

Remember how I said in some parts of the Caribbean
, people call them carrion crows? Well, that’s because carrion is what they eat! Carrion is a word used to describe the rotting flesh of dead animals.

Turkey vultures often eat roadkill and other carrion. Photo: George Blankenhorn

Turkey vultures are scavengers. They cannot kill their own prey. Instead, they depend on their keen sense of smell to find animal carcasses. They actually have the largest olfactory (smelling) system of all birds. Its been reported that turkey cultures can smell carrion from over a mile away!

This excellent sense of smell not only helps them find their food. It also lets them know how long the animal has been dead

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, and if it’s good to eat.  

Structures and their functions

The structure of an animal’s body parts can tell us a lot about the function, or what they use that body part for. Think about your body’s structure: its parts and how they work. What does it allow you to do that other animals can’t, or what are you limited by?


One way to tell that turkey vultures can’t kill their own prey is by taking a look at their feet. Let’s compare their feet to birds that do kill their own prey.

Try finding the differences and similarities in the feet of a red-tailed hawk (left) and a turkey vulture (right). What do you notice?

Keep in mind that ted-tailed hawks, like most raptors, kill their prey using the strength of their talons. Turkey vultures use their feet to help them rip flesh off carcasses.


The beak of a bird can tell you a lot about what it eats!

Take a look at the pictures below of the hummingbird’s beak( left) and the turkey vulture’s beak(right). How are they the same or different?

Hummingbirds use their long, needle-like beaks to probe into a flower. This lets them to lap up nectar with their special tongues. Turkey vultures use their thick strong beaks to rip flesh off of dead animals.

Taking flight

Watch turkey vultures soaring in the air: they almost never flap their wings. This is because turkey vultures find thermal currents, or rising columns of warm air. They use their large wings to float on the warm air, lifting them high into the sky.

Though their wings are 6 feet across, the vultures only weigh 2-3 pounds. Floating this way, they can use very little energy while soaring through the sky. Aircraft pilots have reported seeing vultures as high as 20,000 feet and soaring for hours without ever flapping their wings!

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The picture above is of my friend and a dead Turkey Vulture found in Athens County. My friend was impressed by the bird’s large wings!

Turkey vultures are not the only birds that catch these thermal currents. Other birds look for turkey vultures to help them find the rising columns of air. I often look for them above highways, where the warmth of cars creates thermals.

Humans have also looked to vultures to learn how to fly! Check out paraglider Bianca Heinrich and others competing in the world paragliding championships in the video below. Parasails catch thermal currents, letting people fly the same way as turkey vultures!


Many turkey vultures use southeast Ohio as their summer breeding territory. Then they fly south for the winter months. During their migration, they can fly over 200 miles a day!

In early spring and late fall, you can find large groups of turkey vultures preparing to leave or return. These large groups of turkey vultures are called kettles, because they look like water boiling in a kettle as lots of them make wobbly circles in the sky.

File:Turkey Vultures Hovering.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Turkey vultures kettling.

Recently, fewer and fewer turkey cultures bother to leave in the fall. Turkey vultures are slowly becoming year-round residents in Appalachia Ohio. Changing climate may explain why these birds no longer need to leave for the winter. With warmer winters, the long migration to South America is less necessary.

Celebrating turkey vultures

This video celebrates the time of year when turkey vultures would typically gather together before their long migration. The beginning talks about celebrating turkey vultures because they are unique and important creatures that are critical to the ecosystem.

One way we can help our ecosystem and honor turkey cultures is by helping them clean up waste! Turkey vultures help clean up the roadsides in their own special way by eating roadkill and other dead animals. You can help in a special human way by picking up litter outside. Take a bag with you on your next walk and help clean up!

How will you celebrate turkey vultures this week?

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Turning tracks into stories: Virtual Field Trip

“Nature’s storybook is everywhere and always open…. such happy experiences based on interest truly enriches life.” – Adventures of a Nature Guide, by Enos Mills, 1920 .

The ecosystem is a web designed to hold all of us together, whether we are as small as an ant or as large as a black bear. Tracking gives us clues to understand more about the ecosystem that we are part of. How can you follow the clues of tracks to find the hidden story?

Join us on the virtual field trip this Friday January 29th at 10:30 to learn how to turn tracks into a story!

If you’ve registered for virtual field trips since the fall, your same registration link will continue to work.

Or, practice solving tracking clues with these activities:

Go on a tracking challenge. What clues do you when you visit wildlife habitat? What questions do you ask?

Read tracking stories. Our friends shared their stories of reading tracks. Use your own thinking skills as you read to see if you agree with them!

Two creatures’ tracks met here. How do you think they interacted? Photo: Joe Brehm, Rural Action.

Tracking is like being a detective and looking for clues of life! So much happens in nature when people are not around to see it. Tracking wildlife signs like footprints or scat gives us a look into the recent past.  

Mini Tracking Challenge: Explore a wildlife habitat

You might have heard the saying “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?” We may never know the answer to that age-old question. But we do know that our freshly fallen tree will provide a new home for several native Ohio species.

This week, Rural Action invites all young naturalists to look for tracks around an old fallen log. The best places to go tracking are good wildlife habitat, which means places where animals find food, shelter, or other needs.

If you don’t find an old log, what other wildlife habitat could you explore?

Once you have found your wildlife observation spot, time to look for signs of animal activity.

  1. Start a list of what signs of wildlife you have found. Here are some signs you might encounter:
    • Animal tracks
    • Animal fur or bones
    • Plants/mushrooms that are eaten or disturbed
    • Animal scat (scat is another word for animal waste/poop)
    • Disturbed ground or leaf litter
    • Marks on trees or logs
    • Wildlife sightings
    • Wildlife calls (Sometimes you might hear an animal but not see it)
  2. Make sure to note where you found the signs.
  3. Write down any questions you might have or curiosities.
  4. You might wonder what type of animal you are finding signs of. That is okay! Bring your questions to the virtual field trip this week and we will go over them. Or try some of the field guides below.

Need help identifying your finds? There are free field guides available from ODNR, or check out one of these books from the Athens County Public Libraries.

True stories of tracking!

Here are some personal stories from locals in Southeast Ohio about how tracking gave them a deeper understanding of our natural world! Turning your nature discoveries into stories can make your exploration deeper.

Note: These tracking stories mention animals that have died. Death is an essential part of our local ecosystem, and doesn’t have to be scary or gross. These animals provide new life for the ecosystem in more ways than one.
Bite marks on the raccoon’s skull made Sarah curious. Photo: Sarah Haney.

Sarah’s story: The skull

“While exploring a piece of land in Southeast Ohio I noticed an animal skull on the ground. As I approached the skull and examined it closer, I noticed tiny teeth marks near the base of the molars.

After research and measuring the skull, I determined that it was a raccoon. The tiny teeth marks, they were most likely from a mouse or other small mammal. The grooves left in the skull from the small mammal teeth show the many uses that each animal provides. That one raccoon provided a meal for coyote, and nutrients and minerals for small mammals.

This one single skull tells a story, evidence of multiple wildlife that live in the wood. This delicate story would not have shown itself if I had not looked at the signs around the forest floor. When I started following the well-traveled animal path, then I found the skull. Through this tracking experience I found beautiful evidence of life in Appalachia.”

– Sarah H, Millfield, Ohio.

Another view of the raccoon skull. The penny helps Sarah remember the size. Photo: Sarah Haney.

Joe Letches’s story: What did the fox drag?

About 15 years ago, I came upon a red fox trail in the snow that appeared to be dragging a leash. The only two scenarios I could come up with was that it was dragging a leash, or it was dragging a really big snake. A fox with a leash does not make sense, and a snake in the middle of winter also does not make sense.

I backtracked the fox for at least 2 miles and found that it had dug a big hole in the side of a bank, and that is where the drag mark started. At that point I suspected the fox had dug a big snake out of its hibernaculum. So, I got back on the trail and fore tracked.

Sure enough, I came up on a big black rat snake cached in the snow. I looked up and saw the red fox coming towards me, apparently coming back for its snake. As soon as it saw me, it did a literal backflip in the air and took off in the other direction. That was an interesting track!

 – Tracker Joe Letsche, Chillicothe Ohio

Photo description: Mountain lion scat photographed by Joe Brehm in Montana

Joe Brehm’s story: A Hunt

Hiking with a friend in Montana many years ago, we walked up a well-traveled path only a few miles from the nearby city. The ground was covered in snow, and the path was packed down because of all the hikers and cross-country skis from the past few days.

Only a few minutes into the hike, my friend noticed a “drag” in the snow–it looked like someone had taken a sled down a steep and forested hillside. We followed the drag mark to the right of the trail, through young douglas fir and ponderosa pine trees.

It led us to a set of mountain lion tracks, and we were able to see where the lion had waited and then ambushed a whitetail deer. The lion killed the deer instantly with a bite to the back of the neck and then dragged it back towards the path and across the well-traveled trail.

We followed the drag trail up the steep hillside–we had to climb on hands and knees–through thicker forest

, and came to the deer carcass. It had mountain lion tracks all around it, including the smaller tracks of baby mountain lions. It is likely the mother lion and her kits were watching us from a safe distance while we quickly examined the scene and then slid back down to the trail.

The reason I love tracking so much is that it helps you read stories like this in the snow, mud, sand, and dust that you would otherwise miss completely.”

–Tracker Joe Brehm, Millfield, Ohio.

Largest mountain lion track Joe has ever seen in Montana. Photo: Joe Brehm

What did you think about while reading the tracking stories? Do they remind you of any time you’ve been in nature? What is one animal you would like to find evidence of in the forest?

Just like the Joe Brehm said in his story

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, tracking is like reading a book. You can learn to look at the woods and read a story about life. Go outside, explore, be curious, follow the signs that you see. You will be amazed at the story’s nature will tell you.

See y’all on the virtual field trip!

Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

Nature Show and Tell: Virtual Field Trip

Our friend Zella showed us these signs of beaver activity. We love sharing our discoveries with each other!

Nature show-and-tell is back! We are calling on YOU to be part of this week’s virtual field trip!

Bring your nature objects, pictures or stories to the zoom call on Friday for show and tell. We will take turns sharing, kids and adults both!

Exploring nature is part of how our team stays healthy and happy. Learn some ways we use our outside time in this week’s “Nature and Self-Care” blog post.

Virtual Field Trip: Friday, January 22, 2020

Prepare for this week’s field trip by finding something to share! You could ‘show’:

  • something you found outside, like a plant, rock or mystery item
  • a picture of a natural object
  • a story about an experience you had outside
  • something about nature you’ve been learning a lot about lately

There are no wrong choices. We welcome any nature-related shares!

Join us at 10:30am on Friday, January 22.

If you’ve registered for virtual field trips in the past, your same registration link will continue to work.

Sarah found this morel mushroom last spring. It was a great day!

What will you ‘tell’ about your nature object for show and tell? You might share:

  • Where you found this nature object
  • Why this nature item is interesting to you
  • Something you’ve learned about the nature item recently
  • Questions you have about the nature item (the other people on the virtual field trips are really smart!)

If you don’t want to share anything, that’s okay too. You can listen to other people.

How Nature Helps Us Be Happy and Healthy

How do we discover most of our cool nature finds? Usually

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, we just stumble across them when we spend time outside!

Most of us here at Rural Action go outside almost every day to play, walk, or just sit and listen. It’s part of how we take care of ourselves. We each have our favorite way to relax outside. Read about some of ours in our latest post:

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Nature & Self-Care During a Pandemic

Do you ever notice a feeling of well-being after you do certain things? If so, these activities might be part of your “self-care.” Self-care might look like:

  • running and playing so your body feels healthy,
  • sleeping enough so you feel rested instead of grumpy,
  • or calling a friend when you feel lonely.

Self-care helps us manage stress. It’s especially important times like now, when we are out of our normal routines of going to school or work, seeing friends and family, and socializing.

So can nature time be a way to take care of ourselves? We think so!

According to Herb Broda, PhD and well-known professor and author at Ashland University,

“Going outside is vital to our health.”

A mounting body of research agrees that spending time outside is essential for everyone’s mental, physical, and social health—children and adults alike.

The Children and Nature Network shares research on how nature benefits children’s health. Here are a few of their findings.

For more research on how nature makes you smarter, stronger, happier and more productive, visit this National Park Service page.

How is nature a form of self-care for you?

Five of our environmental educators share how nature plays a role in their self-care routines. Then, they suggest some of their favorite parks and trails to visit. Read on!


Becoming more tree-like

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One of the most valuable characteristics of the natural world for me is that it is both consistent and surprising. For example, when I was in high school I would wander through a nearby forest to get away from everything else. I would sit with my back to a white oak tree high up on a bluff overlooking the river and think quietly. The trees and the river were always there for me, but they were also never the same.

Every visit to that place was a little different, but the feeling of being there was much the same. Some pleasant side effects for these walks included exercise, breathing fresh air, beginning a lifelong study of the natural world, and becoming a little bit more tree-like and river-like.


Using all five senses

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For me, taking a walk outside in nature, whether it is on the bike path or hiking in the great outdoors, is like hitting the reset button. I immediately feel an increased awareness and connectedness to the natural world and more present in my own body.

When I am walking, I try to pay attention to my five senses: sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch.

Sight: What can I see around me? What colors do I see? Are there plants, trees, or animals I can identify by sight? If you slow down long enough, you might even start to notice the smallest of creatures, like bugs!

Smell: Can I smell anything? On a recent hike in Sells Park I found a mushroom that smelled just like black licorice!

Taste: Are there any identifiable plants that I can safely taste? A couple of my favorites are sour grass, which I think tastes a lot like a sour candy, and spice bush.

Touch: Finally, what can I touch? I love any opportunity I get to feel something with my hands or feet. When it is safe and the opportunity presents itself, one of my favorite things to do is take my shoes off! Have you ever walked on a blanket of moss with your bare feet? It is incredibly soft!


Nature journaling

Short days and grey skies can get me down pretty easily. Staying inside on days that feel yucky out often makes me feel even worse! On these winter days when I am restless at home, I like to venture into nature with a notebook and pen in hand. I don’t always go far; sometimes I just walk to the end of my street to an open field by the Hocking River. Other days I trek into the woods. 

When I get to a spot with a good place to sit (against the trunk of a tree, on a rock or a stump, in the grass), I’ll open up my notebook, grab my pen, and settle in. 

I like to be a good observer of all the happenings of the natural world around me. If you focus closely, you’ll notice animals, insects, details and sounds you’ve never encountered before! I try to focus on nature by using four of my senses, one at a time. (Just like Mia described, though we’ll leave out taste for now to be safe. )

I start with closing my eyes while I sit still, paying extra attention to all that I can hear. I sit and listen for a minute. Then, I write in my notebook all that I heard in that minute:

Here is what I heard the other day at Sells Park.

I close my eyes again and move on to touch. What can I feel with my hands around me in one minute? Do I feel acorns? Sticks? Something soft that I can’t identify? Bugs moving? I open my eyes, and write down all I felt. 

Everything my hands felt when my eyes were closed.

I do the same with smell and sight. I save sight for last, because ordinarily, I use my eyes so much that I can forget my other senses. I want to make sure I don’t miss out on cool parts of our world that I normally don’t catch with my eyes. 

My nose caught these scents at Sells.
I saw a lot of things in one minute!

Observing nature closely feels like a game to me–how many new things can I discover each time I do this activity? I get giddy when I touch a new bug or hear a new bird call while sitting with my notebook. My notebook helps to keep track of all the amazing new things I have sensed!

But, I like to do one more thing before I put my notebook away: draw!

One day, I saw the caterpillar of a question mark butterfly, so I drew the butterfly!

I pick one thing surrounding me and try to draw it. My notebook is full of drawings of tree bark, what I think the birds I heard look like, boulders, particular plants, and bugs! I don’t worry about how “good” I think the drawing is. Drawing anything is a better visual than a blank page, so pick something and doodle away! 

I love to flip through my nature notebook and remember all the neat things I experienced despite the dark, cold winter days. I hope collecting your observations outside in a nature notebook will help you keep the winter blues at bay!


Running and playing with mud

Running through the woods is one way I like to play outside!

When I run through the forest I have to be very aware of where I’m stepping and what’s ahead of me. Running forces me to only think about what I’m doing at that moment, not worrying about the past or future.

Another reason I like to run through the woods

, or trail run as some people call it, is because it doesn’t require much. The only thing I need is a comfortable pair of shoes. I can go as fast and as far as I want and I can stop to take a break whenever I want! Trail running is a great way for me to clear my head and be present. As a bonus
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, I get to get covered in mud!

This is Madison in early spring after she tilled a plot for a garden. Muddy and happy!

Speaking of mud, whenever I have a chance to touch the earth, I feel happier and rejuvenated. And I’m not the only one. So many other people felt the same way that scientists decided to study why playing in the dirt makes us feel happy.

What they found was a living thing in dirt called Mycobacterium vaccae, a soil microbe. When we dig into the soil, we kick up these microbes and breath them in. They seep into our skin. Once we are exposed to the microbes, they work in our brains to make us happy and relaxed. When I garden is usually when I am happiest!

Mud Kitchen

Mud Kitchen is one of mine and my friends’ favorite activities. We were found some old pots, pans, buckets, and utensils to use outside. We make all sorts of recipes out of dirt, water, leaves, and whatever else we can find. I think one reason why Mud Kitchen is so fun is because there is no single way to play. We can use our imaginations to come up with endless ways to play. 


No weather is bad weather!

Sometimes, people think we have to stay inside when the weather is cold or wet. I used to think so too–after all, it’s hard to have fun when you’re uncomfortable.

But then…I got rain pants. With not only a rain coat, but also rain pants and rubber boots, I could run through a downpour and be perfectly dry!

Suddenly, going out in the rain was even more fun than going out in the sun. I could walk through anything! I was undefeatable!

Now I agree with a friend who told me, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

Tips for staying warm outside in winter:

  1. Wear several warm layers. Air gets trapped between layers to keep you warmer. So two layered shirts might be warmer than just one heavier shirt. My clothes have at least three layers:
    • Inside layer: Long underwear or ordinary shirts close to my body.
    • Middle warm layer: Something warm and puffy, like a sweater or fleece.
    • Outside protective layer: a heavy coat, rain jacket, or shell to keep out wind and rain, and add warmth.
  2. Don’t wear cotton next to your skin–wear wool or synthetic fabric instead. Cotton gets damp from your sweat, then actually makes you colder! But wool and synthetics stay warm even if you sweat. Wool socks can make boots more comfy.
  3. Wear mittens instead of gloves. Keeping your fingers together helps them warm each other up. If you are able to, replace those little knit cotton gloves with heavier mittens–as soon as cotton get wet, they stop working so well.
  4. Bring a thermos of a warm drink. Heat yourself up from the inside, and you can stay outside longer!
  5. Run and play! The best way to warm up is to MOVE! If you start to get cold, it’s time to start a game or hike somewhere new.
  6. If you’re still cold–where can you add more layers? Did you forget a scarf, or not wear any long underwear under your jeans? Do you have a coat but no snow pants over your legs?

For more ideas on enjoying Ohio’s parks in winter, visit:

Places to Explore…

Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills is one of the more famous parks nearby. But have you heard of some of the ones below?

Here are some of the Environmental Education team’s favorite places in Athens County to get into nature! If you have the chance, try visiting a new place.

Where is your favorite nature spot? Share your photos with us by leaving a comment!

Want more ideas for natural areas to visit? The Athens Conservancy has a great guide to outdoor areas. They also manage 11 nature preserves that are worth a visit.

Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

Foraging for Plants in Winter : Virtual Field Trip

Looking at plants at Burr Oak State Park.

Winter…everything has turned from green to brown, and seems quiet. But if you know how to look, you’ll see how plants are surviving the cold and darkness. And you can also gather plants to help you have food and warmth, even in winter!

On this week’s virtual field trip, we’ll show you how plants survive the winter–and how plants can help people through winter too!

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, January 15 at 10:30am on Zoom.

Gather information about plants by reading this post.

Play a matching game to practice identifying plants in winter vs summer.

Gather winter plants. We share four ways you can eat

, drink, or make fire from plants in this post.

Virtual Field Trip, Jan. 15 at 10:30am

Teasel is a prickly plant I see often in fields in winter.

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll be foraging in the winter woods.

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

How Plants Make it to Spring

Cold is a problem for plants. When water freezes into ice, it gets bigger. When water in plant cells freezes, it can burst apart the plants cells.

Photo: pmhudepo 

But cold is not the only danger! Winter means less water. If water is frozen, plants can’t get to it. So plants also have to survive without much water until spring.

There’s also less sunlight. So plants are getting less energy from the sun, even as they have to work harder to survive.

So how do plants survive the cold, little water and little sun? Two common strategies are making seeds and making fat roots. A few plants, like evergreens, have special leaves that can stay alive.


Some plants die in the fall, but not before making lots of seeds. The individual plants might not survive, but their children will grow when spring comes! These plants are called annuals, which means ‘yearly,’ because their life cycle lasts just one year.

This plant has died, but its fluffy seeds may go on to grow. Photo: Stevesworldofphotos.

Seeds can wait a long time before they sprout, waiting for a sign that it’s safe to grow: they might wait for sunlight, more water, or even a bird pecking them open before they start sprouting.

You can learn to identify plants even in winter, by the shape of their seed heads! Because seeds come from flowers, a plant’s summer flowers often have a similar shape as their seed heads. I love watching plants change through the season. It is fun and helps me find useful plants.

Practice matching winter and summer plants with this game:

Make fire with seed heads

Humans have strategies for surviving winter too. One is fire!

To start a fire, you need light, fluffy, dry material called tinder. People today might use cardboard or paper. That works well if you have matches. But what about before paper or matches existed?

Joe shows us how to start a friction fire on a virtual field trip.

 One way to start a fire without matches is using flint and steel to make a spark. These sparks only last a second, so they need to land on something that catches fire very easily. Another way is to make a friction fire with wood (see the video above). Friction fires make a small, delicate coal. Those coals also need very light tinder to catch fire and grow.

Goldenrod seed heads can be used to start fires. Dry them out first!

Fluffy winter seeds are good tinder for these fires! We like to use goldenrod, like in the picture above. They usually need to dry inside for a few days before they will catch a spark.

Your turn:

Collect some goldenrod seed heads and dry them out. Next time you build a fire, try using them as tinder. How do they work? How fast do they light?


Some plants live multiple years. They are called perennials, which means something that comes back over and over. One way to do that is to make a fat, sugary root!

Ginseng is a plant that can live 100 years by growing back from its roots each spring. Photo: Sam Droege

Underground is a safe place to be in winter. The freezing and frost on the surface only reaches a little ways underground. Leaves, mulch or snow can also protect the ground from getting too cold. Deep in the soil, it feels more like a refrigerator than a freezer.

Plants make food from the sun. In the fall, some perennials put the food in their roots, saving it for later. If you’ve ever eaten a potato or a carrot, you have benefited from this! Those tubers were the plants’ way of saving food for spring (or your belly).

When it’s safe to come out in spring, fresh stems and leaves will sprout from the root.

Make Fire Cider with Horseradish

Horseradish is one plant that makes a big root. Its root can be good medicine for fighting winter colds! Try making this spicy plant medicine. Next time your head feels stuffy, it will help clear it out. Try it as a salad dressing or in water.

Preparing the ingredients for fire cider. Photo: Multnomah County Library

Fire Cider Recipe:


  •  3 cups  apple cider vinegar
  •  1/2 cup grated horseradish or garlic mustard root 
  • 1/8 cup garlic

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    , chopped
  • 1/2 cup wild leeks, chopped (or chopped onions)
  • 1/2 cup of grated ginger
  •  1 tsp.  cayenne


Place all ingredients in a 4 cup mason jar and fill with apple cider vinegar leaving some space. Be sure all ingredients are mixed well. Cover.

Steep for 8 weeks in a dark, cool location.

Strain into clean jar. Then store in a dark location up to one year.

Our friends at United Plant Savers recorded this class if you’d like more detailed instructions:

Staying low

A few plants stay alive and green by keeping their leaves low to the ground. Cuddled up to the warmer earth, they might be sheltered by dead leaves. Less cold air reaches them. These plants often only live for two years or so.

Mullein can keep its leaves alive in winter by huddling down on the ground. It’s also called “lamb’s ear” because it is so soft and fuzzy. Photo: waldopics.

Gather chickweed for winter salads

This little plant grows in yards and gardens. Some people think it is a weed. I think it is delicious!

Chickweed is an annual, but sometimes you see it grows anyway. Its seed sprout quickly, and it is so low-lying that it can be protected by the cold by hills and leaves.

Try gathering chickweed to add to your salads. Here’s how to recognize it:

Leaves: pointed and oval shaped, opposite growth pattern (that means they grow directly across from each other)

Flowers: Chickweed flowers are very small, they have 5 double-lobed white petals. Double lobed means divided in two, so it might look like they have 10 petals 

Parts to eat: leaves, stems, and flowers are all edible and can be eaten raw. Try adding them to your next salad. 

Evergreen trees

Most plants stop doing anything in winter. They stop photosynthesizing, prepare their seeds or roots, and wait. But not evergreen trees!

It takes a lot of energy to make leaves and needles. Evergreen trees don’t want to waste that energy by dropping leaves. So they make special needle-shaped leaves that are protected from cold and dryness.

White pine is an evergreen tree in Ohio. You can make tea from its needles.

Needles are a better shape for holding onto water. Why? They have less surface area.

Think about hanging up a towel to dry. You want to hang it flat and spread out. More of a flat towel is exposed to the air, so it dries faster. But if you ball the towel up on the bathroom floor, it will stay wet for a long time! Less of its surface is exposed.

A typical leaf is like the flat towel. An evergreen needle is like the balled up towel.

Evergreen needles also have a special wax on them that keeps water from evaporating. It’s like covering food with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. If you’ve ever touched an evergreen needle, you’ve felt this wax! It’s why needles feel heavier than typical leaves.

Make Pine Needle Tea

Historically, plants and vegetables were the hardest food to find in winter. Humans ended up eating more meat (because there were still animals to hunt) or more grains (because you could store grain for a long time). But we need the nutrients in plants to be healthy. 

Sailors used to have this problem too, because there are no plants at sea. Without enough vitamin C from vegetables, they got a disease called scurvy that made their teeth fall out. They started bringing limes with them to stay healthy.

Teas are a great way to get plant nutrients in winter! The garden might be dead, and pine needles don’t make a great salad. But boil the pine needles in water, and you’ll get a tasty tea with plenty of vitamin C. You can add lemon and honey, too.

Here’s how to identify white pine:

Needles: come in bundles of five, 3-5 inches long, bluish green, with fine white lines also called stomatas. 
Cones: 3-6 inches long, thinning out near the tip, with cone scales without prickles and light tan to whitish in color on outer edge of the scales.

Your Turn

Try collecting some winter plants for warmth or food! In this post, we’ve showed you how to:

Choose one and try it! How did it go? Was it hard or easy to find the plant? How did it taste?

Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Lichens: Virtual Field Trip, Jan. 8

Our friend Emily found these “British Soldier” lichen on Christmas Eve. Photo: Emily Walter.

What is so tough that it can survive on bark, rocks, dirt, and even outer space? A little organism called lichen.

You might have seen it before: lichen is that flat, green or blue, flakey stuff on tree bark or rocks. Sometimes people think it’s moss, but it’s not. Actually, I wondered on my last walk, what exactly is this weird thing?

On this week’s virtual field trip, we’ll find out just what lichen is and what it does!


Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, January 8 at 10:30. We’ll find out what lichen is and how it can survive harsh places!

Learn what lichen is: Read and look at pictures of lichen.

Look for lichen outside: What kind can you find? Does it tell you anything about the ecosystem?

Virtual Field Trip, Jan. 8 at 10:30am

Some lichen is so small that it looks like little dots on rocks. Photo: National Park Service/Jesmira Bonoan.

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll look at what lichen is, how it survives crazy conditions, and how you can recognize it!

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

The same link works each Friday.

What is lichen?

If you’ve ever noticed something that…
… is grey, blue-ish, green or lime green;
… growing off a tree, a rock, cement or just on the ground;
…looks like flakes

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, dots, or dust;

…then you might have seen a lichen! Here are pictures of common lichens here in southeast Ohio:

A lot of people think lichen is moss. But moss is a completely different organism. Here’s a picture of moss. Can you tell the difference?

Moss is a plant, with roots, leaves and stems. But a lichen is not a plant at all!

Lichen is actually part algae and part fungus*. These two organisms join together and live like one! It’s a little like Frankenstein’s monster

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, except helpful instead of scary. When two organisms work together like this, it’s called symbiosis.

Lichen is made up of algae and fungus, living together like one organism.

What is the algae’s job in the lichen? The algae makes its own food from the sun (also known as photosynthesis). The algae shares this food with its partner fungus.

The fungus’ job is making the lichen’s structure. Like a house, it gives the algae a safe place to live.

Do you think lichens are producers, decomposers, or consumers in the food web? Why?

Lichens do not have stems, roots, or leaves to move water, air and food around. Instead, lichens use all the cells in their body to breathe, eat and drink. They breathe in EVERYTHING that surrounds them. This makes them very sensitive to the air around them, like Goldilocks. Certain lichens can only grow in very clean, very filtered air, while others can handle harsher conditions. 

Because they are so sensitive, scientists use lichens as bio-indicators–a living thing that shows how healthy their environment is. The number, health and kinds of lichen we find give us clues about how healthy the whole ecosystem is.

In North America, 3,600 species of lichen have been discovered so far! More are being discovered every day.

Using what you know about lichens so far, why do you think they are so important to an ecosystem? 

*It’s also part yeast, and maybe a few other things. We are still learning what is in lichen!

Masters of Survival

Lichens need a lot of water. They are typically found near water, or north in areas that get a lot of fog. When lichens are wet, they photosynthesize and grow. When dry, they stop doing everything: no making food, no growing. This helps them save as much water as possible. 

This dry lichen can spring back to life if it gets a bit of water. Photo: sirwiseowl

So when you spot a lichen outside, ask yourself: is it dry and brittle, or wet and spongy? The answer will tell you about how wet that place is. It might reflect recent weather. And it will tell you whether the lichen is active, or dormant! 

Because they can turn themselves on and off, lichens are known as one of the toughest, hardiest organisms found in nature. They can live in extreme conditions: everywhere from the freezing arctic tundra to the blazing hot desert. In the arctic, lichens are the main producer feeding animals, because it’s so difficult for plants to survive there. This is because they can dry out when there isn’t water, and wait for water to return. Astronauts even put a dry lichen in outer space for two weeks, and it returned just fine!

Lichen grows places that plants can’t. Once lichen is established, plants might grow on the spot it prepared. Photo: National Park Service

Because lichens don’t need roots to get nutrients, they can live on many more surfaces: you see them on rocks, concrete, dirt, and tree bark. In places that are very hard to grow–like rocks or places where volcanoes exploded–lichens might be the first organism to grow there. They prepare the ground before plants can grow. They have two parts that keep them attached to their surface. The first, rhizines, look like little twisty roots. The second, holdfasts, are often compared to an umbilical cord. They are just one thick structure that holds the entire lichen to its spot. 

Lichens have a weak spot: they need very clean air to be healthy. Since they breathe in EVERYTHING in the air around them, you might not find them in polluted areas, like cities or near factories or power plants. 

How do lichens help the ecosystem?

Many animals eat lichen. They can also use lichen as camouflage. Small birds, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, use them to build tiny nests that are hidden from predators. Gray tree frogs blend right in with them as well. The tree frogs will sit right on the lichen on the tree! 

Humans use some lichens for dyes, medicine, and as a preservative. We are even able to eat certain types! Do you have a pool at your house? The small strips you use to test the pH of your water, litmus strips, are lined with the color-changing chemicals found in lichens.

Some animals that use lichens in our neck of the woods: 

  • Lacewing insect larvae (to live in)
  • Northern Parula, ruby-throated hummingbird, and blue-gray gnatcatcher (for nests)
  • Nuthatches and brown creepers (for food) 
  • Gray tree frogs (for camouflage)
  • Flying squirrels (for food and nests)

Identifying lichen

There are three groups of lichen: Foliose, Fruticose, and Crustose. I can’t always identify what exact kind of lichen I’m looking at, but I can usually identify its group!


A foliose lichen.

Foliose lichen have 2 sides, like leaves on a tree. There is a top and bottom. They can be flat, leafy, or full of ridges and bumps. 


Fruticose lichen have more fruit-like shapes, rather than being flat like a leaf. They can go straight up and down, look almost hair-like and shrubby, or look like “cups.” 


A crustose lichen. Photo: National Park Service

Crustose are like their name: they look crusty

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, and are often on rocks. They are flat and often have bright colors. 

With this information, what do you think is the most common kind of lichen in Ohio?

Your turn: Look for lichens

Now that you are an expert in the functioning of a lichen, go outside to try and find some!

  1. Look on trees, rocks, and other flat surfaces.
  2. Once you’ve spotted your lichen, try to figure out which of the three categories it belongs in: fruticose, crustose, or foliose. s it bright and colorful and flat? Or does it have bumps and ridges? What was it growing on?
  3.  If you can’t find any–why do you think that is? If you find a bunch, what does that say about that environment?

After you’ve thought about these questions, share what you found in the comments! We’ll help you identify them!

Distance Learning

Less Waste at the Holidays

Reusing paper bags as wrapping paper is one alternative to buying new gift wrap.

What we throw away is important to consider at all points of the year. It becomes a little more relevant at winter holiday time

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, though.

Some people celebrate December holidays with gift-giving and big meals. We love food and gifts, but sometimes they make a lot of trash. To celebrate without trash, we can try to use what we already have.

If we do make trash, where does it go? To find out, read about my trip to the landfill. It really motivated me to make less waste!

Here are some suggestions for celebrating a zero-waste winter holiday!


A friend made Darcy this tree ornament by hand. She loves it!
  1. Make presents for your people with materials you have at home: this can be hand sewing scraps of fabric to make a handkerchief, baking some yummy treats, or drawing or painting a present! Handmade presents are affordable, meaningful, and not wasteful!
    Here are some ideas.
  2. Wrap presents in recycled materials: I like to wrap presents for my loved ones in paper bags from the store. You can also buy wrapping paper at the store that is made from 100% recycled paper, but try to use paper you have on hand first if you can.
  3. Carefully unwrap presents without tearing the paper so you can reuse the wrapping next year!
  4. Give people items you already have that are meaningful to you: Give your friends a book you loved to read, a sweater you’ve cherished, anything you don’t have to go out and buy!

Holiday food:

What are some ways you can cut down on food waste? Image: pch.vector –
  1. Your holiday gatherings might be smaller this year because of the pandemic. Think ahead about how much food you want to make. Scale your meal down from what you normally make if there are fewer people this year. That way, there will be less leftover food that could go bad sitting in the refrigerator.
  2. Package up whatever food isn’t eaten on the holiday in reusable containers and put it in the fridge for later. You can eat those tasty leftovers for a while without having to cook more food. If you don’t think you can eat the leftovers in a few days, you can put food in the freezer to save for later. If your holiday meal does go bad, try composting it instead of throwing it in the trash.

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Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

A Look at Landfills

Looking down on the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center.

In October, Sophie (another educator with Rural Action) and I went on a “World of Waste Tour” across southeast Ohio. We saw where our waste goes after leaving our bins: a landfill, recycling center, and compost facility. The landfill made a big impression!

Where our waste goes is often a mystery to the average person. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” really applies to what we throw away! Learning about how our waste is handled and how much waste we create helps us reduce our environmental impact.

In this blog post, we share what we learned about landfills: what they are, how they work, and what a landfill looks like here in southeast Ohio. 

What is a landfill?

A landfill is a place where we put solid waste. If we can’t turn it something new through recycling or composting, it goes to the landfill. When we throw something in the trash can, it goes to the landfill. It will never be seen or used again. (So think about if something has more uses before you put it in the trash can!)

Today, landfills keep trash separate from the environment around it. However, landfills didn’t always have environmental safeguards in place. Landfills used to just be big holes in the ground full of trash, called open dumps. No one watched out for how that trash might affect water or air.

Certain types of waste are more harmful to the earth and its people than others. Waste that is considered dangerous to human and environmental health is known as hazardous waste. Plenty of hazardous waste ended up in old school landfills.

An open dump. Photo credit: Julian Belli

An old landfill near Nelsonville on 691 used to take hazardous waste. It was not well managed for our protection. The 691 Landfill was open from 1969 to 1984. It covered 30 acres and mainly took trash from households, but a lot of hazardous waste found its way in. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeled the area a Superfund Site because of all the dangerous waste in it. This fancy name just means the area needed cleaned up as soon as possible.

The EPA and its partners cleaned up the 691 Landfill from 1995-1998. Now, the hazardous waste inside shouldn’t harm us or the natural world. The 691 Landfill looks like this now, with dirt and grass on top of the trash.

The 691 Landfill outside of Nelsonville today.

Modern landfills

The 691 landfill, like most landfills of the mid-20th century, didn’t have infrastructure in place to lessen the environmental impact of trash rotting in the ground. Today, our waste goes to sanitary landfills. 

Sanitary landfills are sites where waste is isolated, or kept separate, from the environment. Professionals in fields like geology, engineering, and environmental science run sanitary landfills. The site supervisor at the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center, the place our trash goes in southeast Ohio, has a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s degree in geological engineering. You have to really know your stuff to have a job like this! Supervisors are in charge of making sure their landfills are following federal regulations. The EPA sets these intensive regulations to protect the environment around landfills.

Landfill regulation

According to the EPA, landfills have to be located away from fault lines (cracks in the earth), wetlands, and floodplains.

Paying attention to fault lines when choosing a spot for a landfill will keep us from stirring up trouble with the rock layers that make up the earth when digging out the landfill.

We choose locations away from wet areas to ensure leachate stays far away from our drinking water. Leachate is the liquid trash goop that leaks out of a landfill. Does your trash bag drip when you take it to the curb? Leachate is that same liquid, but on a larger, more toxic scale.

The location of some landfills has sparked controversy, however. Robert Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice, did a study on the location of landfills in Texas. He noted that every landfill in the state is located in mostly black and brown, lower-middle income neighborhoods. Black and brown folks make up only 25% of the population of Texas, but 100% of landfill’s neighbors. Geology and hydrology are major players in the siting of landfills, but there might be political reasons a landfill is where it is. 

Regulations now say a landfill needs a geo-membrane to hold that leachate. This is often a two foot (or more) layer of clay on the edges of the landfill. Geo-membranes typically have a plastic liner outside the clay. Geo-membranes and plastic liners keep liquid and chemicals from leaking into the soil and groundwater. Complex leachate collection systems catch and direct leachate away from groundwater. One acre of a leachate collection system costs $250,000!

Watch this video about the layers of a landfill and how it protects the area around it.

How a modern landfill keeps the environment safe. Video Credit: Waterpedia

Another system in place to ensure the environmental safety of landfills is groundwater monitoring. Underneath the soil, there are holey rocks that hold water in the ground. This is called groundwater. The groundwater around landfills is tested often to see if the water is safe for humans and wildlife.

There are several daily practices used to control the yucky smell, keep trash from flying away, and keep insects and rats out. Every time a truck dumps trash in the landfill, this trash is rolled over multiple times with a compactor. A compactor weighs about 50 tons (that’s 100,000 pounds!) and has giant spiky wheels to grind up the waste. Dirt is placed on top of the trash after it is ground up and compacted to keep water out. 

A 50 ton machine grinds up our trash.

Saying goodbye to a landfill

When a landfill is as full of trash as it can legally be, it needs to be safely closed. A two foot layer of clay and a six inch layer of topsoil to grow native grasses are placed on top of all the trash to close the landfill.

A cross section of a safely closed landfill. Photo credit: EPA

Landfills need to make enough money to pay someone to monitor the landfill for at least 30 years after it stops taking trash! This person will look closely at the effectiveness of the liners and leachate collection systems over time. Is the landfill holding all the leachate? Is the environment around the landfill is contaminated? Continuous monitoring lets us know what methods we use work well and which ones need adjusting. Through ongoing observation of landfills
, we can create sites that are more environmentally friendly in the future. 

Our local landfill

My view at the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center.

The Athens Hocking Reclamation Center in Nelsonville is the final destination for trash we put to the curb or in a dumpster. This landfill opened in 1983. Now that the EPA regulates landfills, the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center has to get a permit for the disposal of solid waste, their impact on water and air quality, and for the disposal of leachate that seeps from the landfill. If they aren’t doing enough to protect the air and water, these permits can be taken back and the landfill will be illegal to operate.

This landfill has 3 feet of clay beneath it, as well as a 60 millimeter polyethylene liner (the plastic liner made just for landfills). The clay and plastic together should stop trash from leaking into the soil below and contaminating it. This landfill does not have a collection system for the methane gas that is created by decomposing trash. The landfill releases methane into the air, but methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Landfills can have local impacts on air and water quality, but they also add to global climate change if the methane is not collected.

Our local landfill is 550 acres large. It’s estimated that this landfill has 50 years of trash disposal left in it. Then it will be full. According to the environmental director of the landfill, there are 11,000,000 yards of capacity left. Each day, the landfill sees about 50 to 75 trucks of household waste. Add all of those trucks up, and the landfill receives 70,000 tons of household waste a year. That’s on top of the waste they take from industry!

The trash that comes in on trucks each day is unloaded onto the daily face. This is the section of the landfill that they chose to put trash on that day. A worker runs over the daily face with a compactor at least 6 times to push the trash down as much as possible. At the end of the day, workers cover the new trash with six inches of dirt to prevent water from leaking into the trash and to keep the flies and rats down. You saw the compactor running over trash at our landfill earlier!

The daily face the day I was at the landfill.

It was sad to see so many usable items be smashed by a giant compactor. We saw plastic chairs, a dollhouse, a basketball, and many other items that looked like they were in good shape be run over and buried. Eugene and I even found a frisbee to play with! 

While landfills are designed to be the safest method for disposing of things that truly are trash, I don’t think most of the things I saw in the landfill deserved to be there. These items could have lived many more lives. Instead
, they are now buried in a mound of dirt in an area that was once a stunningly pretty valley.

What can we do?

If you read this blog post and thought “Gee, landfills don’t sound all that great,” and would like to learn more about keeping your waste out of landfills, check out our previous blog posts about waste.

Seeing a landfill and feeling all the trash shake under my feet when a machine drove by was an upsetting experience, but it has opened my eyes to just how much unnecessary trash we make in this world.