Problem with air

(caution: this post contains swearwords. Why? Because that´s how strongly I feel about this issue.)
Recently someone criticized me for being too negative about the air quality in Belgium.
Their argument was that, the bad air quality is not only the fault of those living in this country and if you concentrate on the negative, people feel discouraged and don´t want to do anything. Instead, you should lead with the positive….
That can all be true.
The positive is that a lot of improvement has happened. Even these images below show that a lot has improved between 2005-2016 and that governments can do a lot to protect their people.
But, the way I see it, is not being being negative about air quality but it´s me being negative about air pollution in Belgium.
Because the fact is that that cloud of shit, that black, cancer-like blob of air pollution that sits on top of Belgium, is STILL there! And this is the reality and will be so, during my life time. Unless something MAJOR happens.  What´s worse is that this cloud of filth will also risk the health of my kids. They, however, might see a big improvement towards their old age. If something MAJOR happens. Luckily they still have time.
I think that shocking facts can help to wake people up. Depends on the personality and whether or not they feel like they can do something about it. At least, this worked for me back in the day. For an entrance exam, I had to read the State of the World report to be accepted at  TPU. What I read blew my mind. Holy crap! But instead of feeling discouraged, I felt fired up because I was getting a degree in how to be the change that will help to NOT wreck the planet.
So the depressing facts can work if  accompanied with information about things you can do. And there´s all kinds of information out there on how an individual can do their part in fighting the environmental disasters – any one of them really, there´s plenty to choose from.
But I think we can all agree that the days of hiding our heads in the bush and make-believing it´s all okay, are gone.
The air is dangerously shitty in Belgium, and although it is not Beijing, like many Belgians comment to me when I mention it (and it drives me nuts, godverdomme) – it´s still disgusting air we breathe in. Just this morning when I stepped outside our door, I could TASTE the exhaust fumes in my mouth, just standing on our yard!
We  urgently need to do something about it, individually and as a movement. Why are all those filthy trucks passing by here? Why are there so many multinational factories polluting the air we breathe? Why does everyone need their own car or company car to drive in as the only passenger day in, day out?
My son carpools to school somewhat further, so instead of needing three cars for three families´ children, we only need one per day. We accompany our daughter to the nearby school and back by bike because it is faster than sitting in the car.  So, we try to do our part.
But on a morning like this, I think to myself: are all of us parents who bike our kids through that cloud of shit and in our idealism harm their health in the process, just insane? Why should we make the sacrifice if others won´t? What makes our kids any less worthy of protecting their health? What keeps us from hopping in the car and pretending it´s all okay while we  we just contribute to the problem?

Winter post #3: Favorite things

Though I miss the snowy landscapes of Finland, these are a few of my favorite things about the Belgian winter.

  1. The crusty frozen leafs that crackle under my shoes.

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2. The running streams that are transporting the melting snow water but still rocking some nice ice sculptures.talvi5

3. The naked tops of the trees and quieter forest though the omnipresent red robins can always be heard, and the woodpeckers who are playing sounds on the trees high up on the trees as they are looking for any snacks under the bark or just showing  anyone who might be wondering, that it is their territory.

4.  I also like the tiny little puddles with some fiercely strong ice that seems to be yelling, also at the adults, to come give a try at their strength and hardness.

 

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5. Call me an antisocial Finn but one of my most favorite things is the fact that I can have the forest all to myself more often. There are much less people in the forest in the winter. Your loss, not mine.

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Winter post #2: Big splash in the bucket

This weekend we, 3 friends of mine and myself, treated ourselves to a weekend at the sea. Though I´m not a big fan of the Belgian coast with its fully built shoreline but rather prefer the Dutch coastline and its many dunes, we couldn’t and wouldn’t turn down a chance to overnight at an ocean front apartment.

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Oostende was recuperating from a northwestern storm called Dieter that made some big waves and caused the gusts of wind to be mighty powerful. These gusts also brought ashore a bunch of seabirds that would normally not make their way to the coast. One type of seabird, on the other hand, made its business to get to know us much more intimately.

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We were walking down the shoreline, slowly making our way to the city for some fresh fish, when we suddenly crossed paths with a bird. This bird immediately headed towards us, directly to the feet of my friend, making a noise and not looking very happy at all. We had the impression it had hurt itself – why else would it so fearlessly approach humans. And fearless it was, and very determined to be making contact with one of my friends. I thought of the shelter for injured birds close to where I live and how there would have to be something similar in a city as big as Oostende. I quickly found the number and called them and as luck would have it, they answered and sent someone to pick up the bird immediately!

As I grabbed my phone,  my friend grabbed the bird who almost immediately stopped the weak attempts to peck at my friend´s glove covered hands and settled down in the warm woolen mittens. We could´t figure out the type of bird that this was, though we agreed it looked a bit like a penguin. Suddenly one of my friends remembered the name of the bird her 6-year-old son, who happens to be into birds, had taught her. This bird could be a razorbill (ruokki in Finnish, alk in Dutch).

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After the bird was rescued by one of the volunteers from the Middelkerke Vogelaziel, we continued our weekend of good food and wine, long conversations, belly laughter, no tears (this time, how odd) and lots of walks in the sea breeze.

The next day we were back in action. As we walked along the shore, we started noticing more and more crap that had washed ashore. It was incredible: everything from pieces of fish nets, ropes (heavy-duty and just normal-duty), lots and lots of plastic bottle caps and plastic bottles, and pieces of torn balloons.. Everywhere we looked, there was crap to be picked up. We finally picked up the old plastic baskets that once probably belonged to some fishermen who had lost their fishing baskets as they were blown off from the deck to the sea and landed back on the shore. They worked out well as our trash carriers. We must have emptied those things to the trash cans on the boardwalk  4-5 times on our trip, which took about an hour.

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Cleaning up the shore or the forest is something I am in the habit of doing. I don´t go to the forest or the seaside with the intention of cleaning up, but I cannot help but pick up the crap that I come across.

Though not all of my friends were into this immediately because following the we-are-only-drop-in-the-ocean-philosophy, they didn’t see the point of starting on this never ending task. In the end,  however we were all squatting on the beach picking up the trash.

This kind of catch could make one depressed, but to me it works just the opposite. It gives me a rush of hope, of competence and a feeling that I can do something. I can help out, by making sure my crap doesn’t end up in the ocean, educating my children to protect the ocean and keep on picking up the crap that I come across and to lead by example.

Similarly, us attempting to save that birdie, was a reminder that indeed, small drops can together make a big splash in the bucket.  This birdie was not supposed to be where it was,  but nevertheless ended up on the Belgian coast being cuddled by a Finnish woman, with three other Finnish women fussing over it. She (or he) certainly made an impression on us – it was a lovely contact we had with nature, and though we worried about how the poor thing would turn out, we were happy because we knew it ended up in a warm and safe place where it had the best chances of making it out and back to where it should be – alive.

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Winter post #1: The Wonder of Snow

Last night it started snowing in Belgium.

The snowfall came as a result of the storm that is said to be the strongest in 50 years time. But where we live, we have only seen a heavy snowfall. Snowfall of snow flakes the size of two euro coins.

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Talvi means winter in Finnish

I am a winter´s child, born  in the middle of the coldest winter. I love winter so much I couldn’t help but run outside at 11pm last night, just to enjoy the wonder of snow.

There I was, standing in the snowfall, sticking my tongue out, and enjoying the wet snow. Immediately, when there´s a snow cover, the landscape becomes quieter. Somehow, the snow absorbs the sounds, or at least this is how I have always experienced it.

Finally, I went inside hoping that the snow would stick until the morning so my kids would be able to enjoy it as well.

And it stuck! It must have snowed all through the night to have the snow stick even if the temperatures stayed above freezing.

And boy did my kids enjoy it! Especially the smallest one for whom this was the second contact with snow in his young life. He smelled the snow, and he tasted it. He walked in it, he crawled in it. He dug it. He made snowballs out of it. He smashed those. He threw the snow. He rolled in it and he made snow-angels in it.

And he had a fit when I dared to suggest that we go inside to have lunch.

After his nap, he wanted to go back out, especially, because it was snowing again. Luckily I have spare outdoor clothes, because the first outing´s clothes were completely drenched.

Same routine, now with bike included.  After his nap, he wanted to go out yet again. And again, there was a fit when it was time to go in.

 

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This is my son, almost 3-yrs-old, making snow angels.
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This is me, almost 39-yrs-old, making tractor marks.

Though we have over 30 years between us, it seems that we feel the same way about outdoor play. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Luckily.

Skipakje vs. ballerinas: how to dress your kid against the cold.

“Oh, what a cute skipakje (Dutch for skiing outfit) your child is wearing!”, is a sentence that probably most Scandinavians or at least the Finnish mothers in Belgium have heard. The comment is followed by a well meaning laughter and a smile. This happens when our children appear to any outing wearing what is very common in our cold corner of the world: the winter overall.

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In Finland, this type of clothing is common, convenient and coveted as children still spend a lot of time outdoors even in the winter. Yes, even when it´s below freezing. Outdoor playtime is valued as the fresh air is known to be good for the immunity, refreshing our little ones and guaranteeing a good night´s sleep, not forgetting the better appetite and less complaining at the dinner table.

This sentence used to make me agitated. Nowadays, with the importance of outdoor play  gaining more weight in the media,  I sometimes also hear encouraging comments like, “My kid could use a pakje like that”. Indeed,  more and more articles, newsletter pieces, blog (mine included) and Facebook posts and Tweets are underlining the importance of nature and outdoors for everyone´s health. Still, us, parents who choose for these outfits that aim at keeping the kids warm from head to toe, allowing them to move flexibly in sturdy and warm outfits that on top of everything else are easy to clean, are in the minority.

And, to add to the amusement of the majority, it´s not only in the winter that we choose to dress our kids in the so called skipakjes. We also have lighter versions of those pakjes that include only a thin lining or no lining at all (AND, the pakjes also come in two-piece suits). As a result, our children are the ones running across the playground in their pakjes, or whizzing over the frozen puddles in their play-enabling clothes. In rainy weather, we dress them in full rain gear, i.e. more than the rubber boots. In fact, our rain gear includes a jacket, pants and even gloves that, ones you have on, it´s impossible to resist the urge to  run into the biggest puddles head first.

And, while our kids are enjoying their getting-dirty-&-wet action, the  rest of the  parents choose to keep their children´s upper bodies warm, while lower bodies are kept cool. Or this is how it looks with the current winter attires that often include warm  jackets, scarfs, in 60% of the cases, beanies or other head-wear and sometimes also gloves. And then, regular pants or jeans for boys (with or without long underwear?) and stockings and dresses for girls. Shoes that are worn are pretty, but pretty does not always equal pretty warm in this cool and damp weather. In case rubber boots are worn, I hope the little toes are dressed in woolen socks in those boots because, without them, the kid is getting cold in an instant (leading to an unhappy, shivering child).

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My Spanish friend is used to the very warm weather and has asked me for some help in clothing her kids for the Belgian winter. This same friend´s Spanish mom was once horrified when she witnessed her daughter´s Finnish friend (that would be myself) readying her baby to take a nap outside in the buggy “in the freezing cold” (I believe it was about plus 5 degrees Celsius outside then). I get it, it´s a totally different climate and southern Spaniards have no to little experience of freezing cold temperatures in their latitudes. I, likewise, welcome my warm blooded friend´s advise on keeping my kids cool during the hot summer. She´s an expert on that.  In Finland, those hot summer days, though they do occur, are still limited to only few and far between.

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Different occasion, but still, napping outside is common to Nordic babies. Heck, our buggies are bigger for that reason too.

So here´s my advise to my Spanish friend as well as for all those parents who find our skipakje choices odd. If you plan on spending time outside with your child this winter, these clothing tips are guaranteed to keep it more fun for both of you.

For a cold winter day (anywhere colder than +5) these clothes include:

Also include:

  • Mittens, rather than the types of gloves that separate fingers. Mittens are warmer.
  • A kauluri , i.e. a neckwarmer or a polo shirt to keep the neck warm. I would advise against scarfs for little children because…well, you do the math.
  • Warm shoes that are water tight and that can fit a pair of preferably woolen socks in them.
  • Add a water proof or water resistant layer, according to your judgement, unless your overall is water resistant.
  • A beanie

By dressing your kid accordingly, they can have more fun, be more daring in their experimenting with the natural elements and the parent will have much less washing to do in the end. Win-win.

Forest Mind/Metsämieli

The originally Finnish Metsämieli-method (literally, Forest Mind) aims to develop one´s “mind skills” using nature and specifically the forest as the backdrop with already built in mechanisms to improve ones health and mood.

Nature has been proven to improve our health through different ways. Lowering blood pressure and  stress hormone levels in our blood, and improving our mood are just some of the proven benefits we can enjoy after spending some time in nature. Furthermore, studies show, that being exposed to nature or natural elements can affect our emotions and even behavior.

Metsämieli-method is harnessing these benefits and using the forest as gym for both body and mind. Therefore, the Metsämieli-method includes exercises that help us to relax, rejuvenate, de-stress, re-energize and therefore support our mental and physical wellbeing. These exercises can be done in the forest, in the park or even at the office.

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My Forest Mind/Metsämieli approach

I followed the Metsämieli guide training in Finland and am now applying this method to the Belgian environment. My walks differ from the Metsämieli walks in Finland because of  the surroundings: in Finland forests are more accessible and more abundant, translating to less people and less noise in the forest.

In Belgium, and specifically, Eastern Flanders, the forests are much fewer and farther between, which is why some transport is almost always necessary and getting into the “mood” is a bit more challenging as one is never alone in the forest and because there is always noise. But there is beautiful nature to be found in Belgium as well, one just needs to know to look for it!

To tackle the challenges posed by the location, I am combining Metsämieli- method, i.e.  light exercise (walking) and mind skill exercises,  with anecdotes about what we see when we walk, to help people “see the forest from the trees”, and also appreciate the similarities and connections between us and nature. Though the forests might change, and themes of the walks as well as, the focus of my walks is always on finding a moment of calm in our busy lives, hearing ourselves and our thoughts better in the quiet of the forest, and leaving refreshed and re-energized.  And creating the readiness and need to come back for more, with or without me.

I want to stress the fact that I am not a therapist, nor have I any qualifications to give perfect strangers guidance on how they should be living their lives.

The bottom line of why I do this is because I want everyone to go to the forest more. I believe that anyone who finds their way to the peaceful arms of the forest will soon see the quality of their lives improved. Forest Mind/Metsämieli method gives me the tools to help you to approach your own mind from a different angle, providing you with some other perspectives, and reminding you to slow down, to stop and to look around you. Therefore, as a Forest Mind/Metsämieli guide, I am a mere  “forest buddy” who helps you to stop and smell the roses and who accompanies you, so you don´t have to walk alone.

What does a Forest Mind/Metsämieli walk entail?

As we walk, we take the time to drill in to some details in the surrounding nature through stories about the location and the specific plants, trees and animals that live there (I can´t help myself,  I am a Natuurpunt trained nature guide, after all). We do exercises to open our senses and that way, open ourselves to the forest. When we are tuned in, we can hear ourselves better. This is the best time to do some exercises.  The exercises stem from a mixture of mindfulness, coaching and positive psychology and make use of the natural elements, the trees, leaves, water, and everything else around us as inspiration.  We try to do our Forest Mind work as quietly as possible, to allow us to take in the silence. That´s what these walks are also about: room to listen, to the nature and to yourself. We work alone, in pairs and in group, but all the work you do, is for yourself, nobody else. After all, according to the Forest Mind/Metsämieli philosophy, we are all experts of our individual wellbeing.

Every Forest Mind/Metsämieli walk will be different. Not only because of the weather and the natural elements that can surprise us, but because of the people who participate in the walk.

When & how long?

Generally the walk takes about 1.5-2.5 hours and the distance we cover is anywhere from 2 to 5 km.  To enjoy the silence and to make sure we do not run into crowds that can disrupt us, the walks take place early in the morning or later in the afternoon/evening, depending on the season and the day light hours. It is also possible to go for a walk during office hours, if you specifically ask for that.

Where?

As the name implies, Forest Mind method is best practiced in the forest. Though it can be taken to other environments as well, due to the challenges posed by the environment I mentioned earlier, I prefer to keep the walks in areas where there is mostly forest cover. I am starting from areas that are familiar to me (Merelbeke, Munte) but I am looking to  branch out to other areas as well (Heidebos, Vlaamse Ardennen..). This all takes some time and effort, as I want to get to know the environment and the route well beforehand to be able to tell you something about the nature there as well.

How much?

The walks cost 5 euros per person per walk payable on the day self. Same price for children and adults.

The next dates for Forest Mind walks (all requiring a sign up beforehand):

  • NATUURPUNT MECHELS RIVIERENGEBIED MUIZEN – MECHELEN: 25/01/2017 (Nederlands)
  • GENTBOS, 2km walk (Merelbeke): Sun 29/1/2017: at 9.30-11.30, meet at Poelstraat parking (English, nederlands)
  • GENTBOS, 2km walk (Merelbeke): Sun 05/2/2017: at 9.30-11.30, meet at Poelstraat parking (English, nederlands)
  • HEILIGE GEESTGOED BOS, 5km walk (Merelbeke/Munte) – Sun 12/02/2017: at 9.30-12.00, meet at the parking of Zoete Zonde cafe (English, nederlands). Note that this is a longer walk!

If you would be interested in organizing a Forest Mind walk for yourself or a group of friends, co-workers or others, get in touch with me and we can plan a walk together!

A Forest Mind walk for parents and children is also in the works so stay tuned!

If you have questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact me.

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More information about Metsämieli method (in Finnish) can be found here.

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Forest school in Belgium

Quite unexpectedly, I heard about a forest school in Belgium. Someone who had the same trajectory as the kids in their reflecting vests heading toward a big park in Gent mentioned it to me. Apparently there had even been a piece in the newspaper about them. How could it  be that I did not know this?

My guess is because the “Buitenklas” (Engl. outside classroom) takes place as part of the Steiner school and for most people, the forest school sounds like something the Steiner school could have invented by themselves. After all, the Steiner school is all about the natural material, the softer approach and closeness to nature (says me, who has little to no exposure to the Steiner school — until recently).

I had a date with Claudia, a Swiss born teacher at the school in the early afternoon, when the class had already returned from their site. Claudia asked me to come at an occasion when the kids are not there, so as not to disrupt the class. For me this was perfectly understandable, and also something I didn’t deem necessary. After all, I do know what the kids are bound to do in the natural surroundings.

We first went to check out the first site they had had. This was a hilly little forest corner at the outer banks of Bourgoyen park. However, because the site was not closed off , there was no way to protect the tree houses or other structures the children had built from being broken down by others. On top of it, there was too much dangerous trash being left behind at the park, so Claudie went to look for a new site. They finally found one, from the large garden of a nice couple very close to the initial site.

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Claudia and the parents build a shelter for the children and acquired other materials that would be needed at the Buitenklas, such as a fireplace, storage facility. Because this edge of a garden was for the children´s use, they were able to start their own little vegetable patch and a herb spiral and claim the site for themselves. They were also able to leave their treasures as they were knew that they would be able to find it all back the same way they left it.

img_20161024_150728The Buitenklas is outside every morning  until about  12.20. Claudia is at the site  from 8 onward and the children are brought there directly by their parents or they walk to the site  together with the child carer who waits for the chidlren at the school. By 8.45 they are ready to start the day. By the time everyone has arrived, the children who have arrived as first ones, have already had the time to play.

The day starts with a moment sitting down in a ring in the shelter and greeting everything around them, the plants, trees and the bird. The day is filled with singing,  moving, doing handicrafts and having a chance to participate in the chores, such as making soup, cracking nuts etc. On Tuesday´s the children get to enjoy an open fire, an important natural element to us all. The nature around invites the children to use their imagination so toys are not necessary though there are some dolls and hand puppets that can be used. There is also a “mud kitchen” where getting hands dirty is a requirement. The chidlren get used to using tools such as  saws, hammers, sandpaper, wool  etc. to build structures to play house in, to play the supermarket, etc. On top of that, their site invites them to run through the bamboo thickets, play hide and seek and observe the nature around.

The Buitenklas has been running since September 2012. Claudia says she is doing the same things she would be doing inside, only, she is using less paper and pencils. The children enjoy playing outside and the parents have been supportive. Those wanting to enroll their children in the Buitenklas need to still go through a waiting list.. The parents who sign up their children for the Buitenklas, are aware of what they are putting their kids into and therefore there have been no difficulties in having the children be correctly equipped  in terms of clothing etc.

Claudia feels lucky to be able to run her Buitenklas outside as she realizes that this  is not self-evident. However, as the ideology of learning outside is close to the ideology of the Steinerschool, it is less of a hassle and work to motivate the leadership to find the money for the extra child carer to accompany Claudia outside everyday.

The waiting list for this class goes to show there is need for such education. As I am about to send my 2.5 year old in the school, Claudia´s Buitenklas seems like the obvious choice. However, I take my children to nature and I make sure they play outside every day.Therefore,  I feel that there are more deserving kids out there who would need this place more than my little one.
I find it sad that the value of free form nature play has yet to be widely recognized in Belgium. It is still the privilege of a few children, whose parents are aware of the importance and let´s face it, probably anyway bring their kids to nature on a regular basis. Those children, who would need it even more urgently, i.e. children of parents who do not spend time outside in nature or see little or no value in environmental and nature education, are being left out as the schools are not pushing free form nature play. Though every bit is better than nothing, I doubt that a week at the sea, or a week in the forest class, is enough to help build a nature relationship where there has been none.
The Buitenklas allows the children to come in contact with the familiar nature, learn about it through observing it and interacting with it, and build a bond with it. What you know and love, you want to take care of as well.  Applies to many things, doesn’t it?

Gentbos, Herfstwandeling 22.10.2016

This was an organized walk by the Vogel Aziel Merelbeke.

Attention was paid to the different fungi, as can be seen on my pictures later on in this post.

Aardappelbovist and inside it there are green spores.

We heard a boomklever which, according to the guide and to his surprise, is singing its spring song. Weird. X

The guide points out the non native American oak can have 100 insects living on it, but that a similar native oak could have up to 500 insects living on it. This is because the American one is not as well adapted to the conditions here. In addition, the leaves are too thick and strong and take a long time before they are composted. In the meantime, they do not let any light or life through them and suffocate the forest floor. But, this tree is doing very well here. He also points out that the maples are half shadow trees and are doing okay here.  However, another guide has told me that the Gentbos maples are almost all sick. X

He also points out as we pass by the big fallen American oaks, that when trees are felled, it´s important to pay attention to the surroundings, such as, from where will the wind come, as the changed environment can have surprising effects on the area after trees have been felled, e.g. with increased wind, some trees can spontaneously fall down.

He talks about which kind of mammals are to be seen in this forest. He mentions that  dears are coming back and so are martens, stoats, weasels and foxes, though the latter ones haven´t been away even.

Other fungi we saw include gele koraalzwam, reuzenzwam, schubbige bundelzwam, houtskoolknotzwam.