Mary McConnell

In My Words

June 2015
A few years ago, National Book Award-winning author Phil Hoose visited Indiana to talk about his new book, Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95. Phil shared with us the amazing story of B95, a rufa red knot. This robin-sized shorebird migrates each spring from the tip of South America to the Canadian Arctic, a distance of over 9,000 miles, only to retrace that journey in the fall.

B95 was tagged and has been tracked over the years. In 2012, when Phil’s book was published, he nicknamed this remarkable little creature Moonbird because, during his lifetime, he had flown the distance to the moon and half-way back.

Amazingly, in January of this year, Moonbird was sighted again in Tierra del Fuego, resting and rebuilding reserves in advance of his epic journey north in a few months. From his leg bands, researchers know that he is at least 22 years of age. According to Phil, the next oldest record in literature for a red knot of the rufa subspecies is 16 years 8 months. This little frequent flyer has now flown more than the distance from the earth to the moon and all the way back!

This tiny survivor has overcome insurmountable odds. During his lifetime, the worldwide population of rufa has crashed by 80%, caused by changes in habitat and loss of food sources along his migratory route. And yet Moonbird sojourns on, defying the odds, roused by an inexplicable internal urge to take flight once more.

We may never know if Moonbird reaches the Arctic again this year. One of his leg bands has finally fallen off and the other is so worn that the numbers on it are barely distinguishable. But I like to believe that our tireless hero flies on, finding the nourishment that he needs as he traverses hemispheres, in the places that we, as a society, have chosen to protect.


January 2015

I was fortunate enough to spend some quality time with my grandchildren over the holidays. I introduced my grandsons to one of my favorite childhood books, “The Bears of Blue River,” written by Charles Major in 1901. It tells the adventures of a young boy growing up in the early 1800s in rural Indiana. My father read this book to me when I was a little girl. Majors vivid descriptions of “when Indiana was a baby state and great forests of tall trees and tangled underbrush darkened what are now her bright plains and sunny hills” left an indelible impression on me.

I wanted my grandchildren to know the exciting experiences of Little Balser Brent—the main character of the novel—so much so that we visited Shelbyville, where in the center of town stands a statue of a young man holding aloft two bear cubs. That’s Little Balser, immortalized in a scene of times gone by.

The next time we are hiking in the woods together, I can point out a Sycamore tree, like the hollow one in the book where one of the bears made his den, or show them wild blackberries like the ones Balser and his friends picked to make the pie that the bear cubs devoured. And hopefully the forest will come alive for them, like it did for me.

Hiking and reading natural history books aren’t simply whims. Along with my son and his wife, I want to instill in my grandchildren a curiosity about nature. I want them to grow up and be endlessly fascinated with the natural world around us. But I don’t want that just for my children—I want that for all children.

Working for The Nature Conservancy, I believe that we can make that happen. This past year we put the wheels in motion for the Children of Indiana Bicentennial Park. Please take a minute to read about this innovative project. There are several key partners and many moving parts—too many to list here.

With this Park and its accompanying environmental education programming that will be made available to nature centers around Indiana; we can help transform children’s views about nature and conservation. We can engage the 1.1 million K-12 students in Indiana in conservation activities today and encourage them to continue that involvement into the future.

I encourage you to read compelling natural history books to your children and to your grandchildren to instill in them a desire to experience the natural world. They will thank you.

April 2014: Time to Garden!

It’s finally April, and as quickly as the snow has left our Hoosier soil, green things are creeping in to replace it.

This is the time of year when farmers and gardeners start the process of tilling soil and preparing the Earth for cultivation. Growing up with someone like my perennially green-thumbed father, it’s a process I remember all too well.

My earliest childhood recollections are of Dad in the garden. He grew every vegetable and fruit known to mankind; large quantities of all of them. We had everything from strawberries to onions, cantaloupe to tomatoes: millions and millions of tomatoes. And dad had very cheap labor. He had four complaining, reluctant, irritable, ill-tempered children whom he tasked with helping with the loving care of his garden. Under his direction, we tilled and planted and hoed and dug and fertilized and picked and shucked and de-bugged all summer long. And if we weren’t working in the garden, we were picking apples or cherries from our trees or grapes from the arbor. My uncomplaining mother would can and freeze and pickle and jelly all summer so we could enjoy the fruits of Dad’s labors all year long.

Now is the time to gear up for warmer weather; now is the time to think about how we can incorporate gardens into our lives, so that we can tend and water and weed and, finally, enjoy the harvest that nature provides. Gardens may sure sound like a lot of work – I know Dad’s was – but we don’t all have to follow in his agrarian footsteps. Community and small personal gardens, like those set up through Nature Works Everywhere, can have huge benefits in any area.

I may always love the smell of apples in Autumn, or feel pride as corn reaches for the sun, “knee-high by the Fourth of July,” but this is the time of year that really makes me excited about gardening. This is where it all begins – in rainy, muddy April, when we all thaw out and look ahead to a long warm season of working with nature.


March 2014: Bird Count

The Great Backyard Bird Count in February gave me and the grandkids a great reason to turn off the TV, take out the ear-buds, and venture outdoors for a few days of exploration and discovery. Every year, people from around the world take up their binoculars and checklists and go outside, record the birds they see, and submit their information to The National Audubon Society. Seasoned birders, amateur photographers, children of all ages - anyone who enjoys looking at these magnificent creatures can contribute to our knowledge of their numbers in the wild.

We kicked off our own bird-counting event with an incredible sighting in the backyard. As I stood with binoculars, pen, and paper in hand and Logan and Colton bundled up beside me, I saw something large and dark flutter through my peripheral field of vision. I lowered the binoculars and looked toward it, and at that moment I heard Logan exclaim, "Look at THAT bird!"

It was a Pileated Woodpecker, perched on a tree and apparently looking for a place to start drilling. I handed the binoculars to Logan, and watched from a distance as it craned its head left and right, up and down, slowly scaling the massive tree. Its bright red crest provided stunning contrast to the grey and white background of trees and old snow. Logan was in awe, and once he handed the binoculars to Colton, I gave him the pen and paper and asked if he wanted to record this one. "P-i-l-e-a-t-e-d" - he wrote the letters and drew a check-mark next to its name. The look on his face was one of triumph. I'm glad I left that entry to him.

We all watched as the bird flew away after a couple of minutes. It was a beautiful animal, and the sighting reminded me that we don't always have to go far to see the wonders of nature. Sometimes, for kids and adults alike, a truly awe-inspiring encounter awaits us in our backyard. We just have to grab our binoculars and winter coats, and venture out to see it.

January 2014: Daydreams

As I write this Indiana is being blanketed with snow. Staring at the falling snow, I start to daydream. But instead of daydreaming about my next big adventure, I often think about the adventures that I hope my grandchildren will experience. My life and the lives of my children were shaped in the campgrounds around Indiana. As a family, we spent most every weekend possible on some new adventure in a tent, in the woods, enjoying the discoveries of nature, the simple things in life and each other.

So for the holidays this year, I gave my two grandsons real sleeping bags and LED lanterns. At ages 5 and 3, they are already camping veterans, having spent a great deal of time camping around the state with their parents. While their accommodations in a real camper are a bit less primitive than our family tent, their outdoor experiences are just as rich and meaningful.

Watching them unwrap, unpack and wriggle into their bags with lit lanterns in tow, I wondered where and how often Logan and Colton would use them. I could make suggestions of course, but hopefully that won’t be necessary. I dream they already have that little spark of adventure inside of them and it will take them to remarkable places of their choosing.

Maybe they’ll become intrigued with our State Parks, begging their parents to visit during the cold months when the bare trees allow them to see the snow covered landscapes. Perhaps their adventurous spirits will lead them to Yellowstone, to Glacier, or the Grand Canyon. I hope these sleeping bags end up worn and tattered and that the lanterns provide comforting light for years to come. I can’t wait to hear the stories of their travels, and I hope several of their travels are with me. This is the stuff daydreams are made of!

I smile when their mother tells me that they are using the sleeping bags on their beds at night. And I smile knowing that many Nature Conservancy employees and millions of donors are helping protect places where these sleeping bags will be used and lanterns lit. These are the dreams that warm my heart as we begin a new year. I hope they do yours as well.

Happy New Year!

Thanksgiving 2013: Infinite Gifts

Musing about this fall I am grateful for nature’s generosity in providing the backdrop and props for outings full of imagination and fun.

Ahead of me on a walk through the woods near my house last month my grandson, Colton, turned around and shouted, “Catch!” He had thrown me a buckeye. When I caught up with him, he was excitedly revering the smooth and shiny nuts, declaring twins when two fit into a single husk. To Colton, he was in an outdoor playroom, abundant in natural toys.

And then, just two days ago my eldest grandson Logan said, “Hey, Grandma, I brought you a present.” He handed me a bushy bouquet of fallen crimson-colored birch and magnolia leaves that he had collected at the playground. “Do you see how red they are?” he asked. And indeed they were deeply red, gorgeously so. The simple act filled me with joy.

Nature is endlessly giving us gifts. My gifts on these days were not only of sheer beauty and playfulness but also of pure delight in the fact that Colton, Logan, and my granddaughter Leah were attuned to the treasures of the natural world.

As sharp as the crisp cold morning air on my face, joy and meaning are all around. Just step outside! Open your eyes! Open your ears! Open your heart! Open your mouth and breathe deeply! It’s there. Let’s enjoy. Let’s cherish. Let’s be grateful. Let’s celebrate nature!   


October 2013
Temperatures are dropping, days are getting shorter, and we’re wearing socks again!

Flocks of birds are visible each day flying overhead as they migrate their way to more suitable weather.

Leaves are beginning to change colors, fall from the trees, make crunching noises beneath each step and emanate a sweet smell that is native only to autumn.

This time of year always makes me think about where I am right now and where I’m heading.

And as usual, it makes me think about amusing ways to spend time outdoors with my family. Aside from our visits to the apple orchard and pumpkin patch, as well as an evening around a fire pit, my grandchildren will tell you the highlight of October and November has been our homemade scavenger hunt. Try hiding a few objects in your neighborhood park or in your yard and write clues about how to find them. Kids (and adults!) will delight in this fun way to spend time together outdoors.

So how are you spending your time outside these days?

For some truly inspiring ideas check out Nature Rocks!

September 2013
Today’s national average screen time for American children is 7 hours. While I am a strong believer that technology can fuel a love of the outdoors, at this rate, there won’t be much time left for exploring or – dare I say – protecting and caring for the natural world.

This is yet another reason to get back to nature! The well-being of our planet depends on it. Our actions today have an impact on tomorrow, and not just here, but everywhere. I believe the seemingly random act of spending quality time in the outdoors causes a ripple effect of significant positive changes elsewhere.

Hopefully many of you visited the Indiana State Fair last month and enjoyed learning about the beautiful cows, the tallest sunflower, catch & release fishing, grains, vegetables, crop art and gardening.

There are so many ways to explore Indiana nature with children. Consider going on a creek stomp at Fort Harrison, or feeding the birds at the Indiana Dunes State Park, or admiring the full moon from your backyard or front stoop!

Check out the Indiana Department of Natural Resources 2013 Special Events List to plan fun family experiences in nature. I dare you to start making a difference for tomorrow just by spending time outside today!

August, 2013

It’s time to get back to nature!

Let’s face it. It just feels good when we’re in and around nature. Close your eyes and imagine walking on a beach, watching a sunset, feeling the breeze, listening to the song of birds, smelling plants and flowers, gazing at the starry night sky. Just thinking about it feels good.

If we all know that being in nature is good for us why do studies show that fewer people – adults and children – are spending less time outdoors?

What’s it going to take to get us to back to nature?

As a mom, I have countless memories of taking my children to state parks and nature preserves. Now as a grandmother, I take pride in leading my grandchildren outside. Going for a hike, a walk, a swim or just helping them climb a tree or plant a flower is a wonderful way to spend time together.

I see the joy in their faces, their curiosity in all the details. I see them use their imaginations, feel confident in the open spaces, run, marvel at the colors, the bugs, the creatures. The memories created in nature today will no doubt inspire our grandchildren to continue exploring and caring for the outdoors tomorrow.

So get back to nature and enjoy!


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