Camp Sunflower near Elgin, Texas. It’s an overcast day, damp and humid—the sky is sullen and dripping. Sarah Jones is expecting visitors on her 10.5 acres west of Elgin. She has invited a group of Texas Master Naturalists to her homestead to do a biological survey. Sarah explains, “My friend recommended that I contact the Texas Master Naturalists months ago, but it wasn’t until a Sip-N-Stroll in downtown Elgin last year that I came across a booth manned by the Lost Pines Master Naturalists, so I
made the request.”
Sarah also invited two permaculture gurus fresh from internships at Zaytuna Farms (a well-known permaculture mecca). These young men will eventually be the farmers at the new Elgin Agrarian Community Organization. Together, this eclectic group will spend the next several hours cataloging plant and bird species and creating a permaculture site plan for Sarah’s property.
Sarah’s land is divided: the wild part and the cultivated part. There is a comfortable home on the property, active gardens, a pond and intermittent creek with nature trails ribboning into a dense woodland. Sarah’s 3-year old was quite engaged in exploring outdoors with the swarming naturalists while her youngest napped quietly inside.
Sarah is much more than a mother to two toddlers; she’s a Pied Piper of sorts, connecting youngsters to nature and agriculture. “I love introducing kids to the nuance, beauty, and wonder of nature,” Sarah says.
Her methods are varied. For starters she teaches afterschool classes at all three Elgin elementary schools through the Texas Center for Local Food. These classes focus on local farming methods and produce, and include cooking skills and sampling local foods. From her farm, Sarah provides honey, hive products, and produce. Her farm is known as SHAMBA: Sustainable Homestead and Microclimate Based Agriculture.
Sarah is also active in leading the Elgin Beekeepers Association, a Facebook group that meets the third Wednesday of the month. “Our goal is to connect current and new beekeepers,” Sarah says, “focusing on local support and education. I found as a new beekeeper that it was incredibly helpful to have another set of eyes to help on hive checks, and to use to ask questions and share knowledge.”
In the summer of 2015, Sarah started Camp Sunflower, a home-based outdoor educational facility aimed at promoting outdoor, nature-based learning for young children. Her first 2-week summer camp was instituted last year for ages 3 to 9. Kids were exposed to bugs, birds, plants, nature walks, art, science and stories—a full immersion in the natural world that surrounds us.
In the fall Sarah established her first preschool program . . . elementary gardening and a nature explorer’s class. Sarah muses, “The preschool class was a delight. We got muddy on wet days, collected sticks to make wands, hunted for shapes in nature, painted, made leaf rubbings, and so much more.” There are winter and spring preschool sessions planned at Camp Sunflower as well as an expanded summer program in 2017.
Sarah has always been close to nature. Growing up around summer camps, she has served as a camp counselor, a nature specialist and worked with a variety of outdoor education facilities, including the Austin Nature and Science Center. She eventually became an accredited science teacher. Upon the arrival of her first child, Sarah opted to become a stay-at-home mom and open her heart to a larger community of kids.
So why does a self-styled naturalist and children’s education specialist need outside experts to do a biological survey?
“I feel that I’ve reached the limit of my own personal knowledge and it can be very challenging to do plant identification on your own. . . I have kids and adults visit all the time, and I want to make sure that I am giving them accurate information about species identification,” Sarah says.
Later, the naturalists processed their photos, made positive identification of each species, and provided Sarah online access to all the photos and data. After about a month, a formal report was emailed to Sarah. It was organized by both scientific and common names and included 81 plants, 18 birds, 4 fungi (one of which was a rare Texas Star Fungus), 3 lichens and 1 moss species.
“The results were incredibly detailed and useful for my purposes,” Sarah replied; “It has been fascinating to go through and match scientific names to plants I’ve been seeing for years, and to discover new uses and interesting facts. It’s so surprising how much interesting diversity can be hiding in plain sight.”
NOTE: A similar article to this one was published in the Elgin Courier on January 25, 2017.