Thursday, January 19, 2012


When I was a kid, I was fascinated by mica. Still am, really: the world could always use a little sparkle. And on many trails in the DC area, the soil is full of little sparkly bits of mica.

Out of the trails we frequent, it seems most common on the Northwest Branch near Burnt Mills Dam on Colesville Road. Not only are the trails quite sparkly, but there are several sandy spots along the river where you can find larger pieces of mica. The paper-thin sheets stack together into chunks the size of a small rock.

If you peel off a single sheet of mica, you can observe some very unique properties: it's (somewhat) flexible, and you can see through it. How often do you get to bend or look through something that looks like a rock?!?

Photo credit: Annie in Beziers
But technically, mica is not a rock. It's a mineral: a building block for rocks. And that's how you'll most often see it: it's the mineral that shows as sparkly flecks in granite. You'll see it in rocks along the trail, and in the granite countertops of high-end kitchens.

Beyond brightening kitchen countertops, mica is prized for many uses. It is heat resistant, so it was used historically for stove windows, and more recently in space vehicles and electric irons. It doesn't conduct electricity, so it's used as a very thin insulator in electronics. Its flakiness makes it a good, sandable filler for drywall. And eyeshadow? Mica gives it its sparkle.

Where have you found mica? Leave us a comment below! And leave some on the trail for the rest of us...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

My Favorite Searches of 2011

Some people find the Natural Capital in the darnedest ways. Every one of these seemingly-unrelated searches ended up on this website in 2011. Click on each link to find out where they landed, and see if you can figure out why.

Norway Goat Herding in the Mountain with DJ & Jones
At least 42 goats. Photo credit: Toby Simkin

Enjoy - we'll be back from Honduras in February!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Things to Look for in January

The days are ever so slowly getting longer, but spring is still long away. And yet, there are still plenty of things to look for outside. Writing this list almost makes me wish I wasn't skipping town for Central America. Almost.

>> What have you been noticing in nature this winter? Leave a comment below.

Umbilicaria mammulata
Rock Tripe by Paul J. Morris
Among wild edibles, rock tripe is not prized or even particularly appetizing...actually, it's pretty cardboardy. But as a survival food, it's been used for centuries. And even if you don't want to eat them, lichens are a pretty amazing phenomenon.

DC Squirrel
Squirrel by Vicki's Pics
January 22 is Squirrel Appreciation Day. We know you know squirrels when you see them, but do you know them when you hear them? Listen to these chirps and you may realize some of the birds you thought you'd been hearing were actually rodents.

Pine cones
Hemlock cones by DaveSF
Eastern Hemlocks are rare in our area due to our climate (they prefer the mountains), and becoming rarer due to an imported insect known as the wooly adelgid. It's worth seeking out these "redwoods of the East" while you still can. And winter's an easy time to do it, since they're evergreen.

Squirrel in the snow by ehpien
There's always a good chance of snow sometime in January. And if you get out early enough in the morning, you have a better chance of finding footprints in the snow. See our guide to some of the common animal tracks you might see.

Ice at Scott's Run by the Natural Capital
Even when it doesn't snow, looking for beautiful ice formations can be enough to entice me out into the cold for a good walk...usually.

In the Swamp
Skunk cabbage by Rupert G.
Skunk cabbage is one of the select group of plants in the world that attracts pollinators by imitating rotting flesh. And, it's just about the only native flower you're going to find blooming at this time of year. It's prehistoric-looking and stinky, but it's a flower. In January.

And, for those of you who tend to feel a little house-bound as it gets colder and colder outside, last year we also wrote a Southerner's Guide to Staying Warm Outside in the Winter. We also put together a list of Nature Centers in the DC area, in case you need a nature fix when you really can't stand to be outdoors for too long.

Now get out there and explore!