Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tongues of the Earth

“Rain, and then the cool pursed lips of the wind draw them out of the ground… astonishing in their suddenness, their quietude…” (Mary Oliver, Mushrooms)

Astonishing indeed. The recent rains have watered the Earth like one of those old terracotta chia pets, and now mushrooms sprout from every sodden surface.

In the breathless shade of a hemlock forest, I wandered among the buzzing mosquitoes and stoic trunks, fairly tripping over fungi. The trees dripped with a thunderstorm’s leftovers, and (looking forward to snowflakes instead of bugs) I stopped to catch a drop on my tongue.

Bright orange globs of hunchbacked lobster fungus, sunshine-yellow spikes of club fungus, and the glowing white cap of a Destroying Angel illuminated dim, shadowy duff. Without a guide—human or paperback—I simply admired the diversity of colors and forms, identifying only a few of the most distinctive organisms from my tenuous memory.

In these forest soils beneath my boots, 90% of the living biomass is fungal. An interwoven mat of mushroom mycelia connects trees with resources, returns nutrients to the soil, and exchanges information. Some call it the “wood-wide web.” Mycologist Paul Stamets calls it “Nature’s Internet.” I see a fascinating parallel with my own internal microbiome that I wrote about last week: For every human cell in my body, there are about 10 resident microbes. They help me digest food, tune my immune system, and even alter my mood. None of us is ever truly alone.

Mushrooms make pretty good company, I would say, and perhaps that is because mushrooms are more closely related to animals than they are to plants. For one, plant cell walls are made of cellulose, while mushroom cell walls are made of chitin. Chitin is the stuff of crab shells and butterfly wing scales. It doesn’t exist in plants. Plants are autotrophs – they make their own food out of sunlight, water, and air. Fungi and animals are heterotrophs, who get their energy by breaking down food they find. Plants exhale oxygen; fungi and animals inhale it.

Despite the incredible community of life here, this magical place (“Fairyland” is its official name) was a source of solace and solitude for a young Mary Griggs Burke. Out of her love of these woods grew an admirable land ethic. She wrote "I am glad more people are enjoying the beauty of nature--but only if people value the land and treat it with respect can they preserve what they enjoy." And with that in mind, she founded the Cable Natural History Museum.

These woods are full of connections. I wouldn’t be here without Mary’s foresight, generosity, and love of nature. The trees would not be here without the mycorrhizal fungi that extend their root systems. Each tree has hundreds of thousands of miles of fungal threads associated with its roots. The fungus supplies the tree with nutrients and water. In exchange, the tree provides sugars synthesized with the sun.

Scientists are discovering that sharing – symbiotic relationships – among highly diverse and unrelated organisms is more important than they used to believe. “Life is a network of cross-kingdom alliances,” says theoretical biologist Lynn Margulis.

A few days later, when I brought a multi-generational family into Fairyland with me, it only seemed to multiply the magic. More eyes saw more fungi, and more people exclaimed exuberantly over mushrooms, too. While Rachel Carson  wrote that “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in," I’ve found that adults need such a companion as much or even more.

So, we discovered things together. This time I carried the “Lone Pine Field Guide to Mushrooms of Northeast North America.” From there, we learned that the tiny, red-orange cups sprouting from a rotting log are named “Eyelash Fungus.” When we leaned in closer, the fringe of black “eyelashes” on the margins became visible. Chuckles of appreciation rippled through the group.

The next find was a patch of little clubs with fleshy, creamy white fans atop darker, somewhat velvety stalks. The name “Velvety-Stalked Fairy Fan,” seemed amusingly appropriate. I don’t feel like we need to know the names of everything in order to appreciate them, but sometimes it does add to the fun.

“Look here,” whispered the family patriarch with a wiggle of his toe. At the end of his shoe we found an elfin grove of two-inch-high black clubs. They blended in so well with the shadows and damp wood, that we were quite proud of ourselves for spying them. But the name, “Common Earth Tongue,” seemed like an insult to our keen observation skills. Nearby, a cluster of similar, but yellow, clubs sprouted cheerily in the gloom. The name, “Yellow Earth Tongue,” endeared us a bit more.

Tongues of the earth, indeed, these fungi do more than just look like they might lick the ground. Animal-like in many respects, they actually digest almost every bit of the earth at one time or another, and make the rest of our lives possible in the process.

Mysterious, and mostly hidden, we often forget about the fungi that are perpetually beneath our feet. In these rainy days, when we feel like our skin might either mold or get sucked dry by mosquitoes, the mushrooms thrive. Perhaps the earth is, in essence, sticking out its tongue – its Earth Tongues – to catch the raindrops.

This won’t be the last time I write about fungi this fall! Britt A. Bunyard, PhD, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of FUNGI magazine, will give a dinner lecture about fungi on September 23, and then lead a mushroom foray on September 24th. You can find the details at
These Earth Tongues have pushed their way up through the Earth using strong, chitinous cell walls inflated with water to a pressure up to three times that in your car tires! Now the Earth can catch raindrops on its tongues…Photo by Emily Stone.

Kimchi Community

The wooden gate on the Community Garden’s deer fence squeaked slightly as I swung it back into place and hooked the latch. An acre of lush, vibrant, growing things stretched out before me. I love unspoiled, untrammeled nature as protected by the Wilderness Act--created 50 years ago this fall. But I also love nature that I can cultivate, care for, and eat.

I started at the far end of my garden, first harvesting the green zucchinis and yellow summer squash. I also checked for fruits and leaves nibbled on by the invading woodchuck and army of thirteen-lined ground squirrels. I also carried a spray bottle with baking soda and water, a home remedy for the powdery mildew that threatens to wilt plants before the winter squash can ripen.

Next I picked the ripe tomatoes, and shook my head at the blighted, withering leaves. Finally, I tugged a few of the tallest weeds out from among the onions.  Biodiversity is generally desirable, but often my garden is more diverse than I would like it to be.

The pea trellis (built by my oldest nephew and his papa) provided a yummy snack of sweet, crispy pods. I offered a handful to my garden plot neighbors, and struck up a conversation about harvesting, preserving, and organic pest control. The Cable Community Farm only allows organic-approved gardening methods, and generally attracts a pretty like-minded group of people. I love talking gardening with them.

Finally, I settled into picking the ingredients for my next culinary cultivation: kimchi. Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish made of fermented vegetables. I tried it for the second time last winter, and the spicy-sour flavors are growing on me. So, I picked the biggest head of Napa cabbage, pulled a few carrots, yanked out a gigantic daikon radish, and wiggled an onion from its shallow bed. From the row of hot peppers, I plucked three spicy-looking specimens.

After an evening of washing, chopping, salting, rinsing, spicing, and packing, I ended up with a two-quart Mason jar full of veggies, salt, water – and bacteria. Yes, bacteria. Wild strains of lactobacilli bacteria were present on the raw vegetables, just waiting for the right conditions to go forth and multiply. The salty brine and oxygen-poor habitat of my Mason jar were perfect. In just a few days, I could taste the acidic tang of fermentation start to develop.

This jar is an ecosystem in itself, and just like in other ecosystems, a succession of species transform the environment in ways that allow new species to prosper.

In a forest, hemlock might succeed birch. In the jar, Lactobacillus plantarum is the climax species, after it kills off competing bacteria. By adding so much lactic acid to the brine that nothing else can survive, L. plantarum can maintain its own little habitat for months or even years. Just like me pulling weeds and choosing my friends, it creates just the type of community that will help it thrive.

The nice thing is, we can eat live L. plantarum right along with the spicy cabbage and radishes, and it won’t hurt us. It seems ironic in the age of antibiotics and hand sanitizer, but this is food safety guaranteed by bacteria!

The fermentation process also predigests the food, in effect, by breaking down larger molecules into smaller ones that we can deal with more easily. It is actually a carefully managed partial decomposition. The right bacteria to do the job were always on the plants or in the soil, just waiting to turn plants back into dirt. We simply harness the microbes for a bit, and then wait for the sweet—or sour—spot to stop the rot.

One fermenter described the technique as “Nature imperfectly mastered.” I agree, since I really don’t know what’s going on in there. Food journalist Michael Pollan explores fermentation in his book “Cooked,” and writes, “Every ferment retains a certain element of unknowable wildness.”

My kimchi has become a magical mix between my garden and the wilderness. It’s acidic and alive – and it now lives in the fridge.

From the garden community to the jar community, I had done my best to select the members I want, and eliminate those that could be harmful. Each day, when I eat some of the spicy cabbage leaves, the lactobacilli on them join the community in my gut. Just like the garden, just like the jar, my body is its own ecosystem, filled with hundreds of different species. For every human cell in my body, there are about 10 resident microbes. More than 99% of the genetic information I carry is microbial. Scientists are finding that the health of our inner microbiome and our outer communities have incredible implications for the health of us as individuals.

You may think all of this is a little weird. I think it is wonderful to be part of so many exciting communities!
And here’s a question for my community of readers: I’m trying to figure out the best way to publish a book of my Natural Connections columns. If you have any advice, encouragement, or suggestions for publishers, please send me an e-mail: Thanks!
We find ourselves part of many layers of intersecting communities, nestled together like the leaves in this head of Napa cabbage being readied for the kimchi jar. Photo by Emily Stone.

Osprey Tragedy

Pedaling happily along Lake Namakagon one warm evening, I caught a whiff of something dead on the breeze. Scanning the ditch, I soon saw the source: a mass of scraggly black and white feathers. Just ahead, perched on top of a utility pole was an osprey nest I’ve been watching all summer. It was silent and empty. My heart in my throat, I whipped around in a driveway and went to investigate.

Sure enough, the hooked, black beak of the large, fish-eating raptor lay among the wreckage. My heart sank—definitely an osprey.

Then a movement caught my eye. A large black beetle with pale yellow markings scurried out from among the feathers and disappeared underneath the carcass. Curious, but tamping down a slight feeling of disgust, I poked around with a stick, and found two more beetles – a smaller on one top of a larger one.

These American carrion beetles lay their eggs on dead animals and fungi. Then the parents stick around to eat fly larvae and the larvae of other carrion beetles in order to give their own kids a competitive advantage for food. When they hatch, the beetle larvae eat both the carcass and other larvae, and possibly the dried skin and bits of leftover flesh. The larvae pupate in nearby soil to begin the cycle again.

Osprey talons are one of the most amazing parts of their body, so I poked around at its feet, too. The skin looked puffy and dry, and out from underneath it squirmed dozens of little white maggots. Nature is quick, and no part of this osprey would be wasted.

Sad as I was about the death of “my” local osprey, I was already formulating an article about the way that nature recycles itself, and no death is really the end of anything, only the beginning of many different things. These beetles would be food for something else –maybe a fish—that could in turn be caught by an osprey, and the nutrients would have gone full cycle.

But the cause of its death still puzzled me. Why would an adult osprey be in the ditch? Owls often swoop low for mice and are hit by cars, but an osprey would not have dove through the trees to catch a fish on the pavement.

Back at home, I checked online. According to the Animal Diversity Web created by the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology ( both eagles and owls sometimes attack osprey adults and young.

But how often does that happen? I wondered. Next, I called the education department at the Raptor Education Group, Inc., in Antigo, WI. They have a rehab facility, and I thought they might have anecdotal stories of eagle- or owl- injured ospreys coming in to get fixed up.

I told the educator my story over the phone. “Can my supervisor call you back?” she asked when I finished. Surprised, I agreed. We often call REGI’s Director, Marge Gibson, with raptor questions, and she rehabilitated the great horned owl that Katie Connolly, our Naturalist/Curator, is now training to be an education raptor. But I know Marge is very busy, and wouldn’t think to bother her with just a curious question.

“This was near the nest over by Garden Lake?” Marge confirmed a few minutes later. For a moment, I was honored that she even knew about “my” nest. Then, “The male from that nest was found shot a few days ago. He was brought here. The chicks were starving, and one was hit by a car. The living chick was able to see its father before we had to put the adult down. His injuries were just too severe. You must have found the mother.”

Sadness was my first emotion – a sinking in my stomach, a feeling of despair and loss. Then, as I realized that a fellow human had caused these deaths, with a gun, on purpose, my feelings changed. The slight aversion I had felt when smelling the rotting carcass was nothing compared to this new wave of disgust. Decomposition is a natural process at least; mitigated by fresh air. This was totally unnatural and unnecessary, not to mention despicable.

Ospreys are not a threat to humans in any way. Some fisherman believe that ospreys compete with them for fish, but according to the Animal Diversity Web, “Studies have demonstrated that ospreys take a very small portion of all fish harvested and are not serious competition for commercial and recreational fishing.”

Across northern Wisconsin, several ospreys are missing from their nests. A barred owl was found shot near Lake Namakagon. Someone is on a killing spree. There is a legal investigation; these are federal crimes. But you can help, too. Don’t let someone brag about senseless destruction. Make it clear to them and their friends that you will think less of them as people if they kill needlessly. Help us to strengthen our culture where these actions are condemned and not condoned. Please call the Wisconsin DNR if you have any information about these crimes.

Please help us keep these beautiful birds soaring in the sky instead of rotting in a ditch!
American carrion beetles eat both the carcass and the other larvae on the carcass. These two beetles are starting a new generation, which will also feed on what’s left of the carcass. The cycle of life continues.

Ospreys are beautiful raptors that eat only fish. They are an inspiration to watch soaring through the sky.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Blueberry Jam

The scent of sun-warmed pine needles tickled our noses when we stepped out of the car. Scrambling up the sandy road cut -- buckets in hand – we began immediately to pick little clusters of blueberries and drop them in. Plops were soon muffled by a thick layer of fruit. Midday sun warmed the backs of our necks.

Happily, we picked and talked as our buckets filled. “Have you tried one yet?” I asked Kellie Solberg, one of the Museum’s summer interns. Kellie had eaten some tasteless store-bought berries year ago, and decided that she didn’t like blueberries. She came along on this picking expedition just to be sociable with Katie McKiernan, our other summer intern, and me. But I knew that these wild berries weren’t anything like those in stores.

“Hey, those are pretty good!” came her typically enthusiastic reply. Katie and I chuckled, unsurprised. By this late in the summer, our interns are a perfectly functioning team. Junior Naturalist lesson plans seem to pop out of the ether connecting their brains, while inside jokes, good-natured teasing, and ideas for “adventures” keep us all laughing. They are a valued part of the Museum community.

Blueberries also live in their own natural community, with their own special “teamwork.”

In this thin, sandy, acidic soil, getting the right suite of nutrients and water for growth can be tough. Thin strands of special fungi coil within the blueberry root cells and extend threads of hyphae outside the root. The hyphae act like root-extensions, drawing in nutrients and water beyond the typical reach of the blueberry.

The fungi can also break down soil components to access nutrients that are otherwise locked away. This decomposition is an incredibly important part of a healthy ecosystem. The blueberry pays for this service by giving the fungi little sugar snacks. It is a mutualistic symbiosis.

The blueberries’ vibrant community includes other things you might not think of, too: pollinating insects like honeybees and black flies; pest insects like blueberry maggot flies; beneficial  wasps that parasitize the pests; wildflowers like bunchberry and dogbane that host the wasps; bearberry plants which also partner with mycorrhizal fungi; long-tongued bears with big appetites; and even wildfire—to help prune the blueberries (which stimulates growth) and clear the way for more sunlight (which stimulates flower production).

The community also included three purple-tongued naturalists, for at least a short while.

Eventually, though, our buckets filled. The summery sound of grasshopper wings clacking in flight seemed to make the sunshine hotter. We retreated to another sandy place – Sioux Beach on Lake Superior. As we cooled our toes, plans began to emerge for what to do with the buckets of berries.

Our trio reconvened in the kitchen the following evening. Three pots bubbled on the stove: the canner, the saucepan full of lids, and the soup pot full of berries. Folk singer Greg Brown crooned on my laptop’s speakers – “Taste a little of the summer…You can taste a little of the summer…my grandma's put it all in jars.” (from Canned Goods, on If I Had Known: Essential Recordings”)

I have many fond memories of “helping” my mom make strawberry jam as a kid, and eating it all through the winter. I’ve been jamming on my own since becoming interested in wild edibles (aka free food) in college. I was surprised to learn that neither Kellie nor Katie had ever canned anything.

As I explained the process to them, and the importance each step, I realized that we were attempting to create the opposite of the living, thriving community where we’d picked the berries.

In order to keep for a year without refrigeration, all bacteria that could possibly be in the berries or in the jars needed to be eliminated. We basically needed to stop the process of decomposition.

Adding acidic lemon juice allowed the bacteria to be killed at boiling temperature, instead of the 240 degrees it takes in low acid foods. Adding sugar also slows the growth of bacteria, while sterilizing the jars and lids in boiling water reduces the chances of contamination. Processing the filled jars in a hot water bath for 10-20 minutes causes the fruit to expand, force extra air out of the jar, and then seal with a vacuum as it cools. Each lid gave a metallic “plink” as the metal inverted, eliciting a satisfied smile from all of us home canners.

In place of the diversity and life we encountered in the fields, we ended up with delicious—but sterile—jam, ready to sit on a shelf until the bitter winds of winter howl outside. On a particularly dreary day, we can open a jar, and savor the wild taste of sun-warmed pine needles, feel the midday sun, and remember the touch of water lapping at our toes.

“Maybe you're weary an' you don't give a damn…I bet you never tasted her [blue]berry jam…You can taste a little of the summer…my [interns] put it all in jars.” (With apologies to Greg Brown.)

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,
 Blueberries live in a vibrant community, full of fungi, wasps, bears, and hungry naturalists. In order to preserve them as jam, we must eradicate all that life – but not the flavor of summer. Photo by Emily Stone.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Babes of Summer

“I’m an Aunt!”  announced the email subject line from my cousin Heather, hours before a flood of Facebook posts showed a tiny, red-faced infant with a shock of black hair.

I’ve had the honor of being an aunt for 12 years, and just last week I was able to play with all four of my older brother’s kids. In t-shirts and shorts, they clambered up a tree fort, built fairy houses, leapt around a circle of logs, caught bugs, built a pea trellis for me, and then—happy and exhausted—climbed into car seats for the rest of the drive to the cabin.

Summer is the time when young animals of all kinds thrive.

As the kids headed toward a lake cabin, I took off for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota for a quick trip. Our second day of paddling took us from Meads Lake through narrow lakes and over LONG swampy portages dotted with moose tracks. Pulling the canoe up onto the rocky landing for yet another carry, we heard a splash across the way. A cow moose and her calf had just waded in, and were swimming toward us.

Having lived into late July, this calf was doing pretty well. As many as 50 percent of moose calves don’t make it beyond their first six weeks. But, if they can escape bears and wolves to reach maturity, they will have a 95 percent survival rate as an adult.

The calf’s head was warm brown and kind of scruffy looking. It trailed just behind its mom, relying on her for guidance. This calf would have been about 36 pounds at birth, after having  developed for 231 days inside its mom. This summer it will gain about two pounds per day while nursing.

To produce enough energy for both her and her calf, the mama moose will eat about 44 pounds of food each day. Aquatic vegetation is especially nutritious and easily digested, so cows feed heavily along the edges of lakes and rivers, and in marshes and swamps. They can even dive under the water to get at tasty submerged plants!

Living around all this water, it is no surprise that moose are well-adapted for swimming. Despite their enormous weight (females weigh up to 900 lbs., and males up to 1,300 lbs.), hollow hairs give moose buoyancy, and large feet make great paddles.

The pair made it across the narrow lake in no time, and disappeared into the woods. We waited a few minutes before picking up the canoe, since moose have poor eyesight, and are known to charge things that they cannot see well. Even so, we caught a glimpse of the fuzzy brown rump of the calf as it crossed the portage trail and splashed into the neighboring beaver pond. We admired their fresh, heart-shaped tracks in the mud.

Mud and moose tracks were abundant on our next half-dozen portages, too.

At another landing, a flurry of tiny splashes roiled the surface of a puddle as I stepped onto a nearby rock. As the sediment settled, the small, dark bodies of tadpoles revealed themselves. Based on the frogs mating calls that I’d been hearing (banjo-like plunks coming from the lake edges), I guessed that these the adorable little pollywogs were young green frogs.

While green frog eggs hatch in three to seven days, the tadpoles can take anywhere from three to 22 months to begin metamorphosis into full-grown frogs. Many tadpoles hibernate over the winter, and transform in the spring. Unfortunately, a shallow puddle on a rocky landing will not protect them from the sub-zero winter. Grow fast, little buddies!

After finally reaching our campsite, we set up the tent, went for a swim, and started making pea soup. Dinner was being served in a nearby northern white cedar tree, too. A young chickadee begged for food with a raspy version of the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call. Both parents attended it faithfully, bringing mostly caterpillars. Chickadee parents will feed their young for five to six weeks, until they reach independence. Chickadees lay seven eggs on average, so this clutch might have already experienced high mortality.

Young animals are thriving – and dying—all over the Northwoods right now. Part of nature’s way is produce enough babies that you can afford to lose a few (or a few hundred) and still carry on the species.

Happily, most young humans get plenty of good care as they grow up, and don’t have to worry about bear attacks, evaporating puddles, freezing winters, or finding enough caterpillars. Instead, kids can focus on building sandcastles, learning to water ski, stalking dragonflies, and just plain looking cute. Congratulations (and good luck!) to all the new parents out there, human and otherwise.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

Moose adults and young are both excellent swimmers dues to their hollow hair. Photo by Emily Stone

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Wonderful Webs

Beams from flashlights and smartphones bobbed around the Cable Community Centre, poking into all the nooks and crannies, scanning window frames and exploring under the eaves. Dusk had fallen quickly while we listened to Larry Weber—author of “Spiders of the North Woods,” retired middle school teacher, and ultra-enthusiastic naturalist from northern Minnesota—show slides of local spiders. Now we were looking for the real things – not just photos.

Shouts of “Oh wow!” “What’s this?” “Good find!” and “Everyone should get a good look at this one!” cut through the evening air. Larry spotlighted a particularly messy corner. There, a completely unorganized jumble of threads glistened. “Cobweb spider,” he stated, pointing to the tiny dot of a creature sitting in the mess. “You probably know some humans who keep their homes really tidy,” he explained with a twinkle in his voice, “and some that don’t.” These spiders don’t.

You can often find cobweb weavers in dark corners inside and outside buildings. They have plump, round abdomens, and usually hang upside down in their web--waiting for prey. During the day, they may hide, so the best time to see them is after dusk. Earlier that afternoon we found several empty cobwebs in the bark crevices of a huge white pine, when Larry led us on a spider hunt at the Museum’s Wayside Wandering Natural Play Area.

It was a day just packed full of spiders. The crown jewel of our afternoon spider hunt was a giant yellow crab spider, so named because of the way it holds its large front legs. In early summer, Larry finds crab spiders on daisies, he said, and they are white. By later in the summer, when the coreopsis, goldenrod, and other yellow flowers dominate, he finds mostly yellow crab spiders. They are the same spider, just with the amazing ability to change color slightly to match the flower in which they hide.

Crab spiders can make silk - and Larry demonstrated that by dangling a smaller crab spider by its dragline - but they don’t spin webs. Why bother when you can hide in a flower and just wait for a pollinator to come to you?

However, a beautiful web can endear even the most dedicated arachnophobe to spiders for at least a moment. According to Larry, the perfect web is on a two dimensional plane, with not a single thread broken, and completely covered with dew. Those webs, with the radiating spokes, spiraling threads, and beautiful symmetry, are the creations of orb weaver spiders.

Each evening (or morning, depending on the species) the orb weaver will spin a new web, and a few hours later, it is gone again. What happens to it?

If the spider is successful, insects fly into the sticky, elastic threads of the spiral and get caught while struggling. The spider can rush forward and throw out sheets of swathing silk to subdue the insect. If the catch is large, the spider may wait patiently until the insect has exhausted itself in the struggle. Then the spider injects venom through its fangs to further subdue the insect, follows that with a dose of digestive juices, and finally slurps up an insect smoothie into its sucking stomach.

After all that, the web is usually pretty torn up. Indeed, many spiders will eat their web each day. The silk proteins are then recycled for use in their next web.

Larry’s perfect web--with no threads broken--is an unsuccessful web with a hungry spider.

But we don’t need perfection to enjoy spider webs covered with dew. Mid-summer is when the spiderlings are hatching and growing, and many tiny webs may cover your lawn each morning. The funnel-shaped sheet webs you see in the grass are made by funnel weavers. If you watch closely, you may notice that the webs increase in size each week as the little spiderlings grow up.

Funnel webs aren’t sticky, but they allow the spider, lying in wait at the base of the funnel-shaped retreat, to feel the vibrations of a passing insect, run out, and grab it. Funnel weavers aren’t fans of cold weather, and they scurry indoors on cool nights. You may wake to find one trapped in the smooth porcelain jail of your bathtub or sink. They are harmless, and easily moved back outside with a cup and piece of paper.

If you have bushes in your yard, you probably have “bowl and doily” webs made by the sheet web weavers, too. The web consists of a horizontal platform with many anchoring threads in a delicate maze above. The spider waits below the platform, and may pull its catch right through the bottom of the web.

Late July is the perfect time to spend some time admiring the delicate artistry of our eight-legged, two-body-parted friends. Their wonderful webs catch mosquitoes, moths, and other pesky insects, while adding breathtaking beauty to our early morning walk.

To find out even more amazing facts about spiders and their webs, you can check out Larry Weber’s book, “Spiders of the North Woods,” and visit the Museum’s current exhibit: Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

Hooked on the River

It didn’t take long to pack their Duluth packs. Six of the seven boys had been on a canoe trip with me before; the newbie was a younger brother. Sleeping bags, sleeping pads, head lamps, and mess kits from the National Park Service went into the garbage bag-lined packs with their clothes, toothbrushes, and extra shoes. Within half an hour, the seven boys, two leaders, and two volunteer drivers were on our way to the Namekagon River landing just below the Hayward dam.

Many hands make light work. Unloading the Canoes on Wheels boats (a Friends of the St. Croix Headwaters program that lends canoes to educational programs for free) at the landing went quickly. I’m often impressed with these local kids – they jump right in to help and don’t complain. Just before launching the canoes, we slathered on sunscreen and fueled up with gorp (aka trail mix). “Two hands,” I reminded them as I poured the peanuts, raisins, and M&Ms from the bag. To drop an M&M is a major fail.

Soon we’re all floating. Two great blue herons rose like dinosaurs from the reedy shallows just around the first bends. Kingfishers swooped overhead, and cedar waxwings gave their high, thin, whistles from the shrubs on shore. The boys probably didn’t notice the bird songs, though, as they focused on navigating through quick water and around rocks. One canoe got distracted by some fishing line tangled in the alders, and the boys managed to free quite a bit before moving on. They’ve been told how dangerous lost line can be to wildlife, and a use for the line was already swimming in their heads.

A light drizzle gave way to tentative sunshine as we landed at our first night’s campsite. After we gathered around the picnic table, David, an intern with the Park and my co-leader, asked “Does anyone know where the closest National Park is?” “Right here!” several boys replied. In 2012, when I first ran a trip like this, none of the kids realized that we live so close to a Park.

Many local residents drive by the brown NPS arrowhead signs every day, and never stop to realize that they live right next to a National Park. The Namekagon River is a tributary of the St. Croix, and therefore is part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, a unit of the National Park Service (NPS).

Both the Cable Natural History Museum and the Park Service want to get kids on the river. So, the Park and the Museum have developed a marvelous partnership in the past few years. I provide the trip guiding experience, camp food, and participants, and the Park provides camping gear, a second adult to come along, a Park Ranger for an evening program, and logistical support. This year, funding was provided through the St. Croix River Association, which was awarded an America’s Best Idea grant from the National Park Foundation. As I tell our Park partners, just like lichens, we couldn’t do it without each other.

The boys are the ones that really benefit, though. We covered our miles quickly on the first day, and recurrent drizzle dampened their enthusiasm for swimming. So what could they do around the campsite? Before too long, one kid was making a fish hook by filing down the metal end of bungee cord found near the fire ring, another was whittling a fishing pole from a stick, and a third was untangling the fishing line found earlier.

Not a single boy pulled out an electronic device, or even mentioned wanting one. Two Frisbees (one of mine and one found in the weeds on the river) were sailing among the tents. A few other boys were practicing intently with David’s kendama, an extremely addictive wooden skill toy that originated in Japan.

No one was bored. Everyone was safe. I sat back and let them be boys in the woods.

Soon the fishing pole was outfitted with a wooden bobber, baited with a raisin, and ready for testing. The whole troupe followed Gavin down to the landing, and watched as he swung the hook and line into the current. Evening light reflected off the trees, and bugs skittered along the surface. The onlookers soon dispersed, but Gavin stood quietly – our most talkative boy sliding easily into the fisherman’s meditation.

After several minutes without any nibbles, Gavin decided to try the other canoe landing – a backwater area filled with water lilies and muck. As he waded in wearing sandals, I heard him mutter to himself “I hope I get a leech on my foot so I can use it for bait.”

I’m not sure when Gavin took a break, but at some point we all drifted back around the picnic table to watch the kendama practice. Then, out of the blue, Gavin exclaimed, “I’ve got a leech!” with not a hint of disgust or fear in his voice. Nearby, Grant, who had whittled the fishing pole, replied “Sweet! Now we have bait!” with the same untainted joy.

The boys never caught a fish with their make-shift pole and leech bait, but I know they caught even more of the spirit of the Riverway: adventure, resourcefulness, stewardship, and beauty. In the next two days we paddled rapids, cooked over a campfire started with flint and steel, learned about the Voyageur history of the river, picked other people’s trash out of a fire grate, admired bald eagles and osprey soaring above, and paddled 15 miles in a morning.

Around the campfire I asked the kids what they wanted in a trip next year. “More fishing!” exclaimed one. “Can we go longer?” suggested another. Obviously, we’re all hooked on the Namekagon River.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

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