Friday, November 17, 2017

Lycopodium: Revised

The gleaming white magic of a winter wonderland enticed me outside after breakfast. With our first snow on the ground, the air tasted fresher, the brisk cold nipped my cheeks awake, and the world felt new.

Above me stretched a lacework of light and shadow against the widening blue. All around me, the thin layer of sticky snow created lush patterns on the forest floor. Pebbles in the driveway, twigs on the ground, and ferns leaning over became works of modern art under their crust of white. Christmas tree-sized balsam firs hugged their snow-laden branches close.  In the understory, mini trees did the same.

Only those mini trees aren’t really trees, at least not anymore. You might know them as ground pine, prince's pine, or club moss. If you’re botanical, you might even know them by their genus Lycopodium (Greek for little wolf foot). None of those names are entirely accurate, though. These definitely aren’t pines, or mosses (or wolves!), and new DNA studies have made the scientific classification more complicated, too.

Lycopodiums are beautiful and amazing, though, and harken back to the Devonian and Carboniferous Periods more than 300 million years ago. At that time, North America was part of the supercontinent Pangea, and the eastern United States was positioned near the equator. Beautiful plants, gigantic insects, and strange forests covered the land. Increased precipitation, carbon dioxide, and oxygen created a very different world than we know today.

The tropical climate produced extensive swamps dominated by tree-like or “arborescent” lycopsids that diverged from a common ancestor of our present-day clubmosses. These were some of the first plants to grow secondary tissue (wood), which was needed to support their impressive heights of 50 meters (164 feet). That is taller than the tallest white pines currently growing in Minnesota or Wisconsin.

What’s crazy is that they couldn’t increase their girth along with their height. Each tree had to begin its life by growing its trunk as wide as it would ever be. The thick stump grew upward into a pole of the same diameter. Leaves – also known as microphylls because they only have a single vein down the center – grew along the trunk. With only the single vein, though, they had no way to transport the sugars produced by photosynthesis. As the tree gained height, the lower leaves fell off (creating a distinctive pattern on the trunk, and earning them the nickname “scale trees”), and the lower trunk essentially became dead tissue. At some predetermined height, the tree branched a certain number of times, reproduced, and died.

With such a “quick and cheap” lifestyle, the arborescent lycopsids both grew and died rapidly. This allowed them to dominate habitats following short-term disturbances (like frequent fires), and leave behind a tremendous amount of woody debris in those tropical swamps. The bountiful organic matter in those swamps was eventually buried and turned into coal.

When I first wrote about lycopsids two years ago, I read and glommed onto a fascinating theory about why the fallen tree didn’t decompose. Scientists speculated that the fungi and bacteria of the time had not yet developed the ability to decompose the tough, brown lignin found in wood. I loved this story, and told it often during nature hikes and programs.

Just this fall, as I was following up on research done by Matt Nelsen (the lichenologist who showed me pin lichens at the mushroom foray), I discovered that he’d written a paper titled “Delayed fungal evolution did not cause the Paleozoic peak in coal production.” He and his colleagues had found multiple lines of evidence that not only were there microbes around during the Carboniferous that could digest lignin; they also showed that lignin wasn’t as important in lycopsid trees as we’d originally thought. Those early plants had bark made of a substance without any modern equivalent.

So why did our vast beds of coal form? Nelsen thinks that the plants were growing and dying so quickly that the process of decay couldn’t keep up, and geologic forces related to the formation of the supercontinent Pangea caused the log-filled swamps to be buried quickly. This story isn’t quite as cool as the original, but scientists don’t get to consider things like that. When evidence contradicts what we think, we change with the times.

The story we’re left with is far from boring, though. The unique conditions present during the Carboniferous Period may never be repeated on Earth. As carbon in the air became locked up in coal deposits, in the explosion of land plants, and in limestone beds under the ocean, the conditions no longer supported giant lycopsids. They shrank into diminutive quillworts, while their cousins became the clubmoss we know today. Complex plants with seeds, extensive vascular systems, and trunks that could grow out as well as up succeeded instead.

The branches of this new forest closed in over my head as I appreciated the beauty of our current non-tropical weather. Tiny, snow-capped lycopods dotted the understory landscape—their diminutive size hiding an immense history and adding to the magic of the forest. Nature is surprisingly old and always new.

Editor’s Note: Portions of this article were originally published in 2015.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, November 10, 2017

November is a Sigh with Lois Nestel

“November is a sigh; a sigh of weariness after the tumult of summer, a sigh of resignation over projects yet undone, a sigh of regret for hopes unfulfilled. It is a sigh of frustration that no matter how we try, the world seems to be sinking deeper into the morass, and a sigh of sadness that neither we nor those around us seem to live up to our expectations.” So wrote Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding director and naturalist, over three decades ago. It is a gray sentiment, to match the gray clouds and gray trees of this time of year. I feel it, too. With little daylight left after work, it’s hard to want to get out for a walk. When I do, the air is damp and chilled, and the landscape dreary.

Lucky for us, Lois had the fortitude to continue past her sigh and philosophize about a different perspective we could take.

She wrote, “Nature also sighs, but in a gentler mood. It is the sigh of relaxation as hibernating creatures slip into their long sleep. It is the gusty sigh of pines yielding to the cold north wind and the almost silent sigh of leaves and grasses settling closer to the bosom of the earth beneath the gentle pressure of the snow.

“We are in limbo. It is an in-between time when looking forward appears as pointless as looking back. The short gray days and long black nights are conducive to dark thoughts…yet, why?

“The badge of hope is pinned to every twig as tightly furled buds encase next summer’s glory. The cocoon, hung high in the tree, is a symbol of faith in a warmer, bright day. Courage and cheer are exemplified in the sprightly chickadee, who finds joy in just being alive. Patience marks the bed of seed and spore. So, why the gloom of human spirit?

“Perhaps we have strayed too far from our beginnings. The wall of human thought and intellect that should have raised us to the heights of glory has instead separated us from the beauty of simplicity and faith. We demand, we demand. We have set ourselves upon a throne, despotic rulers of all we survey. Man is such a small cog in this complex world. Biologists have found an average of 1356 living creatures in the top inch of a square foot of forest soil; and did you know that the average size of all living animals, including man, is about that of a housefly? Yet we are so big in our own eyes!

“A proper perspective is what we need, and perhaps a closer bond with nature could teach us. That lesson learned, how good it would be if our sighs of dissatisfaction could become sighs of contentment and peace.”

Lois must have been caught in this mood for several weeks, for a later essay of hers reflects these same themes of renewal and humans’ removal from it. Just as Lois saw hope in the form of a tree bud, she sees hope in the demise of a rabbit, which might, in fact, provide nourishment for a future tree bud.

She wrote, “The first snow of the season blanketed the ground and reflected back the moonlight with unaccustomed brightness. Looking out, I thought the world seemed empty of life, silent and pristine. The illusion was soon shattered as from somewhere in the shadows of the trees came the piercing, quavering cry of a rabbit, rising to a shriek and then ending abruptly.

“My first thought was, “Oh, the poor thing—what a pity.” I believed it to be the work of a resident great horned owl, and I pictured the silent swoop, the clutch of talons and the great, tearing beak. Then, lying back, I mulled over the subject.

“The death was but a link in the chain and sad only for the rabbit. For the owl, as prime predator, it was cause for fierce pleasure and satisfaction, a sustaining of life. Lesser creatures would glean crumbs from his table, bits of flesh and bone to be gnawed by mice and shrews, to be picked by birds; nests would be lined in spring with scattered hair. Remnants of body wastes and liquids would sink into the earth to nourish next year’s blade or twig which in turn would nourish, perhaps, another rabbit in the passage of time.

“Left to its normal management there is no waste in nature. Part of the owl flying in the night sky and the beetle beneath dead leaves is the rabbit who ate the twig whose nutrients came from death and decay. Everything uses and is used, is changed and converted but never lost.

“I regret that human standards have removed us from the natural chain. Human civilization has come to mean constant taking, seldom returning. How long will nature tolerate us?

Lois’s perspective brings comfort in this gray season, and I resolve to take my next walk with eyes open to the life curled up inside buds, the cocoons protecting delicate moths-to-be, the chickadees' indomitable cheer, and the renewal inherent in every bit of death. Hopefully you, too, will find ways to ensure that your November sighs indicate contentment and peace.

The bud of an alder shrub lies encased in ice near the shore of Lake Namakagon. 

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, November 3, 2017

Fun Guys in the Fen

None of us had rubber boots handy, so when we came to the log bridge across the moat we took off our shoes and went barefoot. I enjoyed the firm roughness of the decorticated log on my soles, and then the cool squish of the sphagnum moss in the floating mat as I stepped into the magical world of the fen.

I love bringing appreciative people into the Namekagon Fen, and my companions on this day were wonderful. Peter Kennedy is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, and had just given a talk called “Knee deep in peatland fungi: Mycorrhizal community diversity and composition in fens and bogs of the Northwoods.” He’d already been to one nearby bog as part of the North American Mycological Association’s annual foray, held this year at Lakewoods Resort near Cable, but when I offered to show him a giant fen as well, his eyes lit up.

As I gave some final instructions to my volunteers at the information desk, and prepared to play hooky from the foray for a couple hours, Michael Beug walked up with his camera. Michael is a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Back in the day, he teamed with the college’s ornithologist to study the impact of DDT on calcium transport in birds, and this work played a major role in getting the pesticide banned. He and Peter met during Peter’s undergraduate studies. They started chatting, and soon Michael went off to grab his camera so he could join us.

So there I was, ankle deep in cold, wet sphagnum with two PhDs who were talking a mile a minute about shared experiences and recent news, with occasional breaks to point out neat things in the fen.

Waving his hand over a patch of dead sphagnum moss, which looked bleached and scraggly compared to the velvety-red living moss beside it, Michael informed me that it was killed by a fungus. He poked around for a bit, hoping to find the delicate, pink mini-mushroom forms of Roseodiscus sp. No luck.

I offered up the impressive fact that my previous explorations had revealed this fen to be over 40 feet deep, with the bottom still out of reach of our current tools. We also found pitcher plant leaves, a tiny frog, a few late-blooming bog laurel flowers, a couple of red-orange waxy cap mushrooms, and a tiny white pine seedling growing out of a sphagnum hummock.

Without hesitation, Peter dove elbow-deep in the moss, following the white pine’s stem down to its roots, and out to the fine roots to look for mycelia. Tree roots aren’t actually that great at directly acquiring the water and nutrients they need. Most, but not all, plants have instead cultivated a symbiotic relationship with fungi in the soil. A web of thread-like fungal mycelia connects with the tree’s roots to bring it water, minerals, nitrogen, phosphorus, and even protection from pathogens. In return, the tree feeds the fungi sugars it produces through photosynthesis. As Peter described in his talk, this mycorrhizal (fungus-root) relationship is important in bogs and fens because they are especially challenging, low-nutrient environments.

We replanted the tree (although lack of mycelia suggested it didn’t have much of a chance), and wandered some more.

We were almost back at the bridge when things got even better. I pointed out a little black spruce grove where orchids bloomed in July. We wandered in. Michael plunged his hand into the sphagnum, and brought up a handful of wiry black spruce roots—their finest tips neatly capped by a white sheath of fungal mycelia. These trees were thriving with the help of mycorrhizal fungi.

Then the guys spotted some big brown mushrooms. “Hebelomas,” Michael called them. “They’re boring mushrooms nobody looks at,” Michael told me, but his friend Henry Beker from the University of London just finished the monograph on the European Hebelomas, so Michael wanted to help him document the ones here, too. They may be mycorrhizal, which makes them interesting to me.

As Michael was stooped over his tripod getting the drab, brown mushrooms in focus, Peter happened to see something else between his feet. I couldn’t even begin to understand what they were exclaiming over until Peter brought up a small clump of sphagnum moss for me to see closer. Clusters of miniature mushrooms bejeweled the mess, and their white bodies glowed in the sunlight like frosted glass ornaments.

Neocudoniella radicella: this little mushroom is found in sphagnum bogs where black spruce rootlets turn up out of the soggy mat to get air. It was a “lifer” for Michael, a mushroom he’d never seen before. “The fact that I knew it existed in a place that is incredibly beautiful and magical made it an object of desire,” he later told me.

A little handful of the gems went into Peter’s collecting basket, and eventually made its way through the vouchering process in the basement of Lakewoods. One last hurrah came that evening during announcements. Our tiny gems had been chosen by the mycologists as the “find of the day”!

That was nice, of course, but there was nowhere to write on the voucher form that the fen where these mushrooms grew was filled with bare toes squishing the sphagnum, joy bubbling up in the sunshine, old friends reconnecting their bonds, and new friends sharing an adventure. The fen is filled with treasure!

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Waist Deep in Discovery

The solid yet gelatinous blob felt pleasantly slimy in my hand when she handed it to me. Although we stood waist deep in the Namekagon River just below its headwaters dam, neoprene wetsuits protected us from the surprising cold of late August water in 2015. When we showed the patterned blob to scientist Dr. Toben Lafrancois, he recognized it immediately: bryozoan. It was a colony of tiny invertebrates all clinging to the stem of an aquatic plant.

The firm-jello-with-a-textured-surface feel of the bryozoan triggered my “gross” reflex just as much as my “cool” instinct. I was impressed when the group of teenage girls I was snorkeling with didn’t bat an eye. Showing interest (not too much), but not disgust, they all had a look before we put the colony back into the river.]

An underwater photo of the bryozoan we found that day.

I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised, because this group had been snorkeling and studying river ecology with Toben and Ian Karl, the Experiential Program Coordinator, all summer, as part of Northwest Passage’s “New Light under the Surface” program. Through a National Park Service Youth Partnership Program grant, these at-risk kids had been armed with waterproof cameras, wetsuits, and snorkel gear, and were trailblazing a new realm experienced by incredibly few, all while developing healthy life habits.

My afternoon with the girls was incredible. I’d never seen that side of the river before, and I enjoyed being the student as they helped me learn to snorkel, use an underwater camera, and follow safety protocols. Memories of that day have stuck with me, with the lumpy mass of the bryozoan rising to the top as a sort of touchstone.

So this fall, when I received several photos of bryozoans with identification requests, memories of that snorkeling experience bubbled up, and I decided it was time to investigate further. Local artist Sarah Balbin kindly led me out to a patch she’d found on the narrows of Picture Lake near Cable, and I collected a small specimen to examine later under the Museum’s new digital microscope. 

Thanks for the guide service on your beautiful lake, Sara!

With my sleeve rolled up, I plunged my arm into the cool water and tugged on the plant stem bisecting the bryozoan. The dead, decomposing stem released much more easily than I anticipated, and soon I was looking at a pair of mini-football-shaped colonies on the deck of my kayak.

While the blob looked more like a patterned glass art piece than a living being, it is actually formed of hundreds of genetically identical, physiologically interconnected animals called zooids. Each individual zooid is made up of an outer sleeve-like structure, a mass of organs that can move within the sleeve, and the lophophore, which is a ring of tentacles that filters food particles out of the water. Altogether, a zooid may be only 0.5 mm long, so none of this was visible to my unaided eye.

While each zooid is capable of independent feeding, digestion, and reproduction, they share certain fluids and tissues that unify the colony, and it’s impossible to separate them entirely.
Back in the office, I examined the bryozoan under our nifty new microscope. (Thanks for the gift, Dr. Vernier!) The brown and yellow pointillist designs I’d admired in the field resolved into a conglomeration of various-colored polka-dots, often with concentric rings. Nothing looked remotely like the feeding tentacles I’d read about. I snapped some photos through the scope and sent them off to Dr. Lafrancois for clarification.

Statoblasts in various stages of development.

Statoblasts that have become floatoblasts and are ready to float away!

“They are statoblasts,” he wrote back, “or dormant buds getting ready for winter.” While bryozoans can reproduce sexually, they also produce these statoblasts, which are sort of like tiny “survival pods” that develop while attached to zooids. Inside each bivalve-like chitin shell hides a proto-zooid with some stored food.

The statoblasts of some species contain a gas bubble that will float them up to the surface. Others drift on a current or just sink to the bottom. Apparently, the various shades of brown and yellow represent various stages of statoblast development, and their prevalence is a result of the bryozoan’s autumnal push to create clones who can survive the winter.

The bryozoan colony will die as temperatures drop, but statoblasts are incredibly durable and can survive long periods of dormancy, freezing, dehydration, and even transport in the gut of a duck or the ballast of a ship. In the spring, the proto-zooid will grow, bud off more zooids like itself, and form a new colony. By fall, colonies have reached their largest size, and people notice them more frequently…prompting them to send photos to me, and me to finally write about this incredible creature.

As I scooped the bryozoan off the microscope stage and back into its plastic bag, the texture of it in my hand brought back memories of snorkeling with those girls in Namekagon River. We were all waist deep in discovery on a sunny August afternoon.

You can read Northwest Passage’s blog about that day here: 

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, October 20, 2017

A Journey of Rocks

The Crew
Our first portage was a doozey. Angular boulders jutted into the landing, and then a jagged natural staircase climbed a steep hill. We hoisted our Duluth packs, flipped up the canoes, and exuberantly navigated the obstacles. Somewhere, about halfway across the 80-rod portage, we crossed the invisible border of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. For my parents, our friends, and me, it was like coming home.

My dad and our friend Marlene brave the first portage from Snowbank into Parent Lake.
The search for a lunch site had just begun when we paddled past the northernmost campsite on Parent Lake. An even canopy of sturdy red pines caught my eye. With rain and storms in the forecast, this campsite promised protection from wind and lightning, and good options for hanging rain tarps. A gently sloping rock at the water’s edge and a sandy beach all checked off more requirements in my head. Even though we’d planned to do one more portage that day, this campsite was where we wanted to be for the next three, rainy nights.

Staying here was a good choice.
On every portage, campsite, and lake, rocks shape our experiences, and they play an integral role in almost every aspect of a trip to the Boundary Waters. Rocks are prominent here because thousands of years ago the glaciers scoured off topsoil, loose sediment, and even layers and chunks of the bedrock itself. What remains is the foundation of the Canadian Shield—the heart of the continent.

The tangible geology of the Boundary Waters began 2.7 billion years ago with the formation of the Ely Greenstone. I’d waved at roadside outcrops of this ancient stone as we headed out of town that morning. These rocks originated as molten lava oozing out of a rift into cold seawater. The temperature difference caused the lava to cool quickly and form piles of pillows, or rounded globs with an appearance somewhat reminiscent of the stuff in a lava lamp. Later metamorphosis under heat and pressure caused the formation of green, chlorite mica crystals and preserved the pillow structures. As much as 5,000 meters thick in places, these pillow basalts formed a base for even more volcanism.

The Pillow Rock in Ely is basalts metamorphosed to greenstone.
The oozing basalts eventually gave way to explosive eruptions, and volcanoes climbed out of the depths of the inland seas and became islands.

After lunch and camp set-up, we decided to use the rest of our daylight for a short trip into neighboring Disappointment Lake. Our destination was a small x I’d penciled onto my map in 2007, when I’d spent part of a trip traveling with Tom Fitz, my geology professor from Northland College. Scribbled next to the x was the work “turbidite.”

Can you spot my x? It's right in the center of section 33. 
We paddled past plenty of islands to get there, but none of them were volcanoes—at least not active ones. Turning into the boggy bay marked by the x, we pulled our canoes up on the gently sloping, gray hump of a rock just barely breaking the surface of the lake like a breaching whale.

The whale had stripes. Not stripes of color, but bands of different textures were plainly visible. There’d be about a foot of smooth, gray rock, bounded on either side by sections pitted with oblong cavities. Looking closely, I could see that one side of the pock-marked area gradually changed from bigger to smaller holes until it became solid, while the other side went from holey to solid in an abrupt line.

In this photo I'm pretty sure that "up" is to the right. 

This was the turbidite I’d been looking for. It originated over 2 billion years ago on the side of one of those ancient volcanic islands. Tectonic activity under the volcano shook loose an avalanche of loose sediments mixed with water. As this turbidity current tumbled down the slope, rocks of all sizes got caught up in the dense, muddy slurry. Once the flow began to decrease, big rocks settled out first, then smaller and smaller clasts until just the fine sands and clays were left to sift down in calmer waters.

Subsequent earthquakes spurred more turbidity currents, and layer after layer of these graded beds built up in the basin. Being buried deeper led first to lithification (rock formation) of the sediments and then to metamorphosis. Finally, years of erosion brought our rock back to the surface.

With the help of Tom in 2007, I’d learned to read this rock. The once-vertical layers had been turned on their side. Pitted bands represented layers of bigger rocks whose softer minerals had eroded away faster than the harder matrix of ancient mud. The smooth stripes were composed of smaller grains of sand and clay. By looking at which side of the pitted stripe graded into smaller clast sizes instead of transitioning abruptly at the bottom of a new bed, we could tell what direction had originally been up. Each of us took a few seconds to imagine standing on the side of the volcano when these sediments were first deposited.

Today, geologists could apply a few different names to this rock. It’s a metagraywacke, or muddy sandstone that’s been metamorphosed. It’s turbidite, or a rock formed by turbidity flows. Some people even refer to the pattern as a Bouma Sequence.My family enjoyed learning those words, but most Boundary Water’s paddlers would just call it a lunch rock. 

For me, though, rocks play such a fundamental role in every Boundary Waters trip that knowing about their journey makes my own just a little more meaningful.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Another season has flown...with Lois Nestel

“Another season has flown,” wrote Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding naturalist and director, more than three decades ago. “We watched its passage in the flight of warblers appearing from nowhere to feed and move like phantoms, ever southward. We saw it in the gathering of flocks of restless robins, in drifting parachutes of milkweed seeds and swirls of falling leaves. We heard it in the strident notes of crickets and in the droning of great slow bumblebees on the last frostbitten flowers. But most of all we saw it in the wedges of geese winging across the autumn sky. Summer rides their wings and with them it will vanish to return only when they come again to herald another year.”

Some things never change. This fall I watched those same flocks of birds, drifting seeds, and swirling leaves. I took a net to the cold-hobbled bumblebees and gathered specimens for use in our next exhibit. And, on one deep-blue evening, as a glorious pink sunset shot through the clouds, a pair of geese swung down out of the tentative stars. Their wild honking sent a chill down my neck, and I let the kayak paddle rest while they dipped lower and lower toward my bow. Powerful wings sent ripples scooting across the lake’s glassy surface, and then lifted the geese back up just long enough to reach the far, dark shore of the lake, where they vanished. As I turned to paddle home, a half-moon sent its own ripples across my path.

Lois continued, “It is difficult to explain the feeling of nostalgia, of longing, yearning, created by the sight and sound of flying geese. What sound turns eyes skyward more surely than the calling of wild geese? The eyes follow their passage and as the voices fade and forms become receding, wavering motes, we turn again to everyday affairs with an inward sigh of vague, unexplainable regret.

“Summer has gone, and we deplore its passing. But the transient, delicate beauty of flower and leaf is not lost forever; it is simply laid aside temporarily to be superseded by other beauties, different but equal. Falling leaves disclose the graceful structure of trunk and limb as lacy networks against the sky. Leaf-darkened woodlands are once again open and airy, and one can see deep within places that a short time ago were walls of green.

“Birds’ nests, once well hidden, now hang openly on naked branches, revealing by their architecture the nature of the builder. The nests of hornets and the cocoons of the great moths are also exposed to seeing eyes.

“With summer’s ending, nature has not closed her book but has merely turned the page, and the stories written on the fallen leaf and snow are as thrilling and delightful as those written on summer’s green page.”

Among the seasonal changes of field and forest, humans set about their own complementary autumnal routines. I don’t have a fireplace or woodstove, so I content myself with smelling other people’s morning fires on my way to work. Then at home in the evening I bundle up in a down vest and put a flannel bag full of rice, heated in the microwave, by my feet. Lois had a much nicer way to keep her toes warm.

She wrote, “The now familiar energy crisis has many connotations; most of them unpleasant, but for me there is one very positive aspect, based as much on sentimentality as on practicality. This is the swing back to wood as fuel and the accompanying sight and scent of woodsmoke.

“Especially on chill evenings there is something very comforting in the sight of smoke rising from neighboring chimneys and the fragrance of different kinds of wood mingling on the frosty air. This is nostalgia time, for one of the treasured memories of childhood is walking home from school in the winter twilight and seeing across the snow-covered fields the lamplight glowing softly from kitchen windows and smoke rising from chimneys—the first warm breath of home fires with their promise of warmth and security.

“It also meant, of course, wood boxes to fill before dark: one for the kitchen stove, another for the living room heater. For in those days, wood was not a supplementary fuel, but the only fuel. Now, again, woodpiles grow in back yards and the crack of the splitting axe rings through the air.

“Blue-white smoke rising from chimneys not only speaks of warmth and comfort within, but tells wind direction and strength and, to some degree, the atmospheric conditions. In years past this was my only barometer.

“For many, wood is not just a supplement to ease the burdensome expense of gas or oil. A few have gone all the way and reverted entirely to wood as fuel. Cooks are learning once again the satisfaction of soups and stews and bean pots simmered long and slow on a wood range and the comfortable sound of a teakettle singing on the back of a stove.

“There is a saying that wood warms you twice, once when you cut it and once when you burn it. I think a third warmth could be added—the deep heart-warmth that glows like embers within and rises like smoke on a still day to gladden all surrounding souls.”

Happily, those who are lucky enough to have fireplaces kindly share the sight and smell of their woodsmoke with the rest of us.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!