Friday, November 15, 2019

Finding Fall Color

“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,” wrote Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding director. Not much has changed in the intervening decades. As our vision is filled by low light, gray skies, and bare trees, keeping a cheerful attitude can feel like a challenge.

Lois Nestel at Juniper Rock in 1980.

My solution? Go outside anyway. Nothing improves my mood like fresh air and exercise. Besides, hot chocolate and cookies taste so much better once they’ve been earned.

So on a recent gray morning I set out on one of my favorite sections of the North Country Trail. The little 0.7 mile jaunt to Juniper Rock Overlook is one of the most popular sections of trail. In the middle of a region socked in by trees, stepping out onto the craggy nose of bedrock above the Marengo River valley invites a deep breath and soul expansion. 



Of course I found mosses to distract me on the way....


The overlook is especially popular in the midst of fall colors. The greens of summer mask the diversity of the forest until early October, when the red maples send up their flares, the sugar maples smolder orange, and the aspens glow yellow. With the recent gales of November, though, I expected I’d find a plain, gray view. What actually greeted me at the top was much nicer.

Juniper Rock Overlook offers a wonderful view in any season. Photo by Emily Stone.


The deep greens of spruce and fir trees lining the Marengo River marked a sinuous path along the valley floor. Flanking them, the forest looked almost fluffy, with the pale, round crowns of aspen trees mimicking translucent cotton balls. Far across the valley, a rich brown shawl of oak leaves—still clinging to their twigs—warmed the shoulders of another craggy outcrop. In the foreground, a slender trio of paper birch saplings raised their purple twigs skyward. Finally, sunshine peeked out of a hole in the clouds.

The vibrant colors of autumn leaves are not just for show. All summer, orange carotene pigments capture wavelengths of light that the green chlorophyll cannot, and then transfer that energy over to help fuel photosynthesis. Yellow xanthophyll pigments absorb dangerous excess energy in the leaf and dissipate it as heat. Both are revealed when the trees start to remove nutrients from the green chlorophyll and save them in the twigs for use next spring. 

Here's a very similar view from Juniper Rock--on October 7, 2019. Still a little early for peak color! Photo by Emily Stone. 


Likewise, the pale color of the aspen twigs facilitates photosynthesis, allowing the trees to make food in late fall and early spring, as long as the sun can warm their wood up to at least 45 degrees. 

If you scratch the surface off the young twig of almost any northern tree, you’ll find a thin layer of green—chloroplasts that are ready to make sugar. In aspen trees, their pale, thin outer bark stays translucent for longer as they age, and allows them to photosynthesize throughout more of their surface area. As trees grow, their cells give off carbon dioxide, which can be taken up directly by their inner chlorophyll and used for photosynthesis. In turn, the oxygen produced as a byproduct of making sugars gets harnessed for respiration. 

The pale bark of young birch trunks also lets some light in for photosynthesis, but the deep purple of birch twigs may be a sunscreen to prevent damage through the dormant season. The difference in twig color between aspens and birches is helpful when identifying them from afar. 

My stop at Juniper Rock was brief, because the bedrock cliff with the oak shawl was beckoning. It, too, is accessible from the North Country Trail. As I climbed up the far side of the river valley, more color caught my eye among the pale trunks of aspen and gray spindles of ironwood. The purple and gold of gracefully upward-arching twigs were so rich that they reminded me of the team colors of our high school rivals. 

Pagoda dogwood twigs. Photo by Emily Stone.


I suppose they are rivals of some sort. Rich purple is the normal color of twigs on pagoda dogwood (also known as alternate-leaved dogwood). The golden twigs are dead or dying, having been invaded by a fungus called golden canker. The fungus may live among the cells of healthy-looking dogwoods for years before the symptoms of yellowing bark and tiny orange polka dots manifest. I rarely see a pagoda dogwood shrub without at least one golden twig, and these contrasting colors were pointed out in my very first botany class as a clue to identification. 

The golden twigs of Pagoda dogwood make it easy to identify—even though the color means that they’re dying from a fungus. Photo by Emily Stone. 


By the time I finally reached that far, oak-shrouded overlook and gazed back across the valley at Juniper Rock, more patches of blue sky had materialized. My mood had lifted, too, buoyed by both my ability and willingness to appreciate color where it can still be found.

View of Juniper Rock from across the valley. Photo by Emily Stone.


Lois Nestel must have been on a similar journey when she wrote that essay many decades ago, because by the end of it, she offered these words of wisdom: “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.”

Now, who’s up for some hot chocolate and cookies?

Find directions to the trailhead at: https://www.cablemuseum.org/get-outside/ 

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too. 

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email emily@cablemuseum.org. 

Friday, November 8, 2019

Discovering Moss


“Let’s go look for moss,” invited Joe Rohrer, a retired botany professor from University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. So our eager group of amateur naturalists donned puffy coats and stocking hats before leaving the cozy warmth of the Gatehouse at Forest Lodge.

Jane Weber, Janet Barthel, David Broadwell and Laurel Sukup look on as Prof. Joe Rohrer shows us yet another species of moss he found on a single, green rock. Photo by Emily Stone.

The moss was already out there. Unlike most of our other plants, moss doesn’t change all that much as it goes dormant for the winter. Bare twigs etched patterns across the sky. The dead stems of flowers and weeds melted into the sweet-smelling drifts of maple leaves. Big plants must make big changes as winter approaches. Moss simply dries or hydrates or freezes or thaws as the weather dictates. Simply, I say, but truly the moss has an efficient system for turning off its essential functions that allow it to avoid and repair cell damage.

On this first afternoon of a 3-day workshop about moss, our goal was simply to tour the property and start seeing moss. Forest Lodge was the summer estate of Mary Griggs Burke, founder of the Cable Natural History Museum. Her grandfather purchased the land from the logging barons who had just clear-cut it in the late 1800s. Ever since then, the shade under hemlock-hardwood forest has been deepening. When Mrs. Burke passed away in 2012, her 800+ acres of forest on the south shore of Lake Namakagon transferred into the care of the USDA Forest Service. Northland College manages the estate for educational programming.

Our education began immediately.

The vibrant green cushion of moss on a low, rounded rock in Mrs. Burke’s overgrown Japanese garden pulled us toward it like a magnet. From five feet up, the carpet looked uniform. Then Joe knelt down. Sarah crouched in. Elizabeth leaned over. We began to see.

Ingrid Larson was amazed by how many different types of moss we could see on a single rock, once we looked closer. Photo by Emily Stone.


By leaning in, we were able to discern slight variations in color and texture. A patchwork of mosses came into focus. (Here’s a grammar note: when talking about moss in general, or a group of the same species of moss, the plural is just moss. But when you’re talking about more than one type of moss, the plural become mosses.) Two…three...four species materialized where previously we’d just seen green. Then Joe extricated a little string from the cushion and held it out to us. The creeping stem lined with tiny leaves branched several times at wide angles. “This is an example of a pleurocarp moss,” he explained, “They often form densely woven mats.”

Elizabeth examines a mat of pleurocarp moss. 

Then, probing into a different section of rock, he held up a single stalk bristling with spikey leaves. “In contrast, this acrocarp moss is very upright, and if there are branches, they run parallel to each other. They tend to look more like a tiny forest.” 

A tiny forest of acrocarp moss.

Being able to tell the difference between these two growth forms is the first step in identifying mosses using Joe’s field guide: Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians. A few years ago, Joe’s old college buddy, Karl McKnight, asked Joe to help with the book, and they came up with a pretty slick system for identifying 200 common species of moss—184 of which occur in Wisconsin.

Because mosses are mostly known by their scientific names, the book team made up memorable and descriptive common names to help us regular folks. For instance, we all oohed and aahed when Joe pointed out a patch of “windswept broom moss.” The arched tips of its long leaves were bent all to the same side, and even on the calm day it resembled a fairy-sized field of grasses blowing in the breeze.

Windswept Broom Moss

The second step in identifying a moss using Joe’s guide is looking at the shape of an individual leaf. For this, we moved indoors, and used a digital microscope to project fragments of mosses on the big screen, and hand lenses to augment our own eyes. When viewed close-up, in good light, moss leaves glow. The hairlike, lance-shaped, ovate, tongue-shaped or sickle-shaped leaves are just one cell thick, allowing sunlight to pass through, and water to come and go.

Prof. Joe Rohrer checks out the details of a moss through his hand lens. “Mosses are hard because they are small,” he reassured us during the class. Photo by Emily Stone.

Some moss leaves do have a midrib that is a few cells thick, and its presence or absence is the third main feature in Joe’s ID key. After determining those three characters, the key directs you to a section of the species pages with mosses that meet the criteria. There are few enough options that it’s not an onerous task to flip through the photos and sketches for each species and make a visual match of what you’re trying to identify. Or you could flip to the more technical dichotomous keys in the back of the book, which provide a more organized system for identification.

Joe shows us a moss leaf lacking a midrib. 


With hand lenses held close, we dove into the challenge of moss identification. I was successful with some, and confused by others, and I loved every minute of looking.

“…the already gorgeous world becomes even more beautiful the closer you look.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss

(Copies of Joe’s moss guide and Robin's beautiful book are available in the Museum Shop, where you can also pick up a hand lens for looking closer.)

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email emily@cablemuseum.org.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Chimneys Built by Crayfish


Insects buzzed in the heat as our small group from the Outdoor Writers Association of America puttered around the canoe landing getting boats, paddles, and lifejackets ready for a trip around a cypress swamp. I wandered off through a muddy brown field to find some “facili-trees” in the nearby forest. On my way back to the group, a strange shape caught my eye. Parting the tall stems of dried grasses, I found a hollow tower made of mudballs. It was only about 6 inches tall and a few inches wide, but the discovery felt big to me. I’d never seen anything like it!

Crayfish chimneys in a drying wetland at Seedskadee NWR. Tom Koerner, USFWS


Our local guide chuckled at my excited questions, and quickly identified the sculpture as a crayfish’s mud chimney. The crayfish I catch (well, the crayfish that my students catch—I let them have all the fun) in the Namekagon River of northern Wisconsin live in a world of sand, rocks, and swift water. If they built towers like this, the river would wash them away. But there are hundreds of species of crayfish in North America, and some of them are sculptors.

Even though my current local crayfish aren’t much for burrowing, I grew up in the muddy creeks and rivers of Iowa, where surely the crayfish build chimneys. My dad nicknamed me his “mud and water daughter” by golly, how had I not seen this pattern in my mud? He can’t figure it out either. There were lots of burrowing crayfish in the farm ponds and pasture creeks where he grew up in central Iowa. He’s seen them along the Turkey River of northeast Iowa, too, where I first learned to paddle a canoe. Now that I’m looking, I bet I’ll find some next time I visit home.

Journeys of discovery are fun at any age, so I burrowed through the internet for information.

Burrowing crayfish are sometimes called “land-lobsters” or terrestrial crayfish. Most crayfish are aquatic—living in ponds or streams—since they need to absorb oxygen through gills. Others simply inhabit wet ground with a high water table, and excavate burrows that flood and give them space to breathe. As they dig, they are loathe to exit their burrows and expose themselves to danger, so they roll the mud into a ball using their legs and mouthparts and brick it up in an ever-rising chimney of mud around their tunnel entrance. Only under cover of darkness will they exit their bunker and go in search of food.

Have you ever learned something new, and then suddenly started to notice it everywhere?

This September, I was once again on a paddling trip to a beautiful place. My family blew in to an island campsite on Saganaga Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. While whitecaps crashed against our rocky landing, and the stiff breeze whisked away all available warmth from our tent sites, we bushwhacked to the lee side of the island. The goal was to do some shore fishing in a protected bay. As I stooped out of the alder thicket and onto the muddy shoreline, a strange shape caught my eye.

There, among the grasses and rushes in a mucky flat, were a few little towers of mud. Crayfish chimneys? In the Boundary Waters?

I was both surprised and stumped, and soon distracted by fishing. When the wind finally died and the sun came out, we no longer needed to seek refuge in the bay. I never even went back to snap a photo. My best guess, with some post-trip research and consultation with experts, is that the chimneys could have been made by calico crayfish, a widespread native species that is known to burrow.

Calico crayfish. Photo by Astacoides. Wikimedia Commons.

Fast forward to October, when local artist Sara Balbin asked me to be part of the “Going, Going, Gone? Artists Explore Disappearing Species” exhibit at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland, WI. Sara had chosen to sculpt the endangered Hine's emerald dragonfly, and asked me to write a few words about its ecology to pair with her artist’s statement.

Hine's Emerald Dragonfly

 
I discovered that these rare dragonflies with brilliant green eyes live in shallow wetlands on dolomitic limestone bedrock, and Door County is their last stronghold. What’s more, as their wetlands evaporate in late summer, the aquatic dragonfly nymphs retreat into the damp recesses of devil crayfish burrows! I laughed out loud when I read that—a reaction of surprise and delight. These burrowing crayfish are turning up everywhere.

Scientists acknowledge that some dragonfly nymphs may become lunch for the resident crayfish, but the relationship must allow enough of them to survive for it to be beneficial to the population as a whole. It’s important enough that crayfish conservation is recommended as an essential part of the recovery of the endangered dragonfly.

And dragonflies aren’t the only ones who find refuge with the land-lobsters. Federally threatened eastern massasauga rattlesnakes have been found hibernating in crayfish burrows, and it’s likely that the damp habitat helps them avoid both freezing and desiccation.

I’m definitely not alone in my appreciation for mud.

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email emily@cablemuseum.org.


Friday, October 25, 2019

Little Green Islands


Leaves fell like glitter on the sun-showered path. These tiny, yellow hearts of quaking aspen fluttered wildly as they descended, eventually ending up in drifts built upon the wilted bodies of their companions. Placid raindrops beaded up on their slick surfaces, shining like jewels in the slanting rays of afternoon sun. A gentle sweetness wafted on the lukewarm breeze.

I do love fall.

And yet I already miss (just a little) the vibrancy of a buzzing summer day. Maybe if we could hold on to that green energy for just a little longer . . .

The golden leaves almost all had their own little hitchhiker hiding out between those slick, waterproof leaf skins. My evidence? Bright green trapezoids of chlorophyll captured between the first and second veins on one side of the leaves’ midribs. The very top of the leaf’s stem was thickened, too, just a little wider than normal. And where the thick stem and bright green met, a small patch of brown frass (caterpillar poop) filled in a section between veins. The trees are not responsible for the variegated leaves—some insect had created a gall.

Splashes of green add color to the yellow aspen leaves of fall. Each little green island holds a tiny moth larvae.
Photo by Emily Stone.
 

Back in July, a small, brown moth with white-fringed wings laid an egg on the leaf petiole. She did this without the help of a male. This species of moth is parthenogenetic, which means that the embryo developed even though the egg wasn’t fertilized. Males hardly ever occur in the population.

If you read my article last week, you may remember that I’m trying to avoid calling living things “it” because it reduces them to an object. In the case of this moth, not only does using the “grammar of animacy” acknowledge the sentience of this creature, it also helps us learn more about the moth’s biology. As I continue to use the pronoun “she” through the rest of the article, you’ll be reminded of this moth’s interesting reproductive strategy.

By September a translucent larva hatched and bored into the leaf’s petiole, causing the stem to swell into a small gall. Munching her way up inside the leaf under the cover of darkness (she retreats into the thickened part of the stem during the day), the leaf-mining larva interrupted the mechanisms the tree normally uses to draw chlorophyll out of the leaf during the waning days of autumn.


Here's the little caterpillar! For some odd reason I'd never thought to dissect the tiny gall in the leaf petiole, even though I knew that the larvae should still be there. Recently, i ripped open and leaf and found this little one. 



How does she do this? One hypothesis goes like this: the caterpillar hosts a common bacterium, called Wolbachia, in her body. Perhaps through the caterpillar’s frass, or other bodily secretions, Wolbachias enter the leaf, where they manipulate plant hormones that control when a leaf dies, and cause one part of the leaf to retain its chlorophyll.

The result is a “green island” in the yellow aspen leaf.

Such a tiny caterpillar would dry out in the summer heat if she tried to pupate high in the tree canopy. Instead, she takes advantage of pleasant fall weather and then hitchhikes on the falling leaf down to the damp forest floor. Once there, she steals a few more bites of the green energy she’d hoarded in the leaf and then pupates in relative safety and an agreeable microclimate. The soon-to-be-moth spends the winter in her cocoon, which is loosely woven to the surface of the now-brown leaf.

The receding snow and warming sun of May stimulate metamorphosis, and the new moth emerges from her winter sleep.

While not native to the United States, this drab moth and her tiny caterpillars have traveled far. No doubt this was facilitated by their ability to reproduce using parthenogenesis. They live across all the continents in the Northern Hemisphere, and have become quite common here and in eastern Canada. As a result of their wide distribution, some of the information I have presented here was translated from Swedish and Dutch! I can track this organism throughout the world by the universal language of scientific names. Ectoedemia argyropeza may not roll off your tongue, but scientists all over the planet use this one name to refer to this particular species.

Whatever you call it, the vibrant green islands those moth larvae preserve are a lovely part of fall.

Editor’s note: this article is an expansion on a Natural Connections article from 2012.

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email emily@cablemuseum.org.


Friday, October 18, 2019

The Grammar of Animacy


“We no longer face a physical frontier, but a change in philosophy, a complete reversal of our attitude toward the earth that might open the door to a golden era far more resplendent than the old.” 
– Sigurd Olson, Reflections from the North Country

In 2011, I wrote: “Paddling close to a loon, I was struck by the vibrancy of its glowing red eye.” Loons aren’t “its,” though. I would now say “I was struck by the vibrancy of their glowing red eye,” and offer this living being the grammar of animacy. Photo by Emily Stone.

I’ve been thinking a lot about language recently, and the cultural implications of the words we choose to use. A few weeks ago, the Merriam-WebsterDictionary made headlines by endorsing use of the pronoun “they” when referring to “a single person whose gender is nonbinary.” This is great news for our neighbors, relatives, and anyone for whom “he” or “she” just doesn’t feel right.

I think it’s also great news for the natural world.

Long before those headlines—since 2013—I’d been thinking about the implications of the pronouns we use for non-human living beings. It all began when Robin Wall Kimmerer won the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award for her book Braiding Sweetgrass:Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. I attended her award ceremony and lecture at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute on the Northland College campus—a trip back to my alma mater.





Robin’s wisdom—as a botanist, a woman, and as someone deeply connected to the Earth—spoke directly to my heart and my mind. Her words continue to influence how I write, and think, and interact. Most of what she said has become mixed up with what I later read in her book, and integrated seamlessly into my worldview, but I do remember clearly that she talked about the Grammar of Animacy.

Robin Wall Kimmerer

In language, animacy is an expression of “how sentient or alive the referent of a noun is.” When we refer to something as “it,” we are saying that the subject is inanimate—without feelings or agency. We generally reserve the animate “he” and “she” for humans and our pets.

But Robin is learning Potawatomi—the language of her ancestors. In Potawatomi, and many indigenous languages, not only do people use the equivalent of “he” and “she” to speak of animals and plants, but also rocks and rivers, mountains and fire, and places.

“In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family,” wrote Robin in an article for Moon Magazine.

That night, Robin suggested a new set of pronouns that could acknowledge animacy in beings that don’t fit into the binary categories of “he” or “she.” “Ki howls at the moon,” she suggested for the singular. Or “Kin are flying south for the winter.” I think it’s beautiful to call a flock of geese our kin, but perhaps also impractical to ask our language to change that much.

That’s where the singular “they” comes in, along with the corresponding “them,” “their,” “theirs,” and “themselves.” This one little shift in our language may make room for similar changes that will continue to increase respect for marginalized groups. We’ve already moved away from “he” as the gender neutral pronoun. Languages are living things.

Since Robin’s talk, I’ve been trying to use the grammar of animacy when I write about non-human, living beings in our natural world. Fresh out of science classrooms, I used to be concerned with avoiding the plague of anthropomorphism. Now I think it’s just as arrogant to talk about animals and other living beings as if they don’t think, feel, or perceive.

The singular “they” is a useful option, and it’s not our only one. The easiest words for me to use are “who” and “whom” in place of “that.” Whenever possible, I try to figure out the sex of an animal so that I can use “he” and “she” accurately. For instance, I wrote “Snowy owls can be territorial even in their winter feeding areas, and while there aren’t many other owls around to challenge him, this guy (male, as indicated by his very white feathers) seems to have staked out his claim.” Bees and wasps are almost always female, singing birds tend to be male, and old white pines are usually Grandmothers.

The bright white of this owl’s feathers indicated that he was a male, which meant that I could easily write about “him” instead of “it,” and offer this living being the grammar of animacy.
Photo by Emily Stone.


Changing habits is hard and I admit to being inconsistent. Still, even occasionally remembering to use the grammar of animacy may have a positive change in the way we and those around us perceive the world.

I hope that you will join me in using language that acknowledges the selfhood and kinship of our neighbors and our relatives here on Earth.

“A living language is continually made and remade, woven out of the silence by those who speak.” –David Abram

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email emily@cablemuseum.org.


Friday, October 11, 2019

Seek and You Shall Find (aka Emily meets a new plant)


The cloud ceiling was low and gray, but at least it wasn’t raining, and it wasn’t cold. Earlier in the day, a couple from southern Wisconsin had stopped by the Museum to ask where they could see some loons without a boat. I’d directed them to Country Road D, which snakes along the eastern shore of Lake Namakagon, and now I hopped on my bike to follow my own advice.

No loons bobbed in the first bay, but as I surveyed the scenery, something else caught my attention. Almost the entire shoreline was striped with a band of plants turning a rich pink color for fall. Cattail and bur-reed leaves were still green. The floating, Packman-shaped leaves of water lilies were showing patches of yellow. The pickerel weed was crinkled and brown. But what could be pink? I rubbernecked on my bike, trying to make out the shapes of the leaves, going through the files of aquatic plants in my brain—and came up blank.


This photo was taken a few weeks after I first started noticing the pink plants. They really caught fire!

What could this be? And should it be there?

Those questions niggled at the back of my mind for several days, until finally a rare bit of calm sunshine sent me digging for my sunglasses and hauling my kayak down to the shore. It took a while to reach that pink-lined bay, but of course I enjoyed the journey. This new-to-me wooden sea kayak cut silently through the waves, and turned responsively when I leaned to one side or the other.

It's a joy to paddle in the sunshine!

Through the lily pads, the kayak became more sluggish and noisy, but finally I reached the old beaver lodge, where clumps of the pink plant spread out into the shallow water.


My kayak allowed me a close-up view of this new plant, and the Seek app helped me identify it. Photo by Emily Stone.


The clusters were composed of dozens to hundreds of unbranched stems reaching upright in the center and spilling gracefully out over the water like a cascading bouquet. The lower leaves were still green, but the stems themselves, as well as the highest leaves in each cluster, were that vibrant shade of fuchsia I’d spotted from the shore.


Swamp loosestrife is a native wetland plant that turns beautiful shades of pink and red in the fall. Photo by Emily Stone.
Each leaf was lanceolate in shape, and maybe 5 inches long. The leaves clustered in whorls, with one tapered end attaching near two others on the stem, and the other point leaning outward and upward. Smooth edges, a waxy surface, and pink veins completed the look, but still did not call up a name from the lists I keep tucked away in the cobwebby recesses of my brain.


Swamp loosestrife has whorled leaves and a pink stem. Here it shares habitat with water lilies. Photo by Emily Stone. 


 
So, I extricated my phone from its waterproof case, and snapped a few photos to take home and identify later. Then I noticed that I was getting full reception—including data—way out here in the middle of nowhere. Just for kicks, I tapped the icon for the new “Seek” app I’d recently downloaded.

When I turned on the app’s camera, a live video popped up on the screen, and I began filming the plant from all angles. Words popped up on the screen, overlaying the images. “Dicots,” it said, as I tapped the screen to tell the camera where to focus. Dicots are a group that includes most plants, so that wasn’t helpful. Suddenly, “Swamp Loosestrife Decodon verticillatus” popped onto the screen. Success!

“Seek” is an educational tool built on iNaturalist—a website I’ve mentioned before. As citizen scientists upload and identify photos on the iNaturalist website, its computer vision system builds a model of each organism. Seek then uses those models to identify things in real-time. When I’d first learned about Seek from a friend in Milwaukee, I scoffed at the idea of ever having access to the cell phone data that would make it useful while in the middle of the woods. But here, in the middle of a lake, in the middle of nowhere, it worked.

Screenshot of my observation in the Seek app.

Now, knowing that the plant was a loosestrife, the obvious next question that popped up was its relation to the non-native invasive purple loosestrife that most people know about. So I scrolled down in the speciesaccount, and quickly found that it is “native to wetlands in the eastern half of the United States and Canada.” Phew!

Curiously, back at the office, when I checked Wisconsin State Herbarium’s website, swamp loosestrife is not listed from Bayfield County. Is it a new arrival? Or just in an un-surveyed area? I posted my observation to iNaturalist, so as soon as someone else confirms my ID, it will be “research grade.” The next step may be creating an herbarium specimen of the plant in flower, so that it can be documented in a museum the old fashioned way.

Map of the range of Swamp Loosestrife in Wisconsin, from the Flora of  Wisconsin-Consortium of Wisconsin Herbaria website.  I was in Bayfield County, way up there in the north. 
Minnesota is on the western edge of Swamp Loosestrife's range. Map from Minnesota Wildflowers.

You may be scoffing—just as I first did—at an app that plays into all the stereotypes about young people on their phones needing instant gratification. But, at least in this case, the final ID was just one piece of a multi-day journey. I biked, I paddled. I wracked my brain for previous knowledge. It just so happens that Seek has a much bigger database, and a quicker search and retrieval system than my own busy brain.

It’s not perfect, though. Playing around with the app later, I discovered with smug satisfaction that it still isn’t good enough to identify a sugar maple leaf. But I’m now able to recognize swamp loosestrife. I win!



Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email emily@cablemuseum.org.