Friday, September 22, 2017

A Foray to Remember

Lois Nestel, the Cable Natural History Museum’s founding naturalist and director, loved mushrooms. She ate them, sculpted them, painted them, and taught the community about them. We still proudly display her work as part of our collections.
This past weekend, September 7-10, the Museum once again found ourselves immersed in mushrooms, and I think Lois would have loved it! The North American Mycological Association (NAMA) holds an annual foray every year in a different place. This year it came to Lakewoods Resort, east of Cable, WI, on Lake Namakagon. Last year it was held in Front Royal, VA, near Shenandoah National Park. Next year’s foray will take place near CraterLake, OR. Keep track at

Usually a local mycology club hosts the annual foray, but since the Cable Area doesn’t have a club, the Museum stood in. I coordinated the field trips (among a zillion other things) and recruited a swarm of volunteers to help with everything from driving vans to running the information desk. We all had a blast.

Ed Johnston ran the Museum Shop's table in the vendor area for at least one shift. We sold LOTS of mushroom books to forayers, and have additional books still in the store.
Thursday began slowly, with out-of-towners just beginning to arrive. One of the early birds, Jay Justice, a free-range, free-lance field mycologist from Arkansas, kindly agreed to give a short lecture and field walk for the public at the Museum on Thursday morning. Thirty-five people hung on every southern-accented word and gathered ‘round as we walked less than a block but still found plenty of mushrooms to look at.

In the afternoon, I led a field trip to Paine’s Island on Lake Namekagon. It’s privately held, but the owners are Museum members who are interested in mushrooms. In exchange for welcoming strange mycologists into their haven, they were able to join the foray. Our pontoon driver was also Museum member and amateur mycologist. Together, we scoured the forest for mushrooms.

Well, more like we started walking and then had trouble not squashing mushrooms wherever we stepped! One fallen log-a mossy old basswood trunk-was a mycological gold mine. The longer we looked, the more we found. The most visible fungi were artist’s conks-the firm shelf fungi with white undersides you can draw on. Looking closer we discovered a Lilliputian world of slime molds, jelly fungi, cup fungi, and more.


Glowing orange clusters of mushrooms drew us further into the forest. Shimmering lilac caps brought us to our knees. I stayed with a group moving slowly, distracted at every turn by new fungi.
Part of the group took off at a brisk pace, and circumnavigated the island. One of them came crashing out of the forest after an hour or so, glowing both from sweat and excitement. In her hand was a bouquet of tiny parrot waxy caps. The ¾ inch diameter caps were a glossy pea green, while the stems were melon orange. Her smile was jack-o-lantern bright. This was a “lifer” for her, a mushroom that had been on her bucket list for years.

Friday and Saturday brought more abundant fungi, as the foray jumped into full swing. Four field trips with two 15-passenger vans each rolled out of the parking lot at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. sharp. Other attendees could choose from any of three simultaneous lectures each hour. When the field trips returned home, their mushroom baskets were piled high with specimens tucked neatly into waxed paper bags, each with their own voucher slip containing information about where the fungus was found. The drop-off tables quickly became buried as the scientists and grad students worked to identify, sort, and organize the hundreds of fungal specimens.

This is the organized display tent.

Even the experts I talked to at the foray-mycologists who have been traveling the world for years--told me that they saw fungi in person here that they’d previously seen only in books. Even people just foraging for the pot had their day to shine. Many pounds of choice edibles like black trumpets, chanterelles, and chicken-of-the-woods went home with happy mycophagists.

Black trumpets and other edible mushrooms were not in short supply!
Our evenings were spent in the giant convention room, with 350 people eagerly awaiting the announcement of “finds of the day.” Drab, obscure fungi won most of the prizes. These fungi are rarely found because they are easy to overlook.

Britt Bunyard presents a "find of the day."
It seems as though almost no fungi was overlooked by this group, though. While the total number of species collected won’t be final until after Patrick Leacock, the foray’s lead mycologist (, checks them over at the Field Museum in Chicago, the experts are guessing that we’ll get names on at least 550 species of fungi, collected over just a few days, in an area reaching from Madeline Island to Shell Lake. This breaks the previous record for the number of species collected at a NAMA Foray: 523.

The best sample of each species was carefully documented, photographed, and dehydrated, and will be housed in the herbarium at the Field Museum alongside 20 years’ worth of these vouchered specimens gathered at NAMA Forays.

The experts confer.
The NAMA Northwoods Foray was a resounding success. “The best ever!” according to some long-time NAMA members. You can see photos of the event by searching for #NorthwoodsForay17 on Facebook or Instagram.
That success was no accident, though. The lead organizer, FUNGI Magazine editor Britt Bunyard, chose Bayfield County because he knew the fungal diversity was incredible. We chose Lakewoods Resort because their incredible staff is accustomed to big events, and also because they are smack-dab in the middle the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and an incredible network of trails. The Museum chose to help because we knew that our volunteers would step up, keep things running smoothly, be thrilled to welcome people to our woods, and hungry to learn more about fungi. With this event, we fulfilled our mission by connecting 350 mycologists from around the world to Northwoods Nature!
I think Lois Nestel would be proud, don’t you?
Lois Nestel's granddaughter, Sandy, holds a mushroom they found together. Photo by Lois Nestel.

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, September 15, 2017

Sharpies at Hawk Ridge

A blustery northwest wind cut right through two layers of wool as I stepped out of the car at Hawk Ridge in Duluth, MN. Binoculars, bird books, hot tea, and windbreakers in hand, my parents and I set up our watch with about fifty other birders and volunteers. Bright sunshine alternated with shadows cast by hurried gray clouds. Up on a wooden platform, several experts peered through spotting scopes, intently searching the sky. Their quarry: hawks.

Each fall, about 82,000 raptors pass over Hawk Ridge on their southern migration. Understandably reluctant to cross a large body of water, the birds funnel southwest along the shore of Lake Superior. The high, rocky outcrop of Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve makes a great viewing platform, and people from all over (like my parents from Iowa) come to watch the migration here.

Under some conditions, hawks will fly low over the ridge, zooming just above the heads of excited birders. Today, most of the raptors were tiny black specks in the distance, only visible by scanning the wild blue yonder with our binoculars.

Raptor biologists here have a special trick for getting close-up views of the hawks - bait. Using a technique a lot like fishing, researchers pull the string on a lure to make it look like an injured bird. When a raptor swoops down for an easy meal, it becomes tangled in one of a series of nets. Researchers carefully extricate it from the net, take a variety of measurements, and attach a numbered band to its leg. About three percent of birds banded here are recaptured. Based on the data collected from recapturing banded birds, sharp-shinned hawks migrating over Hawk Ridge generally head southeast to Illinois, and then southwest toward east Texas and Mexico, following the prevailing wind pattern.

Sometimes naturalists bring a recent captive down from the remote banding station so that folks on the overlook can get a better view. Moments after we arrived, two naturalists called everyone over to see a couple "sharpies" in hand. To prevent the hawks from hurting the humans or themselves, the naturalists held their wings, tail, and legs gently but firmly in the fist of one hand. The birds, both hatch-year females, looked quite calm.

Sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest hawks in North America, and have the biggest size difference between males and females. Females are up to one-third bigger than males, and this size difference means that they focus on different sizes of prey. Males tend to hunt smaller birds, such as sparrows, while females can concentrate on larger prey, like robins. This has two big advantages: males and females do not compete for the same food source, and chicks can get appropriately sized food as they grow.

During the first few weeks after hatching, the female sharp-shin broods the chicks while the male hunts and brings in small songbirds. He typically removes and eats the head before delivering the meal. As the chicks mature, the female joins in the hunting and brings larger prey for the hungry fledglings.

Sharp-shinned hawks are agile and acrobatic fliers, navigating dense woods at high speeds by using their long tail as a rudder. Short, rounded wings help them zip through tight spaces after small birds. During migration, they leave the dense forests of their northern nesting grounds and take to the open sky.

To help make the journey easier, these and other hawks will ride thermals, which are rising pockets of warmer air, formed by the uneven heating of the surface of the Earth. Thunderheads are visible thermals, where clouds of water droplets show just how high the warm air is climbing. When you see turkey vultures or other birds soaring in lazy circles without flapping, they are riding thermals.

For every mile a bird rises on this avian elevator, it can coast downwind seven miles without flapping. Still, sharp-shinned hawk' migration from the top of this continent to the bottom takes strength, endurance, and stored energy. In order to be ready for the journey, these small hawks grow furiously-going from egg to adult size in just over 7 weeks.

The Hawk Ridge naturalists spent a few minutes answering questions, and then asked for a volunteer to release the bird. In a flurry of feathers, the hawk left the visitor's hand. It swooped below the cliff for a moment, giving us a spectacular "birds-eye view." With a series of graceful circles, the sharpie gained altitude. Soon the little hawk was a mere speck in the sky, one of the many birds on an incredible journey, visible only through our scanning binoculars.

If you would like more information on the migration at Hawk Ridge, visit their website: You can also join Museum Naturalist, Haley Appleman on a Hawk Ridge field trip on September 27. Call 715-798-3890 or visit for the details and to register.

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, September 8, 2017

An Autumn Walk with Lois Nestel

As the fall winds begin to blow, I once again seek strength and renewal in the words and wisdom of Lois Nestel, the Museum's founding naturalist and director. She wrote:

"We come now to the season of restlessness and change, a time of extremes when the crisp frostiness of morning may mellow into voluptuous warmth under a benevolent sun. Fruitfulness gives way gradually to senility and decay, an erosion of life forces as the pace slows toward the time of rest.

"This is autumn, when the beauty of maturity becomes apparent in the flowing colors of the leaves, in seedpod, capsule, and cone; autumn, when late-blooming flowers become rare treasures and the spider's web, bejeweled with dew, a work of art.

"By day sudden swirls of birds announce the feeding of migrating flocks. By night the passage of countless others is proclaimed only by faint twitterings high in the darkened sky. Muted colors, muted sounds...a tuning down from summer's hectic pace.

"Days of crystal clarity, days hazy blue or fog-enshrouded, denote the season. Summer and winter are in never-ending altercation, but with summer weakening with the passing time. The brilliance of the stars seems greater and the harvest moon repeats the antique gold of autumn leaves. Chill nights quiet the cricket's song but arouse that of the ululating coyote. The tide of plant and insect life ebbs as that of the predator rises to full flood.

"Every creation in its own unique way senses the changing season and prepares accordingly. For many there is death, with only token forces remaining to carry on the generations. For some there is dormancy and rest; for some a changed but continuing activity, while others-from choice or necessity flee southward. Human response differs only in detail from that of other creatures: the instinctive urge for comfort, survival and continuity.

"Chill days and scudding clouds and instinct say, "Prepare, the time of hardship looms ahead." There is an awareness, an urgency that quickens with the shortened days. There is an upsurge of fresh energy to meet the challenge of the future, a determination that makes the heart sing, not a last requiem to the dying season, but a song of thankfulness and joy.

"Emerson, in his poem "Apology," wrote: "Think me not unkind and rude that I walk alone in grove and glen; I go to the god of the wood to fetch his word to men."

"While I may not go to the wood to fetch back words of wisdom, I do by choice traverse it alone on most occasions. There may be many reasons for my going. I may be searching for specific plants for photographic subjects or equally practical purposes, but most often (and most rewarding) I go for the soothing, healing peace the solitude of a quiet woodland brings to me.

"At this time of year the tranquility of nature seems most apparent. It is the deep-breathing pause between the hectic days of growth and fruition and the chilled dormancy of winter. Fallen leaves carpet the earth in hues that rival and outshine the crafts of the Orient. Mosses, at their greenest now, seem to glow with an inner radiance on rock and stump and fallen tree. The beauty of these lowly plants is equal to the fairest flower or mightiest tree. Mingling one with another, they clothe the raw earth and decaying wood in protective emerald garb.

"Beneath tall evergreens one can move in cat-footed silence over moss and needle-cushioned ground, seeing, hearing, and feeling the serenity of a natural world. Being alone in this way is not being lonely. Freed from the need for conversation and the distractions of everyday affairs, one can open the doors of the mind, airing out the pettiness, discord and annoyance.

"Truly there is great wisdom here if willing hearts and open minds can accept it: the endless patience of forest and earth to renew themselves despite the many violations wrought upon them by man; the lack of malice among wild creatures who prey upon one another only to sustain life but never in spite or rancor. And there is hope and faith, for even as the dying leaves color the earth, the trees and shrubs are putting forth new buds for the year to come. The seed, fallen to the ground, bears the germ of the plant yet to come, and the bulb beneath the earth bears within its heart next summer's flower.

"These things speak to me in my solitary walks. They speak in the still, small voice of the spirit and I am strengthened and renewed."

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, September 1, 2017

In which I join a Potter Wasp for lunch

We were grateful for the light breeze that sent our patio umbrella flapping, and also for the shade of said umbrella. Somehow we'd chosen what may be the last hot day of summer to go on our annual bike adventure. Eighty degrees and humid over the course of almost twenty miles was sufficient to get the sweat dripping.

It was worth it, though to swoop through the hilly backroads of the Chequamegon National Forest and emerge from the woods at the Farmstead Creamery and Café on the North Star Homestead Farm. Run by a family of strong and talented women, this diversified network of pasture-raised poultry, sheep, and hogs, as well as raised-bed gardens, a high-tech aquaponics system, and permaculture practices, draws lots of hungry admirers.

An outside table with a big umbrella was the perfect place to relax and wait for our home-cooked, local, organic, delicious lunch to arrive. And then, my day got even better.

Movement spotted out of the corner of my eye resolved into a small wasp carrying a green caterpillar. The caterpillar was about the size and diameter of the wasp's own body (1/2 inch by 1/8 inch), but neither seemed to be struggling. The wasp hovered and wandered for a bit in the vicinity of the shade umbrella's crank arm. Finally it landed, and started the slow process of dragging the limp larva into the mud-caked hole in the end of the crank's handle!

As you can imagine, I was pretty excited. While watching this drama, one of the farmers popped out of the Café carrying our plates of food. Naturally, I waylaid him at the table and made him check out the action. I'm not sure he knew what to make of it-or my enthusiasm-at first, but I think I convinced him to be impressed before he went back inside.

After a few minutes, the last segment of green disappeared. Then, suddenly, the wasp backed out of the hole and flew off!

Over the course of lunch, I had to put down my delicious pesto-melt sandwich several times to capture photos of the wasp landing, and its black-and-yellow-striped abdomen circling all around just inside the entrance to the little mud and metal nest. It brought a load of something each time, but never another caterpillar while we watched. The bundles clasped in its forelegs were dark and amorphous.

After our amazing dessert of sheep's milk gelato (blueberry fudge flavor-yum!), we started the long, hot ride home.

Using an amazing website called, which is hosted by the Iowa State University Department of Entomology, I posted my blurry cell phone photos for identification help. Within hours, a contributing editor with experience in wasps replied with a name: Eumeninae.

Now, understandably, my fuzzy photos don't give enough information to identify this wasp to species. Even so, just knowing the subfamily it's in gives me some clues to its lifestyle. Also known as potter wasps, this diverse group of solitary wasps use mud to create a variety of nest shapes. Some potter wasps make round-bottomed, narrow-necked nests that look exactly like traditional pots. Legend has it that some Native Americans based their pottery designs on these nests.

Other potter wasps make their nests in pre-existing cavities, like the end of a crank handle on a patio umbrella, or any other hollow or crevice they can find. Also called mason wasps, they use mud or sand for construction.

Inside each nest chamber she constructs, the female wasp lays just one egg, and then goes about the business of storing up baby food. Adult potter wasps eat nectar, but for their growing offspring, they collect moth larvae like the tiny green caterpillar I witnessed going to its death. Beetle larvae and spiders may meet a similar demise. In any case, the adult delivers a paralyzing sting to the prey, but the toxin does not kill them. Dead larva would soon decompose. These stay fresh but immobile, ready for the hungry wasp larva to hatch and start feasting.

It might take anywhere from a few weeks to a year for the larva to pupate, metamorphose, and mature. Then, with powerful jaws, the adult wasp breaks open its earthen nursery and emerges to find a mate.
Although I can't be certain that this Euodynernus wasp is the same species as the one I saw, the irregularly-spaced yellow stripes match my photos. Adult potter wasps feed on nectar and pollen. Photo by Bruce Marlin, Wikimedia Commons.
While watching this black-and-yellow lady go about her business, two main thoughts were swirling through my head. The first was the importance of a healthy insect population on an organic farm. Using pesticides would have killed off this predator, removing a completely free source of caterpillar control. The North Star Farmstead is doing it right. The second thought was about just how tightly packed this world is with LIFE. Every nook, every cranny, every surface, is someone's home. Experiences like this make me especially glad that it's my home, too.

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, August 25, 2017

The Channels of Bark Bay Slough

We could not have asked for a more perfect morning. The black, tannin-stained waters of the Bark Bay Slough were perfectly calm under a warming sun as we launched my trusty Old Town Penobscot 16 canoe from the dock. We paddled easily, blissfully, into the morning, savoring the magic of floating through a beautiful place.

Bark Bay opens to the northeast, and nestles between two ridges of erosion-resistant sandstone on the western face of the Bayfield Peninsula near Herbster. It is the estuary of the Bark River, and the back of the bay is almost entirely cut off from Lake Superior by a giant sandbar. Boggy little islands dot the enclosed slough—each with their own arrangement of weather-sculpted bonsai trees. Exhibiting both scrappiness and grace, the stunted white pines, black spruces, and tamaracks twist toward the sky. Around their bases crowd thickets of leatherleaf and sweet gale dotted with wild roses.

As my cousin Alyssa and I paddled slowly eastward through the island maze, mats of bog and fen vegetation crept out from the shore and narrowed our passageways. We never knew if our next turn would bring us to a cul-de-sac or a channel. That slight element of mystery was delightfully thrilling, and brought back memories of playing pretend with Alyssa in my grandpa’s shrubbery. Add to that a shy painted turtle just poking his head out from under a water lily leaf, and we were completely entertained. I don’t often have a day where my curiosities so perfectly match that of my adventure buddy. On this day, I savored every breath.

Following our interest, and beckoned by their beauty, we spent at least ten minutes in a patch of water shield, Brasenia schreberi. The palm-sized oval leaves of this aquatic plant float on the surface of calm waters. A thin, flexible stem attaches to the middle of each leaf’s underside and tethers it to a horizontal stem that runs along the muddy bottom. Clear, slippery jelly coats the undersides of the leaves and protects them from grazing snails and harmful microbes. When it grows in thick patches, which is often, water shield creates a spectacular mosaic of color, especially in late summer when brilliant bursts of red and yellow paint the dying leaves.

Other patterns add interest to a patch of water shield, too. Most of the glossy leaves are riddled with holes or dissected by squiqqly lines, which all look black against the tannin-stained water.

What would make those marks? And was it still around? One by one, I held a few different leaves up to the sun, and tried to capture this living example of stained-glass beauty. To my surprise, these trails differed from other leaf mines I’ve seen. Leaf miners are a group of insects (including moths, sawflies, flies, and beetles) whose larvae feed on the insides of a leaf between its “skins.” These weren’t mines, though they were channels, in some cases now worn clear through the leaf, with only a few of the tougher veins keeping the sides of the seam from ripping apart.

Another, more subtle difference, was that although not all the trails were the same thickness, each trail was the same width from beginning to end. What I’ve enjoyed about most other leaf mines is that they start small and get bigger, allowing me to imagine the little larvae growing up.

Perhaps the only person who’s really investigated the origin of water shield’s leaf marks was a fisheries biologist named Adelbert L. Leathers in 1922. From his writing, I learned that the squiggles are actually channels and not mines. In a mine, the larva burrows between the upper and lower skins of the leaf, eating the innards, but leaving both of the outer layers intact. In contrast, these channels in the water shield are created by removing the upper epidermis entirely.

With weak mouthparts, the midge larva Polypedilum braseniae, cuts off a strip of the epidermis, scrapes it clean of nutritious green cells, and then uses silk to fasten the strip into a roof above its channel. This setup allows water to continuously flood the channel. The larvae breathe through blood gills and will die if they dry out. Even submerging too deeply will kill the larvae, presumably because they need the super-oxygenated water you find near the surface and in contact with living plant cells.

Mr. Leathers watched as green plant cells moved through the digestive tract of the pale yellow larvae. He noticed that when the food exits the other end as frass (poop), it’s still useful. The larva places frass where it can help hold a strip of epidermis to make it easier to scrape, and it eventually becomes part of the channel roof. After seven to ten days, the larva spins a silken pupal case and metamorphoses into a tiny midge with shimmering wings and an ethereal green abdomen.

Still, much mystery remains. Although Mr. Leathers was able to find the midge’s eggs on submerged water lily leaves and successfully hatch them, he could not get the tiny larvae to grow or survive. They only arrive at the water shield leaves to begin channeling after they are mid-way through their larvalhood. The strength it takes to cut through the epidermis limits the size of larvae that can make a channel, and the larvae would rather start in an old channel and branch off than go to the work of sawing through fresh material.

I love discovering that there are unsolved mysteries in science. When I start investigating something new to me, I never know if my next question will open up to a cul-de-sac or a clear channel. That element of mystery means that observing nature is always delightfully thrilling.

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, August 11, 2017

Watching the Clouds with Lois Nestel

July was a whirlwind, and now that August is here, September feels just around the corner. It’s times like this, especially, when reading an old article from Lois Nestel feels like a deep, calming breath and a much-needed antidote to our modern pace. As the founding Naturalist and Director of the Museum, she brought a special aura of patience, calm, and quiet joy to anyone who stopped by the Museum to ask a question or share excitement about a natural phenomenon.

So today I encourage you—and myself—to pause for a moment and enjoy something summery, stand in awe of nature, or maybe just spend some time looking up at the sky.

Lois wrote: “I wonder – does anyone watch clouds anymore, just for the sake of cloud watching? To me, these are some of nature’s most beautiful formations, never twice the same, always amazing, whether puffy fleeces, shredded mare’s tails, or threatening banks jeweled with lightning.

“In the habit formed in childhood I still see in the cumulous clouds a fantasy world; human faces and forms, animals, landscapes, ever-changing and reforming, sometimes in such majesty that it seems that I must glimpse the face of God.

“Sunrise and sunset add a new dimension to cloud formations, adding tints and strengthening contracts. The towering castles and turrets of thunderheads in an evening sky overwhelm one with awe as the high-piled vapors glow with snowy whiteness tipped with crimson, rose and gold and shades too evanescent and fragile to describe. Small wonder that artists have depicted angels sailing along on heavenly cloud ships in a blue, blue sky.

“It is satisfying, I suppose, to name the clouds scientifically – stratus, cumulus, cirrus, cumulonimbus—but to really see the clouds, to know their beauty and their meaning has far greater satisfactions. A mackerel sky at evening means more to me than to identify alto cumulus clouds, and the fat dumpling wind clouds, the slatey snow clouds, the boiling masses of summer storm clouds are familiar friends who need no names.

“Lift up your eyes, not to look for storm and trouble but to see the magnificence that fills the sky. Rejoice that such beauty, such grace is free to all. Look and you, too, may see the face of God.”
Lois also wrote of another type of shimmering cloud, a phenomenon I’ve only read about. Have you been lucky enough to see this, too?

She wrote: “I have been witnessing the flight of the queens, a shimmering, living column rising from the ground, funneling out and dispersing to the four winds.

“One warm evening, in seemingly spontaneous impulse, the ants poured forth from every hill; tiny red workers, the males and the queens, covered the earth for yards around in a seething mass of life. There was no flight then, just incessant, restless movement—a preparation, an anticipation of things to come.

“As darkness came they were forgotten, but with the rising sun the flight began. Gossamer wings flashed jewel tones as they rose—fountain like—high into the morning sky. In unbelievable numbers they rose for an hour or more, not just from one source but several within sight. How many more unseen nests spewed out this shining geyser of life is impossible to imagine.

“Before and all during the flight the little, wingless worker ants scurried about as though preparing the winged males and females for their nuptial journey. Back and forth through the winged throng, still earthbound, they moved, stroking a wing here, an antenna there, doing what duties one can only guess. Almost unseen among the larger royalty they moved swiftly and with seeming purpose. As the flight neared its end the workers appeared to round up the stragglers and send them on their way. Suddenly the winged ones were gone and almost as abruptly the workers vanished underground; the lifeless-looking mounds of sand were all that remained in view.

“Somewhere the matings occurred and the males died. The queens cut off their glistening wings and, having had their one brief interlude in sunlight and sky, now dug into the dark earth to live, to propagate, to die. Duty is instinctive. No longings, no regrets becloud their lives. We reach the heights of joy and the depths of despair. We rage of duty and regimentation. We destroy ourselves. The ants, serene and organized, go on. Who are the civilized?

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, August 4, 2017

Forest Bathing

Through the soles of our feet we experienced the transition from gravel drive onto leafy duff. Conversation faded as we entered the forest on a faint path and then formed a circle in a natural foyer surrounded by slender saplings. Fourteen women stood quietly while I pulled the book Swan, by Mary Oliver, out of my satchel. Above us, maple leaves glowed against a gray sky still lingering after a midnight rain.

My finger found the bookmark I’d placed earlier, the pages opened wide, and I began to read the poem aloud. “What can I say?...The song you heard singing in the leaf when you were a child is singing still...” As the last poem concluded, a gust sent a crescendo through the canopy.

We closed our eyes and inhaled deeply, feeling the goodness of air as it filled our lungs. As cool sensation rushed in, we imagined all the previous lives that the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen molecules had made possible. Returning our breath to the world, we sent our carbon back out into the forest to fuel new life. Giving. Receiving. Giving. Receiving. The breeze swirled all of our exhalations together and carried them off through the trees.

More than just simple air flowed into our lungs, though. All around us, nature was giving off an array of chemicals. These phytoncides include a bouquet of volatile organic compounds released by plants. Their main purpose—from the plant’s perspective—is to prevent it from being eaten, infected, or decomposed. Appropriately, the word phytoncide means “exterminated by the plant.” These toxins are categorized as secondary metabolites, or chemicals that aren’t essential for normal growth and reproduction, but which often help the plant survive in other ways. The strong smells and health benefits of onion and garlic are derived at least in part from phytoncides. While all plants have some, tea tree, oak, cedar, locust, and pines are known for having high levels of these helpful compounds.

In order for the plant to prevent damage to its tissues from too high a concentration of its own toxins, it has to have a way to excrete the excess and maintain balance. Some may escape to the air when pores open to let in carbon dioxide. Others may leach out and flow away with rainwater. Still more are released as the forest duff decomposes. However it happens, these phytoncides become part of the forest at large, and we breathe them in.

It’s a wonderful gift. Not only do the antibacterial and antifungal properties of phytoncides help plants fight disease, they also stimulate our human bodies to increase the number and activity of cancer- and virus-fighting white blood cells (also called natural killer cells), and to decrease the concentration of stress hormones.

That breathing deeply in a forest is good for you comes as no surprise to most people. Anyone lucky enough to live near the woods and smart enough to take time to enjoy them feels the benefits.

When I tell people that it has a name, though, they usually think I’m kidding. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries wasn’t joking, however, when in 1982 they coined the term “shinrin-yoku,” which translates roughly to “forest bathing.” In a country where they have a special word for “death by overwork,” this stress-reducing preventative medicine has become extremely popular. On official forest bathing trails, visitors regularly submit to measurements of blood pressure and stress hormones as researchers gather data. Psychological research reveals that forest bathing reduces anxiety, depression, anger, confusion, and fatigue while boosting cognition, focus, and empathy.

It’s not just the phytoncides. According to scientists, the air in forests and near water has relatively high levels of negative ions, which are purported to boost our mental outlook. Also, simply looking at trees is good for us. And then there are the bacteria.

Having healthy gut bacteria is emerging as a significant factor in our mental well-being.  In another example, inhaling the common soil bacterium–Mycobacterium vaccae has been shown to increase serotonin levels in the brains of mice. Not only does this “happy chemical” decrease anxiety, it also makes the mice smarter!  Mice given the bacteria navigated a maze twice as fast as the control mice. The effects do not last long, though, and scientists surmise that humans would need to be exposed about once a week in order to reap the benefits of these healthy bacteria.

That’s fine with me. It was lovely to walk among the regal hemlocks of Fairyland State Natural Area as patches of blue sky peeked in from above. We offered words of gratitude. I saw the lines on peoples’ forehead soften. Peaceful smiles glowed. While I read the poem “Black Swallowtail,” by Mary Oliver, I thought about how appropriate its metaphor was to our walk. The “interesting, but not exactly lovely” caterpillar busies itself with eating. Only after becoming a still, quiet chrysalis with “faith and patience” is it able to “express itself into the most beautiful thing.”

Above us, the leaves sang.

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!