Friday, December 15, 2017

A Winter Day with Lois Nestel

Fresh snow on the ground reflects moonlight, starlight, streetlights, and headlights, and it sometimes even seems to radiate its own ethereal luminescence. I’m grateful for the light that snow brings, since the sun itself is on such a tight schedule. Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding naturalist and director, felt this darkness, too, but she still found time to watch the comings and goings in nature. She wrote:

“We rise early and the business of the day gets underway while darkness still prevails. This morning the moon is the finest paring of a silver fingernail in a deep azure sky and in the east no light yet heralds the coming day.

“The kitchen light sheds a glow upon the snow outside and silhouettes the cottontail that, crouched beneath the bird feeder, gleans the fallen seeds. It seems to feel no fear at being thus on stage. Perhaps the prominent brown eye stretches a little wider and the ears are more alert, but the chewing does not cease nor do the busy paws that dig in rapid spurts to release seeds frozen in the snow. The grosbeaks had been thankfully messy yesterday and crumbs from their table were manna to the hungry animal.

“At length, the food ran out, the rabbit was surfeited or it seemed expedient to go. But first a rapid washing of the face, paws flicking quickly over ears and whiskers and tongue touching up shoulders and chest. Then off in purposeful hops as though to reach a destination before the break of dawn.

“These are the shortest days of the year and humanity must be astir long before the tardy sun appears and long after the sky has again darkened into night. For the nocturnal creatures, there are long nights to prowl, to forage and to hunt while darkness cloaks the activities revealed by tracks with the coming of the day. Beneath the feeder, myriad small tracks and round brown pellets tell of the rabbit that might never have been seen had the feeder been farther from the house. It was a nice way to start a winter day.”

While a winter morning might start by watching animals find food at the bird feeder, a winter afternoon is perfect for searching out some food of your own. Lois was an excellent hunter, trapper, and angler. Here she writes about the joys of ice fishing.

“Given the proper conditions, a day of ice fishing can produce some delightful fringe benefits, completely aside from the fish one may catch. Let it be, preferably, a sunny day and mild enough so the fishing holes do not freeze over too rapidly and, for my purposes, let those holes be in a lake with weeds.

“Looking into the water is like glimpsing a mirrored reflection of summer when insect life abounds. Some of this is in larval form and especially apparent are the nymphs of mayflies swimming actively about in the cold water. Other larvae may be those of whirligig beetles, caddisflies or the large fierce-looking dragonfly larvae clinging to weed stems.

“These weed stems are also often occupied by the strange, long-legged insects called water scorpions, often two-and-one-half inches long and rather resembling water-logged walking sticks. A giant water bug may swim by or a water boatman or backswimmer, as well as countless weaving, jerking, scooting, unnamed miniatures. Active and comfortable in the world beneath the ice, they quickly stiffen and become immobile if lifted out of the water.

“The air above the ice holds life of other styles and, for most people, probably more appealing. A blue winter sky is a perfect background for the tumbling, joyful antics of a pair of ravens. Looping, rolling, diving, together and apart, they are the soul of carefree pleasure and the coarse “wauk, wauk” of their cries expresses complete approval of the warm trend in the weather. Crows, more businesslike, and purposeful, wing their way swiftly from shore to shore, their sharp cawing a pleasant sound in the quiet of winter.

“A swirl of pine siskins sweeps overhead like wind-driven leaves, their sweet twitterings as ephemeral as mist. In dry weeds along the shore, snow buntings feed, and farther back, among the trees, woodpeckers hammer and call above the notes of nuthatches and chickadees. If it is a lucky day, the eagle will soar above adjacent open water, his gleaming head and tail seeming whiter than the underlying snow as they catch the rays of the winter sun.

“If fish are caught, that’s great. Ostensibly, that’s what we went for. But even without them, the day is full and rich with life that doesn’t know that winter is a time for complaints and curtailed activities. That behavior is reserved for humans who have lost the happy faculty of accepting and living each day to the fullest----with joy, without regret.”

For the past year I’ve been sharing Lois’s writings with you once a month in order to celebrate the Museum’s 50th birthday year. That year is coming to a close, but hopefully, like Lois, you also are able to live each day with the joy that comes from observing and appreciating nature.

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, December 8, 2017


The tunnel of shady conifers felt bitterly cold as I huffed uphill on my fat bike. Our wide tires crackled and popped over brittle leaf litter, sticks, and ice columns pushing up through the once-damp soil. Sunshine beckoned up ahead, though, and as I burst into the open field at the top of the hill I could feel the rays warming my legs right through thick tights.

We’d hoped to participate in a post-Thanksgiving “Pie Burner” group fat bike ride in a neighboring town, but icy conditions there deterred us. Instead, we’d come to Tioga Pit, a reclaimed iron mine near Cohasset, MN. From 1955 to 1961, the Tioga No. 2 mine shipped more than 3 million tons of iron ore. That 3-million-ton hole is now a deep blue fishing lake.

Rolling hills surrounding the pit have grown back into a mix of conifer forests, scraggly young hardwoods, and brushy fields punctuated with spindles of aspen and birch. While the forests weren’t particularly beautiful, they were interesting. Along one old roadbed, a series of half a dozen big old truck tires reminded us of this area’s industrial past. In a reversed game of giant ring-toss, the smooth trunk of a living hardwood tree grew up through the center of almost every tire.

In a nearby field, several two-foot-tall conical mounds up to six feet in diameter dotted the open areas. I knew that the mounds must just be anthills, but those were some huge anthills! Channeling my inner kid, I gave in to the intense urge to go poke one with a stick…in the name of science, of course. My stick only scraped evergreen needles off the surface of the solidly frozen pile. No ants appeared to investigate my invasion. I hopped back on my bike and settled for exclaiming about the string of such mounds lined up along the trail.

Back home, I was hoping Google could help me figure out what I’d seen. My search for “giant ant hills in Minnesota” quickly turned up a discussion thread with some good leads. I narrowed my suspects down to two species in the genus Formica. No, they are not related to Formica® Laminate Countertops. The word “formic” comes from the Latin word for ant. Formic acid, the ants’ chemical defense system, also derives its name from ants. Formica is the largest genus in North American and contains almost one-sixth of all Nearctic species of ants.

In particular, both Formica exsectoides, and Formica obscuripes build big mounds and could live in this area. According to a Minnesota ants database hosted by Carleton College, F. exsectoides has been found in Itasca County (where I was), but F. obscuripes has not. Ants are notoriously diverse and understudied, so the database might be incomplete.

Also known as Allegheny mound ants, most of the range of F. exsectoides is centered farther east. Their nest mounds, constructed primarily of sand and soil, have been measured at 2.5 feet high and 9.5 feet in diameter. Several mounds may be interconnected, and tunnels may extend three feet into the ground. Multiple queens produce vast numbers of workers (one colony was estimated at 237,000 workers and 1400 queens), and the larvae develop under ideal temperatures and humidity levels maintained by the mound structure. 

Like most colonial insects, F. exsectoides will defend their nests. Their bites aren’t very painful, but after breaking the skin, an ant may then curl its abdomen beneath her body and squirt the cut with formic acid. That stings. In another example of their ferocity, these ants have the infamous habit of decapitating rival ants. Their strength also comes in handy when they are preying on spiders and flies. On a gentler note, most of F. exsectoides’ calories come from honeydew, a sugary liquid they get from aphids, whom they also protect from predators.

The other possible architect of these mounds—Formica obscuripes—also farms aphids for honeydew, as well as foraging for dead or dying insects and spiders. On the other hand, beetles, springtails, true bugs, and flies are known to carve out their own living spaces in the hills of F. obscuripes. Maybe they occasionally become dinner as well?

In any case, the mounds of F. obscuripes make a good short-term rental because they are constructed primarily out of fragments of plant materials called thatch. Once again, the mounds regulate temperature and humidity. When I asked local entomologist Larry Weber about the mounds, he commented that “I have seen these at Jay Cooke State Park and I've noticed that the needles seem to be a sort of solar panel. The snow melts on these mounds before it does around them. Plan another bike ride there in March and you may see the same thing.” I think I will! Also, I’d like to go back when I can dig a little deeper and find out if the thatch was just on the surface, or all the way through.

Like with F. exsectoides, multiple F. obscuripes queens create droves of workers (averaging 19,000 for a large colony). When things get crowded, mated queens plus some workers leave the nest to start a new one in a process called budding. This may explain why the mounds were grouped along the trail. Sometimes the queen will just take over the nest of another ant species, in an act called social parasitism. The old queen is driven off, and the host workers help raise the invaders until their month-long lifespans end.

While many worker ants don’t live much longer than a month and a half, some survive the entire winter. In fall, ants synthesize glycerol antifreeze and head to the lowest levels of their tunnels where temperatures stay near 50 degrees Fahrenheit. There they can hibernate without freezing. The big mound on the surface acts as both an insulator and a solar panel to help protect the ants below.

Sometimes in the darkest, coldest days of winter, hibernation seems like a pleasant option. On a sunny day, though, I’d rather be zipping around on my bike, soaking up warmth through my tights, and discovering something new.

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, December 1, 2017

Muskrat Moment

November was giving a big gray sigh of frustration as the sky tried to decide if it would rain or snow, and the lakes hemmed and hawed about the proper schedule for freeze up. There was beauty in its hesitation, though. The shimmering sheet of ice reflected the pale gray sky on its gossamer, crystalline fibers. The pale edge of the ice contrasted with the silky blackness of open water, which mirrored the lacy skeletons of shoreline trees.

Although eager to get home before dark, the scene pulled me to a stop. In any season—but especially the shoulder ones—moments of a certain beauty are ephemeral and must be appreciated promptly or not at all.

As I was pondering that, the glassy surface of the open water--where I had been admiring the faithfully reflected trees--was cut open by a V-shaped furrow. What was marring this delicate surface? I tracked the V as it sliced from right to left and neared the pale white edge of the ice sheet. Through my camera’s zoom, I could see a furry brown head and small hump of a back.

To my surprise, instead of diving down under the ice and disappearing, it climbed up onto the precarious, perforated margin, fully revealing its plump, brown body. Well, this was just a pit stop apparently, because it spun right around and slipped back into the water, its dark, rope-like tail following closely. Well, that answers that question.

Although beavers and muskrats are both furry, brown, aquatic rodents, their tails offer instant differentiation even when a size comparison is difficult. Beavers, of course, have those flat, paddle-like tails, while muskrats’ tails are long, skinny, and slightly taller than wide.

Muskrats are active year-round, even in the frozen north. While that thought sends a shiver down my spine (I may do a polar plunge, but I’m not going to swim laps under the ice!), muskrats are as well-adapted to their particular lifestyle as anything in nature. Plus, while we endure -40-degree wind chills, their watery world stays above 32 degrees.

A warm coat is their first line of defense against the cold, and to be warm, it must also be dry. Dense underfur traps air and keeps moisture away from their skin while also adding buoyancy. Of course, their soft, warm pelts are also a liability, since humans want a piece of that cozy warmth. The early 1900s were the height of fur trapping for muskrats, but it’s a tradition that continues today.

In fact, my first, rather memorable encounter with a muskrat was to watch my older brother peel the skin off one as it hung from our basement rafters. He sold the furs for a little money, but I think that his true motivation was an excuse to tramp around outdoors. He’s passing on his skills, now, to my middle nephew. Derek is trapping muskrats out of the landscaped pond in a neighboring suburban development. In exchange, the association will let him bike over and go fishing whenever he wants. When you’re 13, that’s a pretty good deal.

I’ve often puzzled over the continued demand for muskrat fur, even though at $3 per pelt, the demand doesn’t seem very high. At some point, a warm jacket made of anything would be welcome—and they are so soft—but a musky-old-rat stole just doesn’t have the same cachet as mink. To get around this, old-time furriers had the pelts specially trimmed and dyed, after which this rodent’s fur was sold as “Hudson seal.” It was so popular that muskrats were introduced as a fur resource into Japan, Scandinavia, and Russia, and then spread throughout northern Europe and Asia.

Warm fur isn’t enough to keep muskrats going all winter long, though. As with any animal that stays active through the cold months, the ability to find food to fuel their metabolism is crucial. Unlike beavers, muskrats don’t store food. Instead, they continue to forage for vegetation under the ice. When the water is shallow or the ice is especially thick, muskrats may even dig channels in the mud to help them get around.

Food, in their case, is mostly the leaves, stems, and roots of aquatic plants like cattails, rushes, sedges, water lilies, and arrowheads. Bacteria in muskrats’ guts ferment this high-fiber diet and make more nutrients available. While a partnership with bacteria isn’t unique in itself, the fact that muskrats can vary their diet to include significant amounts of meat in the form of frogs, fish, turtles, and crayfish without killing off their fiber-digesting bacteria is unique. It’s no wonder that these omnivores are such opportunists—they need to eat 25-30% of their weight in food every day!

Even with the consumption of that much food, getting enough nitrogen is a challenge once the most nutritious plants die back and animals go into hiding. Muskrats deal with this shortage by reducing the amount of nitrogen they excrete and increasing the surface area in their gut available for absorption.

The surface area of ice on the lakes expands for winter, too, and in fact, most have already frozen up since that calm, gray day. Like the sleek muskrat slipping out of sight, that one moment of beauty is gone. Such endless moments of beauty drift around us every day, and we can choose to appreciate them promptly or not at all. Which will you do?

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 24, 2017

Columnar Jointing: Something familiar in a far-off place

It was late in the afternoon by the time we’d completed the scenic drive through Yosemite National Park. We’d been distracted by the looming face of Half Dome, panoramic views, lunch by a sparkling stream, neon green wolf lichens, and the sweet, butterscotch scent of sun-warmed ponderosa pine bark. My cousin Heather and I had already visited Yosemite on previous trips (separately), though, so we pushed eastward toward a new destination.

Half Dome

Wolf Lichen

Have you ever smelled a Ponderosa Pine? YUM! Photo by Heather Edvenson.

During an Introduction to Geology course back in my days at Northland College, I’d seen a photo of a landform known as Devils Postpile in our textbook. The image of huge bedrock “logs” all stacked together captured my imagination just as it had captured the imaginations of John Muir and President William Howard Taft. Taft designated it as Devils Postpile National Monument in 1911, under the recently created Antiquities Act.

Nestled deep in a valley in the eastern Sierras near Mammoth Lakes, California, this unit of the National Park Service has a very short season. Even though the summer shuttle into the monument had ceased to run, and no ranger in a flat hat stood in the boarded up fee station, the narrow, winding entrance road would be open until October 31, or until snow made it impassable.

No snow was in the forecast as we hiked in tank tops toward the Postpile. We had perfect timing. Late afternoon sun streamed through the trees and illuminated the unusual rock formation.

The Devils Postpile is a striking example of something called columnar jointing. It occurs during the cooling process of lava, especially down within the lava flow or when the lava is intruded into other rocks. Most materials take up more space when they’re hot, so as the surface of the lava flow begins to cool, the material contracts. To relieve the strain of this change, the rock fractures. The amazing thing is that the contraction occurs at centers which are evenly spaced throughout the rock and forms hexagons. As the lava continues to cool, the joints get pulled down into the mass of rock, and we end up with these tall, tightly packed, hexagonal columns.

Heather and I admired the angular wall, its striped shadows, and the wash of lovely green lichens. We also scrambled around at the edge of the scree field beneath the cliff, on a search for the most perfect hexagonal chunk of rock in the heap of rubble.

The columns formed within a lake of lava caught behind the dam of a glacial moraine about 82,000 years ago, and have been brought to the surface by years of weathering from more recent glaciers and a nearby river. The erosion continues, and one by one, the columns detach from the wall and tumble down. Near a similar formation on one of the Hawaiian Islands, people have used broken hexagonal columns in place of logs to build roads and bridges.

Although I was thrilled to witness firsthand the textbook images of Devils Postpile, I was even more enamored when we followed a trail up to the top of the formation. While glaciers were excavating this cliff, the sand and rocks locked in the base of the ice acted like sandpaper and polished the newly-exposed surface of the lava bed. Thousands of years later, a setting sun glinted off the smooth rock surface inscribed with a striking pattern of hexagons. Heather, a chemist, couldn’t help but ponder the chemical properties at work in the rock. And I, having just started the planning process for our next exhibit about bees, couldn’t help thinking that this looked like a giant stone honeycomb.

Hexagons are an excellent shape if you’re interested in having the greatest volume, with the shortest possible perimeter, and no gaps in between. These properties make hexagonal jointing an efficient way for the lava to release stress as it cools. They also make the hexagon an efficient shape for storing honey. Instead of being a product of cooling, though, the bees’ hexagons are a product of warming. As many worker bees simultaneously use wax to form little round storage pots in the hive, the honeycomb starts off as a series of closely-packed circles. The next step for bees is to heat those wax circles until the wax flows together. The closely packed circles flatten into each other and astonishingly precise hexagons appear.

Hexagons appear all over nature. The scutes of turtles’ shells, snowflakes, and the crystal structures of some minerals all use this efficient shape.

Photo by Snowflake Bentley

Columnar jointed rocks like the ones in the Devils Postpile aren’t uncommon, either. The striking waterfalls of Gooseberry Falls State Park in Minnesota have cut into thick layers of 1.1 billion-year-old columnar jointed basalt. Many roadcuts along Highway 61 up the North Shore of Lake Superior exhibit this fracture pattern, too. Devils Tower in Wyoming is a huge example. Columnar jointing captures the imaginations of people around the globe.

Visiting Devils Tower on a family vacation when I was 8 or 9 was probably my first time ever witnessing columnar jointing. I was  I also think it was the last summer I could wear that favorite blue skirt!
The Native American folklore surrounding the site captured my imagination. Photo by Larry Stone. 
Middle Falls, Gooseberry Falls State Park, MN.
You can't see the columnar joints in this photo, but I know they're there! This is where I first understood how they formed, thanks to Craig Prudhomme, my instructor for Fall Block.  

I’ve circled the base of Devils Tower. I’ve written assignments about the patterns in Gooseberry Falls. I’ve driven up the North Shore countless times. So it wasn’t the novelty of the Devils Postpile that drew me there, but the sense of connection I feel when I encounter something familiar in a far-off place.

Photo by Heather Edvenson.

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 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!