Friday, June 21, 2013

One, by Mary Oliver


by Mary Oliver

The mosquito is so small
it takes almost nothing to ruin it.
Each leaf, the same.
And the black ant, hurrying.
So many lives, so many fortunes!
Every morning, I walk softly and with forward glances
down to the ponds and through the pinewoods.
Mushrooms, even, have but a brief hour
before the slug creeps to the feast,
before the pine needles hustle down
under the bundles of harsh, beneficent rain.
How many, how many, how many
make up a world!
And then I think of that old idea: the singular
and the eternal.
One cup, in which everything is swirled
back to the color of the sea and the sky.
Imagine it!
A shining cup, surely!
In the moment in which there is no wind
over your shoulder,
you stare down into it,
and there you are,
your own darling face, your own eyes.
And then the wind, not thinking of you, just passes by,
touching the ant, the mosquito, the leaf,
and you know what else!
How blue is the sea, how blue is the sky,
how blue and tiny and redeemable everything is, even you,
even your eyes, even your imagination.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Kid’s Eye View

As the six kids gathered at the river landing, I saw looks of shyness, uncertainty, and excitement. The paddling lesson brought looks of concentration and some confusion, then boredom when they got it. As John Kudlas, our favorite river ecology instructor, taught about water quality, the faces of these mostly sixth and seventh graders showed focused interest. Here, with school out and a classroom without walls, I could see them learning.

This is the second annual overnight canoe trip for kids ages 12-18 down the Namekagon River. It is still a partnership between the Cable Natural History Museum, the National Park Service, and Canoes on Wheels. Just as before, we caught macroinvertebrates (the immature stages of insects that spend part of their life in the water before gaining wings and flight), and thankfully, their results still showed that the river is healthy.

As we paddled, I noticed marsh marigolds in bloom, scouring rushes starting to poke up through the water surface, and a couple dragonflies. Birds sang from every bush and tree in a cacophony of joy (and aggression, alarm, and plain chattiness).

I marveled at the bald eagle, sitting calmly in the white pine as we floated underneath. I noticed the power and grace with which the great blue heron rose from its hunting spot. I observed the many aquatic plants still just barely breaking the river’s surface, while last year, with the early spring, they had been in bloom or already gone to seed.

But what do the kids see? Sometimes I worry that in this age of television, video games, and internet, kids will lose interest in nature, and lose the ability to notice things in the unfamiliar complexity of the wild.

So I was excited when, at the campsite on our second morning, the kids took the small digital cameras I gave them and eagerly disappeared into the woods to take photos. Besides giving them an excuse to look closer, compose a frame, and enter our Living Light Photo contest this summer, it also gave me a glimpse behind their eyes.

What did they notice?  The first photos on each camera show smiling faces as the kids “labeled’ their cameras with a self-portrait. Then come the images of sparkling water and green trees, sunlight glinting off the rapids the kids were all eager to run, and the river disappearing around corner into the great unknown.

The photos show close-ups of bugs – a dragonfly and stonefly that came to visit our picnic table. This was neat, because they’d found the aquatic nymphs of each insect with John the day before. One photo even shows a backlit oak leaf, its veins and chlorophyll glowing in the morning sun.

The fascinating patterns made by leaves in patch of jewelweed must have captured the attention of one youngster who used their juicy stems to sooth mosquito bites. His observant eye also caught psychedelic reflections of light and leaves on a pool of water between three rocks.

Here we see a proud angler, pole and tackle box in hand; there we see his sister, stretched out on her belly, taking photos from an ant’s eye view. On her camera, we find that photo of the grass jungle, each delicate seed head silhouetted against the clear blue sky. Other, taller bunches of grass arch gracefully in the morning sun.

For a different view, several kids looked up into the trees, and caught the magnificence of old growth white pines reaching their gnarled braches to the sky. Then they looked down, and captured gaywings (small, hot-pink wildflowers) in ethereal morning light, and pure white starflowers against the backdrop of a fallen log.

Some photos are blurry, a few are crooked, and some include the photographer’s thumb, but overall, I’m thrilled. These kids can still see nature. They will be our next generation of scientists, conservationists, journalists, and engineers. Their ability to see nature will help make sure that it is not overlooked.

Photo by Andy

Photo by Katie

Wild and Wonderful Dads

Encouraging, teaching, hiking, rocket launching, venison stir-fry cooking, piggyback ride-giving, feeding, holding, scolding, teeth-brushing, hugging, teasing, playing, hook-baiting, fish-removing…what do these things have in common? Dads! All weekend I watched countless dads, including my own father and my older brother engaging in these activities with their kids. With Father’s Day coming up, I thought I would highlight a few all-star fathers in the wild.

Of course, not all animal fathers pay attention to their offspring. I would hazard a guess that a majority do not. In insects like ants, bees, and wasps, male “drones” are only produced once in a while when the nest is getting ready for winter, or the anthill has hit some population goal and it is ready to swarm and start new colonies. The drones mate with females, then die. The females go on to start a new hill, hive, or nest, and produce all sisters.

Duck daddy’s aren’t particularly attentive, either. How many times have you seen a female common merganser with 5-15 chicks in tow, and no male in the vicinity? White-tailed deer, black bears, and many others follow this same hands-off parenting model. I could list more but I won’t. My point was just to remind you of wild fathers who don’t stick around, so we can better appreciate the ones who do.

In contrast to ducks, male loons are the ideal new-age partner. Once researchers developed accurate ways of identifying individual loons (leg bands), they determined that males choose the nest site and females build the nest and lay the 1-3 eggs. After that, loon parents split the incubating, feeding, babysitting, and “hunter education” duties 50/50. It is such a pleasure to watch loon parents caring for their chicks. Join me on a Loon Pontoon Tour sometime so you can get a closer look, too!

Interestingly, despite this dedication to their chicks, loons do not mate for life. They are more loyal to their territory than their partner. If a new, stronger male fights and wins in a territorial battle, the resident female will stay with the new guy. Likewise, the resident male will stick around if a female intruder wins a territorial battle. In nature, good parenting does not always fit our culture’s ideals! But it must work for that species, or they wouldn’t be alive today.

Swimming with the loons in the weedy edges of the lake is another devoted father. With a name like “toe-biter,” we humans probably don’t appreciate them enough. These huge bugs (1 to 2+ inches in length) are “piercer-predators.” According to the “Bug Lady” at the UW Milwaukee Field Station, that is just “a politically correct way of saying that they grab their prey, stab it with a short, sharp beak, and inject poisonous enzymes (produced in salivary glands near the beak) that immobilize it and then liquefy its innards so the GWB [giant water bug] can slurp them out with gusto.” Giant water bugs have been known to attack a wide variety of prey, including tadpoles, frogs, fish, snakes, ducklings, woodpeckers, and yes, the occasional human toe.

Despite this bad reputation, these “true bugs,” (which to a scientist means they are in the order Hemiptera, and which we laypeople can tell by the X their wings make across their back) are very paternal.

After the insects mate, the female glues the brood of about 150 fertilized eggs onto the male’s back. The male fiercely defends the eggs for two weeks, and even strokes them gently with his hind legs. This stroking, and alternating exposure to air and water, are thought to protect them from growing mold. What a dad!

Hunting expertly in the woods is another type of father – the Super Provider. Red fox males are excellent dads. They deliver food to Mom every 4-6 hours while the kits are nursing in the den, and then continue to provide food for the kits as well (with the help of the vixen), once they are weaned. Lighthearted play becomes survival training as the foxes play “ambush” and “tag”. Then the male fox starts to reduce the amount of food he provides, in order to teach the young to hunt on their own. A fox father will even bury food near the den to teach the kits to sniff and forage.

Happy Father’s Day to all those wonderful dads out there, wild and human, who contribute so much to their offspring’s growth and development. A special thanks goes out to MY dad, Larry Stone. He is a naturalist, journalist and nature writer, and edited my high school English papers with me line-by-line, asking “What did you mean here?” and “Can you think of a clearer, shorter way to say that?” He still finds time to edit my Natural Connections articles almost every week. Thanks, Dad!

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April, 2014.

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

A delight for the senses

Springtime is a delight for the senses. Each morning when I venture outside, countless little pleasures invade my conscious and my subconscious. Pouring in through every portal come sounds, smells, sights, touches, and tastes of the season.

First, and long before the sun even thinks about rising, come the loon calls. The territorial pair in the bay near my house defends their space with maniacal yodels and distressed tremolos. As the horizon lightens to a soft pink, a hummingbird buzzes up to the feeder, the vireo starts to slur its morning greeting of “Here I am…Over here...In the trees...Where are you?” and the ovenbird shouts its “teacher Teacher TEACHER!” much too loudly for the early hour.

As I ride my bike along the county highway, birds singing in the swamps, fields, forests, and yards form a sort of sonic gauntlet. Trills, chatters, chips, warbles, whistles, and the downward spiraling, eerily flute-like calls of the Veery fill my ears from every angle. In some wetlands the spring peepers still peep loudly. Geese honk, crows caw, and even the wind has a particular sound as it meanders through the emerging leaves. What have you been listening to?

The ride home in the heat of the afternoon, with sunbeams shining hot on every surface, releases all of sorts of early summer smells. First there is the sweet smell of the apple tree on the edge of town, its snowy white flowers just humming with bees. Then there is the sulfurous smell of the swampy ditches, where plants, decomposing without oxygen all winter, have released their own particular boggy perfume.

Warm trees have their own smell, as does the river as it rushes headlong over the dam. The spray has a particular musty odor that I love. Then there is the funk of the deer repellent I spray on my cold frame garden, because the vigorous broccoli plants can no longer fit under the glass. Soon the lilacs will bloom, or maybe yours already have. What is your favorite smell of spring?

The visual beauty of spring is almost too much to describe. Just like many of you, I could fawn over each individual flower, and the beautiful patchwork of greens in the developing leaves, or the reflections on a glass-calm lake.

And what a treat to glimpse the neon-bright plumage of a scarlet tanager.  “The scarlet tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves. You can hardly believe that a living creature can wear such colors,” wrote naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Yet believe I must, since twice recently these blindingly gorgeous birds have darted out into the road as I pass by. Other folks – more than usual it seems -- have reported seeing scarlet tanagers at their bird feeders, in their yards, and deep in the woods on birding walks. Where do your eyes feast these days?

As visual creatures, we may sometimes be biased toward just looking at the world. It is often nice to touch as well. Just this morning, I paused to rub a baby hazel leaf between my fingers, and was delighted by the delicate furriness of its crinkly surface. Even while focused on seeing a bird or a plant, my skin is at work, experiencing the world. Not even a scarlet tanager will distract me when I feel that particular tickle of a tick on my neck. Have you felt it, too?

Finally, for me, the taste of spring comes from the wild leeks that form a living carpet in the woods. Just walking through a patch fills the air with their pungent aroma. Not quite onions, not quite garlic…a wild scent all their own. One bite of a leaf will leave you with leek-breath for hours, but I still gather handfuls for my morning omelets, and blend bunches into creamy pesto. What have you been nibbling on in the woods?

Have you been using your senses fully? It’s never too late to start! The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April, 2014.

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