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!