Thursday, May 13, 2021

Dan’s Dill

By guest writer Kathryn Simpson, Northland College ‘22

Columnist’s Note: Kat is a writing major at Northland College who was recently my student in “WRI 273: Writing the Environmental Essay.” It was a joy to have her in class, and I’d like to share one of her essays with you this week, as we begin to plant our gardens. Enjoy! –Emily Stone

Kathryn Simpson poses with a hazelnut—one of the other crops grown in the Northland College gardens. Photo by Danny Simpson

Dill grows like a weed in the garden hidden on the outskirts of Northland College’s campus. It grows like a weed because I put it there.

As I settled into my first summer working in the campus gardens and living along the south shore of Lake Superior, I was comforted by the discovery of a familiar object in the garden shed: a Smucker’s grape jelly jar with a purple lid, half-full of dill seed. I knew in an instant that this had been my grandfather’s. Every summer morning, he carries one of those jars while he strolls along his fence, dolloping jelly on the posts for the orioles, who hang a few feet back, waiting for their breakfast. The seeds the jar contained could only have come from his garden.

The migration of that jar from Durand, Wisconsin, all the way to the Northwoods of Ashland could be attributed to my brother, a former garden crew employee and my current boss. He approved of my decision to scatter the remaining seed all over the garden, much to the confusion, and even dismay, of my fellow gardeners. I gave orders that the dill was not to be pulled up, hoed, or disturbed, except where it choked out our other produce. The dill had to stay. And stay it did, enough to pop up again the following year, when I collected mature stalks by the bucketful, saving even more seed.

This spring, that same jelly jar sits full of seeds. I take a few out on occasion and rub them between my fingers. They’re thin, with rounded sides, and they come to a point on both ends. These flat, fragile seeds contain all the essentials for a life to begin. Somewhere, buried in their DNA, I know they hold the memory of a garden, tucked behind a house, not far from the Chippewa River.

I haven’t seen my grandfather in over a year. I’m glad he and I have been cautious about COVID, but it’s tough to stay in contact with him. He’s not one to chat on the phone very long. Usually, he calls with a specific question in mind, and when he’s past the formalities of checking how I’m doing, he’ll end the call abruptly with a, “Well, be good.” Click. He’d rather give someone a bucket of raspberries and a pound of ground beef than delve too far into his feelings. I can’t say I’m all that different.

Those dill seeds preserve my connection to him. Even though we’re separated by miles of woods, lakes, and farmland, our dill can remember each other.

I think my hunger for connection was what drove me to scatter those seeds in the first place. How could I work the soil without the company of those familiar, pale-yellow blossoms, branching out like an upside-down umbrella and wafting their scent on the breeze?

On campus, we certainly don’t grow dill because it sells well. Only a few people appreciate its culinary uses. A woman with a southern drawl and a wallet full of two-dollar bills will eagerly seek out our young dill leaves at the farmer’s market, but most days it’ll slowly wilt in the sun, untouched until the end of market, when I try to hand it off for free.

Pickling season is a different story. Certain people come hungry for it then, buying it in bundles of mature stalks. But it only satisfies the few customers who desperately need it and is overlooked by everyone else. We harvest the leaves and stalks all the same, cleaning and recording how much was harvested, along with the other produce. The dill’s specific variety has been forgotten, so on the record sheet it’s listed as Dan’s Dill, after my grandfather.

The golden flowers of Dan’s Dill brought a sense of connection through the pandemic.
Photo by Kathryn Simpson.

My grandparents never used dill for much either, but I think they enjoyed the aroma. I still remember my grandma, sick and couch-ridden from chemotherapy, asking me to get her some dill from the garden. She seemed so happy to smell those small, yellow flowers, rolling the stalk between her fingers. She was too ill to go outside, but the dill could help her imagine the garden—what it would be like to stroll around it again, if only her lungs would cooperate.

After she asked for that first stem, I started bringing bouquets of blossoms to her more often, so she could enjoy the scent. Now that she’s gone, I think a lot about that little bit of dill—that small gift—a simple herb helping her cling to a shred of humanity while her body withered away.

When I finally leave Ashland, I’ll take that jelly jar with me, stuffed to the brim with fragrant seeds to scatter wherever I land next. I’ll keep bringing them with me, to every garden, every farm, every salvageable piece of land. And all along the way, they’ll have trace memories woven into their DNA, remembering a garden, tucked behind a house, not far from the Chippewa River.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum opens on May 15, 2021, with our Mysteries of the Night exhibit and in-person public programs. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Monday, May 10, 2021

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Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Path My Mother Walks

By guest writer Toni Alioto, Northland College ‘23

Columnist’s Note: Toni is a writing major at Northland College who was recently my student in “WRI 273: Writing the Environmental Essay.” It was a joy to have her in class, and I’d like to share one of her essays with you this week, in honor of Mother’s Day. Enjoy! –Emily Stone

This week’s guest author, Toni Alioto, is a writing major at Northland College. Provided photo.

The trail was full of sharp turns, exposed roots, peek-a-boo rocks, and one spot slanted at such a steep angle that if a camper did not grip onto the trunk of the above tree, they will make a big splash. The Lucas Lake Trail at Camp Silver Brook near West Bend, Wisconsin, is the path on which Girl Scout troop 834 would follow their leader, Mrs. A, to the main camp for morning activities. Mrs. A was often the most talked about troop leader at camp; not only was she fantastically creative and organized, but she was also blind.

There are many versions of blindness, but what Mrs. A had was a form of macular degeneration where she saw nothing but white at all times, as if a round room was painted the color of milk from floor to ceiling. What impressed the other campers most was the fact that she was rarely seen with her red and white cane or hooked onto someone’s arm for guidance. Instead, she led us with trust in her own footing, no matter the obstacles ahead.

Oh, there’s one more cool thing about Mrs. A: she’s my mom.

I often think of those years we spent following her around camp when I struggle on my own path. This is where I find myself now; uncertainty flowing through me like the water from Silver Creek into Lucas Lake back at Camp Silver Brook. A white wall of doubt obscures my path toward graduation, grad school, and teaching in a field I love. My opposing wants litter the ground like obstacles, tripping me up.

Do I continue on this path of academia where jagged twists and turns keep me from picturing a clear future? Or do I take a path I’ve walked before but never completed; the path of an untethered life, living in a canned-ham trailer, moving to a new state every year, and becoming an explorer of humanity, creativity, and change? How do I trust my footing enough to find the path right for me when I cannot discern what lies ahead in either direction? How can I be more like my mom?

Twenty years later and my mom and I still go off into the woods together. She leaves her cane in the car, only takes my arm for guidance when there’s a steep drop-off nearby, and asks that I simply let her know when a large obstacle or rough terrain is coming up. The soles of her feet do most of the work, reading the ground like braille, and each time I am awestruck at her capabilities and her trust.

To learn her ways, I once tried walking along the trails in Grant Park in Milwaukee with my eyes closed. I know the path well, as it’s a favorite of mine. It went fine at first, taking slow and deliberate steps—but ended with my foot in a stream and a soggy-sock car ride home. Putting trust in my other senses, when I so often rely on my eyes to do the work of all five, proved difficult.

As I was writing, I called my mom to make sure I remembered our troop number correctly; I didn’t. She asked what my topic was this week, and I said, “mostly you.” I explained a bit more about the idea for this essay, to which she responded with a laugh, “the other night at bowling my friends were explaining me to a new bowler, and I overheard them say. ‘She can see, but she can’t see.’”

I am glad there are others taking notice of what an unusually gifted person she is. My mom relies on all her senses, often clarifying that she doesn’t have heightened hearing, she simply makes use of its full potential. This holds true with all her senses, which allows her to walk this world as if she were a sighted woman.

While I am not blind, I can’t see what lies past the obstacles on my path. I’ve lost trust in myself because I have not given weight to the senses that might guide me beyond my vision. Could I learn to walk these paths by focusing on where my foot must land next, and not by what I see as an obstacle in the future? Could I be more like my mom back on the paths at Camp Silver Brook, approaching those sharp turns and exposed roots with awareness and trust in herself? How might I take the way my mother walks these paths into the world?

What if we all trusted our footing a little more instead of relying on our sight? Would life be better if the focus wasn’t on the obstacles ahead, but on the steps we’re taking in the moment? Maybe we could all benefit from following Mrs. A down that path.

Toni Alioto and her mom, Mrs. A, grin nervously on a high platform as they prepare to zoom down a zip line. Provided photo.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

A Writer’s Perspective

On one of those glorious spring days of childhood, Michaela Fisher went out exploring. “I was riding my pony and my dog tagged along,” she recalled. “Suddenly my dog, Lilly, froze, and then darted off into the tall grass. My pony and I followed her, and came upon a fawn in the grass. She was so tiny, still full of spots, and totally still as we came upon her. Lilly didn't do anything to the fawn, and just watched. We were all mesmerized!”

Most dog owners have similar tales of surprise and discovery, of treasures unearthed at the end of a canine nose. I don’t have a dog, but I do have something else: the mentality of a writer.

For the past seven weeks, I’ve been teaching WRI 273, a Northland College course called “Writing the Environmental Essay.” The opportunity arose through a combination of serendipitous factors. Prof. Cynthia Belmont, who normally teaches the course, went on sabbatical. The pandemic meant that I was a little less busy at the Museum than normal, and that we were eager to find ways to reach new audiences. Social distancing measures meant that I had the option to teach the course entirely virtually—and skip many dark, winding, deer-filled drives to Ashland and back. Plus, being a Northland graduate who has now been writing an environmental essay every week for ten years made me uniquely qualified to teach this one topic. Right?

I think I learned as much as the students.

I’ve never taken an essay writing class myself; so when I started reading our textbooks to prepare for class, I had a constant stream of “ah ha” moments. In one handout, a chapter from Creative Nonfiction by Philip Gerard, I read, “…and because they [writers] prowl the world with their eyes wide open and their ears pricked for sound, wherever they go interesting things are liable to happen.…captivated by the moment, they are also outside themselves, inventing the words they would use to describe…” You mean that I’m not the only one constantly looking for something I could turn into a story?

I put those quotes on a lecture slide for class, and I was still thinking about them last week as I walked home after visiting the swale of leafy liverworts. I knew I had some interesting photographs, but how could I turn those tiny weirdos into a story? What words would I use to describe their peculiar beauty, and how could I make them meaningful? The Science Writers’ Essay Handbook by Michelle Nijhuis says that essays must be “about the author and about the world.”

I ended up trying to show that the closer you look, the more you see, and there’s always more to see in nature. When I hold this idea up as a lens and look out at the landscape, I find a world that is chock full of life. I feel less alone. I may never know whether or not my readers caught that intention. But maybe if they did, we’ll all feel less alone.

As I read farther in the text, Nijhuis began talking about the external journey and the internal journey, and how the best essays weave them together. This was an idea I’d never thought out explicitly, but as I read, I felt a kinship with this other writer and I felt the hazy thoughts in my own brain coming smack into focus. Yes! That’s exactly what I was doing when I wrote about leaf miners several years ago.

From the perspective of a writer, this trail of a leaf miner larva isn’t just a curiosity; it’s a journey that can be woven into a story. Photo by Emily Stone.

In an essay that became a chapter called “Growing Up Before My Eyes,” in my second book, I found a maple leaf with a funny squiqqle through it, and shared the parallel journeys of the leaf miner larva who made the squiggle, and my own process of deciphering the natural history of the critter, ending with the image of a cheek-pinching grandma. As another text advised, I try to bring my readers “physically—and emotionally—into the landscape” with me.

It wasn’t just the textbooks that illuminated and expanded on my own nebulous thoughts about writing. Class discussions brought enlightenment and connection, too. As the students commented on the readings, or provided feedback on their classmates’ writing, I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement, astounded at how well they were putting these communal thoughts into words. Nodding, that is, until some idea would catch me off guard, and I’d cock my head and try to see the world in a new way, often laughing as my perspective tilted wildly.

This happened with an essay about dogs, a topic I know little about. When I commented that writing about extinct breeds of dogs was “esoteric,” another student (whose earlier essay had included her beloved dog), wrote in the chat “It’s dogs. Least esoteric ever.” I laughed out loud and remembered the words of another student: “I write because I love the phrase, ‘I haven't thought about it like that.’"

As it turns out, there are many ways to discover new perspectives on the world. Teaching this class was one way. Michaela followed the nose of her furry friend. Or I could walk around with a mentality I now know is that of a writer: eyes wide open, looking for new life in the weeds, and inventing the words to describe it.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Little Leafy Liverworts

On one drippy day, I found myself staring up at the exposed roots of a precariously perched hemlock tree and wondering when it would finally topple from the bank and shatter across my narrow town road. Edging in for a closer look, my eye gravitated away from the gnarl of roots and dry dirt, and settled on the lush green landscape to the tree’s left, resting at eye-level.

In the little swale, a few old logs and stumps reclined peacefully. Mosses and lichens in every shade of emerald, forest, and spring draped over their bodies as if it were a gathering of time-softened grandmas knitting blankets, while the loops and patterns of vibrant yarns spilled out of their laps to engulf the world in comfort.

Trusting that the old hemlock would not choose this calm day on which to topple, I took three big steps up the bank so I could enter the green room. The sloping floor was only as big as my office. From standing height I observed the patchworks of textures—thin grasses, shiny wintergreen leaves, fuzzy mosses, and dusty-looking lichens. Then a bouquet of pixie cup lichens on the side of a stump caught my eye, and before I knew it, my knees were wet and I was nose-to-nose with a fairy castle.

The decaying stump was only shin-high and as round as my own head, but every fiber of the soft, red-brown wood was covered by diversity woven of our matriarch. Entering this miniature world filled with red-tipped British soldier lichens, dusty green tentacles of squamulose lichens, and those chalice-shaped pixie cups made me half-drunk on wonder.

And then, a shimmer beyond the stump-castle caught my eye. From a green-draped log bristled a forest of tiny, luminous stems, like filaments of frosted glass. Each column was topped with a shiny brown head--so that they looked like magical matchsticks—and clasped at its base by a tiny cup of leaves. My eyes traveled among them on a Lilliputian safari, shrinking down to smaller than an ant in order to fit among the stems without getting soaked by glittering drops that perched here and there.

I later discovered that these were the reproductive structures of leafy liverworts. Also called scale moss, liverworts are plants whose leaves are only a single cell thick. With no structures of support, they sprawl along the surfaces of rocks, soil, and trees, often intermingling with their similar-looking, but distant relatives, the mosses.

Like mosses, liverworts reproduce through spores instead of seeds. But mosses send their spores skyward on wiry, green or brown stalks called setae; structures that keep bristling above the leaves long after their capsules have emptied into the wind. The frosted-glass look of liverwort setae belies their more ephemeral nature.

Liverwort spores mature inside their capsules while those brown globes stay nested down into the cups of leaves. Only when the spores are ripe does the seta expand and lift the capsule up just high enough to catch a breeze. Four lines of thicker cells dry unevenly, which puts stress on the shrinking tissues and bursts the capsule open.

Last spring I captured images of the opened capsules after a late snowstorm!

I spotted a few of these flower-like capsules in among the others, and admired the rust-brown color of the spores. While some spores will fall out on their own, or catch a ride on slug or beetle, some of them are ejected through the action of cells called elaters. With a spiral band of thickening, instead of the capsule’s straight lines, a single, water-filled elater cell will coil as it dries. Tighter and tighter it twists, until it tears itself free from the inside of the capsule and flings spores into the air with its sudden flight.

A day later, the translucent seta bends down and begins to melt away.

When I finally looked up from this fairy forest to rest my eyes, I was surprised to find that thousands of these little beings carpeted many of the logs in the glade. Who waved the magic wand? With my search image trained, with my brain now knowing what to look for, a whole new world had materialized in minutes.

Once I knew what I was looking for, thousands of leafy liverwort sporophytes appeared on the fallen logs. My whole walk home, I spotted them in places I'd never seen them before.
Photo by Emily Stone

Behind me, the trunk of the old hemlock tree still stood straight and tall, its rise and fall controlled by a clock much slower than that of the setae. It, too, makes little brown globes full of new life at the top of its stem. It, too, will one day crumple to the ground. And on its softening trunk, the earth will knit blankets of lush diversity.

Will you see them?

*    *    *

And here are some additional photos because I'm now obsessed with these little "spring ephemerals"...

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Smells of Spring Rain

I could hear the storm approaching as darkness fell. Low rumbles in the distance provided a bassline for the gentle, percussive music of the first raindrops. From out on my porch, I inhaled deeply.

The pleasantly sharp smell of rain after a dry spell conjures up memories of hot, dark-spotted sidewalks under roller-skates, Little League players scrambling to outrun a cloudburst, and jubilant bodies clad only in swimsuits dancing in a sprinkler system that adults don’t control. Scent molecules trigger a connection straight to the memory center of the brain, bypassing the places where we process language. “Nothing is more memorable than a smell. Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us like the fabrications they are,” writes Diane Ackerman in her book “A Natural History of the Senses.”

I can tell you about the joy I feel—and have felt over and over for decades—when cool rain falls on a hot day, but my adjectives for the actual smell, like sharp, invoke some other sense. Scientists estimate that the human nose can detect more than 1 trillion scents. Two-hundred and seventy-five chemicals combine to form the smell of a rose. But even to Shakespeare, Master of Words, a rose just smells sweet.

While we can’t easily parse smells into words, scientists have dissected many scents into their component chemical compounds. Researchers Isabel Joy Bear and R. G. Thomas, for example, analyzed the smell of rain on dry earth and discovered that it originates from an oil that plants produce during dry spells to delay seed germination. During dry weather, the oil is absorbed into rocks and soils. Falling drops liberate the compounds and fling them into the air we breathe. Rain also washes the oil away, giving plants relief from the heat and stimulating growth.

Bear and Thomas named the smell “petrichor,” which comes from the Greek term for rock (petra), and the word for the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology (ichor). I was smelling the blood of the gods splashed up from the gravel on my driveway. After a few more deep drinks of air, I went back inside.

As I puttered around with my evening routines, the thunder rumbled like an approaching truck, and the sky began to flash almost continuously. Finally, the excitement was too much to miss. I stepped back out onto my covered porch to watch the storm roll in.

Lightning pulsed under the clouds and tree twigs etched an intricate pattern of black-on-white across the southern sky. Raindrops swelled from the original percussive patter to a rush of noise. And then, as the storm moved on, streaks of lighting began to split the northern sky. I followed them to the other side of the porch. The downpour slackened, and the rush resolved into many sounds. Big drops from the eaves splashed into puddles. Little drops from trees pattered onto lacy needles. And medium drops, still coming straight from the sky, spattered onto the mats of oak leaves ironed flat by the winter’s weight of snow.

The scent of petrichor was gone now, washed away by life-giving rain, the chemical spell of dormancy broken, just as the plants had intended. I didn’t even have to inhale deeply to catch a new smell though. This one was cooler, wetter, and sweeter. It brought back happy memories of lilacs in the sunshine and the melancholy smell of autumn leaf piles that have become too soggy for jumping in, but I couldn't find precise words to describe the fragrance. And what was causing it? I took long, curious breaths, as I tried to identify this other smell of rain.

The overwintered oak leaves glittered wetly in light from the house. Built from the sugars of photosynthesis, their leathery bodies have been exposed to bacteria and fungi all winter long. Digestive enzymes from those microbes would have worked—slowly—in the cold, damp of the subnivean zone. Did I now smell the sugars that those decomposers released? Was this the smell of death?

Or maybe the maple trees—sending sugars up from their roots, sending their tiny leaves bursting forth—were exuding the syrupy aura. Was this the smell of new life?

Maybe, I thought, as I watched the rain push brown leaves into the soil and encourage green shoots to rise up from it, they are one and the same.

Dead leaves sink into the soil as new shoots rise up. Both are assisted by the rains of spring. Photo by Emily Stone.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Find a Puddle and Some Happiness

Inhaling deeply, I looked out across the sunny expanse of frozen lake. Squeezing my shoulder blades together, I corrected my computer-hunched posture and felt tension release from the muscles. A vigorous gale tossed through the treetops, but here, on the leeward shore, I felt only a hint of breeze on my cheek. With another deep breath, I began to turn to leave, but an oak leaf caught my eye.

With pointed tips curled up like a cupped hand, the tan-colored leaf had become a tiny boat on a clear puddle at the edge of the ice. As I watched, a sliver of wind snuck down and sent the leaf spinning gracefully to the left. A darker brown birch leaf, diamond-shaped with finely serrated edges, traced the same path across the puddle, and its tip slid in to catch a lobe of the oak leaf. Like a pair of dancers, the two leaves twirled and glided on the puddle, pushed by the chaotic wisps of breeze. Such playful movements made me smile.

When I’d stood up from my computer in a huff a few minutes earlier, vexed by the trickle of spam emails that kept interrupting my thoughts and cursing the people who sent them, I wasn’t sure that a walk would help. Research shows that people tend to underestimate how good a simple walk outside will make them feel. But, as I climbed up from the shore, I caught myself smiling at the sunny carpet of mosses who had wasted no time in waking up from winter.

Mosses and a lichens wake up quickly from the long winter. 

That warm fuzzy feeling I was having toward the moss actually has a name: biophilia.

Edward O. Wilson, a revered ecologist and champion of biodiversity, made the term popular, and defined it as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms." He hypothesized that our love of nature has helped humans survive, and helps us feel connected to all life.

As I sauntered down my long, winding, woodsy, driveway, even more benefits of this biophilia were at work on my brain. The way my eyes scanned the forest, noticing the red buds of a maple tree against the blue sky, the gentle curves of the forest floor that will soon be hidden by new growth, and the patterns of moss and lichens that carpet the side-hill, leads to something that scientists call “soft fascination.”

Pixie cup lichens are one of my favorite beings to notice on the forest floor...

Soft fascination—as opposed to the “hard fascination” of something like a sports event or movie that demand full attention—requires no effort and leaves space for reflection without risking boredom. Soft fascination leads to clearer thinking, reduces anxiety, and restores our ability to focus on tasks later. While our mind wanders, we may end up solving problems or coming up with creative ideas. Research also shows that people tend not to ruminate on the bad stuff that causes anxiety while in nature.

In addition to watching leaves dance on a breeze-tickled puddle, sunsets, rain showers, parks, and forest paths are all opportunities to experience the brain-resting effects of soft fascination. Just be sure to leave your phone out of reach: talking while walking ruins the effect.

The benefits of time spent outside, especially in green nature, are especially noticeable for people who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). During an experiment at the University of Illinois, kids who took just a 20-minute walk in a park had their symptoms of ADHD reduced by threefold. That improvement was roughly equal to the difference in having ADHD or not having it, or of not being medicated vs. experiencing the peak effects of a common medication.

Not only do kids show improvement in focus and memory when they get to be outside, they may also show less anxiety, depression and aggression than when they are indoors in a restrictive environment. Erin Kenny, founder of a nature school, put it this way: "Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls."

Adults aren’t much different. I’d been bouncing off my mental walls at the computer all afternoon, and now a short walk was completely changing my mood. The chickadees were helping. “Hey Sweetie!” came their cheerful whistles from the hemlock twigs above my head. I’ve been using the calls of chickadees to cheer me up ever since a particularly stressful week back in college.

I’m not the only one. Psychologists have found good evidence that bird songs improve mood and mental alertness—listening to recorded bird songs helped reduce that post-lunch slump in elementary students. And in a different study, scientists found that a 10 percent increase in neighborhood bird songs translated into an increase in life satisfaction usually equated with a 10 percent increase in income.

It’s not really breaking news anymore that relaxing in nature makes us happier, but it is worth repeating. Nature relieves mild depression, reduces stress, and increases happiness for both adults and children. And, without the icy winds of January or the mosquitoes-hordes of July, this is the perfect season to walk slowly through nature. Go find a puddle, a leaf, a breeze, and some birdsong, and you will also find an increase in well-being.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.