Friday, July 29, 2016

Crossing the Moat

Sparky Stensaas is an author, naturalist, and photographer who loves bogs and fens. He had lots to share about the cool plants and the rare dragonflies. Photo by Emily Stone.

One after another we scrambled across the fallen tree that spanned the moat. Black, bottomless water licked at our boots, and armed guards threatened nearby with needle-sharp daggers. No, we weren’t storming a castle, we were entering a poor fen.

Fens are a type of wetland with organic, peat soils composed of poorly decomposed plants. While poor fens lack nutrients and are similar to bogs, there is one main difference: fens have some water flow (either from underground springs, a flowing stream, or runoff) and that results in a neutral or basic pH. True bogs only receive water from rain, have no inflow or outflow, and are extremely acidic.

The glossy black moat we teetered across is a typical feature of these wetlands. Where runoff from the surrounding uplands contacts the bog or fen, it adds oxygen and nutrients and stimulates decomposition. Dead plants molder into slimy, insubstantial muck that gives way under floundering feet, and their leftover nutrients foster the growth of beautiful plants like water calla (related to the ornamental calla lily).

Once across the moat, we stepped gingerly onto the edge of a floating mat of vegetation and gauged its substantiality before committing full weight. Although the moss sunk and water welled around out boots, the carpet of interwoven plant remains held. One of the most fascinating things about bogs and fens is that they fill in from the top down. Shrubs and sedges anchor to the edge of an open pond and create scaffolding upon which sphagnum moss and more plants grow. In the anoxic, nutrient-poor water, the plants don’t decompose after they die. Instead, they just sink lower as new plants grow on the substrate of their bodies.

Here, near the moat, the mat of poorly decomposed vegetation was only a few feet thick and undulated like a waterbed under our weight. It grew noticeably more stable as we walked toward the center of the wetland. Sparky Stensaas, a naturalist, photographer, author, and our guide, stopped every few feet to point out patches of grass pink orchids, pitcher plants, and sundews. Sparkling dragonflies and translucent damselflies zipped through the summer heat. Jewel-like cranberries ripened in the moss. While the group paused to examine them, I got out my bog probe. This simple tool is just five, four-foot lengths of chimney sweep extension rods. They are thin but strong, and screw together securely.

The first rod was the hardest. I had to ram it forcefully into the thatch of vegetation before I felt the fibers part ways. After the second rod, resistance decreased as the rod found its way down through older and older peat. We held our breath as I screwed the fifth rod onto the set and pushed it down easily. Bottom was nowhere to be found. This told us two things. 1) Even near the edge of this fen the basin is more than twenty feet deep. 2) I need to order more extension rods.

Both amazed and disappointed, I began to extract the rods from the fen. As my hand grasped the second black wand, I gasped. It was ice cold! I know that that moss blanket on bogs and fens is an excellent insulator, and that bogs can harbor subsurface ice well into June, but on this ninety degree day the surface of the bog felt like dishwater, and the contrast in temperature was startling. That cold is one more cause of the slow decomposition here.

Without decomposition, the resources that new plants need to grow are locked up, unavailable, in the bodies of old plants. To acquire nitrogen and other nutrients, several bog and fen plants have turned to carnivory. Pitcher plants and sundews are two of the most famous carnivorous plants, and I’ve written about them before. Their brilliantly specialized leaves capture small insects, and a combination of microorganisms and digestive juices break them down.

Just beyond our probe location, near the edge of an open pool, we found great patches of small, sunny yellow flowers with a violet-like face and funny, protruding spur. These horned bladderworts don’t look dangerous, but theirs is the largest genus of carnivorous plants in the world. Under the innocent-looking flowers hide tiny traps.

Below the sunny yellow flowers of horned bladderwort, meat-eating traps lie in wait. These plants digest bugs to make up for the low nutrient availability in the fen. Photo be Emily Stone.

Each trap is a bladder with a door that opens inward. The plant can pump water out of the bladder, flattening it and creating a vacuum inside. When a minuscule invertebrate nudges trigger hairs near the door, the flap swings inward and sucks in both water and lunch. The door snaps shut as the bladder fills. The plant sucks out the water and replaces it with digestive enzymes. Recent studies show that a vibrant microbial community in and around the traps may also play a role in attracting prey and absorbing phosphorous.

Growing up, my imagination often wandered deep inside fairytale worlds. In this fen and others like it, I’ve found that those magical places truly exist. Dragons and damsels fly above a sparkling landscape where tricky traps lie in wait to catch unsuspecting travelers. The precious gems of flowers and fruits attract treasure-seekers of all kinds. Cold danger subtends all that beauty. With this in mind, I can’t think of a better way to enter and exit a fen than over a glossy, black moat. Which is, of course, is what we did as we hiked back to reality, swatting those dagger-wielding guards the whole way.

Special Note: Emily’s compilation book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at We're also fundraising to cover the remaining printing costs so that ALL proceeds from the book can support children's nature education at the Museum. Check out the Natural Connections campaign at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Purchase Emily’s new Natural Connections book at:

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Natural Connections books have arrived!

The books are here!

500 copies of Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses by Emily M. Stone just arrived at the Museum! Thanks to Board Chair Anne Miller for the delivery service.

You can purchase books at the Museum Shop or on our website: Books are $20 (incl. tax) and there is a $5 shipping and handling charge for ones we mail. 

The natural world offers a cornucopia of delights and amazements. Emily Stone knows how to unearth these stories and tell them with style. Life inevitably becomes richer the more we explore it. This book will enrich the life of anyone who lives in the Northwoods. I expect to go back to it many times, and every time, to be surprised while learning something more.

—John Bates, naturalist and author of seven books on the Northwoods

Come explore all four wonderful seasons in the Northwoods with a knowledgeable guide. At the heart of this book is Emily’s passion for sharing her discoveries with both kids and adults. Join her on a hike, paddle, or ski, and you’ll soon be captivated by her animated style and knack for turning any old thing into a shining bit of stardust. In stories about the smell of rain, cheating ants, photosynthesizing salamanders, and more, she delves deeply into the surprising science behind our Northwoods neighbors, and then emerges with a more complex understanding of their beauty. Themes like adaptations, symbiotic relationships, the cycles of nature, and the fluidness of life and death float through every chapter. While this book contains many of your familiar friends, through Emily’s research and unique perspective, you will discover something new on every page and around every bend in the trail.

Emily M. Stone is a naturalist by birth, training, profession, and passion. Her childhood spent as a “mud and water daughter” led to a degree in outdoor education from Northland College and a Field Naturalist Masters from the University of Vermont. As the Naturalist/Education Director at the Cable Natural History Museum in Cable, Wisconsin, Emily writes a weekly “Natural Connections” column published in more than a dozen local and regional newspapers. She has earned an Excellence in Craft award from the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

Proceeds from this book benefit children’s nature education 
at the Cable Natural History Museum.

Friday, July 22, 2016

A Change of Plans Still Leads to Fun

High water on the Namekagon did not get in the way of these boys having fun.
Photo by Emily Stone.

I lay awake in the dark as sheets of rain and a few pebbles of hail battered the windows. Wave after wave of storms moved though, each one increasing my sense of foreboding. With each successive burst of thunder and rain, I first thanked my lucky stars that the canoe trip hadn’t started a day earlier, and then mulled over the possibilities for morning.

The Museum’s fifth annual canoe trip for 12-18 year olds was set to launch on the Namekagon River at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday. Nine boys had signed up—a record number—with more than half returning for their second, third, or fourth year on the trip. We were all looking forward to the adventure. Even if the river isn’t too high, I thought, we’ll have to be extra careful about new trees slumped across the channel.

Morning news reports of the historic storm, bridge collapses, and 10.5 inches of rain quickly squashed any ideas about paddling the river. We gathered the boys and their parents in the break room to come up with a plan B. We could cancel it, I suggested, or camp in a campground and cut the trip down to one night. But the boys wouldn’t compromise; they wanted their two nights in the woods no matter what. So, after being turned back by a road closure on the way to the campground on Lake Namakagon, we ended up with Plan C—a campground on Lake Owen.

Seconds after the van doors opened, the boys were gone. Down to the lake they sprinted, in the clattering, tumbling, mountain goat gallops characteristic of their age and gender. Then, seconds later, they were back up to the picnic table for lunch.

Tents went up. Swimsuits went on, beach was invaded. Then back to camp, into canoes and off for a paddle around the sheltered bay. No fish were caught, so we returned to the beach. Fading into the background with a watchful eye, I grew dizzy at the pace of their perpetual motion. With the focus and efficiency of maturity I could out-paddle them any day, but they had infinitely more energy and skill for play.

If this is their preferred, default speed, it’s no wonder that these boys struggle to sit in class and pay attention or to settle down to do math homework. It’s no wonder that shorter and fewer recesses are impacting students’ ability to focus. I always hope that the boys learn something from me on these trips—how to pack a Duluth pack, steer a canoe, set up your tent to keep the rain out, keep a clean camp, tie a trucker’s hitch, or identify poison ivy. But really, even if all the boys learn is that joy can be found in the freedom of nature, I’m satisfied.

Our second day on the trip—their one full day outdoors—was another whirlwind. A rope swing beckoned us halfway down the lake, but rolling whitecaps and seething gusts turned us back. The failed adventure was forgotten as fast as you could say “sunfish.” Even the staunch anti-fisherman unwound line from a tree, tied on a night crawler found drowning in a puddle, and spent an hour or so on the dock watching schools of nibblers rise to the bait. Our serious anglers trolled circles around the protected bay and each came up with at least one large bass, plus 40 tiny bluegills.

George and Joe Tuttle (ends) and Nolan Arthur (center) show off a big bass. Photo by Emily Stone.

Bode Rasmussen shows of his catch. Plentiful bluegills kept the boys busy for hours.
Photo by Emily Stone.

We had a few moments of peace during lunch. Nine mouths full of peanut butter afforded some welcome silence. Then back to the beach. After an hour of intense activity, I noticed a few boys start to slow down. Nabbing the chance, I gathered everyone up on the beach for a geology lesson.

“One-point-one billion years ago,” I began, “the continent tried to rip itself apart, right down the basin of Lake Superior.” The story of the mid-continent rift is one of my favorites. The thinning crust allowed magma to well up, and the resulting lava flows created the North Shore of Lake Superior. The intense tectonic activity was felt all the way down here, in the form of accessory faults that deeply cracked the bedrock. The long, narrow basin of Lake Owen was carved out of one of those faults. Fast forward to 10,000 years ago, and sub-glacial rivers carrying torrents of meltwater deposited sinuous ridges of gravel called eskers up and down the lake.

I know that geologic time probably means little to the brain of a teenage boy. Everything is now. The potential consequences of their actions have no significance until they materialize. Only I foresaw the potential for broken bones, for glass in bare feet, for sand in eyes, for fishhooks in faces. Those things never happened, so I’m sure the boys never considered their possibility. The sad part is that the consequences of our actions—of years of inaction on climate change with a similar attitude—have now materialized in their lives.

Through sheer luck this storm didn’t threaten their lives. But it could have. This much rain is unprecedented. The river hasn’t flooded like this in recorded history. Still, their luck and their resilience in the face of potential catastrophe and actual plan changes gives me hope that they will manage with the future—which is now the present--we’ve created for them.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

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

Friday, July 15, 2016

Higher Plants

The exquisite flowers of three-toothed cinquefoil cling to cliffs high above Lake Superior in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. These are truly higher plants! Photo by Emily Stone. 

The view was spectacular. Hot and sweaty, we emerged from the humid forest into brilliant sunlight on top of the world. Our toes crept toward the edge of lichen-crusted rocks and our souls soared out over the deep blue waters of Lake Superior.

Hiking to the Top of the Giant, in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, has been on my adventure list for a while. Despite the July heat, the record month of rainfall collecting in mud puddles, and a bumper crop of bugs, it was worth the wait. Forested hills spread their welcoming embrace, craggy cliffs rose wildly from the blanket of green, and The Lake sparkled with its special magic.

After inhaling the grandeur for several moments I turned my focus downward again, perhaps seeking relief from such strenuous awe.

The world is beautiful at all scales. There at my toes were the exquisite flowers of three-toothed cinquefoil. On each small blossom, five white petals threw themselves back like outspread arms embracing the sky, and a crowd of delicate stamens and pistils reached eagerly toward the sun. Shiny green leaves spread out in a low mat. Each leaf was palmately divided into three lobes, and each lobe was tipped by three pointed teeth.

These are the mountain men of the plant world. Three-toothed cinquefoil can’t survive on good soils where numerous neighbors crowd close. Instead, they claim space where others can’t survive and dig their toes into craggy bedrock. Here they eke out a living on dust, rain, beauty, and solitude. Woody, creeping stems cling to the available footholds; thick, leathery leaves defend their precious water; and red pigments protect their winter foliage from harsh sun.

They’ve come a long way.

Just over 1.1 billion years ago, two separate events initiated this combination of rock and flower. These craggy cliffs where cinquefoil clings solidified from magma 1.1 billion years ago during the mid-continent rift event that initiated the Lake Superior basin. The continent tried to rip itself in two. Farther south, along the North Shore of Minnesota, lava erupted onto the surface. Up here in Canada, molten rock squeezed in between layers of older sedimentary rocks. The magma cooled, the rocks tilted a bit, and then the softer sedimentary rocks began to erode away. This resulted in the spectacular topography and my steep hike.

The other event happened in an ancient sea where the first cells of life swam in the primordial soup. One eukaryotic cell, now known as an archaeplastida, engulfed a free-living, photosynthetic cyanobacteria. The two single-celled organisms began living in symbiosis. Some scientists say that the eukaryote enslaved the cyanobacteria, forcing it to produce food for them both. Others acknowledge that the surrounding cell would have given the cyanobacteria a measure of protection, plus access to the sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide it needed to photosynthesize.

Eventually the two different cells began to coordinate their division (and hence their reproduction), and even trade genes. Eventually the cyanobacteria was no longer a free-living endosymbiont—it was a chloroplast—just one of the organelles in the eukaryotic cell.

Fast forward to half a billion years ago, and those plant cells containing chloroplasts developed into multicellular organisms and moved out of the sea. But the first simple land plants still needed easy access to plentiful water for both reproduction and photosynthesis.

Now, today, I can admire a beautiful flower with a woody stem clinging to a dry cliff more than a thousand feet above the freshwater sea.

The journey to this point was long and winding, but the view is truly amazing. Thinking about all this, I’m not sure that looking down was the right way to seek relief from strenuous awe.
Three-toothed cinquefoil occurs in many beautiful, rocky locations. Here it clings to a crack on Artist's Point in Grand Marais, MN. Photo by Emily Stone.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

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

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Nature of My Garden #2

Gardens are all about the food chain. Hoe in hand, evening light descending, I daydreamed about crisp lettuce, spicy peppers, sweet peas, juicy tomatoes, and endless green beans. It’s inescapable, though—my garden’s food chain also includes worms, flies, beetles, caterpillars, toads and mosquitoes. Don’t worry; I’m not eating all those things. Nonetheless, they are eating and being eaten in my garden.

Early spring weeding sessions turned up lots of long, sinuous, quack grass roots, and plenty of giant, glistening night crawlers, too. Even though earthworms aren’t native in the forests around here (the glaciers froze them out), they are welcome in my garden. Not only do they mix the soil and turn waste into nutrients, they provide food for the multitudes. One such beneficiary turned up in a trowel full of soil. A smattering of pale blue dots adorned the salamander’s glistening, blue-black skin like stars in the Milky Way. Worms are a favorite food. These burrowing salamanders prefer moist soil and swampy woodlands, and use leaf litter, rocks, and logs for shelter. Last year I found one hiding under my cardboard mulch.

Two weeks ago I moved another piece of cardboard mulch and discovered a tiny red-bellied snake. With a lightly-patterned, brown back, and smooth, red-orange underside, this pencil-sized snake was adorable. To further endear them to even the most squeamish gardeners, the red-bellied snake’s teeth are too tiny to matter to a human finger, and they feed nearly exclusively on slugs, with a few earthworms thrown in. They are welcome in my garden!

Last week I discovered a slightly less adorable snake after going to investigate a rustling in the weeds. Black and yellow racing stripes peeked through the green. I’ve heard that snakes with stripes tend to slither away quickly from danger, letting the pattern play tricks on your eyes. In contrast, snakes with cryptic patterns freeze and take advantage of their camouflage to disappear without going anywhere.

This garter snake wasn’t going anywhere fast, though. His Cheshire Cat grin was clamped tightly around the back left leg of a barely-wiggling toad. I marveled at his ambition. Toads and other amphibians are common prey for garter snakes, but still, this was a big toad, and the back leg seemed like a terribly awkward place to begin. Luckily, snakes are well prepared to swallow big meals in one gulp.

A snake’s lower jaw can pop out of its socket in the skull and then split in half and separate at an elasticated joint. Rear pointing fangs help the prey move in the right direction (which, according to the snake, is down its throat). The split jaw comes in handy with swallowing, too. The snake will work one side and then the other forward along the prey’s body, essentially walking its dinner down the hatch.

Once the snake can close its mouth, muscle waves called peristalsis move the prey through its digestive tract. The diameter of a snake’s body does limit the size of prey it can consume, but I’m not sure anyone let this garter snake in on the secret! After snapping a few photos, I backed off to let the snake do some problem solving.

Back in the potato patch with my hoe, a small fly caught my eye. Head down, abdomen up, it had assumed the mating position. No amorous partner hovered nearby, though.  I bent closer to examine the black and white stripes on its abdomen. It didn’t move. I poked it. Still no movement. Then, looking closer, I saw that the white stripes were actually caused by something pale inside, distending and stretching apart segments of the dark abdomen.

I’m glad no one was around to witness my exclamation of glee at this discovery. This fly had been parasitized by a fungus! Gross yes, but incredible, too. Many types of fungi attack all sorts of insects. The results are like a car wreck: gruesome, but captivating. Almost always the fungus triggers some behavior in the insect that facilitates spread of the fungal spores. In this case, being locked in the mating position on the tip of a leaf might attract another fly. Then, during the bumping and grinding, the abdomen full of spores would pop and infect the newcomer.

It is a death I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Still, the food chain endures in a space beyond our sense of ethics. Fungal parasites are important controls on insect parasites. A little research revealed that my statuesque fly was probably an adult root-maggot whose larvae have been eating my onions, turnips, beans, or cabbage. The fungus was doing my dirty work.

Speaking of dirty, every sliver of my exposed skin was now covered with smudges of soil from attempts to wipe away the burning bites of no-see-ums. Damp evening air had given flight to these barely visible midges who pack an outsized bite. They can’t fly when it’s hot and dry, their tiny bodies will dehydrate. A protein in their saliva triggers the extreme discomfort. Three. More. Feet. I convinced myself to keep hoeing as the skin on my neck, wrists, ears, and forehead burned from their blood-seeking bites. At the end of the row I grabbed a small bag of kale I’d picked for dinner and escaped to the car.

Tending a garden is an excellent reminder that there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially when you’re just one more link in the food chain.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

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

This blue-spotted salamander is just one of the welcome guests who find food and refuge in my garden. 
Photo by Emily Stone.

This fly may look ok, but it has been parasitized by a fungus. White spores fill and distend its black abdomen, creating stripes. Still, the dead fly waits in the mating position, ready to infect another amorous fly with the fungus. As a root-maggot fly whose larvae eat my garden plants, I’m not sad to see it go. Photo by Emily Stone.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Nature of my Garden

With a satisfying hiss, the quack grass root gave way. My eyes squeezed shut briefly against the spray of soil that came with it and then opened again to admire the creamy, foot-long ribbon with its bright green tassels. Weeding the garden is a chore, but it is not without some satisfactions.

As the community gardeners reclaim the Cable Community Farm from an old sheep pasture, I’ve found that the only way to beat the quack grass it to dig out as many roots as possible, as completely as possible. Working with a menacing-looking, forked-point, serrated-edge trowel, I dig in and loosen the soil, then tug out the grass roots with gentle pressure: too much and they’ll break—leaving behind runners that will multiply mercilessly; too little and they don’t budge.

I love the feeling when a long root releases completely with that tactile hiss, and I love the sight of clean, brown garden soil growing neat rows of my favorite veggies. Both give me a sense of accomplishment more immediate and less ambiguous than the academic tasks of my indoor life. Digging in dirt makes me happy, and the effects infiltrate deeply into the chemistry of my brain.

 As I stir up the fragrant earth, it emits an elixir of happiness. A common soil bacterium—Mycobacterium vaccae—has been shown to increase serotonin (a happy chemical in your brain) levels in mice. Serotonin both decreases anxiety and increases cognition. The effects of the bacteria only last about a week in the mice though, which we can interpret as a prescription for frequent contact.

Inhaling bacteria isn’t the only benefit I derive from incessant gardening. It also gives me an excuse to stick my nose in nature for hours at a time, something I haven’t had enough of since childhood. I absorb sunshine, fresh air, and the company of other living things. Every weeding session yields new discoveries.

For example, the ends of my rows become jungles of white clover as it invades inward from the paths. Shaking the soil off a cluster of clover roots revealed a smattering of little lumps. Tiny though they are, the root nodules are no small thing. Each tiny pimple nurtures a splendid symbiosis.

It begins when the clover plant, a legume, releases flavonoids (plant compounds often lauded for their health benefits to humans) from its roots. Rhizobia bacteria in the soil sense the flavonoids and respond by producing their own signaling molecules. These nodulation factors trigger the plant to start growing bacterial condominiums (the pimples) and invite them in as working guests. As one of the clover’s root hairs winds around some bacteria, the encapsulated critters reproduce rapidly and form a little colony which gets carried over the root nodule’s threshold by an “infection thread.”

Once inside, the bacteria convert nitrogen gas from the atmosphere (a form that is unavailable to plants) into ammonia, which is then used by the plant to build amino acids and nucleotides, which are the building blocks of proteins and DNA respectively. There is no need to fertilize clover, since it hosts its very own nitrogen factories. In exchange, the plant provides the bacteria with a place to live, carbohydrates, proteins, and sufficient oxygen.

With a nod of respect to such a broadly beneficial partnership, I squashed this last cluster of clover on the overflowing bucket of weeds. The Rhizobia’s nitrogen isn’t leaked into the soil, but as the clover decomposes, it will enrich our compost pile nicely.

It was nice to look up finally, and notice the magical evening light. Just beyond the edge of the shade a flash of color caught my eye. Sunlight gleamed on the orange and blue suit of a male eastern bluebird. My, what a handsome fellow! As I watched, he swooped into a garden and came up with something long and wiggly in his bill. Bluebirds eat mostly insects caught on the ground, including pesky, garden-eating caterpillars. They can have them!

Smiling to myself, I tossed the weeds into the compost bin and grunted at the satisfying weight of my afternoon’s accomplishment. From joy-inducing digging to mutually beneficial relationships and beautiful pest control, gardening wraps me comfortably in the middle of nature’s wide web.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

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

Bluebirds are a beautiful form of garden pest control, and add a splash of color to my weeding sessions. Photo by Larry Stone.