Friday, January 25, 2019

Remembering Mary Oliver

Did you know that a grasshopper chews by moving her mandibles from side to side instead of up and down?

I’d never really thought anything about how a grasshopper chews until reading Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” One of her most quoted poems, it ends with the question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The little jolt of surprise and joy that crackled through me at the novelty of learning about nature through a poem, coupled with such an exciting and affirming question, solidly locked in my love for Mary Oliver’s poetry.

It was a ranger in Yosemite National Park who first gave me her name. I think they’d incorporated a Mary Oliver poem into an interpretive hike, and learning about my work as a teacher/naturalist at a science camp, they encouraged me to look her up. I did. I purchased one book, devoured it, and quickly found another. Then I used her poems with the kids.

Mary Oliver had a knack for taking things that are small and mundane—a flowing river, the tracks of a deer, goldfinches in a puddle—and turning them into something profound. It is a skill that I aspire to as well. Is that because of her influence?  I discovered both the joys of Mary Oliver’s poetry and transforming the mundane during that same season teaching in the redwoods, so it very well could have been. In any case, her words have continued to shape my worldview and my writing in many wonderful ways.

You may have heard that Mary Oliver died on January 17. Social media exploded with people posting their favorite poems, inspirational quotes, and also Mary Oliver’s own words about death. She wrote about it frequently, and often joyfully. In phrases like “one long muscle,” she weaves the story of an ecological circle “where the secret name of every death is life again” (from “Skunk Cabbage.”) Or, while watching birds diving for fish in “Gannets,” she wrote, “life is real, and pain is real, but death is an imposter.”

Not long after I discovered Mary Oliver’s poetry, I also discovered that my dear Aunt Nan was dying of cancer. The wisdom and love of those two women twined together in my heart and matured my youthful philosophies surrounding death. In particular, Oliver’s poem “Wings,” felt profound. The poet watches a great blue heron and imagines sinking into the mud to become part of the bird through that implied circle of life. “My bones knew something wonderful about the darkness…” she wrote.  “…They wanted to lie down in that silky mash of the swamp, the sooner to fly.”

My family spread Nan’s ashes in her favorite places, and we have subsequently been visited by dragonflies. She told us that is how she would come back. And truly, she feels as close to me as ever. Now that Nan is not tethered to an earthly existence in faraway Maine, her spirit is with me in an instant of recollection. I think that many people, including myself, will have the same experience with Mary Oliver. She’s already incorporated herself into that “one long muscle” in countless ways that don’t require her earthly presence.

So when I learned of Oliver’s death, I didn’t exactly feel sadness. There was a little burst of dismay of course, but as the breadth of her influence became apparent, that burst turned into a feeling of mini fireworks exploding in my heart, with the sparkles of her words rippling out to twinkle across the universe. I think that image may have been painted by Oliver’s own words in “Wings,” where she wrote “and then I felt an explosion—a pain—also a happiness I can hardly mention as I slid free…” In a way, she had already prepared her readers for the eventuality of her own death. 

Poet Mary Oliver wrote often about great blue herons. Photo by Emily Stone.

Of course, this type of philosophizing is fine those of us who weren’t in her inner circle. Even Oliver, when writing about a particularly special tree that had been killed in the storm, was not so stoic. “But, listen, Im tired of that brazen promise: death and resurrection,” she wrote in “The Oak Tree at The Entrance to Blackwater Pond.” “What I loved, I mean, was that tree, tree of the moment, tree of my own sad, mortal heart.”

Naturally, many news articles have looked to her poem “When Death Comes,” for solace. It concludes: "When it's over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement." By all accounts, she succeeded.

We will be forever grateful for the things she did with her “one wild and precious life.”

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: "Bee Amazed" is now open!

Friday, January 18, 2019

An All-Star Nose

Star-nosed moles blow bubbles in order to smell underwater. Ayla Baussan, age 8, was one of the many kids and adults who created illustrations for the chapters in my Natural Connections 2 book, which will be published in March. 

The chickadee took its time choosing a seed. Perched with its tiny toenails pricking the pad of my finger, it cocked its black-capped head this way and that. With its precisely pointed beak, the bird picked up a sunflower seed from my palm, weighed it for a split second, and then tossed it aside. That hull must have been empty.

It tried again. The second seed passed muster, and as the chickadee turned to fly away, its buff-colored belly feathers brushed my thumb. I held my breath—hoping to enjoy the touch of soft down—but my cold, calloused skin barely registered a wisp of sensation. Instead, I got one last poke with spiny toes as the chickadee launched back to the tree.

At times like this I wish I were a mole. Strange, I know, but I don’t mean just any mole. I wish I were a star-nosed mole, because they have the best sense of touch of any mammal. They may also be the weirdest looking mammal, and those two things are related. Star-nosed moles get their name from 22 fleshy, pink tentacles that protrude from the tip of their otherwise featureless face, which is on the end of a plain gray, oblong body, flanked by paddle-like digging feet with long, stout claws.

Each tentacle gets its bumpy texture from more than 25,000 touch receptors, called Eimer’s organs. Each Eimer's organ contains three types of tactile receptors, two of which also exist in human skin. The third type is unique to the star-nosed mole and allows the mole to identify objects by their microscopic texture. This funny nose may be the most sensitive organ in the entire animal kingdom. If I were a mole, I could have enjoyed even the microscopic softness of those chickadee feathers.

If I were a mole, a vast portion of my brainpower would be devoted to processing tactile information, and I could see only light and dark. I would also eat earthworms. So, maybe the benefits don’t outweigh the drawbacks. But star-nosed moles are incredibly well adapted for their own lifestyles, if not mine.

Those supersensing tentacles allow star-nosed moles to touch more than twelve objects per second, creating a tactile map of the environment under their nose. They can “see” without light as they tunnel through moist soil. Sometimes those objects are food, and it takes less than one-fifth of a second (14 times faster than any other mole) for the star-nosed mole to realize that something is edible and then eat it. That is much faster than my seed-weighing chickadee. This skill puts it in the running for the world’s fastest eater, right up there with a high school cross-country team at a pasta feed.

Star-nosed moles are even adept at swimming and foraging underwater. This came as a huge surprise to me the first time I encountered this amazing creature. I was snowshoeing on a lake in northern Minnesota on an extremely cold day when I saw something dark on top of the snow. I was confused. Moles live underground and survive the winter by following the worms even deeper underground, right?

Wrong—at least for star-nosed moles. These crazy creatures are active throughout the winter, burrowing through snow and even swimming under the ice of frozen ponds. I can relate. The same winter I found the icy mole, I also dug snow caves and jumped into frozen lakes.

Unlike me, moles use their excellent sense of smell to find prey under the water. Most mammal noses don’t work well underwater, because we must inhale air to bring scent molecules in contact with cilia in our nasal passages. To make the life aquatic work, star-nosed moles exhale several bubbles per second onto objects or scent trails they encounter underwater. When the moles draw the bubbles back into their noses, the scent molecules in the air contact olfactory receptors, and voilĂ ! They can smell underwater.

So what good are these little creatures, aside from giving us something to be awed by in the dead of winter? Their tunnels loosen the soil and provide aeration for the roots of plants. Their voracious appetites can help control pest insects, and they provide protein snacks for a wide variety of predators. Owls, weasels, and even largemouth bass ignore the odd appearance of star-nosed moles long enough to gulp them up.

Star-nosed moles may not be as cute as my chickadees, but they can certainly make me appreciate the limits and abilities of my five senses.

(This article was originally published in January 2014, and will be published again as a chapter in my second book: Natural Connections 2, which should come out by mid-March!)

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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: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

Friday, January 11, 2019

A Web of Salmon

A puff of aromatic steam tickled my nose as I carefully opened the foil packet. Inside, lovely pink salmon fillets swam in their own little sea of butter. A year ago, that salmon swam in the Pacific Ocean. This past August, my arms ached as I pulled his 35-pound girth out of the Klutina River on the western edge of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska. Now—after a frozen flight—he was feeding my family, my niece and nephews, and me. My teenage nephew—an avid fisherman—even complimented me on the catch.

Here's one of my salmon fillets, all packaged and ready to ship.

I’m not much of a fisherman, but the mystique surrounding salmon fishing in Alaska was too strong for me to pass up. They are a cultural icon, an economic powerhouse to the tune of more than $1 billion a year, and a staple of many Alaskans’ subsistence lifestyles.

My first encounter with the significance of salmon came while teaching at an outdoor school in the redwoods of California. The creek that ran through our camp still hosted a few endangered Coho salmon once every four years. Using a high-energy obstacle course, we taught kids about salmon’s anadromous lifestyle—and the challenges these fish face as they hatch and develop in small streams, then travel to the ocean to fatten up for a few years, and finally return to their natal stream to spawn and die. It was all news to this Midwesterner, but what really captured my imagination was salmon’s connection to the forest: salmon become trees.

Salmon belong to a vast web of connections that includes trees and fishing guides. Here, Brandon Thompson of Copper River Guides demonstrates how to cast for king salmon. Photo by Emily Stone.

Well, broccoli becomes me, too. The food web is ubiquitous when you think about it. But with salmon, the marine-derived nitrogen they pick up from their years feasting in the ocean can be distinguished from terrestrial nitrogen, and then traced throughout the ecosystem. A study from James M. Helfiel at the University of Washington found that “isotopic analyses indicate that trees and shrubs near spawning streams derive ~22-24 percent of their foliar nitrogen (N) from spawning salmon.” Another study found that the amount of salmon-derived nitrogen in trees could be as high as 70 percent.

As a result, trees near salmon streams grow nearly three times faster than trees in areas without a salmon run. Sitka spruce trees along salmon streams grow to 50 cm thick in just 86 years (vs. the more typical 300 years). The correlation is so tight that scientists can look at variations in the nitrogen content of individual tree rings and correlate it to the number of salmon who spawned in the stream that year.

And it’s not just the trees. More than 137 species of mammals, birds, and fish rely on salmon in one way or another. That includes the big brown bear I met on the trail, as well as the killer whale who cavorted next to my tour boat. It also includes the American dipper I photographed above a creek. These sleek little songbirds feed on aquatic insects—critters who are more abundant where salmon runs enrich a stream with nutrients. Lots of nutrients.
For example, a single chum salmon (weighing an average of 19 pounds)  swimming upstream to spawn brings with it 130 grams of marine-derived nitrogen, 20,000 kilojoules of energy in the form of protein and fat, and 20 grams of phosphorus.

American dippers are sleek little songbirds who feed on aquatic insects—critters who are more abundant where salmon runs enrich a stream with nutrients. I spotted this one in Moose Pass, Alaska. Photo by Emily Stone.

The 35-pound king salmon I caught in the Klutina River likely contained almost twice as many nutrients as their smaller cousins. The 13.3 pounds of meat my fishing guide sliced off its body sure fed my family well. Before hooking the male “buck” that I kept for Christmas dinner, I reeled in and released three or four female “hens.”  Hens that far upriver aren’t good eating. Their bodies were scraped, scarred, and pretty much falling apart since they had stopped eating and were focused purely on the task of developing and laying eggs.

Before hooking the male “buck” that I kept for Christmas dinner, I reeled in and released three or four female “hens.”  Hens that far upriver aren’t good eating. Photo by Brandon Thompson.

There’s no reason for the salmon to preserve their bodies past reproduction; dying is part of the plan. Adult salmon fertilize the ecosystem that feeds and protects their young. Nutrients from the carcasses feed aquatic invertebrates—which will feed juvenile salmon as they grow. One study traced 30 percent of the carbon and nitrogen in young salmon back to other salmon.

Bears and other predators eat the best parts of the salmon carcasses, carry the nutrients inland, and leave the rest for scavengers. Eventually, those salmon become trees. That’s perfect, because salmon need trees even more than the trees need salmon. Trees provide cooling shade, hold the streambanks steady with their roots, and feed invertebrates with their fallen leaves. Even toppled trees provide habitat and shelter for young fish.

It’s hard for me to imagine something in Alaska that isn’t somehow connected to salmon. (Even sediment from glaciers is purported to fertilize algae that form the base of the salmon’s marine food chain!)

Fittingly, from the moment I arrived in Alaska and turned on the local radio station, salmon were in the headlines. It wasn’t all good. Salmon runs this year were late, or small, or non-existent. Sport and commercial fishing seasons were canceled or delayed. One resource manager described it as “death by a thousand cuts.” Habitat loss and climate change seem to underlie most issues.

As my family in Iowa savored the wild flavor of Alaska this Christmas, it seemed impossible to overstate the vastness of salmon’s web of connections. For one summer, for one dinner, that amazing web held me, too.  

(Read about my fishing trip in the previous post, or here.)

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!

A Meal Fit for a Queen

Note: This story was originally written for and published in Northern Wilds Magazine out of Grand Marais, MN. They'd kindly agreed to let me re-post it for you here. You can also view the original e-edition here.

Tiny wisps of blue sky teased us through the clouds as we launched into the wild brown waves of the Klutina River near Copper Center, Alaska. Brandon Thompson of Copper River Guides manned the oars of his inflatable raft, assisted by Otter, his fluffy black and white boat-dog-in-training. We sped by thick forests of twisted black spruce.

I sat on the raft’s front bench, sandwiched between Philip and Luke. These guys have been friends since they met in a neighborhood park in Manhattan when they were two. They didn’t have much fishing experience either, which made me feel better about my rusty casting skills. I wasn’t sure if I really had the motivation for a full day of fishing, but the allure of catching and eating my own Alaskan salmon was too great not to give it a try.

Brandon set us up in a line along the gravel bank; all casting into the break between faster and slower currents. Within minutes, Phil had landed the first fish in a frenzy of excitement: a female king salmon. Brandon gave him a jubilant high-five.

I had been both thrilled and hesitant when Brandon told me over the phone that he was fishing for kings this week. Ever since I landed in Ketchikan back in early June, the local news has been all about the late, small, disappointing salmon runs. The kings in particular were so scarce that their season was closed completely in many watersheds, even to subsistence fishing. Local radio stations ran numerous stories about the possible causes and implications of this nine year pattern of decline. Theories abound, but fish biologists cite complex changes to the salmon’s marine habitat as the most likely culprit. 

While king salmon—also known as chinooks—are native to the Northern Pacific Ocean and the rivers that flow into it, they have been introduced to New Zealand, Patagonia, and the Great Lakes. Natural reproduction in Lake Superior’s North Shore streams is currently low, but Minnesota’s Chinook populations are bolstered by hatchery fish, and their run should be happening in October with the fall rains.

This year, in the watershed of Alaska’s mighty Copper River, the season was closed to commercial fishing, but not to sport and subsistence users. The run was late, but it came. And without the pressure from commercial fisherman, Brandon’s been seeing more kings in the Klutina than ever before. As if to illustrate his point, both Phil and Luke got fish on at the same time.

For bait we were using salmon eggs Brandon had harvested, cured, and tucked into little mesh sacks. We’d cast upstream and let them bounce downstream along the gravel bottom of the river. These salmon won’t bite out of hunger—they stop eating as they swim toward spawning and death—but they will instinctively defend their rocky nests against errant eggs washing in from upstream. When they grab the eggs to toss them away, that’s when we set the hook.

With my bait bouncing along the bottom and translating every rock into a jiggle, I started to create a tactile map of the riverbed. Then, my line halted; tugged. I whipped my rod tip toward shore to set the hook. Fish on! The pattern began: pull upstream, reel in line as you point your rod down again. Pull upstream against its fight. Reel in when the fish takes a breather. A huge red and silver torpedo leapt and splashed in the shallow water. My arms were aching and my shoulders tight by the time I gave one last pull to raise its nose, and Brandon got under it with a net.

Pink, silver, red, big. Her soft, thick body was as long as my arm. I knelt in the shallows and held her by head and tail for a photo, then pointed her into the current and watched her swim away. I’m sure I was still grinning as I washed fish slime off my shirt cuffs. It was a little disappointing not to keep my first big fish, but we let all the hens (as female salmon are called) go. Not only are they important for the continuation of the species, the energy they put into their eggs is hard on their bodies so they aren’t very good eating.

We fished a couple other places along the river, but that first hole proved to be the best. Luke landed the first buck, and I got the second. Those were our only two keepers. All told, we probably caught and released a dozen hens, each estimated at around 25 pounds. There were a few that got away and—of course—they were much bigger. The blue sky teaser turned to drizzle. Brandon filleted the fish at the river landing and threw the scraps to a flock of waiting gulls. After handshakes all around, I lugged my plastic bag full of raw fish over to a little log building called Copper Central.

Soon my 13.3 pounds of salmon meat were scheduled for a flight home in a freezer box. Intent on eating some of my own fresh salmon, I asked the guy behind the counter to hack off one serving for me to eat tonight. Foil was in my kitchen tub in the car; firewood is everywhere; but I needed a couple tablespoons of butter. The brightly colored sign and eclectic look of Klutina Kate’s B&B caught my eye. After conferring with the owner, the young staffer with an Eastern European accent let me take a lump of butter out of the dish and carry it away on a paper plate. No charge, just a smile and joke.

The salmon fillet I saved out to eat...

North of town I pulled into a rest area, and was thrilled to find picnic tables and low fire grates next to another rushing river. As my small fire burned to coals, I wrapped the salmon fillet and butter in tinfoil. Twenty minutes later I pulled the steaming packet from the coals and took it down to the riverbank for my feast. The meat was pink, tender, and flaky. I had no seasonings, but hunger is the best spice. After spending a drizzly day on the river, making new friends, and receiving Alaskan neighborliness, my meal of king salmon felt fit for a queen.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Finding Common Ground

We waited to board the bus that first morning with the effervescent attitude of vacation. This was probably the least responsibility any of us had ever held for a trip. Someone else was managing the logistics, translating instructions, and worrying over details. Our responsibility seemed mainly to be on time and have fun. We reacted like a case of soda bottles suddenly opened and relieved of their pressure: little bubbles of happiness danced up toward the surface, popping and splattering a fine mist of joy over everything.

We're so excited to wake up in Costa Rica!

Later, on our drive back from the first lodge at Tortugero, our guide Jimmy announced that we’d be returning for lunch to the same spot we’d eaten our first day’s breakfast. It was the place we’d observed the sloths. A hearty cheer rose spontaneously from the group. Jimmy thereafter referred to the restaurant “as that place you don’t like so much,” and we responded with laughter every single time.

So, yes, even the humor in Costa Rica translated well.

Our guide Jimmy has has great sense of humor!

We really didn’t struggle with any cultural shock—once folks got into the habit of putting toilet paper in the wastebasket and became comfortable drinking the water on their excellent treatment system. Secretly, I did struggle with natural shock: it’s not often I travel to a place where I can’t spout a constant (or even intermittent) stream of facts about the flora and fauna. Jimmy did a great job, but I still missed teaching.

Since returning, though, I’ve made time to read a resource I bought used online. “A Neotropical Companion,” by John C. Kricher, was written in 1989, but still provides a nice overview of rainforest ecology. The fun part is that many of his facts remind me of things right here at home.

For instance, Kricher described the “typical tropical tree” as having wide buttressed roots flaring out from the base of its trunk. They provide excellent support for the tree, especially since deep tap roots aren’t needed to access water. Our very own black ash trees also have shallow, spreading roots to provide stability in their swampy habitats. Seasonal forest ponds are often marked by ash trees with flared bases.

Buttressed roots are a good adaptation for any tree that needs to stay upright in wet soils. They work along a river in Costa Rica as well as it works in black ash swamp in the Northwoods. Photo by Emily Stone.
I'm not sure that these are even black ash trees, but their spreading root base is typical of Northwoods trees that grow on soggy ground. (The moss is just a bonus!) This photo was taken along the North Country Trail over near Copper Falls State Park. Photo by Emily Stone.

The shallow, spreading roots that are characteristic of tropical trees are an essential part of their nutrient cycle. With so much rain, most rainforest soils have had the minerals leeched out of them. Available minerals come mostly from efficient recycling within the forest. Shallow roots serve to catch and hold nutrients from quickly decomposing leaf litter. Despite the thick, abundant leaves in the rainforest, the ground in Costa Rica reminded me of an earthworm-infested forest back home. Nightcrawlers aren’t native to the Northwoods, and they decompose the duff too quickly for many native species’ liking.

Roots in the tropics are so shallow that some of them even grow UP onto the stems of neighboring trees, and they may be trying to intercept minerals washing down the tree trunk. Orchids and other epiphytes (epiphytes are “air plants” that grow up in the trees) grow baskets of wiry roots that can trap organic matter and allow fungi to decompose it into soil. The orchids use that soil as a source of nutrients and water, of course, but the tree may also sprout aerial roots to draw nutrients out of its own canopy.

Orchids growing epiphytically on trees often catch and hold a little bit of organic matter in their roots. Both the orchid and the tree can draw nutrients from the resulting soil. Photo by Emily Stone.

While epiphytes and air roots aren’t common in the Northwoods, those roots and the roots of almost every plant on Earth rely on mycorrhizal fungi in order to access enough water and nutrients. The term “wood wide web” had yet to be coined in 1989, but Kricher already knew about the importance of fungal mycelia for capturing nutrients and feeding a forest. In the rainforest system, algae also live in the root mat and act as an additional sponge to capture nutrients before they can escape.

Epiphytes include bromeliads (pineapple relatives) and also lichens and mosses. 

Up north here, lichens and mosses are our most common epiphytes. They even look pretty similar to these Costa Rican lichens!

Not all compounds are retained in the forest system, though. Plants on poor soils create longer-lasting leaves in order to conserve resources. (Up here, the plants in bogs come to mind). Durable leaves must be heavily armed against pathogens and predators. When those leaves finally fall, they can’t be decomposed until their defense chemicals have been washed away. It’s those tannins that turn rivers dark. “Blackwater” rivers in Costa Rica are tinted by the same chemicals as the Black River in Wisconsin.

My list of connections goes on. Forest succession, bird adaptations, even the eating habits of howler monkeys (like porcupines they select leaves only at their most nutritious growth state) remind me of things here at home in the Northwoods. Now it also works in reverse: when people from the trip run into each other, we reminisce about jokes we told and the things we saw in Costa Rica.

I love how connections rise to the surface and splatter a fine mist of joy over everything.

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!