Friday, October 25, 2019

Little Green Islands

Leaves fell like glitter on the sun-showered path. These tiny, yellow hearts of quaking aspen fluttered wildly as they descended, eventually ending up in drifts built upon the wilted bodies of their companions. Placid raindrops beaded up on their slick surfaces, shining like jewels in the slanting rays of afternoon sun. A gentle sweetness wafted on the lukewarm breeze.

I do love fall.

And yet I already miss (just a little) the vibrancy of a buzzing summer day. Maybe if we could hold on to that green energy for just a little longer . . .

The golden leaves almost all had their own little hitchhiker hiding out between those slick, waterproof leaf skins. My evidence? Bright green trapezoids of chlorophyll captured between the first and second veins on one side of the leaves’ midribs. The very top of the leaf’s stem was thickened, too, just a little wider than normal. And where the thick stem and bright green met, a small patch of brown frass (caterpillar poop) filled in a section between veins. The trees are not responsible for the variegated leaves—some insect had created a gall.

Splashes of green add color to the yellow aspen leaves of fall. Each little green island holds a tiny moth larvae.
Photo by Emily Stone.

Back in July, a small, brown moth with white-fringed wings laid an egg on the leaf petiole. She did this without the help of a male. This species of moth is parthenogenetic, which means that the embryo developed even though the egg wasn’t fertilized. Males hardly ever occur in the population.

If you read my article last week, you may remember that I’m trying to avoid calling living things “it” because it reduces them to an object. In the case of this moth, not only does using the “grammar of animacy” acknowledge the sentience of this creature, it also helps us learn more about the moth’s biology. As I continue to use the pronoun “she” through the rest of the article, you’ll be reminded of this moth’s interesting reproductive strategy.

By September a translucent larva hatched and bored into the leaf’s petiole, causing the stem to swell into a small gall. Munching her way up inside the leaf under the cover of darkness (she retreats into the thickened part of the stem during the day), the leaf-mining larva interrupted the mechanisms the tree normally uses to draw chlorophyll out of the leaf during the waning days of autumn.

Here's the little caterpillar! For some odd reason I'd never thought to dissect the tiny gall in the leaf petiole, even though I knew that the larvae should still be there. Recently, i ripped open and leaf and found this little one. 

How does she do this? One hypothesis goes like this: the caterpillar hosts a common bacterium, called Wolbachia, in her body. Perhaps through the caterpillar’s frass, or other bodily secretions, Wolbachias enter the leaf, where they manipulate plant hormones that control when a leaf dies, and cause one part of the leaf to retain its chlorophyll.

The result is a “green island” in the yellow aspen leaf.

Such a tiny caterpillar would dry out in the summer heat if she tried to pupate high in the tree canopy. Instead, she takes advantage of pleasant fall weather and then hitchhikes on the falling leaf down to the damp forest floor. Once there, she steals a few more bites of the green energy she’d hoarded in the leaf and then pupates in relative safety and an agreeable microclimate. The soon-to-be-moth spends the winter in her cocoon, which is loosely woven to the surface of the now-brown leaf.

The receding snow and warming sun of May stimulate metamorphosis, and the new moth emerges from her winter sleep.

While not native to the United States, this drab moth and her tiny caterpillars have traveled far. No doubt this was facilitated by their ability to reproduce using parthenogenesis. They live across all the continents in the Northern Hemisphere, and have become quite common here and in eastern Canada. As a result of their wide distribution, some of the information I have presented here was translated from Swedish and Dutch! I can track this organism throughout the world by the universal language of scientific names. Ectoedemia argyropeza may not roll off your tongue, but scientists all over the planet use this one name to refer to this particular species.

Whatever you call it, the vibrant green islands those moth larvae preserve are a lovely part of fall.

Editor’s note: this article is an expansion on a Natural Connections article from 2012.

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Grammar of Animacy

*Update: THEY was named word of the year for 2019 by Merriam-Webster!

“We no longer face a physical frontier, but a change in philosophy, a complete reversal of our attitude toward the earth that might open the door to a golden era far more resplendent than the old.” 
– Sigurd Olson, Reflections from the North Country

In 2011, I wrote: “Paddling close to a loon, I was struck by the vibrancy of its glowing red eye.” Loons aren’t “its,” though. I would now say “I was struck by the vibrancy of their glowing red eye,” and offer this living being the grammar of animacy. Photo by Emily Stone.

I’ve been thinking a lot about language recently, and the cultural implications of the words we choose to use. A few weeks ago, the Merriam-WebsterDictionary made headlines by endorsing use of the pronoun “they” when referring to “a single person whose gender is nonbinary.” This is great news for our neighbors, relatives, and anyone for whom “he” or “she” just doesn’t feel right.

I think it’s also great news for the natural world.

Long before those headlines—since 2013—I’d been thinking about the implications of the pronouns we use for non-human living beings. It all began when Robin Wall Kimmerer won the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award for her book Braiding Sweetgrass:Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. I attended her award ceremony and lecture at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute on the Northland College campus—a trip back to my alma mater.

Robin’s wisdom—as a botanist, a woman, and as someone deeply connected to the Earth—spoke directly to my heart and my mind. Her words continue to influence how I write, and think, and interact. Most of what she said has become mixed up with what I later read in her book, and integrated seamlessly into my worldview, but I do remember clearly that she talked about the Grammar of Animacy.

Robin Wall Kimmerer

In language, animacy is an expression of “how sentient or alive the referent of a noun is.” When we refer to something as “it,” we are saying that the subject is inanimate—without feelings or agency. We generally reserve the animate “he” and “she” for humans and our pets.

But Robin is learning Potawatomi—the language of her ancestors. In Potawatomi, and many indigenous languages, not only do people use the equivalent of “he” and “she” to speak of animals and plants, but also rocks and rivers, mountains and fire, and places.

“In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family,” wrote Robin in an article for Moon Magazine.

That night, Robin suggested a new set of pronouns that could acknowledge animacy in beings that don’t fit into the binary categories of “he” or “she.” “Ki howls at the moon,” she suggested for the singular. Or “Kin are flying south for the winter.” I think it’s beautiful to call a flock of geese our kin, but perhaps also impractical to ask our language to change that much.

That’s where the singular “they” comes in, along with the corresponding “them,” “their,” “theirs,” and “themselves.” This one little shift in our language may make room for similar changes that will continue to increase respect for marginalized groups. We’ve already moved away from “he” as the gender neutral pronoun. Languages are living things.

Since Robin’s talk, I’ve been trying to use the grammar of animacy when I write about non-human, living beings in our natural world. Fresh out of science classrooms, I used to be concerned with avoiding the plague of anthropomorphism. Now I think it’s just as arrogant to talk about animals and other living beings as if they don’t think, feel, or perceive.

The singular “they” is a useful option, and it’s not our only one. The easiest words for me to use are “who” and “whom” in place of “that.” Whenever possible, I try to figure out the sex of an animal so that I can use “he” and “she” accurately. For instance, I wrote “Snowy owls can be territorial even in their winter feeding areas, and while there aren’t many other owls around to challenge him, this guy (male, as indicated by his very white feathers) seems to have staked out his claim.” Bees and wasps are almost always female, singing birds tend to be male, and old white pines are usually Grandmothers.

The bright white of this owl’s feathers indicated that he was a male, which meant that I could easily write about “him” instead of “it,” and offer this living being the grammar of animacy.
Photo by Emily Stone.

Changing habits is hard and I admit to being inconsistent. Still, even occasionally remembering to use the grammar of animacy may have a positive change in the way we and those around us perceive the world.

I hope that you will join me in using language that acknowledges the selfhood and kinship of our neighbors and our relatives here on Earth.

“A living language is continually made and remade, woven out of the silence by those who speak.” –David Abram

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Friday, October 11, 2019

Seek and You Shall Find (aka Emily meets a new plant)

The cloud ceiling was low and gray, but at least it wasn’t raining, and it wasn’t cold. Earlier in the day, a couple from southern Wisconsin had stopped by the Museum to ask where they could see some loons without a boat. I’d directed them to Country Road D, which snakes along the eastern shore of Lake Namakagon, and now I hopped on my bike to follow my own advice.

No loons bobbed in the first bay, but as I surveyed the scenery, something else caught my attention. Almost the entire shoreline was striped with a band of plants turning a rich pink color for fall. Cattail and bur-reed leaves were still green. The floating, Packman-shaped leaves of water lilies were showing patches of yellow. The pickerel weed was crinkled and brown. But what could be pink? I rubbernecked on my bike, trying to make out the shapes of the leaves, going through the files of aquatic plants in my brain—and came up blank.

This photo was taken a few weeks after I first started noticing the pink plants. They really caught fire!

What could this be? And should it be there?

Those questions niggled at the back of my mind for several days, until finally a rare bit of calm sunshine sent me digging for my sunglasses and hauling my kayak down to the shore. It took a while to reach that pink-lined bay, but of course I enjoyed the journey. This new-to-me wooden sea kayak cut silently through the waves, and turned responsively when I leaned to one side or the other.

It's a joy to paddle in the sunshine!

Through the lily pads, the kayak became more sluggish and noisy, but finally I reached the old beaver lodge, where clumps of the pink plant spread out into the shallow water.

My kayak allowed me a close-up view of this new plant, and the Seek app helped me identify it. Photo by Emily Stone.

The clusters were composed of dozens to hundreds of unbranched stems reaching upright in the center and spilling gracefully out over the water like a cascading bouquet. The lower leaves were still green, but the stems themselves, as well as the highest leaves in each cluster, were that vibrant shade of fuchsia I’d spotted from the shore.

Swamp loosestrife is a native wetland plant that turns beautiful shades of pink and red in the fall. Photo by Emily Stone.
Each leaf was lanceolate in shape, and maybe 5 inches long. The leaves clustered in whorls, with one tapered end attaching near two others on the stem, and the other point leaning outward and upward. Smooth edges, a waxy surface, and pink veins completed the look, but still did not call up a name from the lists I keep tucked away in the cobwebby recesses of my brain.

Swamp loosestrife has whorled leaves and a pink stem. Here it shares habitat with water lilies. Photo by Emily Stone. 

So, I extricated my phone from its waterproof case, and snapped a few photos to take home and identify later. Then I noticed that I was getting full reception—including data—way out here in the middle of nowhere. Just for kicks, I tapped the icon for the new “Seek” app I’d recently downloaded.

When I turned on the app’s camera, a live video popped up on the screen, and I began filming the plant from all angles. Words popped up on the screen, overlaying the images. “Dicots,” it said, as I tapped the screen to tell the camera where to focus. Dicots are a group that includes most plants, so that wasn’t helpful. Suddenly, “Swamp Loosestrife Decodon verticillatus” popped onto the screen. Success!

“Seek” is an educational tool built on iNaturalist—a website I’ve mentioned before. As citizen scientists upload and identify photos on the iNaturalist website, its computer vision system builds a model of each organism. Seek then uses those models to identify things in real-time. When I’d first learned about Seek from a friend in Milwaukee, I scoffed at the idea of ever having access to the cell phone data that would make it useful while in the middle of the woods. But here, in the middle of a lake, in the middle of nowhere, it worked.

Screenshot of my observation in the Seek app.

Now, knowing that the plant was a loosestrife, the obvious next question that popped up was its relation to the non-native invasive purple loosestrife that most people know about. So I scrolled down in the speciesaccount, and quickly found that it is “native to wetlands in the eastern half of the United States and Canada.” Phew!

Curiously, back at the office, when I checked Wisconsin State Herbarium’s website, swamp loosestrife is not listed from Bayfield County. Is it a new arrival? Or just in an un-surveyed area? I posted my observation to iNaturalist, so as soon as someone else confirms my ID, it will be “research grade.” The next step may be creating an herbarium specimen of the plant in flower, so that it can be documented in a museum the old fashioned way.

Map of the range of Swamp Loosestrife in Wisconsin, from the Flora of  Wisconsin-Consortium of Wisconsin Herbaria website.  I was in Bayfield County, way up there in the north. 
Minnesota is on the western edge of Swamp Loosestrife's range. Map from Minnesota Wildflowers.

You may be scoffing—just as I first did—at an app that plays into all the stereotypes about young people on their phones needing instant gratification. But, at least in this case, the final ID was just one piece of a multi-day journey. I biked, I paddled. I wracked my brain for previous knowledge. It just so happens that Seek has a much bigger database, and a quicker search and retrieval system than my own busy brain.

It’s not perfect, though. Playing around with the app later, I discovered with smug satisfaction that it still isn’t good enough to identify a sugar maple leaf. But I’m now able to recognize swamp loosestrife. I win!

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Friday, October 4, 2019

Listening for Elk

Four boats slipped almost silently into inky black water. The river’s mirror-calm surface reflected bright yellows, blues, and reds from our life jackets and warm layers as the current carried us gently around the first corner. Thickets of alders arched their twigs over the water, and matted grass paths tunneled among them.

Canoeists slip silently down the West Fork of the Chippewa River. Photo by Emily Stone.

Despite a bright sense of anticipation, we barely spoke—and then in whispers—and tempered every movement with caution against sound. We accepted the liquid music of canoe paddles dripping; the rustle of sleeves; and the breathy imbibing of sweet fall air.

Suddenly, an urgent, high-pitched squeal sliced through the quiet and floated up and over the alders, and out into the forests and wet meadows beyond. Our heads swiveled as if pulled by invisible strings, just in time to see Dan lower the camouflage-patterned tube of an elk bugle back to his lap.

Our paddle had a purpose. We wanted to hear—or see—elk.

Elk in Wisconsin are both a very old, and a pretty new phenomenon. They once roamed through our prairies and oak savannahs, but elk were extirpated from Wisconsin in the 1800s due to over hunting and a rapid decline in habitat. There was an early attempt at reintroduction in 1914, but the last of those animals died in 1954.

In 1995, twenty-five elk were released into the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Clam Lake. More elk were brought from Kentucky in 2015, 2016, and April of this year. The Wisconsin DNR now estimates that the Clam Lake herd contains over 200 animals, with the long-term population goal being 1,400 elk. A smaller herd has also been established in the Black River State Forest, northeast of La Crosse.

A bull elk is captured by a Snapshot Wisconsin trail cam near Clam Lake.
(Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

Brenda Maier, our guide for the evening, has personal experience with the success of the elk reintroduction. A Wisconsin Master Naturalist and co-owner of True North Guiding & Outfitters, Brenda and her husband, John, often see elk in this area—both in the flesh and in photos. As we gathered in comfy chairs around the fireplace at Boulder Lodge Resort—in a beautifully remodeled log building once part of a logging camp—it was the perfect setting for Brenda and John to regale us with stories of their elk encounters.

Brenda Maier, a Wisconsin Master Naturalist and co-owner of True North Guiding & Outfitters, plays elk calls on a small speaker in the hopes that a real bull will bugle in response.
Photo by Emily Stone.

“I was on a game trail heading toward the highway when I looked up,” began Brenda. “Not 30 feet in front of me was a bull elk with the huge, but still-growing bulb antlers of spring.” Her first thought was “this is so cool!” Her second thought was disappointment at not having a camera. And her third thought was “Why is he looking at me like that?”

When she stepped behind a small popple tree, the elk shifted for a better look. When she clapped her hands, he stepped forward again. After Brenda managed to get John’s attention and he brought their bird dogs over, the elk finally moseyed off through the woods.

Brenda and John also host a camera from SnapshotWisconsin—the DNR’s “year-round, statewide effort to engage citizens and students in monitoring wildlife populations through the use of motion-activated trail cameras.” (You don't have to host a camera to help, you can help identify photos from the comfort of your home! Find our more.) From their camera, we know that a bull and a cow elk were very recently hanging out in this neighborhood. She could probably see the hopes and expectations rising in our faces, so Brenda was quick to add, “I have no control over the elk, but we’ll try!”

And try we did. At regular intervals, Brenda played recordings of bull elk bugling and cow elk bleating. Dan offered up his own elk calls. And in between, we listened.

Dan Tiller and Dale Crusoe listen hard in hopes that a bull elk will bugle in response to Dan’s call, as John Maier paddles the drift boat. Photo by Emily Stone.

Blue jays screamed their raucous alarms at our intrusion. Flickers—also on their southward journey—made startled “kyeer” noises. Mysterious rustlings emanated from the alder thickets and the dense grasses on the riverbanks. Waving seed heads on a sandbar suddenly erupted into a swirling flock of little brown birds. On a distant hill, the breeze set some dying aspen leaves into a crescendo of motion.

Our elk bugles seemed to rile up wood ducks more than any other critters. They are establishing pair bonds now, and as the pairs took flight, the females’ strident “oo-eek, oo-eek” alarm calls echoed across the marsh. So, too, did the soft honks and wing beats of a pair of trumpeter swans as they rose to the sky to escape us imposters.

As the already gray day slid closer to darkness, we pulled up on the gravel boat landing and stretched our stiff, cold legs. No elk. And yet, no one was completely disappointed. We were listening for elk, but instead we heard the many heartbeats of their home, which is, in fact, our home, too.

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email