Thursday, October 29, 2020

Celebrating All Hallowtide: A Naturalist’s View of Death

Every year we have been witness to it: 
how the world descends into a rich mash, in order that it may resume.

By Mary Oliver, from “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness”

You can also watch a 22-minute video of Emily presenting this message:

View the full transcript here.

Our glorious fall colors are being buried by snow. They will become a rich mash that feeds new growth in the spring. For now, the year is transitioning toward dark days and gray thoughts. We are at the half-way point between the Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. Also known as a “cross-quarter day,” many cultures believe that October 31 and November 1 are days when the boundary between this world and the next is more easily crossed. As plants senesce, insects freeze, and hunting seasons begin, death surrounds us. 

My identity as a naturalist informs the way I think about the world more than any other influence. Naturalists seek to observe the interconnected relationships between living and non-living beings so we can understand the past, present, and future of our local and cosmological environments. It is within this framework that I think about death, reincarnation, and everlasting life. 

When my dear Aunt Nan died, a poem called “Wings” by Mary Oliver became a comfort to me. It is about a great blue heron. The last lines are: “my bones knew something wonderful about the darkness--and they thrashed in their cords, they fought, they wanted to lie down in that silky mash of the swamp, the sooner to fly.”

Poems are often metaphors, filled with symbolism, but as a naturalist I recognize the truth in these words. Swamps are cradles of both decomposition and of new life. If Nan, I, or anyone were to lie down in “that silky mash of the swamp,” efficient teams of bacteria would dismantle our bodies bit by bit back into their component parts, and they would get passed, bit by bit, up the food chain. Soon, they might become part of a heron. And when those powerful wings rise into the sky, atoms who were once part of our bodies rise, too. 

Of course, if you ask Nan, the wings that carry her skyward belong to a dragonfly. Nan told us that she would come back as a dragonfly, or rather, as ALL dragonflies. By giving us this touchstone, Nan ensured that she’d continue to be present in our hearts and minds.

This concept is well stated by the Greek philosopher Pericles, whose quote is in the sympathy cards I always keep on-hand. He said: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” This strikes a deep chord with me. Naturalists are often teachers, protectors of landscapes, and planters of flowers and trees. All of those actions have impacts far into the future. We live on as long as our actions ripple out into the world. 

John Muir wrote: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." I believe that web of connections—both physical and social—is our chance for immortality. 

Speaking of the Universe, I was never an astronaut-aspiring space kid, but I did become enthralled with stars once I learned that they, like us, are born and die. Stars arise from clouds of dust, where gravity brings the particles together. Mass builds and gravity increases until hydrogen atoms smashing into each other combine to form helium. Nuclear fusion begins, light shines, and a star is born. 

As the star ages and becomes a red giant, helium fuses into carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, magnesium, and eventually iron. But where does the rest of the periodic table come in? Those elements can’t be created during a star’s life. They are conceived during its death. 

The heat and energy involved in a large star’s death—in a supernova—are enough to synthesize many more elements, which are all hurled into space to form a supernova remnant, also called a nebula. Nebulas are the birthplaces of stars, and also of planets like Earth. The atoms who coalesced to form the Earth now cycle endlessly through her rocks, her air, her water, and her life. We literally are made of stardust. 

This story is reenacted over and over in nature. There can be no creation without destruction. 

So, from a Naturalist’s point of view…from a worldview filled with connections and joyful reciprocity: Our veins course with stardust. Our muscles are built from salmon. Our lungs converse with maple trees. Our bones swirl through the mud with herons. With every breath, with every bite, we are intimately connected with all the atoms on Earth. When we think like naturalists; when we allow ourselves to be woven into the web; then, as Mary Oliver writes: “life is real, and pain is real, but death is an imposter.”

May you find connection on this All Hallowtide. 

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 now open with our Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Oaks and Water Lilies on the Library Nature Trail

Behind the Sherman & Ruth Weiss Community Library in Hayward, Wisconsin, there is a half-mile loop trail around a wetland, through a forest, and beside a restored prairie. The level, gravel trail is a favorite spot for dog-walkers and hikers who are out for some fresh air and exercise. It’s a special spot, and the library has often worked with the naturalists at the Museum to help increase peoples’ enjoyment of the trail.

Earlier this summer, the library’s Assistant Director Ann Larson spearheaded a StoryWalk along the trail. You now can read a weather-proofed kids’ book, two pages at a time, as you hike. The library also received a grant to create four seasonal audio guides for the trail. So far, I’ve walked the trail at the peak of spring wildflowers, during the summer heat of July, and as the leaves changed color this fall. 

For each of 18 stops, I crafted short narratives, recorded them, and uploaded them to my Natural Connections podcast feed. You can access the Spring and Summer guides here, and soon Fall and Winter as well. The link and a QR code, are posted at the trailhead as well, and you can access the library’s Wi-Fi to download the file faster without using data. 

For today, while the first snow swirls, I’ll take you back to spring and summer, and give you a little taste of the trail, and how the audio guides build on each other through the seasons. 

Stop 3 (Spring): Baby Oak Leaves

The small tree behind the sign post is a northern red oak. If its leaves have started to emerge, you can take a look at how they have lobes with sharp, pointed tips. These tender young leaves need protection. Look closely. Can you see that they are fuzzy? Fuzz helps protect them from the cold, just like your sweater. They might also be red or pink. That color is created by a pigment called anthocyanin, and it’s the same chemical that makes cranberries red and blueberries blue. Anthocyanin is often described as a “sunscreen” that protects young leaves from too much sun. This hasn’t been proven unequivocally, though, and the red color may also protect the leaves against insects who want to eat them.

Stop 3 (Summer): Oak Leaves

The small tree behind the sign post is a northern red oak—a native tree. Take a look at how the leaves have lobes with sharp, pointed tips. In the spring, these leaves were covered in fuzz and contained red pigment and phytoncides to help protect them. Did it work? You might notice some holes in the leaves, or ragged edges, or even lumps called galls. Oak trees feed over 500 species of caterpillars and countless other insects, too. Are the insects destroying the tree? Well, no. The tree still has plenty of leaves to make food for itself, and all of those insects are making food for the birds. A single family of chickadees with five chicks eats between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars in a single summer! Planting native plants like oak trees is a great way to support wildlife in your yard. Read more about it in a book called Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Doug Tallamy. Now, if only there was a place nearby where you could go to find books…

Stop 4 (Spring): Wetland Habitat

Take a walk out onto the Observation Pier. What do you see? Who do you hear? Red-winged blackbirds are one of the very first birds to return in the spring. Male red-winged blackbirds like to perch on a cattail stalk and flash their red-and-yellow shoulder patches while they sing “konk-la-ree!” Farther south, red-winged blackbirds don’t have to migrate at all. Our blackbirds need to go just far enough south to find crop stubble with waste grain and weed seeds not buried by snow. This is about a 700-mile trip. You may also see a small, gray bird that bobs its tail and darts off a perch to catch insects. Flycatchers are long-distance migrants, and fly all the way to Central or South America for the winter. That’s 4,000 miles! They can’t return north until there are flying insects for them to catch. 

Speaking of flying insects, do you see any big dragonflies? Common green darner dragonflies migrate south for the winter, too! Once they get to Texas or Mexico, they lay eggs that hatch and develop into nymphs and then adults. It’s the new dragonflies who fly back north in the spring.

Stop 4 (Summer): Water Lilies

Walk out on to the Observation Pier. Two types of water lilies add both beauty and habitat in the pond. It’s easy to identify them by either their flowers or their leaves. White water lilies have many white petals. They look lacey and elegant. The leaves of white water lilies are round, with a triangular notch. Many people look at that shape and think of the old arcade game Pac-Man. Yellow water lilies are also called spatterdock or bullhead pond lily. They have just six petals that are bright yellow, sometimes with green on the outside and red on the inside. Yellow water lily leaves are heart-shaped instead of round. Can you see leaves of both species in the pond?

White water lily

Yellow water lily

No matter what the shape of their leaves, water lilies face a challenge. Their rhizomes, which are horizontal stems the size of your arm, are rooted to the bottom of the pond in muck that holds little oxygen. But plants only need carbon dioxide, right? Wrong. Plants do need carbon dioxide in order to make sugar during the process of photosynthesis. But in order to use that sugar to live and grow, plants need oxygen for respiration, just like we humans. So, water lilies have devised a neat system to get oxygen down to their roots. Young leaves take up oxygen into tightly packed air spaces of young tissues. The air moves through spongy cells in their stems. Older leaves, which have looser cells, with tatters and tears, release oxygen into the atmosphere. Since they are all connected to the rhizome, oxygen moves into young leaves, down through the rhizome, and out the old leaves—bringing life to the rhizome on its way. Pretty smart, eh?

Stop 8 (Summer): Quaking Aspen

At this intersection you’ll see a medium-sized tree with pale bark and heart-shaped leaves. This is a quaking aspen. Even if there’s only a slight breeze, the leaves will tremble. Most leaves have round stems, and this allows the tree to hold them at the best angle toward the Sun. Quaking aspen leaves have stems that are flattened in cross section. This makes them strong in one direction, and flimsy in the other. Any breeze sets them trembling. 

But how could that be good for the tree? For starters, the twisting leaves seem to “dump the wind.” By moving out of the way instead of resisting, the leaves won’t be torn off the tree in a storm. Another benefit is that the motion helps the leaves get enough carbon dioxide, and makes sure that they don’t get too much sunlight. Some of that extra sunlight might hit the trunk of the tree instead, where additional photosynthesis can take place. One study even suggested that the wiggling leaves are less prone to insect damage than leaves that hold still. Can you imagine why that might be true? How do you think that compares to the chemical defenses of an oak leaf?

I hope you’ll consider taking a guided walk on the Library Nature Trail during all four seasons. Right now, you could just imagine what it looked like in spring and summer, and by this winter, I will have all four audio guides ready to go. We are grateful to the C.D. Besadny Conservation Fund of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin for their financial support of this project. 

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 now open with our brand-new Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Slime Mold Surprises

In a typical year, I race up and down my winding, woodsy driveway, always in a rush to get somewhere. This year has been different. I’ve found myself walking and biking from home, often with a little more leeway for stopping to smell the roses, or photograph the moss, or interrogate a slug with my new UV flashlight. 

It was on one of those early morning walks that I happened to notice a white blob on a hemlock stump. This didn’t take any great skill with observation—the blob was over a foot high and several inches wide, and it contrasted neatly with the flaky brown hemlock bark. I snapped a photo. 

The next day, I again walked by. The blob had changed shape. Using the “microscope” setting on my new camera, I looked close and zoomed in closer. The mass of white was made up of many tiny white pearls, each with a wetly shimmering surface. They were…beautiful? 

This time, I fired up the “SEEK” app on my phone. With access to the entire database of correctly identified photos of nature in the iNaturalist website, SEEK can take over the camera on your phone and identify plants, animals, and others in real-time. The name that popped up on my screen was so fitting that it made me giggle: tapioca slime mold. 

Slime molds are curious creatures. While they are usually studied by mycologists, they are not mushrooms. Instead, slime molds are amoebas. The white mass on my stump was a single cell that grows by making copies of the cellular nuclei within. Scientists call this stage in a slime mold’s life cycle the “plasmodium.” Its role is to find and absorb food—which includes bacteria, dissolved substances, fungi, and organic matter—off the surface of the stump. 

I visited this new neighbor every day for a week, and while I could sense no movement in real-time, a comparison of my photos revealed that the mass was moving and changing shape. From a multi-lobed leading edge, the mass formed a pointed wedge and rose higher on the stump. It then narrowed into a long, discontinuous snake, before ceasing movement and changing colors instead, from peach, to dark mauve, to brown.

The ability to move is one of slime molds’ most terrifying and fascinating characteristics. In 1958, a movie titled “The Blob,” starred a slime-mold-like, human-eating alien that oozed around a terrorized town. While the movie notes for “The Blob” reveal a flowing mass of silicone tinted with red dye, real slime molds move through a pulsing action called “cytoplasmic streaming.” Basically, the contents of the cell, called cytoplasm, pulse toward the growing tip and away from the retreating edge. 

Since the 1970s, though, a vibrant yellow slime mold in the genus Physarum has been used by scientists as a model organism to study the beginnings of intelligence and learning. Like many trainable animals, Physarum is food-motivated. The amoeba and I happen to share a common a love of rolled oats. When placed in a maze and bribed with food, the slime mold can use its network to find the shortest path to the prize, or mimic the efficient connections of Tokyo’s rail system by connecting dollops of oats. The PBS series NOVA recently premiered an episode titled “Secret Mind of Slime” on this very topic. 

One of the reasons that Physarum is able to solve these problems efficiently, is that it can tell where it’s already been, so as to avoid making the same wrong turn twice. Its memory isn’t internal, though, it’s external. The slime mold, unsurprisingly, leaves behind a trail of slime as it moves. Studies show that the protoplasm avoids growing back over its own slime. 

The tapioca slime mold on my stump also left behind a skim of dried slime to show where it had been. The brittle, cellophane-like crust even shimmered a little in the sunlight next to what once was a delicate cluster of pearls. Now a powdery brown mass of spores, the plasmodium stage of the slime mold’s life cycle had come to an end in under a week.

The spores will drift off in the wind, or perhaps travel away on a beetle. While I’m staying close to home, tapioca slime mold spores are blowing around the world. In moist soil, the spores will germinate and produce new, free-living cells. Those free-living cells—each with only half the number of chromosomes—will combine and produce a new, tapioca-like, plasmodium stage next year. I’ll be watching for it.

Recently, I wrote about the fluorescence of mosses, grasses, and fungi. Of course, I also shone my UV flashlight on the tapioca slime mold. Initially, the mass of white pearls shone an eerie, greenish white. Later, the body of the brown, spore-filled stage did not glow, but a sprinkling of mysterious blue-white spheres—barely visible in daylight—responded to the new spectrum.

During this challenging year, I think many of us have been pleasantly surprised at the discoveries we can make close to home if we just slow down. Perhaps we can use some wisdom from slime molds: move slowly, stay connected, and don’t repeat mistakes.

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 now open with our brand-new Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Planning for Simplicity

“Joys come from simple and natural things: 
mists over meadows, sunlight on leaves, the path of the moon over water.” 
– Sigurd F. Olson 

The gentle slope of glacially polished rock beckoned to us with a sense of solidity and welcome. Its flat, stair-like ledges near water level provided steady footing for our muck boots as we swung legs over the gunwales of my canoe. In a soil-filled crack, a chest-high tamarack tree twinkled with green and gold. Across the narrow lake, scraggly black spruce trees inked funny patterns on the blue sky. 

Soon the food pack was hoisted out onto the rock and our simple lunch of cinnamon raisin bagels (long ago I discovered that this flavor molds last because of the antimicrobial properties of cinnamon) with mustard and cheese began. Hunger is the best spice, they say. And I agree. We’d just completed a 320-rod portage. For a whole mile, we shouldered a full food pack, 40-pound canoe, and huge gear pack along a rocky path. So when that gentle slope of glacially polished rock beckoned, we were glad to rest on its shoulders instead. 

After a few minutes—with bellies sated—we loaded the pack, held the canoe steady for each other’s entry, and were soon dipping our paddles in the perfect synchrony and easy rhythm born from years of practice. 

Only two hours had passed since we’d left the car at the public boat landing. But that long portage put such a distance between us and civilization that we felt transported directly into the middle of our trip. The “real” world had fallen away and the peace of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness had filled that space. 

As we all know too well, peace isn’t always easy to come by. Earlier that morning, after I had steadily checked off every item on my pre-trip to-do list and started asking my pajama-pants clad paddling partner what he still needed to accomplish on his, he responded, “You’re feeling kind of edgy.” This is typical for me in pre-trip excitement. I backed off and looked around for other tasks to keep me busy until departure would settle me down. 

I always plan and organize and fine-tune and tie up loose ends restlessly until at last we drive away. My gear has been packed for two days, and my clothes for the day—right down to belt, hat, and hankie—were sorted out during that process. Last week I had measured out our dinner food, weighing out four ounces of pea soup mix for each of us, and pouring exactly two cups of macaroni noodles into a baggie. I had mixed my own trail mix, and rationed out a serving for each day. This is all part of my careful packing system; tested and refined over hundreds of nights on canoeing and backpacking trips. 

Are you exhausted by these preparations yet? I’m not. I love the process of packing for a Boundary Waters canoe trip. The systems and routines I’ve honed for years free me from endless decision-making and bring me confidence that we’ll have what we need for a safe and satisfying trip. It’s often easier than planning for a normal day. What might I want for lunch? Should I bring my rain jacket or not? Which item on my extensive to-do list should I tackle first? All those decisions are draining. 

But careful planning for a canoe trip allows me to relax once we hit the water. Those decisions have all been made. The goals for each day are clear. The extras—like stress—have been left at home. Especially at portages, I find satisfaction in our streamlined packs with not even a hand-carried water bottle that might be dropped and require finding. By the end of the trip, our packs didn't even touch the shore. From the canoe to our backs, across the portage, and back into the canoe they went, with an economy of movement. 

By packing all our gear into one pack, and food into a smaller one, we were able to make just one trip across each portage. With the beautiful fall colors, I occasionally wished for a longer hike! Photo by Emily Stone. 

This doesn't mean we felt hurried or perfectionist. It simply meant that less of our time was spent hoisting around or weighed down by heavy loads, or rounding up stuff. More of our time could be spent admiring golden hillsides of young aspens, watching eagles soar, spotting a moose, stretching our strengthening shoulders, and paddling joyfully through my favorite place on Earth. 

“Simplicity in all things is the secret of the wilderness and one of its most valuable lessons. It is what we leave behind that is important. I think the matter of simplicity goes further than just food, equipment, and unnecessary gadgets; it goes into the matter of thoughts and objectives as well. When in the wilds, we must not carry our problems with us or the joy is lost.” 

-- Sigurd F. Olson 

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 now open with our brand-new Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

A Northwoods Kaleidoscope

We’re lucky to live in this swath of the continent known as the Northwoods, where fall colors are spectacular. Go a little south, or head farther north, and the forest changes. According to John Pastor, Professor Emeritus from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, we have the extremes of our climate to thank for this autumn show. There’s something about the contrast of hot summers followed by frigid winters that encourages diversity in the shapes, colors, and lifespans of our trees’ leaves. 

The view from St. Peter’s Dome in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest becomes a kaleidoscope of colors in fall. Photo by Emily Stone. 

At the risk of being a killjoy, I’d like to remind you that fall colors are all about death. We’ll start with a sort of obituary then—an explanation of the leaf lives we lose every fall.

As soon as leaves emerge in early summer, the trees begin again to form new buds. The basic cells for leaves, as well as shoots and flowers, are neatly organized and packed tightly within protective scales or thick fur. When warmth and light return next spring, those buds burst and the leaves expand. 

It takes a lot of resources to grow a new leaf, and then maintenance costs continue as long as the leaf is photosynthesizing. I envision a worksheet full of math problems. Each species-specific equation contains different negative numbers representing the costs of tissue construction, maintenance, and reproduction. They also include various positive numbers of productivity. The answers, though, would all be the same: something just above 0. 

Leaf shape is part of those equations. In his book, What Should a Clever Moose Eat?”, John Pastor put a number on it: 80% of deciduous species in the Northwoods have leaves that are either toothed or lobed. The correlation between leaf teeth and cool climates is so pronounced that paleoecologists use the percentage of toothed leaves in fossil plant communities to back-calculate prehistoric temperatures. 

On the surface, it seems like a pretty random correlation. But scientists have determined that toothed leaf margins rev up their sugar factories faster in early spring than smooth leaf margins, thereby extending the growing season. The teeth also lose water at a higher rate, but water isn’t hard to come by during a Northwoods mud season, now is it?

Leaf lifespan is another variable in the equation. The more it costs to build a leaf, the longer it takes to pay off the overhead. Evergreen trees invest significant energy into building needles that can withstand harsh weather, photosynthesize at lower temperatures, and ward off pests. Pine needles live 2-3 years, and spruce and hemlock needles last 4-10 years. In contrast, cheap, flimsy birch leaves last just a few months. Neither way is necessarily better. Each strategy finds success.

As sunlight wanes in late summer, it’s time to close down the photosynthesis factories of leaves. Now the trees must try to salvage what they can. Nitrogen and phosphorus are sucked back out of the leaves and into the twigs, where they’ll remain on-deck to fuel next spring’s leaf growth. The tree benefits from storing N and P above ground, because the twigs thaw long before the frozen Earth releases her nutrients. 

Finally, we’ve arrived at the onset of fall colors. Of course, they were there the whole time. All summer long, vibrant green chlorophyll was the star of the show, and outshone all the rest. As chlorophyll breaks down and is resorbed, though, its trusty sidekicks are revealed. Orange carotene pigments captured wavelengths of light that the green chlorophyll could not, and then transferred that energy over to help fuel photosynthesis.  Yellow xanthophyll pigments absorbed dangerous excess energy in the leaf and dissipated it as heat. This prevented cell damage, and warmed the surrounding environment. 

Tree leaves contain many colorful pigments that each play a role in photosynthesis. Once trees pull green chlorophyll out of their leaves, their yellow and orange pigments shine through. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Red comes next. Once the phosphates have been resorbed into the twigs, sugars in the leaves break down and form anthocyanins. Anthocyanins absorb UV light, especially at low temperatures. Like sunscreen, the pigments protect the leaf cells while they finish sending their nutrients back to the twigs. They can be blue or purple, but their most conspicuous form is red. Red is the only fall color that is created and not just revealed. 

To create anthocyanins you need lots of sugars, which means a summer with dependable soil moisture. Once summer’s over, though, cool, dry weather is the ticket. Rain literally washes the color out of the leaves—leaching pigments and sugars from dying cells. 

White ash leaves turn rich shades of purple as the tree prepares for winter. 
Photo by Emily Stone.

While the forest becomes a rainbow, the deciduous trees are quietly growing several layers of cells across the base of the leaf’s stem where it is attached to the twig. Jack Frost doesn’t kill the leaves, because the trees themselves do. Finally, the abscission layer weakens the leaf’s hold on the tree just enough that a stiff breeze can whisk it away. That’s it. The Northwoods slides into the gray depths of winter, brightened only by the highly invested evergreens. Summer can’t last forever, but neither can fall, winter, or spring. Next year, we’ll get to watch the kaleidoscope of colors play across the landscape all over again.

Portions of this article originally appeared in Northern Wilds Magazine. 

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 now open with our brand-new Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.