Thursday, April 29, 2021

A Writer’s Perspective

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

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

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

I think I learned as much as the students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Little Leafy Liverworts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you see them?

*    *    *

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

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

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

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Smells of Spring Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Find a Puddle and Some Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Lessons of a Northwoods Spring

“I still fear that the cold will return. I am still full of uncertainties.”

When Toni Alioto wrote that line, she was imagining a whimsical conversation between Spring and Winter as they negotiated the vacillating weather patterns common in a Northwoods March. It’s the same fickle weather I’ve been writing about lately in the context of wood frogs and fat bikes. She crafted this line as part of an assignment for “Writing the Environmental Essay,” a class I’m teaching in a condensed and totally virtual format for Northland College this semester.

Toni assured me during class discussion that her personification of spring was focused purely on the weather. But with her mention of fear and uncertainties, my mind jumped straight to the pandemic.

By the time you read this, all Museum staff members will have received both shots of the vaccine. Many of you already know—or are anticipating—the incredible sense of relief this protection brings. A weight is being lifted from our shoulders. As I watch the bright sun and gentle rains release the landscape from a burden of heavy, restrictive snow, I can’t help but compare this stage of the pandemic to this moment in spring.

With the snowdrifts shrinking back into the shadows, the Museum staff are letting tentative hopes and plans emerge. We’ve set a date for when the Museum will open to the public for the first time in months. We’re dreaming up ideas for summer programs. I’m giddy at the thought of tramping around the woods with other humans there to share my joy and amplify each other’s curiosity.

And yet, we all know that winter could return at any moment. Late spring blizzards have left ice in the corners in our collective memory. Previous surges of the virus, and the lives and livelihoods they ended, have left pain in our collective heart. While some news looks hopeful, the meteorologists and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both pepper their sunny forecasts with that cautionary “unless…”

So, with hope and fear doing battle in my chest, I made a few clicks and watched Toni’s essay fade from my screen. That warm rain I mentioned had just tapered off, and I wanted to see what nature could teach me about life emerging into a tenuous spring.

The twig of a serviceberry bush caught my eye first. Tiny, wrinkled leaves were bursting forth from the pointed clasp of burgundy-colored bud scales. I worried for a second, tugging my jacket closer at an unexpected gust, and thinking that the leaves were emerging from their protective isolation too soon. Looking closer, though, I found a thick weave of white hairs. Surely this cottony coat will protect the serviceberry from a freezing swing back to winter, just like our masks protect us as we emerge into uncertainty.

Serviceberry shrubs protect their early emerging leaves from cold snaps with thick fuzz.
Photo by Emily Stone.

Next, I looked down. On the shady cut bank of my driveway, the lush patterns of moss rest on the high, angled slope like artwork displayed on an easel. The contrast of their vibrant green leaves with the dark browns of decay pulled me closer, and closer, until my knees were wet and my camera invaded their Lilliputian personal space.

Even at close range, the moss looked unfazed by winter.

There are several secrets to moss’s resiliency. Most visible, perhaps, is their tendency to lie low. Mosses find a good place and stay there. They don’t need to flit about like butterflies—braving air filled with dangers like freezing temps and hungry mouths—in order to find food or companionship. When the snow comes and seals them in, the mosses take full advantage of the protection it provides from cold, dry air.

Moss has many adaptations to help it survive long Northwoods winters. Photo by Emily Stone.

Mosses are not immune to the challenges of a long winter (or drought) of dormancy, but they do know how to prepare. As their leaves dry, cell membranes shrink like a vacuum-sealed freezer bag. Essential functions shut down. And, with amazing “forethought,” the mosses synthesize and store away the enzymes of cell repair that will manage the damage of desiccation. And how would these mosses fare during that late spring blizzard? Their willingness to stay small and their stockpile of specialized chemicals will bring them through unscathed.

It’s not hard to see the parallels between moss in winter and humans in lockdown. We stayed put and tried to get cozy. We made hard decisions about what functions could and could not be shut down. And we also created and replenished the stores of medicines that help prevent and repair damage. Even as we enjoy the current freedom from the heavy snow, those tools will need to remain at hand.

I took a deep breath. Going outside hadn’t resolved all uncertainties, but it did loosen the knot of worry in my chest. Nature itself is a tool we can use to stay healthy and happy. While the weather may do a wild dance on its way toward summer, it can also remind us that being prepared for the unexpected, whether that means having fuzzy buds, laying low, bringing an extra jacket, or continuing to wear a mask, is something a Northwoods spring has already taught us all to do.

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

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