Thursday, October 28, 2021

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”

Our glorious fall colors are drifting to the ground, lying thick in the woods and the edges of our yards that we’ve set aside for wild things. Their thin bodies will protect queen bees, wood frogs, and firefly larvae, and become a rich mash that feeds new growth in the spring.

These frosty leaves may be dead, but they are both food and protection for many still-living things in the ecosystem. Photo by Emily Stone.

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.

Life and death, creation and destruction, are intertwined in the web of the Universe, as seen in these backlit leaf veins. Photo by Emily Stone.

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 venison. Our lungs converse with maples 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.

Note: This article is a revision of one published last year at this time. 

You can also view a video version of these ideas!

Emily’s award-winning 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. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

A Spooky Walk with Extra Legs

Shuffling restlessly around the house, I needed to do something else before bed. Scrub the sink? Nah. Read? I’d just fall asleep. I looked out the windows: dark. Thick clouds obscured both stars and moon. But darkness in the woods hasn’t scared me for years, not since I had to swallow my own hesitations and put on a brave face to lead night hikes for kids at camp. We hooted for owls, played tricks with our night vision, tested our hearing, and experimented with smells. (I love night hikes so much that we offer them by request through the Museum!)

Eventually I got so comfortable that I could walk across camp with no yard lights, no flashlight, and no moon. I’d feel the gravel road under my feet, sense the opening in the forest at my turn, find the firm path through the woods, and let the soft duff warn me if I strayed off the edge.

To preserve my comfort in the dark, I shield myself entirely from horror movies and sinister mysteries. Nothing could entice me to watch the Blair Witch Project. I cover my eyes during the previews.

Now the main threats to my night explorations are simply adulting and going to bed early. Last night that restlessness got me out the door.

Instead of going entirely without light, I decided to bring my UV flashlight and camera along. Night is all about using different senses. The UV flashlight interacts with our dominant sense of vision, but it also allows us to see the word in a different way.

Near a stump, the striated flesh of decaying mushrooms glowed blue. As I rested my hand to stabilize the camera, slimy, cold fungal goo oozed between my knuckles. Ew. Nearby, the chlorophyll in moss fluoresced with a deep blood-red. The knobby twig of a hemlock tree arched across spiky moss tufts like a tiny backbone. Who needs a haunted house when you’ve got the woods?

A spine-like hemlock twig rests on moss that is fluorescing blood red. Taken using a 365nm UV flashlight. Photo by Emily Stone.

Near another stump, a decaying lump of white fungus—once a choice edible called abortive entoloma—glowed pink and blue from spots of mold. The entoloma by itself is a boring gray mushroom. But when it attacks a nearby species of honey fungus, their bodies merge to form a tasty white nugget nicknamed “shrimp of the woods.” Fungi eating fungi eating fungi. How does that compare to a zombie apocalypse?

Sometimes called “shrimp of the forest,” abortive entolomas are choice edible mushrooms…except when they are covered in mold that fluoresces pink and blue. Taken using a 365nm UV flashlight. Photo by Emily Stone.

Most of these finds are cryptic and the colors faint. I have to hold both the UV flashlight and my face close to the ground in order to experience all of the shades and textures. Occasionally, though, a shimmering specter reflects my beam. Such was the case with a small white mushroom—not parasitized or molding—but displayed regally in a little alcove like a ghost bride in her gown. I snapped a dozen glamour shots of this beauty, playing with the angle of light to maximize the glow.

This tiny mushroom glowed like a ghost bride. Taken using a 365nm UV flashlight. Photo by Emily Stone.

With my nose still near the mossy bank, I spotted something blue under a soil overhang. Copper in their blood makes slugs fluoresce a beautiful bluish green. But near the legless slug I spotted something else also glowing faintly blue. Hundreds of creepy legs tickled the moss as the millipede burrowed away from my light. It must have hit a roadblock, though, and two segmented antennae poked out again from behind a lichen flap, followed by the rounded head. As I watched it crawl away, the graceful, sequential motion of the legs reminded me of a witch’s fingers as she casts a spell.

Millipedes go back farther than witches, though. 400 million years ago, when oxygen levels were higher, their ancestors grew to be six feet long! That’s as close to a horror movie as I need to get.

They may look scary, but millipedes don’t bite. They mostly shred up rotting leaves and assist with decomposition in the soil. They won’t slime you like a slug. They don’t have 1,000 legs, but they do have two pairs of legs per abdominal segment, as compared to centipede’s single pair. And, if I’d been a little more intrusive with my light, their genitalia fluoresce in unique colors that give scientists an easier way to tell apart the purported 70,000 species worldwide.

I often say that I’m not interested in writing fiction because Nature has already come up with plenty of good stories I can tell. The same goes for fictional horror films, I guess. Who needs fake monsters when the ones along my driveway give me that same thrill? Creepy, slimy, gross, and also fascinating, beautiful, and part of a healthy ecosystem.

Feeling restless with the early dark? Take a night hike and let Nature be your Halloween!

Emily’s award-winning 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. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Flights of Fall in the Boundary Waters

Thick, gray clouds still hung low over the glassy lake, but in the west, a sliver of clear sky had begun to show above the dark trees. All day, the air had been so damp that rain gear was needed, even though drops never coalesced enough to fall. It had felt like a typical day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as we paddled and portaged into a pink granite campsite on the Kawishiwi River.

(This was during the 10 minutes of sun you'll read about in a minute!)

With the pots washed and firewood gathered, we picked up books and journals to relax. I was immediately distracted by a flock of active locals twittering between a tall white pine and a thicket of baby birch. Chickadees scolded and gurgled at each other in the hierarchy of a relatively new winter flock. Even-smaller birds with drab feathers and faint white wingbars kept up a constant chatter of tsee-tsee-tsee. It’s a wonder that these golden-crowned kinglets can survive Northwoods winters. They do it by feeding frantically on cryptic caterpillars all day, then diving into cover with their friends at dark and sharing body heat all night.

Then, out over the lake and behind a pine, a different flock—maybe juncos?—darted from left to right in fish-school formation. One bird was slightly bigger than the rest, with sharp wings and a dark body. “Merlin!” I gasped, as the flock escaped, and the falcon swooped up to perch at the top of a birch tree nearby. I grabbed for my camera, but when I looked up, he was gone.

Merlins are small falcons who specialize in hunting smaller birds, like this blue jay, on the wing. Photo by John Harrison, Wikimedia Commons.

I was surprised to see this little raptor still migrating through. I would have guessed that they head south in early fall like their smaller cousins, American Kestrels. But when I checked the raptor count data from Hawk Ridge in Duluth, I found that merlins migrate later, with the highest ever number of individuals recorded on October 9, 1997. In contrast, kestrels’ record high was September 9.

Otherwise, the behavior we witnessed was exactly what I’d expect. Those pointed wings are built for the speed and maneuverability that merlins need for hunting songbirds on the wing. A species of prairies as well as boreal lakes and forests, merlins have done the opposite of cardinals and have used city habitats to begin breeding farther south. This range expansion has likely helped to fuel their recovery from declines caused by DDT contamination in the 1960s.

Before I could settle back into my book, the sun emerged below the edge of the weather front. For ten minutes, the campsite glowed, the trees lit up, and the water sparkled in the only sunshine of the day. Then the trees swallowed it up, and the world turned orange. The colors from those last moments of sunset seemed to pour themselves into our fire grate, and we roasted s’mores while the stars came out.

Thick morning fog gave the world an eerie look, but it burned off around lunchtime. As we prepared to pull away from shore after a portage, the darting flights of dragonflies caught my eye. Dragonflies? In October?

One couple paused for a break on my pantleg...

Each of the male autumn meadowhawk dragonflies was using an appendage at the tip of his abdomen to grasp a brown female meadowhawk by the back of her head. This tandem position indicates that they’ve already mated, and now he’s guarding her to make sure that no other male horns in. As I watched, the pairs dipped low enough to touch her abdomen to the water. Then, to my horror, they rose up and seemed to whack her abdomen against rocks emerging from the water.

Over and over the pairs dipped, whacked, and repeated this behavior, with half a dozen couples visible in my camera’s viewfinder. I’ve read that dragonfly females are often injured during the mating process, but this seemed extreme. When I posted my video and question in the Wisconsin Dragonfly Society’s Facebook group, member Jim Johnson explained that the female dragonfly picks up a drop of water, extrudes eggs into it, and then shakes the eggs loose by slamming into a rock.

Other resources mentioned alternating between water and mud, and also that eggs are often laid in shallow water, deep water, and on land. All of these options have tradeoffs, but the main goal is to reduce the number of eggs that fish eat, and to make sure some of the eggs survive the winter, no matter which habitat faces the most challenges in that particular year.

Over and over, I read that autumn meadowhawks are aptly named for having the latest flight period of any Northwoods dragonfly. If we continue without hard frosts, they could be seen into November.

The forecast continues to be unseasonably warm, and perfect for canoeing. While this triggers a bit of worry about our changing climate, I’m grateful to have squeezed in this late-season trip, and have witnessed some of the last flights of fall.

Emily’s award-winning 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. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Bonus photos!

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Save the Bees with a Messy Garden

The activity of bumble bees in the Museum’s pollinator gardens has continued to distract me through my office windows on warm afternoons. But bumble bees aren’t the only bees out there; the other bees are just hidden.

Of the 166 species of bees who are native to Northwestern Wisconsin, approximately 70% nest in the ground, and 30% nest in tiny holes in wood, hollow twigs and stems, or other above-the-ground cavities. While bumble bees are part of that first group, little cuties like blue orchard mason bees, small carpenter bees, and masked bees don’t have the large body size and warm fuzz that allow bumble bees to fly in cooler temperatures. They may already be snuggled cozily into burrows or hollow stems hidden in the garden…

...Or wish they were. On last week’s hike when I spotted dozens of bumble bees, I also snapped photos of a metallic green small carpenter bee in the clutches of a northern crab spider. She was likely a mother bee who had spent the summer laying and provisioning eggs in a hollow stem, and then standing guard at the nest entrance to ward off parasites.

I never would have spotted this small carpenter bee if the northern crab spider hadn’t grabber her and held her still for me! These small bees build their nest in hollow plant stems. Photo by Emily Stone.

Even with her vigilance against invaders, the survival of her children and grandchildren truly depends on hollow plant stems left standing after they die. And this is where gardeners can help.

In the warm, dry, mosquito-free afternoons of autumn, it’s tempting to look for ways to stay outside longer. Often that means “cleaning up” the gardens. I’ll tear out my tomatoes, clear the bean vines off the trellis, and make sure that there is no disease-carrying residue left in my plot. In your flower gardens, though, especially if you’ve planted native, perennial species with the bees and butterflies in mind, it’s best to leave the flower stalks alone.

As I was cleaning up my plot in the Cable Community Farm last week, I paused to chat with a volunteer taking care of the pollinator plantings around the edge. She was carefully snipping off bergamot stems in order to get at the weeds more easily. We chatted for a minute about the best ways to support pollinators, and I reminded her that many bees need these stems for nesting. “But I’ve been working with flowers all my life,” she expressed in confusion, “and I’ve never seen any signs of a bee nesting in any of the stems!” I had to admit that I’d never seen a bee nest in a stem either, and so I went home to do more research.

The Xerces Society, which works for insect and pollinator conservation, put together a wonderful guide to “Nesting and Overwintering Habitat for Pollinators and other Beneficial Insects.” They explain that bees don’t nest in the growing stems, they nest in last year’s stems that are dry, hollow, and snipped off in early spring to expose an opening.

The time to cut back your dead flower stalks is early spring, just before bees begin to look for new nest sites. Photo by Emily Stone.

The 12-page, illustrated resource lays out a nice timeline for gardeners. First, don’t cut down your flower stalks in the fall! Birds and other critters will eat the seeds. The structure will also help create insulating air spaces in the subnivean zone, a layer between ground and snow where many living things survive the winter. Plus, those seed heads are picturesque when capped by snow.

These bergamot seed heads were left up in the Museum’s pollinator gardens and provided both blossoms of snow through the winter and bee nesting sites in the spring. Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding director, wrote, “Most people are aware of the beauty of summer flowers and often bemoan their passing as winter approaches. This need not be a cause for regret because, while much color may be lost, there continue—as seeds, pods, and capsules—many forms that rival the flowers in beauty and grace.” Photo by Emily Stone.

Early next spring, before it warms up, is the time to prune the stalks. If you cut the stalks at a variety of heights, from 8 inches up to 24, then the resulting cavities will be different diameters, and you can support a higher diversity of bees. Pruning shrubs at the same time can also open doors to new nest sites, because carpenter bees can excavate the soft center pith and create a tunnel.

By summer, new growth will hide those dead, brown stalks, and bees will love having nectar and pollen sources so close to home. Solitary bees aren’t aggressive, and only sting if you accidentally squash one, so you don’t need to worry that encouraging them puts you or kids in danger.

What next? Well, nothing. Protecting bees is easy for lazy gardeners! If all goes well, the stems you snip off next spring will fill up with baby bees, who will also spend next winter there, and some species may not emerge until late the following summer. The stems will naturally fall over after a few years and add to the litter on the ground—which benefits both plants and insects.

Could you just put up a bee house instead? In recent years, both Etsy crafters and manufacturers have put many of these cute contraptions on the market. They often consist of holes drilled in wood, or a case filled with something like hollow bamboo. The problem, according to some scientists, is that these homes aren’t cleanable. When they are left up year after year, diseases and parasites move in, and kill any bees who attempt to nest there. They can be actively harmful instead of helpful. At the Museum, our bee cabinets can be opened, and are cleaned out every couple years. In your garden, the cut stems will naturally fall over as new stems grow, so you never have to worry about cleaning them!

With this information, native bee and flower lovers can drop those shears, step away from the garden, and go for a beautiful fall hike instead!

Emily’s award-winning 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. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.