Thursday, November 24, 2022

November Child by guest writer JoAnn Malek

[JoAnn Malek is a long-time Museum member and a recent participant in the Natural Connections Writing Workshop. JoAnn has graciously fine-tuned an essay that she drafted during that class. It touches on realities we all must face at some point—for ourselves and our loved ones--and I’m excited to share it with you this week. –Emily Stone]

I am a November child. The bare bones of empty trees have always fascinated me.

After the leaves finished falling each year, and after I grew tired of jumping in the rustling piles, I looked upward to admire the bare trees. Some are long and straight and stretch upward. Other gnarled tree trunks send out crooked branches every which way. Some form Vs over and over again, just the way I liked to draw them.

These days I look out on a mesh of straight twigs or a labyrinth of curlicues. Every so often the bright white of a birch shines, stretching tall among neighboring hardwoods to sprout branches reaching for the Sun. Some trees who were connected at the base have grown apart, a melancholy reminder of me and my siblings. The many patterns captivate me.

When a tree topples, and underground growth is exposed, we see another kind of pattern. In some we find the broken taproot that was reaching far into the ground, providing needed anchorage, collecting water and nutrients, and storing reserved foods. The plant sends out a maze of lateral roots near the surface. In my garden, placed where trees once stood, I battled these lateral roots as they spread far and wide

Until recently I did not know that the trees I love to look at are able to connect with one another through their roots. Some species have fungal connections known as the mycorrhizal network. Trees can recognize their relatives. They can detect poor health in the network. Saplings rely on sugars from older trees in order to survive in the shade. Elders receive support when necessary. Trees of all ages supply additional nutrients to the ones in need.

In a forest I frequent there is a section dominated by maple trees. A few large “grandmas” are surrounded by many younger trees of different sizes. When I visit in autumn, the whole area is enclosed with a warm golden aura, even on the greyest of days. I, too, hope to create a warm golden aura around my family. I have fed them as they’ve grown, and now they support me, too.

Fallen trees, once strong and beautiful, bring to mind my dear Jim. The photo on my dresser pictures him at the end of the 1995 World Masters Marathon in Buffalo, N.Y., muscles straining, face taut. Jim was broken by Parkinson’s disease; he’s already gone (“can it be?”) nine years. Other trees in the forest, damaged and leaning, bring sad thoughts of friends struggling with physical challenges and their fears.

Our country and culture seem to celebrate independence and autonomy, but we must acknowledge the roots that connect us. Our rootedness in the past. Our relationships. Our faith in higher powers. Our care for the Earth and all that surrounds us. We need one another in thousands of physical ways, but also spiritually and emotionally. Only the rare individual can survive intact when separated from fellow humans.

As I venture through the November of my life, I treasure memories of role models in my family tree. I am honored by a large--even growing--network of friends. I am blessed with a strong root system and the ability to appreciate patterns my life etches on the grey November sky.

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 Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Guest writer JoAnn Malek contemplates the shapes of trees in all seasons.
Photo by N. Deegan. 

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Not a Lowly Lichen

More than a dozen tiny arms reached into the darkness. Clawed tips shone white and their lengths glowed an eerie blue in the beam of my UV flashlight.

Spooky though they were, the tiny arms belong to one of the most common lichens I see growing on the ground here in the Northwoods. These lichens, in the genus Peltigera, are part of some pretty amazing events in the history of lichens.

Lichens on the whole are incredible. Each lichen is a symbiotic relationship between a species of fungus—who gives the lichen both their structure and their name—and another partner, like algae, who can photosynthesize. Together, they can live on bare rock, dead tree branches, old rusted-out cars abandoned in the woods, and much more. Nutrients come from the wind and rain. They create sugars from water and air.

One of the main jobs of the fungus in this partnership is to keep the lichen from blowing away (unless they are a tumbleweed lichen on the tundra…). Toward this end, many leaf-like (foliose) lichens grab on to a substrate with little root-like rhizines that emerge from their lower surface. In some species of lichens, these rhizines exude acids that make minerals more accessible to the entire food web, including you. In Peltigera lichens, these rhizines glow eerily in UV light and look like a little Halloween diorama of disembodied arms nestled in the mossy bank of my driveway.

The glowing isn’t unusual—many lichens fluoresce in UV light—but the fact that the rhizines attach the lichen’s leaf-like thallus to the ground and not to a twig or rock is different than most of the lichens I see. That’s one of the ways I recognize Peltigera.

Their color is another clue. While many lichens on twigs and rocks are pale green, bright orange, or sunny yellow, Peltigera’s color scheme is straight out of the hiking pants section of the L.L. Bean catalogue: khaki, mineral gray, storm gray, deep olive, and emerald spruce. A lichen’s colors are a result of the interplay between the fungus, the photosynthesizer, and additional partners like yeasts or bacteria who have joined the party.

Drab though they may be, these lichens, growing in ruffled mats on lumpy ground, are fertilizing the forest. That’s because their partnership includes cyanobacteria. Commonly called a blue-green algae, these bacteria can not only form sugars through photosynthesis, they can also fix nitrogen from the air. That nitrogen becomes part of the lichen until rainwater carries some of it into the soil, and decomposition releases the rest of it once the lichen dies. Peltigera lichens, growing on the ground, are essentially Nature’s slow-release fertilizer pods.

Nostoc is the most common cyanobacterium in Peltigera lichens, and it can also occur outside of lichens in the environment, where it looks like dark green jelly on the ground. Because Nostoc is pretty much invisible until a rain, people have imagined it to be snot that has fallen from the sky, and named it appropriately: star jelly, troll’s butter, and spit of the moon. Its scientific name is a combination of the nos from nostril, and the German word for nose hole.

Despite being a little gross, Nostoc isn’t the main culprit behind the toxic blue-green algae blooms that are becoming more common in lakes.

There’s a little joke about lichens that goes “Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae took a lichen to each other…” In this case, that first blind date between Freddy Fungus and Cynthia Cyanobacteria set in motion a whole host of things, including 1,200 new species of lichens and all of Peltigera’s relatives. Recently, a Peltigera became one of the first three lichens ever selected for genome sequencing.

While Freddy and Alice’s (or Cynthia’s) relationship has been a very beneficial marriage, the fact that lichens are made up of at least two different species of completely different organisms means that reproduction can be a challenge. The Peltigera lichens on my driveway have little brown appendages at the tips of their ruffled leaves. These inspire the common name “dog-tooth lichen.” They are the reproductive structure of the fungus only, and will release fungal spores who need to re-associate with a cyanobacterium to form a new lichen. Nostoc are quite common, but this does involve some risk!

Other types of lichens create wart-like lumps called soredia that contain both the fungus and the cyanobacteria or algae together, ready to take on the world. Handily, most lichens can also grow a new individual from a broken chunk of the original.

If you can find them, don’t let the drab, ground-hugging forms of Peltigera lichens fool you. They are essential forest fertilizers, role models for partnership, and even contain the spit of the moon.

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 Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

The Night Gliders

[Danielle Spak participated in my recent Natural Connections Writing Workshop. She graciously fine-tuned an essay that she drafted during that class. –Emily Stone]

A note from Danielle: Connecting with nature has been a central theme in my life throughout 2022. This spring, I planted my very first garden and deepened my knowledge of the plant world. Hiking portions of the Ice Age Trail and foraging for wild edibles dominated my summer. I completed my Master Naturalist training at the beautiful Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary in Sarona in August. Attending the Natural Connections Writing Workshop with Emily Stone this October was an incredible learning opportunity that taught me how to combine my passions for writing and nature and craft this essay on a particular critter I adore!

The flash of a white, furry belly soars over my head. It is luminous against the backdrop of the nighttime sky. I duck as another small form soars past me with all four legs extended in flight, like a tiny caped superhero. A shrill, high-pitched warning squeak blasts from the pine tree beside me. As a heavy cloak of black velvet envelopes the evening and I round the last bend of my walk, the flying squirrels descend and commence their nightly plunder of my bird feeders.

Contrary to what their name suggests, flying squirrels don't fly: they glide. This action is called volplaning, and if rodents had superpowers, this would be the flying squirrel’s. These little "P.M. Paratroopers" have a loose flap of skin between their front and hind legs called a patagium that allows them to glide through the air, sometimes more than 150 feet!

They also have a small cartilaginous projection on the wrist, called a styliform process, that helps them widen the extension of the patagium and enhance their flight. As if these aerial adaptations weren’t fascinating enough, flying squirrels also have a flattened tail that is used as a brake, allowing the squirrel to slow down for a precise and graceful landing. Their huge, saucer-like eyes facilitate night vision.

The long, flat tail of a northern flying squirrels is used like a brake to facilitate precise and graceful landings. Photo by Larry Master, USFWS.

Before moving to the remote woods of northern Wisconsin, I had never seen a flying squirrel. Apparently, I am not alone. According to the DNR, the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) is a Special Concern species in Wisconsin, and sightings are relatively rare. Their nocturnal nature heightens the challenge of observing one up close.

This summer, though, once I adopted a new ritual of an "after-dark walk" on the trails around my home, an entirely new universe revealed itself to me. One that is vibrant, active, and alive while the rest of the world slumbers.

There is a nocturnal symphony that accompanies the pulse of nature when the Sun goes down: the yipping excitement of the neighborhood coyote pack; the haunting hoots of the barred owls that station themselves around our woodshed, waiting for the misstep of an unfortunate mouse; the delicate, ballet-like stepping of deer in the high grass of the field before they bed down; the high-frequency staccato chirps of the flying squirrels as they launch themselves from the tall pines and effortlessly scale the side of the silo.

These nightly observances connect me to the circadian rhythm of wildlife.

Although the flying squirrels drain my birdfeeders with vacuum-like efficiency each night, I cannot help but cherish these charismatic, round-eyed critters and feel some degree of stewardship for them, especially as the season transitions into winter.

Flying squirrels do not hibernate. Instead, they reduce their metabolic rate and body temperature to conserve energy; a physiological state called torpor. And, as if these cartoonish little rodents couldn't get any more adorable, they also snuggle together in small groups called “cuddle puddles” to keep warm in cold weather. So, who would blame me for occasionally leaving small treats of fatty nuts and dried fruit out for them?

Being in darkness is not the preferred state of most humans. We rely so heavily on our sense of sight to safely navigate that darkness is often the catalyst for feelings of vulnerability and fear. I am in awe of the animals who embrace the dark and have adapted to survive when the veil of day melts into night. They have taught me that there is so much to “see” in the world around us in the absence of light.

Guest writer Danielle Spak

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 Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Spongy Moth Discovery

A dozen yellow aspen leaves, each with a single trapezoid of green still vibrant on the blade, fluttered to the ground. I’d just been sharing one of my favorite fall stories with sixth graders from Washburn Elementary School on a field trip to their school forest. They’d each picked up a yellow and green leaf and examined it closely.

We saw how a tiny moth larvae lives inside the leaf petiole, just below the blade, and nibbles on the green chlorophyll. Although the moth is not native to North America, the trees are not significantly harmed by these small acts of late-season parasitism. Non-native species aren’t always so benign.

I was about to move on down the trail when a couple of students started exclaiming about a tree trunk. A chestnut-colored husk hung there in a bit of a brownish web; tufts of golden hairs erupted from the segments. It looked like an empty pupa, where an insect had metamorphosed and emerged as an adult. “It’s one of those invasive things,” someone exclaimed. Emerald ash borer popped into my head, but these were aspens not ashes. “No, the moth!” a girl clarified. “And look, that’s their eggs!”

A mystery case hung on the tree...Photo by Emily Stone.

Squinting up to where she pointed, I saw a fuzzy, tan-colored lump on the pale tree. “Looks like a fungus to me,” I guessed, before waving everyone down the trail.

Later, I uploaded the snapshot of the pupal case to iNaturalist. When I saw the top ID suggestion, I smacked my forehead. The mystery and the egg mass were from spongy moths—the terribly invasive insect previously called a gypsy moth—just as the two girls had been trying to tell me. “Do you know how the students knew about the spongy moth? Have you been talking about them in class?” I asked the teachers in an email. Personally, I’ve been ignoring the headlines about them, which is why I didn’t recognize these two life stages.

This time of year, spongy moths are preparing to overwinter in egg masses attached to trees. The moth spends 75% of their life cycle in the egg stage. Scraping these egg masses into the trash is a control measure appropriate for late fall. Photo by Wisconsin DNR.

“Two of my students have these moths all over trees at their houses,” wrote back Ms. Van Der Puy. “They climbed up into a tree and found what they are calling a “nest,” proceeded to poke it, which cause ‘tons of eggs to fall out.’ They were super intrigued by this, so they went in and looked it up. And THAT is how they knew about the spongy moth.”

I asked Ms. Van Der Puy to tell the girls that I’d learned something from them on the field trip. Then I called Paul Cigan, Plant Pest & Disease Specialist for the Wisconsin DNR.

Paul gladly took my call, because the northern parts of Douglas, Bayfield, and Ashland counties are experiencing a severe outbreak of spongy moths. These two girls’ homes are in the epicenter! And it’s not over yet.

The adult moths are not the problem. They don’t feed at all. The female sits on a tree wafting pheromones into the breeze. Those scent chemicals are so strong, that if you squash her with your shoe, you’ll attract a horde of male moths, too.

A male flies to her, they mate, and she lays a pile of eggs with a spongy consistency. It’s appropriate that the insects are named for their egg stage, because that’s how they spend 75% of their life cycle. Those eggs can endure negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and like so many critters in the subnivean zone, they are insulated by the snowpack when they are attached near the base of the tree. Milder temperatures near Lake Superior also increase survival.

In May, as new leaves unfold, caterpillars hatch from the eggs and begin feeding. For five to six weeks they eat. And eat. And strip every leaf down to its veins. While spongy moth caterpillars can eat more than 300 species of deciduous and evergreen trees, oaks and aspens are their main targets in northern Wisconsin. Healthy trees can survive, but this summer ended with a drought, so more trees might succumb to the stress of having all their leaves nibbled off.

Next spring the caterpillars will emerge anew, for what Paul hopes will be the last year of a major infestation. Then there will be little left to eat, and the caterpillars themselves will start falling prey to more dangers. A cool, wet spring would be helpful, Paul told me. That weather means more caterpillars die of fungal and viral infections. Who would have thought we’d be cheering for a virus?

In addition, non-stinging, parasitic wasps—introduced in 1908 to help control the moths—lay their own eggs in the moths’ egg masses. Wasp larvae eat the moth eggs.

Predators on the moths’ various life stages include a long list of beetles, flies, stinkbugs, spiders, harvestmen, ants, chipmunks, shrews, voles, skunks, raccoons, squirrels, cuckoos, orioles, robins, crows, nuthatches, blue jays, and even my beloved chickadees peck at egg masses.

Spongy moth caterpillars are covered in irritating hairs, and larger ones hide at the base of trees during the day. This makes them challenging to eat, but deer mice will skin and gut them before feasting.

Unfortunately, natural predators aren’t able to control spongy moths on their own. At this time of year, you can help by scraping the eggs masses off your trees and putting every last one into soapy water and then the trash.

If you need help identifying spongy moths on your trees, I know of a couple sixth graders who are already experts!

In addition, the University of Wisconsin Extension has handy references on their website, and experts are available to give advice at the Spongy Moth Hotline, (800) 642-MOTH, or

Eggs are visible at the top of this spongy moth egg mass. 

This photo is from the middle of the process of scraping an egg mass off the tree. Ew!

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 Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.