Where the Wild Things Are- The Air is Alive

The heat has come with an intensity that echoes the cold of the winter. We are left second guessing our activities. Will it be okay to plan something? Should we wait until later to plan? At some point we just shrug and get on with life. The plants are left doing the same thing. It is mid May and we are seeing flowers that normally are out in April. Right by their side are the May blooms. Trees are filling in fast, shading out the forest floor, cutting the time for early flowers. This month will go fast, the bloodroots and wood anemone will come and go, Jack in the Pulpit have sprung up. Violets and strawberries cover the ground.

The ferns are uncurling as we speak. There are Oak, Wood and Marsh fern are showing up in the leaf litter, fiddleheads almost invisible. The sturdy fiddle heads of the ostrich fern, pale green clumps, ready to eat for those so inclined.

The butterflies hover over the field, white and yellow. A quick flash of blue reveals the presence of a Blue Azure darting over the stream. Mourning Cloaks float through the branches looking for mates. Soon the Monarchs will return, ready to create the next generation.

 Speaking of new arrivals, the Cliff Swallows have returned! Nesting in the shed at the south end of the farm yard, they can be annoying for those with machinery covered in droppings, but these birds fly thousands of miles to come here. To the place they were hatched. To spend the summer eating more mosquitos and flies than you knew existed. To then make the return journey with new family members in two. They join the 4 other species of swallow that nest around the village. Tree, Cliff, Northern Rough Winged, Barn and Bank. The air is alive, morning noon and night over the fields and woods.

Where the Wild Things Are- So Much To See!

Rain falls in gentle waves, soaking the ground. The thirsty plants drink it up and spring back to life as we watch. I found a pasque flower in the village, in the prairie east of Brome! The leatherwood is blooming, along with many sedges. I have found hepatica blooming on the hillsides, first seeing the leaves which winter over, then picking out the small blossoms among the ground litter. The other blossoms I have seen were the Prairie smoke (thank you Angela!) on the prairie by St. Martins.

Soon to be blooming, with leaves unfurling, will be the violets, mayflowers, dandelions and strawberries! Leeks are making their yearly appearance.

Down in the wetlands the Naked Miterwort and Pyrola are small round leaves, soon to cover the feet of the tamaracks. The aspens have turned green, seemingly overnight, with other trees not far behind. Ferns are just starting, fiddleheads still tight to the ground.
The hummingbirds and orioles have come back, next will be the rose breasted grosbeaks and the swallows. It is getting to the point where I get whiplash trying to look around and see everything at once! Soon I will have to concentrate on one thing at a time, the plants on the forest floor, or the birds. Such a wonderful problem to have!

 Pyrola Leaves

Pyrola Leaves

 Rose Breasted Grosbeak

Rose Breasted Grosbeak



Where the Wild Things Are- Flirting Warblers

Finally spring is upon us. The sun is warm on our faces, the grass green and growing. I was still able to walk the wet, swampy areas this week. It is soft on the surface, but still frozen underneath. Warblers are flitting through the trees, the mosses green and dense, the water flowing freely under the tamarack roots.

I have been looking for blossoms. If you count the willows and other trees, there are many things blooming. If you only consider flower blossoms...not so much. In April and May there are roughly 150 species of flowers that bloom in Todd County. That means that in the next three weeks we should see carpets of white in the woods. The blood roots and Mayflowers should be up, Hepatica and violets not far behind. Then the orchids. It cannot hold back for long.

In the meantime, I have traveled south (less than an hour and saw the Crocus blooming on the prairies. If you look out on the prairies in the village you may find them there too. As you walk in the woods and fields keep your eyes open for bits of color. It is time for life to return.



 Wood Betony Growing on Moss

Wood Betony Growing on Moss

Where the Wild Things Are- Fast and Furious

Finally. There is hope!!! Looking back on last year’s records, the woods should soon be full of violets, trilliums, jack in the pulpits. The Lousewort should be several inches tall and the Leatherwood in full bloom. So, this year? The pussy willows came on time, but that is about all. The ground is still frozen, limiting what can start searching for the sunlight and warmth.

I expect that once things start, it will be fast and furious. The spring ephemerals will have a short opportunity for life before the leaves pop out and fill in. I will be out lotheoking for fiddleheads to be pushing through the leaves, sedges and bellworts not far behind. Then the violets and currents will bloom.
The warblers will make a big push through in the middle of May, filling the forest with song and movement. Hopefully the temps will stay up and the insects that they rely on for food will come out of hiding. Speaking of pests, we would rather be without...the wood ticks are out. Get out and enjoy the warmth, we will need every second of it after a winter like this!

Where the Wild Things Are- Spring is Coming

We all are waiting. Seeking that smell in the air. Looking for green foliage. Signs that spring is really coming. It is slow starting this year. With the ground still frozen, the green hasn't quite started. Some plants, like Skunk Cabbage, create their own heat and will push up through snow to begin the year. I haven't seen any around here, but we are on the edge of their territory, so maybe this will be the year I find them! The Pussy Willows don't seem to mind the cold, their soft grey buds easy to spot with no leaves around. Watercress has been growing all winter in the warm(er) water of the springs that abound on Camphill Land. The lichens and moss are always visible, even when seemingly dormant.

The land seems so bare, compared to the lush greens of summer. It is a good time to learn the bones of the land. Hills are visible, low spots obvious, water seeping up out of nowhere to add to the spring runoffs. Soon. I promise you. Spring is almost here.

But in the meantime, lets reminisce about green gone by! If you missed my slideshow, you missed hearing the numbers of last summer. Let's start with plants that I identified. 240 species. That is a good number, considering that before then my plant IDing skills were not very good. But there is nothing like jumping right in and doing something to get better at it! There are still some plants that I have not ID'd, either from not getting good enough photos of the correct parts, or just my inability to find them in the books. This count of plants included the shrubs (highbush cranberry, etc) but not the trees. For a tree count I stand at 28 species. This is a low number for two reasons. One is that there are a bunch of willows that I have yet to decode, and second, I didn't include most of the coniferous trees because most of those have been recently (within the last 50 years) planted here. The exceptions are the cedars, junipers, and tamarack. Fungi. Where do I start? I have over 125 photos of obviously different species, but only have names for a handful of them. Id is difficult, sometimes requiring chemical testing to determine species. I will narrow down more of those this summer. The same with the lichens. At least a half a dozen kinds, and another 8 types of mosses. No names for most, more work to do.

The other life I saw was more mobile. While I intended, and for the most part was successful in, just looking for plants, other things crossed my path. Twelve mammals or their sign. More than twenty one species of Dragonflys/damselflys (one a new county record!). Butterflies and Moths Id'd at more than forty species. There were more that thirty-two other species of insects that caught my attention long enough to snap a photo. If you add in the 180 bird species I witnessed two years ago, it all adds up. In fact, it adds up to over 692 species that share the land with you! And that is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. I know there were plants that I missed. Lots of insects that I didn't see, or passed right by.

So, as soon as spring starts, I will be out there again, prowling from wood to swamp. When it does come it will come in with a primal rush, everything needing to grow, reproduce and die in the few short weeks of spring before the overhead foliage shades out the forest floor. We are at the starting gate...waiting...

Where the Wild Things Are- Peculiar Tracks

The weather has changed. Your face no longer hurts when you step outside. You can expose your flesh without fear. It is the January thaw! Normally we get a few days, just to remind us that life will get better. This year we are getting the bonus edition! Days and days! Going out is a pleasure, but the green is still a long way away.

What this weather is good for is crunching through areas that you cannot normally traverse. Swamps and wetland, bogs and creek beds. Going through a landscape at a different angle can really change your perspective of it. Deer trails make easier travel, but even they don't stick to their regular routes. They take advantage of the lack of deep snow and frozen ground to wander.

I did some wandering of my own the other day. As I walked in the woods I saw the most peculiar tracks. It looked for all the world like a snowboarder had slid through the woods, up and down hills, through the brush, without any means of locomotion. An occasional track in the path showed the culprit to be an otter! There appeared to be two, traveling together, wandering from the flowing waters on the east side of the village, through the woods and hills, over the fields and off into the marl ponds. They slid on their bellies until the prickly grass in the fields made them push themselves up on their legs. I didn't follow them all the way, but took another detour through the swampy lands south of the woodshed.   

Other creatures revealed themselves in tracks also. Raccoon, weasel, rabbit and squirrel. Fox tracks made a single line across the woods, and other larger canine tracks could have been coyote or dogs. Small tracks of mice and voles started and ended abruptly in clumps of grass. Grouse left tracks under the tamaracks.

It is easy to think that nothing is going on out there in the cold, snowy winter, but there are signs, if you take the time to look.

For those of you who can't wait for spring, I have two offerings that may make the time go by faster. On Feb 10th there will be an event called the Avon Hills Conference at St. John's University. You can read about it on the SJU website under their Outdoor University posts. It will be a day long opportunity to learn about lots of things. An incomplete list of sessions would include, 10 plants that changed MN, Mushrooms, Invasive Species control, Dakota Values, Native Plants, Poetry, MN's Underwater Forests, Oak Savannahs, Glacial history, Pond Scum, and Home Taxidermy. Something for everyone!

And for those that like to stay at home, I will be getting together some of the photos I took this summer and presenting a talk/slideshow of them to anyone who wants to see them, sometime in the second half of Feb. Before you know it, winter will be a memory and green will be popping out everywhere!

Where the Wild Things Are- Under the Snow

January has found us either huddling for warmth, hot drink in hand, or hatless, coat open, breathing in the brisk air of near freezing. The swings in temperature are bewildering, leaving us to guess how many layers to put on. So how does all this really cold weather affect nature?

For the most part, it doesn't. It is all just part of life. Under the snow the ground is warmer, insulated by the very thing that makes the air feel that much colder. So, all those that live underground don't even notice the coldest temps, unless they stick out a furry snout to see what is happening. or those above the snow, they just eat more calories to keep warm. If they cannot find food, they don't make it and so become food for another critter, just trying to stay alive. Nature plans for the winter losses with the birth of many young who will never grow up to adulthood.

Now we like to hope, here in the frozen tundra, that the cold helps keep some undesirables away. But even the coldest temps have little to no effect on the pests of summer. Mosquitos winter as larvae. In unfrozen water, they just go on with their days. If the water freezes solid, so do they, but many can survive that. So no hope of less pests!

So what does a naturalist do when the weather is that cold? Well, this naturalist still walks twice a day. Many layers, face covered, perhaps not as far, but still out there. Some days it is worth it, for the sight of a hawk, tracks to follow in the snow. Other days it just isn't as much fun. So I have found other ways to keep learning.

All those photos I took last summer give me a trip back in time. As I scroll through them, I remember where I saw that plant, how excited I was to see it. Now is the time to take closer looks at those that escaped identification. Some I did ID at the time, but the name now escapes me. Books of flowers surround the computer, notes scattered. Hours spent in a forest glade, a swamp, along a brook. All rushing back at a glance at my computer screen. It isn't the same as being there, but it helps.

Where the Wild Things Are- Walk a Mile In Her Shoes

We live in an affluent enough society that we don't give a lot of thought to the basics. We have food and shelter, clothes on our backs and more in the closets and dressers at home. And unless you are a person who really pays attention to them, we own lots of shoes that come and go without much thought. Dress shoes, athletic shoes, barn boots and flipflops. I usually don't pay a lot of attention to mine, and I usually get them second hand, wearing them out as time goes by. But this pair was different. As I look at them I feel nostalgia. There are memories of miles walked that scroll by. These are the shoes I wore most of the summer and fall, over hill and dale across the entirety of Camphill and back again.

These shoes protected my feet from rocks and sticks, enabled me to stride along hillsides without sliding, helped me balance on humps of moss. They were often wet. Either the dew or rain on the grasses. Sometimes from slogging through a swamp or bog. They clung firmly to my feet.

Now they are done. Holes in the soft fabric, elastic laces broken, sole peeling off. It is time to retire them. There will be no keeping them as a memento. No holding on to the past. But the memories of where they took me will remain.

Speaking of feet, and what is under them, there are now boots. Warm boots. Waterproof for those days when the snow is wet, well insulated for the bitter cold. As I walk in them, the world offers up new things every day. With little to see in foliage, there is time to use other senses. First the world seems quiet, the call of crows in the distance, cars on a road. Then the awareness of the noise I am making. The swoosh of nylon, heavy breaths. Then the snow. The squeak under foot with each step. As it gets colder, the higher pitched it seems to get. People who don't spend time out in it don't realize that it makes these sounds.

When the temp drops below to 14F the snow starts to make squeaks under our feet. Before that the really thin layer of liquid (quasi-liquid layer) makes the snow slide almost soundlessly under the pressure of our feet. But at 14F, it loses the war with winter and suddenly the ice grains are finding it harder to slide. Crunching, squeaking, the snow is no longer silent. The voice of winter follows us everywhere.

Where the Wild Things Are- This Thing Called a Forest

Lets get to the bottom of this. This thing called a forest. And at the bottom of it all is the very earth on which it grows. As organic/biodynamic farmers, Camphill is already way ahead of the curve when it comes to understanding what dirt is. The modern agricultural model treats soil like, well, dirt. It is considered just a medium for growing things. It holds the fertilizer and chemicals that they use to promote growth of the plants they want, and to kill the plants they don't want. And it works, as they get large crops, which is the bottom line for them. And plants largely cooperate, willing to even grow in water, with appropriate supplements. So why look closer at dirt?

The answer lies deep under the forest, under prairies that have never been tilled. Soil. Real soil. Not just so composted organic matter.Did you know that there are more lifeforms in a hand full of forest soil than there are people on the planet. Living beings who form a complete ecosystem. Of course most of them can't be seen with the naked eye, but it would be a pretty awkward planet if the soil contained that many beings that you could see moving around. Sounds like a good premise for a horror story! But it is far from a bad scenerio. They all add to the health of the soil, each doing a specific job, relying on each other for the survival of the whole forest. 

In just a teaspoon of soil there are miles of fungal filaments. Wait...what? Miles? That mushroom you see on the surface of the ground is just the temporary fruit of a much larger organism. Imagine an apple tree that grows only under ground. Once a year it produces apples that just appear on the floor of the forest, they quickly do their job of producing spores/ seeds to continue the survival of the species, then goes back to life under ground. That is what a mushroom/fungi do. What you see is just a tiny part of it. The microscopic filaments don't just sit under ground doing nothing. They are not capable of getting their own food, so they tap into the tree roots for nourishment. In exchange, the trees get nutrients from the soil that they can't break down and absorb on their own. Many of these fungi are species specific, meaning that they can't live without their trees. The trees go , they die. So what about a tree that is just planted somewhere. A tree can live with out the fungi. People can add supplements to the soil to add their growth. But it will not live as long. It will not be as healthy. But most importantly it will be alone.

What??? I can plant more that one. They will have buddies! It turns out that those micro filaments do far more than feed and get fed. The trees actually communicate with the other trees through them. They can pass on information on predators, such as insects that can harm the trees. They can pass nutrients to trees that don't have the same source as another tree. Surrounding trees can keep a stump alive even though it can not produce leaves itself and feed itself through photosynthesis. The trees care for each other. They take care of each other. If you plant them where they don't have the soil that has developed over thousands of years to be a home for the other beings who support and help them, they are blind and deaf to the world around them. They are at the mercy of insects, disease. They have no one to "talk" to. The same goes for the other plants that grow in the wild. On wild soil. Every time we destroy and acre of the land that has taken thousands of years to become the ecosystem it is, we cannot "replant" it. 

If this interests you and you want to know more I highly recommend the book "The Hidden Life of Trees" by Peter Wohllenben. The library system has it. After I take it back...

Where the Wild Things Are- False Turkeytail

I wasn't going to go out. The sky was grey, the ground damp from melting snow. If this was spring I would have embraced the forty degrees with enthusiasm. But this was November. After two weeks of cold and snow, hunting and wind, there didn't seem much point to it. But I got on my keep dry clothes and boots, put fresh batteries in the camera and headed out.

It wasn't but a few hundred steps into the woods that the magic came back. On a prickly ash a bit of color caught my eye in the grey landscape. A tiny lichen with beautiful yellow growths. Teloschistes Chrysopthalmus. A really big name for something an inch across.

I started to look at the landscape differently. I scanned for any color that was out of place in the greys and browns. Greens showed up underfoot. Leaves that had been pressed by the weight of the snow. Some plants get a head start on spring by putting out leaves that winter over and catch the first rays of spring sunshine. Some of the grasses and sedges still show up green.

Then, as I wandered into wetter spots, the mosses gleamed. Full of moisture from the recent snow melt they seem as vibrant as they did in the summer. Some look like tiny pine trees, others round blossoms, scarcely a quarter inch across, members of the Rhodobryum family.

I sat, crouched, sometimes laying in the wet leaves to get a shot of these wonders. The cold quickly penetrated my clothes. I walked to warm up and to see more things. I ventured into the wet lands, enjoying the partially frozen hummocks as I was able to walk where earlier I was reluctant to. The tamaracks have lost their needles, leaving the ground covered in gold. Deep red leaves of the bunch berries add a festive touch.

Finally climbing up the hill, I spied a chocolate brown growth. My first thought was turkey tail, a common fungus of the local woods. A closer look revealed that this was very thin, and the chocolate color permeated the plant, front and back. Not Turkey tail, but False Turkeytail, Stereum ostrea! A new one for the list! Not bad for a day when I didn't want to go out....