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....

Where the Wild Things Are- Furthering Education

I spent time away, over the last week. I visited the towering pines of Itasca. I walked beneath the bare branches of Maples in Maplewood State Park. Both were wonderful places to wander. 

At a Conference of Phenologists, at the UM Station in Itasca, I learned many new things. Topics covered were as diverse as the people. Global weather patterns, planting trees for a changing climate, butterflys and spiders. Walks where we observed the end stages of many plants, berries, how to tell some of the winter trees apart. I learned how to go online and participate in transposing the writing on botanical specimens at the Bell Museum. Swooping for dragonfly nymphs, handling spiders safely (their safety, not ours). I dipped my toes in the headwaters of the Mississippi and crunched through miles of leaves.

I then went on a private sabatical to Maplewood State Park. Tucked into a camper cabin, I was warm and sheltered when I choose to be. I was prepared for the freezing temps, high winds, and occasional drizzle. Walking, thru less than inviting conditions, meant that I had little company on the trails. The sun played hide and seek, highlighting fall vistas. I saw sunrise over the lake and sunset through the trees. Ducks were moving through the area. Swans and loons. Tree and Fox sparrows darted through the underbrush. 

When it was too dark to wander, I read the story of people who hiked the Appalachian Trail. I learned that I would not like to be a through hiker. Miles a day to be calculated, a schedule to keep, rain or shine. I would rather walk slowly and spend time seeing what is there, rather than what is over the next mountain, or to just reach a goal. At least not a goal of thousands of miles. I wonder how many miles I walked in the Village this summer? That is one number I will never know. 

It is time to start really putting together all the knowledge I gained out there in the woods. I will continue to write this article, but it may be only every other week, as the season slows. Now to stare out the window for a while at the drifting snow...glad at heart that it won't really stay this time.

Where the Wild Things Are- Hunting Season

There are changes taking place deep in the woods. Leaves now lay on the forest floor, sunlight can once again stream down through the branches. Crunchy now, they break down. By spring they will be breaking down further, scarcely recognizable. Eventually they will become food for the growing plants.

The smaller plants are already gone, perhaps just a stem remaining. Late summer flowers still have seed heads, the asters and goldenrod. Milkweed has burst forth from it's pod, floating off on the fall breeze. Grasses are bent, browning.

This is also the season that brings people to the woods. Hunters don their camoflauge and deer stands crop up. This cuts down on the walks that I take. Some of it is self preservation. I won't go out if there are active shooters. So down by the river, in duck season, is a place I no longer go. It is less about my safety than my guilt. I hate to flush up some ducks, and then hear shots down river. Soon, it will be deer hunters, some are already bow hunting. Again, I don't want to chase the deer from their safe spots, out into danger. 

So I walk there less. But when I do I often pause and just look. Sometimes I am lucky enough to see a leaf as it leaves the tree branch. When I do I feel obligated to watch it's journey downward. They spin and spiral. Sometimes almost getting hung up on other branches, then a gust will carry them away. They land softly on the ground, their journey done. I feel blessed to have witnessed their passage.

Where the Wild Things Are- Fall Sounds

The woods are quiet these days. There is no longer the bustle of raising young. Fledglings soaring far from the nest. You can hear the rustle in the fallen leaves of some small creature foraging. A tapping in the trees may be a wookpecker, in search of a tasty bug, but could also be a dry leaf, tapping on a branch. The wind makes the brown leaves rattle, quaking and big toothed aspen almost bare. The tamarac will be turning soon. Golden needles briefly guild the trees, then hit the ground like rain. Tamarac are the only Coniferous tree species that are deciduous. I know, in school you were taught that a tree was either coniferous or deciduous. It is a bit more murky than that. A deciduous tree is defined as on that do not bear their seed in cones and have broad leaves that drop in the fall. A conifer is one that does bear it's seeds in cones and has narrow or overlapping leaves. So needles are really skinny leaves, a tree can have needles and still lose them in the fall, and a conifer can lose it's "needles"  and still be a conifer. Now you know why we teach children there are coniferous and deciduous trees. Because the explanation is easier. 

All that being said, if you have a problem Iding trees, fall can be helpful. For instance, you will now know which trees are tamaracks, as they turn yellow and then drop their needles. Maples turn blazing yellows and reds and stand out in a tree line, so if you can't id them in the woods, go stand a ways off and look. The oaks are generally the last to turn, and usually are browns and deep reds. Some of them hold onto their leaves through the winter (so are they then coniferous dieciduous's??) so any trees holding brown or most likely deep red leaves after the first storms of winter are oaks.

Hazelnuts, which are technically a bush, not a tree, can be told apart in the fall. The beaked hazelnut has leaves that turn yellow, the other, American hazelnut, turns red. Most of what I have seen here are the American ones. We also have another member of that family on the land, the Hop-hornbeam. No actual nuts there, but hops, or hop like fruit. This tree should not be confused with the Hornbeam or Ironwood, which is in the birch family. 

So when you are out staring at the bright fall foliage, you might want to take a closer look. Or not. Just being out in the woods this time of year is reward enough.

Where the Wild Things Are- Life is Everywhere

Now to talk about the uniqueness of the northern part of the village. Lets begin over by Susie's cottage. As the land drops off to the west, it becomes wet. Boggy tamaracks and birches. But first come some of the largest oaks on the land. They shade out the undergrowth and create a parklike setting. As soon as the land dips a bit, there is a lot of growth covering the ground. It soon becomes almost impossible to travel through. Trees have fallen over, sudden deep water makes walking treacherous. But if you brave the journey you find interesting plants and fungi. It is there I found Naked Mitrewort and small Yellow Lady's Slippers, Elfin saddle and Great scented Liverwort. It is a very diverse landscape. The water all comes from springs. There is no way to trace them to their source, they just appear and soon become a stream, flowing west and south, through Harlow's land, under the road, and joining up with the stream that flows to the river. 

To the east of the cottage the land falls away to a different tamarack bog. This one is also spring fed. These springs flow year round. If you go and walk on the snow in the winter, you can hear the water moving under your feet. This area also is full of many plant species including Orchids and Perolas. Up slope from them, the remnants of a oak woods eases into a open area slowly filling in with goldenrod and asters, sumac and shrubs. Several small ponds fill in the low areas between the oaks and the fields. Each has it's own species that have maintained life quarantined from the others. These woods and ponds stretch to the northern end of the property. 

Across the road to the west, past the cow pasture and beyond the marl pits is another pond area and oak knoll. This too is spring fed, trickling through the marl pits and flowing across the open fields, past St Chris' House, under the road and to the river. Hidden along the way are bog areas, deep water, and cattail marshes. It is here the Tufted Loostrife, crested fern, and horsetails call home. 

Whether high and dry, or perpetually wet, the land here has one thing in common. It supports an incredible amount of life.

Where the Wild Things Are- Crunch Leaves

We are at the time when things have come to the balance point again. Light and Dark meet at the halfway point, from which we slide slowly into the cold and dark for six months. The lessening sunlight is the signal for many things in nature that it is time to pull back from growth and store up reserves until it it time to  spring forth again. It is most evident in the trees as they lose their leaves and give up their fruit. The vascular plants are also losing leaves and dying back to the roots. This leaves the forest floor a bit more open, the sunlight reaching into the depths again. I don't know why it should, or if this happens every year, but it has triggered a blooming. Deep in the foliage, under fallen leaves I am finding wild strawberries in full blossom! There shouldn't be time for another fruiting, but I like to imagine a small chipmunk, when out gathering last minute seeds and nuts for winter stores, suddenly finding a tender berry to snack on.

That note reminds me that I should be observing the nuts on the oak trees. They go in cycles and last year was notable for it's lack of them. This causes hard times for the animals who depend on them for sustinance. It was a good year for hazelnuts, so I'd better start looking up!

In past years I have always loved the fall. The bright colors, cool temps. This year I find myself a bit reluctant as I observe it's arrival. The summer was such a rush of plants, always something new to find, that I don't want to let go of that. But to everything there is a time. Nature reminds us of that everyday and fall is no exception. So I shall soon be walking in the crunchy leaves, blue sky stretching out overhead. Geese will wing their way south and the morning dew will change to frost lingering in the shadows. Each day will bring special joys, as nature continues it's yearly show.