Where the Wild Things Are- January Roller Coaster

Here we are, still on the January roller coaster! Sub zero to above freezing, a slick coating of ice. When most think of winter, they are usually thinking of the two most beautiful winter weather phenomenon that we have. There is the gentle snowfall, covering the ground and trees with a fluffy clean white layer, that Christmas card perfect scene. Then there is hoarfrost. That magical shiny coating that coats everything. It doesn't last long, being subject to either warming temps or winter winds, but it is a thing of dreams when it is there. 

But how does it form? Why is it only there once and a while? Why doesn't it last, like the snow? Hopefully I can answer some of these questions for you.

The temperatures have to be just right for hoarfrost. It has to drop from above freezing to below, with the surface temps already below freezing before the air temps get there. There also has to be a substantial amount of moisture in the air, so days following a thaw are needed to allow that to build up. Sometimes a south wind can bring in some warmer moist air, but the ground must not warm up too much, or no hoarfrost. So we have moisture in the air, fog is the best, and ground that is frozen (below 32 degrees). Then the magic can happen.

The water vapor in the air condenses on the frozen surfaces, creating crystalline deposits...hoarfrost. This builds up as long as there is moisture in the air that is not turning into freezing rain or sleet, or rain. It can build up inches thick on objects, making for great photo opportunities when the sun comes out. If there is a wind during the build up it can affect how it is built up, forming on the downwind side of objects. A wind after it is formed, when the air is cold will quickly knock the fragile crystals to the ground. 

The other nemesis would be warming temps. Sunshine warming it up just enough to turn them all to liquid again. So it is a combination of moisture, temperatures and wind. So take advantage of it when those rare times occur, especially when followed by sunshine, to try your hand at photography! It is hard to go wrong when there is magic in the air, or on the ground!


Where the Wild Things Are- Minnesota Weather Rollercoaster

As we welcome the New Year, we also welcomed the rollercoaster that is a Minnesota winter. Heavy snow cover last week after months of hardly any. Fifteen to twenty below zero. High winds. Overcast, and then blazing sun. And now the warmer temps we have all been waiting for. It is hard on us, with our central heating, well insulated houses and machines to dig out the roads and paths. It is even harder to understand how the wild ones can even survive, much less thrive in this weather!

With this deep snow, the game has changed for many. Smaller animals find places to make runways under logs and brush, giving them a protected space to hunt for seeds and other food. Mid-sized animals, foxes, mink, rabbits, are finding the going more challenging. It is such a fluffy snow that they sink down into it. If it develops a crust (if it melts in the next few days) they may find the going easier on top. Larger animals like deer and coyotes can push through the fluff, but it is hard work, burning more calories. The wind has created spots where the grasses are less covered so the deer can find browse, but as it builds up over the winter and forms harder crusts, the deer find it more challenging. Personally I am hoping for a crust so I can walk in my snowshoes. Currently they just sink in as far as my boots do. 

The snow helps insulate in the bitter cold, giving animals protection from the cold and wind. As long as the snow doesn't crust over, pheasants and grouse will be popping out of snowbanks, heading for the cedar trees for food and shelter. 

So after temps like we had over New Year, the question pops up "Where is global warming when we need it?" If you have lived around here for many years, you have seen the changes. It seems like there is an earlier winter, less snow, and then spring is all over the place, some years early, some years nonexistent. Climate change is a better term. Looking at the bigger picture, over years, not seasons, the changes are obvious for the planet. Around here, when we are twenty below, our windows frost over and it is harder to see it.

Where the Wild Things Are- Forest Bathing

I saw a brief glimpse of the sun, the other day. I can still recall the warmth on my face. But there is more to nature than just getting sunlight. In the depths of cold air and lack of growing things I spend less time in the woods, more in reading about the woods and scrolling through photos of the past spring, summer and fall. The latest book was called "The Nature Fix" by Florence Williams. It was all about why people feel better in general after spending time in nature. She didn't have to convince me! For those who don't think it makes a difference, you might be right also. Studies have shown (yes, there are actual studies) that about 15% of the population isn't affected by being out in nature. It doesn't do anything for them. 

But let's talk about the other 85%. You may have heard of forest bathing. It is what they call spending time in nature in Japan and other countries in that area. Other countries around the world are also studying what makes us healthier and happier. The book goes into great detail on how the studies are done and what exactly they prove. The only real question seems to be is how much is enough.

Just having a green space to look at through a window can help. It relieves stress and calms people down. Spending time walking through a green area is even better. The results last for hours, even days. What is a green area? Scientists are asking that same question. So they tested individuals in city areas, in city parks, and in less groomed, wilder places. For a lot of people the city parks improved their well being, but it did depend on how many other humans were in the park and the other things that were occurring. High noise levels from traffic and buildings made it less likely that people felt calmer. Crime rates were also a factor. It is hard to  mellow out when you are afraid of being mugged or worse! 

So quieter, wilder areas were mostly the preferred forest bathing venues. Unless you were talking to someone who was afraid of bugs, bears, and weather. So how long did they find you should be out there? That varied widely with the culture. A little as a 15 minute walk several times a week, to a whole week a couple times a year were discussed. Most agreed that the longer lasting benefits came from 30 or more minutes a couple of times a week. Any is better than none.

Time spend unplugged, away from stress is beneficial to everyone.In Camphill this is seen in the life style. There are still many stressors in any life, but the rural, connected to the earth, environment helps us cope. 

The thing we all should be concerned about is that (in another study) it was found that children are not spending time outdoors, just playing. Only 10% get outside to play. Most are using technology for hours a day. It is time for an intervention. Drag a kid outdoors with you. And don't forget to treat yourself to outdoor time without the kid...

Where The Wild Things Are- First Time Visitors

 Some times it feels like the best source of entertainment is my bird feeder. A little seed and suet and the circus comes to visit. Blue Jays come, eat all they can hold, and then leave. Juncos, Goldfinches and Chickadees are either constantly eating, or constantly being replaced by others of their sort. It is impossible to tell one from the other. Woodpeckers, usually Downy and Hairys squabble over the suet feeders, eating the sunflower seeds while waiting their turn to dart in and score some suet. The Pileated come in stealth mode, hiding behind tree trunks until he (she) deems it safe to come in. The slightest hint of danger and off they go again. 

There is always a debate in the bird world about the correct way to say pileated. Some say it is pie lated, others prefer pill e ated. It seems that if you know Latin, or have friends who do, that pil is the way to go. I have to wonder if using a dead language, that no one actually speaks, for basing a verbal pronunciation on is a good idea. I know that some people "speak" it now, in churches, and scientific communities, but as a society language I believe it only lived on in written form for a long time. So we are just guessing how they would of said it. Add in a midwestern American accent, and who knows? Maybe we should just name it the Pterodactyl Woodpecker. Another Latin word we can (or not) pronounce.

The other day I had a first time  visitor to my feeders. I looked out and there was nothing to be seen. This usually means a predator has come by, looking for it's own food buffet. Sometimes it is a hawk, sometimes a cat. That day it was a Northern Shrike. A Robin sized bird, with rather plain grey, white and black plummage, it doesn't seem that remarkable. But the little birds fear it just as much as the larger dangers. It swoops in fast and furious and grabs small birds and rodents. It doesn't just hunt when it is hungry, it stockpiles it's prey for later consumption by impaling it on thorns. Not the prettiest sight to see when out for a wintery stroll. There is another shrike, around in the summertime, that does the same thing, the Loggerhead Shrike. In all my time out walking I have never noticed any of these impaled bird kabobs. The Shrikes are not numerous, and like any predator, they have their territory which they don't like to share. This is only the third Shrike I have seen in my life. So if you see a robin sized bird, and find yourself thinking "That was a weird Blue Jay" you may have seen this elusive creature. Now to go out looking for bird or mouse kabobs....


Where The Wild Things Are- Vole in The House

Snow. Light and fluffy, it covers the ground. The slightest wind carries it aloft, dropping it softly once again. Another day and the sun has returned. Now the snow begins it's journey back into water. First, wherever a dark branch or stalk rises above the snow, the heat collects. A drop trickles down. The snow it touches wavers between frozen and thawed for a brief moment, then it too becomes a drop. Soon slush sits on the yet unfrozen ground. If the sun stays long enough and the temperature hovers above 32 degrees, it will soon be mostly gone. Always a few shaded, deeper areas of snow seem to resist. Maybe they will soften, but still be there when night falls along with the temperature.Tomorrow it may melt again. It seems the only beings who really care are the humans. 

The animals go about their business. Unless it is a deep snowfall that hinders the travels of the long legged deer, their lives go on. 

I had a vole in my house the other night. You would think with multiple cats and a dog in the house, that it didn't stand a chance. You would be wrong. It wandered down the hallway, into bedrooms, across the living room, stopped for a drink at the water dish, all followed by a cat or two. They took turns escorting this little visitor around. None would attack. They all knew that voles bite. The blind cat took the most interest. The sound of it moving around was enough for him to track it, occasionally batting at it with a paw. Everyone gradually lost interest and it wandered off. Then I read in one of my many books that voles can have up to 8 litters a year. Perhaps I have made a mistake in letting it wander in my house...

Where the Wild Things Are- Urgency in The Wind

We are teetering on the edge. Sunny days, patches of rain. Snow. There. I said it. It could come soon, or wait until the depths of December. All we can do is live in the moment and the moment it is sunny and 50 degrees. 

The white trunks of the aspen and birch stand out against the grays and browns of the other trees. They reach to the dark blue of the autumn sky. Dark red dots are all that are left of color on the sumac. 

The grasses are now brown, but not yet beaten down with the weight of winter. Milkweed fluff is still hanging off the pods. The goldenrod heads have lost all yellow, now shades of brown and grey. Leaves have withered and fallen. 

Juncos are popping in and out of the brush, scratching for seeds. Blackbirds wing overhead. Their calls flying across the empty fields. There is a sense of urgency in the wind. Things to get done before, things that can not wait. Everything seems to be hurrying, anxious to be prepared. Birds at the feeders enforce pecking orders. Biggest first, unless one is quicker. All feeding forgotten in the moments when a shadow passes by. Another being searching for a meal. Everyone is looking out for themselves, just trying to survive. But there are still flocks, working together to migrate. A few always on alert to warn others of impending dangers. Parents taking care of young, now as large as they are. We are all in this together.

Where the Wild Things Are- Fall Fades

Nature teaches us many lessons, if we slow down and observe. Falls lesson is about letting go. The leaves go through their life cycles, prompted by season clues when to leaf out, when to gather sunlight, when to slowly change color, and lastly, when to let go. They just drift down, ready to become nutrients for other plants and animals. If only we could be so gracious.

I am not willing to let go. I want to hang on to fall and the beautiful foliage forever. Fists full of crumpled leaves, I shake them at the benign blue skies. "Stop!" I want to yell! I am not ready for it to slide by and winter to land in our laps!

I want to just stare at the autumn landscape. Burn it into my memory. I want to keep feeling the crunch of leaves under my feet, cool breezes sending others dancing in the air. One day the leaves are green, the next the bare tree stands in front of me. Today the tamaracks are suddenly golden. Maple leaves over half gone. Oaks are changing fast. Too fast...


Where the Wild Things Are- Quiet in the Fog

October has come, with grey skies, dripping grasses, and winds. Somewhere out there are brightly colored leaves and sunlit woods. Beyond the softness of the fog the world is preparing. Plants draw back into their underground homes, enough energy stored for the long winter with a burst to bring forth the buds in the first warm days in the distant future. Animals gather and store seeds and other edibles. Some need little, for they will sleep through the worst of it, others will be out and about, even in the coldest, to find those last seed heads lying in the snow. 

It is quiet in the fog. Muffled sounds filtered through the damp leaves and grasses. Juncos have returned from a summer up north. Their chipping surrounds me as I walk. Other birds are heard, the sharp call of the Yellow Shafted Flicker, Geese flying high above. Many migrants are passing through, their calls indistinguishable now that mating calls are a mere memory. The last of the hummingbirds are gone, I haven't seen a robin for a while. Change in everywhere, and when the fog lifts, it will be a different place out there....


Where the Wild Things Are- Purple Stemmed Beggarticks

The openness of the land calls to me. I was planning on exploring woodlands. As I walked along the field edge, swamp on my right, I saw a low area that I hadn't paid any attention to before. Not more than 20 feet across it went from grass to willow to cattails and back again.  Could there possibly be anything there that I hadn't already seen in the hours I had prowled the wild areas of Camphill? I wouldn't know if I didn't go and see. The ground was dry except for the very center where it was deep enough for cattails. Grasses and sedges crowded the edges. Watching carefully as I stepped, I notice a small plant hidden under all the other foliage. A tiny yellow blossom, more of a bud, caught my eye. A closer examination, several photos, and I was clueless. Later research would reveal a name I hadn't known before, Purple Stemmed Beggarticks. A late season bloomer, overshadowed by falls browning foliage, makes walking through a small wetland in the field worth the trip. 

After such success I continued to explore the open edges. No more firsts revealed themselves, but new land under my feet makes me happy. Asters now outnumber the goldenrods. Tamaracks are starting to turn golden. The cold temps will soon encourage the rest of the leaves to turn and fall. One last blaze of color before the white of winter...

Where the Wild Things Are- Enjoy the Colors

Grey and cold. Not so much fun to go out in that! The leaves are dropping fast in the wind. Seeing through the woods is easier now. The large crashing noises that could have been anything including Bigfoot, now are mysteries more easily solved...deer and squirrels visible as they head for the hills.  

The focus has shifted from what is in bloom to what fungi is popping up, how dry are the wet areas, and are those leaves turning color yet. It is wet enough for interesting fungi finds. Bright pops of color that will soon blend into the fallen leaves, the understory dying back and revealing the forest floor. It is easy to imagine a fairy perched on the large toadstools.

The wet areas are surprisingly dry. Walking in the tamaracks is less about hopping from hummock to hummock and more about looking around my feet for mosses. Spaghnum moss showed up at the base of a tree and a sample was taken home to the terrarium for closer examination. With a steady PH of 7, many plants that require acidic conditions don't grow hear, but I am always on the look out. The wetter areas are from springs in the hills, seeping out into the lowlands. Highbush cranberries are hanging heavy on the bushes. 

The leaves are yet to turn on the oaks and maples, yellows from poplar and birches come and go quickly in the wind. With wind and rain in the forecast, it will affect the over all lea cover, making for a shorter fall. Get out and enjoy the colors while you can!