A Northwoods Almanac for October 22 – November 4, 2010
Given the gift of perfect autumn weather over the last two weeks, Mary, Callie, and I have hiked in the Porcupine Mountains, the Sylvania Wilderness Area, the Guido Rahr Sr. Tenderfoot Forest Reserve, the Van Vliet hemlocks, and on the Escanaba Trail, portions of Mercer’s Mecca ski trail, and the North Lakeland Discovery Center trails. We’ve hiked nearly every day, and the most striking feature of every hike has simply been the diverse beauty we’ve been privileged to experience.
Five of the seven places we hiked support substantial old-growth forest communities, and I admit to a particular love of these places. Here, beauty lives a full life. Complexity spreads its wings, wholeness speaks as the final interpreter, and, for me, the sacred finds form. A forest that has lived and breathed uninterrupted, unfragmented, a forest where natural processes continue, where natural destruction is constructive, complicated, and necessary, is a sanctuary of beauty. Because of their age and their relative lack of disturbance, these sites offer a glimpse into intact, holistic communities of life that we seldom experience anywhere else.
Their beauty arches well beyond the superficial. As Robert Morgan writes, “Beauty is not glamour. Most of what the media . . . the fashion world . . . Hollywood . . . the art world has to offer is glamour. Glamour is a highly fickle and commercially driven enterprise . . . It appears and disappears.”
Old forests appear and disappear, too, but over a much longer framework of time, in a stable dynamism. They aren’t just sanctuaries of huge trees. They’re sites of substantial decay and death, and thus of all the lives that have adapted over thousands of years to find their life support in that decay. All of life’s stages are represented here, and so there’s a sense of something much larger, more complete than what we can ordinarily sense in managed forests and in our own lives. “The experience of the beautiful . . . is the invocation of a potentially whole and holy order of things,” wrote Hans-Georg Gadamer.
The Irish poet John O’Donahue says it this way: “Beauty is . . . a transforming presence, wherein we unfold towards growth almost before we realize it. Our deepest self-knowledge unfolds as we are embraced by Beauty.”
However one wishes to interpret and ultimately try to express beauty, I think it’s most easily possible to take the first step – to experience beauty – in old forests that in their biological integrity somehow express Beauty most deeply.
The other striking feature of every hike we’ve recently taken is how noisy it’s been walking on leaf-covered trails. Between crunching the sugar maple, red oak, and aspen leaves, you can hardly hear yourself think. After awhile you forget how much noise you’re making until you come to a stretch of pine-needle-covered trail and the silence is suddenly startling.
Hardwood trees drop over 90% of the leaves they produce in any given year, creating a prodigious carpet of leaves that becomes part of the “leaf litter,” or the basic soil surface of any forest. If you were to dig down through these leaves, you’d first hit the dry, mostly intact leaves from this year that are easily still identifiable. Probe a little deeper, and the leaves become moister and flimsier, riddled with holes made by minute mites and insects. Probe further yet and the leaves become skeletonized. The leaves often have only their petioles and veins left, and they feel slimy due to colonization by various fungi and bacteria. Farthest down, the last layer consists of tiny fragments of leaves, and the microenvironment is dark and moist. This is the transition zone, the humus layer, where organic matter makes its final metamorphosis into soil.
By probing through the leaf litter, you’re doing a walk through time. Each species of leaf runs its course from fallen leaf to soil in well over a year. Alders, sugar maples, and ironwoods make the fastest transition, taking only a year to a year and a half. Basswoods will take 2 ½ years, while red oaks, aspens, beech, pines, and tamarack often require three years or more to decompose.
It’s hard to imagine the tens of thousands of leaves that we shuffled through these last few weeks all being soil in a few years. It’s a process that’s still not all that well understood, but that’s part of the magic of Nature.
Juncos Coming Through
On October 10, Mary Kaminski observed at least 30 dark-eyed juncos in her yard on Cochran Lake near Springstead. She noted, “That is a sure sign of winter coming for us,” and indeed it is! Numbers of migrating juncos usually peak in mid-October, and though on occasion a few crazies remain the winter up here, these ground-feeders nearly all continue south to where the ground remains snow-free.
Within the flocks, note that the dark, slaty birds are males, while the tannish gray ones are females (the juvenile males look very similar to the females). Those of us living in northern states usually see flocks dominated by adult males; those in central states see flocks evenly divided between males and females; and those in southern states see flocks with more females than males.
One theory on why the adult males remain further north than the females is that they are slightly larger than the females – the average wing length of a male, for instance, is 4 ¼ inches, while the female’s is 3 inches. And since larger bodied animals generally survive better in colder climates than smaller-bodied animals, the male is more adapted to cold winters.
To envision this, think of a two blocks of ice that are each 2 feet on a side. If you broke one of the blocks into a bunch of ice cubes, the cubes would melt much faster than the block because they have far more exposed surface area per volume than the larger block. Thus, researchers estimate because of its slightly larger size, the larger average male junco could stand fasting about 1.6 hours longer than an average female, perhaps allowing it to survive an intensely cold winter night which might otherwise kill the female.
Another theory explaining why the males remain farther north is that they compete for breeding territories in the spring, and the birds that stay the farthest north would theoretically be first to arrive, and thus secure those breeding sites.
It may also be simply that male juncos aren’t known for their fellowship. The smaller females may be pushed south by the pugnacious males who refuse to share their limited food resources.
All the rains this summer made for fungi-filled forests this fall. Mary and I continue to be novices at mushroom identification, but we’re having a great time trying to figure them out. Elaine and Dana Hilmer sent me a photo of a brilliant orange fungus they found on a broken-off tree while hiking on a trail around Day Lake. They correctly identified it as a “chicken of the woods” (see the picture), one of the most desired edible mushrooms in our woods.
Chicken of the woods invades the heartwood of living trees, causing a brown rot that ultimately hollows the trunk. Hollow trunks provide habitat for denning mammals and cavity-nesting birds, so there’s a positive offset to a process that might be construed by some as only negative.
Kay Rhyner on Yawkey Lake in Hazelhurst dropped me a note saying that every September she starts seeing gulls on their lake. She wondered if the gulls are migrating from Lake Superior, and where they winter.
The gulls are almost certainly coming down from Lake Superior, which is the closest nesting site for them. Ring-billed gulls winter on Lake Michigan and further south, while herring gulls winter on Lake Superior and south, or basically wherever the water stays open. Large numbers of gulls show up in late summer and into the fall, but they may just be feeding rather than migrating. Gulls are exceptionally hardy birds, so they really don't have to hurry south.
At the end of September, Kathy Eder sent me a photo of a barred owl sitting in a tree about 20 feet from their house. She noted, “He was perched on a branch looking down at a 130-foot-stream that we built in our backyard. I don't know if he was fishing (do they eat fish??), but if he was, he was out of luck because there are no fish in the stream. Maybe looking for frogs? A lot of critters come to drink out of the stream, maybe he was looking for them. He hung around for a couple of days and then didn't come back. He was utterly unafraid of us. Michael got within ten feet of him to take pictures and he just sat there . . . we've never seen one this close up.”
The October full moon, also known as the “hunter’s moon,” takes place tonight.
On 10/24, we’re down to 10.5 hours of daylight.
Planet watching in November: At dusk, look for Mars very low in the southwest and for brilliant Jupiter in the southeast. At dawn, look for Venus and Saturn both very low in the southeast.