Natural Connections: A Winter Day with Lois Nestel
Fresh snow on the ground reflects moonlight, starlight, streetlights, and headlights, and it sometimes even seems to radiate its own ethereal luminescence. I’m grateful for the light that snow brings, since the sun itself is on such a tight schedule. Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding naturalist and director, felt this darkness, too, but she still found time to watch the comings and goings in nature. She wrote:
“We rise early and the business of the day gets underway while darkness still prevails. This morning the moon is the finest paring of a silver fingernail in a deep azure sky and in the east no light yet heralds the coming day.
“The kitchen light sheds a glow upon the snow outside and silhouettes the cottontail that, crouched beneath the bird feeder, gleans the fallen seeds. It seems to feel no fear at being thus on stage. Perhaps the prominent brown eye stretches a little wider and the ears are more alert, but the chewing does not cease nor do the busy paws that dig in rapid spurts to release seeds frozen in the snow. The grosbeaks had been thankfully messy yesterday and crumbs from their table were manna to the hungry animal.
“At length, the food ran out, the rabbit was surfeited or it seemed expedient to go. But first a rapid washing of the face, paws flicking quickly over ears and whiskers and tongue touching up shoulders and chest. Then off in purposeful hops as though to reach a destination before the break of dawn.
“These are the shortest days of the year and humanity must be astir long before the tardy sun appears and long after the sky has again darkened into night. For the nocturnal creatures, there are long nights to prowl, to forage and to hunt while darkness cloaks the activities revealed by tracks with the coming of the day. Beneath the feeder, myriad small tracks and round brown pellets tell of the rabbit that might never have been seen had the feeder been farther from the house. It was a nice way to start a winter day.”
Lois Nestel wrote, “If fish are caught, that’s great. Ostensibly, that’s what we went for . But even without them, the day is full and rich with life that doesn’t know that winter is a time for complaints and curtailed activities.” Photo by Emily Stone.
While a winter morning might start by watching animals find food at the bird feeder, a winter afternoon is perfect for searching out some food of your own. Lois was an excellent hunter, trapper, and angler. Here she writes about the joys of ice fishing.
“Given the proper conditions, a day of ice fishing can produce some delightful fringe benefits, completely aside from the fish one may catch. Let it be, preferably, a sunny day and mild enough so the fishing holes do not freeze over too rapidly and, for my purposes, let those holes be in a lake with weeds.
“Looking into the water is like glimpsing a mirrored reflection of summer when insect life abounds. Some of this is in larval form and especially apparent are the nymphs of mayflies swimming actively about in the cold water. Other larvae may be those of whirligig beetles, caddisflies or the large fierce-looking dragonfly larvae clinging to weed stems.
“These weed stems are also often occupied by the strange, long-legged insects called water scorpions, often two-and-one-half inches long and rather resembling water-logged walking sticks. A giant water bug may swim by or a water boatman or backswimmer, as well as countless weaving, jerking, scooting, unnamed miniatures. Active and comfortable in the world beneath the ice, they quickly stiffen and become immobile if lifted out of the water.
“The air above the ice holds life of other styles and, for most people, probably more appealing. A blue winter sky is a perfect background for the tumbling, joyful antics of a pair of ravens. Looping, rolling, diving, together and apart, they are the soul of carefree pleasure and the coarse “wauk, wauk” of their cries expresses complete approval of the warm trend in the weather. Crows, more businesslike, and purposeful, wing their way swiftly from shore to shore, their sharp cawing a pleasant sound in the quiet of winter.
“A swirl of pine siskins sweeps overhead like wind-driven leaves, their sweet twitterings as ephemeral as mist. In dry weeds along the shore, snow buntings feed, and farther back, among the trees, woodpeckers hammer and call above the notes of nuthatches and chickadees. If it is a lucky day, the eagle will soar above adjacent open water, his gleaming head and tail seeming whiter than the underlying snow as they catch the rays of the winter sun.
“If fish are caught, that’s great. Ostensibly, that’s what we went for. But even without them, the day is full and rich with life that doesn’t know that winter is a time for complaints and curtailed activities. That behavior is reserved for humans who have lost the happy faculty of accepting and living each day to the fullest----with joy, without regret.”
For the past year I’ve been sharing Lois’s writings with you once a month in order to celebrate the Museum’s 50th birthday year. That year is coming to a close, but hopefully, like Lois, you also are able to live each day with the joy that comes from observing and appreciating nature.
Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at http://cablemuseum.org/natural-connections-book/. Listen to the podcast at www.cablemusum.org!
For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!