A journey into the eyes and mind of a naturalist.

Ghosts of the North Woods

We live in a world where we are connected more than any other time in human history.  We expect immediate attention to emails, phone calls,and status updates.  We have isolated ourselves in a digital frenzy of digital signals from a myriad of devices to the point that some may experience withdrawal symptoms when removed.   This addiction to information has diluted the quality and meaning of many powerful aspects of our natural world.   A sunset or scenic vista is no longer viewed simply for the sheer beauty of the moment but is rather quickly captured on a camera phone and uploaded for all to see.   I am guilty of this act but I also relish the opportunity to unplug and disconnect myself from that behavioral mindset.   To remove myself from these technological distractions I usually travel to the North Woods of Minnesota.

Disconnection from the digital world is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge in the modern age.  Cell phone signals are creeping ever deeper into the wild lands and wilderness.   My cabin succumbed to this digital onslaught several years ago forcing a new rule of “NO CELL PHONES” while on the property.   To truly get beyond the digital frontier I must now travel nearly to the Canadian border.

This past weekend I did just that.  The family and I packed up the car and drove the upper stretches of the Gunflint Trail to disconnect to reconnect with each other and the land.  We wanted to revisit the ghost of the world before the digital age.

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Spending time in the North Woods makes me appreciate the constant struggle for life.  The Boreal Forest is a land of extremes.  Warm summers and brutally cold winters ensure that only the most rugged and adapted species can survive.  Even in the dead of winter a trained eye can find the vestiges of a warmer time.  If you know where to look you can find signs of summers past and summers to come.

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Labrador Tea is an unassuming plant with an amazing story.  This short plant lives in the bogs and marshes of the North Woods.   The soil in bogs and marshes is acidified by the release of thousands of years of tannic acid released from trees and other plants within the bog.  It is this unique soil feature of bogs that gives them the unique ability to preserve anything that might fall in,  the water and soil is simply too acidic for decomposition to occur.   The acidic soil also poses a problem for any plants that may try to grow.  Because the soil has such a low pH the nutrients available in the soil are extremely low.   Normal soil contains billions of microbes and bacteria that are continually freeing vital nutrients and minerals from organic matter.   With the absence of these microbes, the cycle of nutrients grids to snails pace limiting the growth of any plant in the bog.    Labrador Tea has found a way to get around this lack of nutrients.   In fall as most other plants are dropping their leaves to save energy and prevent damage to the Labrador Tea is holding fast.   Instead of dropping its leaves the Labrador Tea puts them into a state of waiting.  They brown and droop but do not die and there they wait until the warming sun of spring frees them from winter’s grip.   Come spring the Labrador Tea has an advantage over the other plants.   Instead of devoting energy and precious nutrients to making new leaves it simply has to “wake up” it’s existing leaves and catch all that the warm sun has to offer.

The ghosts of summer can be found in the lowly plants for those who know what they mean.

The North Woods is also home to many animals that are ghostly in their own right.  The Gray Wolf (Canis lupus)  has haunted the mind of humans since prehistoric days, the mighty Moose (Alces alces) is mythical in its own right.   The Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) once roamed the forests of Northern Minnesota but is not nothing more that a ghost.  The last caribou in Minnesota was seen in 1942.  Recently the moose population in Norther Minnesota has collapsed for reasons we do not yet understand.   I don’t know what the North Woods would be without the moose and I hope that I never have to tell stories of “When we had moose here…”.

The Canada Lynx (Lynx canadensis) has a ghostly reputation.  Like all cats it is a master of stealth and patience making the Lynx an elusive denizen of the shadows and thickets of the north country.  I did not physically see a Lynx on this trip but I did see one, in a way.

IMG_6552The Lynx has extraordinarily large feet to help it float on top of deep snow.  This particular lynx was casually walking down a side trail and then slowed as it approached a road.   There may only be physical tracks but I see the cat walking down the trail on a predawn hunt listening and watching for any sign of snowshoe hare.

IMG_6554Looking closer we see the proverbial game of cat and mouse embedded within the snow.   The lynx glided over a well-established rodent run.  You can clearly see the small mouse tracks traveling in both directions across the trail and the bottom of the shot.

This was my first time seeing Lynx tracks and, needless to say, I was a little bit excited!

 

The last night of our stay and after several days of reflection I realized that ghosts are all around us in the figurative sense.  We see evidence of the unseen and we draw conclusions from that presented evidence.  I did not have to see the lynx or feel the summer sun hitting the Labrador tea to know that it is true.   This basic understanding that we all intuitively use is also the basic process of science.

As I lay in bed the final night I watched for nearly an hour as the stars gradually moved out of view of the window.  I watched as Orion’s belt slow marched out of my field of view.   I was observing not the stars moving but the Earth rotating.  It is a very powerful feeling when you realize your position within the cosmos and the stars.   The very stars I was watching may not even exist anymore as it had taken hundreds of thousands of years for the light to travel from their surface to hit my eye at that moment.  It is humbling to think on this scale about the grandeur of the universe and complexity of life.

As we become ever more infatuated with our devices and technology we must reconnect with the very land and nature that has shaped our minds and bodies.   We must realize that there are stars between the stars between the stars that we see in the light polluted urban centers.   We must understand that we share this world with all organisms.  We are not masters of land, we are members of it.

Take time to wonder, reflect and cherish the truly important things in life.  The digital world can wait.

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