Boreal Musing

By Kit Hayden | Jul 29, 2014
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Newcastle —     Each year, for the last eighteen, I have visited a friend at Burntside Lake in MN, close to the Canadian border and adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  We haven’t ventured into the BWCAW in recent years, carrying the Alumnicraft over the portages has become burdensome, but we can still enjoy semi-solitude on Burntside though, alas, motors are permitted there.  Fortunately there are no fish in the lake, so it is unappealing to the avid angler, and thereby traffic is reduced.

    I have been lucky to discover two books by Mark “Sparky” Stensaas exploring the Flora and Fauna of the North Country.  These volumes are marvelously informative and amusing.  Small wonder they get 5-star rating in Amazon reviews.  They spark (ugh) my interest in identifying the various natural local offerings, and I never tire of this avocation, since, being senile, I get to start all over again every year!

    Alongside Marcia’s cabin is a Mountain Maple, classified as a shrub, a staple of the Moose’ spring diet.  Some shrub!  I estimate this one to be almost 60 feet tall with a waist-high diameter of 11 inches.  According to Sparky, ”A monstrous Mountain Maple would be 30 feet high with an  8-inch diameter trunk.”  Aha!  I have been tempted to fell this “shrub,” because it blocks the morning sun on the deck, but who would interfere with anything so magnificent?

    One of the changes I find this year is the dearth of birds.  I have seen only one warbler, a few chickadees, one woodpecker, the odd eagle, and absolutely no nuthatches.  Absence of the last, my favorite, is especially vexing , as I enjoy their bouncing antics and cheerful chatter.  Similar avian depletion I have also noticed in Maine (and it is not a function of my weakening visual and auditory sensors). I’m quite sure that the birds are disappearing, and we should be concerned about that. 

   Which is not to say that our birdfeeder has been unoccupied.  The pesky red squirrel is alive and well, and there is no defense so devious as to keep him from the feeder.  Sparky relates that this graniverous rodent is active in early morning and evening, industriously dropping cones from the pines; red, white, and jack, to be stored against the exigencies of winter.  Not these squirrels.  One sits (or lies) on the feeder and stuffs himself; morning, noon, and evening.  There is no hint of storage for the coming cold season.  I witnessed one on a branch of the Mountain Maple with a mushroom.  Sparky claims that these too are cached and hoarded, wedged twixt branches.  Not so this Agaricalis. I watched it entirely consumed by the insatiable rodent.  The only activity to interrupt our furry gourmand in the pursuit of gluttony is the arrival of a fellow.  This always provokes noisy controversy and high-speed chases.  Aside: why is it that little creatures are so obnoxious as contrasted with larger specimen, be they rodent, dog, or human?

      A feature of Stensaas’ books is the enlightening “aside” he provides.  In the case of the blueberry: “Nanaboujou, the Ojibwa god/jokester, personally divulged the cure for “craziness” to his people.  Dried flowers of the Lowbush Blueberry were to be placed on very hot stones and the fumes inhaled.”  Alas I am too late for the flowers in MN, but perhaps I can gather some when I return to ME where the season is later.  I know a number of people who might profit from these fumes.

      It has been a good year here for the whortleberry (blueberry) and the blackfly (some claim there is a connection).  The former we pick and consume, the latter we swat.  There is no threat of bear since none has been seen on the island for years.  Speaking of which, Sparky reminds us that in hibernation Ursus americanus neither drinks, feeds, nor urinates. With regard to the last, “Urea breaks down in the sleeping bear to create protein that helps maintain muscle tissue.”  How useful!  I hope scientists can discover the enzyme responsible.  A lot of us older folks would appreciate this capacity.

     I am intrigued by carnivorous flora.  The north woods provide at least two species, the Round-leaved Sundew and the Pitcher-Plant.   Thriving in nitrogen-starved areas these plants ingest insects to supply their nitrogen needs.  As Sparky writes of the Pitcher-Plant, insects attracted perhaps by color or the odor of death and decay emanating from the plant eventually slip down into “the deadly cocktail,” a complex microsystem of rainwater, algae, fungi, bacteria, protozoa and digestive enzymes secreted by the plant.  They drown and are digested. Yum!

    Some insects escape the Pitcher-Plant.  Ever evolving nature has provided means for either escape or appreciation of the cocktail, feeding on the bodies of the less fortunate.  One of these is the bog mosquito who possesses special hooks on its feet which allow it to crawl out against the wall of downward pointing hairs after laying its eggs.  Most of us would rather not have it so adapted.  A few less mosquitoes could do no harm, could it?  Who’s to know?

  We know nothing.  Our mantra should be simply to observe and under no circumstance interfere.  Feast on, wretched rodent. 

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