Monthly Themed Articles

Each month, Kirsten Carlson, our Education and Outreach Coordinator, shares a themed article about what’s happening in nature that month. Scroll down for older articles.

If you have an idea for a monthly article – or if you want to volunteer as a contributing writer – please email Kirsten at [email protected].

April 2022: Spring’s Ephemerals

Virginia Bluebells (Martensia virginica)

By Kirsten Carlson, Education and Outreach Coordinator, Oak Heritage Conservancy

Ephemeral, what a cool word!  It is an adjective used to describe things with a short-lived nature, such as certain insects, bodies of water, some plants, or perhaps even relationships.   There are many ephemerals that come to mind in spring.  Mayflies (relatives of dragonflies and damselflies) belong to the taxonomic order, Ephemeroptera.  By definition, mayflies could not be more aptly described as they live for a very short time, some for only a few minutes and others for a few days.  Mayflies emerge from their freshwater aquatic stage from spring through summer (depending upon the species). 

But mayflies are not the only short-lived organisms we see in spring.  There are many plants that emerge in spring to complete their life cycles in such a short time as well.  Indiana native spring ephemeral plants require conditions that are cooler, typically moist (due to spring rains), and sheltered sunlight.  Many of our spring ephemerals are woodland species that take advantage of the short length of time they have access to sunlight before the leaves on the trees begin to shade them out.  By June, they may have already died back to the underground to wait out the warm, dry summers and autumns before emerging again the following spring.  A hiker exploring one of Oak Heritage’s preserves in the early spring might be rewarded by one or more ephemeral wildflowers common to southeast Indiana including Virginia Bluebells (Martensia virginica), Dutchman’s Breeches (Arisaema triphyllum), Toadshade (Trillium sessile) and Cutleaf Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata).

If you are interested in adding some spring ephemerals to your home garden, please refer to this quick reference guide:  Native Spring Ephemerals | Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (iiseagrant.org) (https://iiseagrant.org/publications/native-spring-ephemerals/).  It includes some companion plants as well.  If you would like to make your ephemeral flowers last a little longer, consider pressing the flowers to create notecards, gift tags, bookmarks, or framed art.  You can easily make a press or just use cardboard, newsprint, and those old heavy textbooks or encyclopedias you may still have.  If you plan to press flowers, just take what you need so that you leave enough to maintain or increase the population naturally.  A good rule of thumb is to take only a flower or two if you can find ten other plants nearby.

Take walks this spring into the woods to witness nature’s progression of ephemerals.  Make haste as they soon disappear back underground.  If you are unsure where to venture, remember that Oak Heritage has many wooded preserves you can walk from dawn to dusk. 

March 2022: Spring Reveals Nature’s Symphony of Resilience and Renewal

By Kirsten Carlson, Education and Outreach Coordinator, Oak Heritage Conservancy

Resilience, that’s a big word.  In general, it can be defined as the ability to recover, or spring back from change (typically difficult ones).  Nature demonstrates resiliency when we take part in her symphony of resilience and renewal.  Each season, likened to a movement in a symphony, has a different melody that reflects its theme.  The first movement, spring, is that of resilience and renewal.  During spring, we notice the ways in which organisms, communities, and ecosystems awaken in response to winter’s harshness.  Part of nature’s ability to recover or spring back from winter (movement four) is in its preparations during autumn (movement three). 

This first movement of Nature’s Symphony is a time when we also demonstrate resilience and renewal when we “spring back” from winter’s cold and darkness.  As the daylight lengthens, we begin to see trees budding out, grass greening, birds singing, flowers emerging, and bees buzzing.  The warmed soil giving rise to the awakened metabolisms of microbes and other soil organisms, adds to the distinct scent of spring.  This organic symphony lights the senses giving us feelings of peace and renewal in much the same way as the neurotransmitter, serotonin, provides the runner’s “high.”  As we become those “busy little bees” in spring, we cannot help but think and feel a sense of rejuvenation in our new spring moods and thoughts.  We tap our toes in tempo to nature’s resilient masterpiece.

Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, composed four concertos, called The Four Seasons.  The proceedings of the events during each season inspired Vivaldi to write these concertos.  Spring is the first of his four concertos.  Why did Vivaldi start with spring?  Life begins anew in spring.  As you listen to Spring, you cannot help but feel his symbolism of nature’s renewal in musical form.  Keep listening and close your eyes, imagining the melodic events as spring progresses to summer.  You transform as you become a part of his concerto and the first movement of Nature’s Symphony. 

This spring, find a place outside in nature, where you can become a part of Nature’s Symphony of Resilience and Renewal.  Close your eyes as you quietly listen to Vivaldi’s Spring concerto.  Let your senses take in the surroundings as you bathe in the aura of spring.  Following Vivaldi’s concerto, listen to the  movement of Nature’s Symphony and ponder your own resilience and renewal.  Write your own spring concerto as you “spring back” from winter’s bleakness.  See where it takes you.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

February 2022: Spring is just a peep away

By Kirsten Carlson, Education and Outreach Coordinator, Oak Heritage Conservancy

And I’m not referring to the sugary sweet treat (but they too will be coming to a shelf near you).  There are some rituals in February that many of us look forward to as a signal that spring will momentarily arrive.  One that brings excitement to my heart is the sound of the spring peeper!  A little frog no larger than an inch; its trill of a call can be heard in mass when you pass by a watery area, such as a vernal pool or roadside ditch.  Try to walk up to the pool or ditch to spy the little ones and you hear the stop of the calling.  You can’t sneak up on those sly peepers. 

Spring peepers are ubiquitous throughout Indiana.  You can find them in upland forests, meadows, wetlands, and even in the suburbs if there is a source of water to lay their eggs and that persists long enough to allow the tadpoles to become froglets or adults.  Frogs and toads are unique in their dietary requirements.  As tadpoles they are herbivores (eating leaf litter, algae, and other plant matter), but as they continue to develop limbs and other body parts indicative of a frog, they require a diet higher in protein and fat, consequently, they enter the omnivore stage of life (adding tiny little aquatic insects or pieces of “meat” they find in the water).  Then as an adult on land, they are carnivores (finding small insects, worms, spiders, snails, mites, etc.) to dine upon.  If you were shrunk down to an inch, what could you find to please your palette?  Considering that these little frogs are active when temperatures a just above freezing, their prey also must be active above freezing as well.  Spiders, mites, and snails are a good choice for a warm Valentine’s Day dinner.

During the cold temperatures of winter, you might be able to find them in a torpor stage under leaf litter, logs, or holes in trees; a good reason to keep your leaf litter and logs lay throughout the year if you have them near your home.  The adults seek shelter in these moist areas as well during the hot dry spells of summer.  Spring peepers have adaptations that allow them to withstand the cold temperatures in the winter by concentrating sugar in their cells and in the summer, they can also survive with a reduce amount of water in their cells (when water becomes available, they can absorb it).

The scientific name of the spring peeper is, Pseudacris crucifer.  The genus, Pseudacris, means a false locust, referring to the cricket or locust-like call they make.  The species name, crucifer, means cross-bearer, referring to the cross on its back, which we use as a main identifying mark (they can be confused with chorus frogs and cricket frogs).

This February, see if you can’t find the natural signal that spring is around the corner by listening for the call of spring peepers nearby.  Take a walk in the woods, by a pond, or other watering hole, and listen carefully for the sound of the peeper.  If you need some help, check out this website by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to learn how to identify frogs and toads by their call:  https://www.in.gov/dnr/kids/get-up-and-go-outside/know-your-frog-calls/.  Oak Heritage Conservancy has many preserves in which spring peepers call home.  Feel free to master your frog and toad calls at one of our preserves.  You can find a preserve near you at https://oakheritageconservancy.org/conserved-land/.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

January 2022: Finding the Stories in Nature’s Calendar

By Kirsten Carlson, Education and Outreach Coordinator, Oak Heritage Conservancy

Tristan Gooley, an expert on natural navigation, wrote in his book, How to Read Nature, “Almost everything that our senses pick out is eager to tell us a story that will help us more vividly read nature” (2017, pg. 101).  Our senses and their meanings lead us to make connections, which Gooley states, “…that these finer connections are out there, everywhere, waiting for us to find them.  The important thing for us to remember is that nature is a set of keys and interlocking connections” (pp. 101-102).  How do we become aware of these keys to unlock the connections?  Perhaps we can observe the smaller parts of nature throughout the course of a year and then think about how the parts connect to unlock natural cause/effect patterns or connections.

For example, each day, the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.  But does it always rise and set in the same direction from the same place?  No, it rises and sets just a little bit differently each day when observed from the same focal point.  And if you keep track of this change over the course of a year, you would see a great difference in its time and direction.  During our winter, the sun rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest.  Could you predict its directions of rise and set in six months?  Take a guess.  Then, set out to track the sun’s direction of travel between January and June by observing the little daily changes measured each day or week.  How?  You can mark a window, its sill, or place objects, like stones, outside that won’t get disturbed.  To observe the change, stand in the same place each day or week and make a mark or place a stone that points in the direction of the sunrise or sunset.  After measuring for one year, you have a calendar based upon natural phenomena, not man-made time pieces.

Can we make any connections to nature with our study of the sun?  As you continue to measure the direction of sunrise and/or sunset, make some natural observations.  If you feed birds, do you find a pattern of the species of bird who visit at certain times of the day?  If so, do you think it is related to the sun?  If so, could these behaviors be interrelated to the sun calendar or an effect based upon the sun (such as temperature, amount of light, angle or intensity of light)?  Once you find these interconnections, you’ve got the beginnings of a story and more interconnections!  What about the songs of birds, or the timing of plant emergence or flowering?  Notice anything when you align your senses and observations with your natural sun calendar?

Making a natural calendar allows you to find the keys to unlock their interconnections to create your story of place and time.  Each living kind responds to light (and its effects) in inimitable ways.  And you can uncover these ways with repetition.  If marking the sunrise and/or sunset each day or week is a little daunting, try watching a tree (as it doesn’t move around) over the course of a year. Observe it, take measurements, or pictures.  You actually might make some interconnections to the sun.  Life abounds with numerous opportunities to make a year-long story of discovery.  Choose something that is easy for you to observe and record change.  If you need a little help, take a look at the book, That Tree, by Mark Hirsch (2013).  Hirsch used his phone’s camera to document a bur oak tree out in the middle of a cornfield.  Imagine the story his photos of that tree revealed.  You can learn about that tree’s story at https://www.thattree.net.  And if you are interested in bur oaks (or oaks in general), read Aldo Leopold’s essay, “Bur Oak” in the chapter, “April” or “Good Oak” in the chapter, “February” in A Sand County Almanac.  Leopold has stories to tell as well based upon nature’s calendar.

As a final thought from Gooley, “Once we see the way all of nature is interconnected, we have a way of turning time in the fresh air into a richness of experience” (pg. 102) just as Hirsch and Leopold did.  Let this new year of 2022 be one of following nature’s calendar of interconnections to create a story of meaningful interconnections in your place and time.