A Winter Walk with Lois Nestel

Emily Stone

The evergreen spikes of clubmoss contrast beautiful with snow. Photo by Emily Stone.
The evergreen spikes of clubmoss contrast beautiful with snow. Photo by Emily Stone.

As the Cable Natural History Museum enters its fiftieth year in existence, we find ourselves pausing to remember the past as well as dream for the future. In particular, I find pleasure in contemplating the legacy of Lois Nestel, the founding naturalist, director, and curator of the Cable Natural History Museum. Lois was a talented, self-taught naturalist, artist, and taxidermist. Examples of her accomplishments populate every corner of our modern museum building. Her legacy is strong in the work that we do.

I never met Lois, but every Friday I feel a particular kinship with her as I send my “Natural Connections” article off to the newspapers. Lois initiated the tradition of a weekly nature column provided by the Museum, and did so with a gentle, reverent, poetic style. Her column was titled “Wayside Wanderings,” and the articles were compiled into two small volumes in 1975.

One of my favorite authors, Sigurd Olson, provided the introduction to Lois’s first volume. In his characteristic style, Sigurd wrote: “With the eyes of a naturalist, artist, and poet, season by season she has recorded the miracles she found there, miracles that epitomize the truth that we are all part of nature; that because of our primeval background we hunger for simplicities of the past, the beauty of flowers, trees, and animals. Her essays build awareness and open the eyes of children to a world of wonder and delight they may not have known before.”

While I never had the privilege to go on a walk with Lois, her words transport me into a forest that feels absolutely timeless. “It was a perfect day to walk in the woods,” she began, and I’m sure you can imagine it with her. “The first snow had been followed by a warm, sunny day so that the packy snow went “squdge, sqwudge” under foot. Though well-grown and diversified, this forest still bore the scars of long-ago logging. Skid roads, now barely discernible, meandered down wooded slopes toward bogs and ponds. They were primarily game trails now, and little more than occasional cuts and fills were left as reminders of man’s intrusions.”

“The light covering of snow was pierced by winter ferns, ground pine, and club mosses that were unbelievably green by contrast, and where the evergreens were thick the duff was richly brown.

Snowshoe hare tracks disappear into the shelter of a balsam fir thicket. Photo by Emily Stone.
Snowshoe hare tracks disappear into the shelter of a balsam fir thicket. Photo by Emily Stone.

Except for the distant chattering of a couple of squirrels the woods were silent, but the soft snow carried telltale marks that indicated an abundance of unseen life. Where birch trees had fallen and the wood long since crumbled away, the durable bark remained in long crumpled tubes and in and out of these ran the twin dimpled marks of weasels, these often overlaid upon the dainty tracks of mice and voles.”

“A hollow log had housed a porcupine, his droppings and a quill or two inside and outside; where his shuffling feet had pressed the damp snow down, the dye from decaying leaves had turned it yellow-brown. Squirrels had hopscotched from tree to tree and the shards of thousands of hemlock cones were evidence of how busy they and the birds had been.”

“As the trail dipped toward the bog it was crisscrossed by rabbit tracks. Here too, silent as a shadow, a raven, gliding into a pine top, vanished as if it had never been. The tracks of a coyote followed the trail for a while before veering off in the midst of a thick growth of young balsams. Just brushing against these balsams in passing left a scent on clothing that lasted for hours.”

“Woodland ponds were covered with skim ice, but the rivulets draining them still ran free, and along them were myriad small tracks too blurred in the wet snow to be identified. Like unpatterned cross stitching, binding the landscape together, were the tracks of deer of various sizes and even in this shallow snow the toe drags were often apparent.”

“These were some of the things I saw, but how much did I miss? How many unseen eyes watched me? There is never time to peer into every hold, under every flap of bark, behind every stump and tree. The only tangible reminder I brought back was a handful of tamarack twigs with their dainty cones, but long after these are gone the pictures in my mind will live.”

How lucky we are that Lois wrote down these accounts of her wayside wanderings, so that the timeless images can live in our minds, too. Lois accomplished many great things over the years, but perhaps one of the most valuable is her ability to bring us into the woods with her. May the peace of her forest walk stay with you throughout your day.

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/.

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is open through March 11.