Petroglyphs on a Whaleback

Petroglyphs, Spirit Island, Nett Lake
Courtesy of Vance Gellert

I am in the Tweed Museum of Art on my campus, standing before a photograph by the Minnesota artist Vance Gellert, labeled Petroglyphs, Spirit Island, Nett Lake. Nett Lake is on the Bois Fort Reservation of the Lake Superior Ojibwe. Spirit Island is not the largest island in Nett Lake, but it is the most … Continue reading Petroglyphs on a Whaleback

White Spruce: A taxonomic description set to verse

Spruce Study, detail
Watercolor on sketchbook paper

Taxonomic descriptions have gotten a bad rap: “dry”, “desiccated”, “mere description”, “stamp collecting”. But a taste for the precise and spare poetry of these nuggets of natural history is worth acquiring. In the past several decades, the Flora of North America Project has been compiling what is hoped to be the standard taxonomic accounts of, … Continue reading White Spruce: A taxonomic description set to verse

Mother Goose and the Evolution of Canada Geese

Canada Goose
Watercolor on Canson cold-pressed paper

Old Mother Goose, When she wanted to wander, Would ride through the air [With] a very fine gander. The honking of Canada Geese and the wailing of Loons are the sounds of the spring returning to the North. A wedge of geese – some days two or four birds, some days many more – often … Continue reading Mother Goose and the Evolution of Canada Geese

The second life of a dead tree

Birch snag

Sometime in the past six or eight decades, a carbon dioxide molecule entered one of the stomates on a leaf of a paper birch across the meadow outside our dining room window. Once inside, a photon from the sun split the carbon from the two oxygens and sent the carbon onward into the green machinery … Continue reading The second life of a dead tree

The beauty of ballerinas and equations, spirals and snails

Lymnea megasoma sketches
2B Mars Staedtler pencil on Strathmore paper

At a first glance, the natural world appears messy and arbitrary. A pile of data about trees, moose, or any other organism often looks as random as a phone book. And yet, we almost always find some very simple and beautiful mathematical relationships which underlie such messiness. Finding such simple and beautiful mathematics beneath our … Continue reading The beauty of ballerinas and equations, spirals and snails

A Beaver Pond in the Autumn Glory of the North Woods

There were plenty of chores to be done this fall – finish picking the last of the apples, harvesting the carrots, beets, and other root crops, transplanting wildflowers into the meadow and beneath the big spruces, extracting the honey from the beehive, and getting the firewood in. But the skies were bright blue, the temperatures … Continue reading A Beaver Pond in the Autumn Glory of the North Woods

Cosmic Reflections on a Precambrian Rock

hubble image of andromeda

One summer some years ago, while doing fieldwork in northern Minnesota, I was reading a book by the astronomer Joseph Silk called Cosmic Enigmas, a collection of essays about the formation of galaxies and other questions about the Universe. In northern Minnesota, especially along the shores of lakes in the Boundary Waters Wilderness, there are … Continue reading Cosmic Reflections on a Precambrian Rock

Ancient Plants of the North Woods

Pen on hot-pressed watercolor paper

They are small plants that look like pine seedlings. No, perhaps they look like little cedars. But then again, maybe they are a weird kind of moss, or perhaps a fern. These are just some of the reactions people have to these plants which are commonly found in the pine and spruce-fir forests of the … Continue reading Ancient Plants of the North Woods

Linnaeus’s Favorite Flower

Twinflower: 
Watercolor and pencil sketch on paper

Although Minnesotans pride themselves on their Scandinavian heritage, the biological connections between Minnesota and Scandinavia precede European immigration of humans by many centuries. One of the intriguing features of the boreal forest is that its occupants are circumpolar. Thus, moose, wolves, and lynx are found not only in Minnesota, Canada and Alaska, but also in … Continue reading Linnaeus’s Favorite Flower