Each summer a small army of scientists descends on the University of Michigan Biological Station about a half hour north of Petoskey to study and write about a remarkable piece of Northern Michigan forest—the plants, bugs, animals, air, water, every bit of it. What follows here are nine short essays—eight from students and one from their writing professor, Keith Taylor—that make up the first batch of summer 2011 bio station essays. We think you'll enjoy, as we did, their fresh thoughts on the nature that surrounds us. Check back, because we'll be publishing a couple of other installments from their writing class as the summer unfolds.
Either scroll down to see all the essays or click on an author's name to go directly their piece.
Swamps and Miracles, Megan Vogt
There are secrets in the Bessey Creek nature preserve.
We’re ten aspiring botanists under the hot June sun, swatting mosquitoes and skeptically eyeing the muddy water of the cedar swamp from the dusty roadside. Eric, our professor, is ready along the road where the tall grasses begin; he’s our guide to what’s lurking within this tangled wetland world. This is familiar territory for Eric, as his faded converse high-tops can attest: they’re riddled now with holes and stained to a dark brown. They’re his swamp shoes, and without hesitation they’re splashing into the water where we must follow.
We are hunting orchids.
The water is cold and dark, a cloudy black-green. We stop and sink our searching hands into the water and shrubby undergrowth. We squint against the sun for clues. Looking for orchids takes patience, but mostly it’s luck. Each flower is an impossible combination of circumstances: seeds must be dispersed, find ground in the appropriate soil, and form a symbiotic relationship with certain fungi in order to germinate.
“Oh wow, over here.”
Eric’s quiet voice swells with excitement, and we follow him to drier high ground, where four blossoms have escaped the shade. They’re brilliantly white with long, reaching petals. The bottom sweeps up in an elegant curl to form a swollen lip, a dark pink with pale striations. It’s an unlikely cluster of Cypripedium reginae – the Showy Lady’s Slipper. They sway in a breeze too soft for us to feel.
“I know in science we’re not supposed to use this word,” He reverently cups one of the bulbous flowers, turning it up to the sun. “But each one of these is really a miracle.”
In northern Michigan, our selection of deadly and grossly armored creatures pales in comparison to those of more tropical locales on lower latitudes. There is one small monster, however, that is found in the cool, clean streams of our backyards and forests with which an encounter, though not mortal, is not easily forgotten. The Dobsonfly, and particularly the Hellgrammite larvae from which it emerges, is the stuff of hellish nightmares. With mandibles the length of fingernails, the body of a deadly centipede, the tail of quick-flitting crustacean, and anal hooks used as anchors in fast paced streams, the middle-finger-length Hellgrammite is among the most fierce looking insects of the natural world.
As an adult Dobsonfly, the male Hellgrammite has grown its mandibles up to three or four centimeters long and seems to be toting the horns of an African bull. These pincers are not used to pince, but rather to grab hold of the female during mating. The female Dobsonfly, unlike the male, has retained the powerful jaws of her aquatic past and can still deliver a skin piercing bite. Almost too big to fit in your palm, the adult beast flies at you with decibels to rival a helicopter launch and as fast, but not as agile, as its larval form in water. The Hellgrammite is the best reason to steer clear of turning over large rocks in streams, and the Dobsonfly parent is among the best reasons to run in the opposite direction.
It is otherworldly here. In venturing to Hartwick Pines for a day trip, I have stumbled upon not only a state park, but a separate existence. Most places on earth are blanketed by a blue sky. But here in this ancient forest, the sky is a bright green mosaic of aspen and maple leaves. This makes my shadow a faint little ghost on the sidewalk, leading me deeper into the woods. Great white pines line the twisting maze, huge columns of living, breathing tissue. Meanwhile, enormous carcasses of the fallen trees are dispersed throughout the land; veterans of the timber war, of time, or of both. The trunks climb higher and higher, and if I listen to the wind, sometimes I swear I can hear the shouting of lumberjacks, the grinding of saws.
I am thankful for the history that exists here. However frightful the forest might have been during the loggers’ regime, it remains calm and tranquil today, at peace with its past. As I am placed right in its beauty, something within me feels spiritually heightened. A strange holiness blows through the canopy; whether it is the work of solitude, the mysterious light that surrounds me, or the fresh air that floods my lungs, my entire being feels revived, cleansed, lifted. And, though I know my vehicle and other sightseers are a mere five minutes away, I am in different world—alone with the peace of pines and the echoes of ancient wisdom in the wind.
Slowly, a majestic courting affair materializes near by, I don’t know quite where but like a dog my senses are sniffing. Orange luscious mermaid petals draw me in, so bright and showy, as if they are screaming for some attention. Like the birds and the bees, I ponder through the conspicuous petals to the life giving energy inside. And like the birds and the bees, I am caught in its games.
Center Stage. The mother organ sits; encasing the ovary she uprightly holds dominance over all else, the organizer of the show. With out a word or a movement her pure grace directs all other parts, folding around her in perfect geometry. Her body is thick, shrouded, and yet translucent enough for one to easily infer that it is she who unlocks and protects something of great mystery and importance. Six men surround, her harem, and they tremble giddily in utter bliss. Though more slender and flimsy than she, these men are strapping (at least enough to balance their packages) which droop over their slender bodies. Colored a purple so deep a quick looker might call it black, this package is full of pollen dust, eager to be spread.
My eyes relax; my mind leaves the most stationary drama I have ever witnessed, and thinks about potential pollinators. Could it be the wind? No flower would appear so beautiful for something that has no eyes. I imagine something more like one of those monarch look–a-likes, feeding on the non-toxic wood lily while scaring every bird in sight.
There is a clearing behind my cabin at the Biological Station. The clearing is about ten paces long and five wide and is just a few feet above the shore of Douglas Lake. In the clearing I keep my seventeen-foot Kevlar canoe, a picnic table, and three collapsable deck chairs I got for a good price at a big box store. The clearing is surrounded by oaks, maples, red and white pine, a couple of small aspens, and lots of bracken ferns.
Much of my life these past few years has taken place in this clearing, but when I’m far away, what I remember most clearly is the day I watched a Monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. One morning the green chrysalis with mysterious gold dots that I’d been watching was noticeably darker. In a few hours, I could make out the distinctive black lines on a monarch’s wing, although the lines were all askew, stuffed together uncomfortably in a very small space. I noticed the first break in the wall of the chrysalis, and part of a wing began to emerge. The butterfly crawled out, looking wet and shriveled.
I was watching it so closely that something dripped from its body onto my notebook. For more than an hour it stood drying its wings until they were full and beautifully orange. The Monarch took off and fluttered around my clearing, then came back and rested from a moment on the brim of my hat. And then it was gone, headed, I hoped, for its long migration south.
Fourth of July weekend is a a special sort of time. The time where neighbors get together and reconnect. Here in northern Michigan, it is that sort of time again. Everyone drives up to their campsite, RV site, hotel, or if lucky, family place and begins to relax together. Not time on or near their iPhones, laptops, and PCs, but actual family time. Time well wasted on card games, campfires with the requisite s’mores and wandering to the nearest body of water. Of course, some of that time is spent swatting flies, but that is not the important thing to note.
Over Burt Lake, over Lake Michigan, over anywhere in northern Michigan—remember this—life is about living for more than a day. When small groups gather for marvelous displays, any lake is magnificent. Booming fireworks provide fleeting glimpses of shimmering water in the dark. However, any beauty has its flaw.
For people unaware of the display to come, natural beauty can burst the moment of peace. These transform into jarring moments easily, especially when you wander across people like my brother, who happened upon revelers setting off grenade-sized fireworks in his path. At about dusk last week, he wandered down the path near our house. Someone decided that a display would be great spectacle. Even if the other party enjoyed the show, it often proves to be a bad idea. Unsuspecting people can end up wandering in the way. When relaxing, consider others when celebrating America's independence.
“Go west, young man, go west and grow up with the country.” –Horace Greeley
On this cloudy day, along the shore of Douglas Lake in Pellston, Michigan, little mountains are forming. Small red ant colonies are colonizing at a rate that would have impressed the early American settlers. To the east of where I sit, anthills push out in a clear-cut path along the beach. The land has been stripped of all vegetation so that homes could be made. In fact, nearest to me is a newly formed village where a town meeting has just finished. Ants pour out of a central hole carrying with them bricks of sand to fortify their city walls. Safety was the topic of the meeting. Clearly these citizens are concerned with what lies to the west—where the grass is thick. That’s where the black ants live-- the savages who sleep under trees, with the dirt and the leaves. I can’t be positive (because they’re ants,) but it appears that some sort of temporary peace treaty has been signed between the two civilizations. The red ants freeze as a black ant approaches, then continue with their work. No war today.
I lean in closer to watch two red settlers, my Lewis and Clark, as they leave their home to explore the unknown. They hike the beach landscape—repelling down jagged pinecone skree, around acorn craters, and through the prairie grass—which to them must resemble the great redwoods of California. They continue westward, through the unknown, discovering our great country.
Oh, to be a woodland creature in the presence of a Michigan Wolverine. What a life! In our natural environment of Ann Arbor, we peacefully coexist with cat-sized fox squirrels. The warm relationship we share with our furry friends there has manifested itself in a more rustic habitat here in Pellston, Michigan, where the vegetation is dense. The local fauna, particularly the chipmunk, has grown accustomed to the presence of us Wolverines. Generally regarded as fearsome, well-respected beasts, Wolverines show little tolerance for being considered anything less than. Yet when confronted by a demanding, hungry chipmunk, the Wolverine is somehow charmed by the fearless, little creature. Could it be due to the fact that chipmunks slightly resemble the wolverine on a much smaller scale, with their bodies low to the ground, similar dark coats, and bold behavior? Or is it simply because the chipmunk demands respect and makes its presence known?
Though these critters may seem downright rude at times, their ability to creep into our hearts by creeping into our bags of sunflower seeds serves as a reminder that we are guests in their home. As we traverse the dusty roads and trails of the Bio Station, we must constantly be conscious of chipmunks lurking in the dark undergrowth, waiting to demand a traversing rights fee. Despite their audacity in doing so, we present them with food and stand admiring them, while they scurry off enjoying their easy, free meal. Their characteristic squeak signifies their victory. The chipmunk has tamed the Wolverine.
There may be an abundance of forests, fields and fish at the Biological Station in northern Michigan, but there are absolutely no dance rooms. Which is why, when I needed to choreograph a hip-hop dance, the Pine Point nature trail became my dance floor. There – among the fluttering of the leaves, twittering of the birds, and humming of the insects – I found a source of music that involved no bass, or drums, or microphones. I began to dance to the surround-sound anthem of the forest.
Copying the sound of the wind whispering through the tops of the trees, I skittered my foot across the blanket of dead leaves glazing the path. Chirp! Chirp! Chirp! A bird’s sharp, clear notes, translate to a quick shoulder, hip, and side shuffle to the left.
It’s difficult to concentrate on choreography with a mosquito biting your elbow.
Or another one buzzing near your right ear.
I pull my left arm across my shoulders, leaning into it, fingers fluttering with the smooth whisper of a light breeze. I barely get to the full range of the motion when, snapping back, I grabbed the mosquito venturing ever closer to the right side of my face.
Back of the calf.
The increasing number of mosquitoes scattering the forest floor become markers of the developing dance, each move bringing death or injury, either to them or me.
6 o’clock. As the bell tolls for dinner, I end the life of a mosquito feasting on the back of my neck. Feeling hot and itchy, I cannot help smiling. I have found the inspiration for my dance.
As you travel around Douglas Lake, you may find that many houses have man-made rafts on the water. These rafts are made for kids to play on and jump into the water. In North Fishtail Bay there lies a special man-made raft that was not made for kids. Only feet from shore the raft is tucked away so that it will not be disturbed by passing boats. It is essential that this raft not be disturbed. This raft serves as the nest of the loon.
The loon is an aquatic bird with dense bones and legs that are positioned far back on its body. The loon’s dense bones and leg position allow it to dive into deep waters in search of food. Those two characteristics are also the reason for the special raft in Douglas Lake. The loon has trouble walking on land because of the position of its legs and therefore nests at the water’s edge. The nest is made of any materials the loon is able to find. Pine needles, leaves, moss, and mud are commonly used, but they do a poor job of keeping water out of the nest. This means the young chicks are at risk of drowning in the wakes of passing boats. The raft allows the loon’s nest to sit above the water and because of where it is positioned there is little threat of large wakes disturbing it. While the raft itself may not be special, the purpose it serves certainly is.