How chickadees sleep at night in winter and other forest tales

What it's like to live in the woods

What it’s like to live in the woods

Sometimes I think I should write more posts about what it’s like to live in the woods.

How many people in this world still live in a forest surrounded by trees and more trees and a few more trees?

In a space carved out between poplars and maples and ravines with tiny streams flowing down to the bay about a quarter-mile away?

It's a world of sunlight and trees out here

It’s a world of sunlight and trees out here

Tangled raspberry plants grow toward the sun providing sweet nourishment as one walks toward the mailbox in early August.  Thimbleberry plants, with leaves bigger than your hand, grow tangy-sweet red thimbleberries prized by jam-makers who charge $12 per half-pint for the treat.

I’ve shared before how one lives in a horizon-less world, a world shaded and dappled.  Wildflowers bloom in open spaces, now daisies and purple joe pye weed and buttercups and red clover.

The forest is always trying to reclaim its own.  If you’ve built a house in your cleared space it’s always creeping closer over the years, attempting to re-populate its reign.  Conversely, the large trees you left on the peripheries rarely grow strong and healthy.  They were too shocked by the sudden sunlight all those years ago when chainsaws and bulldozers took their neighbors.

Believe it or not, we call this our Ugly Plant.  It sits on the deck.  I wanted to try to portray it as beautiful.

Believe it or not, we call this our Ugly Plant. It sits on the deck. I wanted to try to portray it as beautiful.

It’s an insect world in the woods.  Mosquitoes, don’t get me started, thrive. When I complained earlier this year on Facebook about the wealth of blood-sucking creatures someone suggested that we fill the wet spots on our property, as skeeters breed in wet places.  My mouth fell open in disbelief and it’s still open.  Fill 23 acres of wet streams and cattail swamps?  Fill every nook and cranny in this buzzing biting bursting-with-life forest?

The forest stretches hundreds of miles to the east and west.  It’s surrounded by Lake Superior to the north and Lake Michigan to the south.  It’s a wild land up here in the Upper Peninsula, a wild land roamed by black bear and mountain lions and drum-flapping partridge.  Its patron saint is the chickadee, I just made that up, that wonderful black and white bird which refuses to leave during winter’s cold and cheers our January days.

First thing in the morning

First thing in the morning

Winter starts in October, OK, maybe I’m exaggerating, because those first October snows don’t stay.  Winter ends in May, OK, I’m really exaggerating, because those May snowstorms are also fleeting and refuse to linger ever-long in the woods.

We usually start a fire in the wood stove every month of the year, although we have yet to determine if August will necessitate a morning warm up.

We’re actually surrounded by neighbors here in our neck of the woods, lots of them.  Our road ends on the Huron Bay and there are dozens upon dozens of “camps” down there along the shore.  People come from lower Michigan and Illinois and Ohio and Wisconsin to grill hotdogs and get bit by mosquitoes and wood ticks and black flies and experience North Wood living.  Our tax base, therefore (spoken by your local tax collector who knows) is quite healthy.

About 400 souls live in our township.  Some live back in the woods.  Others live closer to the roads.  One could debate if someone who lives directly on a road actually lives in the woods.  How far off the road must one build to be considered a woods-dweller?  Someone should write a dissertation.

Mandala of wing

Mandala of wing

My friend and reader, Fountainpen, alerted me to a cool book last month.  It’s called “The Forest Unseen:  A Year’s Watch in Nature” by David George Haskell.  He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and his words dance on the page.

“Haskell leads the reader into a new genre of nature writing, located between science and poetry,” Edward O. Wilson lures us on the book’s cover.

He makes me want to write nature poetry, except, of course, I know very few biological facts.  He teaches the forest-loving reader about mosses and ferns and, yes, chickadee.

I learned something amazing about chickadee from his flowery pen.  Did you know that chickadees sleep huddled in groups creating a ball of birds with large volume and relatively small surface area?  They huddle in holes left by fallen tree limbs. Their body temperatures will fall by ten degrees into energy-saving hypothermic torpor.  This behavior gives the winged ones an edge over winter, sayeth our scientific poet, and I will never forget that fact as long as I live.

Rock at the forest's edge

Rock at the forest’s edge

We also have learned about deer who digest their food with aid of a rumen.  (Who knew?)  The rumen sac, an initial stomach really, allows deer to eat all those woody stalks and thriving bacteria within assist in this process.  Different variety of bacteria thrive in the rumen at different times of year.  Thus, plant-digesting rumen party down in the rumen during the summer and bark-digesting bacteria slug away at the wood during the winter.

When we well-meaning deer-loving folk toss out corn kernels or vegetable scraps in the middle of winter we can upset the balance of the rumen in very negative ways. Can you imagine?  Our kindness may actually be challenging the deer’s stomach.

Haskell examines one small mandala-circle of forest with every passage of the book, pointing out small hidden details that any fast woods-walker would miss altogether.  He returns to the same mandala day after day for a year sharing rich biological details of this world.

Part of me would like to write a forest blog.  Every day (or week) share some new revelations of forest-living.  Yet I probably won’t, so don’t get too excited or dismayed.

Barry's garden shoes.  Just because.

Barry’s garden shoes. Just because.

It’s time to brew a cup of tea and wander outside on our deck to sip and give thanks for this opportunity to live in the forest–and to share it with those of you who aren’t getting bit by mosquitoes.

Scratching in our Little House in the Big Woods, Kathy  (OK, I’m exaggerating again.  The mosquitoes are actually lessening as the summer passes.  Except at night.  Except when you actually venture several feet away from any clearing…)

About Kathy

I live in the middle of the woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Next to Lake Superior's cold shores. I love to blog.
This entry was posted in August 2013 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to How chickadees sleep at night in winter and other forest tales

  1. Fountainpen says:

    What can I say, except, thanks, thanks, thanks for getting the book
    and finding it as exciting as I am finding it!!!!! I delight in the fact that
    you and Barry like the book! I delight in the fact that you trusted me
    enough to get the book!!!!!???!! I spent six months in a hermitage years
    ago and began to stand with birdseed in hand perfectly motionless on the back porch of the hermitage. Finally one brave chickadee trusted me
    and landed on my finger, took a seed and many others followed….Daily
    I would feed my chickadees that way, then by sitting and allowing them to
    land on my foot, my knee and then hop into my open hands… was thrilling. I will NEVER forget the feeling of that first chickadee landing on
    my finger…….I felt as if I were the Jane Goodall of chickadees!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Elisa says:

    I thought I’d try to do these sorts of things with the Lilac blog, however, I was not …(I do not have a word to put in that space yet)

    I am now coming across, particularly this morning, books and photography essays that include one item over a year or a study of a small circle of ground. This reminds me of the snow shoveled spot in my yard, years ago, that we spoke about. The one so that I could see and feel the grass. The one from when I detested winter and was feeling insane from lack of ground.

    I ran into ‘trouble’ when I felt that the words available to me to express what I thought and what I felt did not show the relationship between the lilac or the space and how they both contributed to my experience in the moment I chose. I think that I often think that your words and the relationships that you can create with them, better show how you feel at a time. More effectively allow me to think and to consider what might have occurred if I had the same skill. I often wonder, too, if while you have that skill, inside you can feel as if you have had to settle for as close to life as possible, and that you get frustrated too.

    The thought coming now considers oil paintings. When an artist creates a piece that draws out a feeling of awe and appreciation and smiles, one that creates a feeling of joyful color, one might often think that the artist was full of joy and was painting out that joy along with the life representation of the subject. I think that we never really get to know if the artist was instead ranting angry and only painting so that He/She did not smash something with a hammer.

  3. Kathy, I so loved this post! But first may I reply to Fountainpen? FP that is an inspiring story! Worth writing about and by the way, I’m interested in reading that book too.

    Kathy I bet I’m not the only one who likes the idea of a forest blog! I think the blog you already have here can encompass the occasional forest study.

    Ii think it’s true that whatever environment you live in, you have certain things you have to know and be willing to do in order to live a harmonious existence. Loved your photos and your description of your world of “sunlight and trees.”

    Never heard of thimbleberries – can you show us a picture of that?

  4. lucindalines says:

    Such a wonderful post, again. I think this is an extra mosquito year. We have them so bad here on the plains that I hate to go to the garden this year. As much as I love the wide open horizon view from my back window, you paint an enticing picture of the woods.

  5. “Its patron saint is the chickadee, I just made that up…”

    Kathy – you’re words “dance on the page” too! I gobbled every tasty one of them up as you gracefully blended fact and fiction 🙂

  6. Heather says:

    Oh the mosquitoes. And I seem to find a new fly bite daily. We live near the woods, but not in it. I read about the difference in a dissertation 😉 We used to live in the woods, but when we moved here, we moved outta the woods. I loved the dappled light. Now I love bright light.
    I knew about deer and rumen, but not about chickadees forming what sounds and awful lot like a snake ball.
    And I agree with cookingpatty: what does a thimbleberry look like?

  7. Kathy,this is a lovely post. There is a “jungle out there” where you dewell. I find it refreshing and enlightening to read what ever you choose to write about and I really like reading the posts about nature. All aspects of this post are wonderful.
    Even thought I like remoteness I can’t go into that realm of living at my age.BUt had I had the money to move to the hills with all my animals and if there were a decent vet and farily easy access to medical care, I would have moved in a heartbeat. But you and Barry have lived there for years and I assume that you are not that far away from “ciivilization” so it it not considered totally remote.

    I must get that book if the man writes as well as you have indicated.


  8. Carol says:

    We live surrounded by trees, chickadees, mosquitoes and midges that form an amazing coating of green on the front of the car when we drive by the lake at the “right” hours of morning and evening. The other night my large furry girls saved us from imminent danger by chasing an encroaching deer back into the scrub-filled back part of our land. You have such a marvelous way of portraying life in the woods. I think it takes a special soul to live in the UP, really I do.

  9. You should start a living in the forest blog, you’d be very good at it given your writing and photographic skills.

  10. jeff v says:

    I will attest to the mosquitoes ,black flies, and ticks! In fact I cast my vote for mosquito as the official bird of the UP. Who says you have to know scientific facts to blog about the woods? I say blog on! I will be looking for the book , thanks for the tip.

  11. Susan Derozier says:

    Kathy – I LOVE that you honor my beloved chickadee. I, too, used to feed them from my hand and would seat my daughters outside near our picnic table with their hands held out and seed in them. Their faces as the birds would come up and feed are a vision I carry still. I loved their resilience in winter when the bluejays would scare off all the other birds from the feeder. Only the chickadees would stand strong, clinging sideways or upsidedown to eat. I love your forest posts!

  12. lisaspiral says:

    I knew about rumen, but the chickedee fact is new. They are such cheery birds anytime of year, but especially in the winter. A forest blog would be lovely, but so is the blog you write so don’t feel pressured. You do give us a glimpse every now and again into the magic of the forest and of forest living. If you’re going to debate how far from the road you need to be to live in the forest you also have to debate how far off the lake do you stop being lakeside and become forest. It’s a jungle out there!

  13. That’s so interesting about the chickadees and the deer – I think I must get a copy of the book you’re reading! Those darling little chickadees…

  14. gigi says:

    I loved the book, From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairytales by Sara Maitland. She looked at forests in the UK and rewrote fairy tales that used forests as settings. Highly recommended.

  15. Joanne says:

    Your life in the woods sounds so different to my life in sub-tropical Australia Kathy, so I lap up every little bit of information that you share. And stories of the chickadees, well, they must be my favourite of all the birds in the world that I have never seen, all because of the way you describe them. We do have one thing in common though, those dreaded mozzies!

  16. Brenda Hardie says:

    Kathy, I think it’s a wonderful idea for you to write a forest blog. Your experiences and writing style and photography skill would suit a blog like that perfectly. I would sign up as your first reader! 🙂
    The book you mentioned sounds fascinating—I’m going to see if the library has it so I can read it as well.
    I’ve been enjoying the chickadees and hummingbirds here—they’ve been keeping me company ♥ Thank you for sharing that fact about how the chickadees survive the winter. I didn’t know that about them. Or about the deer. There is so much to learn.

  17. Lori D says:

    Heh, you sound like me exaggerating (but not always) about how long the heat & humidity of summer lasts where I live. I also just posted a poem about bugs, bugs & more bugs, but funny thing, no skeeters. Lovely nature blog, Miss Kathy.

  18. Dawn says:

    Ahhh…memories. I didn’t live IN the woods…but near the woods. I am nostalgic…for the simpler life…but maybe not the snow in October and May. The price you pay I guess for living in a slice of paradise. Well. Not exactly IN Paradise…down the road fro Paradise….well you know what I mean.

  19. Karma says:

    I always enjoy a look at life in the Big Woods. That’s pretty neat about the chickadees. The picture of Barry’s garden shoes gave me a little chuckle because I have a pair of sneakers that lives out on my deck too – I call them my lawn-mowing shoes, but they are definitely garden shoes too. I just finished reading a book with a part that takes place in the UP. I smiled reading about Yoopers and pasties, having learned about those words from you!

  20. That mandala of wings is perfect. I can’t wait for my raspberry plants to become a tangle. Just planted them this year and they are currently too orderly for my taste. You have me wanting to read Haskell’s book.

  21. msmcword says:

    In spite of some ot the drawbacks you and Barry are blessed to be able to live right in the middle of nature. And I always appreciate you sharing your nature experiences with the rest of us “city slickers.”

  22. Pingback: The Dark Side of the Woods . . . | Bear in Mind

  23. bearyweather says:

    We were on the same thought wave this week .. explaining what the wilderness looks like and is like to live in. I included a link to your post in my recent post “The Dark Side of the Woods”.

  24. sybil says:

    That’s interesting about the Chickadees. I can just imagine them clustered together. I’d want to be in the middle of the huddle.

    I always love hearing about your home in the big woods.

  25. Really enjoyed this slice of your forest life–sounds wonderful (mostly)–and I love chickadees

  26. Stacy says:

    If your mosquitoes are lessening, it’s because they are down here on the Louisiana bayous. My leper-looking legs are proof. But i’m not complaining, really, I’m not. I was born on the bayou (ok, it was Bayou St. John in the heart of the city of New Orleans, but it’s still a bayou) and it is here I will stay – mosquitoes from the Upper Woods be darned! ❤

  27. you inspired my blog post today

  28. Amy Tong says:

    Your neighborhood is gorgeous. Yes, please share more whenever you could. I really love all your pictures. So calming looking at them. 🙂

  29. me2013 says:

    You live in such a wonderful place, all i see from my windows are brick houses.

  30. You are very lucky to have such a wonderful place in which to live. At the moment, I’d give almost anything to be out there with you, away from the annoying drone of a compressor as workers re-face the apartment building behind us. I have cranked up my music to try and drown out the headache-inducing sound, but it isn’t helping as much as I’d hoped. Despite the nature sounds playing through my earbuds and native flutes trilling as I stare longingly at your pictures of your natural world in jealous fascination, it isn’t enough. The chirp of chickadees would certainly be preferable to machines throbbing through the house walls. I think I’d even put up with mosquitoes biting, in order to experience the tranquility of the Big Woods! 🙂

  31. dorannrule says:

    What a wonderful story of your forest primeval! We live right on a forest as well, but further South so the weather is more forgiving most of the time. Just in the last two days we have seen a coyote, a ground hog,, turkeys, and two mama deer – one with twin babies and the other with a single offspring. Lovely! Meanwhile, I want you to know I have nominated you for the Wonderful Team Member Readership Award! For details go to . ~ Dor

  32. Love the image of the world “shaded and dappled!” Nicely done, as usual, Kathy!

    Sorry to have been away. Again! Been busy working on my memoir. Excuses, excuses! Right? I’ve missed you.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

  33. I WIlkerson says:

    Lovely! And I am going out to look for Thimbleberries this weekend!

  34. Sid Dunnebacke says:

    I can only think that a forest blog from you would be excellent. Learning new things about my creature friends is always fun, especially chickadees. They’re so charming. As is your writing, as usual.

  35. Reggie says:

    I think your blog combines poetry, pictures and nature writing in the most enchanting way, Kathy. All your words and images (that bird in flight! – oh!) are infused with loving compassion (and flashes of such mischievous humour! – “I just made that up!” Giggle… only you…) and with the gentleness and power of your spirit. Every post adds another piece to the big puzzle of life in your backwoods. It’s no wonder we love to come and linger here on these pages, mosquitoes or not. 😉

    • Kathy says:

      Wow, Reggie, this is a most amazing compliment! It makes me want to keep blogging. 🙂 I don’t know if you noticed in your blog travels around Lake Superior Spirit that I’ve cut back from 20-25 posts a month to maybe 7-9 a month. That’s been a huge cutback for me. Part of the problem is that I’m not interested in taking pictures very much in the last year or so. Just wanting to write, but it’s hard to write a blog without images. So have been using lots of old images and trying to switch them up a bit. Actually, my life has become more peaceful and open since cutting back. Liking the new freedom of the past six months to be more sporadic. Thank you for traveling around my blog and providing so much feedback. LOVED seeing you this morning!!

      • Reggie says:

        I had noticed that, Kathy. Your images are often so expressive, that you almost don’t need many words…

        I had a huge backlog of posts to read, but it was sooo worthwhile. 🙂

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