Nature Blog

Ripples 3/26/20

Written by Jessica Johnsrud, Education Coordinator

We’ve all heard of taking a bath, but what about forest bathing? This form of nature therapy, originally from Japan and known as shinrin yoku, involves immersing yourself in a forest by engaging your senses. 
photo of forest
Why is forest bathing beneficial? Simple: nature is medicine. Researchers have been studying the effects of nature on human health for decades. Its been found that spending time in nature can reduce inflammation, depression, and anger. It can improve cardiovascular health, cognitive function, creativity and concentration. Time in nature instills a sense of awe, which helps us feel more open and connected to something bigger than us. This releases dopamine, improves the immune system, reduces the body’s stress response and increases our sense of empathy toward others. There are even immediate effects from just 15 minutes of forest bathing, including a decrease in blood pressure and improvement in mental clarity. 

Forest bathing is fairly simple. First, tuck away distractions such as your cell phone and camera. Also, leave your goals behind. There is no destination during this practice, because it’s about discovery and awareness. You will be walking slowly and pausing along the way. Finally, if you go with others, agree to be silent until after. 

Start by finding a quiet spot to stand or sit. Take in a few deep, slow breaths. Now it’s time to ignite your senses. Notice the sounds and the aromas around you. Feel the wind as it moves across your body. Look around and observe the colors and textures of the forest. Let these sights, sounds, aromas and sensations wash over you and heighten your sensory awareness for the duration of your forest bath.  

Next, slowly wander along the trail, taking the time to really notice. Move almost sloth-like slow. Look at your surroundings as if it were the first time you’ve seen a forest. Touch and smell tree bark, soil and plants. Feel the temperature of the air as it enters your nose and as it exits. Notice the sun as it warms your skin and casts shadows along the forest floor. 

At some point along your lackadaisical walk, find a place to stop and sit. Quiet your mind and be still. Observe how the behavior of the birds changes after they are used to your presence. Note how the wind is moving the branches. Breathe. 

Take as much time as you can to forest bathe. Some people take a couple of hours and walk less than a quarter mile! If time is limited, give yourself at least 20 minutes and you’ll still reap the benefits. 

There are many wonderful places to try this in our area. Conifer Trail at Woodland Dunes is one of my favorites. You can forest bathe any place that has a few trees. Perhaps a city park or even your yard would be a great place to start. 

Give forest bathing a try and experience the calm that nature can provide, if we slow down and soak it in. 

Ripples 3/19/20

So much can change in a week.  Turns out when biology is involved, it can be difficult to predict even a short period into the future.  I remember a mathematician  in a famous dinosaur movie who said, “Life finds a way.”  Boy, isn’t that the case, even if it consists of little bits of genetic material?  We need to be very careful around nature in many ways.  We often talk about non-native invasive species- well, this virus has gotten the better of us.  I like being a good host, but in this case, not so much.

Nature is not the enemy, or at least not solely an enemy.  I think the notion that our current situation should be looked at as a war is a bad one.  Yes, that fact that a microorganism has found us as a suitable place to live and reproduce can cause us serious problems. I think what is needed is a patient and rational problem-solving attitude.  These kinds of problems surface periodically in our world where there is a constant struggle where one species tries to take advantage of another for the sake of it’s own survival.  I don’t know how many organisms are out there that are just a mutation away from causing serious problems for others- given all the species in the world. The potential is endless and such tension between species endless.  Even so, for the most part, that’s not the end of the story.

Just as our interaction with nature on a microbial scale is part of the problem, nature is also the solution.  We have within us amazing resources and our immune systems are constantly working to maintain our health in the face of probably thousands of species that would like to take advantage of us.  It’s a good thing that we don’t have to think about it – I for sure would have problems keeping track of everything my immune system needs to do.  I’m just amazed that it all works and that over time our bodies learn how to cope with problems.  They may complain a bit with tiredness and aches and fevers, but almost always they pull us through. I’m grateful for that, and for the fine people who taught me a little about biology so I could begin to try to understand.

And beyond that, there is the restorative power of nature, and not just in a physiological sense. There are a multitude of studies now that document the health benefits of being out in a natural place.  Everything from lowering heart rate, lowering activity in the frontal lobe of the brain, blood pressure and increased feelings of well-being.  One of my favorites had people rating how they felt in different situations, and being out in nature was rated similar to the feelings people had at Christmas.  And it did not take long for such feelings to come about- as little as five minutes in nature brought about a positive result, or five hours per month.  In some cultures there is a term called “forest bathing”- interesting because it infers an immersion in and cleansing by nature.

For many of us Wisconsinites, we subtly incorporate our need to be near nature in many ways – walks in the woods, along Mariner’s Trail, trips up north in summer, fishing and hunting, even a backyard campfire. They all bring us into closer contact with something we need.

Now, we need that more than ever – not sitting inside and worrying, but getting outside and enjoying.  Fresh air and sunlight are not conducive to germs.  We hope that people will consider this as they work out ways to cope.  At Woodland Dunes, although we continue to work on our building project, the building itself is closed.  Outside, though, there are 1500 acres and seven miles of trails open for “forest bathing,” and we encourage people to visit and enjoy the preserve.  In many ways there opportunities to be restored physically and emotionally.  For many, this is the best time of year, when one can go out and experience the re-birth of the landscape.  Every day there are new (for this year) birds to be seen and heard, for which the survival of winter and migration is something to be marveled at.  Already the skunk cabbage of the swamp has put forth the first flowers of the spring.  And each day’s weather is a surprise as we alternate between winter and spring.  These are the things that are enduring and important, and we need to appreciate them and share them with our families.

Life can be hard, and any little bird or wildflower or insect can verify that.  But like them, we can keep singing and blooming.

Jim Knickelbine
Executive Director
Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve

Ripples 3/12/20

Its often the little things that make life difficult.  Like most of us, I have been surprised at the impact that a virus, a little bit of genetic material, can have on the lives of so many people.  Don’t worry- I don’t know enough about microbiology to write about it so you won’t be subjected to that here, but microscopic and invisible things rule the world, and we need to pay attention to them.

Temperature is an important aspect of the environment that is invisible, yet affects much of our lives.  We were miserable during last year’s “Polar vortex” events while this winter has been relatively easy, so far.  Then there are long-terms variations, trends which slowly develop over many years, resulting in our climate.  Our lives go by quickly, so it’s hard to appreciate or even be sure of those long-term changes unless one keeps records over the years.  Sure enough, those records, even though they are less than 150 or so years in accumulation, clearly indicate that our climate is warmer than it used to be both here and the world over.  We are perhaps lucky in that Wisconsin has a pretty moderate climate, and we here have the Lake to help moderate temperatures.  This makes our Lakeshore forests, like Woodland Dunes, rich in plant species, and all those different plants attract a lot of species of wildlife.  But if the climate changes, how will our forests be affected?

Forests, like all ecosystems, are incredibly complicated and dynamic.  Many scientists are and will be studying the changes that are happening to all the various parts of our forests.  Trees, however, are probably the first thing we notice and are relatively easy to study.  Predicting what will happen to them in the future is a challenge, however.  Using the regional tree atlas and a forest model called LANDIS, the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science has developed a table of tree species in our region along with predictions as to what species will do well versus those which may decline.

Ok- bad news first.  Trees expected to decline in coming years include balsam fir (my Christmas tree favorite), white cedar (deer eat them also), white and yellow birch, and white spruce.  Not surprisingly, these include some of our classic northern forest trees.  Others which may decrease include white pine, sugar maple, and tamarack.  Of course these are long-term projections- existing trees will hang on for a long time, but may not reproduce or thrive.

Those expected to do well as things warm include basswood, black cherry, ironwood, and the oaks.  There were mixed results for trees like the ash species (but emerald ash borer will decimate them) and red maple.    And given a warming climate, one might also try planting species that are often found south and west of here like shagbark hickory or hackberry, or even sycamores.  Species which are already found just south of here may move north as conditions permit.

As the trees go, so do other living things, and many, many species of wildlife will eventually be affected.  Once again, we are witnessing ecological reorganization.  It’s not a good thing, but it will be interesting to witness.  It will be important, even if the species are different, that we continue to care for the forests as they undergo this transition.  In doing so we will preserve our natural heritage as best we can.

Ripples 3/6/20

New entry way

People like to say that the only constant in life is change, and I guess that’s true.  Change seems to happen more slowly in nature, and more rapidly where people are involved.  We are a dynamic species intent on improving things.  Sometimes it takes a couple of tries, but hopefully enough planning is included in the process.

Woodland Dunes started in the early 1970’s by people who cared about birds and other wildlife.  They decided to buy 40 acres of swamp forest near the Lake as a sanctuary for birds and wildflowers.  School children saved aluminum to help make a down payment.  After we bought the land we started offering field trips for them.

In the late 1970’s we bought the Rahmlow Farm on Hwy DD (now Hwy 310).  The brick house was very old, some of the buildings were falling down, and the yard was full of old farm machinery.  I can imagine the optimism of the volunteers as they cleaned the yard and made a huge labyrinthine herb garden, put down new wood floors, and stripped paint from the woodwork in the farmhouse.  When they were done, they had a headquarters with lots of small rooms, zero indoor plumbing, and lots of character.  They made classrooms in the barn and happily continued teaching about nature for the next 15 years. Then a bequest from Edna Smith made an addition possible – complete with a small kitchen, a modest gathering area, and bathrooms. More and more, we have conflicts between scheduling school groups and other visitors in a limited amount of space.  Our driveay is also a cause for concern with school buses and land management equipment sharing it at the same time.

Fortunately, there are generous people in this world.  With the offer of some matching grants, our Board decided to look at our options for expansion.  After more than a year of discussion involving our Board and our staff – the Board elected to proceed with our first major building project and the fundraising that goes with it.  A local firm, SMI, helped with engineering and architectural work, and a local general contractor, Hamann Construction, was chosen to build the addition.

We are adding new public space so that we can host more than one group here at a time if needed, exhibit space, a new kitchen, new driveway and parking, and a new entrance and reception area.  The existing room Edna Smith helped build will become dedicated education and family space, and all new areas – including restrooms will be easily accessible to everyone. We’ll also make improvements to our existing Dorothy Star Bee and Butterfly Garden and develop new exhibits and displays.

Our addition will be “greener” than our existing building: heated and cooled by a geothermal system, have extra insulation, an electric vehicle charging station, window treatments or special glass to prevent birds from striking them, and more.  The drive and parking area will be permeable, paved with a system that allows water to seep down rather than run off.  Our existing solar panels will be taken off and then reinstalled after the roof is replaced with steel roofing, which will last many years.

A number of people have donated generously to help us make this happen.  Because our spring through fall seasons are so busy, we elected to begin construction last fall, and hope to have much of the work completed by late spring- in fact we hope our grand opening will coincide with the 50th  anniversary of Earth Day in late April.  We have a long way to go to finish, and we still need to ask the public for support in funding the remainder of the project. Won’t you please help?

To be sure, this is a life-changing chapter in the history of Woodland Dunes and a project that will make it possible for us to welcome visitors for our programs in a much better way.  We still have a nature focus, remembering the original preserve we worked so hard to piece together. Now it’s time to be more welcoming to the people who wish to learn about and share the beauty of our Lakeshore.

Ripples 2/27/20

By Jennifer Klein, Woodland Dunes Land Management Coordinator

Our connections to animals help us remain grounded in a fast-moving, technological world.  Those connections can take on different forms throughout our lives and sometimes form without intention.  For some of us, it is a fish in a bowl, to be observed and fed.  For others, the bond may be linked to a furry animal such as a hamster, cat or dog and may involve some snuggling.  But indoor pets take on all different forms and could even be a bird, reptile, or spider.  No matter what type of animal one welcomes into their home, there is a feeling of responsibility to another being and with that comes a strong bond – we are in it together. 

These bonds are not limited to intentional animals inside our homes (or on our land, such as chickens, goats, and the like).  Some of our greatest bonds are with animals we do not control but are allowed to observe from a safe distance.   Many people enjoy feeding birds.  It allows them to sit in the comfort of their homes and feel connected to other beings without having complete responsibility for their survival and well-being.  While some clean up of feeders and the area around them is necessary, it is not as demanding as having an indoor pet.  And there is a satisfaction in watching wild birds raise young in one’s backyard.  It’s like we had a small part in ensuring the survival of the species.
Just like indoor pets, taking care of wild animals isn’t just limited to birds.  There is great joy to be had, for example, in feeding and observing backyard rabbits, for the same reasons as birds.  They come into our yards, eat our offerings, and reward us with a show, and possibly also bless us by raising their young in our yards.  In this way, we feel like we are a part of something bigger than our daily lives. 

We may even go out of our way to ensure our animal friends are cared for in inclement weather by providing heated water, elevated food sources and shelter.   My favorite example of this happened recently.  My parents love to feed carrots to the wild bunnies in their yard.  With the recent snowfall, the carrots would drop right through the snow and disappear.  Their creative solution was to tie the carrots to a string and hang them from some small trees.  It is very entertaining to watch the rabbits eat these carrots, and probably provides enrichment to them as well.  Whatever one does to positively connect to other living beings is good for the heart and soul.

Photo: Rabbit in the backyard with carrots on a string, courtesy of Brian and Darla Powell