A Winter Walk with Lois Nestel

RIGHT: This red-eyed vireo nest was carefully constructed with birch bark and lichens. This work of art will not be used again.

Curtains of snow sifted down from the laden trees as we entered the forest. The wizened branches of the Grandmother Tree, an old white pine, etched black-and-white silhouettes against the low, gray sky. Smooth new drifts stretched out in front of our little group of children and adults on the Family Snowshoe Hike.


The Grandmother Tree would have spent its life in an open field behind Lois’ house. That’s why its lower branches grew big and strong enough to host our wonderful treehouse! You can play here, too, after signing a waiver at the Wayside Wanderings Natural Play Area on Randysek Road in Cable. – Photos by Emily Stone

The Wayside Wanderings Natural Play Area is a special place in any season, but in the magic of a fresh snow, I felt Lois Nestel’s presence more keenly. Lois was the founding naturalist, director and curator of the Cable Natural History Museum. She was a talented, self-taught naturalist, artist and taxidermist, and this was her home site. She looked out into this forest on moonlit nights and wrote about the owls that hooted and the rabbits that cavorted in the moonlight.

Lois once summed up snow this way: “However you see snow, as a burden to be borne or as a base for winter sports, see in it also the incredible beauty beyond the power of man to duplicate or even to describe.” Being in her forest on such a lovely day inspired me to look back on some of Lois’s essays.

Woodpeckers of all sizes have found tasty morsels hidden in this old tree.

“Winter has a thousand faces,” observed Lois, “each of us is free to see the face we choose. For example, the colors of winter are subtle and transient. Nothing is as it seems. The snow is white, it is true, but it is also endless hues and shades depending on the light, the type and quality of snow, and even more on the eye of the beholder.

“Under leaden skies the snow appears dead white or pearly toned with shadows that are slate and steel. Sunrise can turn open spaces to rose and palest gold shadowed with lavender and violet; midday brings the clearer blues, and the evening sky may add a depth of tone to morning hues.

Our little group on a Family Snowshoe Hike appreciated the beauty of freshly fallen snow.

“Frost flakes caught in morning sun outshine the jewel treasures of the world as prismatic reflections bedazzle the eyes with brilliant sapphire, topaz, emerald and ruby that change with every movement and finally fade with advancing day, as do the rainbow-tinted sundogs that accompany a chill morning sun.

“Moonlight on the snow brings shadows traced in indigo against the cold white flame of diamonds. The blue-black velvet of the night sky, studded with cold, blazing stars, will often show the aurora borealis as wavering, tattered banners or as moving spotlights against the northern sky,” wrote Lois.

We didn’t see the aurora on our hike, of course, but we did see deer tracks, woodpecker trees, and the delicate, snow-laden cup of a bird’s nest. The woods were full of patterns.

“Most people are aware of the beauty of summer flowers and often bemoan their passing as winter approaches,” Lois continued. This need not be a cause for regret because, while much color may be lost, there continue—as seeds, pods and capsules—many forms that rival the flowers in beauty and grace. Many of these seed containers last throughout the winter, serving as food for wildlife and pleasure for humans.

“There is a sculptured beauty in the pods of various milkweeds and wild iris, evening primrose, cockle and Indian pipes. Delicate grace is exemplified in airy sprays of sweet cicely, papery clusters of wild hops and feathery virgin’s bower (wild clematis) twining over bushes, and in the dried grasses and sedges, each with individual form and style.

“Many fall-blooming flowers (weeds if one must call them that) retain their form if not their color through the winter months. Goldenrod, tansy and yarrow are sepia-toned replicas of summer’s gay colors. Flowers such as asters lift clusters of tan, starlike sepals above the snow.

“Touches of color do remain in scattered places; the dark velvety red of sumac heads, the red-orange of rose hips and the brighter red of highbush cranberries and hawthorn frozen on their shrubs.

“To enjoy these and many other beauties of winter there are few requirements; namely these: get outside, have open eyes to see and an open mind, receptive enough to appreciate what is seen.”

Special note: Columnist Emily Stone is publishing a second book of her Natural Connections articles as a fundraiser for youth programming at the Cable Natural History Museum. Since community members are often the inspiration for her articles, the museum is conducting an art contest for kids and adults to illustrate each chapter with a black-and-white line drawing. Find the details and entry form at cablemuseum.org/connect.

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