Spring was exploding all along the St. Louis River estuary on a sunny, warm afternoon early this week.
Recently arrived Canada geese were honking madly at one another, vying for nesting areas. Trumpeter swans and mallards were back, too. Songbirds, chickadees mostly, were singing. Ring-billed gulls were making noise.
But Larry Weber wanted to talk about moss.
Weber reached down and brushed aside a few brown leaves and exposed some bright green moss on the base of a maple tree, pointing to little moss shoots reaching for the sunlight.
“Spring greenup starts from the bottom up in the woods, from the ground up,’’ Weber said matter-of-factly. “First it's the mosses. … Then it’s ramps … you might know them as leeks.”
Weber also laid waste to the old notion about moss growing only on the north side of a tree.
“It also grows on the east, south and west sides,’’ he said. “So we just say moss grows on the outside of a tree.”
If you want to absorb more nature on your next pandemic nature walk, Weber has some advice: Slow down. Look around. Tune in. Bring a pair of compact binoculars and a camera. And an open mind.
“A lot of people are out walking for health or socially, talking or walking their dog, and they just don’t care what they are walking right by,’’ Weber said. “But try taking your time. Go slow. See what you can see. Nobody wants to hike with me because I go so slow. I had a student who called my pace glacial.”
Of course it’s not just mosses that Weber likes about early spring. It’s budding trees with catkins and pussy willows and garter snakes in the sun and the call of their local lake loons back from winter down south. He has a scorecard of five birds he waits for each year to signal that true spring has arrived. It usually happens in late March, and this year they were right on time.
“When I’ve seen my first junco. When I hear my first ruffed grouse drumming. When I hear my first sandhill cranes. When I see those first red-winged blackbirds. And when I can watch a woodcock. … then I know it’s spring,’’ Weber said. “Yesterday I saw all five.”
Soaking it all in
You may know Larry Weber from his weekly column “Northland Nature” that appears in the News Tribune. But he’s also a radio personality, retired science teacher and naturalist extraordinaire who has spent most of his 75 years trying to better observe, understand and explain nature’s small treasures — everything from spiders and snakes to flying squirrels and birch tree catkins.
On this day Weber also wanted to look at, and talk about, tree buds. In the Northland, trees are often the first harbingers of spring, and he picked a spot — Duluth’s Indian Point Campground — where an astonishing array of trees get ample south-facing sunshine.
“This is just a really good place to see early spring. I used to bring my students out here,’’ Weber said. “I drove by here on my commute to work every day, so I’d often stop and hike the trail.”
On this small peninsula that juts into the river, Weber pointed out cottonwood, willow, hawthorn, quaking aspen, big-tooth aspen, balsam poplar (a.k.a. balm of Gilead), birch, hazel, alder, silver maple, sumac, highbush cranberry, box elder, basswood and probably a couple I missed. He gushed over a male silver maple’s “flowers’’ at the tips of branches, the staminate, and then moved 20 yards to look at a female maple with its new buds, or pistolets.
Yes, there are male and female maple trees. One produces pollen that fertilizes the other’s buds.
“They aren’t all like that, but most of them are. In nature you never say never and you always avoid saying always,’’ he said. “We had one tree outside our school that had both.”
Down the trail a bit his face lit up again at another sighting.
“You get a real bonus here … there’s something special going on with hazel right now,’’ Weber said, showing off a tiny purple flower “on the tippy-top of the buds … that’s the female flower for hazel … the catkin is the male.”’ Weber shook a catkin against his blue jacket to show off the yellowish pollen.
A few more slow steps down the tail and a small, orange butterfly winged past. Weber was ecstatic.
“Look! Look! There it is! This is wonderful, my first comma of the year,’’ Weber said with glee.
The little butterfly has comma-shaped marks on its wings, Weber explained, and are often among the first to show themselves in spring because they overwinter as adults. “That was a great sighting.”
A few feet away, another March butterfly — a Milbert’s tortoiseshell — stopped to rest long enough to be photographed.
“This is a good day,’’ Weber said.
Weber’s life’s work is paying close attention to the day-to-day changes in the nature around him, and then the season-to-season changes. It’s called phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life. He has kept a detailed log of those observations, a diary of nature, since 1975 and says he has never missed a day.
“I go out for a walk and what I see that day is what I write about,’’ Weber said.
“I pronounce it fee-nology now because so many people thought I was talking about something else when I pronounced it fin-ology … like maybe we were studying fish fins,’’ Weber said.
Weber seems to most love nature’s little things. On our hike his keen eye spotted a tiny strand of spider thread dangling off a short branch of a bush. The thread, Weber said, was produced by a baby spider that survived the winter, woke up on a warm day and decided to hit the road.
Almost anyone else would have walked right past this place and never marveled at what had happened here. Weber simply can’t get enough of it.
“They used to call it ballooning, but I like kiting better. The little spiders produce this strand from their body and it catches the wind like a kite and carries them off to somewhere else. It’s how spiders travel, how they disperse,’’ Weber said. “When they go early, before the leaves come out on the trees, they can catch more wind.”
“Spiders are my passion,’’ Weber says often, conceding that’s in part due to their underdog status, because they get so little respect.
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“I’m not sure how this started. Probably because of when I was teaching and kids would react so negatively toward them,’’ Weber said.
Weber and his wife, Frannie, live on an old 100-acre farm outside Barnum that’s reverting to nature. They call the place Webwood.
Weber said he started to research Minnesota spiders and found very little about them. So he began documenting his spider finds and eventually wrote a book on them, “Spiders of the North Woods,’’ and then another book, “Web Watching: A Guide to Webs and the Spiders That Make Them.” That one won a national book award and is considered groundbreaking because it uses webs to identify the spider that made it.
“I took a closer look and found out (spiders) really have a bad reputation for no reason. They aren’t bad at all … they’re fascinating little critters,’’ Weber said. He doesn’t expect to convert everyone to spider loving, to lose their arachnophobia and embrace the little bugs. At least, though, he wants you to leave them alone.
“I learned a long time ago you can’t make anybody like anything. All you can do is expose them to something and hope they make an informed decision,” Weber said. “You don’t have to like them. But you also don’t have to hurt them.”
The Larry Weber story
Weber grew up on a farm in northern Ohio, not far from Toledo, but didn’t hang around long after graduating from high school. He developed a love of nature and the outdoors as a young boy when he would take frequent and solitary nature walks near his home. He realized he was noticing things about nature that others missed, and he turned that passion into a biology degree and a job teaching high school science in Missouri.
He found himself in Minnesota for the first time while earning a masters degree in biology at St. Mary’s University in Winona.
“I found out I liked Minnesota when I was in Winona,’’ Weber said. “And then I had a chance to take a north country canoe trip and realized I liked Minnesota even more.”
In 1978 Weber accepted a one-year replacement teaching position at what was then Cathedral High School in Duluth. He stayed for 30 years, retiring in 2008 from what had become the Marshall School. At first he taught high school-level science courses but, as the school expanded into more grades, he took on seventh grade science.
“I told them I’d take the seventh graders if I could do it the way I wanted. They said yes,’’ Weber said. “I never used a textbook. We would go out and use nature as our textbook. Whatever was happening that day, whether it was mushrooms or wildflowers or fall migration, that’s what we studied.”
While he often took kids on field trips across the Northland, he more often had them outside the school, poking around in nature on the campus, showing them they didn’t have to go far to find fascinating creatures or plants. His goal was to get students to be more observant, to appreciate what nature had to offer, to appreciate nature’s intrinsic value.
“You aren’t going to save nature, or save your surroundings, if you don’t see something worth saving,’’ Weber said. “That’s my goal, to get them to see what’s worth saving. It’s up to the student to take the next step.”
After retiring, Weber didn’t stop teaching. He continues to lead Minnesota Master Naturalist Program courses offered through University of Minnesota Extension.
“I don’t like the name, I think it should be citizen naturalist, because we don’t make you master anything. It’s just a fantastic program to get people” more tuned in to nature, Weber said.
Last year Weber received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Minnesota Association for Environmental Education for his outstanding service and contribution to the field of environmental education in Minnesota.
“Thanks to Larry, many Minnesotans have discovered everyday wonders in their own backyard, realizing that nature is not a place you visit but something you are part of. Through this award, we hope to recognize all that Larry has accomplished for environmental education in Minnesota," said Elissa Mallory of the Minnesota Association of Environmental Educators.
Weber “ignited passion, curiosity and wonder in the thousands of students that were fortunate enough to wind up in his classroom. He used phenology, the study of seasonal phenomena in nature, to connect students to their natural world around them,’’ the association said in announcing Weber’s award.
“Simply put, Larry Weber is an institution in Minnesota environmental education. His educational reach and impact over the last 50 years is truly astounding,’’ said Bryan Wood of the Osprey Environmental Learning Center.
The latest award added to Weber’s already long resume. He’s also won the Minnesota Secondary Science Teacher of the Year and the National Biology Teacher Association's Middle School Life Science Teacher of the Year.
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Weber has also been busy writing books. He’s published 17 now, including updated editions of previous books. The first was his ever-popular “Backyard Almanac,” now about to be released in its third edition.
“I’ve had teachers tell me they use it for their textbook, so that makes me feel pretty good,’’ Weber said.
It was about the time “Backyard Almanac'’ came out that Weber first appeared on KUMD radio in Duluth for a single show about frogs. Listeners and producers at the station liked it so much it became a regular gig, also called Backyard Almanac, and the show now airs every Friday at 8:20 a.m. He’s also featured weekly on WTIP community radio in Grand Marais.
Weber has been writing weekly newspaper columns since 1997, at first for the Budgeteer News and Cloquet Pine Journal and for the last three years for the News Tribune’s Northland Outdoors section where “Northland Nature’’ has become a popular feature.
“In all those years the only time I ever missed a week was when my mother-in-law died,’’ Weber said.
Weber lets the season inspire him, getting his material during his daily walks in the woods. “I write about what I see, what’s happening then,’’ Weber said.
If he finds something new, something he doesn’t understand or can’t identify, he often snaps a photo and brings it back to his computer to look it up. “Digital photography and (the internet) have really been fantastic for learning,’’ he said.
With more than 1,100 newspaper columns to his credit, Weber plans to compile a collection of 365 of the best, one from each day of year, for another book.
Over those all those columns, over 46 years of taking detailed daily notes on his observations of the natural world, Weber concedes he has seen many changes, some good for nature — the resurgence of eagles and trumpeter swans come to mind — others, not so much. Yet he remains unabashedly optimistic. He has mostly avoided direct activism, fighting for specific causes, instead choosing to put his efforts into education, hoping others develop his love of nature.
“I don’t try to compare what we have now to the 1800s. We don’t have what they did back then, but we still have nature,’’ Weber said. “I see the changing climate in many ways — the migration of the birds, the maple sap running earlier, the ice out on the lake earlier. They say Minnesota is going to be like Iowa in 50 years because of climate change. It saddens me … but Iowa has nature, too. We can’t give up.”
Books by Larry Weber
- Butterflies of the North Woods (3 editions)
- Spiders of the North Woods (2 editions)
- Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods (2 editions)
- Backyard Almanac: A 365 Day Guide to the Plants and Critters That Live in Your Backyard (3rd edition coming soon)
- Minnesota Phenology: Seasonal Northland Nature
- Web Watching: A Guide to Webs and the Spiders That Make Them
- Webwood: Seasons of Life in the North Woods
- Awesome Autwin
- In a Patch of Goldenrods
- Teaching Phenology-based Science