Dorathy Wettstone....aka..."The Naturalist"

I was far from being the only free spirit in the northland. My mother also embraced nature in all its glorious forms. So I feel I came by my passion quite honestly.

My mother grew up a P.K. (preacher’s kid). She was an only child and exemplary behavior was expected of her. My father hailed from several generations of Protestant ministers. Frankly, we were pretty well covered in the prayer department. While mom was wholeheartedly my father’s partner in all things, I believe she enjoyed more the sanctuary of the woods than the sanctuary inside the church.

Mother was the one who painted the outhouse interior a soft, sunny yellow. She’s the person who picked the wildflowers, and kept them in a vase on the bench inside the outhouse (along with vases of flowers in the cabin). Actually she was the only one who used the outhouse, the rest of us eschewing nature for the more comfortable surroundings of indoor plumbing.

Mother was also an ambassador for the trees. When saplings sprung up in inopportune places, she would dig them up and replant the trees where they could grow and thrive.

Every August when we arrived at the cabin there was the Battle of the Daisies. First thing dad did was pull out the lawnmower intent on taming the yard, while mother walked alongside pointing out patches of daisies that were NOT TO BE TOUCHED.

Like a general issuing orders, mother marched up and down the yard until she was sure dad understood. Then she left him to head back to the cabin.

Invariably dad would mow too closely to one of the patches dispatching mother frantically out the door to the rescue. “Bob!” she would scream, “THE DAISIES!” He would pull back the lawnmower, but when mother retreated inside dad would try to nail as many daisies and black-eyed susans as he could. The end result was hilarious. Huge patches of mowed grass with intermittent circles of flowers. Some year there would be more flowers and other years, more grass. All depended on who got there first.

As a school teacher, mom sought to teach us the names of the various flowers, grasses, and animals. She kept books that were guides to rocks, guides to wildflowers, guides to animal tracks, well, you get the idea.

One year she even collected bear scat and froze it to take home for a boy scout project.

Frankly there was no aspect of nature that she ever found too small to ignore.

So it’s not surprising her reaction to my older sister’s screams coming from the river one afternoon. My sister had been wading in the shallow water where the current barely moves. This is prime territory for an unpleasant creature that resides there. I too had encountered this creepy specimen with the same reaction as my sister’s. But on this day, I was grateful it was happening to her and not me.

Mother came flying down the hill when the commotion started. My sister was on the riverbank pointing at her leg with a look of pure panic on her face. Sure enough a big black leech clung on for dear life. But it wasn’t just an ordinary leech. This was a huge, fat momma bloodsucker with a milky pulsating sac attached to it. Against my sister’s pale leg, the overall effect was pretty gross.

Mother calmly detached leech and company from my sister’s leg. She set them on the ground, and instructed me to run up to the cabin for a glass jar. I fetched the jar and came heaving back down to the river. Mom scooped up river water, added some green stuff, and deposited the leach family inside. “This,” she said. “Will be very educational to watch. We’ll be able to see the babies grow and develop.”

She had a point. Leeches are pretty interesting. They are actually hermaphrodites. So they are both male and female at the same time. Reproduction in leeches is also a little bit funky. They mate through early June to August. When two leeches find True Love, they line up with each other, and one will attach a sac filled with sperm to the other.

In a nutshell, the sperm find their way to the egg and fertilize. A cocoon is formed and the eggs develop and grow.

Mother ceremoniously placed the jar on the kitchen table. It only took one meal before the objections began to roll in with vigor.

“Do we really have to eat with that thing there?” my sister asked.

“It’s sooo gross,” I helpfully added.

My brother kept eating.

“Well, it’s interesting,” my mother interjected. “How many times are you going to see something like this?” she continued.

“Hopefully never,” I said. (Again trying to be helpful.)

The mama leech stayed. Mother was right. The leech family never ruined our appetites.

The glass jar and its occupants presided in a place of honor on the dinner table until the Big Day came. For well over a week, we ate hamburgers, macaroni and cheese while watching the eggs mature. Finally the tiny leaches popped through. There was a brief celebration. A leftover birthday candle was produced, lit, and blown out. Then Mother carefully returned Mama Leech and family to the river so the young ins’ could continue their march to adulthood. I personally thought she should have squashed them.

Interesting fact about leeches. They are known to be fiercely protective of their offspring. Once the babies hatch, the mother leech will make sure they’re transported to their first meal.

Naturally all three of us avoided the stagnant water.

No one wanted to be “the first meal.”


(Carolyn's note: The Cabin Chronicles is an ongoing feature on my life growing up in the Northwoods of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Each week I will be posting several new chapters on stories that will surprise you, stun you, and hopefully make you laugh and cry! To read past chapters, go to the heading entitled Blog on the top bar of tswails.com and click on the Cabin Chronicles. Hope you enjoy!)

Wildflowers at the cabin

Wild swans at the cabin

Mom sitting in front of the cabin with her cat, Barry.

© 2020 Terry Swails