Saturday, November 18, 2017

Ijams book talk

Drop by Ijams on Sunday, November 19 at 2 p.m. for a book talk, a look at some of the stories that went into the making of my third book Ephemeral by Nature published by the University of Tennessee Press. 

Books will be available in the Ijams Gift Shop.

Thank you Sarah Brobst for arraigning the talk. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Wild Birds-ephemeral

What was Newton's Third Law of physics? "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Just get ready for it. Perhaps Sir Isaac was thinking of authoring. It is an odd avocation, filled with an unusual and opposing dichotomy, a push pull.

While writing a book, the long months that turn into years, you are squirreled away, quietly working, researching, putting words to paper, locked in your own head. Yes, it's scary. Nonfiction books live or die by the research, a detective job that can go in many directions, through many sources. It's fascinating. Sometimes you know, or think you know bits of the story but its details are ferreted out by the detective work. Often it is full of surprises.   

Ultimately, if you are lucky, the book is published and your baby is out into the world, and you spend months and years standing in front of groups talking about what you have written, reliving the stories. That is intensely extroverted. You jump from meek mouse to roaring lion.  

Many, many thanks to my friends at Wild Birds Unlimited Knoxville—owners Liz and Tony, assistant manager Tiffiny—for hosting the first book talk about my newest, Ephemeral by Nature. And thank you the University of Tennessee Press for publishing it. 

What a strange ride it all has been. 

And thank you Tiffiny for the photos.  

With Liz Cutrone, co-owner with husband Tony of Wild Birds Unlimited Knoxville

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ephemeral review

Of all things fragile and beautiful, we feel for thee. By the late 1940s, there were roughly only 24 whooping cranes left alive in the world. Today they are far more but they still are very much endangered. 

We are not actors on Broadway, so we don't go to Sardi's to wait for the reviews to come in. When a book is published, it is cast upon the wind like milkweed seeds. Authors wonder, "Will they land on futile ground?"

No, I wasn't at a glamourous restaurant on Times Square. I was on the sofa nursing a cold and reading Sy Montgomery's book on octopuses. The only thing worse than a bad review is no review. The only thing better than strawberry yogurt on a stick is a good review.  

With deep appreciation, this author thanks, Maria Browning for her review in Chapter 16: A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby  

Browning writes, "These are difficult days for nature lovers. Pollution, habitat destruction, the decline of countless species, climate change—anyone who takes an interest in the condition of planet Earth had better be prepared for bad news. This state of affairs should make someone like Stephen Lyn Bales, senior naturalist at Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, more than a bit gloomy. But his collection of essays, Ephemeral by Nature, shows him to be, if not exactly optimistic, at least deeply philosophical about the fate of life as we know it. He makes a convincing case for joy and curiosity despite—or perhaps because of—the transience of all living things..."

For the rest of Browning's review click: 


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Natural Histories: osage orange

This time of the year, the hedge apples are falling from the tree that grows in front of the Miller Education Building at Ijams Nature Center. It's located on the homesite where H.P. and Alice Ijams lived and raised four daughters and I suspect that either H.P. or Alice planted the tree. 

Every time I pick up a hedge apple, I am reminded of my first book and one of the stories it contained. 

As UT Press writes, Natural Histories "illuminates in surprising ways the complicated and often vexed relationships between humans and their neighbors in the natural world."

Perhaps the most vexing encounter in the book between humans and the natural world occurred when the boys in gray engaged a simple hedge planted due west of the Harpeth River n Middle Tennessee.

On November 30, 1864—153 years ago this month—the horrific Battle of Franklin was fought south of Nashville. An osage orange hedge row played a key role in the outcome stopping one division of the advancing Southern army "dead" in their tracks. When the smoke cleared, the Confederate Army of Tennessee had lost almost 7,000 men in just five hours. (The Union army's dead and wounded numbered significantly less: only 2,326.) Here's a snippet from my book:

"The almost forgotten Battle of Franklin was a death knell. “This is where the Old South died,” says activist Robert Hicks, “and we were reborn as a nation.”

I visited the site on this date in 2004. It was a rainy day much like today. Here's another passage from the book:

"Leaving Lewisburg Pike, I walked along the rain soaked streets and soon found the two aged osage orange trees still growing in the vicinity of the railroad line. Historian Cartwright had told me about the old trees just an hour before. Both were perhaps descendants of the hedgerow that stopped Loring and, as such, were living monuments. It was a circuitous chain of events that moved osage orange from its native Red River home to this historic point of all out chaos; turn back the clock and replay the era, day by day, and it would not have unfolded in exactly the same way. I paused just long enough to admire the towering presence of the elderly trees; and as the rain began to fall heavy once again, I zipped up my coat, turned and walked away."

Excerpts from my book Natural Histories published by the University of Tennessee Press.

The fruit of an osage orange looks like a green brain
and probably tastes like one too,
although, I must admit, I've sampled neither.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

the truth is out there

If there is a bright side to any of the non-native invasive plants that are taking over our part of the planet and trust me there is no bright side. I'm being sarcastic because it wouldn't take Fox Moulder to find 'em. We're talking kudzu, privet, bush honeysuckle, English ivy, climbing euonymus and a host of others that are pushing out our native plants. The "greenest state in the land of the free" has been invaded.  

That one tiny bright side is that Microstegium vimineum dies back early. Commonly known as Japanese stiltgrass, packing grass or Nepalese browntop, the grass is an annual that quickly spreads its seeds and bounces back next spring. It is common in a wide variety of habitats and is well adapted to low light. So it's a grass that grows where few other grasses will.

In Knoxville, our little claim to fame, or infamy, is that it was first documented and IDed in North America in 1918 growing along the mouth of Third Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River, barely two miles from where I type these words.

If you see Moulder and Scully, send them over. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

primrose tough

With the sun setting and a frost advisory out tonight for the first time this autumnal season, this colony of evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) digs in by the Tennessee River ready for the chill. Call them defiant.

Although they appear somewhat delicate, primroses are tough colonizers making the most out of lonesome ground. They thrive in poor even disturbed soil that's been recently cleared like the rock-filled riprap along the new Cherokee Farm Greenway near my home. 

Called "evening" because each blossom is ephemeral, their four bilobed yellow petals open late in the day and will be gone by noon tomorrow to be replaced the next evening by another flower.  

A cold wind is moving in on this dainty evening as it seems to suggest... 

Bring it on.


Saturday, October 21, 2017


Just in time for All Hallows’ Eve, Ijams naturalist Christie Collins found a walkingstick insect by the staff entrance at the nature center. 

The curiously linear creatures are in the insect order Phasmatoptera, from the Ancient Greek, φάσμα or phasma, meaning an apparition or phantom. 

Phasmids or stick bugs (or in some countries, ghost bugs) are remarkably accomplished at being practically invisible. But don’t be spooked, our local species is an herbivore that feeds primarily on oak leaves.

With cooler weather finally forecast for the valley, the adult insects will soon die, their lives are...ephemeral by nature. (Shameless book plug) Only a very few are able to overwinter as adults. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

seed time bloom

“Of wandering forever and the earth again . . . of seed-time, bloom, and the mellow-dropping harvest,” wrote North Carolina novelist Thomas Wolfe in “Of Time and the River.” 

And this is the seed time, when some of the plants around my little spot on the planet---common milkweed, cattail, sow thistle, honey vine (also a milkweed)---wait for a change in the weather, a flow of highs and lows. It’s their time to inherit the wind, dispersing their seeds to parts unknown.

Bon Voyage!

Friday, October 13, 2017

leafing through Ijams

Extra! Extra! What were WBIR Channel 10 Live@5@4 host Beth Haynes and I talking about this afternoon?

Could it be the "Leafing through Ijams" program Sunday, October 15 at 1 p.m.? Yes. The trees are beginning to drop their leaves so they no longer need them. Well then let's start a colorful leaf collection.

It's part Easter egg hunt (without the bunny) and part scrapbooking plus your kids will begin to learn about the different types of trees at Ijams and around your yard.

(All ages but perfect for 5- through 9-year-olds) Join me for this Family Adventure Sunday program in the park. Bring scrapbooks or notebooks for each child and let’s go leafing through Ijams. The fee for this program is $8. Everyone over the age of two must have a ticket.

To register by phone, please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 or go online to register at

Thursday, October 12, 2017

a monarch passing

The journey magnífico!

You feel for them this time of the year. The monarch butterflies, little more than paper mache, on their long migration to mountain ranges in Mexico.

Do they even know their final destination? We think not. It is just somehow hard-wired into a brain as tiny as a grain of sand. The Mexican Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains are over 1600 miles away but that is by road. Monarchs take a more direct route over the Gulf of Mexico.

This one passed through the Garden Demonstration Site on the eminence above the Visitor Center at Ijams Nature Center Saturday afternoon before the heavy rains on Sunday. It just pausing long enough to seek food on a sprig of frostweed. And flippity-flap it moved on towards the southwest.

We are humbled by your nonchalance and courage.

Viaje seguro!

My new book has an entire chapter about them and their journey. And oh, how ephemeral they are. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Sneak Peek

Sneak Peek Book Signing 
 Saturday, November 4, 4 p.m. 

Wild Birds Unlimited, 7240 Kingston Pike

Join my friends at Wild Birds Unlimited for a "good-natured" discussion of my new book Ephemeral by Nature: Exploring the Exceptional with a Tennessee Naturalist published by the University of Tennessee Press.

I'll talk about some of the interesting birds—owls, hummingbirds, warblers and cranes—that appear in "Ephemeral" plus two non-feathered animals: freshwater jellyfish and Appalachian pandas. WBU will have my new book to buy and be signed. And remember, they make great Christmas gifts! UT's suggested retail price is $24.95 but WBU will be selling them for $22.50 but you MUST REGISTER IN ADVANCE so that they know how many books to have on hand.

Please contact WBU at (865) 337-5990 so that WBU may allow for appropriate seating.

Thank you Liz, Tony, Tiffiny and Warren.

Monday, October 2, 2017

star-crossed spiders

Argiope aurantia. Photos by Lynne Davis

After seeing wildflower devotees Lynne and Bob Davis at the nature center yesterday, I was reminded of the photos Lynne had recently sent me of writing spiders, a.k.a. garden spiders (Argiope aurantia). The photos capture the much smaller, more tentative male moving in to be near her.

"Found these 'lovers' outside the office at Eagleville Gliderport. Looks like the male is taking no chances - he's on the other side of the web," emailed Lynne.

"See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O, that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek!" sighed Shakespeare's Romeo.

But she's a Capulet! Will she eat me?

To borrow loosely from the Bard of Avon, calling the pair star-crossed lovers is fairly accurate. They do not have a fortuitous future together as Wiki succinctly states.

“Yellow garden spiders breed twice a year. The males roam in search of a female, building a small web near or actually in the female’s web, then court the females by plucking strands on her web. Often, when the male approaches the female, he has a safety drop line ready, in case she attacks him. The male uses the palpal bulbs on his pedipalps to transfer sperm to the female. After inserting the second palpal bulb, the male dies, and is sometimes then eaten by the female.”

There's a country song in this somewhere but George Jones is no longer with us to sing it.


Monday, September 25, 2017

inky cap?

Mycology Alert! 

It has only been a week since Ijams volunteer naturalist Nick Stahlman raised our M.A.Q. (Mushroom Awareness Quotient) and now that we are looking...look what we found under the solar panels by the greenhouse: a colony of Shaggy Mane Inky Caps (Coprinus comatus).

Visible mushrooms are the above ground fruiting bodies of the much larger fungi that lives below the surface.

Some "shrooms" are remarkably ephemeral by nature. (Shameless book plug.) In less than 24 hours this cluster of inky caps has gone through their above ground maturation which ends with the mushroom's gills dripping liquid black spores that look like ink. Hence the name.

Nick is currently working on an Ijams mushroom checklist for us. He is a 2016 graduate of the TN Naturalist@Ijams program that we teach: 40 hours of classes, 40 hours of volunteering.

Interested in next year's series? Call Lauren about the 2018 class at 577-4717, ext. 135.

Nick Stahlman photo by Kristy Keel-Blackmon 

All that was left is an inky black spot. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

last crawdad quest of season?

The forecast is for the high 80s this Sunday afternoon. Join me for one last creek wade before the cool weather sends us scampering indoors?

Sunday, September 24, 2 p.m.

Crawdad Quest at Ijams

It's Family Adventure Sunday (Ages 6 and up) Bring the family to a creek wade in shallow water as we look for crawfish, dace, darters, shiners, stone-rollers, jewelwings and other aquatic creatures in Ijams’ Toll Creek. Participants should be prepared to get wet and muddy and must wear closed-toe shoes. (Old tennis shoes work best.) No one under the age of six allowed due to the depth of the creek. Meet at the Visitor Center. A change of clothes is highly recommended. The fee for this program is $8, members get a discount. Go online to register at ijams/events or by phone: 577-4717, ext. 110.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Big Bug Safari

Millipedes are harmless vegetarians that eat dead leaves. And sometimes appear on TV.

For three minutes yesterday, Millie, a yellow flat-backed millipede (Cherokia georgiana) was the most famous arthropod in town. Just ask Russell Biven

She and her spokesman appeared on WBIR’s Live@5@4. For the first time in the 19 year history of the program, a millipede was a featured guest. And why not? Without millipedes and their ilk, we would be buried in dead leaves in a matter of years.

Millie was there to promote Ijams' end of summer Big Bug Safari tomorrow at 2 p.m. part of the nature center's Family Adventure Sunday series. Each kid gets a swept net and plastic containers and we’ll roundup as many bugs—insects, spiders, millipedes and centipedes—as possible. Yee-haw! 

This is old school. Ijams has been connecting kids to nature since 1923.

For more information or to sign up call 577-4717, ext. 110 or go online to…

Thursday, September 14, 2017

thrush aid and comfort

For a naturalist, spending time indoors can be tantamount to torture. Because we know that just outside our brick and mortar something wondrous, tragic or perhaps even miraculous is happening. That is what drives us to be on the road less taken. We have no virtual world, our world is real. 

An hour ago I was outside helping my neighbor Dr. Gary move large chunks of a chestnut oak that did not survive the remnants of Hurricane Irma that passed through Monday night. The tree was old and huge, standing strong through dozens of storms but this one was its Waterloo. It is fortunate for us that his grown son Adam is a professional competitive lumberjack.

Returning home, walking up the driveway, I spooked a wood thrush that was forging the damp detritus to my right. It flew in front of me but smacked into my glass studio doors. Only a glancing blow yet still it fell to the asphalt before me twitching. 

I have picked up many birds after ramming into windows. I curse the glass and our need for it. Sometimes the damaged passerines are merely knocked loopy, sometimes they have broken necks. I always fear the latter but pray for the former as I hoped for this bird, giving it comfort and whispering sweet affirmations."You're OK, baby," "All is well," "I'm here for you." Things like that as I gently stroked its spotted breast. Its hard breathing and heartbeat clearly noticeable. 

The wood thrush is my favorite songbird that lives in the dense woods behind my house but the songster is only here in summer. Migration is well underway and I am somewhat surprised that this one is still even here. They spend their winters in lowland tropical forests in Central America but sadly, their population is on the decline so we can ill afford to lose even one. 

My wounded thrush blinked and panted much like a running back hit by Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews. Its feet glitched. A death grip? Let's hope not. But wait, it moved its head right and left indicating its neck was not broken. It only needed another living being—that would be me—bringing aid and comfort, muttering "You're not alone." I have done this sort of thing before only to have the poor songbird die in my hand, but this care-giving act felt more positive. Its whacked senses slowly began to return.  

In time, it hopped up, standing on my outstretched palm, looked around as if to say, "I am thrush. I bid you adieu. I have miles to go before I sleep. Miles to go."