Wednesday, December 13, 2017

winter begins with wren

Call Better Homes & Gardens

On second thought, don't waste your dime as if a phone call still cost only ten cents. Or maybe they cost less. I was told the phone calls were free, I was only paying for the data. "But if the calls are free, why do I need the data"? One could query as did I. "You may want to do some streaming." Yes, I go streaming a lot in the summer but the streams are free too. Are we falling into "circulus in probando," or circular logic with this? Let's move on.    

The above photo is the bench on my front porch. As has been the custom in my Smoky Mountain ancestry, I have been gathering dead branches for the past two months to use as kindling in the fireplace. And on a cold night in December, which just happens to be an accurate description of this very moment, I'll start digging out my bench.  

OK. The wood pile may not look respectible, but the neighbors do not mind. They have been doing it too.

A fireplace is the best location—well hearth and home simply go together— to pass the time on long cold, cold nights. But a good brush or wood pile has a secondary raison d'être. They are irresistible to winter wrens (Troglodytes hiemalis) and I had one of the winter-only petite passerines hoping around my front porch just a few mornings ago.

Winter is coming. Winter is coming. It seemed to posit.

I think the sticks on top of more sticks passed its inspection and I would have invited it in to share the warmth if I only knew where it chose to roost. Somewhere deep in a brush pile no doubt.

Don't you just love those chunky little puffballs.

Monday, December 4, 2017

brant on a local sabbatical

Birds fly. Well, duh! 

Because of this special talent they really can go almost anywhere and sometimes they end up in places a long way from their traditional range. And when this happens, the bird-watching community scrambles to see the out-of-place wanderer to add it to their life lists, a coveted accounting of all the different species a birder sees in their lifetime. And a brant (Branta bernicla), a smallish northern goose, is rarely seen this far south and inland. 

Brants nest in northern Canada and they migrate in winter to the Atlantic seaboard and saltwater estuaries from New England south to the Outer Banks. They are only rarely seen inland on freshwater, even more rarely seen in the Tennessee Valley, even odder still, on the campus of Pellissippi State Community College in Hardin Valley. Why so public a place? No one knows.

The wanderer was first noticed by Terry Crowe, Deputy Chief of the campus police on November 14. Crowe is originally from Maryland and knew exactly what the odd small dark goose was. The nomad seemed quite comfortable with the college's resident Canada goose and muscovy population. (The smallish brant is hanging out with much larger Canada geese.)

Rachael Eliot and I saw the brant last Saturday as did Ijams volunteer Nick Stahlman and Jason and Charlotte Dykes.

This is reminiscent of last July when Starbuck got bird #149. Click: roseate spoonbill

- Thanks for the brant photos Jason and for the information Terry.  

Size comparison: Cell phone photo of brant in foreground 
with larger Canada geese.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

buy local

ephemeral: adj. lasting a very brief time; short-lived; transitory; fleeting; as in "the ephemeral joys of childhood."

Truth be told, and I revel in the truth since nonfiction is the palette I paint with, I have written about ephemerality in all three of my UT Press books. The ebb and flow nature of all life. 

My new book Ephemeral by Nature looks at 12 species of plants and animals that are in some way—ephemeral.

Where to buy it locally this holiday season?

1) Ijams Nature Center 2915 Island Home Ave.

2) Wild Birds Unlimited 7240 Kingston Pike, Gallery Shopping Center.

3) Or on SALE for the holiday from the University of Tennessee Press: Online

Book review in the Knoxville News Sentinel click: Book Review

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


New books get a lot of early promotion but it is really the word-of-mouth, in ever expanding circles, that is the life or death of a book. One person tells two, two tell four, etc. Readers talk, they cannot help themselves. 

And even though my new book Ephemeral by Nature is about several very sobbingly serious topics: the fragileness of all species, recovery of a vanishing species, hard-to-find species, extinction and the very transitory nature of the concept of "species" itself. Are they immutable or only a mere point in time? 

For what is life? A wisp. Nothing more than "a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away." (James 4:14)

Yet, there is a boyish curiosity to the wonder, the minutia of all life in the pages of Ephemeral.   

Perhaps this is why two young ladies whom I have know since they were kindergarteners in summer camp at Ijams, thought I needed some playful PR photos to promote the book, even if it meant a photo bomb at my Sunday talk.

Thank you Lucy and Josie! You make me smile.

And Mom Sara, I see your hand in this too.   

PHOTO BOMB! Spotted you young ladies.

Monday, November 20, 2017

A revisit to Panther Country

Last Monday, I made my yearly sojourn to Panther Nation, paying a visit to Will Roberts' AP Environmental Science class at Powell High School. It has become an annual tradition.

Each student had been assigned to read a portion of one of my first two books: Natural Histories or Ghost Birds and ask questions about what they had read. Plus we chatted a bit about my new book Ephemeral by Nature now available in the Ijams gift shop. 

Topics we visited were some of my favorite parts of my first two books including Osage oranges, river cane, pawpaws, male lesser prairie chickens dancing in a lek, plus the arduous process of writing a book in the first place. Anda preview of coming attractions—the red pandas and the return of lake sturgeon to the Tennessee River in Ephemeral.

We also talked about beauty in nature and my favorite animal I work with at the nature center. And how could I not have named the partial blind barred owl we care for? He flies beautifully, just doesn't see very well. 

Best of luck to all of you! Thanks, Will.

Lincoln. A red panda at the Knoxville Zoo. 

Click these links for a look back at past visits:

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. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

News Sentinel

When you reach the pinnacle, somehow you know it and become apprehension about what awaits on the other side. That IS the nature of ephemerality.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017: Book review reprinted in the Knoxville News Sentinel click: Book Review

Tuesday, November 14, 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