Monday, February 27, 2017

Rose Glen 2017

The eighth annual Rose Glen Literary Festival was held last Saturday in Sevierville at the Convention Center on Gists Creek Road off Hwy 66.

Rose Glen is designed as a vehicle for local authors to come together once a year and talk about and sell their books. The fest also features lectures, workshops and book signings by authors from the Smoky Mountains and Appalachian region. I've been a part of Rose Glen since the beginning, even serving as the initial keynote speaker at the luncheon. 

This year’s featured authors were Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson, June Hall McCash and Jim Stokely who discovered an unpublished manuscript after the death of his mother, author Wilma Dykeman, entitled Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood which has since been published. 

Ben Montgomery who wrote Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, which won the 2014 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography served as the keynote speaker.

After the luncheon, Dr. Lin Stepp, Bill Landry, Sam Venable and I took part in a panel discussion on the topic "The Ups and Downs of an East Tennessee Author." Knoxville native and WVLT-TV news anchor Alan Williams served as moderator. 

For me, Rose Glen is a homecoming. I was born in Sevierville about four miles from the convention center and grew up in Gatlinburg. I enjoy seeing all my friends—both young and older—every year at Rose Glen. 

Special thanks to Carroll McMahan, Amanda Marr, Chad Branton, director Brenda McCroskey and the rest of the staff of the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce for organizing Rose Glen.

Excellent job!

J.L. and Dr. Lin Stepp
Author Shawne Cline
Three of my newer friends: Luke Copas, the youngest author at Rose Glen, and his sisters, 2014 and 2017
Author and publishing guru Betty Shreffler
Artist and now biology major in college Jordan Roberts, 2014 and 2017
Photo by Betty Powell
Alan Williams, Dr. Lin Stepp, moi, Bill Landry and Sam Venable. 

I wonder how many words these four local authors and WVLT anchor Williams (who is also a Knoxville native and writes his broadcast stories) have put to paper? Is a zillion a real number? 

And perhaps the real surprise, surprise: three of these notables went to Mooreland Heights Elementary and another one only lives 3.1 road miles from the same 
South Knoxville school. 
Can you guess which have the Mooreland connections?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

home-schooled geology

February was geology month at the nature center for the Ed-Ventures@Ijams home-schooled students. Bright, bright, wonderful young minds! 

We held three sessions last week, learning the difference between rocks and minerals, the three basic kinds of rocks and the lay of the land in the Tennessee Valley indoors, then took a long outdoor adventure hike with the students and their parents/homeroom teachers.

Ijams has been connecting children with nature since the 1920s. Old school? Yep. And we are proud of it!

For more info, click: Ijams homeschool.

- Photos by teacher/moms Hope Turner and Linda Knott

This is a rock! (Yep. We covered the basics.)

Friday, February 17, 2017

thank you Dr. Littmann

Thank you Dr. Mark Littmann for inviting me to chat with the students taking your environmental science writing class at the University of Tennessee. And there has never been a time more needful than today for science writers. We live in an era in which scientists are announcing new discoveries daily, yet our country's leaders deny the validity of science. AND science is the one thing that is real because it is peer reviewed and testable.

We discussed the writing process, where ideas come from plus the importance of reading good science writing. Whatever you put into your brain, is what your mind thinks about, so be good stewards and feed your brain the best!

Turn off that TV and read a good science book. My personal bellwether moment came with "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," by Annie Dillard. Sorry John le Carré, spy novels are summer reading. If you want to be a good writer, dedicate yourself to your craft and learn from the best. A good writer can make the "History of Tarpaper" compelling to read. 

We also talked about the creation of my UT Press book Ghost Birds and ivory-billed woodpeckers in general. Are they extinct or not? Ghost Birds is set in the 1930s when the conservation movement was just beginning in this country and the question of the day was: Should we try to save a vanishing species or not?

Luckily, the answer then was "YES!"

Great discussion.  

As always, thank you Rachael Eliot!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Possible NEW ivorybill footage

"Sonny Boy," nestling ivory-billed woodpecker on the arm of J.J. Kuhn, 1938.  Photo by James T. Tanner. Used by permission of his estate.

Ghosts. They come and they go. The eerie thing about said phantoms is that they are capricious. Such is true with the legendary Ghost Bird of the South—the ivory-billed woodpecker. Is it still with us? Or is it extinct? The jury has been out on that conundrum since the 1980s. And it's going to stay out because every few years a new sighting is announced by a totally reliable source.

Photo to the right is of ivory-billed woodpecker specimens located at Ijams Nature Center.

The problem with identifying an ivorybill is that it looks a lot like a pileated woodpecker, especially from a distance. And the two species can both be found in the same swampy environs of the Gulf Coast. But anyone trained, who knows the field markings to look for and their very different vocalizations, can tell the difference between the two species. 

Ivorybills are birds of the swamps that prefer the lofty canopy, nesting and roosting as high as 80 to 100 feet off the ground. Like with any ghost, any sighting is usually quick and fleeting. And you simply cannot chase them swiftly in the swamp. Pileateds occur over a much wider range. I have them in my backyard in the mountains of East Tennessee, but I live hundreds of miles from any possible ivorybill location.

Three weeks ago, Audubon and other media outlets announced that Michael Collins had been searching for the elusive ivorybill in ideal habitat for years and had made several sightings. It was reported that Collins is "an intrepid birder and a mathematician and acoustics researcher with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory." He is thorough, detail oriented and knows what he is looking for, so his account cannot be brushed aside lightly. And as Audubon also reported that, "after 500 visits and 1,500 total hours of observation, Collins produced two videos from the Pearl River in 2006 and 2008, and a third from 2007 in the Choctawhatchee River swamp in Florida." We have to applaud Collins for his single-minded dedication. 

In 2010, the University of Tennessee Press published my second book: Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker 1935-1941. It detailed the ivorybill research of another dedicated scientist, Dr. James T. Tanner who also spent long hours in the southern swamps for three years under the guidance of his mentor Arthur Allen, the founder of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Audubon Society funded Jim Tanner's fieldwork from 1937-1940. It took me three years to write the book with the help of Tanner's handwritten journals, papers, photographs and his widow Nancy who last saw ivorybills with Jim in December 1941 in the Singer Tract in Louisiana. 

Smithsonian magazine also published an article I penned that same year about Tanner and a nestling ivorybill he banded and named "Sonny Boy." For the Smithsonian article, click: A Close Encounter. 

For Audubon's review of my book, click: The Long Goodbye. 

For last week's Audubon report about the new research by Michael Collins, click: New ivorybill sightings.

Speaking of the capriciousness of the natural world, watch for my new UT Press book, Ephemeral by Nature scheduled to be published later this year.

And as the X-Files' Fox Mulder was apt to say, "The truth is out there."

Thank you Karen Suzy, Mac and Donna R. for bringing the new Audubon report to my attention. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

thank you Beta Sigma Phi

Special thanks to Susie Treis for inviting me to be the luncheon speaker at the Beta Sigma Phi annual meeting at the Jubilee Banquet Hall on Callahan Road last Saturday.

Being so close to Valentine's Day our topic was Bird Romance: courtship, pair bonding, nest building and raising a family. We chatted about several common backyard species with each having different life histories and since I looked out on a sea of crimson, I naturally began the talk with our own redbird, the Northern cardinal.

Female birds choose their mates. Each species has different criteria. Plumage color, song quality, claimed territory and attentiveness all come into play. In the photo above right, the male cardinal offers food to the female as if to say, I'll provide for you when you are nest bound with our clutch. And he does because if he doesn't she will not stick around for a second brood.

Thank you to all.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Myth Buster #1: Robins

American Robin. Photo Wiki by Dakota Lynch

Every year, usually in late February or early March, I get a phone call or two about robins. The caller says "Spring is coming soon, the robins are back."

Myth: Robins are the harbinger of spring.

Truth is: We have American robins (Turdus migratorius) year round. Some of our nesting robins may migrate a little to the south and are replaced by more northern robins that migrate here. But we have them all the time and their population is booming because, it is assumed, we keep making short grassed lawns for them to feed in.

Case in point: The Audubon Christmas Bird Count in Knoxville was held the last day of 2016. My group only counts a small portion of the 15-mile diameter count circle. Yet, my group of six counters—Patty Ford, Eddy Whitson, Vickie Henderson, Cheryl Greenacre, Rachael Eliot, moi—tallied a total of 130 robins. It was the third most numerous species behind ring-billed gulls and crows. It was a big day for crows. And I would strongly suspect that we under-counted robins because they are very active in loose flocks. Truthfully, at one point I grew tired of counting robins and longed for a single diminutive winter wren, which sadly we did not find.

So. We have robins all winter. 

Bonus myth buster: American robins are not true robins. They were mislabeled centuries ago. They are actually thrushes, in the genus Turdus, Latin for thrush. A better name would have been rust-breasted thrush, but it's too late for that.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Groundhog day?

WBIR Live@5@4 roving reporter Emily Stroud
Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are rather chunky large rodents, actually grouped with the ground squirrels like chipmunks and prairie dogs. They live underground in burrows where they hibernate during the winter. Mostly the nearsighted mammals are herbivorous primarily eating wild grasses and other vegetation, including berries and agricultural crops. 

Locally they eat oodles of kudzu. That's a good thing because we have more than enough of the highly invasive non-native plant that takes over entire fields, abandoned cars and buildings, even roadsigns. I think we once had a Blue Circle Drive-in here on Chapman Highway and now it's completely gone. The vine grows faster than groundhogs can really eat it, so we could use an army of robust kudzu-ivores.

But do East Tennessee groundhogs really poke their heads out of their burrows on this day to prognosticate the weather? Really? Isn't that meteorologist Todd Howell's job? WBIR reporter Emily Stroud and videographer Tim Dale came to the nature center today to check on our resident marmota. 

Did they find a groundhog? Did it see its shadow? Ask Emily.

Or go online to her report: Groundhog Day with Emily  

Friday, January 27, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past: Gatlinburg #16

Davy Crockett Shop in Gatlinburg next to the Sky Lift

In the 1950s, Tennessee was cool. 

Patty Page welcomed in the decade with the number one song, "Tennessee Waltz," while Pete Seeger and the Weavers version of "On Top of Old Smokey" reached the charts that same year. Later in the decade, Tennessee Ernie Ford added "Sixteen Tons" a Billboard number one about how hard it was to work in a coal mine. Born in Bristol, Ernest even got his own TV variety show on NBC beginning in 1956 called The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. 

And at the movies, Robert Mitchum spawned a film noir tale called Thunder Road based on a factual event about an East Tennessee moonshine runner killed in a roadblock on Bearden Hill in Knoxville about eight miles from where I currently live. Mitchum's Luke Doolin drove a '57 Ford Fairlane just like my Dad and "thunder was his engine, white lightning was his load." We knew every line of "The Ballad of Thunder Road." The movie became a cult classic playing a drive-in theaters every summer for years. We thought the raffish moonshiner was our kin, our story, although none of us knew a lick about making shine but it was in our DNA, but of course we were kids. What did we know about our bloodline?

But, none of these had the pop culture POW of the state's number one favorite son, Davy Crockett or at least the Walt Disney version played by coonskin cap wearing Fess Parker. First it was a TV miniseries that aired in five installments on Disney's anthology series called "Disneyland" on ABC from December 1954 to December 1955. It was so hugely popular, the TV chapters were edited together and released as a wide screen feature film for the theater: Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Wow. Davy in Technicolor! We had only seen him on a small Sylvania black & white set.

March 24, 1952
And speaking of color, back then, Tennessee was not a "Red State" but rather "the greenest state in the land of the free." 

Everyone knew by heart "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." And even our beloved U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver who was running for vice president at the time, was pictured on the cover of Time magazine wearing a coonskin cap. Although Kefauver's Time cover presided Disney's Davy by two years, it set the mark. Cool Tennesseans wore coonskin. I still have one, albeit a bit too small for my adult noggin. Kefauver was a senator in the days when people were elected to go to Washington to actually find solutions to the people's problems.

The country went crazy over Disney's Davy, "born on a mountain top in Tennessee." The original episodes were filmed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina side, and even though the real David Crockett was born in 1786 near the Nolichucky River in Limestone, Tennessee in Greene County, i.e. bottomland, to the world Davy was born on a mountain top and that summit had to be on top of old Smoky and what a better invitation to go visit a mountain top in Tennessee and come to Gatlinburg along the way. No modern day national ad agency could have created such a buzz. 

We kids were energized, captivated, enthralled. We all wanted to be Crockett. But how could Davy have "killed him a bear when he was only three"? Being only four-years-old at the time, I felt markedly lacking, mystified. All I had was a rubber knife.

Gatlinburg had a Davy Crockett Theatre next to the bus station and a Davy Crockett Shop specializing in all things Davy next to the Sky Lift, both on the Parkway.     

Brother & sister in Davy Crockett t-shirts, 1956
Davy was the first mass marketed merchandising phenomena much like Star Wars is today with items that included t-shirts, glasses, cups, puzzles, games, lunch boxes, clothing, trading cards, plastic weaponry, even lamps. (Darlene and I are wearing Davy Crockett t-shirts in the photo to the right.) And I still have a kid-sized Davy Crockett "TV chair" to sit on after a long day looking for bears on the wild frontier. 

Davy Crockett TV chair
Davy was everywhere in all the stores nationwide. By the end of 1955, Americans had purchased over $300 million worth of Davy Crockett merchandise and a lot of that was bought in Gatlinburg while on vacation. 

We were proud to be from "the greenest state in the land of the free" because that is where our Davy was from.

My Gatlinburg friend Emily reminded me of a Tennessee Ernie 1949 hit. To hear the "Ol' Pea-Picker" click: Smokey Mountain Boogie. 

©2017 — From the upcoming book, 
"Vintage Gatlinburg: 
The Transformation of a Small Timber Town to Mountain Resort
 Family Remembrances 1899-1969
by University of Tennessee Press author and native son
Stephen Lyn Bales 

Davy Crockett Theatre next to the bus station

For links to other Gatlinburg history posts click:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Owl-ology, merci

In nature, form follows function. I have two arms because it makes t-shirts fit better. Owls have the most splendor faces, actually designed for sensory input, round like satellite dishes with huge eyes. They have excellent hearing and eyesight. If you are a mouse moving in the forest detritus in the dark, it's hard to go undetected. Just sayin'

Thank you to all who attended my Owl-ology 101 class at Ijams last Sunday afternoon. We learned all about the local species of owls, enjoyed some owl-licious snacks and dissected owl pellets provided by StayPuff our adopted barred owl. And yes, some mouse skulls were found!

The photo at the top and to the right is of a red phase eastern screech-owl, the first bird I worked with at Ijams in 1998. We did hundreds of programs together, she was a real show-stopper.

And the photo to the right is an elderly great horned owl. As a group, they all seem to be born mad and stay mad. They're intense enough to even kill and eat a skunk. But not this one, his advanced years made him gentle. And the bottom photo is a barred owl with those large black Muscle Shoals bluesman eyes. I handled the flightless wonder for a number of years. All of these three have since passed away. Heartbreak!

There is a chapter in my upcoming University of Tennessee Press book, Ephemeral by Nature, about owls and my relationship with them at the nature center. 

Young naturalists have been coming to Ijams to learn about birds since the 1920s and they love owls. I am but a link in the chain. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Coop or sharpie?

These photos poise one of the hardest bird IDs in our area. Patricia Mayhugh sent them to me. She knew what it was, but do you? The fact that the raptor is hanging out near a birdfeeder indicates it's an Accipiter, since they eat other birds, but which one? Is it a Cooper's hawk or a sharp-shinned hawk

Cooper's hawks are roughly crow-sized and sharp-shinned hawks are blue-jay size but size is hard to judge in a photo or in the field unless you have something to compare it to.

So what field marking do you look for?

My friend Dr. Cheryl Greenacre at the UT Veterinary Teaching Hospital sees a lot of injured birds up close. She looks in the mouth. Inside a Cooper's is black, a sharp-shinned is pink. But we never see one that closely or that disabled.

Well, for us, we look at the end of the tail. Cooper's have a rounded tail that ends in a noticeable band of white. Sharpies have a blunt or squared-off tail with so little white it is hard to see. 

Therefore: these photos are of a Cooper's hawk!

Thanks, Patricia.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past: Gatlinburg #15

The Gatlinburg firestorm of last November took out so much of my hometown, but so much was already gone. 

During the 1940s, especially after War World II ended in 1945, Gatlinburg become a boom town. 

Parkway of Gatlinburg, circa late 1940s
The average cost of land jumped from $50 to $8,000 per acre during that decade. The mountain families who sold their farms to become part of the national park, then moved to town and bought cheap property in the early 1930s experienced a windfall. Family-owned businesses began to appear all over the Smoky's new gateway resort to accommodate the influx of visitors. 

There were two full service gas stations in the center of town: Texaco on the right and Esso on the left just up the street from Denton's Drug Store and Dr. Ralph Shilling's office, the town's resident doctor who treated us original Gatlinburgians. The Texaco was were we kids took our bikes to inflate the tires because "you can trust the man who wears the star."

And folks have to eat, generally three meals per day.

The dictionary defines café as a "restaurant usually small and unpretentious." The origin is from 1780 to '90 and the French word for coffee, so the original French cafés were coffeehouses, tearooms, bistros and lunchrooms or small informal places to get a cup of coffee and a quick meal. You didn't have to dress up, dining was casual.

Pearl Bales & grumpy author
Like the century itself, in the late 1940s, Grandmother Pearl Ogle Bales was in her late forties and had already raised two families; first her younger brothers and sisters after her mother died in childbirth in 1919 and the second was her own three children. Her oldest daughter Edith was grown and away from home and her two sons: Rubin and Russell had been away serving their country in the Pacific. Consequently, Grandma Pearl had time on her hands and she knew how to cook. She had also worked for a time in the kitchen in Andy Huff's Mountain View Hotel, but like so many of the original Gatlinburg families, she saw opportunity. Remember, mountaineers were good at making something out of nothing. And being strikingly different, my former upland grandparents from Baskins Creek opened separate businesses. 

Homer Bales at cafe
The larger hotels in the new resort town had their own dining rooms, but there were only a few smaller eateries for tourists and locals alike. The Riverview Cafe was in the "upper end" of town and the popular lunch counter at the Trailways Bus Station and Howard's Cafe in the middle, so grandma Pearl opened Bales Cafe in the lower end, across from the Sinclair station and near the Pioneer Inn. The stone building with hardwood floors and pine walls and ceiling was on the Parkway and the bank of Little Pigeon River. To find out the evening special all you had to do was phone the Gatlinburg operator and ask for number 167.

Uncle Alvin Latham
And it was truly a family business. Pearl was a mama to many. And if you were born into the Bales family, you had a job. Everyone who was old enough worked there one time or another. If I had been older, I would have too but that would come later. For awhile, both my mother and father worked either in her kitchen or out in the serving hall and even Uncle Alvin Latham bussed tables and washed dishes for Grandma Pearl.  

She served "homemade meals in mountain fashion." The menu included traditional favorites like hot biscuits with mountain honey, eggs, bacon, gravy, green beans, mashed potatoes, cornbread, fried chicken, fresh trout, chicken 'n dumplings, country ham, creamed corn, apple pie à la Mode and the best blackberry dumplings I've ever tasted. Five decades later the memory lingers. The cafe only had about a dozen tables, all covered with white tablecloths, and could serve roughly 40 people at capacity. The tables at the back looked down on to the Little Pigeon River. 

Pearl & Homer Bales with grand-kids, 1956
Some of my most ingrained childhood memories go back to spending time at the cafe. Grandma was friendly and gregarious, quick with a hardy chuckle, but she was also a mountain woman who could chop her own firewood or put you in your place if she had to. She was ahead of her time. She spoke her mind. Years ago grandma Pearl confessed to me that she once got into an argument with another woman that was settled with a fist fight in the middle of the road in front of her cafe. Pearl won the disagreement. 

Ma & Pa Kettle
Pearl and Homer always reminded me of Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride's Ma and Pa Kettle, popular characters in ten movie comedies made between 1947 and '57, roughly the exact same time frame of the cafe itself. Grandma Pearl never missed one of their "picture shows" at the Cherokee theater. She loved to laugh. According to Wiki, the Kettles were "a hillbilly couple with fifteen children whose lives turn upside-down when they win a model-home-of-the-future in a slogan-writing contest. At the verge of getting their farm condemned, the Kettles move into the prize home that is different from their country lifestyle. After that, they are subjected to more unusual situations." I think Grandma Pearl identified with Ma Kettle. Growing up in a log cabin at the headwaters of Baskins Creek after the turn of the century, who would have ever guessed that someday she would own her own cafe in downtown Gatlinburg.

It's a long and winding road.

But Pearl did own a café and folks just liked stopping by for a cup of coffee and chat. It was that kind of place...where everybody knows your name. 

And today, all these years later, all that I have left of Bales Cafe is a single chair that was once in her dining room. Every now and then, I like to sit in the red bottomed, ladder back and eat a cornbread muffin in remembrance of things past. And is that a bowl of mountain honey sitting on every table? Sweet!  

©2017—From the upcoming book, 
"Vintage Gatlinburg: 
The Transformation of a Small Timber Town to Mountain Resort
 Family Remembrances 1899-1969
by University of Tennessee Press author and native son