Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Day

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

- John Muir (1838-1914) naturalist, writer

Leap Day! An extra 24 hours we only get once every four years. Muir's message is clear. If you are looking for peace in your life, go outside. Take a walk or find a tree, pond or river and sit down. Wait there, tranquility will come. You don't even have to fill out a change of address card; it will find you.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

creeping along

It’s always a surprise to see a creeper. “Looking like a piece of bark come to life,” writes Kenn Kaufman, “the brown creeper crawls up trunks of trees, ferreting out insect eggs and other morsels missed by more active birds.” More active birds? Have you ever seen a creeper? They’re always on the move. Late yesterday, while reading on the deck, I watched one of the odd bark-brown birds creeping up a slumbering oak. Creep. Creep. Creep. The passerine with the down-curved bill searches the furrows and fissures of tree bark for a meal but one has to wonder: How many insect eggs does it take to make a proper meal?

Creepers slowly spiral upwards and from high atop one tree, they fly down to the base of a neighboring one, starting the upward creep all over again. I feel a kinship; I think I've been creeping all my life, although the next time I get to a plateau, I believe I'll stay for awhile and admire the view; stop and smell the altitudinal roses, so to speak.

Creepers are the sole North American member of the treecreeper family (Certhiidae) and a species that’s only in the Tennessee Valley in the cold weather months. They return to northern environs to nest in early spring, but until then, they’ll be creeping throughout our local forests.

Monday, February 25, 2008

spring chorus begins

Creeeeet! Creeeeet! Creeeeet! With the recent rain the wetlands in the Tennessee Valley are sodden. Many places that’ll be dry in summer fill up with water at this time of the year and that’s just what the local amphibians need to reproduce. Yesterday, the ditches, seeps and vernal pools along the western portion of the Third Creek Greenway were alive with chorus frogs. They were singing en masse, with great gusto and savoir-faire. These teenie-weenie frogs are as small as the end of your thumb, impossible to see yet impossible not to notice; thousands singing at the same time create quite a ruckus. They're all males hoping to attract the alert ears of the females that are probably not remotely interested this early in the season. But don't tell the guys. Creeeeeeeeeet!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

search of lost time

“We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.”

- Marcel Proust (1871-1922) French novelist, essayist and critic. Proust’s journey to find wisdom was largely internal. Confined to bed due to poor health, he rarely left his home in Paris. His “À la recherche du temps perdu” (In Search of Lost Time) is considered one of the monumental classics of 20th century literature. Published in seven volumes from 1913 to 1927 (the last three were published posthumously) its 3,200 pages include more than 2,000 characters. Throughout the work, Proust explores the themes of time, space and memory. And since yesterday was my birthday, I have done much the same for the past 24 hours. You tend to ruminate when you realize that more of your life is behind you than in front. The journey is short; enjoy your life before it too is lost in time.

Friday, February 22, 2008

who cooks for you?

It was late in the day as I walked one of the trails at the Ijams’ Homesite. A slow moving slough of the Tennessee River was all that separated me from long and narrow Dickinson Island, named after the family of Miss Emily herself, the famed poet, the Belle of Amherst. The west end of the island is developed, the home to Island Home Airport, a small landing strip for Cessna Skyhawks and Beechcraft Bonanzas. The east end is wooded and as I soon discovered, the home to another winged-wonder--a barred owl. As the sun was setting in the west and darkness engulfed the oaks and hickories around me, the owl began to call. I repeated the familiar mnemonic in my head, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you alllllllll?” Similar to a red-shouldered hawk, a barred owl’s preferred habitat is woods near water and in the Tennessee Valley, there’s plenty of that. Courtship for these nocturnal hunters begins at this time of the year. The one I heard was seeking a mate. And if he succeeds, and as we all know, “Hope springs eternal,” egg-laying occurs in early March.

Photo by my dear friend, the late and great Jim Logan. We still miss you buddy!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

your own nature

“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” *

- Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) “Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit”

* Forgive the gender bias in the above quote but Beecher did live in the 1800s. My female friends who are artists work just as hard at finding their own nature through their artwork as do we males.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Looney Island, pt. 2

Sitting on the shoreline, watching the herons at the rookery across the river you realize their dilemmas. The first to arrive at the island and claim a nest are the males. Great blue heron pair bonds only last for the breeding season, so the males must find new mates and the ones that claim the best nesting sites this year have a greater chance of attracting a female. But a male may have to wait for days before a female arrives and chooses him. If he leaves the choice nest to get food, another male may claim it. So he stoically stands in the rain and cold protecting his real estate--day after day after day.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Looney Island

As the crow flies, or in this case, the heron, Looney Island is just over a mile from my home on Chapman Ridge. One of the largest heron rookeries in the valley is located on the island. Close to 100 nests fill the trees on the long strip of land in the middle of the Tennessee River. Great blue herons spend most of their lives as solitary hunters; steel gray isolationists, fishing up and down their adopted waterways. But at breeding time they come together as colonial nesters, filling the trees with large stick constructions. A single tall sycamore can have multiple homes, precariously placed on the topmost branches. The nests are so well built, they can be used year after year.

In February, great blues begin to arrive at the rookery to stake their claims. They don’t necessarily use the same nests as they did the year before and if they arrive early enough to claim a better-located one, they will. What determines a better site? Only a heron knows and they are remarkably tight-billed on the subject. Perhaps it's the view. If they arrive too late, they may have to build a nest from scratch. It’s first come, first served. This declaration-of-site marks the beginning of courtship. Yesterday’s showers didn’t discourage the herons. Several nests have already been claimed; solo males were standing tall in the rain waiting for the arrival of a mate. The wait may be a long one.

Illustration by Stephen Lyn Bales

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Coot toes

American coots have remarkable feet. In fact, they’re famous for their toes. The one problem is that you really never get to see them. The charcoal gray birds keep them rather demurely tucked away under the water. Unlike other waterfowl, their feet are not webbed but somewhat scalloped. A coot’s individual toes have lobes, much like a leaf. This aids their swimming and gives them rather fancy flattened phalanges. Artist Vickie Henderson and I discovered a coot standing on a half submerged log. It was as if it were showing off its special feet. Wouldn’t you? Luckily, we both had our cameras.

A small flock of coots, called a cover, has spent the winter on Mead’s Quarry Lake at Ijams Nature Center. Although most of the time, they have kept their toes modestly well hidden.

Photo by Stephen Lyn Bales. Please visit:

Friday, February 15, 2008

the natural way

“Don’t live a repressed life, otherwise you live not at all. Live a life of expression, creativity, joy. Live the way existence wanted you to live; the natural way.”

- Osho (1931-1990) contemporary mystic

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Love potion flower

“Yet mark'd I where the bolt of Cupid fell: It fell upon a little western flower, Before, milk-white, now purple with love's wound, And maidens call it love-in-idleness."

Roses may be the traditional Valentine’s Day offering but the purple petals used by Puck to cast spoonie-eyed, moonie-pied love spells in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” came from a very different flower. "Love-in-idleness" is an Old World name for pansy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A leaf's journey

A leaf falls into a stream and gently floats to the sea. It offers no resistance, passes many wonderful sights and has a memorable trip. It is, in fact, an effortless journey; there was no need to hurry. If your life is on the right path, shouldn’t it be just as easy? Should there not be a natural flow? In other words, why do we make our journeys so difficult? Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu said, “Easy is right. Begin right and you are easy. Continue easy, and you are right. The right way to go easy is to forget the right way and forget that the going is easy.” Take a moment. Find a quiet stream, locate a discarded leaf and drop it into the water. Now watch it begin its journey. The rest will come easy. What you do after that should become perfectly clear.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A rose for Lent?

At the nature center, there’s a hillside on the original Ijams’ home site that is covered with an escapee. It’s an early-blooming perennial with long-lasting burgundy, pink or yellow flowers. Probably planted originally by Alice Ijams, who lived at the location from 1910 to 1964, the plant is known as Lenten rose because it blooms in winter between Christmas and Lent. On a gray winter’s day, it would have been a cheery sight to Alice. It still is today. Not native to North America, the shade-loving perennial with deeply lobed leaves is an invited guest from the Old Country. Although the flower resembles a wild rose, it’s actually a hellebore. The genus in the buttercup family is native to much of Europe from western Great Britain east into Romania and Ukraine. From the mountains of the Ukraine to the mountains of East Tennessee, that's a long way to travel for something that doesn't have any legs or feet. Perhaps it had help.

19th century illustration

Monday, February 11, 2008

Keep it light

“Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.”

- from “Lady Windermere's Fan” by Oscar Wilde. Irish playwright, novelist, poet. (1854-1900)

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Swallows return

One of the first signs of spring is the return of tree swallows to the Tennessee Valley. My friend Ted Bays loves watching their aerobatics. It’s lively. He and his wife Geniece have over 30 bluebird boxes in the fields around their home on the French Board River. Tree swallows are called such because they nest in hollow trees but they will readily use these boxes instead, in fact, Ted gets more nesting swallows than bluebirds. Historically, they didn’t nest in East Tennessee and have only been doing so since the late 1960s. There’s an ebb and flowing to nature and these metallic blue swallows are expanding their range, flowing into our valley. Their population here has been growing ever since. Ted reports that he saw three or four swallows flying around yesterday, February 8. This is their earliest return since he started keeping track of their comings and goings. Can spring be far behind?

Friday, February 8, 2008

One man’s owl

At this time of the year, while you and I are lying all comfy and cozy under our blankets and comforters and heirloom quilts, female great horned owls are incubating their eggs. In Tennessee, egg laying occurs in January. They are the first bird to nest in the calendar year and have been seen covered with snow sitting on their clutches. Burrrr! The eggs hatch in 26 to 35 days. So, pour yourself a cup of chamomile tea and find a copy of “One Man’s Owl” by Bernd Heinrich. I've read several of Heinrich's books and his insights into animal behavior are always a joy. And it’s a good way to pass the time waiting for the owlets' arrival.

“One Man’s Owl” by Bernd Heinrich. 1987, Princeton University Press.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A dawn in me

"Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me."

Thanks Kimberly - from "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau. American author, naturalist, transcendentalist. (1817-1862)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Yesterday, we hit a record high in Knoxville of 73 degrees, breaking the old mark of 71 set in 1986. The rains and mild weather revived the resurrection fern on Chapman Ridge. It grows on the top of a large gray rock as big as an sleeping elephant. The evergreen is an air plant or epiphyte that attaches itself to a tree or rock and gets its nutrients from the air, its moisture from rain. You have to admire such parsimony. The plant’s common name comes from its ability to survive long periods of drought by curling up its fronds and appearing dead and dried-out, making it look as bad as I feel mornings without coffee. The fronds seem brittle and will crumble in your hand. Yet, a little rain brings the fern back to life; the leaves unfurl and return to a vibrant green. Voilà! It has been reported that these plants can go 100 years without water and still revive after a single soaking. I may not live long enough to test this, but I'll try. Check back here February 6, 2108.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


The one-and-a-third inches of rain that fell yesterday has left the ground sodden and sloppy. A walk out Chapman Ridge to DeWayne’s Tree was a bit of a slog, dare I say "soppy." The advantage of living on a ridge is that they dry out first; the water slowing seeps to the lowlands below. Spring Creek is swollen, its banks slippery. You'd have to splosh through the meadow bordering Cherokee Bluff. Yesterday’s rain also allows a writer to unpack all of those wonderfully sensual “s” words that have been stored away because of the drought that has stymied the southeast. Oops, I left out squishy.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Hawk put down

The Cooper’s hawk reported on three days ago did not make it. She had to be euthanized, her leg too badly shattered to be repaired. Cooper’s hawks rarely survive such accidents. They live life at full throttle, pursuing their prey like cheetahs with agile quickness. Injuries are often fatal and even if they can be treated, they make poor patients. Cooper's hawks are high strung and generally do not settle down to heal in rehab, often refusing food and drink.

Drawing by Stephen Lyn Bales

Sunday, February 3, 2008

John Clare

February is the neglected month. It’s short. It’s plain, its colors earthy and muted. Its grays and browns seem to be something we have to endure until we get to luscious spring. There’s little going on outside, right? Well not to John Clare (1793-1864). The Englishman is generally referred to as "the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet.” His “Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery,” published in 1820 and works that followed brought notoriety but little money to feed his family that included six children. He died, like many good artists, in an asylum. In addition to poems, Clare wrote prose. To underscore the beauty of the month of February he penned perhaps the longest sentence ever put on paper about the short month. Times were hard; punctuation was is short supply. It’s a sentence Faulknerian in length (over 290 words) that begins: “I always think that this month the prophet of spring brings many beautys to the landscape tho a carless observer woud laugh at me for saying so who believes that it brings nothing because he does not give himself the trouble to see them—I always admire the kindling freshness…”

Friday, February 1, 2008

Cooper's hawk down

Cooper’s hawks fly, quite literally, at breakneck speeds. Rounding a corner, in hot pursuit of a meal, they will sometimes fly into a tree or wall or building at full speed. Crash! Yesterday, I helped rescue a Cooper’s that had been found flopping around on the sidewalk in downtown Knoxville. She could fly, she couldn’t stand or perch. The downed raptor was astonishing beautiful, although very frightened. One leg was badly damaged. I took the hawk to the University of Tennessee Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Time will tell.