Thursday, May 29, 2008

book signing

As part of next month's First Friday celebration, I'll be signing copies of my book, "Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley" at Woodward Books in the Old City on Friday, June 6, 5 p.m. to closing.

Woodward Books is located at 108 E. Jackson Avenue. They specialize in fine antiquarian and out of print books. If you love old books, this is the shop for you.

Congratulations Tim and Jeannie on your new store!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

it's a magnolia

In 1947, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to name the tulip poplar (a.k.a. yellow poplar) the official State Tree. It was chosen because it grew from one end of the state to the other. They also had historical, homey significance: the majestic trees were widely used by the pioneers to build their log cabins.

The statuesque tree commands respect. They grow straight and strong eventually reaching heights of over 250 feet, dominating the other trees around them. Their flowers are tulip-like, the same soft orange color as cantaloupe or Creamsicles. They’ve been in bloom here and there around the valley for the past few weeks.

But, I would be remiss and even disappoint the late Dr. Aaron Sharp—one of my botany professors at the University of Tennessee—if I did not mention one thing. The wonderful trees are not poplars; they’re magnolias: Liriodendron tulipifera (means "lily tree, tulip-like") If I had named the plant, I would have called it "Liriodendron creamsiclera."

The more proper common name is tuliptree.

Monday, May 26, 2008

tree afire

“Saw a tanager in Sleepy Hollow," wrote Henry David Thoreau in his journal on May 20, 1853. "It most takes the eye of any bird. You here have the red-wing reversed, the deepest scarlet of the red-wind spread over the whole body, not on the wing-coverts merely, while the wings are black. It flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves."

Ignite the leaves indeed! It’s always a jolt to see a scarlet tanager, hidden away in the top of a tree, singing its raspy song. When you finally train your binoculars on the songster, it can take your breath away. These tanagers are only passing through the Tennessee Valley, although they do nest in the Smoky Mountains to the east. I saw the first one of the season with Rachael Barker. It was high in a tuliptree at the end of my driveway near the mailbox. Special delivery. It set the morning afire. And then again, this past Saturday, one was bouncing around a tree high over the Visitor Center at Ijams.

Thoreau was correct: it most takes the eye of any bird. And when it gives the eye back, you know that nothing quite like it will enter your field of view the rest of the day.

Photo credit:

Sunday, May 25, 2008

happy birthday

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

- By Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was born on this date in 1803.

Emerson was a poet, essayist, philosopher and leader of the Transcendentalist movement in the early 1800s. His writings directly influenced the growing New Thought movement of the mid 19th century. His essay “Nature” was published anonymously in 1836. In it he “defines nature as an all-encompassing divine entity inherently known to us in our unfettered innocence.”

Saturday, May 24, 2008

your present

“To the ego, the present moment is, at best, only useful as a means to an end. It gets you to some future moment that is considered more important, even though the future never comes except as the present moment and is therefore never more than a thought in your head. In other words, you are never fully here because you are always busy trying to get elsewhere.”

- from “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose” by Eckhart Tolle

Ergo: Enjoy your Saturday! Life happens in the present. The future will get here soon enough. Perhaps the present is called such because it is a present for you to enjoy. Open the gift! It's your present and it's not even your birthday. Go for a walk outside and enjoy today. By stringing together a lot of pleasant presents, you build a memorable life.

Friday, May 23, 2008

one of many

Recently, on a walk through the woods at Ijams Nature Center with Karen Sue Barker, we found a dead moth lying among the leaves. Picking it up, I knew I had never seen anything like it so I brought its lifeless corpselet home to pin and dry. It’s small, that's what makes it a corpselet (my word, it's not in any dictionary) with a wingspan of about 1.5 inches and eight bright spots—four yellow, four white—against its black wings.

We looked it up and discovered it was an eight-spotted forester (Alypia octomaculata) first given a scientific name in 1775 by Danish entomologist and economist Johan Christian Fabricius.

But here’s the thing. The forester turns out to be in the insect family "Noctuidae" or owlet moths. Owlet moths? I’d never heard of such a thing, which is something of a surprise since I grew up in the woods and to date there are more than 35,000 known species of the robustly built moths flying around; possibly as many as 100,000 species altogether worldwide.

You're kidding, 35,000 known species! That’s a lot. How could I have overlooked them?

The reason: Scientists believe that there are at least three million and perhaps as many as ten million separate species of life on planet Earth. Naturalist and retired physics professor Chet Raymo writes that, "There are not enough biologists alive to make sense of it all." Indeed!

In other words, you could spend your entire lifetime trying to learn all of just the owlet moths and die long both you completed the task. And, to date, Karen Sue and I know the name of only one: eight-spotted forester. That leaves 34,999 more known species to comprehend.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


I’m not exactly sure who named the chat, but they did an admirable job because the yellow-breasted chat, does just that. They chat. Chat. Chat. Chat.

For most of my life, chats were believed to be a kind of New World Warbler, albeit a very atypical, large warbler. However, it was recently confirmed that they are not warblers. But what are they? Currently, they’re in a group by themselves.

Their song is a long varied series of this and that, simple notes, bleeps and chucks, sometimes harsh and raspy, sometimes liquidy whistles. David Allen Sibley records it as “toop-toop-toop-toop toop toop toop; chook; terp; jedek; chrr chrr chrr chrr chrr…….” Yes, chrr, chrr, chrr. That's about right except like a vireo, it seems to go on and on and on.

Chats are very secretive, hiding in forested edges near open fields.
Today on a walk at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, I discovered a chat in a tree directly above me. I got his full repertoire. Chrr. Chrr. Chrr. Click. Terp. Whistle. He was feeling chatty. Luckily, I had my camera, but unfortunately he managed to stay fairly well hidden.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

a true Cinderella

This one is on everyone’s short list of favorite native shrubs, although at this time of the year it’s hard to see why.

Euonymus americanus is in bloom now, but the flowers are small—pale, greenish to light rose—and easy to overlook. During a season filled with beauty queens this spindly native bush is a true Cinderella. Often thin and lanky, even awkward, it tends to hide in the shadow of others.

Most of the year, the plant is nondescript. Its hour of flamboyance is reserved for the fall when the evergreen’s bright magenta seedpods ripen and split to reveal large orange seeds. When completely mature, the seeds pop out and are tossed up to 15 from the parent plant. This colorful, almost gaudy, fruit and dramatic seed dispersal leads to the shrub's most common folk name: hearts a bustin’.

Monday, May 19, 2008


“To know is not all. It’s only half. To love is the other half.”

- John Burroughs (1837-1921) American naturalist and essayist

This is my 100th posting since I began this adventure in January. Goodness, what fun.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

downy nest VIII

I have not posted news of the downy woodpecker nest in awhile. (See May 1 posting.) Caught up in work, I didn’t seem to be home at the right time to observe the site; or it was raining when I was. When I did find an opportunity to sit and watch, I saw no activity. This went on for days. Dispirited, I decided the nest had failed and the pair of downies had gone on with their lives.

But I was wrong. The adults are still taking turns with the clutch; their exchanges are quick, drawing little attention to the nest.

By now, the eggs should have hatched, and the attending parent is protecting the young. I’d love to peek into the cavity, but that’s impossible. I have little to no gibbon blood in me. Photography has also gotten more difficult because now that the trees have leafed out, the location is in deep shade most of the day.

I did manage to get one photo—albeit a bit blurry—of the female downy bursting out of the nest hole. She pops out like a black-and-white Pez to swiftly fly away.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

the truth

“Truth surrounds you. It is in the air, it is in the fragrance of the flowers, it is in the flow of the river it is in the green leaves, it is in the stars, it is in the dust. It is in you.”

- Osho (1931-1990) contemporary mystic

OK. Please, do me a favor. Or perhaps I should say, "Do yourself a favor." Now that you have read this posting, turn your computer off and go sit under a tree. Just sit there. Become part of the moment and look for the truth that will present itself. That's where it's at; not here beyond your keyboard. This is all artificial. (Dictionary definition: Artificial. adj. made by human skill; produced by humans, as opposed to being natural; imitation; simulated; sham; lacking naturalness or spontaneity; forced; contrived; feigned.)

And humans are notoriously fallible. Scully and Mulder forgive me, but you were right: “The truth is out there," although it may not be exactly what Dana and Fox were looking to find.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


"The Tennessee Conservationist” May/June 2008

Whip-poor-wills, on the borderland of invisibility

If you grew up in the country, you know the sound. It rips through the night like automatic rifle fire.

Sitting tucked away in the shadows, where open land gives way to forest, nothing pierces the evening stillness with such force. It’s a staccato song filled with intensity and white-hot yearning, delivered with the fervor of a jackhammer. Its energy alone seems to represent the rush of the season. It’s spring! And the need to reproduce before the sultry days of summer is overwhelming, so much so that a normally hidden bird must give away its location.

“The whip-poor-will continues its lively song for several hours after sunset, and then remains silent until the first dawn of day, when its notes echo through every vale, until the beams of the rising sun scatter the darkness,” wrote John James Audubon in 1832.

If woodland wildflowers could speak, you would expect they would cry in the night with similar urgency. Their time is short and the same necessity governs their colorful panache, but the trillium and mayapple and celandine poppy sit mute and must rely on a go-between pollinator to propagate.

It’s not that way with wildlife, but there is a caveat: the males and females must find each other. Some use song, some scent and some rely on visual display, but the night belongs to the singers: the chortling frogs, peepers and, perhaps most of all, the rapid-fire voices of the farm boy’s favorite Nightjar, the whip-poor-will.

Henry David Thoreau knew them as birds of the countryside.

“The whip-poor-will suggests how wide asunder are the woods and the town. Its note is very rarely heard by those who live on the street, and then it is thought to be of ill omen. Only the dwellers on the outskirts of the village hear it occasionally,” he wrote on June 11, 1851.

“But go into the woods on a warm night at this season and it is the prevailing sound. I hear now five or six at once. It is no more of ill omen therefore here than the night and the moonlight are. It is a bird not only of the woods, but of the night side of the woods”...

Special Note: For the rest of the article penned by me, check out the May/June issue of “The Tennessee Conservationist.”

The subtitle comes from famed American ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent. It’s one of the best descriptions of the illusive nightjar’s lifestyle ever put to paper.

“Some birds depend on speed for safety, or on agility or strength, but the whip-poor-will relies chiefly on not being seen. Safety comes to the whip-poor-will in dim light, half shadows, and the faint, confusing obscurity of dusk, and among these, on the borderland of invisibility, the whip-poor-will lives all its days.”

Special thanks to Vickie Henderson for contributing three illustrations of whip-poor-wills and to Louise Zepp, editor of the magazine.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

new green?

This time of the year, we go on and on about the colorful flowers. Goodness knows I have. But one thing that makes spring so beautiful is the new leaves. The verdant fresh leaves on all the trees, including the evergreens.

As I write this, there’s a towering American beech outside my window. Towering. I'm humbled by its majesty. It has now completely leafed out for the season. Its leaves are a bright yellow-green (really a chartreuse) that will darken as time passes. So here’s the question, and I don’t know the answer, why are these new leaves lighter green? This is true even on the hemlocks beside my driveway. In fact, it’s even more noticeable on the evergreens because the new needles are next to older ones.

So again, why are new leaves lighter green?

Monday, May 12, 2008


Yesterday’s stormy, blustery weather produced an unexpected windfall. The power was knocked out for hours, not returning until 5:25 a.m. this morning. We enjoyed the respite. No television, no Internet, no electrical distractions of any kind. No scurrying about to get things done; in fact, all things were put on hold. The "things" became as artificial and unimportant as they truly were. They melted into the gathering darkness. We relished the quiet house that slowly surrendered itself to nightfall, becoming noticeably colder as the sun went down.

It was a very natural evening of shadows and flickering candlelight, something Henry David experienced every night he spent in his cabin on Walden Pond.

Friday, May 9, 2008

whistle like a flute

After a long, long, long workday, an unexpected surprise welcomed me home. A rose-breasted grosbeak was at my feeder; late in the day when the sun and my energy level were on the wane, like a candle about to flicker out. (Let's hope they both rebound or tomorrow is going to be dreadful.)

The splendid grosbeaks and scarlet tanagers are in my woods for only a few days every spring; just passing through, ships in the night; on their way to their nesting grounds farther north. At times, their songs confuse me, but the tanager is oh so raspy, like a gravelly-voiced blues singer. The books say like a robin with a sore throat. Indeed.

The grosbeak's song is more pristine.

Thoreau had the same problem. His journal entry dated May 24, 1855: “Hear a rose-breasted grosbeak. At first thought it a tanager, but soon I perceived its more clear and instrumental—should say whistle, if one could whistle like a flute; a noble singer, reminding me also of a robin; clear, loud and flute-like; on the oaks, hillside south of Great Falls.”

Thursday, May 8, 2008

book discussion

Friday morning, May 9, at 8 a.m., I will be doing a discussion about my book: Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley for the Tellico Lake Rotary at the Tellico West Conference Center in Vonore, Tennessee.

The book was published by the University of Tennessee Press.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

number 700

Kris Light has a passion: wildflowers. She photographs what she finds and maintains a website displaying her collection. This is better than pressed flowers because they in time lose their color, becoming brittle with age. Kris’s flowers look just as lush and vibrant as the day she clicked the shutter.

Last week Kris came to Ijams Nature Center in search of any flower she had never photographed, it would be number 700 in her portfolio. She found it, a prairie trillium. Isn't it a beautiful living thing?

Visit her website: to see it and the other 699 East Tennessee wildflowers she has recorded.

- Prairie trillium photo by Stephen Lyn Bales

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


“In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life —
It goes on.”

~ Robert Frost (1874-1963) poet

Frost should know about life’s persistence. Despite what happens, it does go on. After dropping out of both Harvard and then Dartmouth, he returned home to teach and work various jobs including delivering newspapers and factory labor, all the while knowing that his true calling was poetry. Despite early setbacks, Frost went on to write verse and win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry four times: 1924, 1931, 1937 and 1943.

Thanks Karen!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

snow in May?

Has winter returned? To yesterday’s blooming white fringe tree, another more common tree appears covered with a late-season snow: black locust.

The clusters of blooms—loose drooping racemes—dangle from the branches like Christmas ornaments. Yesterday, while taking part in the Knox County Spring Bird Count at Ijams Nature Center early in the morning before the rain, Karen Sue Barker and I discovered a flock of about 50 cedar waxwings in a locust on the western edge of the park.

While observing the golden pear-colored birds, Karen Sue watched one waxwing gently pluck bloom after bloom and feed it to its mate. (Part of waxwing courtship) Curious about the taste, I ate a few blossoms of my own and remarked that they tasted like garden peas. But of course, later I learned that black locust is indeed in the pea family.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

downy nest VII

Downy woodpeckers incubate their eggs about 12 days. (See April 17 posting.) The female and male take turns, exchanging places every 30 minutes to an hour, all day long. The surprise is that it’s the male that stays in the cavity on the eggs all night. The female roosts elsewhere, arriving at the nest at daylight to take her first turn.

It’s been quiet at the nest site the past several days, just one bird quickly coming and the other going, but the activity level should pick up soon as the parents start feeding their brood.