Sunday, June 29, 2008


“In the month of June the grass grows high, And round my cottage thick-leaved branches sway. There is not a bird but delights in the place where it rests: And I too—love my thatched cottage.”

-by T’ao Ch’ien, 4th century Chinese poet, who tired of the trappings of his career in civil service, retired at the age of 33 to a simple cottage on the slope of Mount Lu south of the Yangtze River to write, read and work in his garden.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

need a little sun?

Now that summer has arrived, here’s a handy word of the day:

Insolation. Noun. Exposure to the rays of the sun. A useful substitute for sunbathing.

Usage: “I’ll be taking a long lunch-hour today, Mr. Fernbred, if that’s all right with you—I’m overdue for my insolation treatment.”

- From: “The Superior Person’s Book of Words” by Peter Bowler.

Monday, June 23, 2008

sad? I think not.

The last bird to nest during the calendar year in our area is the American goldfinch. The female collects the plant fibers from thistle seeds — abundant in late June — to line her nest. It’s a finishing maternal touch to make her bassinet more comfy for her young.

Henry David Thoreau described the goldfinch’s song as a “watery twitter,” but within that there is a mournful “mew.” The latter is the source of the bird’s species name “tristis,” which means “sad.” Although to be truthful, it’s hard to see anything sad about these energetic, yellow and black songbirds; lively is a better descriptor.

Goldfinches are granivores; they eat seeds, seeds, seeds and are especially adept at balancing precariously on floral seedheads. They feed on a wide variety of annual plants such as thistle, teasel, dandelion, ragweed, mullein, cosmos, goatsbeard, sunflower and alder.

I recently received a report that the coreopsis planted by the city along Third Creek near West High School are now in seed and goldfinches are there in big numbers.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

bad gravy

If you are a monarch butterfly, you already know this: common milkweed is in bloom. It’s a robust perennial that can grow up to six feet tall, so it’s no shrinking violet, it’s rather “in your face.”

When broken the hairy stems produce a milky, white latex that looks like Elmer’s glue and tastes like my homemade gravy.

Monarch butterflies are foul-tasting, even poisonous. (I have never worked up the courage to eat a monarch butterfly to test this, maybe someday I will.)

Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves because it renders them unpalatable, much like my gravy. Blue jays know this and avoid the bright orange and black lepidopterans like they were bad restaurants on the wrong side of town. The kind of places you used to frequent at 3 a.m. when you were in college because you didn't know any better.

The insect’s toxicity is due to the presence of “cardenolide aglycones” in their bodies, which the caterpillars ingest as they feed on the plants.

Milkweed likes to grow in sandy soils, basking in full sun. The photo was taken in the plaza at Ijams Nature Center.

Friday, June 20, 2008

dog days

Summer must be here. Last evening on a bike ride down the Third Creek Greenway, we heard the first Dogday harvestflies, i.e. cicadas calling from the trees in Tyson Park, so what more proof could you want?

Since the ancient Greeks and Romans, the sultry, hot period between July and early September was known as the Dog Days. The Dog Star Sirius (the brightest star) and the Sun were in the sky at the same time, which they thought made the days hotter. It was believed to be an evil time "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid.” (If you have a dog, watch to see if it shows any unusual behavior. An overall sulky mood, malaise or grouchiness is to be expected in the summer heat, but watch out for madness. If you determine that it's agitated, speak to it gently and try to find out why its hackles are up.)

Back it insects: male cicadas look like large green flies. They buzzzzzzz from the trees to attract females. The louder they call, the better chances they have of finding a mate. The he-bugs also tend to collect in the same tree, called a “chorus tree,” to create an even louder commotion. How can the she-bugs resist such six-legged machismo?

Monday, June 16, 2008


This one falls under the category of “If you build it, they will come.”

I created a very small pool under the drip, drip, drip of the air conditioning unit. It was really fashioned as a birdbath and the birds do use it, but several weeks ago a green frog (Rana clamitans) took up residence in its shallow water.

Green frogs grow to be rather sizable frogs. In our area, only bullfrogs are larger. By the size of its tympanum or eardrum (prominent circle behind its eye) you can tell it’s a male. Like the gray treefrog of last week (see June 12 posting) green frogs generally call May through late summer.

Green frogs live in ponds, not birdbaths, but this guy seems quite content. I’m surprised because I live on a ridge, a long ways from any natural pond, so how did he find me? He has hopped a good distance, uphill all the way, whereas, it would seem, that his natural instinct would have lead him to hop downhill. Water is always found down not up.

I can relate. I have always been rather wayward, hopping in the wrong direction, often uphill instead of down, the hardest road, so to speak. I’m reminded of Robert Frost, “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence: / Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

As a footnote: I’ll be even more flummoxed, if the green frog’s calls manage to attract a female. Perhaps, she will be just as wayward as he. In that case, a good match.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

buried treasure

It’s curious how one thing leads to another, and little unanticipated discoveries can be made at anytime. Call it serendipity.

Recently, my hot water heater went out and I had to call a plumber. The sick appliance lives quietly in my basement where it does its job 24/7 with little fanfare. I like its dedication, especially when I climb into a hot bath at the end of a long day. While its illness was being diagnosed, I spent some time downstairs where I have a set of shelves with an odd mishmash of books. For some reason they do not merit being upstairs on the good bookcases. Beats me, but it was the books' owner (that would be me), who made the distinction.

As I was waiting on the plumber’s prognosis, I perused the volumes and discovered an old book, “Birds in the Garden,” by Margaret McKenny published in 1939. I don’t remember buying it but I’m sure it must have been at a yard sale sometime in the past 15 years or so. As I leafed through it, a card fell out. Buried treasure!

The unexpected booty was a little bigger than a post card and had a color illustration of a mockingbird. At the top it read “The American Singer Series: No. 12” The copyright date was 1899.

Turns out it was produced as a promotional handout by the Singer Sewing Machine Company and was given away at the “National Conservation Exposition” held in Knoxville in 1913. The “No. 12” indicates that it’s part of series.

Wow! And it had been living in my basement unknown by the basement’s owner (that also would be me) for years. I wonder what else is hidden down there?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

your cheeks?

Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?

- Henry David Thoreau, “The Maine Woods,” Ktaadn, Pt. 6 (1848)

To be a part of it all, and not dive headfirst into life’s stream and drink deep, is not to live. If you have not felt the wind on your cheeks in awhile, what have your cheeks been doing?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

lonely frogs

If the calls of the chorus frogs (see February 25 posting) sounded lively and communal, the isolated calls of male gray treefrogs somehow evoke longing and loneliness. It's a forlorn sound. EErrrrrrrrrrrrr!

As the temperature warms and the chorus frogs of February and March go mute, the damp muggy evenings give way to Cope’s gray treefrogs here in East Tennessee. These small (1.25 to 2 inches long) frogs are gray-to-green and covered with splotches for camouflage. They look like lumpy hunks of tree bark and like to hide in the shrubbery amongst the leaves and branches, often it seems a long ways from water. But all they really need is a little rain and a shallow temporary pool to reproduce.

The male’s call is a short raspy trill. EErrrrrrrrrrrrr! If it’s warm enough, you can hear these isolated crooners March through October, but the calls generally peak May through July.

Cope’s gray treefrogs are quite common in a wide variety of wooded habitats, even suburban settings with plenty of trees and shrubs for cover.

- Photo by my dear friend, the late Jim Logan. I still miss you buddy.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

new star

On this date: June 8, 1918, 90 years ago today, American astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard (born in Nashville, Tennessee) looked up into the night sky of Wyoming and saw a star he had never seen before. At the same hour, seventeen-year-old Leslie Peltier of Delphos, Ohio saw it too. Soon the new star in the constellation Aquila became brighter than any other star except Sirius.

The new found star was 1200 light years away, the brightest nova—a star that suddenly becomes thousands of times brighter and then gradually fades to its original intensity—seen on planet Earth in 300 years.

Today the star cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

book discussion

As part of the Adult Summer Reading Program, I will be doing a discussion of my book: Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley in the Sharon Lawson Room at the Blount County Public Library next Tuesday evening, June 10 at 7 p.m. The library is located at 508 N. Cusick Street in downtown Maryville.

Please stop by and say hello!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


After losing the use of his car, author Stephen Altschuler was forced to walk. He writes, “I began to discover a world full of sensory richness, perceived formerly only with senses dull as a neglected kitchen knife from run-around city living. Speed had inured me to think of the destination at the expense of everything in between. As a consequence, my mind raced as well, anticipating more than experiencing the moment at hand. And with only a finite number of moments available in this lifetime, I found I had missed most of them.”

“Now you might say, so what? What’s so important about living each moment, anyway? The answer lies in the effects I enjoyed from slowing down: less anxiety, more peacefulness, being clearer in thought and deeper in breath. Life sparkled with more joy, interest, and appreciation, as if some part was returned—a part that, missing but unnoticed, made the whole feel unsettled, off-centered, incomplete. And all this from being literally back on my feet again.”*

Perhaps, getting places has become too easy. We pack every day with short little car trips, not taking the time to savor the world around us. With the cost of gasoline soaring, it sounds like we all need to walk more, rediscovering where and when we live.

* Passage from "Sacred Paths and Muddy Places: Rediscovering Spirit in Nature” by Stephen Altschuler, published in 1993

Monday, June 2, 2008


Five weeks ago, I wrote about tent caterpillars. (See April 25 posting) They were trundling about all over the place looking for hidden locations to spin their cocoons. Inside these woven bassinets, one of the most astonishing events in the entire natural world takes place: metamorphosis.

All of the organic matter that make up the hairy little caterpillar breaks down and somehow rearranges itself into a winged moth covered with power-like scales. For a while the little creature is unrecognizable moth goop. Most of the legs simply dissolve away—caterpillars have three pairs of true legs and up to five pairs of prolegs—and four wings emerge. The new winged creature no longer trundles; it flies. Sounds like science fiction.

After the tent caterpillars disappeared, I found the small woven cocoons here and there: attached to lawn furniture, inside the mailbox, tucked away in nooks and crannies all over the house.

Yesterday, I found an adult moth attached to its cocoon. Something had gone wrong and it was dead. In April, I called the tent caterpillar moth nondescript: pale brown with two light stripes. Perhaps I was being too cavalier, a mammalian chauvinist, because anything that goes through such a transformation is remarkable beyond words. My own maturation from toddler to teen to graying adult was a slight-of-hand card trick by comparison. Presto chango! (Well, puberty had a certain amount of angst but come on, I didn’t grow wings, just body hair. Wings would have been fun; pubescent fur was just an embarrassment.)

Side by side, the caterpillar and the moth have little resemblance. Who could possible guess that they were one and the same? Simply miraculous.