Wednesday, July 30, 2008


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

The poem "Trees" was written by American journalist, poet, literary critic, lecturer and editor, Alfred Joyce Kilmer. As a poet, Kilmer’s work celebrated the common beauty of the natural world as well as his religious faith.

Kilmer was killed on this date 90 years ago in World War I. During the Second Battle of Marne, he likely died immediately after being struck by a sniper's bullet to the head near Muercy Farm, beside the Oureq River near the village of Seringes in France. He was only 31 years old. Kilmer is buried in French soil in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery near Fere-en-Tardenois.

I can only hope that a tree is standing somewhere nearby.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

brilliance part 3

On this date—July 29, 1890—118 years ago, Artist Vincent van Gogh died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He suffered from an undetermined mental illness and probably felt he was a financial burden on his brother Theo. I have always believed creative exhaustion also played a role. During the last ten years of his life, Vincent produced more than 2,000 works, including about 1,100 drawings and sketches and roughly 900 paintings. Despite this tremendous output, Van Gogh died virtually penniless.

One of his favorite subjects was sunflowers. (See July 16 posting.) On March 31, 1987, Japanese insurance magnate Yasuo Goto paid $39,921,750 (in US dollars) for Van Gogh's still life, “Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers” at auction at Christie's in London, at the time it was a record-setting amount for a work of art.

In the pariah filled world of impressionist and post-impressionist art, Vincent was the king pariah, an outcast to the end.

- Painting: "Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers" (January 1889). Today located at the Sompo Japan Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan.

Monday, July 28, 2008

heart sick

My city is in shock, stunned over the Sunday morning shootings at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. I know many people who go to that church; it's located near my home. The man who died protecting the congregation–Greg McKendry–lived near me as well. This is just tragic. Senseless. Senseless. Senseless. My deepest heartfelt condolences to all the families involved.

“Who can think of the sun costuming clouds
When all people are shaken”

- From “A Fading of the Sun,” by Wallace Stevens

Friday, July 25, 2008

wilderness group

I met with the good folks of Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning in Oak Ridge last evening for a short program about the history of the nature center. The talk included two of our non-human staff members. They always steal the show.

Thanks for the invitation!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

canoe trips

In the summer, the golden jewel of the Tennessee River shoreline is the prothonotary warbler. These school bus yellow and gray songbirds raise their young in hollow stumps and old downy woodpecker nest cavities near the water’s edge. There, they forage the shadows of overhanging branches looking for insects to eat.

Their name comes from their wonderful sunflower color: officials in the Roman Catholic Church known as the "protonotarii" once wore golden robes. If their saffron garments were as remarkable as the birds that bare their name, they must be stunning.

Prothonotary warblers are somewhat difficult to see from dry land; the best way to find one is in a canoe.

In fact, there’s no better way to beat the summer heat than in a canoe. The City of Knoxville Department of Parks and Rec is offering canoe trips every Saturday morning for the rest of the summer into October. Each trip starts at Holston River Park and ends at Ned McWherter Park east of downtown (roughly four river miles).

Kristin Manuel, Knoxville's aquatics coordinator, is the organizer of the trips. A naturalist from Ijams Nature Center will go along to help identify plants and animals along the way. On some trips, that would be me. (I know it’s a difficult assignment—leisurely canoeing down a slow moving river—but I’ll do my best to keep up a brave face.)

In addition to prothonotary warblers, we’ll look from herons, osprey, kingfishers and a possible bald eagle.

The canoe tours are every Saturday morning at 8 a.m., but you must reserve your spot on the Wednesday before. The cost is $20, but group rates are available. For more information or reservations visit:

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ijams talk

On Thursday, July 24 at 7 p.m., I will be speaking at the next meeting of TCWP (Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning) in the Craft Room, Oak Ridge Civic Center.

My talk is about the history of Ijams Nature Center, tracing its roots back to 1910 when Alice and H.P. Ijams built their home (pictured above) on 20-acres of land on the Tennessee River in South Knoxville.

Alice and H.P. (Harry Pearl) were more comfortable outside than in. They created gardens, trails and ponds but the young couple left most of their property wooded and wild, establishing a wildlife sanctuary they shared with the public. The couple also taught classes in bird identification and gardening while championing conservation issues. Their property became the cornerstone of the 175-acre nature park that honors their legacy today. In many ways, Alice, H.P. and their four daughters—Elizabeth, Jo, Mary and Martha—were this area's original "green" family.

TCWP (Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning) is dedicated to achieving and perpetuating protection of natural lands and waters by means of public ownership, legislation or cooperation of the private sector. While their first focus is on the Cumberland and Appalachian regions of East Tennessee, their efforts may extend to the rest of the state and the nation.

- Photo: Original Ijams' home became the first Visitor Center for the park

Sunday, July 20, 2008

tanagers delight

We had a wonderful turnout for an early morning bird walk at Ijams Nature Center yesterday. Thank you! After meeting at the Visitor Center our group drove to Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area, 400-plus acres one-half mile east of Ijams.

Although it's a bit late in the season, we were looking for some of the summer species that might still be actively singing: indigo buntings, common yellowthroats, yellow-breasted chats, white-eyed vireos, yellow-billed cuckoos, and found all but the cuckoo.

But, as is often the case, the birds that delighted us the most were ones we didn't expect to see: a pair of summer tanagers. Ron, one of the group members with an excellent eye for birds, was the first to find them. We got much better looks at the yellowish female, which perched in the open preening for a long time, but we did get a brief glimpse of a male.

Known as the "summer redbirds" these tanagers are found all across the state during the warm, nesting season, but they are far more abundant in Middle and West Tennessee. Although their preferred habitat is wooded lowlands with open spaces, here in the valley they are far less common. In the Volunteer State, you are most likely to find them along the Western Highland Rim, roughly halfway between Nashville and Memphis.

Also, special thanks to Mary, who took a taxi to be with our group. She has an excellent ear for both bird and insect song.

- Special thanks also goes to Charles (Chuck) Nicholson. His "Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Tennessee" published by UT Press in 1997 is an indispensable reference to the nesting birds of our state.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Garden Girls

Garden Girls! Garden Girls! Don't you just love the Garden Girls! Once again, I’ll be the guest on "The Garden Girls" radio show this Saturday, July 19 at 2 PM. On your radio dial, it's WNOX FM-100.3

“The Garden Girls” is hosted by Andrew Pulte and features UT's Dr. Sue Hamilton and garden expert Beth Babbit. It’s a lively call-in talk show filled with lots of useful tips and information about gardens and nature in Tennessee.

This Saturday, we’ll be talking about hummingbirds, passionflower, turtles and whatever other topics the telephoning listeners want to discuss. It’s great fun!

For more information go to:

To listen to a past program go to:

My last visit on the program was on November 24.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

brilliance part 2

Sunflowers are native to the Americas. (See July 14 posting.) The earliest known examples of a fully domesticated sunflower were found at the Hayes archaeological site in Middle Tennessee and date back over 4,000 years.

In South America, the Incas used the sunflower as an image of their sun god. Gold representations of the flower, as well as seeds, were taken back to Europe early in the 16th century.

Sometime later, in France, sunflowers became a favorite of artist Vincent van Gogh. He painted a series of six still lifes with sunflowers while living at Arles in 1888 and '89. (Only five still exist; one was destroyed by fire in World War II on August 6, 1945.)

Vincent used the sunflower paintings to decorate the “yellow house” he shared with artist Paul Gauguin.

- Painting: "Vase with Twelve Sunflowers" (August 1888). Today located in Munich, Germany at the Neue Pinakothek.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

true economy

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, said Henry David Thoreau, and if his book continues to attract us it is because we are desperate. In desperation, I turn to night as Thoreau turned to his pond. I measure those starry spaces with the same care of rods and chains that the naturalist of Concord used to measure Walden. Thoreau plumbed the depths of Walden Pond and marked them on his map. He surveyed the fish that lived in the waters of the pond, he catalogued its weeds, and during winter he recorded the thicknesses of the ice. It was a part of his balance book, an accounting of his riches, a reckoning of a fortune that was there for the taking. These, said Thoreau—the measures, the depths, the thicknesses—are a man’s true economy.”

- From 1985’s “Soul of the Night” by Chet Raymo (born in Chattanooga), retired physics professor, astronomer, naturalist. Just a wonderful, wonderful book

Sunday, July 6, 2008

green Sasquatch

As wildflowers go, this one is a big boy, or girl, you know how plants are, sort of gender-fused. Some are males, some are females but most are male/female.

This colossal green thing is the Sasquatch of wildflowers and can reach heights of up to nine feet. It also likes to be tucked away in high mountains but unlike fly poison (see July 4 posting) cow parsnip is edible. The stems and roots can be cooked but because the flowers resemble those of water hemlock, a very, very poisonous plant, most people avoid it. When in doubt, go without.

The white flowers are borne in clusters called umbels (a great Scrabble word) that can be eight inches wide.

Cow parsnip is widespread but somewhat hard to find in Tennessee--generally the higher elevations of the Appalachians--and absent farther south.

In some locales, the plant was known as Indian celery. Native Americans used about all parts of the plant including turning the dried, hollow stems into play flutes for their children.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

roadside delicacy

Perhaps, methinks, my mind is in the gutter or ditch or highway culvert. Like yesterday, I’m noticing a flower growing along our roadsides.

Orange daylily, its botanical name “Hemerocallis fulva” means “beautiful for a day” “tawny orange in color,” is originally from Asia (from the Caucasus east through the Himalaya to China, Japan, Korea and southeastern Russia) but like chicory (see yesterday's posting) it has become naturalized and widespread, often found in damp low-lying areas throughout most of the United States except the desert Southwest. Too hot and dry!

All parts of the daylily are edible, and plants have been cultivated for thousands of years in Asia for food. This one I have tried. I once collected a pot full of flower heads before they opened and boiled them like potatoes. Surprisingly, they tasted rather bland; perhaps I should have mixed them with chicory.