Tuesday, March 31, 2009

walk freely

"There is no destination in Free Walking Meditation, only exploration of your inner landscape. You are walking freely in the woods, not trying to go anywhere or do anything. You're just moving and breathing and smelling and hearing and letting the woods call to you. Perhaps you see a slight trail or a contour in the land that beckons. Follow it. You see a softness in the forest floor. Take off your shoes and walk on it. Sit down and close your eyes. Try moving very slowly, taking your time. But if you feel like running, run! Do whatever the forest urges you to do."

- From "The Wild Within" by Paul Rezendes

Monday, March 30, 2009

not red

Brrrrrrr! With temps in the 30s for the next two nights, I guess we are having redbud winter because that's what's in bloom everywhere. The lowlands are sprinkled with red.

Red? Is it me? Or am I just being too persnickety, but redbud is just not red. It's magenta, a purplish-pink that's more fuchsia than red. In fact, fuchsia would serve the tree better than red. That color honors German physician Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) one of the founding fathers of modern botany, so there's a pedigree to the color. It would make a great name for the tree but, of course, fuchsia is already used for another flowering plant. So, I guess we are stuck with the unimaginative redbud. How unfortunate, 'cause it's just not red.

Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Sunday, March 29, 2009

cow slop

Four days of off and on rain have left the dark-soiled sloppy places here in the valley even sloppier, growing conditions that are perfect for Virginia bluebells, a.k.a. cowslip.

This second commonly used name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “cuslyppe,” or cow slop. Now, how aromatic sounding is that? Brings back memories of life on the farm. I’ve trudged through these kinds of places and as you might guess: you have to watch your step.

Bluebells flourish in low-lying damp locations and the well-fertilized soil of sloppy cow pastures.

This brings to mind an Ancient Greek axiom: "beauty can grow from a lowly root, fed by unpleasing things." Squalor. Or to modernize the notion: beauty is often found in the most unlikely places, all you have to do is be receptive. Or in this case, slop through the mud to find it.

Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

itsy bitsy

Let's sing in unison (and it's OK to use your fingers, no one is watching):

"The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out. Out came the sun and dried up all the rain. And the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again

A rainy day here in the valley; a good time to look for itsy bitsy spiders, after all, they've been washed from the spouts and must go somewhere.

Friday, March 27, 2009

good samara

And it all happens so fast.

Wasn’t it just last week that I took a photo of red maple flowers intending to post it? Red maples are one of the very first plants to bloom every year, even before the first day of spring. But, I delayed. Oh, yes I delayed and now, it’s too late. They have come and gone. The seasons move on.

As Poor Richard said, “You may delay, but time will not.” (Question: If he was so wise, why was he poor?)

Red maples are already producing fruit. Yes, callow fruit: long double samara with lovely chartreuse and pink wings that will, in a brief time, twirl to the ground like tiny organic helicopters. And we'll be raking up the fall leaves before you can say Ben Franklin.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


“So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.”

From a poem I had to memorize in English class at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School. Thank you, Mrs. Sue Cox.

Today is the birth date of its author: poet Robert Frost, born in 1874.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Camouflage works both ways.

Not only does it allow a mousy gray-brown prey animal hide on the forest floor, but it helps a motionless tree-toned predator blend into the barren canopy.

If you have ever wondered why a barred owl is colored and patterned the way it is, one picture is worth a thousand words. What first appeared to be an oddly shaped tree at Ijams Nature Center, proved to be more. A bright yellow owl simply would not blend in.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

seasons change

“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”

- Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870), English novelist and social campaigner

Sunday, March 22, 2009

dying finches II

Recently, I posted about finches: house finches, goldfinches, pine siskins and purple finches dying mysteriously here in the Tennessee Valley. (See March 4 posting).

A couple of weeks ago, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) sent some of the dead songbirds to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study Center in Athens, Ga. for analysis.

“The results of the examination indicated that salmonella poisoning was the cause of death,” announced Scott Dykes, TWRA non-game biologist.

One caller wondered if it was bad seed; but everyone buys their seed from different sources.

Louise Conrad, veterinarian on staff at Ijams Nature Center, says that salmonella is a fecal contaminant. Finches often come to the feeders in groups and can pass the illness from one to another through their droppings, especially on the ground.

To combat the outbreak of salmonellosis, people should keep their feeders clean, periodically washing them in a mild solution of bleach water (one part bleach and nine parts water) or disinfect them often using Clorox Wipes. The bird poop is easy to see. Also, either rake or hose down the ground below the feeder or move it to another location for a while until the problem passes. You can also put up several small feeders and spread them around and for the time being, stop using one large one so that the finches themselves are not able to congregate at one location.

But, be mindful, salmonella can make humans sick too, so use gloves and do not wash birdfeeders in the kitchen sink. Any dead bird found around the feeder should also be promptly buried. (Don’t forget to wear gloves.)

The real mystery to me is why only finches? The titmice, chickadees and wrens that use the same feeders appear to be fine.

Let’s hope it stays that way.

Friday, March 20, 2009

it's spring

“Beauty is a form of genius--is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts in the world like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in dark water of that silver shell we call the moon.”

- Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854 - 1900) Irish playwright, poet and author

Yes. It’s the first day of spring. It's beautiful outside. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

here and gone

Here one day, gone the next. In a way, that describes us all, but for some, their time is far more succinct, a mote of dust drifting across a fading sky, here and gone, ethereal.

A walk through the woods at Ijams Nature Center finds a welcomed group of old friends: the so-called spring ephemerals. Woodland wildflowers are starting to peek through the detritus of the forest floor. Cutleaf toothwort and bloodroot were up and blooming. But their time is short; their days in the sun brief.

Woodland perennials like bloodroot, toothwort, hepatica, spring beauty, squirrel corn, Dutchman’s britches, celandine poppy, twinleaf, Virginia bluebells, Jack-in-the-pulpit and several species of trillium must grow, bloom and produce seeds quickly before the forest canopy leafs out and covers their homeland with shade.

These early beauties will come and be completely gone in a matter of weeks, living most of their year as rootstocks. But for a brief time, their presence carpets the Tennessee woodlands with a sea of vitality.

Their message is clear: Make good use of your time it soon will be gone.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

the fugue

“There are underlying patterns in nature—taxonomies, classifications, orders of relation, genealogies, laws. There are days when I am content to contemplate these patterns, as described by science on the printed page, as one might read in science the score on a Bach fugue, marveling at the carefully woven threads of counterpoint that provide the underlying structure of the music. And there are other days when the music is enough, in the ear alone, unanalyzed, resonant, imperative, all-enclosing…”

-From “Honey from Stone: A Naturalist's Search for God” by Chet Raymo.

If you get lost in the magnificent detail, you can overlook the overall grandeur. Today will be a good day to find a tree, sit back and enjoy the richness of the fugue.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

too soon?

Surprisingly, I saw my first tiger swallowtail of the season flying high through the tulip trees near my home last Sunday, March 8.

It appeared to be patrolling, probably indicating it was a male. These swallowtails are a treetop species. The females, once they have mated, lay their eggs on the leaves of various trees, including wild cherry, sweet bay, basswood, tulip tree, birch, ash, cottonwood, mountain ash and willow, but at this time of the year, there are no leaves.

We are weeks away from leaves. WEEKS.

Adult tiger swallowtails only live about twelve days. They feed on the nectar of flowers from a variety of plants including wild cherry and lilac, which bring them lower to the ground. Yet, none of these are really blooming now.

But, eating is only secondary. Reproduction is its top priority. My lone swallowtail's window of opportunity is small. Twelve days. As I write this, his winged life is half over. He's middle aged. By Monday, he'll be elderly. By Wednesday, a shadow of his former self, tattered and torn. By Friday, his twelve days are spent.

Does this mean that the male emerged from his chrysalis too early? Was it tricked by the three-day warm spell we had earlier in the week? Did he take a risk? Will his search for a mate go unrewarded? Will he starve to death before its twelve-day lifespan comes to an end?

Will his eagerness go for naught? His genes leave the gene pool? Does evolution favor the tardy, those that play it safe?

Thursday, March 12, 2009


“Fixed ideas prevent me from seeing clearly. My art makes me see again what is there, and in this respect I am also rediscovering the child within. In the past I have felt uncomfortable when my work has been associated with children because of the implication that what I do is merely play. Since having children of my own, however, and seeing the intensity with which they discover through play, I have to acknowledge this in my work as well.” - Andy Goldsworthy, from his book “Stone.”

Goldsworthy’s message is filled with wisdom. Fixed ideas DO prevent us from seeing. We should all approach each walk outdoors with no fixed ideas with the eyes of a child and a sense of wonder. If you are not familiar with the British environmental sculptor Goldsworthy, you should discover his work. (See my postings of March 5 and 6.)

Growing up with modest means in the mountains of East Tennessee, our toys were the rocks and sticks we found outside. Often, we would just pile up rocks. Goldsworthy has carried this sense of exploration to a most sublime conclusion, creating works of art that are as beautiful as they are natural. His book “Stone” is a portfolio of some of his creative explorations with found rocks, sticks, dirt, sand and stones. Look for it. Buy it!

Thanks, Karen Suzy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

misty morning

“More things are learnt in the woods than from books, trees and rocks will teach you things not to be heard elsewhere. You will see for yourselves that honey may be gathered from stones and oil from the hardest rock.”

- St. Bernard of Clairvaux, French abbot (1090 - 1153)

Thoreau knew the honey; he heard the whisper and called the dialogue our "elemental language," something we knew at birth but, somehow, we have lost the connection, in large part because of all the cultural knowledge and trifling minutiae our society forces us to learn. (Do we really care who Britney Spears is dating? Isn't that her business and not ours?)

Our lives are filled with endless, endless, endless, distractions that prevent us from hearing the wind, the morning birdsong, or even the wisdom of our own thoughts. What are we trying to tell ourselves that we are so dead set against hearing?

"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify," says the Master of Walden.

A misty morning is no longer something we can relish: see, feel, taste, touch, but rather, an inconvenience we have to drive through to get to work. Misty mornings are beautiful.

Monday, March 9, 2009

fresh greens III

Yesterday, on a short walk along the new Ten Mile Creek Greenway, the greenest thing I found was once again watercress. (See March 3 posting.) Islands and islands of lush water cress.

February 28, 1860: "I am surprised to see how my English brook cress has expanded...Many of the sprigs turn upwards and just rest on the water at their ends, as if they might be growing. It has also been eaten considerably by some inhabitant of the water. I am inclined to think it must grow in the winter."

- Henry David Thoreau, "Journals"

Sunday, March 8, 2009

turtle dreams

Turtles do not have calendars. There’s not enough room under their shells to store them. The warmth of the sun motivates the ectothermic reptiles. On cold days, they can’t even move. On warm days, they’re out and about.

The moderate temperatures of the past two days brought out the season's first red-eared slider at Ijams Nature Center. Educator Emily Boves was the first to spot it in the Plaza Pond. After spending the entire winter underwater, it was basking in the first sunlight it had seen in three or four months. Underwater in the cold, its heart barely beats, its metabolism slows and it's able to absorb enough oxygen from the water to meet its meager needs. To the slider, winter is just a long, long nap. I wonder: Does it dream turtle dreams?

Can you imagine what the sun must feel like after a season in the muck at the bottom of a pond?

Saturday, March 7, 2009


The flu came knocking on our door and we unsuspectingly let it in. We had heard that it was making a late visit to Tennessee, but we let down our guard. It has not been a very gracious visitor.

Friday, March 6, 2009

rivers and tides II

"When I make a work," says environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, "I often go to the very edge of its collapse. And that's a beautiful balance."

It’s a beautiful balance when it holds its form, a pile of rocks or sticks or ice when it collapses.

Goldsworthy (see yesterday's posting) knows that all things are in the flow of time, in transition. Our world is dynamic. Even his most substantial pieces hang together precariously. His egg-shaped rock carins sit in empty fields defying the elements that will in time bring them down.

It’s inevitable.

- Thank you, Karen Suzy

Thursday, March 5, 2009

rivers and tides

Nature is art.

And for British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy, nature IS his art.

The soft-spoken Goldsworthy creates site-specific sculpture out of leaves, sticks, rocks, sand, ice, whatever that is available. Unless he works with stone, most of his pieces only last for a matter of hours, or less. They are as ephemeral as nature itself. Ever changing, like the seasons, in transition, moving from one form to another. Often they are in or near water. He loves the fluidity of streams, rivers and tides. His muse must be a strong one, probably Gaia, i.e. Mother Earth; she certainly lives outdoors, a water sign: Pisces or Aquarius, I would imagine.

Goldsworthy may work for hours to create a piece, photograph it and then stand back to watch it fade away. Poof. By the end of the day, it's all gone. If you are not familiar with his name, then google it sometime and look at pictures of some of his creations. Prepare to be amazed. He makes it look effortless, but it is not. Pure genius.

After that, buy, rent or borrow the award-winning 2001 documentary “Rivers and Tides," and see how he does it. Watch a gifted artist; watch him work, think, create, flow into his work. Watch him build a unbelievably beautiful and delicate sculpture out of icicles. There's not an adjective in the English language that adequately describes it.

Thank you, Karen Suzy for sharing this with me.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

dying finches


I've heard from several people in the past two weeks about dying finches: house finches, goldfinches, pine siskins and even a purple finch, here in the Tennessee Valley. All near backyard feeders.

A search of the Internet turns up this quote which matches the description of what I've been hearing. "Over the last couple of weeks I've noticed a few birds (only greenfinches seem affected at the moment) on my garden feeders which have been looking pretty ill. Symptoms- slow and lethargic, not responding to danger, i.e. cats and people, sitting on the ground for long periods." Also, they have difficulty perching.

Greenfinches do not live in my part of the world, so apparently this is a widespread phenomenon.

It does not seem to be the finch conjunctivitis, the eye disease, that I witnessed at my own feeder last summer. Or is it?

Does anyone know what's going on??

(Pictured is a healthy European greenfinch.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

fresh greens II

Watercress (See yesterday's post) is a pungent member of the mustard family, rich in vitamins A and C. In his 1962 book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” Euell Gibbons has a recipe for watercress soup, which sounds delightfully satisfying. It would be just the thing to take the chill out of that ancestral log cabin my imagination found itself in yesterday.

Gibbons writes, "In gathering watercress, do not pull the whole plant. Twist, pinch or snip it off at the surface of the water. The below-water parts of the stem bear white roots at the nodes, which are tough and unpalatable."

Watercress can be eaten uncooked in salads, or, if cooked, it should be prepared like spinach. Gibbons says, "Don't really cook it; just Chinese it." Cook it lightly, over-cooking destroys many of the vitamins.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

warren's secret

“I like wherever I am. That’s my big secret.”

- singer-songwriter, Warren Zevon (1947-2003)