Saturday, May 30, 2009

the child within

“To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”*

Long before the New Age movement that heralded the need to find "the child within," there was Emerson. And I might add, other than Emerson’s obvious gender bias, that child within he wrote about can take particular delight in the late night visitation from a treefrog. (See yesterday's posting.)

* From “Nature” published in 1836 by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) American essayist, philosopher and poet, best remembered for leading the transcendentalist movement of the early 19th century.

Friday, May 29, 2009

late night visitor

Thursday evening: rain. Not hard, just a shower. The real show, the thunder and lightning, had passed to the north. We heard it go by like the 11 o’clock freight train that rumbles along in the distance.

We were in the livingroom. The TV was on but we were all distracted, reading: Rachael, a novel; Karen Sue, a book on gardening; and me, an article in “Smithsonian” about who was actually the first man to reach the North Pole. And guess what? It wasn’t Robert Peary. He apparently lied. A major deception that the entire world bought because it wanted a hero. He wasn't a hero. The evidence strongly suggests that Frederick Cook beat him by a full year. Peary knew Cook, knew the truth and spent most of his time trying to discredit Cook's story. (Peary could give no real details of what the North Pole was actually like; Cook could.) But in the end, Peary's smear campaign worked and he got all the accolades. Cook died years later scorned, a banished footnote to history.

Back to the livingroom: lost in the reverie of the printed page, our individual distractions came to an end when we noticed a greenish lump, about the size of a bite of sushi—California Roll: cucumber, avocado and a bit of crab—appeared to be hopping across the carpet. Any greenish lump, sushi or not, is not supposed to hop across the floor.

Going to investigate, we discovered a Cope’s gray treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) had somehow found his way indoors. But how? We did not know, but froggy had come a courtin’. He did ride. What no sword and pistol by his side? Perhaps it was a girl.

This is their mating season, I’ve been hearing their "eeerrrrrrrrrrr" calls from the woods behind the house for the past few weeks. Let’s hope this one finds a partner. Now that we have gotten to know it, we feel we have a vested interest in its procreation.

-Photo: Rachael with Cope's gray treefrog

Thursday, May 28, 2009

true or false? 2

Oh, I glean such joy from the common names of the botanicals!

It's generally more of a reflection of our own history—hopes, foibles, idiosyncrasies, imaginings, bêtes noires—than of the label-heavy plant's. They, after all, got along just fine before we named them; let's hope the weight of the nomenclature doesn't break them down.

For example, take True Solomon Seal (and if that's not enough, its Latin name is polygonatum biflorum). The plant's below ground portion is a rhizome, a rootlike subterranean stem, commonly horizontal in position, that usually produces roots below and sends up shoots progressively from the upper surface. After each growing season when the above ground stem breaks off it leaves a circular scar that to some resembles the “Seal of Solomon” of Hebrew folklore.

In our area, there is a true and a false Solomon Seal. Knowing this makes you as wise as Solomon. Although both plants were used as herbal medicinals by Native Americans, the true Solomon Seal apparently had more applications. It was preferred to the false, hence the true one was truly better.

The flowers of the true hang below the leaf stem like small yellow bells. (For a photo of the false, see my May 10 posting.)

And just in case you are wondering about that lengthy Latin name, Polygonatum is from the Greek and means "many knees," a reference to the yearly joints on the rhizomes, and biflorum means that the flowers are in twos, hence "many kneed, two flowered." Dull, but descriptive.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Sunday, May 24, 2009

bulking up

So, you have a teenager at home and you know how much they can eat. But, gram for gram, they just don't compare to caterpillars.

There are a lot of vegetarians in the natural world, so many that plants are under an all out assault most of the time. Consequently, many plants have adopted various defense mechanisms to protect themselves.

Common milkweed produces a sticky, milky white sap. The plant's latex contains large quantities of glycosides, which renders the leaves and seed pods toxic. Sheep and other large mammals cannot eat it, but there are several insects that have developed immunity to the milk of milkweed. The most famous of which is the monarch butterfly caterpillar. Like most caterpillars, they are little eating machines. They are incessant.

Some caterpillars eat as much as 27,000 times their body weight to support their lives as flying insects. I was a seven pound baby. That would be like me eating 94.5 tons of food my first few weeks of life, which I do not think I did. But I'd better ask my mother.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Saturday, May 23, 2009

within limits

“To live within limits, to want one thing, or a very few things, very much and love them dearly, cling to them, survey them from every angle, become one with them—that is what makes the poet, the artist, the human being.”

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) German writer, philosopher, polymath

Friday, May 22, 2009

out my window 2

I would be remiss, if I did not acknowledge a second plant blooming outside my office window. (See May 20 posting.) Another one that pays homage to the Old Dominion, the state named in honor of the "virgin" queen of England: Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who coincidently was beheaded (for not producing a son) 473 years ago this week, on May 19, 1536.

Reportedly, just before she died, Boleyn remarked, "I heard say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck."

The plant is called Virginia sweetspire or “Itea virginica." Like the good Queen Mother, its floral display is borne with a little neck that supports a raceme of small white, star-shaped lacy flowers.

This one, more shrub than tree, likes to grow in swamps or near the edges of streams or lakes. None of these I have, just outside my window, but the landlocked sweetspire seems to be quite pleased with its surroundings.

It's listed as being tardily deciduous (don't you just love that?) which means like the sweetbay, it does not always drop its leaves in the fall in a timely manner. It just depends on how far north it finds itself growing.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Monday, May 18, 2009

to boldly go

This one is another import, its ancestry goes back to Europe as does mine, and now it's widely naturalized in North America as is my species.

The perennial creeps along slowly, often growing in cracks of rocks or masonry, in little or poor soil or no soil. Does it even need soil? You have to admire its fortitude, its insistence to live; its ability to thrive where another plant could not, would not, should not. But it does. You know, "boldly go where no one has gone before," (cue the Star Trek theme), perhaps that's why its yellow flowers are star shaped, like an open cluster in a far off galaxy.

Different sources give it a variety of common names: goldmoss stonecrop, goldmoss sedum, biting stonecrop, mossy stonecrop or even wallpepper. But in this case, perhaps its Latin name works best “Sedum acre," from the Latin "sedo" meaning "to sit." And left alone, in time, it just might fill an acre.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Saturday, May 16, 2009

milestone: #500

It's hard to believe. Where does the time go?

My 500th weekly nature column appears in the farragutpress this week. The first one was published on August 25, 1999. Over the ten year run, that works out to roughly 225,000 words. I'm not sure if I even know that many words.

Special thanks to Dan, Linda, Kim and all the rest of the staff at the best community newspaper in the valley. No fluff here. Each week it's full; 100 percent local news plus that nature boy. What else could you possibly want?

For more information go to:

or read the 500th column, "Nine thrush a-singing" at:

Friday, May 15, 2009

lost clutch

Spring, in all of its fury, bursts with life. Trees. Birds. It’s a mad rush to reproduce. But it also has its share of tragedies.

An intense storm pushed through our valley last week, the trees swayed and cracked. One large limb of a tuliptree near our driveway came smashing down. The tree is in flower, and the asphalt was strewn with broken branches, leaves and Dreamsicle orange flowers. I couldn’t clean it up immediately because of the heavy rain, so I waited until the next day.

Among the debris, near the mailbox, I found the bodies to two young robins: nestlings perhaps only a few days from becoming fledglings, but because their wings were not quite fully developed, they could not escape the storm. They were at its mercy, and its mercy did not fall their way. It came to a crashing end. Oh the pathos: to have wings and be unable to use them.

As I cleaned up the scene, adult robins were moving about the area. They looked lost, or distressed, or, perhaps, I was reading more into the scene then was really there. I couldn’t help but think they were the parents of the lost clutch. After all, it was their territory. Did they feel a sense of loss? Or was it just another day in robin world? Are their lives day to day? Or can they look back with remorse?

I chose to post a photo of the tree at the top and not the carnage because the tree, in all of its fury, continues to bloom. Life goes on. The two dead birds, I buried in the leaves by the roadside.

"I am the angel of reality, Seen for a moment standing in the door."

- from the poem, "The Angel Without Doctrine" by Wallace Stevens

Thursday, May 14, 2009

well deserved

Congratulations to my good friends (They helped me celebrate my birthday two years ago and you know how traumatic that can be. It was a kindness I won't forget.) at Operation Migration. Last week they received a Partners in Conservation Award at the Department of Interior from Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar in Washington D.C. It was an honor that was well deserved.

Operation Migration (OM) has spent the best part of the last decade working to reintroduce an "eastern" flock of migrating whooping cranes, America’s tallest and, arguably, most elegant and endangered bird.

Historically, there had once been an eastern population but those cranes were all killed around 1900. Each year, OM trains a small group of young cranes to follow ultralight aircraft south for the winter. Once the cranes know the way, they’ll continue to migrate the rest of their lives. In time, the leggy students will mature, find a mate and teach their own young how to migrate. Whooping cranes mate for life and can live 30 to 50 years.

This is a remarkable story: the first time in human history that our species has taught another species a lost behavior. Not as easy as it sounds. In truth, it's remarkably difficult.

For more information on how you can help, most notably, make a donation, go to:

- Photo taken at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

tugyonju crazy

This is my second azalea posting of the year (see April 17) but the varicolored shrubs have been particularly intense this season; I just cannot help myself. You might say that I’ve almost become intoxicated on their flamboyance; call it “tugyonju crazy.”

In Korea, there is a traditional alcoholic beverage made from azalea blossoms, called Tugyonju, which literally means “azalea wine.” I understand its appeal, but I wonder: What color it is? Purple? Red? Orange? Pink? White?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

wayward scissor-tail

Congratulations to my friend Kathy Bivens, Secretary of the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society (KTOS), who located a scissor-tailed flycatcher at UT’s research and education center farm at Rockford late in the afternoon last Friday.

The flycatcher with the kite-like tail was a long, long, long way from its Texas/Oklahoma summer home range.

Tom Howe, also of KTOS, verified the bird on Saturday and reportedly took some photos. (The picture above is a file photo, not the actual bird Kathy and Tom saw.)

Perhaps illustrating the pure evanescence of the natural world, Kathy says the magnificent bird has not been seen since. Poof! Here one day, gone the next. But the farm is a big place and she is going to continue to look. I spent an hour walking the gravel road of the open pasture land late yesterday myself, hoping to find the wayward Tyrannus but alas, it wasn't meant to be.

The airport is very near the farm, perhaps the vagabond caught a ride home.

(As a p.s., I spoke to Karen Hiller, sister of Ijam's Park Manager Ed Yost, who is visiting from Pennsylvania. She found a scissor-tail in her state about eight to ten years ago, so the birds do occasionally become long-distance travelers. )

Sunday, May 10, 2009

true or false?

Although not that closely related to true Solomon seal (Polygonatum biflorum), false Solomon seal (Maianthemum racemosum)—now that's a mouthful—does look very similar. It's easy to confuse the two. The flowers are the chief visible difference. With the true version, the flowers hang down from the stem like little bells; with the false, it's a panicle festively borne from the end like exploding fireworks.

Native Americans used the roots of both plants as herbal medicines. For the European settlers, knowing this made you as “wise as Solomon."

American Indians used a poultice made from the roots of false Solomon seal as an effective treatment for sunburns. It also has strong laxative properties. Strong. So, the the books are correct, its better to observe not imbibe.

I recently encountered a remarkably lush colony of the wildflower at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


I view myself lucky.

As part of my job at the nature center, I get to help care for a turkey vulture.

She was hit by a truck in North Carolina and made her way to the American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge for rehab. It took awhile. She eventually recovered from her injuries but had become completely imprinted on her human caregivers. That's where we come into the picture. She was moved to Ijams and we'll care for her the rest of her life.

I've worked with injured owls and hawks for years, but never a turkey vulture. What a personality. The first thing we noticed is that she's far more inquisitive than the other birds. An owl can (and does) sit on a perch for hours watching the world pass but the vulture gets bored. She wants something to explore, something to ponder.

As a rule we feed her dead mice, which she gobbles down quickly. And then she’s bored again. So recently, our wildlife biologist gave her the remains of a turkey carcass. (No gravy. No dressing. No yams. That would have been wasted on her.)

Oh, was she thrilled with the leftovers. Long lost memories stirred inside her knubby little noggin'. She walked around it, looking at it this way and that, picking a morsel from here and a morsel from there. It entertained her for hours.

Now she routinely gets such treats. It's the least we can do.

Friday, May 8, 2009

best wishes

Happy birthday goes out to Sir David Attenborough, BBC broadcaster/naturalist/educator, who has been bringing the overwhelmingly diverse natural world into our homes for decades. His first mini-series to air in the U.S., "Life on Earth" in 1979, changed my life and my view of it and its rightful place on this third rock from the sun forever.

And for that, I say "thank you."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

different drummer

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

As indeed, he did.

Passage from "Walden: or, Life in the Woods," first published in 1854.

Henry David died 147 years ago today.

Monday, May 4, 2009

aim high

"I like the idea of aiming high. Navigators have been aiming at stars for ages. They haven't hit one yet, but they got where they wanted to get because they knew where to aim."

- From "Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run" by David Brower.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


Tennessee's own batman

"You have to see it to believe it: a natural phenomenon that’s as remarkable as it is primal, a throwback to a time when Tennessee’s opulent backwoods teemed with wildlife.

We were huddled at twilight roughly eight feet above Nickajack Lake on an observation deck built by TVA. The wooden platform surrounded by aromatic cedars is located just off I-24 in Marion County at the Maple View Public Use Area. The deck faces the 140-feet wide by 50-feet tall rectangular entrance to Nickajack Cave, a gapping portal into the dark subterranean world beneath terra firma.

It was a hot summer’s evening. Kyle Waggener, senior naturalist from Chattanooga Nature Center, led the group and just as he predicted as night settled over the lake at about 9:05 p.m., the sky began to fill with thousands and thousands of gray bats. They flowed from the cave’s entrance like dark gray smoke from a fire. Nickajack is a nursery cave used by the species to birth and raise their young. The current summertime population inside the cave is estimated to be between 60,000 and 100,000.

“This is one of the great natural spectacles of our region,” declared naturalist Waggener. And it is wondrous to see, perhaps even miraculous, because with the spectacle comes the realization that just a few short years prior to our visit, the endangered gray bat had disappeared from the site completely. But the story of their triumphant return begins several decades earlier in a much smaller cave, many miles upstream.

A student of the world, Merlin Devere Tuttle was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1941. His father, a biology teacher who loved to travel, eventually moved his family to East Tennessee. As a teenager, Merlin attended Little Creek Academy in west Knox County and soon began to explore nearby Baloney Cave with his newfound high school friends. One mammal found inside the cave in particular intrigued the budding young biologist.

“I was fascinated by the bats,” remembers Tuttle...

For the rest of the article, check out the May/June issue of The Tennessee Conservationist for the feature I penned about the Volunteer State's own batman: Dr. Merlin Tuttle.

The article also details the story of his work with the gray bat, Myotis grisescens, and the species hopeful recovery.