Monday, August 31, 2009

evening chat

We have been hearing a young barred owl in the woods behind the house lately but it's tentative, nothing regular. I say young because it seems to be softly practicing its "who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all" call.

The one reliable place that I know to routinely see or hear one of the sweet-faced owls is, most conveniently, near the Visitor Center at Ijams. We often hear it conversing with the injured barred owl we adopted several years ago.

And with the gentle face like the one in the above photo, what owl wouldn't want an early evening "how-ya-doing" kind of chat?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

squirrel stew

Are you having trouble with squirrels raiding your birdfeeders? Frustratingly clever aren't they?

Here’s something to try. It's an old remedy, a 1940 recipe collected by the New Deal’s Federal Writer’s Program from Pulaski County, Arkansas for “Squirrel Mulligan Stew.” Admittedly, it’s a bit extreme but we are in hard economic times.

In a large pot of boiling water add:

4 squirrels
3 large Irish potatoes
1 medium-sized sweet potato
1 large onion
3 or 4 pods of okra
½ cup drippings (bacon grease) or butter
1 pod of red pepper
1 teaspoon of celery salt or 3 tablespoons of chopped celery
3 cups diced vegetables—cabbage, turnips, carrots, corn, field peas, bell peppers, or whatever other vegetables that are available

Bon appétit!

(I suppose that chicken could be substituted for the squirrel, but chickens really aren't raiding your birdfeeders are they?)

- Other vintage recipes gathered by this program have been collected in the book “The Food of a Younger Land” by Mark Kurlansky

Friday, August 28, 2009

drugged spiders

Following yesterday's orb-weaver story, perhaps today's post falls under the heading, "Did someone really do this?"

Karen Sue found this report in "The Handy Bug Answer Book" by Dr. Gilbert Waldbauer. It seems that orb-weaver spiders fed a high dose of caffeine weave webs that are barely recognizable, little more than irregular triangles of silk that couldn't possible catch an insect. (Spiders that live at Starbucks, be forewarned.)

But wait there's more.

Spiders enticed to ingest the hallucinogenic drug mescaline, made from the peyote cactus, build webs that are smaller than normal and that have abnormally variable angles. While spiders fed LSD waste extra time building abnormally neat but regular webs that would catch no more insects than webs built by spiders that are not stoned out of their little arachnid minds. (I wonder: Do they have hallucinations of tiny little people crawling up melting walls?)

What did counterculture drug advocate Timothy Leary say, "Turn on. Tune in. Drop out. Spin away."

Now, if you are like me, you only have one question: Who in the world would devise such tests?

Do you think it might be college biology students with a little extra time on their hands? And a good source for coffee and popular 1960s' drugs.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


On an early morning bird walk last Saturday at the nature center, we discovered that Thanksgiving had come early for one of the park's residents. Or perhaps it was Christmas.

The morning sun glistened off a spider web providing a dramatic back light for an orb-weaver wrapping its catch: a rather large cicada.

Unfortunately, I did not have my camera but Sue Wagoner, a visitor from Illinois, had brought hers along.

Worldwide there are more than 2,800 known species of orb-weavers. Many spin a new web each day, recycling the old one. Generally, towards evening, the spider consumes the old web, rests for about an hour, (only an hour after eating that much protein) and then spins a new web, often in the same location. Orb-weavers produce sticky and non-sticky silk as the above cicada found out.

Thank you, Sue.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

spiraling upward

I owe this one to Bob and Lynne Davis. They stopped by Ijams the other day to tell me about the ladies’-tresses growing unnoticed a couple miles away from the nature center in South Knoxville.

The unusual flowers, also know as spiranthes, are in the orchid family.

There are several species worldwide, and although Bob wasn’t 100 percent certain because of the subtle differences between the various species, he thought the ones growing near Ijams are “Spiranthes cernua,” commonly called nodding ladies'-tresses or, perhaps, "Spiranthes tuberosa," a.k.a. little ladies'-tresses.

The plants can grow to a height of 4.5- to 15- inches. The eye-catching aspect is that the small white flowers are arranged in a spiral around the stem. They’re like the staircase inside a lighthouse. As the stem grows taller and taller, the staircase is extended higher and higher.

Remarkable design, don't you think?

Although the unusual orchid named “Lady” is growing near a church parking lot, I'll resist the temptation for a reference to "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin. You know, something like the line, "Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know, Your stairway lies on the whispering wind.”

Did I mention that the wind was blowing when I took this photo?

“Ooooooooh, it makes me wonder.”

Monday, August 24, 2009

joe pye?

Who was Joe Pye? And why does he have a weed named in his honor?

This one has a bit of debate swirling around it.

According to one account, the plant is named for Joe Pye, a Native American medicine man who treated typhus (typhoid fever) with extracts made from this weed somewhere in the New England region, perhaps around the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1700s. Sadly, there is no one still alive from that era to verify the story.

In another strand of folklore, Joe Pye was not a Native American but rather a promoter of Indian themes in the 1800s. He also used this meadow-loving herb as a medicinal because it brought on sweating, which was considered helpful for fevers.

Yet, another explanation for the name may be the corruption of the Native American word “jopi” meaning fever.

The one thing all three have in common is that the plant was once used to treat fevers. That's a good thing.

Whatever is true, Joe Pye weed is a monster perennial that can grow to be eight feet tall, year after year. This is no pansy. The mauve colored flower heads can become as large as a basketball, so big and heavy that the plant bends over under their weight.

Whoever Joe Pye was, the weed that bears his name is a whopper!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

first salvo

Wait. Wait. Don't tell me.

Is fall around the corner? What happened to spring? Summer? Is this red on a smooth sumac the first salvo of autumn? Yikes. Does that mean winter is lurking in the bushes. Jack Frost. Cold. Ice. Snow. Dormancy. Heavy layers. Holiday shopping. Head colds. Dead batteries.

I think I'm having a panic attack. I'd better go find a tree to lie down under. Preferably one that is still green.

-photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Saturday, August 22, 2009

katy did it

This has been a raucous season for katydids. In the evenings, their proclamations have been loud, loud, loud.

Katydids always remind me of Andy, the young son of a friend named Bill Gregg. Over 20 years ago, he looked at one with me and said, “It looks like a green weef.” Yes, they are wonderfully leaf like, such camouflage!

Also known as long-horned grasshoppers (a perfectly boring name and somewhat misdirected since they are more closely related to crickets), katydids look like green leaves—six-legged green leaves. They get their more common name from their song: either a rapid three or four part phrase: "ka-tee-dittttttt” or “ka-tee-dit-itttttttt."

As legend has it, they are debating the guilt or innocence of a young woman named Katy. It seems Katy was in love with a handsome young man, but he scorned her and married her prettier sister. (Not a smart move.) After the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, they were found dead in their bed, poisoned.

Ever since that dark deed, the nocturnal insects have vociferously debated who killed the young couple, opining either "Katy did" or "Katy didn't," "Katy did" or "Katy didn't."

-photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Friday, August 21, 2009

is this chemistry?

Far be it from me to bring high school chemistry class into our little nature walks, but it is said that a cultivated hydrangea often mirrors the pH of the soil: acidic soils produce blue flowers, neutral soils produce very pale cream petals and alkaline soils results in pink or purple.

So is this one blue or pink or purple? Is it pH confused? Or am I? Is it pinkish purple, or bluish pink? Or is that one and the same?

Am I asking too many questions? Is my head spinning in circles? Should I go wash the car? Are my feet too big?

Tomorrow, we'll look at the high school physics behind the formation of rainbows. And then the fractal math in a fern. (Just kidding.) As Emerson opined, nature should be relished not probed.

No lady wants to give up her secrets.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

pawpaw island

"My visit was well timed, as it happened to be early fall, pawpaw season. I left to search for a patch I knew about on an island near downtown Sevierville.

"It was raining, at times hard and soaking, as I waded through a shallow section of the Little Pigeon River. Wandering around the tall grass on the soggy island, I wondered: Was I the first to search this place barefooted looking for food?

"I doubted it. During those long ago depression days, shoes were as hard to come by as groceries. And what about the Native Americans? The McMahan Indian Mound is located less than a mile from the secluded dollop of land."

Excerpt from my book "Natural Histories," published by UT Press.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


“Nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment....Follow your instinct and enthusiasm.”

- from the essay “Circles” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is short. Damn short. Find out what thrills you—your passion—and throw yourself into it with mad abandon. When your days are done, please never let it be said that you have not lived.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

they're not pets

Look at this sweet face. Would you do anything to harm it?

Lately, we've been getting several telephone calls at the nature center about box turtles. It's the summer season, it's hot, and the brightly patterned reptiles are out and about.

They are not lost! They are just a bit more active when it's warm. Nesting season should be over but there could even be a little of that spreading the old gene pool around going on out there.

In the state of Tennessee all reptiles are protected. You cannot bring them indoors and turn them into pets. Box turtles can live 130 years or more and that is quite a commitment. Don’t take away their freedom. Would you want to spend the next 100 years inside a cramped glass enclosure?

To quote one of my readers, "Wild box turtles often die in captivity because their needs—dietary and environmental—are not being met. This can even take a couple of years, and the decline may not be obvious." You would be sentencing them to a slow death.

I've also heard reports of box turtles that look sick, with growths or abscesses. If you find a sick-looking turtle take it to The University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital on Neyland Drive. They are the experts. Please, don't try to treat it yourself.

(This post was prompted by a woman I talked to who felt strongly that she could cure a sick box turtle and keep it despite my telling her she could and should do neither.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

wilting away

I return once again to Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area in South Knoxville. I've been there many times the past two months watching the fields of sunflowers TWRA plants to attract birds.

The large yellow flowers are wilting; their seeds ripening. Goldfinches are having, if you pardon the pun, a field day.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

is it a sign?

Dare we look for a sign? Dare I give financial advice? Dare I think about anything financial since I work at a non-profit and write books on the side? What do I know about profit?

But finding this new leaf so late in the season on a sycamore growing along the Neyland Drive Greenway, led me to wonder if it was a sign that the economy has made a real and lasting turnaround. New growth.

Sycamores, or as they once were called, buttonwoods, have a curious tie to the American stock market. The origin of the bartering place can be traced back to May 17, 1792, when the so-called "Buttonwood Agreement" was signed by 24 stockbrokers at 68 Wall Street in New York City. The signing, handshakes and pats on the back took place outside (as all good things do) under a buttonwood tree growing on Wall Street at the time.

On March 8, 1817, the organization drafted a constitution and renamed itself the "New York Stock & Exchange Board," although seeing that I am a naturalist, I would have preferred the Buttonwood Board.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

day's end

And finally, all good things must come to an end. The bees were drunk and we discovered we had far too few layers, perhaps we needed a little angelica. It gets cold on the Smokies crest very quickly, even in August. (We left the 90 degree temperatures in the valley to cool off.)

The clouds drifted away and as Jupiter and the Moon lifted their bright faces in the east, the sun dipped below the ridgeline to the west. Or was it the other way around?

Wrapped in everything we could find, Karen Sue and I watched a nice sunset from Clingman's Dome. At 6,643 feet, it's the park's (and the state's) highest peak.

Kathleen and Tim. Thank you for your kind comments yesterday and solving my little mystery for me. I cannot locate your contact info, so I have to thank you in this very public way. But thank yous should not necessarily be hidden.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

new bee bar

You can add this photo to our collection of flowers just beginning to unfurl. I love the birthing of it, the natalness. It's like looking at a newborn baby through the maternity ward window in the hospital, new to the world, filled with promise.

But the promise of this wildflower is stupefying.

At Indian Gap, on the Top of Old Smoky, we returned to the drunken bee angelicas and found this one just beginning to open for business. Think of it like TV's "Cheers," the neighborhood tavern where everyone knows your name.

By the time you read this, the bees will already have their buzz on.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

biles, bilious fever?

As the clouds flowed over the mountain socking us in for awhile, I noticed a cluster of turtlehead—sopping wet and dripping—growing near where we stood. In the genus "Chelone," which means turtle in Greek, this lovely wildflower is so called because its blooms supposedly look like the heads of pink turtles.

"The Indians use a strong decoction of the whole plant in eruptive diseases, biles, hemorrhoids, sores, etc," wrote the early American naturalist Constantine Rafinesque. "Few plants promise to become more useful in skillful hands; it ought to be tried in yellow fever and bilious fever."

Biles and bilious fever? I'm not sure if we have worried that much about these two maladies since the early 1800s when Rafinesque wrote about turtlehead but even so, we must remember this plant. It could come in handy should there be an outbreak of any of the eruptive diseases.

Monday, August 10, 2009

great and smoky

In the national park, you are never too far away from clouds, mist, fog, etc. Generally, all you have to do is travel up, and you'll bump into a cloud or two along the way. After we finished our blueberry snack at Indian Gap, we did just that at Clingman's Dome.

The Great Smokies are great and smoky, although Great Cloudy Mountains would be a more appropriate name.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Our trip to Indian Gap proved fruitful.

I've posted for a week about what we found at one well-traveled mountain crossing in the Great Smokies. There were the cloaked knotty-horn, the Turk's cap, the drunken bees and even the parasitic, strangling dodder. That was all well and good, quite interesting. Fun to think about.

But although those natural curios may thrill, they can't sustain. Luckily, blueberries were also beginning to ripen. I’m not sure what species, there are several native to the mountains, but at 5,270 feet above sea level, it’s a safe bet that it was one of the highbush varieties found the park.

Did I say "yum!"

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

orange obession

I spent the weekend in Gatlinburg quietly editing my new book. The only thing more tedious than editing a manuscript is writing it in the first place. Word. Phrase. Sentence. Paragraph. Chapter. On and on and on, it's endless. After hours of staring at a computer screen, bleary-eyed and stiff-backed, I needed a break.

We decided on a road trip to the mountains. I’m working on completing my collection of “orange-flower” photos. Why? It’s such a finite set; there are very few of them. For some reason, in the floral world, nature avoids the color orange. On this day, I wanted to locate the native orange lily. (I’ve already posted on two non-native imports: tiger lily and orange daylily.) Although it looks something like a tiger lily, the Turk's cap lily has been here all along. It predates even my hillbilly ancestry.

Years ago, Karen Sue worked at LeConte Lodge and knew that the Turk’s cap blooms in the high elevations of the national park in mid-summer, so off we went to the top of Old Smoky. We were quickly rewarded.

The petals of this statuesque wildflower curve sharply backward on themselves. This once gave someone the impression of the caps worn historically by the Turks, hence the name.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


If anyone has a sugar maple anywhere near the Knoxville area and would not mind letting someone tap it for sap next late winter/spring, please let me know.

I know someone who moved here from the north who wants to rekindle her sugaring skills and make some natural maple syrup. I'm sure she would share some of her end product.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

July's passing

July. July. July. It's come, and it's gone.

I associate sunflowers with sunny July and it's hard to see their season come and go as well.