Wednesday, September 30, 2009

where's Blue Circle?

Kudzu. Kudzu. I've posted about its invasion before. Is this the old Blue Circle Drive-in on Chapman Highway?

The Blue Circle hamburger chain started in Knoxville in 1931. Their motto was straight to the point “a happy place for hungry people.”

But where have they all gone? Are they yet another victim of the creeping kudzu invasion?

Watch out!

Monday, September 28, 2009


We do not get many house wrens at the nature center; we’re in Carolina wren country.

Recently I received an email from Sue Wagoner in Illinois, deep in the heart of house wren nesting country.

Sue wrote, “The house wrens have plenty of personality and, of course, SPUNK. They are really vocal all summer and busy, busy, busy, all day long.

“I had a house wren fledgling in my backyard in early September. He ‘dropped’ in front of me as I was walking, so I watched him go from the shock of seeing me, to taking cover in the garden plants, then fly short distances and finally reach the top of this stump.”

She was then able to get the above photo.

Thanks, Sue

Saturday, September 26, 2009

love potion

As part of the local Big Read, I'm leading a medicinal plant walk today at the nature center at 2 PM. (It looks like it may rain.)

Just in case you cannot make it or we get rained out, here's a hot tip: the Native Americans used the powdered root of cardinal flower as part of a love potion.

Here's the caveat: I have no idea how it was applied, if it was mixed with any other ingredients or how much powdered root you needed. So, please do not dig up any cardinal flowers looking for love!

CAUTION: Romance is darn hard to find. It should happen naturally. (I wonder: If you use natural ingredients in a love charm, does that therefore mean it IS happening naturally?)

The last thing you want to do is use too much powdered cardinal root and have suitors descending all over you like the Southern beaus who surrounded Scarlett O'Hara in the opening scenes of "Gone with the Wind" or the cohort of admirers that must follow George Clooney wherever he goes. Or is it?

Do you need to borrow my shovel?

This year's Big Read novel is "Bless Me, Ultima" by Rudolfo Anaya.
For more info on upcoming events.

Friday, September 25, 2009

herbal plant walk

This year's National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read sponsored locally by the YWCA and the Knox County Public Library is now underway.

Everyone is encouraged to read Bless Me, Ultima by Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya.

The novel takes place in New Mexico just after World War II and follows the coming-of-age of Antonio, the youngest son in the Márez family.

Along the way, young Tony meets Ultima, a "curandera" or herbal healer, who teaches him how to gather herbs and roots she uses for folk medicines.

As part of the month-long exploration of the book, I will be leading an herbal plant walk at Ijams Nature Center tomorrow at 2 PM. We will look for some of the plants used locally by Native Americans and our ancestors for medicinal purposes.

The program is free. To register, call Sheila at 577-4717, ext. 10.

Rabbit tobacco, a.k.a. sweet everlasting: leaves and flowers were once used in tea for sore throats and as a mild sedative.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

broken hearted

Known in the Smoky Mountains by the folk name "hearts a-bustin'," Euonymus americanus is now doing just that: bustin'. Yesterday's rain only added to the plant's apparent pathos.

If you know anything about the lives of the mountaineers who lived in the hollows of the Great Smokies before the coming of the national park, you know their hearts were often broken, mostly by the early deaths of loved ones. Their lives were hard, insular; their cemeteries are filled with tombstones of people who died much too young. Mourning was a routine facet of their lives. They wore black. They grieved. They buried their dead. But who hasn't felt such heartbreak? Such a-bustin'?

The common name of the shrub refers to the plant's seed pods which are now ripe and a-bustin'. Once the seeds have matured, the red capsules burst, scattering the orange seeds up to 15 feet.

-photo taken about twelve feet from my front porch.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

RC Cola gone missing

I've posted about kudzu before, I'm beginning to feel embedded behind enemy lines, reporting on a silent, creeping invasion. The aggressive non-native, invasive vine is taking over large parts of the American South. (To be safe, I'll whisper.)

My question: What the heck is under this mountain of verdancy? It's towering over the lightpoles in the foreground.

This photo was taken near the Tennessee River on the south end of the Henley Street Bridge. Could this be the missing RC Cola sign, known by some long-time residents as "Mr. Googley-eyes"?

Does anyone remember the sign? Where did it go?

Watch out people! Get your face out of the computer! Our Southern pop culture is being erased. Next there will be no more black-and-white "See Rock City" barns along the roadsides. Hold on to your Moon Pies and GooGoo Clusters!

p.s. Moon Pies have been made in Chattanooga since 1917,
GooGoo Clusters have been made in Nashville since 1912 and RC Cola was developed in 1905 by a pharmacist/grocer named Claude Hatcher in Columbus, Georgia. Nehi came along in 1924.

Monday, September 21, 2009

peas OK, quails not

A member of the legume family, partridge pea thrives in poor soils and disturbed places: landscape stripped bare from fires, erosion or road construction.

The term "partridge pea" is often used to describe a wide array of small wild peas consumed by bobwhite quail. And although partridge peas are doing quite well (there are plenty of disturbed areas), partridges are not. According to the National Audubon Society, the Northern bobwhite population has declined 82 percent in the past 40 years.

- Photo taken along the Jean Teague Greenway

Sunday, September 20, 2009

unknown trifle II

I posted this "unknown trifle" a week ago with the hope that someone might be able to identify the odd little thing. The photo was taken by Sue Wagoner in Illinois.

Sue heard from an entomologist who taught a class she once attended. Here is his reply:

It's an "Ambush bug (in the Reduviidae family of the Hemiptera order). They get their name from sitting on flowers (most common on goldenrod) and 'ambushing' pollinators such as flies, moths, bees, wasps, etc. They often attack prey many times their size. In fact on more than one occasion, I have wondered why a butterfly wasn't moving on a flower only to look closely and see it was being eaten by an ambush bug! They don't show in the photo, but their front legs are raptorial (almost like a preying mantis)."

It seems that every rose may have its thorn but Queen Anne may have her assassin.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


You may have to help me with this one but I’m not really sure if ironweed the plant has anything to do with Ironweed the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by William Kennedy. I have a copy of the book but have not read it because I saw Ironweed the movie with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep and wasn’t thrilled. It's probably not their fault; I was just in a funny mood that night and didn’t want to see a motion picture about someone drinking his life away during the Great Depression.

Of course, living during the Great Depression might have been tinder enough for that fire.

On the other hand, ironweed the plant (Vernonia altissima)—the genus is named for English botanist William Vernon—is in bloom now at the nature center. As a medicinal herb, the Native Americans used ironweed to boost the blood for patients with anemia, i.e. lack of vitality, or whoever had recently lost a lot of blood and needed a shot of vitality.

Ironweed the plant tends to grow in wastelands, beside the road or empty lots and can reach heights of ten or twelve feet, so it can be a monumental wildflower.

Perhaps, I should rummage through my bookshelves and find Ironweed the novel and give it a go; it probably has an inner strength, i.e. vitality, like ironweed the plant.

Perhaps Kennedy was using ironweed the metaphor: iron for "strong" and weed for "unwanted."

Ironweed the novel. (He looks pretty grim on the cover, but in the movie he gets to kiss Meryl Streep.)

Ironweed the movie. (That's actually Streep on the left side.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

book talk

I'll be doing a short talk about my book, "Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley" on Sunday, September 20 at 4 p.m. at the Betty Anne Jolly Norris Community Library in downtown Norris, Tennessee.

Please, stop by and say hello.

Thanks to library director Patrisha Austin-Halsey and Kathy Bivens for arranging the talk.

big read

This year's National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read sponsored locally by the YWCA and the Knox County Public Library is now underway.

Everyone is encouraged to read Bless Me, Ultima by Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya.

The novel takes place in New Mexico just after World War II and follows the maturation of grade-schooler Antonio, the youngest son in the Márez family. As Tony comes-of-age, he witnesses several tragic events and is forced to deal with complicated moral issues, filtered through cultural, religious and family influences. He is also pressured to choose between the agrarian, devout heritage of his mother and the largely lawless, violent "cowboy" ways of his father's ancestry.

Along the way, young Tony meets Ultima, a "curandera" or herbal healer, who is accompanied by an all-seeing owl. Through his relationship with Ultima and close friends Samuel and Cico, Tony discovers simplicity and a oneness with nature, free of value judgments and the beauty of not living in the past, but in the here and now.

Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson would have applauded his choice.

As part of the month-long exploration of the book, Peg Beute and I will be leading an owl prowl at Ijams Nature Center tonight at 7:30 PM.

Will we find any "all-seeing" owls, either real or mythical? To find out, call 577-4717, ext. 10 to register for the program.

"Bless Me, Ultima" by Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


What did Steve Perry of the rock band Journey sing?
Was it "Don't stop believing"?

According to modern folklore, the laws of aerodynamics prove that a bumblebee (in the genus Bombus) should not be able to fly. It's too heavy and does not have the capacity—in terms of wing size or beats per second—to achieve flight.

Not being aware that scientists have proven it cannot fly, the bumblebee succeeds under “the power of its own ignorance.”

The myth about their lack of sufficient aerodynamics should be easy to test but every time an entomologist gets close enough, the bee simply flies away.

They are the fuzzy little engine that could.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

bird baldness II

I heard from Kathy McGinnis-Craft about bald cardinals. She forwarded the following from "Bird Watchers Digest":

"There's a bald bird at my feeder. What happened to it? Birds use their bills and feet to preen all sorts of nasty stuff out of their feathers - dirt, excess oil, mites, lice, ticks. But the one place a bird can't preen very well is its own head (sort of like that place in the middle of your back that itches, but you can't reach). When a bird, such as a cardinal, gets an infestation of feather mites, it can't get rid of all the feather-eating pests on its head. Combine this with a bird's annual late-summer feather molt (when most songbirds lose and replace almost all of their feathers gradually), and you may see a bird with no feathers on its head or neck. Until the new feathers grow in, the bird is seemingly bald. A bald cardinal looks black-headed because its dark skin is revealed in the absence of feathers."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

not a sleeping pig

Still ill, although many people around me are too.

We've been told it's the infamous swine flu. Do pigs feel this bad when they get sick? If so, they must lay down in the mud and sleep a lot.

Thought I'd post a photo of something better to look at than a sleeping pig, although a hog in repose has its own charm.

- Photo of butterfly-bush, a.k.a. summer lilac, a native shrub in Asia, now naturalized in the American South.

Monday, September 14, 2009

the highlands

“Well my heart's in The Highlands, gentle and fair
Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air
Bluebells blazing where the Aberdeen waters flow
Well my heart's in The Highlands
I'm gonna go there when I feel good enough to go.”

- "Highlands" by Bob Dylan.

My heart's also in the highlands. And I'm going to go there as soon as I'm well enough but today, I'm ill.

- Photo of honeysuckle, couldn't find any Aberdeen waters

Saturday, September 12, 2009

unknown trifle

“Everything is complicated; if that were not so, life and poetry and everything else would be a bore…How full of trifles everything is!”

I’ve stitched together two quotes from poet Wallace Stevens, but I think they nest snugly together like mismatched socks lying side-by-side in a dresser drawer.

Speaking of snuggled trifles and worlds within worlds within worlds, Sue Wagoner sent me this photo from Illinois.

It's of an insect tucked away inside a Queen Anne's lace. Sue said, "it is very small, around 1/4 inch-- almost totally camouflaged, and only when I saw the photo could I appreciated the intricate pattern!!"


I have no idea what it might be. Does anyone know? Or will it remain a beautiful unknown trifle.

Thanks, Sue.

Friday, September 11, 2009

small world

It's a small world.

Imagine living your entire life on a single milkweed plant oblivious to other milkweed plants. Or better still, imagine your family living generation after generation on a single plant. (Some insects go through several broods in a single year.) I'm not sure if this is true; they may be more mobile than the little red-and-black bugs appear to be at first glance, but they seem to stay put—trundle about, live their entire lives, sip their sap, meet each other, exchange greetings, mate, have babies—all on the same milkweed seed pod.

A small world indeed.

Once again I visited the colony of milkweed in front of the Visitor Center at Ijams and found, yet another, generation of milkweed bugs. This photo shows young ones and eggs. They are tiny.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

kudzu in flower

Many people are unaware that kudzu actually blooms, but it produces a somewhat flashy flower at this time of the year.

But, much like the art of Michelangelo after the Renaissance, the private parts of kudzu are rather demurely hidden under leaves.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

run scout, run!

For people not familiar with the American South, you are probably unaware that it is being consumed, one foot at a time, by an alien plant. Put away your flags boys, if the South is ever going to rise again, it'll have to do it through layer upon layer of kudzu.

In 1876, kudzu was introduced into the U.S. at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Originally from Japan, the fast-growing member of the pea family was promoted as a forage crop for livestock and a backyard ornamental. In Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” it’s growing on the arbor off the Finch’s front porch. Today, it probably has consumed their entire house. Run Scout, run!

From 1935 to the early 1950s, the Soil Conservation Service encouraged farmers in the Southeast to plant kudzu to reduce soil erosion. They did, and it did. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted it widely for many years, but the aggressive import didn’t stop at just controlling erosion, it wanted to do more, like take over back lots and roadside terrain; gas stations and your neighborhood Stuckey's. (A lot of the pecan log convenient stores have gone missing: Haven't you wondered why?)

The near perfect growing conditions in the South and lack of any natural predators—actually livestock and groundhogs eat it but they cannot consume it fast enough—have now placed it at the top of the list of plants to eradicate. Kudzu has been designated as a pest weed by the Department of Agriculture since 1953, but that has hardly slowed it down.

- Photo taken along a roadside. Is that a Stuckey's under there?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

orange again, again

Yet, one more photograph we can add to our collection of orange flowers. This one is jewelweed, a.k.a. spotted touch-me-not, another hummingbird favorite.

You'll find it growing in the low-lying damp places, often near a pond or stream. Look for it along the Third Creek Greenway in Knoxville.

Along with other species of impatiens, jewelweed is a traditional remedy for skin rashes, including the one caused by poison ivy.

Flowering plants can be traced back in the fossil record roughly 136 million years. And during that time they have managed to come up with hundreds of thousands of shapes, sizes and colors, but, for some reason, very few orange ones. I wonder why?

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Eight eyes. I wonder what the world looks like through eight eyes. If we can see three dimensions with our two eyes, can they see more? Can they see the fifth dimension that TV's Rod Serling wrote about? That "middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition."

I wonder what that middle ground looks like?

The photo is of a large semi-aquatic fishing spider in the genus Dolomedes, also known as raft spiders because they can scurry across the surface of the water without getting wet. There are several species, many have a striking pale stripe down each side of the body.

Fishing spiders hunt by waiting at the edge of a pond or stream. They use the water instead of a web. When they detect ripples from prey, they scamper across the surface to subdue it using their front legs, which are tipped with small claws. Like other spiders they inject venom with their hollow jaws to kill and digest their meal. They mainly eat insects, but some larger species are able to catch small fish. They can also climb down plants to go beneath the water, encased in a film of air in search for food.

The above spider was found near the pond in front of the Visitor Center at Ijams. Thanks, Ryan.

Friday, September 4, 2009

you are unique

"Insist on yourself; never imitate," said Ralph Waldo.

Thoreau would say it, "March to a different drummer."

Everyone is unique; be guided by your own internal compass. And if you get lost, walk down hill until you find a stream and follow the flow. When you come to a town, borrow a phone and call a taxi.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

bird baldness

At this time of the year, there are some odd-looking birds showing up at the feeders.

They look like cardinals, but something is not right. I've had several inquiries in the past few days. The birds in question have a spooky, alien quality with small heads and large eyes. Believe it or not, they are bald headed cardinals.

Birds molt once or twice a year, replacing all of their feathers, slowly, one at a time.

Over the course of the season, feathers get damaged and there is a need to enter winter with a complete new set for protection.

You hardly notice the molt; it's just a feather here and a feather there. But for some reason, some cardinals and blue jays lose all the feathers on their heads at the same time.

- Photo sent to me by Judy Randazzo.

Thanks, Judy.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

the leafcups

The leafcups are two of the dominate late-summer wildflowers blooming at the nature center. They can be found along many of the trails, sometimes even growing side by side.

They look similar and are related, both in the genus Polymnia named in honor of Polyhymnia, a daughter of Zeus and one of the nine Muses, the Greek goddesses of music, song and dance. Polyhymnia was the muse of religious hymns. In this guise, she is often portrayed as being meditative. Her name was derived from the Greek words "poly" meaning many, and "hymnos," meaning praise or hymn.

The plants really do not look Greek to me; but what do I know? The closest I have ever been to that Mediterranean country is the Greekfest held here once a year.

Their common name "leafcup" comes from their rather large leaves that Native Americans were able to fold into disposable drinking cups.

Small-flowered leafcup

Large-flowered leafcup

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

in passing II

Mark your calendar: 95 years ago today, on September 1, 1914 at 9:32 a.m. (Central Standard Time) the last known passenger pigeon on earth died at the Cincinnati Zoo. The bird's name was Martha.

It is estimated that at one time, one-quarter of all birds in North America were passenger pigeons. Today, they are extinct.

- I took the photograph of the preserved Martha at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. on a visit in 2005.