Thursday, December 31, 2009

looking back 4

Continuing with my ten favorite photos of 2009 in chronological order: in May, a week after the azalea, the sweetbay magnolia outside my office window at Ijams Nature Center was in bloom.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

looking back 3

Continuing with my ten favorite photos of 2009, the azalea's were especially robust last spring.

Here's a photograph I posted in early May.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

looking back 2

Ten favorite photos of 2009, in chronological order: another one from April.

Sweet Betsy trillium (a.k.a. "bloody butcher") at Ijams.

Monday, December 28, 2009

looking back 1

Year end. Dull, brown and gray outside.

I thought I'd take a look back at some of my favorite photos of 2009, in chronological order. This first one I took at Ijams in the spring.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


A walk early with just enough morning sun to light the way, finds the ground crunchy like eggshells.

The shallow water still standing in low lying wet places has frozen into the most remarkable patterns—swirls and slashes—reminiscent of the broad brushstrokes of artist Franz Kline, except he seemed to prefer black not white.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Status: Somewhat exhausted, after four years of work, I delivered the manuscript for my second book to acquisitions editor Kerry Webb at UT Press today. I still have an illustration to finish, but that will happen. Drawing is easier; so easy even a caveman can do it. Humans have been drawing for millennia longer than we have been writing books. Pick up a stick with a burnt end and you can draw. If you have a little ground red ochre, you got color. Does anyone have a cave wall they need decorated? I'm pretty good with aurochs.

Drawings are quick, energetic dashes. They're left-brained.

Books are hard, long, slow, tedious, grueling marathons. Time consuming, especially if you write non-fiction. (You know, if you write fiction, you can make the whole thing up.)

Books are whole-brained, plus kidneys, heart, liver, spleen (so that's what that is for), cuticles, follicles, curlycues, muscle, sinew, bone.

Speaking of bone: my head-bone is tired. I've used all the words I know, some of them more than once. I'm ready for a long winter's nap. No more getting up at 6 a.m. Why am I sitting here at the computer? I have shopping to do.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


What the last sycamore leaves of the season lack in color they make up in breadth.

- Photo taken on the Third Creek Greenway

Friday, December 18, 2009

the imagined fox

Somehow, we imagine foxes to be more than they really are as author Josephine Johnson confesses,

“The fox seems fast and fearless, clever and cunning, and without manners or moral or scruples, a legend of freedom, and I had long found release in this private image in my heart. When harassed by those affairs in life for which I am not well fitted—those which require grace or authority, political acumen, wit or social ease; weddings and meetings, funerals and gatherings; or when, bewildered by the constant domestic matters where the warm maternal wisdom and patience are drawn in as though they were from an unfailing spring, instead of a cistern much in need of rain—then, tormented by conflicting voices, by inadequate responses, by lack of wit or wisdom (or even the answer to Who-the-hell-are-you?) the self sought relief in the heart’s image of the wild free fox.”

-From “The Inland Island” by Josephine Johnson

Thursday, December 17, 2009

cockle bird

It is always difficult for me to pass a common cocklebur and not think of the extinct Carolina parakeet. On the surface, the two species—one a bristle-seeded plant, the other the most colorful bird to ever fly through our skies—seem to have little in common. But the two are inexplicably linked because the spiky plant’s seeds were reportedly the birds’ favorite food. Go figure. But we all have to eat something.

Cocklebur invades farmlands and can be poisonous to livestock, including horses, cattle, and sheep. “Some domestic animals will avoid consuming the plant if other forage is present, but less discriminating animals, such as pigs, will consume the plants and then sicken and die,” reports Wiki. Poor pigs! And the seeds are the most toxic parts but the parakeets fed on them with no ill effect, yet they are the ones now extinct. But, something else did them in, not the cocklebur.

I wrote about the colorful member of the parrot family in my book Natural Histories.

- Photo of cocklebur taken along the Will Skelton Greenway at Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area.

- Painting of Carolina parakeets on cocklebur by John James Audubon.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Special thanks to Will Roberts and his AP environmental science class at Powell High School.

The students read my book "Natural Histories" in the fall and invited me to their classroom on Monday to discuss it. We also talked about swimming snakes and the taste of cicadas and osage oranges. Since I've eaten the former but never the latter, I therefore learned from one of the students that it's like eating white tar.

Merry Christmas and have a happy holiday break!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

what to be

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

- From "Mother Night" by American author Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Japanese lanterns

Finding joy in the simple things—the frost on the grass, the bend of a stem, an early morning fog—is far easier than seeking it in more complicated packages. I was never that thrilled with complications anyway.

In this case, it's the caramel-colored seeds of river oats, a.k.a. Chasmanthium latifolium; but that's a mouthful, let's stick with the former, it's simpler. The waning days of fall find this native grass browning, producing seeds that hang like miniature Japanese lanterns.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Twelve years ago on this date: December 10, 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill climbed 180 feet to the top of a 1,000-year-old redwood in Humboldt County, California. She was not being playful. Her act was one of civil disobedience. The Pacific Lumber Company was about to cut it and the trees around it.

A small platform, barely big enough for two people, covered by a tarpaulin had been constructed for her “tree sit.” Hill thought she might be off the ground for two, maybe three weeks, but her vigil took much longer. Her feet did not touch the ground again for 738 days. Over two years! During that time, she endured thunderstorms, winter snows, harassment from the lumbermen and legal actions against her and her group.

"Fierce winds ripped huge branches off the thousand-year-old redwood, sending them crashing to the ground two hundred feet below. The upper platform, where I lived, rested in branches about one hundred eighty feet in the air, twenty feet below the top of the tree, and it was completely exposed to the storm. There was no ridge to shelter it, no trees to protect it. There was nothing. As the tree branches whipped around, they shredded the tarp that served as my shelter. Sleet and hail sliced through the tattered pieces of what used to be my roof and walls. Every new gust flipped the platform up into the air, threatening to hurl me over the edge. I was scared. I take that back. I was terrified," writes Hill.

But she endured. More than endured, scampering barefoot around the uppermost branches, she found peace in the aged tree she called “Luna.” Volunteers on the ground brought her food and water every day, carrying away her waste she lowered in a bucket.

She became an international celebrity. Famous people climbed to the top of the tree to visit her. And eventually her courage and fortitude were rewarded. The lumber company finally agreed to spare the tree and forest around it. It was a moral victory by a barefoot woman named Butterfly and not a single shot was fired.

“Living in Luna had already taught me that one of best ways to find balance is to go to the extremes,” Hill writes.

There is a color photograph on the back cover of the book. Hill is standing at the tippy top of the tree. Clad in a bright red jacket, her arms are outspread. She looks superhuman and, for perhaps those 738 days, she was.

This is an empowering story Hill wrote herself while living at the top of a tree. From such a lofty vantage point, one is bound to achieve clarity.

"The Legacy of Luna" written by Julia Butterfly Hill.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

pert busybody

“This pert little winter wren, for instance, darting in and out the fence, diving under the rubbish here and coming up yards away, — how does he manage with those little circular wings to compass degrees and zones, and arrive always in the nick of time?”

The little busybody “does he travel by easy stages from bush to bush and from wood to wood? Or has that compact little body force and courage to brave the night and upper air, and so achieve leagues at one pull?”

Asked John Burroughs in his 1871 book "Wake-Robin."

I've wondered much the same thing. How do they get here with such short little wings? Do they hop from brush pile to brush pile to brush pile. I'm sure winter wrens have already arrived in the Tennessee Valley but I have yet to see one of the little ground-loving busybodies this season. But somehow it's a comfort just knowing that they are there.

And speaking of winter wrens, special thanks to Ruth Anne. As part of the second annual Beaver Creek Water Association Winter Bird Count and Birding Workshop, I spoke about the winter birds of the Tennessee Valley (the species that only spend their winters here) last week.

After wards, Dr. Bob Collier outlined his plans for a bird count to be held on Saturday, January 9.

Monday, December 7, 2009


"Even in winter an isolated patch of snow has a special quality."

- British environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy


Sunday, December 6, 2009


Two days ago the Carolina rose provided the only color, today it remains steadfast but frozen.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

could it be snow?

And what to my wondering eyes should appear?

When I arrived at the nature center this morning, three visitors—Gaia Robilio, Lily Flynt and Vince the Wonder Dog—were already at work fashioning a rather round man made out of some sort of frozen white confection. Dare I say: Could it really be snow?

-Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Friday, December 4, 2009

native rosa 2

Six months down the road, winter rapidly approaching, and we find ourselves much like Baby Suggs in Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved.” We're already starved for color.

Exactly half a year after my first posting, Carolina rose, a true native rosa, is still producing some reds and yellows when everything else has turned to various shades of brown and gray.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center