Saturday, October 30, 2010

where are my books?

Being an author is an odd odd sort of avocation. You spend years and years, working in private: researching, reading, thinking, scribbling, marking through and scribbling yet again. Comma in, comma out. Paragraph in, paragraph out.

Only your loved ones know the long hours of isolation And then, somehow, the gods smile on you and you finish and deliver your manuscript to the publisher. At that point, it no longer is a private affair, the pace quickens, there's editing, design, proof approvals, scheduling, deadlines, and before too long your books are out there, thousands of them, strewn about like autumn leaves in the wind.

You often find yourself wondering: Where do they go? Have they found a good home? Are they languishing in a used bookstore? (An author's nightmare.)

To that end, if you have a copy of one of my books, send me a photo and sate my curiosity. Here's one that found its way to the Empire State.

Mark from Yorktown Heights, New York (This is very appropriate, since Jim Tanner was from New York.)

Friday, October 29, 2010

en plein air

If only French impressionist Claude Monet was still with us. I’m sure his “en plein air” manner of painting—literally painting outside in the open air—would serve him well. The weather has been ideal and the colors as bold and expressive as one of his canvases.

This photo taken at Mt. Olive along Old Maryville Highway looks like it’s dripping with fresh paint. Monet would have used all of his gold and yellow oils.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Wayne Mallinger from Madisonville writes,

“When the hunter becomes the harassed. A red-tailed hawk gets unmercifully harassed by crows while hunting. Do the crows know that the hawk will not turn and has no interest attacking/killing or fighting back? The hawk ignored or slowly avoided the crows as if they were a minor nuisance, a meal was more important. Eventually the hawk tired of the constant distractions and moved on. Gives new credence that you never want to have to "eat crow.”

Yes. It's a behavior called "mobbing" and the hawk is no threat to the Corvids, it's just mildly annoyed. I've also seen mockingbirds mob a crow, so turn about is fair play.

Wayne’s photo also gives us a chance to review the field markings of a red-tailed hawk; the rufous colored tail is not always easy to see, the light has to hit it just right. And in this photo, the belly band across the raptor’s middle is hard to make out.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

time let me hail

“Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

From “Fern Hill” by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas,
who spent much of his childhood in Swansea, Wales.
Young Dylan made regular trips in the summer
to visit his aunt's dairy farm in Carmarthenshire.
These rural remembrances provided inspiration for his poem.

Dylan Thomas was born on this date: October 27, 1914.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

book signing

Saturday, Oct. 30, 2 p.m.
Carpe Librum Booksellers
5113 Kingston Pike
Knoxville, TN

I will be talking about and signing copies of Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935–1941, which features a foreword by Nancy Tanner.

Ghost Birds published by UT Press. For more information about the book go to: Ghost Birds

Cover illustration by the author.

Monday, October 25, 2010

soft mast

If you are a mockingbird, cedar waxwing or robin, you're in luck! The fall fruit crop, i.e. soft mast, seems to be bountiful.

The above photo is of a flowering dogwood at the Homesite at Ijams. Not only are the trees loaded but the berries, called drupes, seem plumper than normal.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


“Nihil est melius quam vita diligentissima.” i.e. Nothing is better than a most diligent life.

Diligent: adj: Marked by persevering, painstaking effort, i.e. being an author.

But, if you aspire to be an author, here are a few helpful hints: 1) Don’t quit your day job 2) Learn to exist on less sleep 3) Indeed, learn to exist on less of everything, 4) And by all means, learn to be most diligent. Like a rock wall created by artist Andy Goldsworthy, books are built one stone at a time and you often only have a vague notion of where you are headed.

- Photo of a stone wall by British environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Bretton, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England, UK

Saturday, October 23, 2010

creeping time

It's a sure sign that the seasons are changing, when you start seeing new seasonal birds frequent your yard.

Generally, the first of the winter residents I become aware of are white-throated sparrows singing about poor Sam Peabody lost in the bushes. (The sparrows are lost in the bushes, not poor Sam. Of course, he may be since I have never seen him.) But yesterday, I was sitting on the front porch and saw a brown creeper working its way up the trunk of a tree.

Can winter be far behind?

Friday, October 22, 2010

where two states meet

If you live outside of the American South and wonder what it looks like where East Tennessee and Kentucky meet, i.e. the Cumberland Gap, the land of Daniel Boone and the Wilderness Trail, then here's a photo sent to me by Wayne Mallinger.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

baby milo

This one comes from South of the Border: The photo is of a baby opossum named Milo after he ate his first solid food on his own. Karen Knapp rescued it from the jaws of her cat.

For Karen's complete story go to this week's farragutpress.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

they'll pucker you

Trees have fruits for one reason. They need animals to eat them and spread the seeds they contain. It doesn't do the plant any good if the fruit gets eaten before the seeds inside are mature. That's why unripe fruit doesn't taste very good. In the case of persimmons, the "not ready for prime time" fruit is quite bitter. It'll pucker you.

Captain John Smith, the leader of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, wrote about persimmons in 1624. He reported that, "if it not ripe, it will draw a mans mouth awry, with much torment, but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot."

Smith learned about persimmons from the tribe of Pocahontas, the Powhatan Indians, who called the coin-sized fruit "putchamins." Over the course of time, our lackadaisical English speaking tongues transformed putchamins into persimmons.

The puckeriness of the unripe persimmon is caused by tannin, an astringent that tightens tissue. As the fruit changes from green to yellow to reddish-orange the taste changes as well. The production of tannin ceases and the flow of natural sugars begins. A ripe persimmon is squishy and is bursting with sweet fluid pulp, dark amber in color. To find the ripe ones, just give the tree a good shake and they'll fall off.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

you're invited

Thursday, October 21, 6 pm.

Film: You are invited to the Knoxville Museum of Art for a screening of the award-winning documentary Ghost BIRD (singular) by Scott Crocker. The film is about the recent rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas.

Book Launch: Nancy Tanner and I will be at the event signing copies of our new book Ghost BIRDS. (Ours is plural, the titles similarity is coincidental.) Published by UT Press, our book is about the historic fieldwork and search for ivorybills conducted by Nancy's late husband James T. Tanner between 1935 and 1941. So both the film and the book are about the Lord God Bird but ours takes place over 70 years ago.

The event at KMA is co-presented by UT Press and the Tennessee Clean Water Network. For more info go to UT Press.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

military pay

I’m not sure what military pay is like these days, but chances are the servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will not be paid in real estate or waterfalls or placid pools.

After the Revolutionary War, the U.S. government was low on cash; in fact, US currency was in its infancy. (The US Coinage Act created the first $1 coin in 1792.) Less than a year later, veteran Tom Burgess was deeded land in middle Tennessee near Cookeville for services rendered. It mattered little that the property was still owned by Native Americans. It was also before Tennessee became a state (1796).

Today, Burgess Falls on Falling Water River in White County still honors the name of the American patriot.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

going red

It's that time of the year: When perfectly good leaves go red; shutting down their photosynthesizing, their carbon dioxide conversion, their breathing: bad air in, good air out.

Exhausting work.

Becoming brittle and torn, frayed at the edges, the leaves slip into senescence. If only my own aging could be so bold. If only my own life processes could end with such panache, such courage.

If only.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

don't stop believin'

And speaking of soldiering on: I posted a snippet about the lovely purple pods on this hyacinth bean plant two months ago and now, late in the season with its leaves beginning to fade (notice they are also purple), it decides to produce flowers yet again.

As Steve Perry and Journey sang, "Don't stop believing'...Some will win, some will lose; Some were born to sing the blues; Oh, the movie [or the bean plant] never ends; It goes on and on and on."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Special thanks to Humanities Tennessee, organizers of the 22nd Annual Southern Festival of Books last weekend in Nashville and to my publisher, UT Press.

I was one of the presenting authors: doing my first public talk for my new book Ghost Birds. I met a lot of interesting people including—as you might suspect—many, many book buyers and readers. Plus, a lot of people are absolutely fascinated with the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Thanks to all who attended my program.

Monday, October 11, 2010

mountain minty

The renowned French plantsman André Michaux was appointed by King Louis XVI as royal botanist and sent to the United States in 1785. Michaux was commissioned—with an annual salary of 2000 livres—to make the first organized investigation of plants in the New World that could be of value to the French.

Michaux traveled through the Appalachians in the late 1790s looking for unknown trees, shrubs, vines, creepers, forbs, herbs, wildflowers or other greenery to send back to his native land. (Plants from the New World were all the rage in Europe, both for their commercial value and as exotic components to royal gardens.)

In Pennsylvania the Frenchman encountered vigorous knee-high masses of a lovely scented plant he called “mountain mint. Today, that common name is used for more than 20 native species of the genus Pycnanthemum, meaning "many clustered flowers.”

The University of Tennessee Herbarium website lists eleven species and variants of mountain mint found in the Volunteer State from the crest of the Great Smokies to the Mississippi River.

- Photo taken along Dudley Creek Road in Gatlinburg.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

first eagle

"Alone with the morning sunshine, I was left sitting in the middle of a state I did not know, like a man with no home, untethered to anything other than the planet itself like Kerouac’s Sal Paradise on the road. Paraphrasing him, “the golden land lay ahead…where all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see.” At that moment, I could have walked away from the rented car and all I had known; followed the scrub jay’s leave and found answers to my questions; and with that perhaps even freedom...

"Another hundred yards down the track toward the north, a hawk was making itself known, obviously disturbed. Red-shouldered hawks are highly vocal. I stood, turned and had not made three dozen steps toward the ruckus when a tall stand of pines to my left erupted with life. An adult bald eagle bobbed up and down, unfurling its eight-foot wingspan prior to take off. I knew instantly that the bird had been watching me, lost in my vagabond dream. My heart raced as the majestic bird of prey took flight and swooped down over the track, dipping low not 50 feet in front of me. It climbed and sailed off to my right and since the railroad bed was raised for a time we were virtually eye to eye."

"I watched this country’s symbol — talons free of arrows or snakes or olive branches — as it flew to the east and out of sight. Anytime a moment like this unfolds, the world slows, it’s forever etched in your life’s memories."

Photo by Wayne Mallinger.

Excerpt from Natural Histories published by the University of Tennessee Press. Book available at Ijams Nature Center or from the author.

Friday, October 8, 2010

ghost birds: review

The reviewer writes:

“This is a long over due book about a man of amazing tenacity. The book tells the incredible story of James T. Tanner, the right man in the right place at the right time. Tanner, an undergrad student at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was selected by the legendary Arthur Allen to join an expedition across America to record in sound and on film rare and endangered birds. Upon being shown Ivorybills in the Singer Tract of Northern Louisiana the expedition makes the first photos, movies and sound recording of this rare and endangered species.

“It was not soon after this expedition that Tanner was back in the Louisiana swamps under a grant from the National Association of Audubon Societies, studying ivorybills and working on his PhD. Tanner's four-year study is the first and only scientific study of Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The author, Stephens Lyn Bales did a superb job of telling the fascinating story of this iconic man. If you have an interest in the ivorybill or not, this is a must read book. Once I started reading I could not put it down. Bales words have a flow that keeps you mesmerized about the young James Tanner and his exploits throughout the south as he searches for the "Grail Bird.”

- By Bobby Harrison, The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Foundation

Ghost Birds published by UT Press. For more information go to:

Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941

Cover illustration by the author. Book available in the gift shop at Ijams Nature Center.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

magnolia stunned

Ijams AmeriCorps naturalist Laura Marsh e-mailed:

"I was in the Multi-Purpose room in the Visitor Center and saw a blur of a bird fly up and —smack!—hit the window. It didn't look hurt, so I went outside to check on it. As I approached, it was either too stunned or too delirious to fly away and it let me pick it up! I was so excited to see a warbler so up close that I got a volunteer to grab the camera to document. I let it rest and catch its breath, and eventually I coaxed it back to a tree where it thankfully was able to fly away."

The stunned bird is a magnolia warbler in non-breeding plumage.

- Thanks, face-painting Laura.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


I heard again from Wayne Mallinger.

"Had the pleasure of attending the Raptor Rhapsody at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky Inc. brought out some of their rescued birds.

"This is a photo of 'Sophie' an American kestrel that had been hit by a car and is now a permanent resident due to wing damage. Sophie has been given a second chance and enjoys showing her beauty to all. "

Once known as sparrow hawks because of their petite size, kestrels are the smallest falcons in our area. Although they are found in the Tennessee Valley year round, we often see more in the winter because many migrate from northern climes to the spend the coldest months in the South.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


“All our progress is an unfolding, like a vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.”

Long before the New Age movement that heralded the need to find "the child within," there was Emerson, who taught us to question our cultural influences and trust our inner most instincts, the aboriginal wisdom we had at our birth.

* Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) American essayist, philosopher and poet, best remembered for leading the transcendentalist movement of the early 19th century.

Monday, October 4, 2010

natural histories: bald eagles

"Eagles have a sort of play. They carry a large stick up and down a river playing keep away from one another. Every so often a second eagle will grab the stick and snatch it free, or the baton-bearer may drop it, only to dive at breakneck speed to catch it before it hits the water. They’ll play this game back and forth like kids with a ball, wild and free.

Only on rare occasions do we get to look into the heart of absolute splendor and know its naked truth; that nature is dynamic and resilient; a swirl of starts and stops and tenacious rebirths; and by all means, as fluid and swift and ever-changing as the river that flows past my Tennessee Valley home."

Excerpt from Natural Histories published by the University of Tennessee Press. Book available at Ijams Nature Center or from the author.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

life goes on

Life on earth is tenacious.

It has already survived several mass extinctions, global catastrophes. To steal from the old Timex ads "It takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'."

In the past 540 million years there have been five major extinction events when over 50 percent of animal species died. Boom! The last one, known as the Cretaceous–Tertiary mass extinction occurred approximately 65.5 million years ago, killed the majority of species including those big boys, the dinosaurs.

Okay. You are correct; some survived to live on as birds, and that does illustrate the bone at the center of this post’s drumstick. Life on earth is tenacious. It finds a way. It pushes forward. Despite the odds, despite the obstacles, despite meteors, volcanoes, earthquakes and other apocalyptic disasters, life goes on.

At the nature center, many of the trees are beginning to drop their leaves. The rest are showing signs of age, changing their colors and, yet, here is a young redbud, still sallying forth, producing fresh new leaves. Still not willing to “go gentle into that good night.”

Yes, this young leaf will wilt and fade in about a month, but it still puts forth the effort. The tree will carry on and will regrow new leaves next spring.

The drive to survive is too strong to prevent it.

Thank you Karen Sue for your tenacity.

Friday, October 1, 2010

not what it seems

I’ve heard from several people that believe this has been a very good year for butterflies. Whether it has been a good year or a lean year is hard to determine, but nature does have pulses. One day you’re up, the next you are down; it’s a lot like politics, just ask Newt Gingrich.

This photo comes from my friend Jackie Kittrell. On first glance you might think that it’s one of those beautiful swallowtails, but which one?

That is what it wants you to think, or better still, that is what it wants the butterfly-eating birds to think.

The top photo shows a red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis), It's one of the brush-footed butterflies common in our region. (Don’t look too hard for the red spots in the photo, they are found on the underside of the wings.) The tops of the wings are noted for their iridescent blue markings.

But, here is where it gets interesting: the red-spotted purple is a mimic of the poisonous pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor), a blue butterfly that feeds on pipevines (Aristolochia species, including A. californica, A. serpentaria and others) when they are caterpillars. These host plants transfer a toxic quality to the larvae and resulting adults.

If a bird eats a pipevine swallowtail (bottom photo), it gets sick, so it never eats another or even a butterfly that looks like it, so the mimic red-spotteds go unharmed. It’s like that greasy-spoon diner out on Highway 11; if you eat there once and hurl your hash later, you are not likely to go back.

Pipevine swallowtail, a.k.a. greasy-spoon diner

- Top photo by Jackie Kittrell. Thanks, Jackie