Friday, June 29, 2012

low-hanging cliché

Spoiler Alert: The laid-back nature boy is going to get peevish.

Someone asked me the other day did I have any pet peeves, i.e. minor annoyances. 

I said "No. Not really." And a day later one presented itself.

It irks me—like running out of ketchup when there's fries left on my plate—when corporate speak, Wall Street parlance, those catchy little coat-and-tie phrases, bounce out of the mahogany boardrooms and into our everyday vernacular. Phrases like: bottom line, outsourcing, value-added, need-to-know, out-of-the-loop, trending, proactive, core competency, branding (that's what you do to cattle), buy in, downsize, give 110% (not even possible), leverage position, touch base, visioning, outside the box, and that great abomination designed to make us all feel we need to be doing more: multitasking (Isn't it better to do one thing at a time and do it well? Call me old fashioned). 

I worked for years on the fringe of corporate America; I know these thing first hand. They may sound witty and glib in the office, in-the-know, but all too soon they become corporate clichés, tossed out at every committee meeting like confetti at New Years.

The newest, and I've already heard it twelve times too often is "low-hanging fruit," as in the easiest fun to pick and do away with. It has to do with budget matters and cutting expenses and employees and it's usually delivered with a self-assured, "We've already taken care of the low-hanging fruit." And it implies: I still have my job, so I'm the fruit that hangs higher.

Even though I like the nature metaphor, talk about a condescending low-hanging cliché. Clichés are just that, cliché. (I actually like the word cliché; it must be that tip of the hat accent mark, that diacritic acute.)

Forgive me. I needed to vent. My sunny disposition will return tomorrow. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

riverboat swallows

"Wednesday evening [last week] we took a dinner cruise on the Star of Knoxville riverboat," emailed Lynne and Bob Davis.  

"It was a perfect evening for standing by the rail and watching the world go by.  We saw the osprey nest at the downstream end of Looney Island, with an adult and two nearly-grown nestlings. Also the usual river birds: great blue herons, cormorants, Canada geese, mallards, kingfishers. 

"The most interesting thing came as the boat approached the dock.  We were standing at the bow, near the long boarding ramp. This ramp is only used if the boat stops at a place where there is no dock, and the rest of the time, it is just suspended above the water."  

"Passing under the Gay Street Bridge, we were suddenly  welcomed by a flock of at least two dozen barn swallows, swooping and chittering around the bow.  We first thought they were looking for insects on the water, but then realized they were landing on the underside of the boarding ramp. They were answered by more chittering from under the ramp. We could not confirm that there were nests under the ramp, but it seemed likely. What must they think when their homes leave and come back several times a day?"

Thanks, Lynne and Bob

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

cicadas early

Myth Number 9. Climate change is not really happening. 

According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, Dog Days are the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11. So, like everything else this year, the Dog Days clcadas are two to three weeks early.

The buzzing outside my house has been raucous for over a week. The two species I've been hearing with the same intensity they normally save until mid-July are the scissor-grinder (Tibicen pruinosa) and swamp cicada (Tibicen chloromera).

But here is a more poetic description of a cicada's song, penned by Peter Matthiessen.

"Now the air is struck by the shrill of a single cicada, brilliant, eerie, a sound as fierce as a sword blade shrieking on a lathe, yet subtle, bell-like, with a ring that causes the spider webs to shimmer in the sunlight. I stand transfixed by this unearthly sound that radiates from all the world at once." 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

one's own garden

"Il faut cultiver notre jardin."

Whether you translate Voltaire's famous phrase, "One must cultivate one's own garden," or, more metaphorically, "One must follow one's own passion," or, more neighborly, "One must tend to one's own affairs and leave one's own neighbors to tend to theirs," or, more personally, "One must take time off, away from one's everyday trials and tribulations," or, in the parlance of today, "Take a mental health day" and lazily pull some weeds that are cloaking one's own coreopsis, finding one's solace in one's own backyard. It's all still darn good advice, 253 years later. 

But did I use too many "one's"?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tyrannus! Tyrannus!

Just when I was beginning to think that the nesting season was over, Eliot spotted a kingbird nest high in a tree hanging out over the water at Sequoyah Hills Park. (The nest is hidden under the leaves to the left of the bird.)

The Eastern kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus, meaning tyrant! tyrant! (the exclamation points are mine, but oh so apropos.) is an intense flycatcher that eats a range of flying insects especially bees. They aggressively defend their turf, going after much larger birds, even driving bully-boy blue jays to hide in the bushes, partly we assume, because the highly territorial parents feed their young for an extraordinarily long period: seven weeks!

In the winter, they travel much farther south than most neotropical migrants, going all the way to southern Argentina if need be. There they change their lifestyle, mellow out, travel in flocks like vacationing Lutherans and eat berries.

I'm not sure why birding superstar Kenn Kaufman's nickname is kingbird... perhaps it's because he was so tenacious on the highway in pursuit of his Big Year in 1973, or maybe because if he could eat dry cat food (Little Friskies liver-flavored, as I recall), he must surely have eaten bees. 

Kenn, any input on the subject? Or are you sick of cat food questions?

To ID a kingbird: look for gray head, back and tail; white throat, undercarriage, tip of tail. Intense in-your-face, steely-eyed, bee-eating demeanor.

Here's a video by George Jameson. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

toga dining

Native to Europe, chicory is now common in the United States and southern Canada. Its cheery blue flowers can be found growing along roadsides throughout the country at this time of the year.

During the Great Depression (and most people that lived through it didn't think it was all that great) chicory's dried roots and leaves were used as a substitute for coffee but its use at the dinner table can be traced all the way back to toga times. The Roman poet Horace mentions it in reference to his own diet: "Me pascunt olivae, me cichorea, me malvae." (Roughly, "As for me, I eat olives, chicory and mallows.")

With its bitter and spicy taste, the roadside plant was an ingredient in typical Roman recipes, most often fried with garlic and red pepper, served with potatoes and meat.

If I thought that I would look good in a toga, I might try some for supper, but quite frankly, I'm not sure that any man looks good in such attire. Although, with its loose fit, I wouldn't fret if I put on a few extra pounds.

Monday, June 18, 2012

the good queen

Although she is not native to North America, you know it's summer when Her Majesty arrives. This summertime flower is amazingly intricate as it begins to unfurl, like an explosion of fireworks lighting up the night sky.

I've written about Queen Anne before. For her story go to Lace.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Double-creasted? What?

It seems like every time I see a double-crested cormorant, it is flying straight-as-an-arrow, up or down the river like a Myotis out of H-E-Double-L. Of course, if I got a chance to escape Hades, I'd fly straight and true as well. Although, this is a very poor analogy because if you know your bats, you know they do not fly straight but herky-jerky.

So, let's get on with it.

Rex McDaniel actually caught cormorants at rest in the above photos.

All worldwide cormorant species belong to the family Phalacrocoracidae, from the Greek, roughly meaning: "bald, crow." They are big time fish-eaters; most live on seacoasts but some venture inland, if the fishing is good as it is here. 

I'm often asked: "Where are the double-crested's double crests?" They look pretty smooth-headed as they zip past fleeing from the fire and brimstone.

It's really only at breeding time that the mature adults sport nuptial plumes over each eye. An affectation that they quickly lose after nesting season.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

reestablishing presence

After you read this. Unplug your mind. Turn off the computer and go outside. In fact, if you want to do it before you read it, that's fine too.

Ease up for awhile and simply stare blankly into space. It's OK. Reestablish your presence in the universe. Your place. There's an empty bench somewhere, go sit on it. And find peace of mind. Calmness.

As one of my favorite authors Diane Ackerman recently wrote:

"I wish schools would teach the value of cultivating presence. As people complain more and more these days, attention spans are growing shorter, and we’ve begun living in attention blinks. More social than ever before, we’re spending less time alone with our thoughts, and even less relating to other animals and nature. Too often we’re missing in action, brain busy, working or playing indoors, while completely unaware of the world around us.

"One solution is to spend a few minutes every day just paying close attention to some facet of nature..."

For the rest of the article "Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?" go to: Presence.

Thanks, ThreadDog


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

a maiden's hair

Flat fronds splayed horseshoe-like and borne on a thin black stem. Delicate. Dainty. Another world kind of beauty. That's maidenhair fern, (there are several species) so called because some Native American women used its oils to rinse their hair. The emollients gave it a shiny luster.

The photo was taken beside Baskins Creek in Gatlinburg near my boyhood home. Rain had fallen overnight. Morning dawned damp and dripping, but the fern did not seem to mind. Ferns and frogs are such a sodden lot.

Smoky Mountain folklore says that if a maiden handles a stem and the leaves do not flicker, her virtue is assured. A man's virtue is determined by altogether different means.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Being a seeker, you know that the mystery may be revealed in the smallest detail, so you look for it. "Behind every stone and leaf and unfound door," wrote Wolfe.

Take yesterday for instance, a workday and an old ailment had returned, so I limped like a plow-mule gone lame. 

Dispirited. Deflated. Ambulatory challenged. Hobbling along mournful, I was stopped by the beauty of the pink tears, a perfect display of native honeysuckle "sallying forth" 

Trumpet honeysuckle (a.k.a. coral honeysuckle) is ideally suited for its union with ruby-throated hummingbirds. It has showy nectar-rich carmine-to-coral pink flowers arranged in terminal clusters. The color is right, and the long, slender tubular flowers seem especially designed for the birds’ equally long bill and tongue. Plus the hummer is the only bird that can fly upside-down to reach the sweet stuff. This is a great example of a plant and bird partnership, each perfectly suited to the other. The hummers get nectar, the flowers gets their pollen dusted. And we all need that.

And, there it was before me: harmony. The order of the universe once again presents itself. 

What do the Zen Buddhist believe? Living each day on a path to heaven is the heaven.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Venus if you will

Even if your life seems chaotic, out-of-control, out-of-tune, out-of-sync, out-of-sorts, out-of-mayonnaise, it is comforting to know that the universe has order and balance and things that would otherwise go unseen can be seen and precisely predicted.

Be in the right place, right time and voilà! The order of the universe presents itself.

What a sight.

Yes, we saw it! Sitting on a grassy slope at a local park with a little league baseball team going through their practice behind us, we watched for over an hour as the planet Venus passed between us and the Sun. (Thank goodness for solar filters or our eyes would look like Ol' Diz charcoal briquettes.)

Venus didn't seem intimidated at all by that monster ball of nuclear fire behind her, well, she is named in honor of the Goddess of Love, so she's used to a torrid companion.

But, passion keeps its own schedule. True affairs of the heart are much less predictable. 

The only thing that makes me uncomfortable is when I read "it's the last time I'll be able to see Venus in transit in my life."

Who knows how long I'll live? As time slips by, 8 December 2125 seems like a distinct possibility.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

mystery caterpillar

Unicorn Moth caterpillar (Schizura unicornis)

This is another example of a caterpillar that is far more spectacular than the moth it becomes after its cocoon-encased sabbatical we call metamorphosis, were all of the caterpillar's cells breakdown into a cellular soup to slowly rearrange themselves into another form: a winged adult ready to reproduce another generation of what we call unicorn moths.

I do not know if I should describe it as beautifully odd, or oddly beautiful. Methinks it is both.

Rex McDaniel (see yesterday's pileated woodpecker video) also took this photo of the mystery caterpillar. Whenever I am clueless, which happens a lot, I consult my friend Rikki Hall, who IDed the oddity for me.

"That caterpillar is almost certainly a prominent (Notodontidae), most likely the 'unicorn caterpillar' Schizura unicornis," Rikki e-mailed.

For a look at the adult moth go to: Discover Life.

Thanks, Rex and Rikki!

Monday, June 4, 2012

pileated vs. ivorybill

The lower half of the back of an ivorybill woodpecker is white 
(It's the folded secondary feathers along the
trailing edges of the wings.)

Woodpeckers are intense excavators of dead wood as Rex Daniel found out.

Rex, part-time Ijams staffer and photographer, took this excellent video of a pileated woodpecker working on one of the split-rail fences at the nature center.
A lot of people locally call to tell me they have an ivory-billed woodpecker in their backyard. 

"Are you sure? What color is its back?" I ask.
"It's black."

"Well, that's a pileated woodpecker, still a wondrous bird to see."

Historically, the ivorybill, largest woodpecker that ever lived in the U.S., was never in this part of the state: floodplain along the Mississippi River, yes; Tennessee Valley, no.

If this video had been of an ivorybill, the lower half of its back would be white, not black.

- Video by Rex McDaniel. Thanks!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tennessee Shines

Monday night, I will be on the live radio show Tennessee Shines that's locally produced by our very own homegrown, ripened-on-the-vine WDVX. I'll be reading a couple of short excerpts from my book Natural Histories, about plants and animals with a goodly mix of cultural history of the Tennessee Valley published by UT Press.

Tennessee Shines is broadcast live on WDVX 89.9 FM and from 7 - 8 p.m. every Monday night from the Knoxville Visitor Center on Gay Street in downtown K-Town.

Tickets for the in-studio performance are $10, available on