Friday, November 29, 2013

childlike sense of wonder

Post Thanksgiving. We are sitting around in a state of stupor, lazy from our over indulgence. Perhaps even complacent. 

Why don't we go outside and play?

What we need now is a shot of the electrifying, mind-broadening Jason Silva!! What we need now is a childlike sense of wonder, a return to being "uncompromising child voyagers."

As Silva says at the end, "And that, my friend, is that!"

In case you have trouble reading 
the frontispiece quote at the beginning:

Childlike mind
"We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities 
we see in ourselves in peak moments. 
And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe 
and fear before these very same possibilities."

- Abraham Maslow

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

these woods I think I know

My driveway in the woods I think I know

The first light snow of the season fell last night. 
Looking out on my snowy driveway, I always think 
of the same poem by Robert Frost because, 
indeed, I live in the woods:

"Whose woods these are I think I know. 
His house is in the village though; 
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow."

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 25, 2013

hunting for ducks

Eliot Parulidae hunting for ducks at Cove Lake

To call it a pet peeve makes it seem light and trivial, like being upset that someone you love has left the cap off the toothpaste, again. 

My open contempt for fathers who turn their backs on their children, because it suits their own self-interest or it's inconvenient to be a father, has been documented here. Mentoring, influencing a young person's life IS our most sacred responsibility as an adult. Otherwise, we'd be no more evolved than crocodiles or cockroaches or cuttlefish.

Hunting for ducks at Eagle Bend
But when that eschewed young person turns out to be charming, quick-witted and brilliant, the offense baffles even more. The why? Becomes WHY? Sure there's the obstacle of overcoming the difficulties of having Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, in a world that can be insensitive to anyone a little different. But what else?

It is believed that Einstein, Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Kafka, Nietzsche, Thoreau, Mozart and Sir Isaac Newton may have all had Asperger's and who wouldn't want to have known them? Even actress Daryl Hannah, and who wouldn't want to have lunch with her? Intellects like that have to be nurtured, protected and cherished, not kicked out on the street to fend for themselves.

Her charm and quick-wit, you have to experience for yourself. The brilliance is easy to document, although it's a descriptor she readily shuns—too much pressure. She's gone from being humbled by "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" to just being merely humble, so go ahead and add humility to her résumé.

Eliot Parulidae has just scored an overall 32 on her recent ACT with a 36 in English, and 36 is as high as you can score. She placed in the top one percentile in 6 out of 11 tested categories, pretty rarefied air. Her overall direction of high scores reflects her science bent, and future. 

"It's the highest score I've seen in 20 years," said her local doctor.

She scored at the top in algebra/geometry but trigonometry held her back a bit, but that's a branch of advanced math she is having to teach herself. Yet, numbers aside, she's also a natural born wordsmith.

Her doctor once told me, "She's always the smartest one in the room wherever she's at." 

In early October, the morning of the test, I picked her up and took her to Central High School. She didn't seem nervous, but rather determined to step up to the plate and hit it hard, multiple times, like Reggie Jackson in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, she had things to prove. She was in the zone.

"Be calm," I told her. "Enjoy yourself. You're going to do just fine." And I knew she would.

Raven t-shirt: $20, birding binoculars: $225, 
the respect of a young person: priceless
Eliot's 36 in English makes her a precisioned writer; the charm and wit gives her prose humor, finesse and swagger. She confidently weaves the strands of her essays like a seasoned pro.

And oh, did I mention that she is the creator of the online blog Okazaki Fragments, i.e. short, newly synthesized DNA fragments that are formed on the lagging template strand during DNA replication—I told you about her: surfoués. 

Here's the skinny: We all contain Okazaki Fragments both literally and metaphorically: the former you have to take my word on it, they're too small to see; the latter in that we all are made up of pieces and parts; talents, strengths, intelligences, abilities; it just takes us awhile for the fragments to link themselves together into a viable force. It is then we can comfortably say, "This is me, hear me roar."

Oh yes, Young Okasaki is also my birding partner. 

And sometimes we just go hunting for ducks.

Friday, November 22, 2013

50 years later

22 November 1963
Probably 2:30 PM-ish

Principal Carl Lewelling walked into my Tennessee History class at Pi Beta Phi Elementary School in Gatlinburg. At the time, I was looking at a map of the Volunteer State counting the number of counties named in honor of presidents: Washington... Monroe... Madison... Van Buren... Jackson... Lincoln... Jefferson...

The school's leader was ashen. After speaking briefly to Mrs. Wolfe, our teacher, he turned to the class.

A tall, forceful man with a shock of hair that fell down over his forehead, Lewelling was obviously rattled, words could not have come easily, how could you relate such unspeakable horror to young minds, seven-year-olds, eight-year-olds, etc. but he had the same grave message to deliver to over 16 classes of youngsters, and he did them all himself. A message that sorrowful had to be done in person.

"Class," said Lewelling. "President Kennedy has just been assassinated. He is dead."

The news was too big for me to comprehend. Too big for the class to comprehend. Too big for the nation. All fell silent. Shock shuts down the system. In the hallway, teachers wept. Others teared up not quite knowing why.

A charismatic president too young to die. A small mountain school too young to fathom its meaning. 

And for the next four days my whole family set around the television watching the drama play out in black and white. Four days of pathos, national suffering, much too big for anyone to comprehend.

My good friend Guy was only four-years-old. "No one would tell me what had happened. I could see it on TV, see everyone crying, but no one explained it to me. I had to somehow make sense of it all." 

Those of us who were alive at the time will never ever forget. It's burned into our emotional core, seared into our temporal lobe. The sight of First Lady Jackie in that hot pink Chanel suit with matching pillbox hat still brings the tears, half a century later.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

chûte des feuilles

Mulberry Tree painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1889

"Vincent painted a simple mulberry tree—not much bigger than a shrub—as an orange-and-red Medusa with leafy ringlets filling the entire canvas...He laid on paint with the lightest possible touch—mere glances of hue to show the falling of leaves," write Naifeh and Smith in their book about Van Gogh.

What would they say in Saint-Rémy de Provence this time of the year? 

Chûte des feuilles. 

Indeed!  After the cold weather arrives, the leaves are indeed falling. In some cases, as Van Gogh painted: impasto. Rapid and heavily.

Here's the interesting thing about mulberry trees: after the first wisp of real cold, the first frosty night, the leaves all fall at once. BOOM! Within a very short time, the tree loses its dazzle and lays itself bare for winter. 

The first cold triggers each leaf to form an abscission zone, a layer of cells that seals off the leaf from its supportive stem. Once the seal is complete, the leaf falls. Discarded by the tree like yesterday's news.

In 2004, naturalist/author Bill Felker in Yellow Springs, Ohio was attune enough to focus on the event. During the night of November 11-12 the temperature in his backyard dropped to the mid-20s. Burrr! Grab a sweater.

He looked out on his mulberry at 8:30 a.m. the next morning just as the first leaves began to drop. Ten minutes shy of an hour later, the tree was denuded of its foliage.
Felker wrote, "Trying to understand what I’d witnessed, I went out and counted the number of leaves in a square foot beneath the tree: 65 leaves large and small filled the space. I measured the area that held most of the newly fallen leaves: 55 by 40 square feet. I multiplied, came up with 2,200 square feet, multiplied that times 65 leaves per square foot."
"I had seen something in the neighborhood of 143,000 leaves come down, give or take maybe 50,000. Divided by 50 minutes, that would be about 3,000 leaves a minute."
Yes, indeed, "Chûte des feuilles!"

Paper mulberry

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Authors melt into their socks, if they can afford footwear, over these kinds of reviews, especially just before the holiday shopping season:

"If you love Walden and Thoreau, this book is for you."

"This is not just a book for naturalists and nature-lovers, nor is it just a book about the southern Appalachians. It is both of these, but it is also a reader's book; a book-lover's book..."

For the rest of the review click: Amazon.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Jen & Lyn eat bugs

Cricket Cookies. Yum! Photo by Jen Roder

Waiter, there's a fly in my soup. Ohhhh? It's supposed to there.

Ijams' Jennifer Roder and I went to the Buggy Buffet last week on UT's Ag Campus.

Story at ELEVEN!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

fading colors

Skewered like a loggerhead shrike's grasshopper, this sweet gum leaf is impaled on a rose's thorn.

The sweet gums are some of the few trees that are still hanging onto a few of their leaves, their colors. But that will soon change.

After Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase that, in effect, doubled the size of the United States, the new territory had to be surveyed. All of the territory east of the Mississippi River had been plotted and four meridians established. Surveyors Prospect K. Robbins and Joseph C. Brown were sent to establish the Fifth Meridian. 

At a site located in a black water swamp that was ninety-one degrees, three minutes and forty-two seconds West of Greenwich at a latitude of thirty-four degrees they established a starting point. This spot originally marked by two sweet gums is the beginning for all lands in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and most of Kansas, Colorado, Montana and Minnesota.

Today the location is marked by a rock in Louisiana Purchase State Park near Blackton, Arkansas.

- Photo at Ijams Nature Center.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

vivid secret


Today, we turn to Diane Ackerman:

“A turning leaf stays partly green at first, then reveals splotches of yellow and red as the chlorophyll gradually breaks down. Dark green seems to stay longest in the veins, outlining and defining them. During the summer, chlorophyll dissolves in the heat and light, but it is also being steadily replaced. In the fall, on the other hand, no new pigment is produced, and so we notice the other colors that were always there, right in the leaf, although chlorophyll’s shocking green hid them from view. With their camouflage gone, we see these colors for the first time of the year, and marvel, but they were always there, hidden like a vivid secret beneath the hot glowing greens of summer.”

- From “The Natural History of the Senses” by Diane Ackerman

- Photo of fothergilla taken at Ijams Nature Center

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

great papaw's place

Jim Bales place on Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains

If you could go back a century, to the northern slope of Mt. Leconte down the watersheds of Roaring Fork, Baskins and LeConte Creeks you would find hundreds of homesteads. 

Papaw Homer Daniel Bales
Mountaineer farmers trying to scratch out a living on land too poor, too sloped to have much of a garden. Most grew what corn they could, also potatoes, beans and, of course, apples. But the rocky land was on the side of a mountain. 

Papaw Homer Bales (Jim's son) liked to tell the story of a cow that once fell out of its pasture and broke its neck. 

All that changed with the coming of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The hundreds of mountaineer farmers, what Horace Kephart called "Our Southern Highlanders," sold their land and moved elsewhere to start over. Most bought bottomland that was flatter, easier to farm.

It has always been a source of pride for me that two of the homesites that the park officials decided to keep and maintain as a testament to those rugged people and their hard-scrabble lives would, for me, be "family."

Their homes were saved not because of who they were but where they were. Each was located on the one road the park decided to also keep and maintain: an old wagon road now called Cherokee Orchard Motor Nature Trail, a one-way ribbon of asphalt designed for modern day covered wagons that weaves its way around the steep slopes. Today, the area is known as the Roaring Fork Historic District.

Emma and Jim Bales married 1893.
The first family home you encounter is on the right after a bridge that crosses Roaring Fork. It's the homesite of my great grandfather (great papaw for us Southerners) James Wesley "Jim" Bales (1869-1939) who was married to Emma F. Ogle (1880-1902, yes she married and died young). It's where my own papaw Homer Bales (1899-1998, yes, almost 100 years) spent his boyhood. 

The next parcel down the narrow winding road belonged to Jim's brother, Ephraim Bales (1867-1926) married to Minerva Reagan (1873-1936). Great, great grand uncle Eph's cabin is noteworthy because it's basically two cabins with an open breezeway called a "dog trot" in between, all covered by one roof. I've been told that when Eph and family lived there the dog trot was closed off and filled with kids, as indeed records show they had 13, although all did not survive their infancy. 

Life was tough on the north side of the mountain, days were short, nights were long, winter's cold. Cabins cold. Grandma Pearl told me that a pail of water in the kitchen could freeze overnight. Hard times. First one up lights the fire. 

I love it when people send me photos taken there. 

The beautiful autumn ones at the top and bottom of this post of Jim's and Ephraim's homesites were taken by Rex McDaniel. 

And here's a precious one with little Sara peeking out the door of "papaw's place," as if to say, "Come and get it, supper's ready. Beans and 'tators, little cornbread. Take your boots off before you come in." 

Luckily, little Sara lives on good solid, bottomland where life is a little easier.

Thanks, Rex. Bless you little Sara.  

- Stephen Lyn Bales, fifth generation hillbilly

Home of Minerva and Ephraim Bales

Monday, November 4, 2013

Return of Lake Sturgeon

Lake Sturgeon. Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Aquarium

If you are an aquatic biologist, then July 19, 2000 was a big day. If your specialty is large game fish, it was monumental with a capital “M.”

On that date, approximately 500 young lake sturgeon were released into the French Broad River just below Douglas Dam in Sevier County. In effect, it was a long awaited homecoming, the beginning of an effort to reestablish a sustainable population of the large bottom-dwelling fish. That release was the first of dozens to take place over the projected 20-year lifespan of the project.

Many of the people at the release that July morning, especially the aquatic biologists, had already invested years in planning the initiative. Wearing T-shirts that boasted "Bring Back the Natives," they took turns carrying the young fish to the water and patiently letting them go, one at a time. A defining moment in their careers, it was a selfless act they each wanted to savor. 

 Having spent the first years of their young lives in much smaller artificial environs, at first the young sturgeon lay in the shallow water seemingly bewildered by the newness of it all on that warm July morning 13 years ago. 

They gulped, slowly gathering whatever awareness and courage it takes for such finned creatures to move into the great unknown. Gradually, senses alert, they swam away into the water's murky depths and their new life. Nurtured and hand-raised since birth, they were now on their own. Most would never be seen again. 

Yet, like ”Casting your bread upon the waters,” there was hope that after many a day the good wishes would be returned.

- For the rest of the story, look for the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist. Special thanks to editor Louise Zepp and to Thom Benson with The Tennessee Aquarium.