Saturday, November 29, 2014

the language of trees

Wonder why one row of white pines along a local greenway all have pine cones, while another row a short distance away does not have any?

I've noticed this before. The groups of white pines that produce cones any given year must plan so in advance, but how? Do they whisper sweet nothings to each other in the night?

It's like the oaks: when they have a super-duper crop of acorns, which they do not do every cycle, how do they all know in advance to do it? This past fall was a bountiful mast year here in the valley, but how do they do it in sync?

How do trees communicate?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

coyote and I

Two days ago, a coyote (Canis latrans) trotted across Candora Avenue off Old Maryville Pike in front of my car, in broad daylight, mid-afternoon, within the city limits, three miles from downtown. Wow! Did I just write that? Twenty years of writing about nature and this is a first.

I stopped and just watched. What else could I do? But marvel at its beauty, its supple form. 

Warner Brothers' Wile E. Coyote
Wile E.? No. Wiley, well maybe, but I prefer skittish, shy, wary. And why shouldn't they be? We've been killing them for 200 years, yet still they thrive. So much so they've crossed the Mississippi River and moved into the East, exploiting a niche once occupied by wolves. 

"Oh, please stop," I muttered as it passed before me, wanting to savor the encounter. And it did, just before it disappeared into the bushes, it paused to look back. 

We were eye-to-eye, it and I. Oh, the wonder.

I wasn't alarmed, but feel fortunate to live in a city where coyotes feel free to trot across quiet streets in broad daylight. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

zombie bugs?

Run don't walk to the nearest newsstand. Or if this is still laying on your desk unopened, get out the scissors, but don't run with them.

This month's cover story in National Geographic is the creepiest, oddest, weirdest, strangest, most macabre, yet most fascinating—and you can arrange those descriptors in any order you like—I have ever read. It's a "Tales from the Crypt" kind of thing; and I have been reading the yellow-bordered Nat Geo for decades.

Real Zombies: The Strange Science of the Living Dead by Carl Zimmer is bizarre with a capital B.

I'm a naturalist, a fan/observer of all things in the natural world; how they interrelate, their connections. But somehow this goes beyond that. Parasite wasps that lay their eggs inside a host's body so that when hatched the young can eat their way out, but it goes one step further, the wasps infiltrate the host's brain to alter its behavior to do their bidding because they need to move their life cycle along. A to B to C, with B being an unwilling patsy. Otherwise the parasite does not successfully produce another generation of parasites. 

The host therefore becomes the living dead, a mindless zombie doing things to benefit the parasite and not itself.

Case history documented by Ben Hanelt: "The house cricket loses its will—and its life—to the horsehair worm. Larvae of the parasite infiltrate the cricket when it scavenges dead insects, then grow inside it. The cricket is terrestrial but the adult stage of the worm's life cycle is aquatic. [But somehow must get their larvae back on dry land to infest another cricket.] So when the mature worm is ready to emerge, it alters the brain of its host, driving the cricket to abandon the safety of land and take a suicidal leap into the nearest body of water. As the cricket drowns, an adult worm emerges, sometimes a foot long." 

Remember the scene in the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien when the young alien creature bursts from the chest of its host, John Hurt? So this sort of thing can happen to humans but only if they are in deep space.

Creepy, creepy, creepy and yet, somehow fascinating at the same time.

But there's more: The Sting of Doom.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

over sassed


Say the word in a whisper. It flows like a gentle breeze off the tongue.

It's a great moniker and a curious plant, one with a unique claim to fame.

The early English colonists in North America along the Atlantic coastline were eager to find gold and silver as the Spanish had done in South America. They found neither. They did find lots and lots of trees. Looking for something of value, the Elizabethans learned that the Native Americans drank sassafras tea as something of a “cure all.” (In the age before wonder drugs, everyone was desperate to find one.)

Hoping to make a little money, Sir Walter Raleigh took sassafras back to England from Virginia. The miracle elixir made from its roots became all the rage, spawning the “Great Sassafras Hunts.” Ships were dispatched from England in the early 1600s to collect the medicinal roots and bark that were brewed into the tonic. Billed as a proverbial Fountain of Youth, the golden brown tea smelled like root beer and supposedly kept its drinkers ageless and full of health. Sassafras teahouses became as fashionable in England as Starbucks are in Manhattan today.

The craze ended when drinkers realized they were indeed still aging, and perhaps not the picture of health they had hoped to be. As TV journalist Linda Ellerbee was prone to say, “And so it goes.”

On a neighborhood walk, I encountered a sassafras tree beginning to molt into its fall color. I left its roots intact and took only a photo, which in itself, will never age.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Seventh visit to Panther Nation

Powell High School AP Environmental Science class fall 2014

Monday, I once again visited with the AP Environmental Science class taught by Coach Will Roberts at Powell High School, a.k.a. Panther Nation. It's become an annual tradition.

We talked about conservation, environmental studies, book writing and my ancestral link
to the Great Smokies. Each student had been assigned to read a portion of my two books: Natural Histories and Ghost Birds.

Chapters we discussed included freshwater mussels, pawpaws and freshwater jellyfish. Also of interest were hawks, Ijams and the new hiking and biking trails in the Knoxville Urban Wilderness: South Loop adjacent to the nature center. Click here for: map.

One question came late, really after the bell. It concerned Sasquatch. I quickly had to answer that I viewed Big Foot as a metaphor for all that's still mysterious and unknown in nature. Is there anything hiding out there? 

For a more amplified answer, I would have had to look no farther than Powell's own mascot, the panther (Puma concolor). Adult males are up to 7.9 feet long nose-to-tail, up to 35 inches tall at the shoulders and weigh up to 220 pounds.

My Smoky Mountain grandfather called them "painters." But do they still exist in Southeastern forests? Some wildlife officials say no. We killed them all. But I have spoken to many people who have seen the big cats crossing roads in the park; and even one man who followed one on the shoreline of Norris Lake.

So, the panther is the Big Foot, or Big Paw of the Appalachians.  

Best of luck to all of you! Thanks, Coach Roberts.

Panther (Puma concolor) Wiki media

Click these links for a look back at past visits:

Monday, November 3, 2014

Artist in the background

We all need lofty goals. They give our lives purpose.

In 1819, John James Audubon set a doozy of a goal for himself: to find and draw all of the bird species that lived in America...

At the time, no one knew how many avian species lived in this country. Audubon set out to find out but he didn’t stop with merely drawing them. He wanted to illustrate all the birds “life size.” That’s no problem with a diminutive hummingbird but whooping cranes are whoppers, roughly five feet tall...

Early in his travels Audubon asked his young protégé Joseph Mason to go along as his traveling companion. Precocious, “big for his age” and brimming with talent, for two years Mason was at Audubon’s side sketching plants and flowers that would ultimately become backgrounds to Audubon's birds...

For the rest of my article about Joseph Mason look the November/December issue of The Tennessee Conservationist

Special thanks to editor, Louise Zepp.