Monday, November 30, 2015

Natural Histories: osage orange

As UT Press writes, Natural Histories "illuminates in surprising ways the complicated and often vexed relationships between humans and their neighbors in the natural world."

Perhaps the most vexing encounter in the book between humans and the natural world occurred when the boys in gray engaged a simple hedge planted due west of the Harpeth River n Middle Tennessee.

On November 30, 1864—151 years ago today—the horrific Battle of Franklin was fought south of Nashville. An osage orange hedge row played a key role in the outcome stopping one division of the advancing Southern army "dead" in their tracks. When the smoke cleared, the Confederate Army of Tennessee had lost almost 7,000 men in just five hours. (The Union army's dead and wounded numbered significantly less: only 2,326.) Here's a snippet from my book:

"The almost forgotten Battle of Franklin was a death knell. “This is where the Old South died,” says activist Robert Hicks, “and we were reborn as a nation.”

I visited the site on this date in 2004. It was a rainy day much like today. Here's another passage from the book:

"Leaving Lewisburg Pike, I walked along the rain soaked streets and soon found the two aged osage orange trees still growing in the vicinity of the railroad line. Historian Cartwright had told me about the old trees just an hour before. Both were perhaps descendants of the hedgerow that stopped Loring and, as such, were living monuments. It was a circuitous chain of events that moved osage orange from its native Red River home to this historic point of all out chaos; turn back the clock and replay the era, day by day, and it would not have unfolded in exactly the same way. I paused just long enough to admire the towering presence of the elderly trees; and as the rain began to fall heavy once again, I zipped up my coat, turned and walked away."

Excerpts from my book Natural Histories published by the University of Tennessee Press.

The fruit of an osage orange looks like a green brain
and probably tastes like one too,
although, I must admit, I've sampled neither.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Today at Ijams

Join us today at Ijams. Here's our creature feature schedule:

1 PM Meet a feisty American kestrel, 
the smallest bird of prey in the Tennessee Valley
If the female kestrel (4 oz.) weighed as much as a local female bald eagle (9+ lbs.) she would dismember me with nary a sigh, instead she simply eyes my outstretched finger.

2 PM Meet a bristly Chilean rose tarantula
and learn all about spiders.
Eight legs, eight eyes, two body parts and spinnerets, oh my.

3 PM Meet an impressive red-tailed hawk
with an injured wing that we care for at Ijams
Redtails are the largest true hawk found in the Tennessee Valley. 

Red-tailed hawk     Photo by Karen Claussen 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Leaving a mark on space-time

One hundred years ago today, Albert Einstein presented his theory of general relatively. And science and the world itself has never been the same. 

"Einstein showed that even though space and time can independently differ for different observers, the four-dimensional space-time reality is the same for everyone. This implies that events in space-time have a permanence to them that cannot be taken away. Once an event occurs, in essence it becomes part of the fabric of our universe. Every human life is a series of events, and this means that when we put them all together, each of us is creating our own, indelible mark on the universe. Perhaps if everyone understood that, we might all be a little more careful to make sure that the mark we leave is one that we are proud of," writes Jeffrey Bennett for CNN. 

Think about it. 

No. Actually take time to think about it. What do you want to leave behind to show your mark in space-time?

For the rest of Bennett's essay go to: Space-Time.

Monday, November 23, 2015

22 November 2015

Sunset: Downtown Knoxville, yesterday

“There's a sunrise and a sunset every single day, 
and they're absolutely free. Don't miss so many of them.” 

- Jo Walton, Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction writer and poet.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

This p.m. at Ijams

Albino box turtle cared for by the Ijams education staff

Join us today at Ijams. Here's our program schedule:

1 PM Meet a feisty American kestrel, 
the smallest bird of prey in the TN Valley
If the female kestrel (4 oz.) weighed as much as a local female bald eagle (9+ lbs.) she would dismember me with nary a sigh, instead she simply eyes my outstretched finger. She's focused. Watch me contain her. Free to public.

2 PM Get eyeball-to-eyeball with a precious albino box turtle, and learn about her rare genetic disorder
Found six years ago in a little boy's backyard, she has lived protected at Ijams ever since. For her backstory, click: foundling.

2 PM Make a Gourd Biscuit Warmer 
Just in time for Thanksgiving! Come out for a fun class as we transform gourds into beautiful and useful centerpieces for your table that can be filled with biscuits, rolls, or any other holiday treat. Learn techniques from local artist, Jackie Hardin, on how to cut and decorate the gourds to last for years to come. Class fee is $22. Must register by calling 577-4717 ex 110.

3 PM Junior Girl Scouts Scribe Badge Workshop 
Words are powerful tools. Great writing can make people feel encouraged, entertained, or excited. It can create fantasy worlds or preserve events from history. And just writing down your feelings actually makes you feel better! Join me for this badge workshop, we’ll find out what you can do with words.
Such fun!

Gourd Biscuit Warmer

Friday, November 20, 2015


I lucked out when I took this photo of an orb web; the individual strands of silk illuminated by the early morning sunlight. Normally an orb web is practically invisible. That’s why they are such effective traps.

But there’s one group of orb weavers—the writing spiders—that decorate their creations with highly visible patterns. These conspicuous silk structures are called “stabilimenta” or singular: stabilimentum, a great word to drop into any casual conversation.

Why go to so much trouble making a normally invisible web visible?

Why indeed?

Theories vary. And the weavers themselves are mute on the topic. Writing spiders like the ones in the genus Argiope tend to be brightly colored and they often position themselves in the center of the web. The stabilimenta may help camouflage the orb-weaver or make them look larger. The patterns also reflect UV light, which may serve as a lure to possible prey. Plus, the pattern may help keep birds from flying through the web, tearing it down.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

leaf and cloud

"It is the nature of stone
to be satisfied.
It is the nature of water
to want to be somewhere else."

- From "The Leaf and the Cloud" by poet Mary Oliver

This begs the question: Are you made of stone or water?

-Photo taken in the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River in the Sugarlands. 
Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Monday, November 16, 2015


"Walking in nature added more to the spiritual pot than to the cognitive, and there everything seemed in place. So I trekked often to creeks, waterfalls, and parks within the city. At least there, I could relax in the present and renew my relationship with my own breath."

-From Sacred Paths and Muddy Places, By Stephen Altschuler

Sunday, November 15, 2015

This afternoon at Ijams

Get up close with a red-tailed hawk.

Join us today at Ijams. Here's our program schedule:

1 PM Meet a regal red-tailed hawk, 
the largest hawk found in the TN Valley
With a wingspan of almost four feet and weighing three pounds, the red-tail hawk is the largest true hawk found in the Tennessee Valley. Meet an injured one we care for at Ijams. Free to public.

2 PM Meet a feisty American kestrel, 
the smallest bird of prey in the TN Valley
If the female kestrel (4 oz.) weighed as much as a local female bald eagle (9+ lbs.) she would dismember me with nary a sigh, instead she simply eyes my outstretched finger. She's focused. Watch me contain her. Free to public.

2 PM Gunless Turkey Hunt While it is a commonly held myth that Benjamin Franklin nominated the turkey to be our national symbol, he did indeed remark that the turkey is a “more respectable bird” than the eagle. Since Turkey Day is almost here, Ijams though they’d celebrate in their own turkey way with a gun-less turkey “hunt.” Join me on a trip to Seven Islands State Birding Park in search of these proud, feathered fowl, and try and decide if Mr. Franklin was correct in his assertion that the turkey is “though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage.” Fee: Ijams members $3, non-members $5. To register call 577-4717, ext. 110.

Such fun!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

poor Sam?

The temperatures have chilled.

An early harbinger of winter is the arrival of white-throated sparrows in late October. They spend the cold weather months here in the Tennessee Valley but nest to our north. (Great Lakes and New England into southern Canada.)

Likewise, as spring nears, I begin to hear their plaintive song more often as the birds tune up, practicing the proclamations they'll need to claim territories on their breeding grounds. Longing for home, they supposedly sing "pure-sweet-Canada, Canada, Canada." In the fall, they seem to be looking for a "poor, Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody."

But who is poor Sam?

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Friday, November 13, 2015

red white oak

Yikes. It comes down to this. Most of the fall color has come and gone. The golds and yellows of October have given way to deep crimsons, maroons and scarlets.

This white oak--note the rounded lobes--with red leaves has become the focal point of the parking lot at the nature center.

One of the most famous white oaks in the country was the old Charter Oak that grew in Hartford, Connecticut until 1856. The name “Charter” comes from the local legend that a cavity within the tree was used in late 1687 as a hiding place for the Constitution charter.

Historic Charter Oak in Connecticut.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


I would be remiss this Veterans Day not to salute the serviceman nearest and dearest to my own heart: my late father Russell Bales, part of what journalist Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation." And who would argue with him?

Near the end of World War II, Dad served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific on the USS Yuma, an ocean-going tug.

The Yuma went to sea to tow damaged ships back to port that could not return under their own power. As my friend Dr. Guy Smoak points out, still a dangerous mission since Japanese submarines patrolled the Pacific as witnessed by the USS Indianapolis.

Dad was 16-years-old when this photo was taken; too young for service, too young for battle, too young to be so far from home. But wars are ignited by old men yet fought by the young. 

And for that, we salute all vets on this holiday that commemorates their courage and sacrifice.

Monday, November 9, 2015

nothing gold

"Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay."

As much as we try to hold on to it, nothing gold can last.

- "Nothing Gold Can Stay" poem by Robert Frost

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Today at Ijams

She's intense! If you're a grasshopper, 
her face could be the last you ever see. 

Join us today at Ijams. Here's our program schedule:

1 PM Meet a feisty American kestrel, 
the smallest bird of prey in the TN Valley
If the female kestrel (4 oz.) weighed as much as a local female bald eagle (9+ lbs.) she would dismember me with nary a sigh, instead she simply eyes my outstretched finger. She's focused. Watch me contain her. Free to public.

2 PM Meet an unassuming albino black rat snake, 
and learn about her rare genetic disorder
Found in someone's basement, she's a gentle and vulnerable beauty. Free to public.

3 PM Mindfulness Walk (Recommended for adults) The Ijams Sanctuary Series is a new program designed to help visitors slow down and appreciate all the beauty in their surroundings. “Shinrin-Yoku,” or forest bathing, is the slow, meditative exploration of the forest using all five senses. By removing distractions such as cell phones, cameras and even talking, participants are able to truly engage with their surroundings and experience the restorative properties of nature. Join me for some quiet time. The fee for this program is $7 for Ijams members and $10 for non-members. Please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register.

Plus we have two groups of scouts—Packs 110 and 630—stopping by to work on their "Fur, Feathers and Ferns" badge requirements.

Such fun! 

Albino black rat snake

Thursday, November 5, 2015

UT Press at 75

Congratulations to my friends at the University of Tennessee Press. They are celebrating their 75th Anniversary. In the past seven-and-a-half decades UT has published hundreds of books. Their fall catalog reflects that rich history with a collage of 39 covers.

To celebrate, last Friday evening they held a reception at Cheaspeake's downtown. Dean of Libraries, Steve Smith and I were invited to speak. Smith talked about the importance of books and published and I was asked to say a few words about my work-in-progress: Ephemeral by Nature.

Asking an author to talk about one of his books is like asking my late father to watch football. There's never a problem.

Thank you, Scot and the rest of the staff.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

injured barred


The Ijams education department recently took in a non-rehabilitatable barred owl.

A short time ago, the young male was brought to UT Veterinary Teaching Hospital with injuries to both eyes. They were able to save the actual eyes but the poor bird is blind in one and only has partial vision in the other.

Dr. Louise Conrad
Luckily, Ijams had an empty enclosure and our part time veterinarian, Dr. Louise Conrad worked out his transfer to our care. Without that, it might have been euthanized.

In time, he'll make an excellent education animal, doing programs for hundreds of people and students.

Dr. Louise is in charge of the health and well being of all the animals we routinely use in our programs: snakes, turtles, birds, spiders, etc. etc.

To donate money for the care of the young barred owl or any of our animals at Ijams call Jennifer: (865) 577-4717. 

Beautiful eyes! But actually the new educational owl
only has partial vision in his left one. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Visit Ijams today

Stop by and visit Ijams today. Here's our program schedule:

1 PM Meet a shy opossum, 
the only species of marsupial in North American
Free to public.

2 PM Meet a feisty American kestrel, 
the smallest bird of prey in the TN Valley
Free to public.

3 PM Urban Wilderness Hike
Join Eric Johnson and me for a hike (roughly 3 mile loop) along a future trail in the Wood Property in South Knoxville, a parcel cared for by the Legacy Parks Foundation. Hike is free. Please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register.