Old Field Forests

Conversion of an old field: mown grass to tall grass/weeds, to cedar/pine, to hardwoods.

Before World War 2 there was a lot more cleared farmland than there is now. Before chemical fertilizer and lime was readily available, per acre yields for farm crops were much lower and so more land was needed to farm. This was not a problem, as most farms had large families with a built-in labor force. But over the years the land eroded, kids left the farm, and the farmer got older. So gradually the steeper, rougher fields or field edges were let go, and the forest reclaimed them. There are indicators you can look for to tell if a forest was once a field.

Trees in Winter Are Worth a Look

When the forest is laid bare each winter there is a tendency to think of it as a bleak and dreary place. But the basic structural skeleton of each tree can be seen at this time, with every branch, twig, and bud visible, thus revealing how it has grown in the past, and how it has prepared for the future. So put on a coat, go outside and go take a look.

Crazy Cold

Ice on the Powell River (photo by Steve Roark)

The recent bitter cold spell we just lived through may have converted a lot of people to become thermophiles (those who like heat), and don’t want to read about cold right now. But stay with me on this one and perhaps you won’t be so down on our own winter weather.

Make a wild resolution

Explore nature to live in the now

Modern living tends to make us too busy to relax, and I’m not the first to tell you that’s not healthy. Humans of any age need to play and let those stress generated hormones that make the heart race and adrenaline flow get out of our system. To many this may involve some form of exercise through various sports, but another way is to just get outside and become more attuned to what's around you. It focuses you to live in the now, with no thought of past or future concerns. A connection with nature has been proven to be healthy and therapeutic, yet severely lacking these days, especially with kids. So let me encourage you to resolve in 2023 to get outside a little more, to be still a little more, and enjoy and learn more about this wonderful place we live in. Here are some possibilities

Rudolf the Red Nosed Rein...dear?

By now you have no doubt heard the obligatory Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer song ten times on the radio or department store sound systems. The assumption is that because Rudolf is depicted with antlers that he’s a he, and that may be correct. But if you will allow me some natural history holiday fun, it’s possible that Rudolf is a her.

Christmas Carol Curiosities

By Steve Roark
Volunteer, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Since childhood I have always enjoyed Christmas carols, preferably AFTER Thanksgiving, and especially the old ones. Some go back to the 1600s, and sometimes have some obscure language that may not make sense in our present era. So, I thought it interesting to check a few out. 

Selecting a quality Christmas tree

When buying either a cut or live (balled) Christmas tree, a few extra minutes spent checking it over prior to purchase will make sure you bring home a healthy and attractive tree.
Before you bring a tree home, decide where you will display it to determine the size and shape you can handle. The most important consideration when selecting a tree is freshness. A fresh tree retains its needles longer and is more fire resistant. Freshness can be determined by doing the following checks. Bend the tree's needles, which should be supple and springy.

A Handsome Pine in Trouble

Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) is my favorite of the pines. It is a beautiful tree to behold with its long straight trunk of map-patterned bark. It and Virginia pine are the most common pines found in our area, and can be found in almost any woodland hike. They are easy to tell apart just by looking at the trunk. Shortleaf usually has few limbs, whereas Virginia is very limby and often has dead stubs sticking out. Also, Virginia tends to hang on to its old pine cones, so they will appear numerous in the tree. Another commonly used name for shortleaf is yellow pine.

Talking Wild Turkey

Turkeys have been in the Americas for a very long time. Fossil records show they were around 11 million years ago and were likely distributed continuously from middle latitudes of North America to northern South America during the Pleistocene Era. The Aztec Indians were the first to domesticate the bird, and it became an important staple to their diet. The Navajo gave up on keeping them away from their scanty desert corn crops, and instead began feeding the turkeys and fence them in. The invading turkeys unwittingly provided a dependable source of protein and ornamental feathers.

Acorns: Food on the Wild Side

Those under the age of 50 probably don’t remember Euell Gibbons, a promoter of eating food gathered from the wild. He wrote a book that still sells well called Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and made commercials for Grape Nuts cereal with the famous line: “Ever eat a pine tree?” Anyway, I took down his book again and enjoyed rereading his passion for wild things. I’ve tried several of Euell’s recipes, including acorn bread.

Deer Survival Tactics

I’ve written several articles about our native white tail deer, and every time I do my research I get inundated with information. White tail deer is the most popular game animal in eastern U.S., and there’s been a lot written about it.

Rabbit tobacco

Rabbit tobacco in bloom

A popular pastime when my mom was growing up on a Tennessee hillside farm was to go out and find some rabbit tobacco, crush it and roll it up in some brown paper from a poke (that’s a bag to you young folk), and smoke it. I don’t know how the tobacco tasted, but that paper must have been strong!

Spooky Mountain Folklore

I’ve commented before that mountain people tend to hang onto old traditions, many deeply rooted in European (especially Scots-Irish), African, and even Native American ancestry. With the Halloween season approaching I thought I’d cover some paranormal-ish superstitions that I learned through my family or heard locally. I’m betting you’ve heard at least one or two yourself.

Why Leaves Fall

This time of year you usually see news articles explaining why leaves change color and how good the fall colors will be. I’ve written plenty of them myself, but never covered the subject of why tree leaves fall off in the first place. So here goes…

Indian Summer

By: Steve Roark
Volunteer, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Indian summer is a name that brings thoughts of balmy, hazy fall days and cool nights. It is a description of weather conditions rather than an actual season, for no dates exist for it. The closest time frame I could find was from Henry David Thoreau, who noted in his diary that Indian summer occurs from September 27 to December 13.

White-Tailed Deer

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is probably the favorite game species in our area, and spotting one always gives me a small touch of “wildness”. They have a complex and intriguing lifestyle.

Fall tree planting

Fall is a great time to plant trees, as it allows the tree roots to settle in and get established during the dormant season, making it better prepared for the Spring growth spurt and summer heat. You can plant even in early winter as long as the soil is not frozen. Here are some tree planting guidelines:

Tree Burls Are Gnarly, Man

While hiking in the woods you may stumble across a tree with a gnarly, wartlike bulge growing on the trunk or upper branch. These are called burls, and while not particularly pretty on the outside, the inner grain is gorgeous for woodworkers to create some beautiful work.

Seeing Red in the Forest

You have no doubt enjoyed trees displaying a red canopy during the fall color blitz, which are likely as not red maples. The tree comes by its name honest, as there’s something red about it all year long. In spring they bloom red flowers, in early summer you’ll see the red of ripening seeds, and all summer long the leaf stem will show red. Come autumn, much of the brilliant reds in the mountains are from red maples. In winter the end twigs and buds are also red.

Fall aster blooms prolific in Appalachia

By Steve Roark Volunteer, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

While springtime is noted for wildflowers, late summer and autumn also offer an impressive burst of color, when some plants make a last push to propagate before the killing frosts. Asters are particularly easy to find blooming now, and come in shades of yellow, white, and purple/blue.