OUTSIDE

The Miracle of Plants

The Miracle of Plants

As an amateur naturalist I have a curiosity to know how things work. In college I once saw the chemical reactions involved in photosynthesis laid out on a large poster. This all-important method plants use to make food for themselves (and ultimately us) was incredibly long and complex. It is so complex that it’s tempting to simply say that plants bring in carbon dioxide and water, add sun energy, then a miracle happens and out comes oxygen and food. While there is truth there, let me elaborate on the miracle part.

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Blackgum

Blackgum

Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), also called tupelo gum and sour gum, can be found in almost any woodland in our area. It grows on a wide range of conditions, from wet areas to dry ridge tops.

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The Sounds of Nature

The Sounds of Nature

When it comes to appreciating the natural world, getting out and seeing it is how it’s most often done. We go on vacations or road trips to see beautiful things like forests, mountains, rivers, oceans, and canyons. This makes sense, as we are wired to perceive the world mostly through the sense of sight. 30% of the neurons in our brain’s cortex is devoted to vision. For comparison, 8% is used for smell, and only 2% is used for hearing. One could conclude that sounds in our surroundings are not important, but I beg to differ.

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The Past and Present of Elms

The Past and Present of Elms

Elm trees have been appreciated by humans for many generations, primarily as a stoic large urban tree lining streets and shading landscapes. During the 18th and 19th centuries it was one of the most popular landscape trees in Europe and America. Native Americans also revered the tree for its medicinal qualities. We have several native species.

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Firefly Light Show

FireFly

A peaceful form of summer entertainment is sitting out in the yard watching fireflies do their light show at dusk. And who hasn’t as a child stalked and captured “lightnin bugs” in a jar? Fireflies are real standouts of the insect world, so let me illuminate you (yes, humor).

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Let There Be Light

Sun Beams

Light is something we don’t think about much, but almost everything that’s alive on the planet needs light for sight and energy. Human eats cow, cow eats grass, grass grows on light… you get the picture. Scientists have studied light for centuries, but still don’t fully understand it.

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Earthworms

worms

Since I enjoy an occasional fishing trip and dabble with a garden, I thought I knew a fair bit about worms. Little did I realize what amazingly beneficial little guys they are. The two most common worms we have in our area are the nightcrawler and the redworm. The nightcrawler is the larger of the two and can be 11 inches long and thick as a pencil.

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Minimal Composting

Compost Bin

With living “green” becoming a thing these days, you’ve probably heard the benefits of composting yard and kitchen waste. It’s good fertilizer, adds organic matter, improves soil moisture, and the environmental upshot is you’re sending less stuff to landfills and septic systems. But despite the positives, few people compost for various perceived negatives: no room, maintenance hassles, too complicated, bad smell, etc. As a composter I would be considered a passive one, bordering on lazy. I don’t worry about any of the above and my waste still rots down without smelling.

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Balms, Banes, and Worts: Plant Name Curiosities

Beebalm

As a wildflower enthusiast and more recently a student of medicinal plants, I keep running across plants with recurring name components. The terms balm, bane, and wort come up often, so I decided to see why. Prepare to delve into the world of ethnobotany, the study of plants used by humans.

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Why We Love the Mountains

Why We Love the Mountains

Mountains seem to be a universal attraction to people no matter where they come from. To we who were born and raised in them, they are especially endearing because they were the constant backdrop of our lives: their beauty, their challenges, and their molding of the culture of our ancestors that was passed on to us. Mountains are special, but what is it about them that everybody falls in love with? This will sound over-simplistic, but the answer is their 3-dimensional terrain. Let me explain.

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Hiking Shoes: Choose Your Friends Well

Hiking Boots

My fun and my work have for many decades involved walking over rough terrain, so finding practical but comfortable shoes or boots has been critical. They’re so important to me that I end up emotional attached to them and mourn when they finally wear out and I must let them go to shoe heaven. I’m teary eyed right now just thinking about it. So, today's article is advice on choosing footwear that will be your friend.

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It’s Dogwood Season

Dogwood Flower

One of Spring’s pleasures after a winter of subdued color is the flowering of the dogwoods, which are universally enjoyed and mega-popular as yard trees. We are blessed to have them growing wild in our forests and are very common. Virginia is particularly big on dogwood, as it’s their state tree.

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Backpacking 101

Backpacking 101

If you’ve ever had the urge to “get away from it all, a literal way to pull that off is to try backpacking. Think of it as extended hiking where you stay overnight or several days and carry in what you need. Being out in the wild for a few days clears the mind and it’s good for the soul to rough it and be away from the clamor of modern life. The trick to backpacking is to carry only what you really need to be reasonably comfortable and safe. Carry too much and you become a pack mule, which is not fun. What follows is a list of equipment and items usually used on a backpacking venture.

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The Spring Green Light

Sun Face

For all you warm weather people out there, your time has come. The vernal (spring) equinox is upon us, which is the official beginning of Spring, arriving this year on March 20.

The event is not only a promise of warmer weather, it also plays a key role in determining what date Easter occurs, which can move around quite a bit year to year.

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Aliens in Your Neighborhood

Aliens in Your Neighborhood

If you know what to look for, you will discover aliens nearby, brutal ones bent on world domination. Some walk around, some fly, but the really dangerous ones blend into the landscape and slowly increase in numbers undetected until it’s too late and they take over. This isn’t science fiction, but a nasty reality show called exotic invasive pests, and many are out to get our forests.

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Tree Wisdom

Tree Wisdom

With area Arbor Days at hand I thought it appropriate to reflect on how intertwined our lives are with trees. We not only use forest products multiple times every day, but their constant presence is inspiring enough to be used in literature, poetry, and music. A centuries old form of writing to teach wisdom is the proverb, a brief statement that expresses a general truth. The Bible is full of them, and they are used by about every culture on the planet. A way to juice up a proverb is to use figurative language, like: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water…”.

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The Curiosity of Contrails

Contrails

You may not have realized it, but if you look up on a clear day you will likely see a man-made cloud somewhere in the sky, trailing behind jet aircraft high up in the atmosphere. Contrails, short for condensation trails, are formed from the water vapor found in aircraft exhaust as a byproduct of fuel combustion. Natural clouds form from the same process of water vapor condensing in cool air as it rises, so technically contrails are clouds, just from an unnatural source.

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The Bad Rap of Snake Oil

The Bad Rap of Snake Oil

I have a friend who told a humorous story about being in a meeting where someone was speaking of things that he knew to be untrue, downright bovine excreta. When he had taken all he could of it, he stood up, got up, slammed a dollar onto the table and cried out “gimme a bottle of that snake oil!” Snake oil is indeed a popular metaphor for anything being touted as true, but in reality is fraud. And those attempting to sell or convince you to accept something fraudulent are referred to as snake oil salesmen.

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The Scoop on Sweetgum

The Scoop on Sweetgum

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is a common tree in our area, normally found growing in low areas where the soil is moist, such as near streams or drains. The name comes from the taste of its hardened sap that bleeds from wounds on the trunk.

The tree is easy to identify, with leaves distinctly star-shaped and with a small-toothed edge. The bark is gray and furrowed with flat ridges that form a diamond pattern. The twigs are showy in the winter with corky wing-like protrusions. The fruit is a spiny ping pong sized ball that hangs on well into winter.

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Be an Astronomer for One Night

Orion

The winter night sky gives you the opportunity to see a few things you may not have thought you could see. In one small part of the sky you can easily identify a constellation, name two stars, see a sun that has a planet orbiting it, and see a Nebula. This will be the fastest astronomy lesson you'll ever have, so hang on.

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