Real versus plastic Christmas trees

By Steve Roark
Volunteer Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Being “green” is becoming a lifestyle these days, so as the holidays approach you may be pondering over which is better for the environment, a real tree or an artificial one. It's a personal choice, but here are some facts to consider.

Tree Trunks, the Dead Supports the Living

Trunks of big trees have a majesty all their own.

Trees are impressive life forms, producing tall, majestic columns that reach to the sky. Besides support, tree trunks perform a number of functions, so here’s a lesson in tree physiology. Growth of the trunk occurs at a thin layer of cells called the cambium. Here and only here does active cell division occur. The cambium is located near the outer portion of the trunk and can be damaged by fire or wounds made by tools or equipment. It grows two kinds of wood cells; one type grows towards the tree center, the other outward.

The Roots of Thanksgiving

Foods served at the first Thanksgiving feast included
pumpkin, squash, and wild wintercress.

Thanksgiving is one of the high holidays of the US, involving traditions of being with family, eating a bountiful meal of traditional foods, and hopefully taking time to give thanks for what we have been given. You know the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving involving Pilgrims, Native Americans, feasting and all that, but history is always good to review occasionally, as you often learn something new.

Tree Beauty beyond Autumn

A tree's branches offer a quiet beauty even after the leaves are gone if you are observant, and also reveal a beauty of design.

Now that the beauty of Autumn is past and the trees are mostly laid bare, some folks bemoan the starkness of the winter forest. But now that you can see them, the limbs, branches, and twigs of trees offer a silhouette of graceful beauty all their own, especially with the sun shining behind them. Another overlooked aspect is the beauty of their design and function.

After the fall: Some leaf science

after leaves turn brown in the Fall they still have an
important job to do.

By Steve Roark
Volunteer Interpreter, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Tree leaves are most appreciated when they go through their fall color blitz that we enjoy every year. But they should also be appreciated for all they do throughout the year, including creating food and fiber through the miracle of photosynthesis, and through their death their provision of a raw materials needed for next year’s growth of new leaves. Going from dead leaves to nutrients that can be taken up by a tree requires an amazing recycling system.

A Deer’s Social Calendar

Autumn is mating season for deer, which is the only time that the males and females actually interact.

By Steve Roark
Volunteer, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Socially, male and female white-tailed deer live separate lives except for a brief mating period in the fall. Bucks tend to hang in small groups amongst themselves, and does hang out with other females, along with their yearlings and fawns.

The Blue Skies of Autumn

Fall not only brings brilliant colored mountains,
but beautiful skies as well.

I look forward to the skies of September and October and their intense blue every year. Autumn skies typically have a lot of big puffy cumulus clouds as well, highlighting the blue even more. Scanning the sky from overhead to the horizon will show that the brilliant blue overhead fades to a lighter blue near the horizon. Let us delve into some sky science and see what’s going on.


The newcomer armadillo, along with many other animal species, are falling victim to roadkill in increasing numbers.

Animals killed by automobiles are a common in rural areas. Skunk, ‘possum, turtles, and more recently, armadillos, who have managed to work their way east to our area. I recently saw a squashed aardvark in front of the McDonalds in Tazewell. Skunks are so brazen due to their very effective odoriferous defense mechanism, that they meet their end thinking ...

Fall Colors and the Weather

2023 is predicted to be a good fall color year, which is highly influenced by weather trends.

2023 is predicted to be a good fall color year, which is highly influenced by weather trends.

The autumn coloration of trees is always looked forward to with anticipation, and is beginning to show in the higher elevations. The presence of a large number of tree species having brilliant fall foliage is more unusual than you think, as the only other places in the world with a similar abundance of foliage colorations are northern China, Korea, and Japan.

The hills are alive with the sound of nature

The pleasing sound of a running stream is an example of geophony, the non-biological sounds produced in nature.

When appreciating the natural world, getting out and seeing it is mostly how it’s done. We go on vacations or road trips to see beautiful things like forests, mountains, rivers, oceans and canyons.
This makes sense, since we are wired to perceive the world mostly through the sense of sight. Thirty percent of the neurons in our brain’s cortex is devoted to vision. For comparison, eight percent is used for smell, and only two percent is used for hearing.


A Katydid's familiar chirping at night is a sign that Fall is on its way.

It’s hard to spot Katydids because they are so well camouflaged. But anyone who sits on their porch on a late summer’s night has enjoyed hearing their “katy did….katy didn’t” song, along with their chirping cousin, the cricket.

Fall Tree Planting

Fall is a good time to plant trees but do your homework and pick the right tree for the right spot

While spring is the traditional season to plant trees and shrubs, fall may be better. The soil is still fairly warm on into December, and it gives the tree a chance to rest and get well settled into the soil before the spring growth spurt. The following are a few guidelines on choosing and planting trees.

Forestry is a big deal

Many consider forestry to only mean growing trees to cut for lumber, and in the old days that was true. But the forest is much more than a place to produce wood fiber and it has multiple uses it can be managed for. Many of these uses can be managed simultaneously with proper planning.
Here is a list of the major uses.

The House That Saved the South

Who knew the lowly outhouse would improve the southern
economy in the early 1900s.

Let me warn you that this story is not for the squeamish. Way back in 1908 the millionaire John D Rockefeller wanted to make still more money, but most of his markets were saturated, so he began looking at the southern United States as an untapped marketplace. But there was a problem…the South’s economy was lousy. The people were illiterate, dirt poor, and were perceived as lazy. Farms weren’t fully operational, and the economic engine seemed to be turned off.


Thistle has notoriety as both an edible and medicinal plant, but can be a troublesome weed.

By: Steve Roark
Volunteer, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

If you own much land, chances are it has thistle growing on it. This group of plants is one of the most persistent weeds in our area, and if dirt is exposed it will likely end up growing there.

Murmurings about Mimosa

Mimosa is easy to spot right now along roadsides. It's considered invasive and competes with native plants for sun and resources.

Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) is an imported landscape tree that is very common in our area and is most noticed when it produces its fluffy pink flowers in the summer. Its commonness has been a concern from a forest health standpoint.

Plants sound the dinner bell

The color change from immature to ripe blueberries summons seed-dispersing animals to dinner.

By Steve Roark
Volunteer, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
It’s nice to think that plants produce fruit for our pleasure and that of other creatures. They do want us to eat them, but they have an ulterior motive of coaxing us into dispersing their seeds to other places.

Mountain Mint

Mountain Mint is easy to identify by its square stem, minty smell, and white dusty looking top leaves.

Back in my mom’s day folks only had access to a few flavored drinks, like milk, coffee, and water. To make things more interesting, they would seek and use native plants that provided a nice change of taste. The more common ones used were sassafras tea, teaberry, spicebush, and my topic today, Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum spp.). It’s easy to find along roadsides and woodland edges and makes a pretty tasty mint tea that also has medicinal value.

A Solar Powered World

Solar power normally conjures up visuals of black panels that capture the sun’s energy to power a home or outdoor device. The truth is that almost every energy source we use began with solar power.

Humans and the animal kingdom in general eat food for energy. You may choose to get that energy by eating say a T-bone steak with a side salad. The steak came from a mammal that got its energy from grass, which got its energy from the sun through the miracle of photosynthesis. Same goes for the salad.

A Mountain of Changes

Our mountains create a diversity of trees and plants second only to Tropical regions.

The mountains of our area contain one of the most diverse forests in the world. Over 170 woody species and close to 2000 herbaceous plants grow here, second only to tropical rain forests in variety. If you’re observant, you can find sites here that are the same as forests hundreds of miles away.