Snowflake watching

Many enjoy watching it snow, as the slow-motion quiet of falling flakes provides a peaceful, serene setting. A single snowfall offers a myriad of exquisite ice sculptures that are short-lived, often unnoticed, and worth a closer look. In his book, Snowflake, Kenneth Libbrecht discusses how to observe snow up close.

Reindeer Games

Reindeer are always of interest at Christmas, famously known as the mode of transportation for the Big Fellow on his annual trip around the world. But they are interesting enough animals to talk about for other reasons, so let me provide some interesting facts that you can impress your friends with at Christmas parties.

The Christmas Star

One part of the Christmas story that has intrigued scientists for centuries is the mysterious star in the east that the wise men or "Magi" followed, seeking a newborn king to worship. Matthew does not go into detail concerning the star but describes it as a miraculous occurrence.

World Christmas

While we in the U.S. are well entrenched with Christmas traditions, it is of interest to see how others on the planet celebrate this wonderful season.

Keeping Christmas trees fresh

By Steve Roark
Volunteer Interpreter, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
The smell, look, and feel of a live tree creates a strong Christmas tradition that many folks (and me) cannot do without. But with that comes the concern of the tree drying out and becoming a fire hazard. There is an amazing number of water additives suggested for helping keep the tree fresh, but I have seen little research to back them up. Here are a few.

The Sense of a Goose

Geese are often perceived as awkward, rather silly creatures that waddle around honking off key. “He doesn’t have the sense of a goose” is an old put down. But I contend that geese have an intellect and team approach that humans would do well to emulate.

Cottontail Rabbit

It’s a tradition in my family for the men to go rabbit hunting on Thanksgiving morning. Our native cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is the fourth most popular game animal in the United States, behind deer, turkey, and squirrel. They provide food and sport for humans and are an important food source for other animals higher on the food chain.

Have seeds will travel

Plant life is very lush in our area. If the landscape is not paved or has a building on it, it has plants growing on it if it sits long enough. Which begs the question: How do plants spread if they are literally rooted to the ground? The answer is in seed design, and several ingenious mechanisms are used to allow plant embryos (seeds) to move away from the shadows of the mother plant.

Once in a Blue Moon

Everyone has heard the old term “once in a blue Moon”, which is used to reference a rare event. The origin of the term comes from the fact that when a month has two full moons in it, the second one is called blue. This will occur this month appropriately on October 31, Halloween, so be sure and watch for it. This second full moon blue thing is not old folklore. A March 1999 issue of Sky and Telescope describes the term as recent occurrence.

Autumn Coloration: the Tree Paint Palette

Seeing the hills and valleys ablaze with color is a special Autumn event. Many variables influence how bright the colors will be, such as sunlight, temperature, rainfall, and soil conditions. These will cause color variations in a given tree from one year to the next or even differences in various portions of the same tree.

A taste on the wild side: Jerusalem artichoke

The late summer/early fall season puts on a good flower show in our area, especially asters, those daisy-and sunflower-like species that come in a variety of colors, yellow in particular. One species that is not only pretty to look at but can also be enjoyed as a seldom-used vegetable is Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus).

Yellow Fall Asters

When most folks consider a wildflower season, spring is usually what comes to mind, and rightfully so based on the sheer number of species that bloom then. But autumn also offers an impressive burst of color when some wildflowers make one last push to propagate before the killing frosts. Asters are particularly easy to find blooming now, especially yellow ones.

On This Harvest Moon

By Steve Roark
Volunteer Interpreter, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

On October First be sure to look to the east at sunset and behold the most famous of all full moons, the Harvest Moon. Its nostalgia goes back to the days before electricity, when it was used as a night light by farmers to work longer in the fields to get the fall crops in, hence the name. But the Harvest Moon stands out for other reasons as well.

Remorse for a Pigeon

There are times I feel sad that I did not get to see things that are long gone. The American chestnut tree was once the dominant tree in our forest but is now reduced to scattered surviving stump sprouts. The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was once considered the most abundant bird on the planet, with flocks that could darken the sky for days as they migrated. This bird is now only a stuffed animal in the Smithsonian museum.


Folks who would like a taste of some wild food ought to get out and hunt persimmons here soon when they get ripe. They are abundant in our area and easy to find in fencerows and woodland edges.

There are many varieties of persimmon trees in tropical areas of the world, but only two in the United States. The one growing here is called "common persimmon" (Diospyros Virginiana), or "possum tree" by some.

Tree mathematics

By Steve Roark
Volunteer Interpreter, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
Confession time: I am not good at math. I use it, it’s great, we went to the moon with it, yada yada.
I don’t think well mathematically and must strive to understand it. But I was amazed to discover that trees use mathematics to arrange their leaves on a twig to optimize their collection of sunlight for the photosynthesis thing.

Air and Water, the Building Blocks of Trees

When I ask kids why trees are important their number one answer is that they produce oxygen. Plant leaves are solar collectors that take sun energy to produce food through the miracle of photosynthesis, a complex chemical process where carbon dioxide and water are converted to a glucose sugar. This sugar is used for food energy or converted to a starch called cellulose for building the plant’s body (stem, limbs, etc.). In trees we call this wood, something we use a lot of.

Much Ado about Dew Point

When you watch the weather forecast you invariably see a listing of current conditions: temperature, wind speed, relatively humidity, and dew point. Like you or I use those readings to predict how the weather is going to impact my comfort if out in it. But why is dew point important enough to be listed, and how does it impact your day?