Local Rivers Were Early Interstates

Back in the early and mid-1800s the industrial age and a growing population created a demand for raw materials to make products, especially from wood and metals such as iron and lead. Our area had metal ore deposits to produce pig iron in locally owned furnaces fueled by charcoal and coke. Pig iron needed to be shipped to big cities like Chattanooga where it was refined and made into metal products such as tools and farm implements.

Boxelder Bugs

Boxelder bugs can make a nuisance of themselves by gathering around the house in large numbers. They usually do this in the autumn in preparation to move into protected areas to over-winter. While they do not cause physical damage to the house, they may stain walls and curtains with brown fecal matter.

Mast years are good times for wildlife

Many species of trees have “mast years,” when their seed/fruit production is extraordinarily high. Mast refers to tree seeds that are a food source for wildlife. It comes from the old English word “maest”, referring to tree nuts that have accumulated on the forest floor.
Hard mast includes all of the nut trees, including oak (nine local species), hickory (four local species), walnut, beech, chinquapin and hazelnut. Soft mast includes the fleshy fruits like dogwood, sassafras, blackgum, blueberry, blackberry and cherry.

Vampire Plants

The standard definition of a plant is a life form that is green and capable of making its own food through photosynthesis, and for the majority of plant families that is true, and are designated as autotrophs, meaning “self-feeding”. But there are plants that defy the status quo and lack the green chlorophyll needed for food production, and must get their nourishment through other means, some by taking it from other plants by sucking their version lifeblood, sap.

House Dust

Those trying in vain to keep a house clean detest house dust. It floats in sunbeams and accumulates on furniture. Most assume the dust comes from outside, and about 60% of it does in the form of dirt or pollen, but much of it is generated inside the home. If you look at floater house dust under a microscope, it appears to be small flat plates, usually six sided and slightly wrinkled on the surface. It’s is mostly skin cells from us or from pets. We shed them constantly in fantastic amounts, and it’s the body’s way of keeping itself clean and free from invading pathogens.


Sycamore (Planatus occidentalis) is a very common tree in our area, and easy to find growing along streams and lakes. It is also one of the easier trees to identify in the woods because almost all of its identifying features stand out.

The Intelligent Design of Trees

As the largest plants around, trees dominate our view when taking a woodland walk, and we enjoy the beauty of their trunk and branches as well as the shade they provide on a warm day. There’s another cool aspect about trees that’s overlooked: the beauty of their design.

Meat Eat

The average American diet includes one of three meats, either beef, pork, or chicken. I always thought we ate more beef than anything, but chicken has of late given beef a run for its money. And if you look at it on a global scale, it turns out that beef is not always “what’s for dinner”.

Beware Bagworms

Bagworms are a common landscape pest this time of year, especially on evergreens, especially arborvitae. A large enough population can seriously damage and eventually kill a tree.

Spikenard: Connecting Our Mountains with the Bible

As a botany nut I’m always amazed at the diversity of plants we have in the mountains, as I’m constantly coming across plants I don’t know. One I’ve observed for a number of years but only recently caught it in bloom to identify it is Spikenard, which is mentioned in the Bible several times. The most familiar one is its use to anoint the head and feet of Jesus just prior to His crucifixion.

Wild Drinks

Our area’s high plant diversity makes getting outside an adventure, with every trail or country road having something interesting to see, feel or smell. If you’d like to add taste to some of your outings, there are several common plants that provide a variety of flavors to enjoy as a beverage. Here is a rundown of some that I have tried and enjoy. Be sure of correct identification before consuming any wild food and try only a small amount in case of food allergies.

Trees, Air, and Water

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 body (stem, limbs, etc.). In trees we call this wood, something we use a lot of.

Reminiscing the First Moon Landing

Picture of Moon walk on apollo 11

Being old has its disadvantages, but something I’m glad it allowed me to witness (at age 15) was the first moon landing and walk that occurred 50 years ago this month. It was one of those moments you remember exactly. In my case it was at my boyhood home in Middlesboro, Kentucky at 10:30 on a Sunday night. Me and my dad (mom was out of town) sat there watching a small black and white television totally mesmerized as these two guys walking around on another world. I remember lots of goosebumps and feeling so happy (I was a bona fide science geek by then).

Mountain Speech Revisited

In an earlier column I wrote about our version of English I like to call Mountain Speech, a unique and very old dialect that has been retained through mountain isolation to this day, though much has been lost. I’m going through a book called Smokey Mountain English that has thousands of words and phrases collected from mountain people throughout our region by linguistic experts. I’m going through the book looking for words I heard my parents and grandparents use and thought you might enjoy seeing how many you’re familiar with.

A Tree Connection to the Declaration of Independence

When holidays roll around, I like to poke around for a connection with the natural world, and I found some interesting stuff about The Declaration of Independence. This most revered American document kicked off our nation’s quest to rule itself, which we celebrate on the 4th of July, Independence Day.

Medicinal Plants

Thousands of years before modern medicine, people depended on medicinal plants to ease pain and aid healing. Our early pioneer ancestors learned from native Indians what plants were useful to treat maladies. Many of these plants are common in our area and easy to identify. What follows is a description of some of the more easy to find medicinals found in our area.

Tick Bites: Beware More than Ever

I like to write articles that are upbeat and positive, but this one is a total bummer. As a forester and lover of the outdoors, I’m in the woods way more than the average citizen, and over the decades have had my share of ticks. But this past year is beyond anything I’ve experienced before, finding them on me every month, including the dead of winter. Some were so small that I would miss them and let them get embedded, which is particularly worrisome with all the tick-borne diseases out there now. So this time I’m writing words of warning.