Category Archives: Travels

Tree guards of New York: story fragments.

The rails, gratings, and fences that enclose the trunks of New York’s street trees are signifiers and indicia. Some of the nature of the human community is revealed in these constructions. A sampling of this diversity follows, photos mostly from Brooklyn, a few from Manhattan. Each is a sculpture — sometimes self-consciously so, sometimes without such intention — or a fragment of narrative captured in concrete, metal, wood, and soil. I’ve photographed these tree surrounds in many seasons. Those that follow are from late December, 2016.

(Click on any of these images to see them in slideshow format:)


Glimpses of botanical and avian diversity at Nan Kun Shan Forest Park and Crosswaters Ecolodge

Our Chinese hosts kindly arranged a short visit to the forests Nan Kun Shan Forest Park. Driving inland from Shenzhen we first passed around the mega-city of Guangzhou — one of China’s tech hubs (the e-device that you are now reading with likely came from there) — which sits amid the anastomosing branches of many large rivers. From these urban flooplains we  passed into low hills, mostly managed for timber and fruit production, then to the steep-flanked mountains. In the mountains, protected forest parks are interspersed with vacation resorts and small villages. One of China’s first ecotourism projects is located here, the Crosswaters Ecolodge. The American Society of Landscape Architects gave Crosswaters an “Honor Award,” writing that it is, “tremendously inspiring to see a project in China that is designed as a celebration of its natural and cultural place. Impressive and extraordinary resourcefulness in salvaged and native materials make a more elegant and beautiful environment. For projects in this region it stands out for using found and salvaged local materials.” Guests stay in rooms and cabins made from locally-harvested bamboo, built in riverside forest clearings:


The plant life in this region is an interesting mix of subtropical and temperate species. Here, bamboo grows alongside banana and oaks. Callicarpa bodinieri (or perhaps japonica), Asian relative of American beautyberry, is common in the understory.

Botanical confluence: subtropics meets the temperate zone.

Botanical confluence: subtropics meets the temperate zone.

A familiar face. Smaller, denser fruit clusters than the American species.

A familiar face. Smaller, denser fruit clusters than the American species.


This oak or oak relative grows on the slopes that had not been converted to bamboo groves. I’m working on finding species/generic names…suggestions are very welcome!


Two different species of Castanea (relative of the American chestnut) grew on the slopes above the river:


Two sizes of chestnut. Neither looked or tasted like Castanea mollissima, the Chinese chestnut grown in cultivation in the US. Four other species of Castanea grow in south Asia.

Birds in this region are also spectacular:

Red-billed blue magpie. Photo by Charles Lam, Hong Kong. Creative Commons copyright 2.0.

Red-billed blue magpie, distant relative of crows and blue jays. Photo by Charles Lam, Hong Kong. Creative Commons copyright 2.0.

Black-throated tit. Relative of chickadees. Photo by Prateik Kulkarni. Creative Commons copyright 4.0.

Black-throated tit. Relative of chickadees. Photo by Prateik Kulkarni. Creative Commons copyright 4.0.

Plumbeous water redstart. These birds cling to rocks in streams, then fly up over the water to snatch insects from the air. Member of the Old World flyctacher family. Photo by Ron Knight, Creative Commons copyright 2.0.

Plumbeous water redstart. These birds cling to rocks in streams, then fly up over the water to snatch insects from the air. Member of the Old World flycatcher family. Photo by Ron Knight, Creative Commons copyright 2.0.

Our hosts were, as everywhere in China, extraordinarily welcoming. Part of our group, standing in front of the bamboo bridge at Crosswaters:


View of the forest from an observation tower at Crosswaters:



Dapeng Nature Book Award

Words from The Forest Unseen have loosed their tie to the English language and traveled abroad, now in nine languages. The book has been particularly well received in China, news that until last month came to me indirectly through my editors and agents. In early November, though, I received an email inviting me to China to receive a literary award. The Dapeng Nature Book Award is China’s first prize for books about the natural world. The Forest Unseen won the “international” category and last week Katie and I traveled to Shenzhen to join Chinese award winners and their colleagues in environmental and science writing, children’s literature, and translation.

The edition of my book in China (看不见的森林, The Commercial Press, Hong Kong) was edited by Yu Jiehong, translated by Xiong Jiao, and illustrated by Nian Gao. A Taiwanese edition in traditional characters (森林祕境, Cite Publishing, Taiwan) was translated by Xiao Baosen. That my words would have worth in Chinese is due to my colleagues’ great skill and linguistic artistry.

The Dapeng awards are part of the city of Shenzhen’s month-long celebration of the written word. Shenzhen is an international hub for technology and has grown from a rural outpost to a city of twenty million people in just thirty years. As the city has grown it has kept half of its land area for parks and natural areas. The city also is home to a large public library, high-tech book lending machines (photo below), and the world’s largest bookstores. This convergence of commitment to nature and to literature makes the city the ideal location for a celebration of the Chinese tradition of nature writing. Few other cultures have poetic and philosophical traditions that are so profoundly ecological. The cultural and political upheavals of the last 150 years in China have at times broken or frayed the continuity of these traditions, but these connections are now being remade and expanded.

It was a great honor to have my work recognized and to meet editors, writers, and ecologists working in China. I offer special thanks to Nan Zhaoxu, Yan Ying, and Zhang Jinkai for their generous welcome and hospitality, and to Zhang Boran for his amazing work as translator.

With some of our hosts and colleagues, at OCT wetlands nature center in Shenzhen.

With some of our hosts and colleagues, at OCT wetlands nature center in Shenzhen.

Part of the skyline of Shenzhen, seen through mangroves on the bay that separates the city from Hong Kong.

Part of the skyline of Shenzhen, seen through mangroves on the bay that separates the city from Hong Kong.

Book “lending machine” from Shenzhen public library. These are available throughout the city.

Shenzhen from the 18th floor of a hotel, looking across apartment complexes towards the administartive center. Skyscrapers line the central zone, inlcuding the Ping An Finance Centre, fourth tallest building in the world. Just visible is the 150 hectare Lianhuashan Park at the north end. To the northeast, behind the skyscrapers lies 15,000 acres of Tang Lang Hill Country Park.

Shenzhen from the 18th floor of a hotel, looking across apartment complexes towards the administrative center. Skyscrapers line the central zone, including the Ping An Finance Centre, fourth tallest building in the world. Just visible in the distance beyond the central convention and civic centers is the 370 acre Lianhuashan Park. To the northeast, behind the skyscrapers, lies 15,000 acres of forest and walkways in Tang Lang Hill Country Park.

Senator Corker tells me: “If you don’t like it, leave”

Who should come walking the other way down the trail over the weekend but our very own GOP senator, Bob Corker? I greeted him then told him how deeply ashamed I was to be from a state where our senator will not denounce Trump for boasting of sexual assault. Corker has been silent on this matter and on the racism and hate that the T-monster has spewed into our country these last months (judge for yourself: see addenda below for links to his statements). I told him that as a Tennessean I was deeply ashamed of his silence.

Corker’s response? “If you don’t like it, then you should leave the state.”

He then turned the conversation to attack me: “It’s people like you who won’t accept the results of the election who are deeply dividing this country.” “What have you ever done to contribute to this state?” Well, I did not say that I disputed the election, merely that I was ashamed of my senator. And my contributions? Modest, for sure, but irrelevant to the question: “Why have you not, Senator Corker, denounced Trumps’ boasts of sexual assault?” Or any other of Trump’s outrages?

He responded only with attacks on my character and complaints about the uncivil way that I was disrupting his restful Sunday walk “in nature.” Then he repeated his charge to me: “If you don’t like it, leave.”

No, Senator, if you don’t like your constituents using their First Amendment rights to express their deep dismay and disgust at your failure to take a stand against odious statements, then maybe you’re the one who needs to book the U-Haul van. Pack your bags and leave Washington. Take your silence in the face of Trump’s vile words back to your Chattanooga mansion and ponder why a group of hikers — immigrants, women, LGBTQ, and Latinos — would be so distraught to see your smirking countenance sauntering through the woods.

Yes, we are ashamed of you. No, we are not leaving.

Update 7 hours after original post:

I just got a call from a newspaper reporter who told me that Senator Corker’s office claims that I said I was ashamed to be from a state that voted for Trump. This is absolutely untrue. I said I was ashamed that Senator Corker had stood by Trump through all of Trump’s vile pronouncements. Ashamed of Corker: yes. I said nothing about the votes of my fellow Tennesseans. Corker’s also claimed that I was profane and aggressive. I’m afraid my profanity was no match for that of Mr Trump and I showed no aggression. Anger, for sure, but I stood at a respectful distance and listened to Corker. First Amendment speech is not aggression, it’s a right. Grabbing women, punishing them for abortions, egging on rallies toward violence: now that’s aggression.

Addenda added after post was first published:

Three witnesses can vouch what what Senator Corker said to me.

“Anonymous” comment in the comment section is coming from U.S. House of Representatives IP address Evidently some in Washington think that it is OK to use government network addresses to make anonymous comments on blogs.

Nashville Scene coverage here. Chattanooga Times here. Tennessean here.

Corker’s official website (search for Trump”).  Refusal to withdraw endorsement here. Calls Trump’s foreign policy “very thoughtful.” Corker campaigns with Trump in NC. Comparison of Corker to other Republicans on Trump.

Forest soil at the end of the year’s long exhale

In Shakerag Hollow, the leaf litter is down to almost nothing. Bare mineral soil, a few twigs. Last year’s downed leaves — once lying several inches thick — have now had their energy and matter dissolved away into the forest’s blood. In a few weeks, ground will fatten with a fresh fall of leaves, but for now all feels empty and exhausted. Six weeks of sunshine and no rain have added their burden: the soil is desiccated.


It was not always like this. At the peak of the last glaciation, the Cumberland Plateau was a spruce-fir forest, analogous to the boreal forests of Canada and the northern US. In such forests, cold temperatures, a short growing season, and more regular rainfall keep the soil’s litter well padded. Leaf litter seldom decomposes fast enough to reveal the mineral soil below. Instead, it builds into a spongy duff. Atop this bed, mosses and mushrooms exult. Contrast the photograph above with these images from Grafton Notch in a higher elevation forest in Maine. Time travel to the end of the Pleistocene.

img_20160924_142937667 img_20160924_143105544 img_20160924_150424487


Above ground: fires run through here every other year. Below ground: glacier-dumped sand, long washed of its nutriment. Between the two, plants that survive in the sandplains only with the help of fungal partners whose skinny bodies worm through the acid, root-hostile soil, scavenging minerals.


We call the plants lowbush blueberries and little bluestem grass, growing ankle high between scorch-barked, straggly pitch pines. Other names, too: Little bluestem is “poverty grass” and blueberry fruit is harvested in poverty.


No leanness for migrant birds, though, who pluck at sun-puckered blueberries and wind-blown grass seed. Their bodies fatten here, storing plant-captured sunlight for migratory treks from Canada to the southern US and beyond. A dozen flickers flock like sparrows, feeding low to the ground, then scattering to shelter in pines. Field sparrows and cedar waxwings rise like dust in our wake as we traverse the fields. Palm warblers scurry rabbit-like among the blueberry plants. Above this tumble of small birds: merlins, sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels. Predators, too, need their autumnal fat and frost-edged nights make the hunters flesh-hungry. A merlin and hawk lance and twist in an aerial chase, then each wings to its own corner of the fields.


Once these sandplain communities covered large parts of coastal New England, but fire suppression has choked most with woodland. Housing development claims the rest. In a few places restoration efforts have pushed back the trees, opening habitat available nowhere else. These efforts involve controlled burns, land acquisitions, yearly mowing, signage, insurance, staffing: the poverty left by the retreat of glaciers is expensive to maintain.




At the confluence of six rivers and a long tidal inlet: 9000 acres of part-salted water and mud known as the Merrymeeting Bay. Forty percent of Maine’s freshwater flows to the Gulf of Maine through this inland delta. The Gulf’s waters surge into bay twice daily, pushed by oceanic tidal forces but slowed by their long passage through the rock cleft that is the lower Kennebec River. High tide here is hours later than on the coast.

For decades, the waters were so polluted that paint would peel from any building located near the bay or its upstream rivers. Great rafts of dead fish flowed out with the tides. The stink worked its ways into the growth pattern of towns. Apart from huge brick-walled mills — now shuttered or turned to self-storage units — towns and farms turned their backs on the river and bay. Only the poorest parts of town had water views. Unlike the southern Maine seacoast that is now largely encrusted with expensive houses, shores here comprise rock, poisoned mud, and a few scattered hunting lodges. This leaves room for others: Eagles are common, although their bodies are spiced with the toxic remnants of upstream industries. Signs warn humans not to consume the fish, but eagles don’t give a damn about what they read. The flow of some chemical effluent is now diverted into other rivers, other bodies, in other lands. Outsourced, to benefit America’s waters and retail outlets.

Wild rice grows in abundance on the mudflats. In late summer bobolinks flee the mown inland meadows to feast in the rice thickets and roost. Now, at the equinox, the bobolinks are winging away to try their luck in a southern continent. Ducks gather in their place to dabble at rice and aquatic insects. Below the water, endangered short-nosed and Atlantic sturgeon swim slowly upstream, nosing through a vestige.



Art installation and allegory: Grimes Ave, Ocean Point.

Imagine that you own a large house overlooking one of Maine’s most scenic shorelines. You might ask yourself: How can I best honor and enjoy the privilege of owning property adjacent to this grand meeting of ocean and land?

The obvious answer: Artillery. Set up launching pad for fluorescent orange clay targets, fling them over the shoreline and ocean, then gun them down. The shrapnel falls into the commons, the sea and rocky tidal zone. People wandering on the rocks, along your property line, enjoy a bright confetti of broken clay amid the barnacles.

To crown the sport, erect a sign asking passers-by to be… respectful.

Rachel Carson’s Edge of the Sea…updated for gunners.








Scaly quiz

This is a:

a) Baby pangolin

b) Squirrel-chewed balsam fir cone

c) Section of fish skin with placoid scales

d) Bud of a cycad plant, a reminder of the Mesozoic

e) Other


Hint: Photo taken (1) in Maine where autumn is underway, (2) near overenthusiastic weed-eaters.

Answer: The inside of a not-quite-mature milkweed seed pod, cut then exposed by lawn care devotees. Each seed is attached to a “coma,” a bundle of silky threads that puff open into a wind-catcher when the seeds break free. The silks are remarkably soft, like the fluffiest bird down. Luckily for those of us who like softness and need warmth, the Québécois are now cultivating milkweed for use as clothing insulation.

Ocean teenagers leaving their shed clothes everywhere

Small horseshoe crab shells have started littering the wrack line in Middle Bay, Maine. Every high tide brings more, sometimes half a dozen shells for every meter or so of wrack.

These are not dead crabs (the May full moon mating frenzy left plenty of those), but the discarded exoskeletons of molting juveniles. Young horseshoe crabs spend the first few years of their lives in the muddy bottom of the bay, just below the lowest reach of the tide. In August they molt, crawling head-first out of their old shells, then the animals swell up and harden their new armor. The cast-off shells wash ashore. Mature horseshoe crabs don’t molt, so these shed skeletons are all from growing youngsters. I’d guess the one in the photo is about two or three years old. This year’s hatchlings are still less than an inch across.

These are good things to find. Although the species is protected in Maine, horseshoe crab populations elsewhere have been hammered over the last decades by harvesting for bait and for bleeding (to yield chemicals used in human blood tests). Seeing new generations coming along is good news for the horseshoe crabs (who’ve been around largely unchanged for >400 million years) and for the migrant birds that depend on their springtime eggs for food.

IMG_20160807_110959218 IMG_20160807_110950497