Category Archives: Uncategorized

Literary protest, Jan 15th.

On MKL Day, January 15th, I’ll be joining other writers at a literary protest and march. PEN America and Writers Resist are co-organizing these events in response to threats to the press and to free expression under the Trump presidency.

The literary protest is on the steps of the New York Public Library. It will include readings of “inaugural” poems by American poet laureates Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove. The march will deliver a petition in support of press freedoms to the Trump transition team.

Please consider joining all living US Poets Laureate and over 150,000 others by signing the petition in defense of freedom of expression and a free press. If you’ll be in New York on the 15th, you can register to attend the literary protest and march here (or show up on the day, 2 p.m. on the steps of the New York Public Library’s Schwarzman Building at 42nd St.). Seventy five other Writers Resist events are happening across the country on the same day, listed here.

PEN America’s overview of the protest and summary of programs describe the many ways that the organization helps defend press freedoms in the US and abroad.


Some good news about land conservation from the Southern Cumberlands

From the Open Space Institute:

“In a series of six targeted land conservation projects completed within a short six-month period, nearly 13,000 acres have been acquired and added to Tennessee state parks and wildlife management areas.”

These lands add to the 17,000 acres already protected by OSI in the last few years in this region. The grants that made possible these projects aim to protect biodiversity in a changing climate. The conservation lands will also provide public access to open space and encourage sustainable forest management.

Partners in these projects included The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, The Land Trust for Tennessee, and the State of Tennessee (TN Wildlife Resources Agency and TN Dept Environment and Conservation).

Read the full press release here.


Post-truth chestnuts?

After editorial discussions that were “a bit more serious and somber …[than] in some other years,” Oxford Dictionaries has named “post-truth” as its international word of 2016. But of course we’re not “post” any truths, especially not the truths of biology and physics that don’t bend in the foul winds of demagogues.

Nor in the errors of bloggers like me. Some taxonomic truths have come to light about the not-so-somber matter of tree identification. So, with many thanks, I share my colleague Dr. Hill Craddock’s take on the “chestnuts” from my last post.

He writes that the plants in the “photo could be in the genus Castanea, with the true chestnuts…but I think they may really be fruits of trees in the genus CastanopsisCastanopsis is a large genus (more than 100 species) of Asian trees closely related to, and very much resembling Castanea.  Some species share characteristics of Quercus [oaks] and Lithocarpus [“stone oaks”].”

So, the chestnuts from China (see additional photo below) are in fact close relatives of chestnuts, sometimes called “chinkapin”. These trees are evergreen and generally not frost-hardy.

Dr. Craddock continues with “a curiosity:  ‘Shii’ is the Japanese name for Castanopsis.  Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) are grown traditionally on Castanopsis cuspidata in Japan, although in the US, they are mostly grown on oaks, or other hardwoods. Shiitake literally means ‘Castanopsis mushroom.'” So, next time you are eating some US-grown shiitake mushrooms, consider their genus-crossing journey. I’d be interested to know whether the different tree substrates result in different experiences on the palate. Does oak-grown shiitake taste the same as Castanopsis shiitake? I know that local shiitake growers here in Tennessee claim a much richer flavor for shiitake grown on solid logs rather than sawdust bricks. Perhaps the species of wood also makes a difference?

I send many thanks to Hill Craddock for taking the time to share his knowledge and to Todd Crabtree for making the inquiry that led to our exchange.

Truthiness in nuts. Castanopsis.

Truthiness in nuts. Castanopsis in southern China.

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:



“More than 100 college presidents issue joint letter to President-elect Donald Trump”

This news from the University of the South’s website:

“Vice-Chancellor John McCardell is one of 110 college and university presidents urging Donald Trump to take a more forceful stand against “harassment, hate and acts of violence.” The campus leaders have issued a joint letter to President-elect Trump.” Read the full article here.

Thank you, Vice-Chancellor and President McCardell, for taking this stand and asking president-elect Trump to make good on his promise to be a president for “all Americans.”

All Saints’ Day, Ediacaran Edition

In honor of Life Triumphant, all the ancestors, known and unknown.




These are Dickinsonia fossils from the Flinders Range in Australia. They’re about 570 million years old, from the “Ediacaran.” They are among the earliest known fossils of any multicellular creature on Earth. Make that: of any multicelluar creature in the Universe.

I came across these specimens during my visit to the Yale Peabody Museum a few years ago. I was there to look at a different group of fossils (youngsters, just 33 million years old) and walked past a cabinet with “Ediacaran” on the label. Gob-smacked, I begged a look and my hosts casually opened a drawer to reveal The Tomb of the really, really ancients. Could I feel the reworked remnants of their DNA squirming and leaping in my every cell? Did my cranium feel hairline fractures rush every which way as my skull’s apex lifted in astonishment? Did my pentadactyl limbtips and opposable thumbs quiver as I held the camera?

Ah, beatific visions.


Now we see through a glass, (darkly, nope…) Tiffany, Chihuly

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, light streams through vitrified pigmented sand:

From Louis Comfort Tiffany, Parakeets and Gold Fish Bowl, a piece made in about 1893. Tiffany’s use of glass to evoke the birds’ colorful and varied head patterns is stunning.

tiffany parrots

Sadly, the work now stands as an unwitting eulogy. By 1910 the Carolina Parakeet was extinct in the wild and the eastern US had lost its only native parrot. A few lingered for half a dozen years in zoos, but these individuals died without leaving offspring. Occasionally, the birds’ reflections surprise us with a gleam in museum galleries, but their light is almost entirely gone.

A few steps away, Dale Chihuly’s Lime Green Icicle Tower (2011) uses some of the same palate, but without direct representation and, I hope, presaging of extinction.


The piece is 40 feet high, about 10,000 lbs of glass in conversation with the sun, the museum’s atrium windows, and the vegetation outside. From some angles, inner and outer reflective surfaces combine and tangle. Intended or not, this creates a coda to Tiffany’s work: what we conceptualized as Nature is now, whether we like it or not, wrapped into Humanity. Understanding this, might we, perhaps, perhaps, snuff and shadow less light?


New England clam preparation, gull style

Drifts of smashed clam shells lie on the exposed rocks at the high tide mark.


These are the leavings of aerial bombardment by herring gulls. As the tide recedes, mud flats are revealed and, buried in the gray ooze, quahog clams. These are big, heavy-shelled creatures, sometimes as large as my hand.


Their interior surface is blushed with purple at one end. Beads made from this colored shells were used as wampam currency by some of the American Indians of this region and, later, by European settlers. In the 17th century, tuition at Harvard could be paid with “1,900 beads of purple quahog and white whelk.” The scientific name of the clam, Mercenaria mercenaria, derives from the species’ importance in human mercantile transactions.

Purple from gastropods was also highly valued on the other side of the Atlantic: Tyrian purple favored by the Imperial elites of the Mediterranean and, later, Christian bishops, came from sea snails. Lately, molluscs have fallen from favor as status symbols, a loss for human aesthetics, but a gain for clams and snails.


As the tide falls, herring gulls gather quahogs from the mud, then fly to the rocky shore:


Just before they reach the rocks, the birds oar their wings to gain altitude, then toss the clam from their beak toward the ground:


The clams accelerate as they fall, but also move horizontally, carried by the forward momentum of the gulls’ flight. The birds know exactly when to release their clams, the crack of  impact always falls on rock, even when birds release the clam while still winging over mud or grass. Like humans who can throw a newspaper from a moving bike and always hit the mark, gulls are well-practiced at lobbing their food at the best shell-splitting rocks. On this short stretch of coastline, the birds have three favorite sites and each one is smothered in shell remains.


The violence of the fall is enough to break open the hard shells of the quahog clams:


Gulls quickly consume clam’s innards, a sizeable meal for a bird (a few large quahogs are enough to make a chowder that will fill a human belly). But the clam’s afterlife continues beyond gull gizzards. Within minutes of a gull’s departure, springtails colonize leftovers, munching on protein and fat:



Then, when the tide returns, algae colonize the leftover shells, gastropods graze over calcium-rich surfaces, and small fish and crabs take refuge under shelly eaves.




Gulls are not the only foragers. People — “clammers” — also follow the tide, raking the mud for quahogs and soft-shelled clams.


Clams are the third largest fishery in Maine, one rife with controversy about the right way to manage clams in the face of invasive predatory green crabs, warming waters, and pollution.

While humans fret (with good reason), herring gulls play (also, I think, with good reason). On warm days, the birds drop then re-catch clams seemingly for the joy of it. The feelings of clams about all this are, as yet, unstudied by students of animal behavior. Complete the aphorism, The unexamined clam is

End Times and the interrogative mood.

My phone tells me:


Questions ensue:

In what way could this be OK? Can we imagine ways in which this might not be OK? Does the use of “Unfortunately” and OK in the same statement evince an emotionally mature mélange of acceptance and willingness to move on, or is it simply a sign of careless typing? To whom should we REPORT? Would the recipients of the REPORT care? Does the Android operating system have a way of reaching said recipients and, if so, can I buy the messaging upgrade? Can I REPORT other occurrences that alarm me or cause me anxiety? Or should I, in those anxious moments, be more OK? Where, finally, is the UNDO button?