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.

Wood crackle

The forest is full of strange and expected voices these days…

Here’s one, from a week or so ago. It was a dry day, following two months of record-breaking dry days. The sun was barely down. From the edge of a suburban woodlot, ear-sparkles came from the treetops, like the fizz and pop of a small pine-wood fire or the crackle of water droplets in hot bacon grease.


We walked into the woods with flashlights to find the source of the sound. An intermittent rain of velvety seed pods greeted us, the popped remnants of wisteria fruits. In the dry air they were all dehiscing at once, flicking seeds away from the mother plant in tiny explosive releases.

These are large vines, reaching all the way to the forest canopy. They’ve topped some trees, smothering them. Their vines muscle and squeeze. The seeds are loaded with toxins, so next year will see more colonists tendril-climbing the forest scaffold.


“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.”

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.



…from the US Drought Monitor. They state that parts of the southeast “recorded their driest 60-day periods on record.” Walking in the woods confirms the map’s testimony: blueberries, hollies, mountain laurel, hickories — all shriveled and crisped. To see these drought-adapted plants pushed beyond their limits is astonishing. Hopefully they got enough invested into their buds in summertime that they’ll be able to try again next year, but it seems that many may succumb.

The map also shows drought over parts of California, a familiar pattern now. Compared to this time last year, the “exceptional” drought area is slightly smaller. Conditions have been so dry in the western US that the “missing” water from dry soil has caused that side of the continent to weigh less (by 240 gigatons in 2014), resulting in a crustal rebound of up to 5mm. Drought with geologic consequences.

So here’s the obligatory cracked-mud cliché photo. For those familiar with Sewanee: this is the Lake Cheston “beach” area.






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.


Classroom scene: Ain’t no-one looking at the prof.

Major pedagogical milestone reached: a class in which every single person in the room was looking at a phone.


I especially like the multiple head angles here, none of them directed professorward or, indeed, anywhere within the room itself. Many are in the “Virtual Reality” (VR) world, abetted by Google Cardboard headsets. For about ten bucks you can get a device that lets you swim with dolphins, play a game, or visit a refugee camp, all while sitting in class.

Eh? What’s going on? Well, I could not teach a class in nonfiction writing without a short experiment in VR. The last two years have seen an explosion of VR designed to be viewed on phones via simple headsets. Many of the developments in the field have been driven by journalists (e.g., New York Times), so any student considering a career in writing needs to have a sense of what’s happening in the very real world of “virtual” storytelling. And so, on with the headsets and: boom! we’re in a 3D world that moves with your head, giving you an uncanny sense of immersion and connection.

When we read a “traditional” printed page, the author’s words activate our imagination and we move our consciousness from its current location. In VR, the images, sound, and kinetics of the experience grab our senses and, again, move our consciousness to another place. In the former case, the imagination is activated and we move under the power of our minds. In the latter, our senses pull our minds with them and imagination follows.

VR is known as an “empathy machine” for the depth of its effects on our emotions. A well-written book does the same, through other means. Now imagine a storyteller who can combine both approaches. The possibilities for good (reportage, art, education) and ill (manipulation and even torture of the human mind — Google Cardboard Guantanamo edition?) are many.

And, let’s face it, there is no way that I can compete with dolphins in the classroom. (The Google-Best Buy alliance knows this well — they’re already marketing more expensive VR to classrooms for younger kids.)

And now, back to the carboardless classroom to discuss the meaning of allegory.

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.

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