Indian Summer

Indian Summer

By: Steve Roark

Indian summer is a name that brings thoughts of balmy, hazy fall days and cool nights.  It is a description of weather conditions rather than an actual season, for no dates exist for it.  The closest time frame I could find was from Henry David Thoreau, who noted in his diary that Indian summer occurs from September 27 to December 13.

The hazy appearance of fall days is produced by frost. When water freezes inside tree leaves, it cracks the cells.  The hydrocarbon compounds inside the leaves evaporate and are released into the atmosphere, giving it a bluish haze.  It is especially noticeable when looking at the mountains from a distance and is probably where the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia got their name.  The Indians had a legend that the blue haze came from a mythical character named Nanahbozhoo, who always sleeps during the winter; but prior to his long sleep he fills his great pipe, and smokes for several days, causing the blue smokiness we see in the sky.  The poem Hiawatha refers to this legend: “From his pipe the smoke ascending, Filled the sky with haze and vapor…Touched the rugged hills with smoothness, Brought the tender Indian Summer”.

From early writings, early settlers believed cold weather and storms came around the autumn equinox, which occurs around September 23. These brief storms were referred to as “squaw winter” or “half winter”, and after they had passed, the true Indian summer began. The earliest mention of the phrase “Indian summer” is in a French letter dated 1778, and mentioned that sometimes after stormy weather, an interval of calm, warm weather occurs that is called the Indian summer. The letter describes it as a tranquil atmosphere with general smokiness and dates its arrival as around the middle of November.

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There is one other possible source for the term Indian summer that has nothing to do with fall weather.  In the 1870s the British Parliament passed laws to prevent cargo ships from being overloaded, which involved putting load lines on the sides of the ships, which showed how much of the hull was below water so that the weight of the cargo could be gauged.  Several load lines were needed because a ships’ buoyancy varies.  Fresh water is lighter than salt water, so more cargo can be carried on the ocean.  Cold water is heavier than warm water, so more cargo can be carried in the winter months. Symbols beside the load lines identified which one to use. “S” stood for summer, “W” for winter, and “FW” meant fresh water.  The British East India Company had extensive trade and had ships marked with a load line “I.S.”, which stood for “Indian Summer”.  This actually meant the load limit for ships on the Indian Ocean during its summer, which begins around our fall.

 

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Deer Hunting Weather

Deer Hunting Weather

By: Steve Roark       

In order to survive, animals have instinctive reactions to the weather, migrating birds being just one example.  By knowing how game animals react in differing weather conditions can up a hunter’s chances of a successful kill.

Deer depend heavily on scent to protect themselves from predators.  They usually respond to a strange scent by bugging out before hunters get close.  Deer move into the wind to better pick up scents.  To take advantage of this, a hunter must move and stay downwind of his prey. This can be determined by the old wet finger trick.

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Deer are also good listeners and will react to either too much or too little noise.  Hunters who walk steadily through the woods will have no luck.  The Indians had a saying, “walk a little, look a lot.”  Deer certainly follow that plan, taking a few steps, looking around, and then continuing.  The best hunting time is often when there is a gentle rain or a little snow.  The leaves don’t crunch, and snow subdues noise.

Deer are used to bad weather, but dislike storms.  In a high wind they can’t hear warning sounds nor locate disturbing scents.  During storms, they choose a sheltered area such as cedar or pine woods, dense river brush, or the lee side of mountain ridges (the side opposite the direction the wind is coming from).  As wind blows over the ridge top it skips over the area just below the ridge, so winds are calm here.

Deer can sense that a storm is coming and will go out to feed in advance of it, because they might have to lay low and not eat for a few days.  After a storm passes, deer come out everywhere and feed.  The best times for hunting are just before a severe storm and during the clearing conditions that follow.  Deer lose some their normal caution at these times.

Knowing the weather habits of animals allowed Indians to hunt big game with a bow that rarely had more than 30 pounds of pull, requiring very close range.  They knew that the winds shift during the day, flowing uphill as the sun heats the slope, but drifting downhill in the cool of the evening.  They hunted into the wind.  By knowing where deer hang out during storms, they were able to surprise them.  Modern hunters can do the same, even those of us that hunt with a camera.

An excellent and entertaining weather reference book is The Weather Companion, by Gary Lockhart

 

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Somewhat Supernatural

Somewhat Supernatural

By Steve Roark

To give a nod to it being Halloween season, I thought I’d share some stories that, while not spooky, they have enough of the paranormal to be interesting. The stories involve people having a precognition, foreknowledge of a future event before it happens. Several cultures call this having “a vision” and can come in the form of a dream or just come out of nowhere. There is no explanation for precognition, and I’m a stickler on finding an explanation of how and why things work, leaning heavily on science.   Nevertheless, the people that shared the following stories with me are totally trustworthy, and so I believe them to be true. Interestingly two of them involve world wars.

Story one:   My mom told me this story as told to her by her mom (Nola Day) who witnessed it. During World War I My grandfather Sillus Day worked in the coal mines of Kentucky and  lived in a mining town near Mingo Mountain with his young family  Their son Shelby (5 year old) was sitting on the ground playing in the dirt, and had some piece of metal in his hand and hitting rocks with it,  saying “boom, boom, the war’s over”, repeating  it several times.  News traveled slowly back then, but a few days later they learned that the war had indeed ended on the very day Shelby did this, on November 11, 1918.

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Story two: this one was also told by my mom, who witnessed the event. During World War II my father (Marshall) served in France and helping liberate it. My mom and her daughter Jean (3 years old) was walking down the road to visit some nearby kin. Out of nowhere Jean said “Mommy, my daddy’s sick”; Mom replied “he’s not sick. We just got a bunch of letters from him”. Jean was undeterred and said “those mean German’s shot him.” A month later Mom was notified by letter that Dad had been injured during fighting in the hedgerows of France (a tank exploded beside him).  The date of the injury was the very day Jean said he was hurt.

Story 3: This is a recent incident that involved my granddaughter Eleanor.  A good friend of ours Daniel Chumley is very involved at church and has worked in the children’s ministry teaching kids to play the ukulele among other things. That’s how he got to know my grandkids, and they love him to death, and he them.   Earlier this year Daniel had a dream that was not detailed, but it involved Eleanor being hurt in a wreck because of someone’s recklessness, and he remembers being mad about it in his dream.  It was intense enough that he woke up unnerved, and that he told his mom about it. The next day I took the grandkids bicycle riding, and Eleanor had a bad wreck on her bike partly because I let her ride down a steep hill she wasn’t ready for and she failed to brake properly.  She went over a bank, rolling several times.  And while there were no broken bones, she was scratched up pretty good and had a deep gash disturbingly near her left eye. It could have been much worse, and I still have recurring bouts of guilt, because I was the reckless person.

Having dreams or visions has considerable historic traction, and the Bible documents many prophets and folks having dreams that foretell future events.  So while precognition is not spooky, the fact that they can’t be explained is certainly intriguing.

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Fairy Rings: Mysterious Mushrooms

Fairy Rings: Mysterious Mushrooms

By Steve Roark

I’ve seen two postings with photos of Fairy Rings on Facebook this week, so there is an apparent outbreak of them, likely caused by all the rain we’ve gotten lately. Fairy rings are those peculiar sprouting up of mushrooms in a well-defined arc or circular pattern. This has caused a lot of myths about their origin to sprout up over the centuries, but there is an explanation as to what’s going on with the rings.

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First, a review of the life of mushrooms, or I should say fungi. The main body of a fungi is not obvious, existing as millions of tiny white filaments in the soil called mycelium. These filaments penetrate, break down and consume organic matter in the soil.  The mushrooms that appear on  the surface are merely the fruit of the underground fungal body, and their only purpose is to release seed spores to spread the fungi to other places.

So fairy ring formation goes something like this: normally they get started where there is a lot of organic material in the ground, such as decaying roots where a tree once stood, or buried woody debris.  The underground fungi feed on this material, and as it depletes the supply new mycelium move outward seeking more food, while the old mycelium dies due to lack of food.  This outward movement of certain species of fungi is in a circular pattern like a donut. Occasionally during rainy conditions, the fungus will decide to be fruitful and multiple, sending up mushrooms that form the visible circular pattern we call fairy rings.  There are around 50 species of fungi known to form Fairy rings in grassy areas.

Sometimes the grass growing over the fungus will grow more lush with a darker color, again in a circular pattern.  This is caused by the fungus decaying organic matter and subsequently releasing nutrients that makes the grass grow lusher.  Sometimes the grass over the fungus will turn brown, also in a circular pattern, caused by the mycelium being over-populous and depleting nutrients and water resources. As long as there is material to feed on, fairy rings will continue to grow in ever wider circles, moving on average around 3-20 inches per year.

Plants growing in such a district pattern made folks back in the day think that they were supernatural. One myth is that the circle is where fairies, witches, or elves gather to dance, and it was considered very unlucky to step inside the ring. A Dutch superstition is that the ring is where the devil set up his milk churn.

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The Upside-Down Tree

The Upside-Down Tree

By Steve Roark

I’ve bragged about our areas plant diversity in the past. The mountainous terrain dissected by rivers and streams creates an incredible variety of habitats that supports more plant species than anywhere but rain forests. One example of this species richness is a tree that is not only growing far out of its normal range but has a most peculiar growth habit that helps it survive.

Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is an evergreen tree that you may have used as a landscape plant with cultivars named “arborvitae”.  The foliage forms handsome flat sprays of scale-like leaves, and the bark is reddish brown and peels into narrow longitudinal strips. The wild native tree normally grows in boggy forests of Canada and bordering northern states and can be found all the way up to the Arctic tree line. But there are isolated populations far outside of its natural range, and locally can be found along the Clinch and Powell Rivers, especially on rocky limestone cliff sites. Being able to grow in a wet swamp as well as a dry crack in a rock is a pretty wide swing of habitats, but white cedar competes poorly with other tree species for sunlight, and so being able to grow where competitors cannot give white cedar an advantage that allows it to survive.Northern White Cedar.JPG

To be so far away from its normal northern homeland, white cedar is fairly common along our local rivers and lakes.  As mentioned they can be found on cliffs and rocky places, often growing literally on the rocks wherever they can find a crack with a little soil in it.  Most of the trees are growing slow and don’t get to be very big, but occasionally you can find one with enough soil to reach a decent size. The moist fogs the rivers produce almost daily probably helps water the trees, allowing them to make a go of it.

An additional strategy to assure full sunlight for growth is their ability to grow upside down.  Trees growing in the cracks of cliffs have pretty small root systems, and eventually the tree will grow too heavy to support it and it falls over.  But the roots manage to hang on to it and so the tree continues to grow upside down and so it turns its leaves back upright, and it grows just fine, with competing trees far out of reach. Yet another example of great creation engineering to allow life to grow almost anywhere.

One other interesting thing about Northern White Cedar is their longevity. Growing in harsh conditions forces them to grow slowly, and are often gnarly, shrub-like specimens. But even small trees can be very old.  White cedar is the oldest tree in the eastern U.S. and Canada, and the oldest living cedar is over 1100 years old. One dead tree was found to be over 1650 years old.

If you get a chance to float the Powell or the Clinch, be on the lookout for these amazingly tough trees.

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Identifying Pesky Poop

Identifying Pesky Poop

By Steve Roark

 

I really enjoyed my career as a forester, partly because of the variety. It was rare that I did the same thing two days in a row. I could be walking in the woods collecting field data in the morning and be on a wildfire that afternoon. If you like routine, forestry is not for you.  One unique task I did on occasion was identifying animal poop, especially when people would find droppings in their house and badly wanted to know what uninvited visitor left it.

Animal excreta deserves more credit that people give it.  It is often the only way you know an animal was present, and if you can get good at poop identification you can know what left it.  Scientist studying some species of wildlife can examine its poop to determine its diet, or what species are using a certain habitat. The science-ese term for poop is scat, and the study of poop is called scatology. Would that not be a cool topic of conversation at a party when asked what you do for a living? Heh!!

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My experiences in scatology normally involved identifying what animals were using certain woodland habitats.  But on occasion I was asked to identify droppings found in someone’s house, so they would know what critter they were dealing with to get it out of the house. Often the scat I examined was really small. Most people have a handle on identifying mouse droppings, but beyond that it gets sketchy.  So what follows is a quick lesson in identifying scat you would most likely find in your house or campsite.

Mouse: brown or black droppings shaped like grains of rice but not as big

Cockroach: big ones leave droppings similar to a mouse but with blunt ends, and the surface has ridges running longways. You’ll need a magnifying glass to see the ridges.

Bat: similar to mouse droppings but have a shiny rough surface and pointy at both ends. Can be found stuck to vertical surfaces.

Rat: Dark color and the shape of a grain of rice, but bigger.

Squirrel: Slightly smaller than a grain of rice, with blunt ends.

Reptile: includes snakes and lizards; Shiny brown with a blob of white on one end. If you dissolve the droppings in water, strain them through a paper towel, and see insect fragments, it’s probably a lizard. If you go through this much trouble, you have the makings of a scatologist

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A Thorny Subject

A Thorny Subject

By Steve Roark

My job as a forester was a blessing to allow me to get out and enjoy the beauty of our woods and fields and get paid for it. But there were plants out there that would suck some of the joy of being outside.  I’m talking about plants that can make you bleed because of their thorns; things like blackberry, escaped rose bushes, and my worst nemesis: sawbriars. I’ve come off wildfires with literally every square inch of my legs scratched from these painful vines.Thorny plant.JPG

Thorns is the general term for those stiff, pointy outgrowths on certain plants, and their function is to deter animals from browsing on them for lunch. But to a botanist there are thorns and then there are other types of prickly appendages, based on what they were derived from. For instance, thorns are modified branches. Honey locust and hawthorn grows true thorns.  The rose does not produce thorns, but instead its sharps are called prickles, which are derived from modified epidermis (bark) tissue. Blackberry sharps are also prickles. Spines are derived from modified leaves, and the most well-known plant with spines are cacti.  Another example of spines are those found along the edge of holly and thistle leaves.  Yet another category of things that stick and hurt you are trichomes, those tiny hairs that irritate the skin when brushed against, and the best (or is it worst?) example of that is stinging nettle, another plant I’ve had the displeasure to have known often.

Another word used to describe painful sticking plant parts is briar or brier.  It’s mostly used when describing plants like sawbriar and its similarly evil cousins catbriar and greenbriar.  Since briars are derived from modified bark, they are technically prickles. But “briar patch” is a well-entrenched Appalachian term used to describe a tangled mess of prickly plants.

Thorns have some historic significance. Genesis mentions them as a punishment for the original sin: “Both thorns and thistles it (the ground) shall grow for you…. (Gen. 3:18).  Jesus was forced to wear a crown of thorns at his crucifixion. A familiar symbol of Scotland is the thistle, which originated from a story that an invading Norse army attempting a night attack was betrayed when they encountered thistles in the dark, and their painful cries alerted the Scots.

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