Wind In The Pines

 The Wind In The Pines

By Steve Roark

                                          TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Surely sometime or other you have heard the quiet sound of the wind blowing through a pine tree, and paused to listen.  To me the soft sighing evokes peacefulness, and a little sadness.   The Japanese even have a special word for it: matzukaze (wind in the pines), which expresses a feeling of exquisite solitude and melancholy.  The phrase “wind in the pines” is often found in poetry and songs, so there is something about it that touches the human soul.

Pine, shortleaf

Let’s review a past science lesson.  Sound originates as a vibrating object, whether from a guitar string, vocal cord, or a pine needle vibrating in the wind.  The sound is carried to your ears by oscillating air molecules (sound waves), which in turn cause your eardrum to vibrate, allowing you to hear. Smaller, narrow objects, like pine needles, vibrate faster and so the pitch is higher, and the many thousands of vibrating needles combine in chorus to produce a constantly changing murmuring sound.  Other trees make sounds when the wind blows of course, but it’s different.  Broadleaf trees like oak have a lower pitched sound because the leaves or twigs and limbs are larger and vibrate slower, so the sound is deeper.  In a storm the thousands of trees around us combine to produce the “roar of the mountains”.  To me the voice of a pine is feminine, while that of the oak, hickory, and other hardwoods is masculine.

Here is an old Estonian legend explaining why trees whisper.  In the early days of the Earth, not long after humans were forced to leave Paradise, a man went out to the forest to cut wood. The first tree he came to was a pine tree, and as soon as the man lifted the axe he heard a voice cry out. “Don’t strike me. Can’t you see the sticky tears that are already coming out of my body? If you hit me it will bring you bad luck.” The man saw the sticky sap in the tree trunk, so he moved on further into the forest. He came to a spruce tree and again raised his axe. But the spruce tree protested. “Don’t cut me down. You will find me of little use, for my wood is twisted and knotty.” Unhappily, the man went on until he came to an alder tree. Once more he raised his axe to strike but the alder cried out “don’t wound me! Whenever I am cut, sap runs from my heart and will stain your axe blood red.” The man went no further but called out to God. “How am I to get wood to make fire and to build shelter? Every tree I meet cries out and pleads that I not cut it down.” God took pity on the man and said: “Return to the forest. I will see that hence forth no tree will talk back or contradict you.” The man did as he was told and this time no tree spoke to him. None protested as he cut them down to make shelter and to make a fire. The trees were not happy about this, but they dared not complain aloud to God. Instead, they began to whisper softly, each time a person entered their domain in the forests. If you approach a group of trees anywhere, you can still hear them softly whispering to each other. They are gently complaining about their poor treatment at the hands of humans.

There are several references to the sound of wind in the Bible: “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the voice thereof, but know not whence it comes, and where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8 ASV).


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Why Leaves Fall

By: Steve Roark

TN Division of Forestry

This time of year you usually see news articles explaining why leaves change color and how good the fall colors will be.  I’ve certainly written plenty of them myself, but never covered the subject of why tree leaves fall off in the first place. So here goes…

Spring and summer are great times for tree growth, with long days and plenty of warmth, sunshine, and rainfall.  Trees take advantage of this time and put on the majority of their growth by mid-summer, storing some of it as carbohydrates in the trunk and branches for next year’s growth spurt.  They do so because winter is a lousy time for tree growth.  It’s cold, tender plant cells freeze, days are short with less sun energy, there’s less soil moisture, and what moisture is there can be frozen and unavailable.  So the survival tactic broadleaf trees take is to cut their losses, drop their leaves, and go dormant to sleep through the hard times, thus conserving their energy.  Lack of moisture is probably the biggest factor in taking the dormancy route, because trees need a lot of water to do the photosynthesis thing.  A large oak tree can take up over 50 gallons a day to pull in nutrients from the soil through a water delivery process called transpiration.

Leaves autumn maple

After a long summer leaves are pretty worn out anyway, so dropping them is a way to start next season with a fresh set to grab that sunshine.  Trees also take advantage of leaf drop by moving waste products into the leaves before jettisoning them, thus providing a slick way to take out the trash. One additional plus to dropping leaves is that they provide a natural mulch on the forest floor that protects the soil and tree roots.  Eventually the leaves are broken down by mico-beasties that cycle the materials back into the soil for re-use.  It’s a really sweet system.

If it’s so sweet why don’t the evergreens do it?  If you’ve noticed, pine, spruce, and fir species can eke out a living in dry and cold places, which allows them to grow in places nobody else wants to.  Their tactic is to grow leaves that are needle-like, which have less surface area exposed to the cold and dry.  The skin of the needle is thicker and coated with a heavy wax which prevents moisture loss, and the fluid inside the needle cells contains a type of antifreeze.  The upshot of all this is that evergreens can do very well in shorter growing seasons and harsher conditions, and don’t have to store and expend energy growing an entire new crop of needles.  Needles do eventually fall off after 3 or so years, but do so gradually so it’s not noticeable.

So enjoy the fall colors this year, and be humbled by the elegant survival system that makes it all possible. Also look up and give thanks for living in an area where it happens at all, because the presence of a large number of trees having brilliant fall foliage is not a common thing. The only other places on the planet with a similar abundance of foliage colorations are northern China, Korea, and Japan. So we are blessed.




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By Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Elderberry is a fairly common plant that likes to grow on moist sites with rich soil.  It was once held in high esteem by both European settlers and Native American tribes for its medicinal and food value.  It is also a highly prized food for several wildlife species.

The European version of elderberry is the Black Elder, also called Elder Tree. The word Elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “aeld” meaning ‘fire’.   In medieval times it was the most revered of trees, and was said to have powers to do both good and evil.  It was planted to ward off witches, and one could be cursed for cutting or burning an Elder tree.  The tree was considered the medicine chest of country people, and almost all parts of the tree were used to treat some malady.  Tradition holds that Judas hanged himself on an Elder Tree.

Our native Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) grows as a mult-stemmed shrub that average 3-10 feet in height.  It has very showy white flowers in early summer that form in flat-topped clusters.  The leaves are compound, made up of 5 to 11 leaflets that are lance-shaped with a toothed edge.  The leaves form on the branches in opposing pairs.  In late summer and fall the flowers are replaced by clusters of small purple-black berries about the size of a BB. Each berry has a large seed pit.

Probably the best known use for the fruit of elderberry is for making wine, which in earlier times was primarily used as a medicinal.  Elderberry wine or a tea made from berries and peppermint was used to treat colds, induce sweating, and treat nausea.  Native Americans used the leaves as a poultice to treat cuts, sore joints, and stop bleeding.  A very tart drink can be made from the ripe berries, which for my part needs lots of sugar.  Jelly can also be made from the berries, but you’ll have to add pectin.  The berries are very rich in Vitamin C, and also contain Vitamin A, calcium, iron, and potassium.  A word of caution here: the bark, root, leaves, and unripe berries are consider toxic, so be sure the berries are good and ripe.  As with any unfamiliar food, always eat only a small portion at first in case of an allergic reaction.

Elderberry is an important source of summer food for many kinds of songbirds. Game birds, squirrels, and deer also feed on the fruit and foliage.


Ripe cluster of Elder berries on the tree

Ripe Elder on the tree in my garden

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Blue Skies

By: Steve Roark

Tennessee Division of Forestry

September often provides some brilliant blue skies as the seasons change. As an amateur naturalist, the basic question of why the sky is blue came to me, which required some research to figure out.  I thought I would share, so prepare yourself for a short physics lesson.

The sun emits light, which is a form of energy that exists as bands of electromagnetic waves. The length of these waves is what gives us the colors we see.  The color violet has the shortest visible wavelength, while red has the longest.  All other colors fall somewhere in between.  Light travels from the sun to the earth in tiny energy particles called photons.

The earth’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide gas. When photons from the sun strike these gases, they absorb most of them.   But light containing the blue wavelength doesn’t get absorbed, but instead bounces off the atmosphere and come racing down to earth and enters your eye, which sends the information to your brain.  Your brain interprets the wavelength and tells you:  “That’s blue… pretty!”

Rainbows are proof that all the other colors are up there.  The raindrops reflect more of the different wavelengths, which bounce down to our eyes so we can see violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red bands of color arching across the sky.

What’s cool about the sky is that it’s never the same color blue every day.  When it’s heavy laden with humidity, it’s pale and subdued.  Other times after a storm front has cleared out the air, the sky is a deep blue it defies description.  Morning skies are different from evening skies.  Whatever shade it is, pause in your busy day and take a look.


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Deer Society

By: Steve Roark

TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Socially, male and female white tailed deer are not, leading separate lives except for a brief mating period in the fall.  For the rest of the year bucks tend to hang in small groups amongst themselves, and does hang out with other females, along with their yearlings and fawns.

Part of the deer breeding cycle involves the buck’s growth of antlers, which are shed and grown annually.  Antlers growth starts around April to May.  As they grow, antlers have a velvety covering of skin and blood vessels that provides nourishment for them.  You cannot age a buck by the size of the antler or the number of points, for their development is largely determined by quality and quantity of food available.  By August or September the antlers are fully grow, and the velvet covering begins to die and peel off.  The buck aids in this process by rubbing its antlers against trees and shrubs.

With full-grown antlers and enlarged necks, the buck groups break up.  By October, the does begin to come into heat, and each is receptive for about 24 hours.  Males follow females around during this time of year, mainly by scent.  More than one male may follow the female, but the dominant male will be nearest her.  Bucks are aggressive towards each other and compete for a particular doe or territory.  They lower their heads and point their antlers at an opponent, which is called an “antler threat”.  In an “antler rush”, bucks actually crash horns.  While the antler rush is a favorite spectacle on nature and hunting films, it’s not that common in the wild.  Once they have mated the male moves on to look for another female, while the female returns to her doe group.  Gestation takes around 200 days, so most fawns are born in June.  The first birth is usually a single fawn, but in successive births twins are not uncommon.

For the first month, fawns remain hidden in vegetation and rarely move far from their birthplace.  Their greatest protection is their ability to lie still and remain unseen by predators.  Their light brown color and white spotting offer excellent camouflage on a leafy forest floor.  The mother usually feeds nearby and returns periodically for the fawn to nurse.

After the first month the fawns travel with their mother, who will likely rejoin her doe group in August/September.  By spring the new fawns are yearlings.  During the summer, when their mother is raising new fawns, the yearlings go off and feed on their own, but remain in vicinity of the mother.  In the fall they rejoin their mother and spend another winter with her.  The following spring they will leave her, with the males joining buck groups and females joining a new doe group.

Deer male-female photo.jpg

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The Eastern Chipmunk By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

The eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) is a member of the squirrel family and very common in our area.  They are the little reddish brown ground squirrels you see scurrying about in the woods.  The average chipmunk is only 5-6 inches long, half of which is tail.  When they run, note that their tail is held straight up.

Autumn is the easiest time to see Chipmunks because they are very busy gathering food for winter.  They are best found by listening for them.  They give a high pitched “chip”, a lower pitched “chuck”, and  A loud chatter when they are startled or having a confrontation with a neighbor.


The chipmunk lifestyle is a busy one and mostly centered on gathering food and maintaining a home, which is a burrow.  These can be simple structures with one chamber and entrance tunnel, or they can be elaborate mansions with chambers for sleeping, food storage, and a nursery.  The entrance is a round hole designed to blend into the surroundings and remain unseen by predators.


Chipmunks are active during the day (science guys call this diurnal) and sleep at night.  The day is mostly spent foraging for food, improving the burrow, and resting off and on.  Their home range varies from 1/4 to 3 acres, and within this range is a zone around the burrow that is heavily defended from other chipmunks.


Chipmunks eat a variety of foods, mainly seeds, nuts, and fruits.  They also eat mushrooms, beetles, slugs, and worms.  They have been known to take an occasional bird egg and are capable of climbing trees. They don’t actively hunt eggs, but if they run across one in a nest of ground nesting birds they will imbibe.  A study has shown that ground nesters like the veerie and ovenbird will listen for chipmunk calls to determine their populated areas, and will nest in quieter parts of the forest to prevent egg predation.


Autumn is a very active time of food gathering to stockpile food for the winter. Chipmunks have large cheek pouches that allow them to carry a good-sized load to the burrow. This stockpile of food is referred to as a “cache”, and is consumed between times of winter hibernation, which in our area is done only intermittently. When they do hibernated their heartrate slows to around four beats per minute, and their body temperature will match that of their burrow.


As for a family life, chipmunks can have two breeding seasons per year, one in early spring and another in early summer.  Courtship for the male involves chasing off other males, and playfully chasing the female.  After mating the male is chased off, and after 31 days the female bears 4-5 young that are hairless and blind.  The babes are weaned at 4 weeks, begin to venture outside the burrow at 6 weeks, and denied entrance to the burrow by the mother at 8 weeks.  The young chipmunks must then seek lives of their own, and have an average life span of 2 to 3 years.



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Fall Asters By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

While springtime is noted for wildflowers, autumn also offers an impressive burst of color, when some plants make a last push to propagate before the killing frosts.  Asters are particularly easy to find blooming now, and come in shades of yellow, white, and purple/blue.

Asters belong to the largest group of flowering plants, the Composite (Compositae) family, also referred to as the Daisy family.  A typical composite flower head has a central disk surrounded by a circle of petals that encircle the disk like windmill blades.   The central disk is made up of many small flowers (that don’t look like flowers) grouped together, hence the name composite.  The surrounding petals are called rays, and vary in number from 10 to over 100.


There are over 600 species of asters worldwide, and are very abundant in the Appalachians. They can be found blooming as late as November. Some fall asters have many small white flowers that cluster at the top of the plant, and my grandparents referred to these late bloomers as “frost weeds”. Yellow asters are common in our area, and include species of sunflowers, cone flowers, and hawkweeds. The New England Aster is one of the more showy asters in the fall, having bright purple flowers and an orange center disk.  It is cultivated for garden use.


Besides providing a touch of color, asters are an important food source for insects, butterflies in particular. For humans some asters can be food and medicine.  Jerusalem artichoke produces an edible tuber served as a potato dish, and chicory root provides a coffee-like beverage. Ironweed root was used by the Cherokee to treat stomach-ache and bleeding.


Asters are most commonly found in old fields and along roadsides, but can also be found in wooded areas.  If you would like to grow some native asters in your landscape for beauty and to attract butterflies, there are several companies that sell seed, so seek them out on line.


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