Let There Be Light

Let There Be Light

By: Steve Roark

Light is something we don’t think about  much, but almost everything that’s alive on the planet needs light for sight and energy.  Human eats cow, cow eats grass, grass grows on light… you get the picture. Scientists have studied light for centuries, but still don’t fully understand  it.

So what is light?   The quick answer is “the first thing God made”.  A more detailed answer requires delving into physics on you, so here goes.  Light is energy that takes form and moves as a wave.  The wavelengths that we can sense with our eyes are collectively called the visible spectrum.  Light is invisible to us until it strikes an object we are looking at, say a rose.  The rose absorbs all of the wavelengths in light except red.  This “red energy” bounces off the rose, enters our eye through a lens that focuses it onto the retina, which is packed with light sensitive cells called rods and cones.  Certain cells are stimulated by the red wavelength and send signals to the brain, which interprets the color and tells you “that’s red”.  I find it amazing that something invisible has all those colors hidden away, but rainbows are proof that they are all there.

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What is not fully understand is how light moves through space as wave energy, but when it strikes an object it acts like a particle of energy, which is called a photon.  Light is loaded with unique features.  It moves faster than anything else (186,000 miles per second) and is the universal speed limit: “thou shalt not go faster than light.”  Astronomers use light speed as a measuring stick, giving distances to stars in “light years”.  Star light is old. The light of the North Star (Polaris) left it 820 years ago to travel all the way to our eyes.  Feel free to be awed.

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By: Steve Roark

Since I enjoy an occasional fishing trip and dabble with a garden, I thought I knew a fair bit about worms.  Little did I realize what amazingly beneficial little guys they are. The two most common worms we have in our area are the nightcrawler and the redworm.  The nightcrawler is the larger of the two and can be 11 inches long and thick as a pencil.

Earthworms can be found in any moist, rich soil.  Nightcrawlers build permanent vertical tunnels that can be 4 feet in depth, while redworms only build horizontal tempEarthworm photo.JPGorary tunnels in the top 10 to 12 inches of soil. Redworms tend hang out in decomposing organic matter, while nightcrawlers are usually found in pure soil.

The earthworm body is reddish brown and divided into ring-like segments.  The head is the narrow, pointed end, while the tail end is more fat and blunt.  The only other noticeable features are swollen sections along the body, which are sex organs.  Worms have bristles on their underside that provides traction for movement through the soil, and if you pick one up you may feel these.  Earthworms cannot see or hear, but are very sensitive to light and vibrations.

Their lifestyle consists mostly of tunneling and eating decaying organic matter.  As they eat they also ingest large amounts of soil, and it is estimated an earthworm can eat and discard its own weight in food and soil each day.  This digestion of organic matter and spreading it underground greatly enriches the soil, while the tunneling improves aeration and drainage.

Earthworms are hermaphroditic, having both male and female sex organs.  The eggs of one individual must be fertilized by the sperm of another.   When mating, two earthworms are bound together by sticky mucus while each transfers sperm to a receptacle of the other.  After mating they both form a cocoon of sorts, which is then shed off.  As worm sheds its cocoon, its own eggs are mixed with sperm obtained from the other worm.  The cocoon is finally discarded into the soil with the now fertilized eggs inside.  Baby worms emerge about four weeks later, reach adulthood in 60 to 90 days, and attain full growth in about one year.

One scientist estimated that one acre of soil may contain 63,000 earthworms, which in a year’s time may bring 18 tons of soil to the surface and in 20 years create a new 3-inch layer.  No one argues about the tremendous virtue of worms to our soil and ecosystem.

Worms are consumed by many birds and animals and provide humans with fish bait.  They can be found on the soil surface on rainy summer nights or dug out of compost piles.  Some fishermen use vibration to drive worms to the surface by sawing on small trees out in the woods with an old handsaw.



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Balms, Banes, and Worts: Plant Name Curiosities

Balms, Banes, and Worts: Plant Name Curiosities  

By Steve Roark

As a wildflower enthusiast and more recently a student of medicinal plants, I keep running across plants with recurring name components.  The terms balm, bane, and wort come up often,  so I decided to see why.  Prepare to delve into the world of ethnobotany, the study of plants used by humans.


All three terms were added to useful plants back in the day to indicate what they were good for. The term “balm” is probably familiar, and refers to something applied as a medicinal ointment, such as a salve. Locally I’ve ran across three plants with this name.  Beebalm is a fragrant mint with large handsome flowers.  It has antiseptic and antibacterial properties and was applied as a compress or made into an ointment to relieve pain and promote healing of minor wounds and insect bites/stings. Lemon Balm is also a mint that was believed to the same healing properties.  Balm of Gilead is a tree not native to our area but was brought in and planted for its resinous winter buds, which contain a resin used to make a healing salve.

A “bane” is defined as something causing great distress or harm.  Its origin is the old English word “bana”, meaning destroyer or something causing death.  In botany it’s an archaic term referring to plants that are toxic or poisonous. It also was used to name some plants thought to have prophylactic (disease preventing) qualities.  Locally we have several plant banes: Daisy Fleabane is an aster-like white flowering plant that is a common yard weed. It is thought to have insect repelling properties, and back in the day when mattresses were homemade of straw, Fleabane was added to repel fleas. Wolfbane, also known as Monkshood, is a purple wildflower that is highly toxic.  It was used to make poison tipped arrows to better assure a kill, one target being dangerous rivals like wolves. Henbane is poisonous but not to chickens.  The word “hen” may be a derivation of the word “bhelena”, which means “crazy plant”.  Misused, henbane can cause hallucinations and death.

By far the most common term in plant names that refer to their use is “wort”. It is derived from the old English “wryt”, which means root, and a there are many local plants with this name.  Wort is used to indicate plants or herbs that have a medicinal use, with the first part of the name denoting the complaint the plant can be used for. For instance, Toothwort is a white flowering plant that was used to treat a toothache. Lungwort, an earlier name for Virginia Bluebell, was used to treat lung ailments like tuberculosis and whooping cough.  Another name for Red Trillium is birthwort, which was used to induce labor or ease labor pain.  Spleenwort is a small fern that was used to treat disorders of the spleen. Spiderwort is a purple blooming flower that was used to treat insect bites.  A very popular   herbal medicine found in most drug stores is St. John’s Wort, a yellow flowering plant that traditionally blooms on St. John’s Day (June 24), a day celebrated by the Freemasons in honor of John the Baptist. It is reported to have calming qualities.

The list of local plants that were traditionally used for medicinal purposes is long.  So much so that a long ago wild plant collector from east Tennessee once said: “The good Lord has put these yarbs here for man to make hisself well with.  They is a yarb, could we but find it, to cure every illness.”

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Why We Love the Mountains

Why We Love the Mountains  

By Steve Roark

Mountains seem to be a universal attraction to people no matter where they come from.  To we who were born and raised in them, they are especially endearing because they were the constant backdrop of our lives: their beauty, their challenges, and their molding of the culture of our ancestors that was passed on to us. Mountains are special, but what is it about them that everybody falls in love with?  This will sound over-simplistic, but the answer is their 3-dimensional terrain. Let me explain.

We love to see mountains, either looking up at them from below, or looking out over them from their peaks. This is only possible because they have the 3rd dimension of height and so can be seen miles away. They are also sculpted with ridges, valleys, streams, and cliffs that add to their beauty. Because they are steep and rugged, they weren’t cleared for farming, and so have skin made of forests that annually change the look of the mountains four times during the seasons. The bright colors of spring and fall, the multi-shades of green of summer, and the gray-brown bareness of winter (occasionally brightened with snow) all have their own beauty.


We love the mountains because of their diversity of life. Ours have over a thousand herbaceous plant species and over 130 woody plants that in turn provide food and shelter for a plethora of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, bugs, and fish.  Why all the diversity? Again, it’s the 3-D terrain. The bumpiness of the mountains creates a patchwork micro-climates that each supports different plant cover types. Ridges are dry, drains are moist.  East and north facing slopes have moist soils, south and west slopes are dry. Cliffs, rocky places, shallow soil sites, all have their own version of plant and animal populations.   The variety of life in the mountains is truly astonishing, and second only to the tropics

We love the mountains for it’s culture.  Mountain living was challenging to the native American and European settlers who moved into them.  Families were isolated. Medical care was almost non-existent, and illness was treated at home using mountain herbs. Self-sufficiency was a necessary trait, and yet neighbors knew each other and helped when help was needed. Contact with the world outside of the mountains was rare, and so change came slowly, and old traditions stayed intact.  This includes our way of speaking, which still has remnants from the old country.

So we love the mountains because they engulf us with scenery and with life, and  made us who we are as a people. Next time you step outside and look at the horizon, give thanks for what you see.

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It’s Dogwood Season

It’s Dogwood Season       Dogwood flower photo.jpg

By Steve Roark

One of Spring’s pleasures after a winter of subdued color is the flowering of the dogwoods, which are universally enjoyed and mega-popular as yard trees. We are blessed to have them growing wild in our forests and are very common.   Virginia is particularly big on dogwood, as it’s their state tree.

Our native Flowering Dogwood (Cornus Florida) is an understory tree content to grow underneath larger trees, being tolerant of shade.  It is classified as a small tree, only growing to around 15 to 25 feet tall.  The leaves are oval shaped with a smooth edge and turn a bright purple in the fall.  Bright red berries also appear in the fall, adding to the tree’s beauty.  The bark is reddish brown with a small blocky pattern.  The flowers are the crown jewels of the dogwood, providing a crown full of beautiful large white flower with 4 petals tinged with red at their end.  The actual flower is the green nugget in the middle of the petals, which aren’t true petals, but specialized leaves called bracts.  But hey, let’s not let a little plant physiology spoil the beauty of the thing.

Here’s a cool Easter legend about the tree: the dogwood was once as tall and mighty as the oak, and because of the strength of its wood, was chosen to make the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.  The dogwood was so ashamed at this that it begged Jesus for forgiveness.  In His compassion for all living things, Jesus took pity on the dogwood and decreed that from then on the tree would be short and twisted so it could never again be used as a cross.  As a reminder, the dogwood would also bear blossoms in the shape of a cross.  The center of the flower would look like a crown of thorns, and each petal would have nail prints stained with red at its outer edge.

Besides providing a lovely landscape, the native dogwood was used by the Native Americans to time the planting of crops (by their bloom time) and as a medicinal.  The bark was boiled and made into an extract to soothe sore muscles. Twigs were used as “chewing sticks”, the forerunner of the toothbrush.  When chewed a while the tough fibers at the end of the twig will separate into a soft brush and can be used to clean teeth.  During the Civil War a tea made from root bark was used as a substitute for quinine to treat malaria in the Deep South. Dogwood berries are a very important wildlife food, and the twigs are browsed by deer.

The origin of the name “dogwood” is uncertain, but it may have come from a reference to a European species of dogwood that was used to make skewers, also called daggers.  It was referred to a dag or dagge in old English.

Because of its flowers and small size at maturity, dogwood can fit into even small landscapes, and is relatively easy to grow.  It prefers partial shade if it can get it but can grow in full sun.  There are many cultivars out there, including pink and red flowering varieties.  There is an unfortunate disease called dogwood anthracnose that has reduced native populations over the past few decades.



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Backpacking 101

Backpacking 101

By: Steve Roark

If you’ve ever had the urge to “get away from it all, a literal way to pull that off is to try backpacking. Think of it as extended hiking where you stay overnight or several days and carry in what you need.  Being out in the wild for a few days clears the mind and it’s good for the soul to rough it and be away from the clamor of modern life.  The trick to backpacking is to carry only what you really need to be reasonably comfortable and safe. Carry too much and you become a pack mule, which is not fun.  What follows is a list of equipment and items usually used on a backpacking venture.  Buying all of this can be costly, so try to bum some gear and try backpacking one weekend to see if you like it enough to invest in your own gear, which is best acquired over time.

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Backpack:  Most backpacks are made of rip-stop nylon and have an internal or external metal frame.  Get one with lots of compartments and zippered pockets to hold stuff.  There are all types, so try on several.  Get one that has heavily padded shoulder straps and a padded hip belt to allow some of the weight to be carried on your hips rather than all on your shoulders.

Sleeping Bag: The main thing to shop for is one that will keep you warm in whatever weather you’re camping in, is reasonably light weight, and crushes down small for easy transport.  Another item nice to have is a sleeping pad, which keeps you off the rocks and insulates you from the cold ground.

Boots:  You don’t have to wear boots on short trips. But your feet take a lot of abuse on a trail, and with a load on your back, foot support is critical.  Buy some good leather ones and make sure they are broken in before venturing too deep in the woods.  Blisters are instant trip bummers, so the shoes must fit well.

Clothing:  In the summer you can get by with shorts and T-shirts.  In the winter you need good wool or synthetic clothing that will keep you warm even when wet. Layers is the name of the game.  Rain gear is good to have year-round.

Cooking Gear: You don’t have to cook when backpacking, but warm food is tasty and very satisfying. There are small, lightweight stoves available, and there are also all kinds of cooking kits to do your cooking and eating in.

Food:  You eat plenty when walking a lot of miles with a load on your back.  You can buy the lightweight freeze-dried stuff from hiking catalogs and outdoor stores, but there are plenty of lightweight foods at the grocery store you can use with some imagination.

There are lots of books and web sites that provide introductory backpacking information.  If you can find someone that’s and old hand at it, talk to them.  Maybe they can even take you for a test hike.


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The Spring Green Light

The Spring Green Light

By Steve Roark

For all you warm weather people out there, your time has come.  The vernal (spring) equinox is upon us, which is the official beginning of Spring, arriving this year on March 20. The event is not only a promise of warmer weather, it also plays a key role in determining what date Easter occurs, which can move around quite a bit year to year.

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First let’s do the science stuff. As you know, days are longer in summer and shorter in winter because the Earth pivots on its axis as it orbits, leaning our hemisphere (the northern one) either towards the sun (summer) or away from the sun (winter). That change in the angle at which sun rays strikes the Earth determines how well it heats it up. Leaning towards the sun makes it appear higher in the sky, and the rays are more direct and warm more.  Leaning away from the sun in winter makes it appear lower in the southern sky, and the warming rays strike the Earth at an angle and so don’t heat as efficiently.  Twice a year though the Earth reaches a mid-way point in it pivot where the hours of daylight and darkness are the same, and these are called the equinox, which in Latin means “equality of night and day”.  As you know the other equinox is in September and is called the autumnal equinox.

The end of winter was a big deal long ago when growing local food was critical to survival, and so the beginning of the growing season was celebrated all over the world.  The spring equinox was a symbol of renewal and rebirth, and in Italy it was celebrated by planting garden and flower seeds, which is still a custom around Sicily.  The Hindu consider the equinox as a victory of good over evil, and they celebrate it with the “festival of colors”, where participants toss bright colored powders over each other while dancing about. In Japan the spring equinox is called Shunbun no hi and is a more somber celebration, where families get together and visit ancestral graves.  Lighting bonfires was a common way to celebrate the equinox in many parts of the world.

Recognizing the spring equinox goes way back. The famous rocks at Stonehenge in England are over 4000 years old and were constructed so that the sun would rise precisely between two stones on the equinox.  An ancient pyramid in Mexico was designed so that on the equinox the sun would light up one edge of the pyramid that looked like a serpent, which represented the Mayan god Kukulcan.

The date to celebrate Easter is determined by the equinox. The Bible describes Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection as occurring around the time of the Jewish Passover, which was celebrated on the first full moon following the spring equinox. But there were some differing interpretations of when to celebrate Easter, with some churches celebrating it on the day of the Passover, while others celebrated it on the following Sunday. So, to clear up the confusion, Emperor Constantine I formed a council in 325 AD, who determined that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox.


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