Looking at Lichens

Looking at Lichens

By: Steve Roark

The above high rainfall we’ve had past couple of years seems to have caused a boost in lichens. Lichens are those flat light green blotches or hair-like tufts you see growing on tree bark and rocks.  Like all life on Earth, lichens have found a niche where they can grow without much competition. Most older trees in our area have at least a small colony growing somewhere.

There are several lichen species in our area, the most common type being Parmelia.  This is the one that looks like flat, crinkled splotches of green or pale blue.  Another common one is Old-Mans’ Beard, which hangs down in small tufts of branching, pale green fibers.  There may be small discs present that are fruiting bodies which produce spores.  A more colorful Lichen variety at least in the Spring is British Soldiers, which grows on the ground or dead wood.  It has a crusted base with small, erect hollow tubes that are capped with bright red knobs that are the fruiting bodies, which look like the red caps that British soldiers wore during the Revolutionary War.  A lichen found in the mountains on bluffs and large boulders is Rock Tripe.  When moist, this one grows in large brown sheets that are leathery and attached by a stout cord.  When dry it curls up and turns black.  There are other rock lichen species that come in a wide variety of bright colors.

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Lichens are a biological oddity in that they are both plant (algae) and animal (fungus).  The relationship is called “mutualism” and each partner benefits from working together.  The algae produce food for itself and the fungus, and in return the fungus provides protection from adverse conditions such as drought.  Some botanists disagree and think the relationship is more a host-parasite relationship in which the fungus is a weak parasite of its algal host.  Either way, it makes lichen a unique life form.

Lichens have an important role of converting lifeless rock into soil that can then support other life.  They can literally grow on a rock, and have acidic properties that slowly break down stone and converting it over the eons to soil sized particles.  Humans have used lichens for food, medicine, and dyes.  They are a crucial food source for caribou in the extreme north, where conditions on the tundra are so harsh that only lichens can grow there.

I get asked now and then if lichen growing on the bark is harmful to the tree.  Most tree experts say the lichen does not harm the tree and merely using the trunk as a high-rise apartment to get away from the more highly populated ground. I have wondered if a high population of lichen that completely covers the bark might cause moisture retention that would soften the bark and perhaps cause mold, mildew, or bacteria issues. I haven’t found any scientific references to support this however, so my short answer is that unless you find them visually unappealing, just let them be.



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Arbor Day Tree Wisdom

Arbor Day Tree Wisdom

By: Steve Roark

Arbor Day is approaching for our local states (TN March 6, KY April 3, VA April 24), and it’s a worthy recognition of the importance of trees in our lives. Here in the mountains they are omnipresent, with every scenic vista tree laden. Every home is full of tree stuff, from bananas to the roof trusses, and every breathe we take has some tree air in it. What follows is some quotes and a little poetry spoken by wise people on the importance of trees. Tree sitting under.jpg

For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver. MARTIN LUTHER

To the edge of the wood I am drawn, I am drawn.  SIDNEY LANIER

Under the trees!  Who but agrees, that there is magic in words such as these?  CHARLES CLAVERLY

In the country it is as if every tree said to me “Holy!  Holy!” Who can ever express the ecstasy of the woods?  BEETHOVEN

For the forest tree keeps in her heart secrets of days long gone.  MARY WEBB

He that plants trees loves others besides himself.  ENGLISH PROVERB

The forest smiles, and every sense and every heart is joy.   JAMES THOMPSON

One generation plants the trees, and another gets the shade” CHINESE PROVERB

Stand still. The trees ahead and bush beside you are not lost. EINSTEIN

What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives?  E.M. FOSTER

I said to the almond tree,” Friend, speak to me of God,” and the almond tree blossomed. NIKOS KAZANTZAKIS

Trees are our lungs turned inside out and inhale our visible chilled breath. Our lungs are trees turned inside out and inhale their clear exhalations. BILL YAKE

The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more. RALPH WALDO EMERSON

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Feel the Wild Side with Barred Owls

Feel the Wild Side with Barred Owls

By Steve Roark

The most common owl that I run across locally is the Barred Owl (Strix varia) but have only seen them a handful of times. But I know they visit my woods regularly by their easy to recognize 8 or 9 note call that is remembered by the phrase “who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all”.  When I hear the Barred or any owl call out, it gives me a shiver of wildness that is very satisfying.

The Barred Owl is easy to identify from other owls of our area.  It’s a chunky bodied brown and white bird that lacks the pointy ear tufts of the horned owl and is the only owl with brown eyes (everybody else has yellow ones). The name barred comes from the brown horizonal streaks on its head and upper chest.  The face is rather pale and flat, with dark rings encircling the eyes.Owl Barred.jpg

The Barred Owls preferred habitat is a mature forest with a clean understory to be able to hunt without dodging brush. Like all owls the Barred is a raptor, with mice and other rodents being a favorite prey.  They also feed on other small mammals like squirrel and voles, as well as birds, frogs, and salamanders. While they most often hunt at night, favoring dawn and dusk, they can be found hunting during daylight hours. Their hunting routine involves waiting on a perch for supper to show up, and then swooping down low for the kill, depending on keen hearing good night vision to locate the target prey. Their feathers are designed for quiet flight and added stealth.

Making more Barred Owls starts with a courtship of bobbing and bowing heads and raising wings at each together. Once the deed is done the female makes a nest in a hollow tree or perhaps an old hawk nest. She lays an average of 3 eggs and incubates them for a month.  The male brings food for her during this time and continues to do so after the young hatch. They grow rapidly and are ready for first flight in about 6 weeks. Prior to flying, the owlets are able to climb around on the tree by gripping the bark with their talons and bill, which is comical to see.

During the spring breeding season male turkeys are hyped up with hormones and edgy. If they aren’t gobbling on their own, hunters can make jakes “shock gobble” by mimicking a barred owl’s call, and thus figure out their location.

Surprisingly, the most serious predatory threat to Barred Owls is the Great Horned Owl, a slightly larger and more aggressive bird.  When the Horned Owls move into an area, the Barred move out. Owls are very effective at keeping rodent populations down, so having them around is cool.  They can be encouraged by setting up nesting boxes and plans for them are easy to find online or through your state wildlife agency.

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Winter Wildlife Cuisine

Winter Wildlife Cuisine

By: Steve Roark

Browse is a wildlife term referring to food in the form of woody twigs and buds found on trees, shrubs, and vines.  Since more nutritious and palatable food is available during the growing season, browse is usually only consumed during the leaner winter months, which makes it critical in maintaining a wildlife population. Animals that utilize browse in our area include deer, elk, beaver, rabbit, mice, and others.

The most noteworthy browser in our area is the white tail deer.  During winter they survive on both browse and hard mast (acorns and nuts).  Mast is most available in older forests with trees mature enough to produce a lot of seed, especially the oaks. Browse on the other hand is most available in very young stands where the woody vegetation is within reach of the deer. For wildlife, it is best to have an area with both young and mature forest stands. Nut production decreases on over-mature trees, so it’s best to harvest them before they get decrepit.

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While clearcutting is visually an unpopular harvesting method, it is an excellent way to create good browse.  After trees are cut, their stumps will sprout vigorously and are a major source of new trees to regenerate a forest after a harvest.  During this initial flush of growth, sprouts are succulent and readily available for browsing.  A clearcut usually produces a thicket of growth for the first few years, which provides protective cover for feeding deer and other wildlife.  Clearcuts are best kept small and scattered to reduce their visual impact and diversify the forest habitat. After 15 years a clear cut forest will grow beyond the reach of deer browsing, so if deer management is important, woodland owners should try to stagger timber harvests to maintain a portion of the woodland in a young, brushy stage.

Here is a partial list of browse plants used by deer.  Those most favored are strawberry bush, privet, honeysuckle, blackgum, cucumber tree, and sumac.  Less favored but commonly consumed browse include red maple, hickory, dogwood, ash, witch hazel, yellow poplar, sourwood, oak, sassafras, poison ivy, blackberry, blueberry, and elderberry.  Browse consumed only as emergency food include sugar maple, buckeye, birches, hackberry, hazelnut, redbud, persimmon, beech, holly, walnut, sweetgum, hornbeam, pine, sycamore, cherry, locusts, willow, hemlock, and elm.

Good forest and wildlife management usually go hand in hand, and what’s good for one can be good for the other in many cases.  For more information on wildlife management contact your local state forestry or wildlife agency.

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Cold Love

Cold Love

By Steve Roark

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With winter weather there are two distinct camps of people: those that love it and those that do not. You may have picked up in past articles that I am in the love winter camp, and cold/snow fans have actually been labeled. We are chionophiles (ki-own-a-files), those who thrive in cold winter conditions, especially in snow. It’s a Greek word that literally means “snow lover”.

Snow is for me the premier winter event, totally changing a familiar landscape into a beautiful wonderland. It transports me back to my childhood, remembering that special feeling I got when walking on snow that nobody else has walked on. The muffled silence a snow brings is almost eerie, especially when large flakes are falling without making a sound. Snow has the power to stop life as you know it, at least for a little while, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In the hectic modern lifestyle, cold weather has a way of slowing you down. Maybe you do more sitting near a fire sipping hot chocolate or curling up with a good book. Being out in the cold forces an awareness of ourselves and our surroundings as few other environments can.  Cold, especially the extreme kind, can be hazardous, requiring that you stay focused on the moment, monitoring if parts of you are getting cold and what to do about it. For me, part of the enjoyment of being out in the cold is keeping it at bay.  With the softness of modern living, getting out in really cold weather has a survivalist feel about it and gives a feeling of triumph when you make it through. As someone once said: when you can see your breath, you know you’re alive.

Here’s the thing: I don’t like being cold, I like being warm while out in the cold. I’ve camped out in zero-degree weather with brutal wind chills and drifting snow. The very air hurt. But clothing and a good sleeping bag is what separates being comfortable from the being miserable. To enjoy winter weather is to dress for it. So layer, layer, layer as your mom used to insist on.  Wicking underwear to keep your skin dry and hold heat; one or more insulating layers, fleece being my favorite. And a wind and moisture repelling outer layer jacket with a hood. Other necessities include insulated gloves (mittens are warmer) and a good ski cap (a lot of heat goes out your head). And if it’s really cold, a scarf or neck gaiter to protect your neck and face, and good snow-proof boots. Chemical hand warmers are a Godsend when you’re needing to use your hands.

Of course, some people are as attached to warm seasons as much as I am to cold ones, and that’s okay, to each his own.  This group has also been labeled and are called Thermophiles: heat loving creatures.  Or perhaps you’re somewhere in the middle, where you like to see winter snows, just not be out in it.  In Iceland they have a word for that, Gluggavedur (glue-gah-veh-dure) or “window weather”: weather that looks nice but is better experienced behind a windowpane. For myself, I’m with Aristotle, who said: “to appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand out in the cold.”


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Snow Stuff

Snow Stuff

By: Steve Roark

I have never outgrown my love of a fresh snowfall, which takes a bleak winter scene and transforms it into a wonderland.  The quiet a snow brings is both eerie and wonderful, and a walk in the snow on a moonlit night is something you simply must experience.

A lot of folks think that snow begins as rain that freezes on its way down and turns into snow.  It’s usually the other way around, with rain beginning as snow, which melts as it falls.

Snowflakes are formed by ice crystals that have a hexagonal pattern, often beautifully intricate.  The size and shape of the crystals depends mainly on the temperature and the amount of moisture present when they develop. Large, fluffy snowflakes form under relatively warm and moist conditions, while small, compact flakes form in colder, drier air.  One large snowflake can have up to 100 crystals.

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It is said that no two snowflakes are alike, but in an average snowstorm an estimated thousand billion snowflakes (that’s a one with 12 zeros) fall.  Mathematically, the odds favor duplication.  It takes more than one million crystals to cover two square feet of ground with 10 inches of snow.  Multiply that by the 23% of the Earth’s land surface that is covered by snow each winter and somewhere in that vast number there must be two look-a-likes.

Our local average annual snowfall is around 13 inches, but lately we just aren’t getting much. Blizzards are rare, but memorable.  I still remember back in 1994 standing 15 feet from the house and not able see it for the snow, which was falling sideways.  What made the scene even more eerie was it was thundering…amazing.

The worst snow we ever had doesn’t touch the record snowfall from a single storm that occurred in 1959, where a 7-day blizzard covered the Mount Shasta area of northern California with 189 inches (15 feet) of snow.

If we do get some snow this winter, you might want to try your hand at making snow cream.  Mix in a bowl 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/2 cup of milk, cream, or evaporated milk, and a teaspoon of vanilla.  Stir in enough clean snow until it has the right consistency.  When snow does come, try not to be too humbug about it.  Let the kid inside come out for a little while and go start a snowball fight with somebody.  And don’t forget that moonlit walk.  It’s worth the cold.

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The Christmas Tradition of Advent

The Christmas Tradition of Advent

By Steve Roark

Advent Wreath.JPGMy church celebrated the beginning of Advent December 1st by carrying out the “hanging of the green” tradition of decorating the church sanctuary for the Christmas season.   Our pastor explained the meaning of the Advent tradition, which was good because while I had heard of it, I didn’t really know what it about.  I’m all about old traditions, and so it sparked my own research on the subject, which I thought I would share.

It’s unclear when the tradition of Advent started.  Some think it began in 586 A.D. when some Monks began fasting during the month of December to help them concentrate on preparing to celebrate Jesus’s birth.  Over time this eventually transformed into traditions that focus attention on Christ during the Christmas season and the importance of His coming to Earth. The term Advent means “The Coming” in Latin, and it spans the four Sundays and weeks prior to Christmas.

Some traditions of Advent still practiced today include the Hanging of the Green, which has been around for centuries. It’s done on the first Sunday of Advent and use to involve decorating the church with sprays, garlands, wreaths and trees from evergreen trees such as pine, fir, and holly. Now about everything is from the plastic species. Using greenery for indoor Christmas decorating got its start from German priest Martin Luther in the early 1500s. He felt it helped people appreciate God’s creation and the use of evergreen plants as symbols of the unchanging nature of God and the everlasting life that Christians receive through Jesus Christ.

Another tradition is the Advent Wreath, which is a table display involving an evergreen wreath and candles, and there is a lot of symbolism here. The circle of the wreath is a reminder of God, who has no beginning or end. The green speaks of the hope and renewal of eternal life, and the candles symbolize Christ as the light of the world. Normally there are five candles, each lit on one of the four Sundays of Advent, with the fifth one lit on Christmas Eve.

Christmas trees are commonly used for decorating churches, but there is also a tradition of setting up a Chrismon tree, which is an evergreen tree decorated with only white lights and “chrismons”: ancient symbols of Christ’s ministry.  Things like a dove, fish, Shepard’s crook, chalice, Christian cross, Celtic Cross, Jerusalem cross, and others. The purpose of this tree is to direct attention to the nature and ultimate work of Christ.

Christmas is deeply steeped in traditions, and I find great joy in learning about them and especially carrying them on. I hope you have your own and enjoy them this Christmas season. Just don’t forget who it is about.

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