The House That Saved the South By Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Let me warn you that this story is not for the squeamish. Way back in 1908 the millionaire John D Rockefeller wanted to make still more money. But most of his markets were saturated, so he began looking at the southern United States as an untapped marketplace. But there was a problem…the South’s economy was lousy.  The people were illiterate, dirt poor, and were perceived as lazy. Farms weren’t fully operational, and the economic engine seemed to be turned off.

Rockefeller wanted to know why, so he formed a commission of economists and sociologists to go down and figure out why southerners weren’t faring well. They came back that southerners on average appeared to be sick. They were pale, physically slow (not mentally) and lethargic, classic signs of being anemic.  So Rockefeller sent another commission of doctors to find the basis of the anemia.  They not only verified that there was widespread anemia among southerners, but that the anemia was related to soil types: on sandy- loamy soils (good farm land), people were anemic; on clay soils (not so good farm land) there was little anemia. So they determined that the anemia was linked to the soil.


They ran tests and found a very high incidence of hookworm, an intestinal parasite. They then had to figure out how southerners were getting hookworm, and so they looked at their feces, which is how hookworm gets spread. They asked the southerners “where do you go?”  The answer usually was “over there by that tree”.  Another important factor was many southerners (especially children) did not wear shoes regularly, and concluded that the people were getting hookworm through their feet. But no one intentionally steps in their own poop, which meant that the hookworms must crawl.  So they set out to find out how far.  They built a sandbox and put some hookworm infested stools in the middle.  Every day they sampled the soil to see if hookworm larvae were moving out away from the stool, seeking victims. By day 4 they were able to move out four feet away from the stool, but on day 5 they stayed at four feet, apparently exhausted.  And by Day 7 they were dead.  So the answer to stopping hookworm was to devise a way to keep human feces (and hookworm) six feet away from people, as six feet is two feet further than hookworm can travel. So they pondered and their answer was….the outhouse.


Now outhouses had been around since at least the 1500s in Europe, but to erect an outhouse with a six foot deep pit under it was new.  I interviewed some local seniors that grew up with outhouses and got interesting answers (and funny looks). Some did not use an outhouse until the 1940s or so.  Most said their outhouses did not have a pit dug under them.  When I asked about the poop building up under the outhouse, one smiled and said “that’s why we kept a few mongrel dogs around.”  Uh….moving on…nobody noticed people being sick or anemic around here, so it must have been a more southern problem


In 1910 Rockefeller launched a campaign against hookworm.  Workers built outhouses at schools, encouraged children to wear shoes, went door to door discussing hygiene and hosted picnics to talk about testing and treatment.  Within 5 years hookworm was controlled and the south rose again. People got stronger, kids stayed in school longer, productivity increased, and the economy began to prosper.  Rockefeller eventually got his new market.  Outhouses have always been part of the mountain culture and often a humorous subject.  But I now look upon them with much greater respect. Information for this article was partially from the radio program Radio Lab.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Improving Young Forests By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

In a young forest, there is always room for improvement.  What you try to improve for depends on your goals, which can include better timber, wildlife habitat, natural beauty, or recreation opportunities.

Harvesting practices often play a role in the condition of a forest.  High-grade harvesting is a cut the best, leave the rest system that can reduce the future value of a forest.  It normally leaves damaged, diseased, crooked, low forked, and undesirable species to take up growing space.  Sun energy is very precious in a forest, and its highest benefit comes through giving it to the most desirable trees.


Some forests have had past wildfire problems, which can wound trees and open them up to heart-rot disease.  This fungus decays the very center of the tree over time, leaving it alive but worthless for timber.  Hollow trees can serve as dens for wildlife, but only a few per acre are needed.


Wildlife habitat can be improved by encouraging tree species that produce food, such as oak, hickory, dogwood, and persimmon.  Thinning out trees puts more sunlight onto the forest floor, allowing more understory growth that can serve as cover and food.


Forests tend to be crowded when young, and trees compete to the death for sunlight and nutrients, causing slower growth.  For the highest value forest (not just monetary), you want to grow the best trees fast.


You can tweak a forest to do this through a management practice called timber stand improvement, or TSI for short.  This involves removing some trees to favor others, and can be done in a number of ways.  Herbicides can be used to deaden standing trees by a simple method called hack and squirt.  All you need is a sharp hatchet to hack pocket shaped wounds in the bark, into which herbicide is placed from a squirt bottle.  It’s very low tech and fairly inexpensive.  You can also use a chainsaw to cut down undesirables and let their nutrients recycle back into the soil.  If you can use the cut trees for firewood, so much the better.


If you have some woodlands and want some ideas on what to do with them, have a forester advise you on what to do, and how.  For assistance with any forest management needs, contact your local state forestry agency.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Liberty Tree By Steve Roark TN Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry Division

It interests me how trees are so often intertwined with our culture and history.  The July celebration of our Independence is a good time to review the history of the Liberty Tree, a symbol for individual liberty and resistance to tyranny.

Boston was the incubator for the American Revolution, being one of the first places where strict British rule was protested.  There was a group of elm trees in the town, one of which had a great spreading crown.  This tree was a rallying point for the growing resistance to English rule.  During the summer of 1765 there was heavy protesting of the Stamp Act, one of many taxes that the colonists disagreed with.  On August 14 of that year a group calling themselves the Sons of Liberty gathered under a large elm tree at the corner of Essex and Orange Street to protest the tax.  They concluded their protest by hanging two tax collectors in effigy from the tree.  From that day forward, the tree became known as the Liberty Tree, and assemblies continued to meet under it on a regular basis.


News of the Liberty Tree spread, and local patriots in each of the 13 colonies formed a Sons of Liberty group and identified a local large tree to be used as a meeting place.  In those times, holding an unauthorized assembly was dangerous, so the casual appearance of a group chatting beneath a tree offered some safety from arrest.


The symbolism of the Liberty Tree was so strong that several flags were designed with a tree on them.  A flag was flown by colonial fighters during the Battle of Bunker Hill that came to be called the New England flag.  It was a red flag with a pine tree in the upper left hand corner.  The red color was similar to that used by many British flags, which symbolized that the colonists were still British citizens, but the tree symbolized their desire to have all of the rights and liberties of a British citizen.


The liberty we now enjoy as American citizens should not be taken for granted, as it cost many brave patriots dearly for us to have it.  The same is true for our military personnel, both past and present.  They have sacrificed their family time and their lives for our benefit, so let us not forget this.  Thomas Jefferson said it best, as he did so many things: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What is Forestry? By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Many consider the word forestry to only mean growing trees to cut for lumber, and in the old days that may have been true.  But the forest is much more than a place to produce wood fiber and has multiple uses it can be managed for. Many of these uses can be managed simultaneously with proper planning.  Here is a list of the major uses.

Wood:  The forest does supply a raw material that society depends on.  We each use wood fiber almost hourly.  Managing for wood involves encouraging the desired trees to grow at their fastest growth rate until mature, and then properly harvesting them in a way that is not detrimental to the soil and water.  Once harvested, the woodlands should be properly made ready for the next generation of trees.


Wildlife: The forest contains many species of wildlife, some hunted for sport, others not.  The forest can be managed to encourage individual species or a variety.  Management involves seeing that desired species have what they need to survive and reproduce, things like food, water, and protective cover.  Some wildlife can be managed along with timber and other uses, but it requires planning.


Recreation:  Hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, horseback riding, nature viewing, picnics; the list is long.  Management here includes proper trails layout, preserving special areas, protecting streams and vistas, etc.


Aesthetics:  The love of the sights, smells, and sounds of a forest is deeply entrenched in the human soul.  Management involves keeping the natural setting intact.  Other uses can be carried out with proper precautions.


Water Quality: In the mountainous terrain of our area, the forest has the important function of keeping soil from eroding into rivers and streams. Trees can be harvested without causing undue soil loss, but it must be carefully planned with properly laid out roads and protection of stream-sides.


There are other uses of the forest such as medicinals, fruits and nuts, and craft materials.  Whatever use you have in mind for your forest, it’s best to have a management plan and to properly implement it.  For more information on forest management, contact your local state forestry office.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hornets and Dirt Daubers By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

An earlier article covered wasps and yellow jackets, so here is a couple more stinging cousins.  All of these insects are in the insect family Vespidae, and are called Vespid wasps. 


Hornets: The most common one is the bald face hornet (Vespula maculata).  They have black and white patterns on their face, thorax and abdomen, and are around ¾ of inch long.  Adults drink nectar, fruit juices, and occasionally eat other insects.  Larvae feed on insects provided pre-chewed by adults.  In the spring a single female chews wood to build a small, pendant nest out of gray pulp.  The first generation includes only female workers, which bring food to the growing larva population and expand the nest.  The nest is usually constructed in the open and consists of many layers of cells that are covered to form an egg shaped shelter that can be over 2 feet long. The doorway is located at the bottom which is fiercely guarded, so beware.  They can sting repeatedly.  I’ve noticed that when a hornet gets after me, it tends to go for the head and face.  I’ve had them slam into my hat or forehead but not sting, sort of like a warning shot and I quickly get the message.   In late summer males mature from unfertilized eggs and mate.  They die along with old queens, workers, and any immature young.  Only young, mated females overwinter in soil or leaf litter.


There is foreign hornet in our area that was accidentally introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800s, called the European hornet. It’s quite large with a 1-1½ inches long body that is reddish brown on the front, and a yellow abdomen with dark cross-bands.  Its lifestyle is similar to other hornets, but they are carnivores, preying on other insects.  While not known to be aggressive, I have been stung by one and it was very painful.


Dirt Daubers: Also known as mud daubers or organ pipe mud daubers (Sceliphron caementarium).  These insects remind you of waspers, but have a thread-like waist that is longer.   Daubers are around 1-1 1/8 inches long, and usually appear black or bluish with a metallic sheen. They twitch their wings constantly.  Adults drink nectar, while larvae feed on spiders provided by the adult.  Dirt daubers are the loners of the Vespid family, forming no social colony. Using her mandibles (jaws), single female shapes moist mud into small balls and transports them to a vertical surface, where she builds tubular cells.  Into each cell the mother dauber stuffs 1 paralyzed spider immobilized by venom, lays 1 egg on the spider, then closes the cell with mud.  Additional cells are built parallel to the first.  Each larva feeds on its spider until adulthood, and then digs out to start life.


A good book on insect identification is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders. 


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

News Bees By Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

I’m sure you’ve been outside and a yellow and black bee-like critter flies up to your head and just hovers in midair, staring at you.  Growing up I was told they were “news bees” and they were trying to tell me something.  Another name for news bees is hover fly, and as the name suggests these creatures have an amazing ability to hover perfectly still like a hummingbird or helicopter


I’ve seen 2 different kinds of news bees, one that looks sort of like a yellow jacket only bigger, and the other is much smaller with a skinny body.  Both have yellow and black markings and both belong to a group of insects called “flower flies”.  They are not bees and so cannot sting, but they do mimic their appearance for protection.  If you ever see one sitting still you will note that they have only 2 wings instead of the 4 that all bees, yellow jackets, etc. have.  There are over 900 species of flower flies, and most of them have the yellow/ black markings.  As their name suggests, flower flies feed on flower nectar as adults, while the larvae feed on dead plant material.  Some are beneficial by preying on destructive aphids.


According to mountain folklore, news bees are an omen.  If the bee hovering near you is mostly yellow, it means good luck, especially if you can get one to light on your finger.   If the bee is mostly black, and it flies into a window and back out again, it means bad luck, perhaps even death.  If a news bee is buzzing close to your ear, it is a sign that important news is coming your way. My mom said that as kids they would talk to the bees while they hovered close by.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Wasps, a Summer Time Caution By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Everyone knows and fears wasps or waspers as my family calls them.   What you may not know is that the wasp family includes other stinging insects in our area, including yellow jackets, hornets, and dirt daubers.  They are all in the insect family vespidae, and are referred to as vespid wasps.


Some vespids like dirt daubers are solitary, while others live in colonies and show some degree of social behavior.  This ranges from groups of cooperating fertile females, to a caste system in which there is a single fertile queen and a large population of smaller female workers.  Here is a short discussion of the two most common Vespid members


Paper Wasps:  There are several species in our neck of the woods, but all of them have long legs, a very narrow waist, and are mostly reddish brown to black, with one having yellow stripes. Adults feed on nectar and juice from crushed or rotting fruit, while the larva feed on insects provided pre-chewed by adults.  The paper wasp lifestyle goes like this: In the spring several females work together to construct a paper nest made of wood that is chewed and regurgitated. It consists of a single circular tier of cells attached by a narrow stalk to the undersurface of a ceiling.  One female becomes the dominant queen.  The first few generations of eggs are all females, cared for as larvae by unmated female workers.  Unfertilized eggs produce fertile males, which mate with females in late summer. Only mated young queens overwinter under leaf letter or stone piles.  Old queens, workers, and larvae all die. Paper wasps are more tolerant of people and minor disturbances than are hornets and yellow jackets, but sting they will and it is pretty painful. It seems to me they get meaner the hotter it gets.


Yellow Jackets: Our variety is the Eastern yellow jacket.  These mean little guys are ½ – ¾ inches long with black and yellow bodies.  They usually nest in the ground or at ground level, constructing a multi-tiered, covered nest of paper. Adults feed on nectar, while the young larvae feed on insects pre-chewed by the adults.  In the spring a mated female constructs a small nest and daily brings food to the larvae until the first all female brood matures and serve as workers, extending the nest and tending the young.  In late summer, males develop from unfertilized eggs and mate. With winter, everybody dies except mated females, who overwinter under leaf litter and in the soil.  Yellow jackets can be pests at picnics, being attracted to food and sweet beverages.  Females sting repeatedly at the least provocation, and will chase you great distances.


Wasp stings normally just involve pain and some swelling, and can be treated with an ice pack, and perhaps taking an antihistamine for the swelling. If you develop abnormal swelling, difficulty breathing, or other unusual symptoms, you may be having an allergic reaction and seek medical treatment immediately.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment