"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Yesterday I finally got around to finishing the demolition the wind started a few weeks back. A late summer storm--unfortunately with little rain,  ripped off a large portion of the screen porch roof and amputated a few limbs off the backyard black cherries.  Of course once a piece of the roof was gone the rains came!  After pondering the repair of said roof I finally got after it yesterday--hammer in hand and destruction in mind! Once the roof was off and the porch topless, the world opened up again.  The vermilion fruits of the twisted, old eastern dogwood that I built the porch around were a perfect contrast against the blue, early autumn sky that was drifting by. High in that cerulean and way beyond the red berries and skittering around in the sea of clouds and clarion were little, black jets-- chimney swifts! The little flying cigars arrive from their South American wintering grounds sometime in April, twittering and flittering in the spring and summer sky as they raise the next generation of Chaetura pelagica in the confines of the neighborhood chimneys.  Silent yesterday, they seemed more intent on being somewhere else than maybe our neighborhood. Their flight was less erratic as I imagined their instinct turning to thoughts of trans-gulf migration, dodging predators and finding enough chimneys and smoke stacks along the way in which to roost and rest.  Soon the sky will be absent the their little black, feathered fusiforms and I'll count the days until they return from the far away places they dare to go. I took a few moments in between the banging, ripping, pulling and tearing to float enviously with them on the wind to wherever.
The Chimney swifts are somewhere up there! Trust me --and the ceramic goldfinch!

I realized just this morning as I was contemplating more serious things that I'd been storing in my head like fatalistic acorns over the past few weeks and days -stuff like new life and early death and the bittersweet randomness of it all  that perhaps the porch deconstruction might be more than what it appears.  I went straight at it yesterday--in my casual office wear (just jeans and a polo shirt but dressy for me) without a plan really to do so.  Unwisely barefoot and with no eye protection initially, I picked up the hammer and just starting wailing away.  Nails, bits of fiberglass roof panel, leaves and pine needles flew furiously around in the maelstrom I created.  Sure, the job needed to get done but why yesterday and why so suddenly? After the tear-down I felt strangely clean, although I was covered in sweat and everything that had once been on top of the roof.

A Dear Friend--a guide in my life--- suggested that the tearing apart was maybe therapeutic--a necessary thing.  That in that sudden fit of destruction that perhaps I was satisfying a need to throw some things away--repair the broken--start again--make life better.  And in that discussion and my own thoughts it made sense.  Once topless--once shed of the old, dysfunctional roof the rains could come in and cleanse.  Once the opaque panels were gone, things opened up to the wider possibilities of  cerulean sky, nourishing Fall fruit and birds that know no bounds.  Once the roof was gone, I could begin to reconstruct what was torn apart. Build it back better than before. The tearing apart was the easy thing my guide said.  But the building, that's what will be more difficult. "Keep at it and don't give up."  The words were like spring water in a tin cup. I liked the allegory offered and drank it thirstily, refreshed and convinced that although my life is a good one, it will only get better if I have the courage to see the thing through. Have the strength to tear down but the true courage to build up.  Today, I will begin the rebuild, taking it slowly to ensure that things are put back together the right way.  It is only appropriate in this autumnal season of  transition, my favorite time of year, that such things become evident. Who knew that a hammer, a leaky roof, an old dogwood and a few chimney swifts could mean so much?  I do--now that I'm topless.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


I have been at this nature writing thing for a relatively short time.  By my count it's now at eight years and I am ever the student of words-written and spoken.  If you've read my blogs or know me even marginally, you know that Aldo Leopold is someone I hold in a different light.  His writings and philosophies have shaped my conservation sensibility like almost no other person--almost.

A few years ago a book showed up on the bookstore shelves that quite frankly I ignored for a few months.  Thin, drably colored and with seemingly nothing to do with the birds and wild place titles I typically filled my personal library with, the curious titled book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood ,did not immediately warrant anything more than a very quick and casual glace.  But somehow, the book with the curious title persisted in putting itself in my eyesight until finally, one day  I picked it up. A picture of an attractive, dark-haired woman was on the inside cover of the dust jacket.  Her name, Janisse Ray, did not strike any familiar chord .  She was not among the flock of nature writers I usually migrated towards. And so by the oddity of her sudden appearance on the shelves alongside the luminaries like Carson, Muir, Wilson, Lopez and my hero, Leopold, I was drawn to the "strange bird named "Janisse".

In the moment that I finally picked up the book now famously known simply as "Ecology", I was changed.  In fact I fell in a sort of eco-love with the book and the author. Janisse's treatment of  long leaf pine ecology was nothing short of poetic. In exposing the rest of the world to the wonders of the flatwoods- red-cockaded woodpeckers and wiregrass, the endangered ecosystem suddenly gained footing and enough ecological cause celeb to be considered in the conservation conversation along with tropical rainforests and western mountain ranges. I read it for the first time in the span of one cross country flight. My eyes didn't leave the chapters of intertwining autobiography and biology.  Janisse's  treatment of her South Georgia, junkyard upbringing-- the good and the bad of all,  was inspiring.  The book I once ignored suddenly became the work best suited to sit next to Sand County. Beyond  the glowing things that the New York Times said about it and the growing heaps of glowing reports, the book struck me deeply and personally beyond what any critic had to say about it.  It was a book about My South and the places I know. Hers was (is) a voice rich with y'all and drawl.  More than the nature lover, she speaks  of the piney woods with love and to the prejudice and injustices in the South with hate. Her love for natural conservation and human justice reside like commensals in her spirit.  I read "Ecology" now like I read "Sand County", frequently picking it up to thumb chapter and verse for inspiration. 

As my eco-love affair with the book and its author grew I sought Janisse out, tracking her like some author- hungry- hound to the Wild Branch Nature Writing Workshop a few years back. I am not a person prone to celebrity stalking but I had to meet the woman whose words touched me like Leopold's. The stalking/meeting netted a friendship that has grown over the years and now to one of mutual support that I hope continues to grow tall and thick and strong like the old, flat-topped pines she has taught me to worship.

And so on last Friday night, my botanist friend, Dr. Harry Shealy invited me and my wife Janice, back home to Aiken to the 3rd "Festival of the Woods". It is a celebration of  Hitchcock Woods and the amazing conservation of a long leaf pine ecosystem that has persisted in the midst of the sprawl that is occurring in a rapidly sprawling city. I'd been honored to speak there last year and returned to hear an author who has become mentor-muse in many ways. It was Janisse. Back in the piney woods--under a big white tent  surrounded by pines burning in the evening's setting sun, hundreds gathered to hear the author-poetess opine about her beloved wild South. The evening was heavy with the humidity of much needed rain and the sudden flush of moisture had apparently awakened the mosquitoes and biting midges. The pain of the "no-see-ums" was soothed by the poetry.  Janisse, read from 'Ecology" and the very pines she spoke of seemed to sway in listening. Beyond The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Janisse has sprouted other works ; Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home  and Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land. She read from her newest growth, Drifting into Darien, a book about her beloved Altamaha watershed. Hearing Janisse sing the four-syllables of the river with her sandy drawl while the kaydids kept time in the background was a deeply satisfying thing and worth the price of admission alone. I and the hundreds of others in attendance were mesmerized. I requested Janisse read a poem from her first book of poetry, A House of Branches, and I was in eco-love all over again. I think that Janice was smitten too! For years I've wondered how I would ever respond if I had the chance to sit in the company of Leopold, maybe to sit around a campfire, him reading and reciting the words that flow more like verse than prose. I know the same feelings would flow. I will never get that chance, though. But on that Friday evening, Leopold's lines were complemented by words just as fine as those in A Sand County Almanac. JanisseJanisse for sharing your heart.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Yesterday was one of those marathon travel/work days that have become more common in my life. I'm thankful to be going anywhere to deliver the "word" as far as conservation is concerned. It's a humbling thing to have others want to hear your thoughts about anything and so off I went on another jaunt in Beulah May (my 290,000 mile GMC pickup) cutting down through the piedmont across the once mighty but now dam-tamed Savannah River into "Jawja".  For those deprived of the southern experience, that's the state bordering South Carolina to the west!  Through little towns like Carnesville and Ila (which I now understand used to be named “Opossum” before somebody got proud and gave the town a shorter but less charismatic name) I made my way through what my friend Dorinda calls the “left bank” . Up and down and winding around the small towns, I whizzed through forests and pastures; crossed creeks and kudzu patches and wrinkled my nose at the odiferous trails of the  ill-fated striped skunks that didn’t make it across the two-lane.  Rain had been threatening all day but nothing more than a few drops ever fell. The brooding overcast and the drive through interesting places helped me relax and to ponder the events ahead.  Public speaking is actually something that I like to do but I’m always a little nervous before a performance.  I think that’s a good thing.

I finally reached my destination; Athens, the home of the University of Georgia.  I had arrived on the invitation of my dear friend, Dorinda Dallmeyer, to deliver a lecture on African-American land ethic.  Yes, I am a birder by trade but for those of you who haven't noticed, I also happen to be a black man! Over the past few years I've begun to turn my heart and mind towards trying to understand how my people, see land and the natural resources-water, wildlife, forests-- that reside on it. As Leopold wrote of the "...state of harmony between men and land", I think it's important that we ask the question as to whether or not everyone hears the same music or dances to the same tune. And so that was the word to be delivered and the work to be done. The talk went well enough and I think the “congregation” took something good home with them.  See color; respect it and how maybe it colors our perceptions of nature beyond the expected.

Before the session though, I got to spend some time with Dorinda, Philip Juras and Bud Freeman. Dorinda heads the Environmental Ethics Program at UGA, Philip is an artist-friend and Bud is an ichthyologist and Professor in the School of Ecology. Bud  is also the Director of the Georgia Museum of Natural History. He and I seemed to hit it off instantly and I am glad to have him as a new kindred spirit.  After lunch he guided us to the museum to see some things that perhaps no one will ever see again. Some of the specimens, on loan from Ohio State University, were due to be returned soon and so I was there just in time, to see the dead things before they left.

The Georgia Museum of Natural History seems tucked away in the catacombs of UGA’s not-so-easily solved complex of academic buildings. Probably an afterthought of some administrator who begrudgingly gave some leftover space to the dead things, it deserves better.  I was even more convinced of this injustice when we walked through the door and through an ecological worm hole to enter the southern landscape somewhere around the year 1720 or so. In front of me on the walls and in glass display cases was a lost southern world. Animals and landscapes that once defined the very places I know now only as leftovers of what once was.
The walls held a dozen or so Juras masterpieces. Some the size of something that you could reasonably hang in on a den wall, a couple of others, mammoth in proportion, were best suited for the expanse of  a museum wall where the space and lighting there would do them justice. Saying that Philip Juras is an artist is a little like calling Ray Charles a singer. Philip is a restoration landscape artist; an uber-talented, gentle soul of nature who specializes in depicting how the southern landscape used to look.  Sometimes he even dons the yellow fire shirt and hardhat to paint in the midst of backfires in the piney woods.  Maybe that’s why you can almost smell the aftermath of the burns in his work, the acrid-sweet after-scent of a lightning strike hangs there somehow, frozen in brush stroke.  Close your eyes and you can hear what Philip has painted. Slow down and stand there long enough and you can smell the river churning, steely with the roe-heavy shad that used to run its unimpeded course.

 I’m constantly amazed at how his depictions of what was pull me in. It’s as if you can see beyond the paintings—beyond his colonnades of noble long-leaf pine, through his tangled jungles of rhododendron and beyond his hazy salt marsh horizons. The frames seem to hide what’s around the next corner.  There are things in his paintings that you can’t see but that you know are there. Maybe there’s an eastern cougar lurking beyond that mitered edge?  Surely shaggy-headed bison would have wallowed there—just where the shadow of the exhibit lighting highlights that gap between those frosty ridges. Perhaps the canvas is simply not “…deep enough for ivorybills” as James Kilgo mused but you know that Philip meant for them to be there.”  My mind sauntered from painting to painting, noting the amazing details of botany and lighting in one and the inexplicable expansiveness and grandeur in the next. I feel so fortunate to have Philip as a friend and am honored to have witnessed his work.

And there was indeed an ivory-bill in the room. But it did not have the privilege of living in Philip’s wishful world. It was dead.  Some curator’s sacrificial specimen mounted underneath a glass box and hitched forever to history as the largest woodpecker in North America, its tattered and fading plumage once shone brightly black and white as it haunted the bottomland forests of much of the South.  There was a study skin of a pileated woodpecker in the case next to it and the size differences were obvious.  The huge, piano-key-colored beak of the ivory-bill was a wood-rending maul compared to the pileated’s hacking hatchet.  As drawn as I was to the ivory-bill and the dusky seaside sparrow in another case though, there were two birds that kept calling me. Just as dead as the woodpeckers but somehow more animated were a Carolina parakeet and a passenger pigeon. Laid out stiffly and stretched to their anatomical limits by wooden dowels and cotton, I could somehow hear the wing beats of tens of thousands of the brownish-blue pigeons.  I imagined them overcastting the afternoon in numbers that may have made them the most abundant bird species in North America at one time.  The Carolina parakeet, though, was beyond my imagination. It suddenly possessed me.  Instead of the curator’s cotton eyes that protruded rudely through the sockets that used to hold dancing orbits of the passenger pigeon, the parakeet had parakeet eyes, glass psittacine orbits of yellow that looked back at me through the glass box.  The Conure’s eyes somehow followed me like parrot eyes will do, asking me “why?” and maybe if I could somehow release it from the Plexiglas world that encased it to fly free in the world of Philips’s bald cypress swamps and fallow fields of cocklebur the bird once inhabited.  I could see it flashing emerald and golden in small, tight flocks through the landscapes Philip wished for with oils. I could hear it shrieking sociably at roost in the hollowed-out trunk of the big-butted bald cypress in the painting of rainy old growth forest on the Altamaha.  I could see it settling in the Oconee old field --that now lies under a hydro-electric lake.  

The room where I got lost in this world that used to be was maybe thirty by thirty.  But somehow it seemed bigger than anything I’d been in.  It was an ode to what was and reminder of what we stand to lose if we don’t think more carefully and feel more deeply. In the birds gone forever, it was sadness and regret in not getting to know them outside of the glass boxes. But in Philip’s imagination and world of wishes, there was hope. Honestly, I did not want to leave a place that seemed more dream than real.  Had the animals been revived-birds calling, Altamaha Spiny Mussels burrowed  snugly in the mud, panthers prowling, wind blowing and sun slanting just so-- I would have my heaven be nothing more than this. Maybe I’ll ask Philip Juras to paint it.

To learn more about Philp Juras and his amazaing artwork, please visit his site at:


Monday, September 19, 2011

What....me read?!?

So today in my Hunting and Wildlife Management class-WFB 307-a course that I teach with a heavy dose of good old fashioned reading, writing and dialogue, I wanted the students to enjoin a discussion of hunting ethic as it pertains to a reading assignment. I wanted to talk about hunting versus killing.  The assignment was to have read about half of Leopold's classic.   We'd talk about how the classic work fit into their personal hunting ethic and something called the "North American Model". Really, I just wanted a conversation about conservation. No Powerpoint, no lecture---but something approaching dialogue and passion about why these guys are supposedly paying lots of tuition to do what they're doing. What I got was silence.  It was like a smokey shrew scurrying on cotton-soft moss. The looks of utter despair at the prospect of not only having to  read but  discuss something made almost all of them uncomfortable.  There were audible sighs and eyes rolling. After all, many of them had read the book when they were in another class of mine (I require the book in all of my courses) or another professor's course.  You mean, I might actually have to refer to something I'd already read or refer to it again?  When only a couple of the all male group raised their hands to even comment on a favorite part of the book, my inner grizzly roared out of hibernation. What?  A university student read a book?  How dare he! This is after all, only a one hour course, come on Doc!  Give us a break and the easy "A" we signed up for! The hook and bullet "Bubbas" are disappointed perhaps that I want them to think about killing in a different and yes, heartfelt way.  I constantly warn them that if we don't change the perception and negative culture of hunting, that it will disappear.  Even the prospect of losing it seems not to embolden any of them.  My inner grizzly, now fully awake and furious, began to charge full out.

A Sand County Almanac should be essential reading for everyone in a wildlife, forestry or natural resources discipline. In all honesty, at a "Cow College" like Clemson, where agriculture and natural resources are in the mission of the place, every student ought to be required to read it. But then again, "Land Grant"  has become a dirty word at institutions more tuned in to the technology of the day than taking care of the land. God forbid we leave the quest for meaningless rankings behind to do what we were built to do. But I digress--I'll save that manifesto for a future blog! 

Reading A Sand County Almanac should be an annual thing. You see, if I could, I would stand on the corner and hand out copies of the book like Gideons hand out the little green Bibles. I would leave them on the night stands of cheap hotels and offer them at deer camps. I challenge you all. Buy a cheap, dog-eared copy with no fear of soiling it. Stuff it in the hunting sack, hiking bag or tackle box. Follow it through the season, let the burnished leaves of maples fall into "Good Oak"; have an acorn punctuate "Great Possessions".  Use a well-worn,  fan-feather from that long-beard that escaped you last spring to mark the place where Aldo makes you want to be the wind.  If you must, read it aloud as you grow weary on the stand--the deer aren't ready to show themselves yet anyway. Take a minute while the migrating warblers aren't flitting about to ponder the travels of an Upland Sandpiper. Mouth the holy words silently like mantras; "Conservation is a state of harmony..." Find your heartbeat slowing to a crawl with the dim of evening light of the "Sky Dance"-- let the stress slip down the river like lumber in "Come High Water". Imagine how many winters the chickadees you see from your stand have endured.

WFB 307 is only 50 minutes once a week and so after I do a reading at the beginning of class, ask a few questions and stand on a well-worn soap box, it is time to go. The students look relieved at not having had to speak, write--or read.  They could make my job so much easier and their experience so much richer by simply opening their mouths and letting their hearts slip out. They made me force the issue. My assignment for next  week was to pick a favorite passage from the book, and for each student to expound upon its influences on them personally. They will each have to stand before the class in an antiquated ritual I love to revive--recitation.  I backed off of the original plan to have them write a poem about hunting.  God forbid, a future professional should have to think and create something from the heart. They will uncleave those tongues from their mouths in a week!

I will have the opportunity of a lifetime in a few weeks to visit Aldo Leopold's beloved Shack.   In that special month when  the red lanterns of blackberries light the way and grouse flush like feathered bombs from the briers, I will make a pilgrimage to that special place where the thoughts and words of someone I never knew shaped my life to love the land. I know that his booted footprints are long since faded from the soil and his pines are now matured to majesty.  I will take a copy of my Sand County "Bible" and like I imagine so  many others have done, read a passage or two aloud to whatever wild will listen. In that classroom of the woods, I imagine I'll get few complaints.


Friday, September 16, 2011


And so today I did something that so many of my ilk have condemned. I played a round of golf.  And so now my eco-confession, I am a golfer.  At least I try to be.  So today, as autumn tried desperately to make an early show and the clouds hid the late Summer sun for most of the day, I found my way to a place touched heavily by the human hand.  Acres and acres of bermuda grass, low-mown, bent-grass greens and ponds where ponds should not be hardly seem wild and the energy input into such a thing would not seem to bode well for wild things.

The grassy places carved out of the north Georgia piedmont were surrounded by mature forests of oak, hickory, blackgum, sourwood and dogwood.  I imagine what much of this used to be--maybe intact forest recovering from being cotton fields. And then I know what it all could be--pavement, curb to curb concrete--development that might never stand a chance to be anything near green other than a centipede lawn.  And so is the golf course a perfect place? No, it is wrought with many things that we know are not good--maybe too many chemicals, perhaps too much persnickity pampering of ornamentals that do not belong.  But then, in a world where so much is so much worse, I find good in the green--because the green makes me feel somehow better.  "A good walk spoiled" is how Mark Twain characterized the game of golf.  Maybe to some it is. And for my eco-friends who are much holier than I could ever hope to be, you may condemn me.  But today, as the Zen of an easy swing sent the little white ball arcing through a steely September afternoon to occassionally find the short grass, I was at peace.  As I watched a flock of turkeys--mostly nervous hens and silly teenage jakes, make their way from the  fake pond's edge to the abundance of acorns already dropping from the mature oaks that had been artfully left on so much of the beautiful Woodland's Course at Chateau Elan, I released just a little of the guilt.  As I listened to the chips and contact calls of songbirds making their way through the same forest, I forgave myself for the transgressions. Someone who designed this course loved trees as much as grass. The wildlife seemed to appreciate that fact.

There were way more strokes taken today than I would like to admit.  I am a golfer sometimes, a hacker most others.  But there were just enough good shots to make me come back to the peace of the place. It was a good walk joined for me. As we were leaving the day behind us, heading back to the clubhouse, a whitetail fawn grazed at the "tips"  the tee box reserved for the most skilled (and sometimes foolishly self-overrated) golfers. Still spotted, it is a late-season baby bloomer likely born in the very woods surrounding the course.  It allowed close approach, having no idea of the predator of its adult-kind  that I will soon become as I  exchange my fairway wood for a firearm. I reveled in the moment of the meeting. The little deer was safe and I was saved--at least for the day.  The golf courses I play are far from perfect and certainly not wilderness. But nature is where one finds it. My eco-conscious was clear at least for a moment.   I am sure as my imperfections in ecology, body,soul and golf game emerge again, I will need another cleansing.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fatiguing into Fall

And Summer is tiring
The dark greens almost fading to blue
Canada geese practice their V’s
For journeys across October’s harvest moon
Birdsong plays sporadically – feeble attempts
At whistles and warbles barely rate as a dawn chorus
The cicadas keep the uneven rhythm through the day
Whining hypnotically into the evening of halcyon days - 
that will gracefully yield to cooler breezes and a hint of autumn

The sun sits a little lower on the horizon with each passing day
Its rays intense but softening…
Casting a light that foreshadows shortening days.

The road shoulders sprout epaulets of gold -
Little sunflowers, goldenrod and jewelweed
Signaling the transition – to auburn leaf blush,
russet senescence and days of bulging cheeks and hoarding
for stripe-flanked chipmunks. 
And rest for the tiring summer is on the wind

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

New Season--New Same Ol' Me

And so I am back. Like migrants on the wind heading south before the chill comes, I find myself returning to the blogosphere.  And like so many of the feathered ones--warblers, vireos, tanagers (or is that grosbeaks?) and thrushes that find forested homes fragmented, my old blogging haunts were broken to be inhospitable. I hope that those who find me here again will rejoin the flock and fly with my musings.

Fall is coming and with September a break--maybe-- in the swelter.  The deer folk are beginning to feel the urge ever so slightly and a full moon is sure to carry silhouettes of winged ones across its waxing face.

I am restless too.  Ready to move, ready to run with nose to ground, ready to be out there in it all. It is a new season- and with it I am born again. New season, same ol' me!