Apple on the old farm in Meadows of Dan, Virginia.

Tree climbing is standard issue entertainment for rural kids. I was fairly chicken-edgy about heights myself, never once making it to the top tier of the schoolyard monkey bars, watching from several levels below as classmates leapt and twirled up there like a pack of gibbons. To this day, even a moderately high precipice still brings the quease. I could have rocked every challenge for that $50,000 prize on Fear Factor, except for heights.

Still, there was one tree behind the corn crib on the Blue Ridge home place that I spent hours in. It had a nice, accessible fork…


Cover of “Flattened Fauna.”

Welcome to my new, episodic series on great moments in biology. Let me be clear, these are not Great Moments in the sense of Biology, but personal great moments in my own experience. As such, they are necessarily biased, and anecdotal. Think of this series as a story of personal growth, visible only in retrospect, with the ripeness of time. These are filtered reflections, emerging now partly due to a surfeit of time, pandemic and sabbatical release. Don’t expect any great revelations here yourself if you’re a scientist or teacher. Most of you already know this stuff at some level…


Common Serviceberry tree in bloom, Wikimedia Commons, by Fritzflohrreynolds — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Recent popular culture has given currency to the phrase, “winter is coming.” My progressive migration southward over the last four decades has rendered that adage nearly toothless, on top of the warming trends of climate change.

Winter was harsh reality growing up on the Blue Ridge escarpment in southwest Virginia. Minnesotans or upstate New Yorkers may still find that assessment laughable; relativity in all things. But crisp memories remain of routine sub-freezing and even sub-zero Fahrenheit conditions (below minus 18 Celsius), lasting days or weeks. Snows were serious business too, with windy conditions whipping up drifts measured in feet, not…


Objections to the year 2020, including the passing of eminent persons, have become social media feedstock. Future retrospectives will likely reveal little difference in the death rate of notables. Ordinary people continue to depart without widespread notice, mourned only by friends and family. Many of them are dying before their “natural” time during a global pandemic.

I am compelled to write this memorial as homage to someone lesser known, but still loved. It’s about another “ordinary” passing, but extraordinary for its details.

Aunt Zettie Martin died at age 87 on Monday, October 26, after just over seven months in a…


View looking north from the Blue Ridge Escarpment, Patrick County, Virginia

Last week I journeyed home to Appalachia, looking for a wildlife spectacle that first captured my imagination in 1969: The emergence of Brood IX periodical cicadas. There are both 13- and 17-year species in the genus Magicicada. They emerge from underground, en masse, on these periodic long cycles, and are often referred to locally as “locusts” due to their biblical plague-like numbers. Locusts that devastate crops in many areas of the world are actually grasshoppers (order Orthoptera), not cicadas (order Hemiptera).

Cicadas feed on plant sap, and although their sheer numbers may damage plant tissues, they don’t kill the forest…


Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toolbox-vintage-werkzeugkiste-alt-02.jpg Attribution: Ctsu / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

What good is being a skeptic, unless you’re willing to poop a few parties?

Being an old school naturalist brings me lots of “What is this thing?” photos. Many are photographs of backyard bugs, plants, or snakes. I also come across forwarded creature clickbait by the boatload on social media. Look! Over there! It’s a [insert creature or object], photographed in [insert location].

Sometimes these photos are truly unbelievable, such as blurry photos of timeworn cryptozoological classics like Bigfoot and Nessie. Others are photos of actual, documented living species, tagged with locations outside the known range. …


Spending time alone outdoors has long been the norm for me, from childhood until today. As a kid growing up in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, I spent hours upon hours, days upon days, weeks, and months, lying on my stomach, staring down at squirming eastern newts, bluegill sunfish, and whirligig beetles in our farm pond; or at water striders, crayfish, and brook trout cruising the clear, spring-fed creeks. …


Inside the brewery at Antidoot — Wilde Fermenten.

What does it mean to be an artisan? What exactly are craft, artisanal, and heritage foods and beverages, and why have they seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years? What exactly do the words “artisanal” and “craft” mean as modifiers?

At the most basic level, these terms describe the pursuit of traditional, usually older food and beverage styles, as opposed to the mass-produced, profit-focused, standardized commodities of the industrial age. They typically also reflect creations that vary by region, locality, terroir and culture. …


Calypso orchid. (Bureau of Land Management [Public domain]: https://bit.ly/36hkNFX ). Will this photo suffice, or would you rather encounter the real thing in a bog?

This is my second essay in a short series about technology, another stab at promoting nuance and critical thinking. My target is the not-infrequent claim that new technologies are always, or mostly, good. Or, at least, that the benefits far outweigh the costs, so we can consider the costs negligible.

I’d like to make a case that something akin to “full cost accounting,” as used in sustainability analysis, can also be helpful in evaluating technological advances, even if only in a qualitative sense.

I’m urging nuance and discrimination. Let’s consider both the good and the bad.

The use of the…


Image from a 15th century book of hours showing believed relations between the Western zodiacal signs and areas of the body. By Limbourg brothers — Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108849

These kids today, I swear!

OK, boomer!

I am constantly reminded that technological advancements are mostly good, or at least benign. After all, old farts have predicted the downfall of young people after the appearance of new every new information technology (schoolroom slates, the printing press, radio, television, the Innerwebs, etc. etc.), since time immemorial. In a recent example, we have a repost of “The Credible Hulk’s” online post, from “a principal’s publication, 1815”, which states the following:

Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over…

Travis Knowles

Writing about natural history, biodiversity, skepticism, southern Appalachian language and culture. Opinions expressed here are solely my own.

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