Wild Places

“Please, remember this is a wild place.  We’re sitting on concrete, we can hear traffic in the distance, and there’s a restroom right over there, but this is still a wild place.”

When school groups come out to a Land Trust preserve, I do my best to include some version of that idea in each of the safety talks I share.  I share it because it’s true: There are animals living on the preserves that we don’t normally encounter, and I want the kids to know that and watch where they stick their hands during their time in the woods.

I love that aspect of being out on a trail, even on a not-too-far-from-the-city trail.  There are plenty of things out there alongside the trails, but they’re rarely seen.  When they are, it’s a moment that’s not easily forgotten.  

The other day I watched a pileated woodpecker fly through an open stand of pines, gorgeous with its bold black, white, and red coloring.  While they’re not uncommon, I don’t often see pileated woodpeckers, so it was a great experience and inspired just a moment of awe.

Another time, again, just recently, I was playing my flashlight’s beam across the ceiling of a small cave when it landed on a green salamander.  Perhaps even more so than the woodpecker, the salamander was an animal I don’t often see – okay, I rarely see green salamanders – so it was a moment of excitement, exhilaration, even.

A 4-inch-long amphibian can definitely elicit that sort of response in the right situation.

A fox spotted in the distance, a bobcat suddenly appearing in the frame of game camera footage, or even a green heron one comes upon unexpectedly: Nature is amazing, and even more so when it’s unexpected.

So imagine my feeling when, during a field trip the Land Trust was hosting a couple of weeks ago, one of our educators came up and announced, “Hey, we just saw a rattlesnake.”

Well, alrighty.

At my first opportunity, I just had to walk out and see if it was still there, and, indeed it was.  In fact, it obliged every single group of kids we took down that trail by spending most of the day in the same place, a sunny patch on a pile of wood that had been cut during a past trail clearing effort.

The timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, for those who wonder about that sort of thing, can be a relatively large snake, sometimes approaching five feet in length.  This friend appeared to me to be only around two feet long. Based on the bulge in the middle of its characteristically stocky body, it had recently eaten, and it was just sitting in a sunny spot on a piece of wood that had been set off the trail sometime in the last few years. (There’s a picture at the bottom of this post.)

It was beautiful, with the chevrons and brown stripe down its spine.  Though it was relaxed, probably just digesting a meal, its head maintained that blocky shape that is typical of a pit viper, and its eyes, unblinking, remained watchful.  

The snake seemed to say, “If you leave me alone, it’s all good.”

And we did.  Some 75 seventh-graders walked by our friend that day.  They looked, took pictures, displayed amazement or respect or fear (oftentimes exaggerated, as teenagers do), and then they continued down the trail, maybe just a bit more mindful of the wildness of that place. 

Timber Rattlesnake sitting on a pile of wood surrounded by green plants.


So often, it really is all about who you know.

For the past several years, a number of civic and community groups here in North Alabama have worked together to conduct an annual Festival of the Cranes.  The folks out at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, the International Crane Foundation, a few different visitors bureaus, and several other groups: They all work together to make this event happen.

The cranes?  Every winter, North Alabama is home to thousands of sandhill cranes, as well as a tiny contingent of the critically imperiled whooping cranes.  These incredible birds winter here, arriving in the late fall and heading back to the north in early spring.

Several festival events each year feature a special guest, via the International Crane Foundation.  Hope, an eight-feet-tall whooping crane created by the Jim Henson company, is always a crowd pleaser. Standing well above the heads of any crowd, she moves silently with her wings either outstretched, tucked into her sides, or flapping gently with their black tips moving in the breeze.

Because of her popularity, I was surprised to be a part of a group email from Hope’s handler/manager/coordinator a week or so before this year’s event. The reason for the email: Hope’s regular puppeteer wasn’t available, and a replacement was needed. 

“Does anyone know someone who could help?”

Being well over six feet tall myself, I knew I couldn’t do it (not to mention I don’t think the black leggings would fit me), but did I know someone who could?  Did I ever.

Flashback: One of my favorite memories of this sort of thing took place some five or six years ago when there was a Crane Festival event at the local botanical garden.  I laughed and laughed as my wife, Lisa, had the most fun following Hope as she left the room at the end of the event.  

Hope walked with her characteristic wading-bird-pick-up-your-feet walk, and Lisa followed her, lifting her feet the same way.  

Hope’s wings fluttered gracefully, and Lisa’s arms did the same.

Hope’s body moved up and down as her knees bent with each step, and Lisa’s body did the same.

All these years later, the stars aligned, everything fell into place, and I have new favorite memories of Hope.

The Details

Fungus and moss growing on a decaying stick in the woods
There is beauty in the details.

The winter forest in north Alabama is a beautiful place.  Different, but beautiful.

It’s different, I should say, from the summer forest, which, I should add, is also a beautiful place.  Beautiful, but different.

Truthfully, the winter forest when viewed from a distance is sort of monochromatic.  Lots of browns, with the occasional splash of green from a pine tree or an evergreen privet or honeysuckle bush. 

The deciduous forest has dropped its leaves, and the trees stand silent and still with nothing on their branches to catch the wind.

Ah, but the details.  The details are gorgeous if one looks closely enough. 

The mosses, tiny in stature, seem greener than green as they absorb the sunlight they’re deprived of when the trees above them are in leaf.

The mushrooms and other fungus glow orange, red, and yellow, their colors in brilliant contrast to the browns behind them.

The woodpeckers and cardinals that flit from tree to tree, their red feathers visible from a tremendous distance.

Finally, the blue sky above and the yellow-orange sun sitting low in the southern sky.

The details, indeed, are gorgeous if one looks closely enough.

Mystery Solved!

It turns out those little holes are drilled by a weevil.  An acorn weevil, specifically.  You know, those little holes in, well, acorns.  

Until recently, I didn’t know that.

The cause of those tiny openings has been a mystery to me for the longest time.  Sure, it’s been one of those mysteries that could be solved with a simple internet search, but, as is so often the case, when I’ve thought to search I’ve been away from a computer, and when I’m with a computer I don’t think to search.  Classic situation.

Anyway, I just recently came across the answer, and I wasn’t even looking for it.  The page was turned, and there it was.  The book in hand was Douglas Tallamy’s The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees.  The acorn weevil and its life cycle is addressed in “November,” the second chapter in the book. 

The acorn weevil, I learned, is a small insect with an endearingly long rostrum, nearly the length of its body, that it uses to chew a small hole in an acorn.  It then lays an egg or two in the hole, plugs the opening with dung, and moves on to the next acorn to repeat the process.  

After hatching a few days later, the weevil larva burrows into and eats from the acorn until the nut drops in the fall.  It leaves through hole in which its egg was first introduced, and burrows into the ground where it stays for a year or two before emerging as an adult to repeat the process with its own offspring.

As is the case with most insects, the weevil’s survival strategy as a species is based on quantity: Acorn weevils lay a lot of eggs in a lot of acorns.

As is the case with most trees, the oak’s survival strategy as a species is based on quantity: Oak trees produce a lot of acorns, only some of which are destined to be a weevil nursery.

A quick aside: What do bluebirds, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and a host of other backyard birds have in common?  They’re all insect eaters!  Each of these birds would love nothing more than to find a juicy caterpillar, a scurrying beetle, or – yes – a long-nosed acorn weevil crawling along a tree branch.  

These beloved birds need the acorn weevil for their own survival, so it’s a good thing there are so many of them available to meet for lunch.


I really like birds, so I have to confess I felt a pang of dismay when I went to the Internet to learn more about the acorn weevil.

Stick with me – I’m about to explain.

A search for “acorn weevil” brings up a number of sites providing information on “pest control” for the homeowner.  

Deep sigh.

You see, the thing is, the acorn weevil doesn’t harm the tree.  The acorn, yes, but not the tree.  Unless you’re one of a very few people who use acorns to make flour, it’s just not a big deal to leave the bugs alone.  

The bluejays will thank you.


I think I’ve got a blackjack oak in my back yard, but I can’t be sure.  I’ve eliminated most of what I know it’s not, reducing the number of possibilities of what it is.  I know it’s an oak, and I believe it to be a red oak.  It’s still too young for acorns, so I’m just working with the leaves as young bark isn’t much help for me.  Digging around on the Internet, it looks like my tree might be the subspecies Quercus marilandica Münchhausen, commonly found in the western portion of the species’ range.  

That portion of the area, I’ve learned, is in Texas and Oklahoma.  Seriously, don’t trees read the field guides anymore? 

It’s more likely, I know, that I’m not correct with my tentative identification, and the trees, indeed, do their research.

Anyway, the tree.  It’s growing in the furthest reaches of my back yard, and, as I said earlier, it’s just a sapling.  Standing maybe 12 feet tall, it’s growing in heavy shade, so it’s not exactly rushing to add height.  

That’s okay, I suppose, because sometimes I think I don’t actually want it to be there, and I’ll most likely cut it down sometime soon. (“Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”)

The tree is growing beside a pecan sapling that’s growing beneath a silver maple that’s growing between a cherry and the 20-year-old pecan that we actually planted.  And those are just the trees.  There’s also an assortment of shrubs and vines (mostly Chinese Privet with some poison ivy tucked in for good measure) and forbs in and around everything.

The maple and the cherry are both around 10 years old, and those two trees will eventually be cut down as well.  Probably, that is…I haven’t done it yet, but probably.  Aside from the tallest pecan, the whole assemblage is growing amongst a cluster of trees and hedges in the yards of my neighbors behind and beside my own yard.

Arboriculturally, things are a mess back there, but I kind of like the mess because I’m coming to know it.  I sometimes feel the need to clean up that area, bringing it into a state of conformity with the rest of the yard, but I’m getting to know those trees and shrubs and vines and all their herbaceous little buddies.  I know most of their names, other than my rogue oak, and am learning their behaviors and growing patterns.  I’m coming to see them as individuals, just as I see them as part of the collective.  They are good, those plants.  It is good, that space. 

My yard is far from manicured, but it looks a lot like those of my neighbors.  That space, though, tucked in near the back fence, is the exception to the expanse that I “maintain.”  That space, with those trees, with those shrubs, and with everything else is a reminder that nature isn’t far behind any of my efforts to control my little slice of the world.  

I’m sure, if they could, the trees would snicker quietly (or guffaw loudly) at my use of the word “control.”

That space lets me step, however briefly, into a more natural world.  I go, I breathe, I rest my hand on the bole of the maple or cherry, and then – with just a few paces – I step back from the mystic.  I step back to where the grass is cut at the medium setting on my mower, and I can almost feel my pupils contracting in the sunlight.    

So it stays, that space, and my tree remains a dendrological mystery for now.  As October progresses, leaves will fall and my primary clues will be gone until spring.

That’s okay.  I can wait.


“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?” 

– Aldo Leopold


The sound was like that of a heavy blanket folded over a clothesline with the winds causing it not to flutter, not to flap, but to do something more, with its weight held nearly horizontal by the gale, threatening to pull the entire assemblage from the ground.

Since the rest of, well, everything around me was still and silent, the maelstrom caused me to involuntarily move into a crouch, my head spinning toward the sound while my body prepared to move away from it.

Ten feet to my right, a great blue heron emerged from the creek that ran some 5 feet below the surrounding land.  Boxed in with a downstream bridge, the steep banks, and upstream brush, the bird had no option but to rise vertically, its great wings beating the air with a surprising amount of power.  

It rose, and whether it was aware of me I do not know, though I suspect it was.  With what I knew to be the subtlest of adjustments to just a few muscles, it banked to its right and flew into the open field that lay beyond.  In the seconds it took for me to follow it around the surrounding hedge, it was out of sight, up and over the trees that bordered the tillage. 

Until that moment, I was enjoying a quiet walk at the base of a hill in northeast Alabama.  With the excitement past, I continued on my way, blessed by those few seconds of unexpected beauty and grace.


For the other map geeks among us, I’ve shared a map and satellite view link below to show where I was. On the west side, I was just a few feet south of the bridge at the north end of the Bethel Creek Loop Trail.   If you’re ever in the neighborhood, it’s a great walk!

Land Trust Trail Map

Location on Google Maps

Haibun: Cardinal

The call is clear and pierces the silence and the soul. Loud and distinct, it leaves no doubt about the presence of the caller.  Authority and passion, precision and purity. Bold, bright messenger from the spirit world.  Dwelling in the east, it lives forever in the heart. 

Brilliant flash of red
Calling clear in the morning
Proclaiming the way

The College Experience

Sometimes – just sometimes – I wish I had The College Experience.  

As things happened, though, I didn’t.  I attended my first college class while deployed to Japan as a 20 year old Marine serving in a fighter-attack squadron.  I should put part of that last sentence in quotation marks, since I didn’t actually attend, as there weren’t actually class meetings.  Operational F-4 units are busy places, so the consensus was to just give everyone a “B” and call it good.  I sometimes wonder what macroeconomics is all about. 

Four years later I was taking night classes while stationed in Germany.  Everything was general studies, since I had no idea where I was going with my education.  

Weekend classes in Augusta, Georgia, a few years after that.  

Community college classes in Huntsville, Alabama preceded my undergraduate degree at 39 years old, earned at a university that had only a single dormitory on campus.  Everything shut down by 6:00pm, and on-campus alumni events took priority over those for students. 

My master’s degree?  Online. Go ‘Lopes!

So when I find myself being part of someone else’s College Experience, I often wonder what I missed.  That was this past weekend.  

The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) is in the middle of its “Week of Welcome,” and the Land Trust was invited to take part in one of those freshman orientation “what is there to do in our community?” events.  

It was a good event, and for two hours my partner and I hosted a steady stream of brand new college students who were interested in what we had to offer.  

(Side note: We really did have a steady crowd.  The environment and outdoor recreation, I’m happy to say, is a thing right now with young people.)

It was a neat experience, talking with folks who have interests similar to mine (our table made it clear from a distance what we are all about), but with perspectives and experiences that are different. 

My favorite part?  I had twenty students sign up for our newsletter, and all of them checked the “I want to volunteer” box.  The future is looking good!

The Cardinal

To those not in the know, one of the stranger aspects of birding is how often a bird is “seen” by its vocalizations alone.  

“Wow, you saw a pileated woodpecker?” one might be asked.

“Yeah, up at the preserve . . . it sounded close!”

“Wait.  You mean you just heard it and didn’t see it?”

“Uh, yeah.”

– awkward pause –

Recently I had the opportunity to sit in the woods for two weeks at a Land Trust preserve just outside of Huntsville.  I was administering two camps, and, among other tasks, my job was to hold down the fort, staying at the pavilion while the campers and their hosts were out on the trail. 

Oh, darn.

Staying in one place in the woods isn’t something I do often, and I’ve never done it for the better part of two days, much less two weeks.  It was wonderful, mostly because of the birds.

The first day – within the first hour, actually – I caught the briefest glimpse of three birds moving through the trees.  No sound, just movement.  Larger than a songbird, but I had no idea what they were.

It wasn’t long, though, before I heard them, well out of sight.  They were calling for food, seemingly reminding the adult birds that they weren’t quite on their own yet.  Young Cooper’s hawks, based on their size.  They had the tails and wings of an accipiter, but were larger than a sharp-shinned hawk.

Over the course of the two weeks, I was aware of them almost constantly, and eventually saw them clearly as they moved through the trees overhead.  They weren’t the only raptors I heard, though, as red-tailed hawks screamed over the nearby valley and a barred owl hooted deep in the woods.  Albeit silently, vultures rode the winds rising from the hills.

But it was a cardinal that I’ll remember for a long time.

Cardinals aren’t especially uncommon here in north Alabama.  In fact, they’re a bird I see nearly every day.  What made this cardinal special, though, was how the kids came to see him.

I do a bird activity where I’ll ask a group to stand quietly with their eyes closed.  In preparation, I’ve asked two or three of the participants to keep their eyes open, and when I point to them simply say, “Hello.”  As each person speaks, I ask the group to try to identify the speaker.

It’s not a difficult activity, and the participants usually enjoy their success as they’re able to name each of those who talk.  The point, I say, is that each of us has a different voice.  We might say similar things, but we’ve learned how to identify one another based on the qualities of our vocalizations.

It’s the same with birds, more often than not.  They have different songs, but they also have different voices that we can learn to recognize.  I didn’t do that activity during the camp as a group, but there were a few times when I talked about it with some of the kids. 

And that cardinal?  Well, he was special to me because by the end of each week there were campers who would say, “Mr. Tim, the cardinal’s back!” without the need to actually see him.  They knew his voice, and that, to me, was something to celebrate.

Two Hundred Fifty Feet


The number was written in small letters, black ink, right next to the words, “Diamond Room” on the cave map carried by the naturalist walking with us.

Whether Sandy, the geologist leading our tour, needed that reminder or not, I wasn’t sure.  It was at that moment, though, in what is called the Diamond Room, that she told us we had 250 feet of limestone above our heads.  For me, standing over six feet tall, that rock started just inches above my upturned face.

And, apparently, went upwards for the better part of a hundred yards.

Lisa and I were at, er, under, Rickwood Caverns State Park some 75 miles south of our home near Huntsville, Alabama.  We were attending a teacher workshop which, I’m sorry to say, wasn’t very well attended.  On the bright side, though, the small group allowed us to ask as many questions as we wanted, and I had a lot, though most of them were related to the surface geology, now well above us.

Alabama is an incredible state regarding its biodiversity.  While we’re in the overall top five nation-wide, we’ve got more species of just about anything related to water, and that’s largely because of our geology. 

Different geology equals different water chemistry equals different aquatic life.  I’d love to say it’s as easy as that, but that would mean I could actually wrap my head around all of it.  The ground here – now below my feet as I’m writing this – is believed to have been formed some 300 million years ago when the continents were a totally different shape, and the land that is now Alabama was some 10 degrees south of the equator instead of 35 degrees north of it.  

North Alabama’s bedrock is primarily limestone, and it’s chock-full of aquatic fossils from its time as a shallow sea floor.  To see the same fossils I’ve collected on the surface as part of the ceiling above me was incredible.  

Nature – this creation – is amazing, and I can’t wait to learn something new every time I experience it.


Coda: To be fair, it was the first weekend after school started here in the state.  If I was a classroom teacher, I wouldn’t have been there either.  

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