Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trip Report 2/18/17

Brian Dean and I are just back from a winter tour of the ‘gulfs’ of northeast Alabama. If you don’t know what a gulf is; it is a colloquial term for the deep canyons near the margins of the Cumberland Plateau where the erosion from a water course wears deep canyons.

Little River Canyon is one; there are many, many more and they are seldom visited.

And I am sure that is because they are surrounded by vertical rim-rock walls that that restrict access and when you manage to find a way in, they are incredibly difficult walking, today was all day at Town Creek Gulf on Sand Mountain and I am all worn out, as much so as any day ever on the Appalachian Trail!

Today we walked to a bluff-pillar-remnant that stands apart from the bluff proper and is one of the most unusual land-forms I have ever encountered and I have done a lot of walking.

In my youth it was accessible, even by bicycle and I visited it often; over the years it has become much less so -- -- gated houses on the bluff, hunting clubs restricting access and just generally a change in cultural norms about access to land. It used to be wide open and friendly and now it is closed and difficult.

You have to stop and ask; you can’t just go anymore.
I haven't been there in at least fifteen years, too difficult and too long a walk from points that are accessible. I wanted to go just one more time and I don’t imagine I’ll go again.

I’ve been pissed off at Alabama all weekend and at my country since November 8; the beer cans and trash discarded along the access trail, with the backwardness of Alabamians who tend to never walk anywhere and have a poor regard for aesthetics and protecting the environment with their pinched faces and defiant-obstinacy that creates so much lost human potential hereabouts.  

But I’m conflicted about that. Brian and I both noticed and commented about the sweetness and openness of all the people we met as we were pulling into driveways, knocking on door to ask permission and hailing good ole’ boys on four-wheelers to ask directions.

Everyone was open and courteous to a superlative degree and did not seem to notice or be offended by Brian’s shoulder length pigtail and by all superficial assumptions based on appearance and the disheartening statistics in this very red state, all or most of these people must have been Republicans and Trump voters.

Well what to make of that, well right off the top of my head what I make of it is that basically we are a cohesive and courteous society and the chances are pretty good that we are going to be able to live together and settle our differences, in time and without engaging in a shooting war!

Maybe that is the source of my optimism; all of my friends tell me that I seem very optimistic and it is true that I actually feel that way even as I say and feel that the reign of Trump is nothing less than a grave national emergency.

If you know me or have followed me on social-media, you know that I am very opinionated and disheartened by this national discrace and you also know that I am prone to go at Trumpster’s with invective and profanity and I don’t know that I’m going to stop!

Blame social media or put it on me as a character flaw, but like I said, I am very conflicted and offended by it and all I’m saying is that my observation is that most of the people who voted Trump are not as nasty as he is and that gives me hope!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Ordinarily On The Media is one of my favorite shows, today I cannot listen. It’s about guns and the communication gap between the haves and have-nots. I found the premise ridiculous and offensive -- -- gun lovers berating the media because they say, they don’t really know enough about guns to talk about it.  

Bob Garfield, the sharp – quick and acid moderator who gets in the face of bull-shit wasn’t there today, so maybe that’s why I don’t like it, just seemed like they totally sucked-up to some rather absurd criticism. The gun guys are saying the media guys do not understand the nature of different guns, but I would say that fundamentally they understand it really, really well.

It ain’t rocket science!

When I was growing up on Sand Mountain, in a family that had and used guns and in a culture that did the same, we called a 22 that fired each time you pulled the trigger a ’22 automatic’, nobody thought it was a god dammed machine gun; we understood the difference and didn’t quibble that, that was technically a misuse of the literal meaning of the word.

And we all knew guns!
But the gun guys are trying to make a really big deal out of it when the media guys use exactly the same terminology to describe the civilian versions of assault rifles. And I have to wonder why they would do that. Maybe it makes their dicks hard to imagine that they have certain knowledge about guns t hat civilians don’t have?

Or maybe it’s just a point they can put forward and like because it’s literally true and they can look you in the face and say it, when that’s pretty hard to do when the mantra of your club is to chant absurdities as in the lethality of the weapon has nothing to do with the casualty count, because people will kill you anyway with a knife or a baseball bat or whatever.

Anyway, I kinda’ think the journalist totally get that this is a military weapon of war that bears no comparison to guns used for hunting and is way over kill for someone who simply wants to defend his home because the rounds will go through your house and into your neighbors house and kill them as well

And the journalist have also noticed that for terrorist, mass killers and any asshole who wants to kill a lot of people fast it is the weapon of choice and beats the shit out of a shotgun, Pistol or a deer rifle or for that matter a knife or a baseball bat.

I don’t know, maybe On The Media is trying really, really hard to be fair, but I didn’t like it and I know you would probably really have to move heaven and Earth to find someone with shit for brains who could make a really good and rational defense of the more off the wall factions of gun culture, but barring that, I would suggest that you and I are not really obliged to respect a fool!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Feathered River Across The Sky

I just read, “A Feathered River Across The Sky -- -- The Passenger Pigeons Flight To Extinction”, by Joel Greenberg, a birder, author, naturalist and associate of the Chicago Field Museum who has turned a lifelong curiosity about the Passenger Pigeons into a book that will certainly rank among the definitive volumes about the wandering aviators that disappeared from the Earth before very much was even known about them.  

I have often wondered about the lost birds myself but have had no real knowledge of them, save an occasional reference in a history book or the bird’s dishonorable mention in an environmentalist rant; otherwise it has been very difficult to even imagine them.


We once lived in the Pigeon Valley of North Carolina, right under some of the highest peaks of the Appalachians; one day I was hitchhiking home from my disabled vehicle and a lady from the local historical society happened by and gave me a ride home and of course she told me all about the local history. 

She told me the valley and the river, as I had guessed, were named for the Passenger Pigeons that had once roosted there and that they had been so numerous and defenseless that all that was necessary to harvest tens of thousands of the hapless birds was to go into their roosting areas with long poles, knock them out of the trees and pick up the dead. The first settlers used the pigeons to fatten hogs, which they slaughtered, packed in barrels and shipped to the coast to sell and this is how the first white pioneers made their living in the Pigeon Valley of North Carolina. 

Even thought they had been the most numerous animals in North America at the time of the first contact, by my time they were long gone and that conversation with the historical society lady was the first time that I had an actual narrative and place to even imagine them. And years later, Mr. Greenberg’s account of what little was actually known about them has filled in a lot of blank spaces on that map.

A Perfect Storm

The Passenger Pigeon was a perfect biological storm; they were perfectly adapted to the world they lived in. Superb aviators, they were large, about one and half times the size of a dove, very handsome and colorful birds with slate blue uppers and throat & breast of rich copper glazed with purple.

As their name suggest, they were wanders ranging from Oklahoma to beyond the northern limits of the Great Lakes in search of food and places to roost and when they lit, they were like to turn the local ecosystems upside down due to their enormous numbers and appetites. There are numerous credible accounts, some from bonafide naturalist like Audubon and Bartram, of immense flocks that would block out the sun in their passing and take days to do so. 

They ate mostly mast but were opportunistic and would eat most anything that was available, including earthworms, snails, locust and ants. They were known to settle like a plague on farmer’s fields and obliterate them. When they roosted the mass of their enormous numbers would break tree limbs and the collapse would kill hundreds of their own and that along with their guano deforested vast stretches of woodlands. Their enormous numbers were their best adaptation; they were so numerous that killing all of them was all but inconceivable.

They were a subsistence crop for the Native Americans and the white pioneers and killing them in large numbers, when they roosted, was a community event and was considered a great sport and when the telegraphs came and the railroads brought in the market hunters, they became the economic lifeblood of many communities.


Passenger Pigeons and squabs, packed in barrels, and shipped to America’s growing urban centers became as common to nineteenth century city dwellers as chicken wings at the Piggly Wiggly are to us. Wherever the pigeons landed they were attacked for sport and profit by every local in the vicinity and by market hunters who were alerted by the telegraph and who shipped them out in barrels on the railroads. 

They were not only shot, but large numbers were caught in nets, lured in by decoy ‘stool-pigeons’ and large numbers of live birds were sent to ‘sportsmen’ clubs who slaughtered thousands in ‘trapshooting’ events (the predecessor of today’s clay pigeon were living Passenger Pigeons) and the numbers of creatures slaughtered in this manner is astounding -- -- Ten thousands birds being sent to their destruction in a single event was common and one event at a club in New York City took forty-thousand! 

As the slaughter continued, there were a few who started to worry about the possible expiration of the species and raised the alarm and there were some primordial game laws enacted, but they were too few and too late, so the casual slaughter continued. It went on and on, well into the 1890’s until the large pigeon roost just disappeared from the American landscape and even then few could believe that we had killed them all.  


Maybe this misconception persisted because Passenger Pigeons were still occasionally seen as individuals or in small groups and still, when they were seen, they were shot and collected as valuable and rare specimens to be sold to museums or collectors. 

The search for the pigeon’s elusive roost became a bit like the fruitless search for the legendary Prester John; rewards were offered, many false positives reported and many wild speculations vetted. It was said, they had gone to Labrador, to Mexico, to the Azores or they had flown out over the Atlantic and despairing of their torment, deliberately drowned themselves!

But they were never seen again in the wild and Martha, the captive descendant of stool-pigeons and the last living Passenger Pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914. 


Sad ending, but not quite so, there is a movement among bio-technologist and visionaries that aims to sequence the genes of surviving Passenger Pigeon specimens and use a closely related species, the Band Tailed Pigeon to incubate those genes and create a living Passenger Pigeon. Stewart Brand (creator of the Whole Earth Catalog) and his Long Now Foundation are among those who support the initiative known as Revive & Restore.  

This is absolutely achievable and many readers will almost certainly live to see a living Passenger Pigeon and perhaps even a Mammoth. Both are good choices, because of their closely related relatives that still live and because humanity perhaps owes them something as we had a hand in their extermination. 

A common argument against doing this is that their natural habitat no longer exists and in the case of a species that was so numerous that it ‘darkened the skies’ that is a real concern, at least if you intend for them to repopulate the wild. 

But this species adapted very well to captivity, which is one of the things that is so ironic about their expiration and I would like to see what stories those genes could tell expressed in living Passenger Pigeons. First thing I'd like to know is how did they come to populate our world in such unfathomable numbers?  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

On The Ferocity Of Raccoon's

 One winter evening, long ago, my father and I happened upon the alpha, granddaddy of all coons laying stunned on the highway having just been run over. 

My daddy was nobody's fool and fully understood the nature and ferocity of coons but a sixth sense, which was very strong with him, told him it would be OK to pick up that coon from the highway and take him to our home for recuperation and that is exactly what we did, wrapping Mr coon in a jacket and putting him in the backseat of that venerable ole' Plymouth Valiant. 

The next morning the coon was feeling much better and was crouching under the dash between the brake and clutch pedal and the coon would brook no conversation what ever to the effect of could you please move to a different location so that I can drive my damn car to work without worrying about being emasculated by the great granddaddy of all coons

And again my father's extra sense told him it would be OK, so he very slowly and carefully got into his car and operated the clutch and brake with that gigantic coon right between his feet. 

This went on for a couple of days and that coon was starting to put on fat from the delicacies we were feeding him and we would leave the car door open all night and he would not go. 

Finally we thought we just had to get rid of him so one evening we drove down to the Tennessee River and parked on a peninsula, opened all four doors and I climbed up on the roof and reached in and operated the horn with a stick. 

The coon lit out of there like a bat out of hell, hit the water swimming and that was the last we saw of him.

Monday, June 4, 2012

How Did The South Get Upside-Down?

I remember the Civil War centennial in 1961 as a light-hearted celebration in our mountain town of Albertville in northeast Alabama. Our father’s build a stockade downtown in front of the local hangout, Golden’s Drug Store, and any adult male caught  thereabouts without the proper period attire, a beard and a bow-tie, was good nature-dly locked up and displayed in the calaboose. This of course had no sanction under the law and anyone was free to refuse and some did.

I remember that Dr. Isabel, whose ancestors were well known to have been Unionist and was himself a rare creature thereabouts (a republican) did refuse and with a tiny bit of ill humor. He informed his peers that their nostalgia for the CSA was misplaced -- -- “Hell fellow, you don’t even know which side your ancestors fought for,’ he scoffed and he refused the invitation to the stockade.

 And he was perfectly correct;  Sand Mountain had been predominately Unionist  during the war and wasted very little of its affections on the Confederacy and even long after the war the Unionist took pains to segregate themselves from their ex-Confederate brethren.
That is the reason that even today so many rural communities share the name Union Grove and their self imposed separateness went on even into the next world, which explains the abundance of Union Cemeteries all over Sand Mountain and all over the mountain regions of the entire former Confederate states.

The upland affiliation with the Union never even remotely had anything to do with sympathy for the plight of the black man, it had everything to do with resentment for the planter class and the disproportionate distribution of economic and political power. But in the post-bellum world of reconstruction and the long struggle for civil rights, the former foes became strange attracter s because their harsh opinions of the black man were never very far apart.

On Sand Mountain people of a certain age always tell the story of the sign at the top of the mountain that said," Nigger don't let the sun set on you here!" I don't know if the story's true or just a rural legend like the mysterious black cats that are said to be seen here and there in our woods, but I do know there were, with one notable exception, exactly zero blacks living in rural areas of the mountain and only a very few of the servant class living in any town. 

 When the struggle for civil rights began in earnest, the southern democrats were not too keen and formed a rebel tribe, calling themselves the Dixiecrat s.

 Lyndon Johnson lamented that he had lost the south for the democrats for generations when the Civil Right Act was finally passed and that has been born out because the south led the white-flight from the Democratic Party and the former dixiecrat s now call themselves republicans!

 A confounding turn about because during  reconstruction and throughout most of the twentieth century the democrats were viewed as the party that worked actively to suppress the black man’s emerging rights and the republicans were viewed as the nearest thing the persecuted race had to a friend.

At the dawn of the civil rights era, for reasons that defy a simple explanation, those positions had totally flip-flopped and it was the democrats that selflessly paid the political price to get full citizenship for the black man.

That all happened more than a half-century ago and the racial vitriol that followed in the years after the centennial, at the height of the civil rights era, was anything but light-hearted.

 At least  now any negative and public demonstration on the subject of race is taboo, although there are still a few rubes around today that remind one, just a little, of the likes of Asa Carter and George Wallace.  The xenophobic undertow is unmistakable and to this day pretty much rules the political expressions of the white tribe of northeast Alabama! 

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Red Mountain Blogger

Tennessee River & Cumberland Plateau

Call me Tom. This blog is about many things, but you might say that its cornerstone divides an angle in northeast Alabama where the Tennessee River, flowing southward from the Blue Ridge and hard against Sand Mountain, abruptly turns north and cuts its way through the Cumberland Plateau.

That’s where I grew up and I was born to be a lover of landforms! Most of the remembered dreams from my childhood, save the usual night-mares, were of landscapes. Those dream-scapes very much resembled the bouldered gorges on the margins of Sand Mountain that have been scoured out by oft flooded creeks that drain into the Tennessee. My earliest walks into these gulfs, as our local place names call them, as in Coon Gulf and Pisgah Gulf were with my father.

Twin Rivers: Paint Rock and Flint

Why the Tennessee left the gently sloping Sequatchie Valley and went-at the Cumberland Mountains is a mystery for which I have yet to hear a comprehensible explanation, but that is the way of things with geology or at least with the geologist!

 The landscape through the cut is characterized by the land-form that is emblematic of the entire Cumberland Mountain region. Grant; Lewis; Bishop; Merrill and Keel Mountains are flat-topped mesas surrounded at their highest elevation, like a crown of thorns, with high rim-rock bluffs formed in the sandstone.  Under the sandstone cap-rock is limestone which is honeycombed by an extensive network of caves, sinkholes, waterfalls and streams that appear and disappear. Eastern red cedar loves this karst terrain and for me is the most noble and characteristic tree of the region.

These mountains are dissected into a patch-work quilt of differing terrains by the twin rivers Paint Rock and Flint. The alluvial fields are first-rate farming country; my mother’s people, gentle farmer folks, the Butlers have lived on and worked their land at the base of Keel Mountain, where the twins are so close that they almost touch, since the end of the Civil War. 

Sprawl, urbanization and climate-change is closing in on Maple Shade Farm and making life a little difficult for these hard working and admirable people and how they are coping is something I would like to write about.  

Cave Springs and Dinner On The Grounds

 When I was very young my family used to attend the May Meeting and take dinner on the grounds at the primitive Baptist church, just down Cherry Tree Road from he farm. After dinner we would hunt for fossils and try to swim and pick out polliwogs in the much too cold waters flowing from the cave at Bethel Springs. That was my first time to be really out in the woods.

My father was attracted to this country, not only because of his affinity for the natural world or because what he really, really wanted to do in the world was be a farmer, but because he was an artifact hunter and the plowed fields by the rivers and the bluff-shelters in the mountains, full of the artifacts of Paleo-Archaic-Indians, were irresistible to him. Finding and exploring those places was his passion and I was his apprentice.

 In that more innocent time people weren’t so touchy! You could still do that; you could actually go out into that country, walk the plowed fields, pick up arrowheads, put them in your pocket and walk off with them and nobody seemed to notice or even care. We did that a lot; we wore that place out.

Much, much later after I became a backpacker and a caver, I would become aware of the Skyline Mountains which is the source of the both rivers. Those are not even the highest mountains around, but their remoteness, the prevalence of limestone and karst-topography gives them a rugged character and biodiversity that makes them, for me, the most noble and formidable of mountains!

A Sentimental Attachment 

Well that’s a brief tour, a sentimental journey if you will! The issue of place is a big deal for me and the beauty of landforms in this little corner of the vast Appalachian Mountains, along with its connectivity to the larger region with its human-history, natural history, geology and biodiversity, will be a common subject in my future post.

 This blog will be an advocate for the responsible use of natural resources and the preservation of non-game species and biodiversity, especially those on public land and most especially in Lake Guntersville State Park.

A part of it will be a memoir of growing up in that legend-ed place called Sand Mountain and my father and how the wide-world looks to an aging man from northeast Alabama and how it looked to a younger man way back in the day! That’s a lot I know, but give me some latitude and I’ll connect all those dots.

In ‘The Geography of Nowhere’ author James Howard Kunstler after bemoaning the careless destruction of the American  landscape and using some exuberant prose to describe himself as always having been ‘unusually sensitive to the issue of place,’ almost apologizes by saying, “The sentimental view of anything is apt to be ridiculous".

When it comes to the issue of place, I am such-a-one and I too am apt to be sentimental. But I would rather not be seen to be ridiculous, so I promise to at least try and keep it between the ditches!
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