Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Red Panda Unveiled

This is the skeleton (actually casts of the very fragile bones that are being preserved in climate-controlled units) of the red panda whose unveiling today at the East Tennessee State University Natural History Museum and Fossil Site coincided with the Museum's one-year anniversary. Skeptics thought the Museum would be lucky to attract 25,000 visitors in its first year. But in its first 12 months, over 115,000 people have passed through its doors.

If only these visitors could have seen this cute panda "in the flesh." One can only imagine what the numbers would have been.

The museum has also played host to two exhibits: "A T-Rex Named Sue" (which displayed a complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex) and the present exhibit:

The title of the exhibit certainly gets your attention.
Once inside the hall, you will see a series of displays--some humorous, some interactive, but all are informative, and some are really eye-opening.

There are displays entitled "Test Your #2 IQ," "Pies in the Skies," and "Poop Tarts," which describes the relationship between aphids and ants. The ants protect the aphids from predators like ladybugs, wasps, and spiders because the aphids poop a sugary syrup that ants love to eat.

By weighing yourself, you can learn how long it would take an 11,000-pound African elephant to produce your weight in poop. (Eleven hours in my case.) Or you can participate in a race in which your dung beetle must push a ball of dung up a hill faster than the beetle next to you.

A couple of the most interesting "I-never-knew-that" displays were "Buffalo Chip Courtship" and "Exploding Camel Dung." In the former display, a film clip showed the male sarus crane picking up pieces of buffalo dung and throwing it into the air to impress the female. (Fill in your own comment here.)

But I was drawn to the "Exploding Camel Dung" display. Quoting from the display: "During World War II, the British enlisted a stage magician, Jasper Maskelyne, to slow down the German army in North Africa. He and his “magic gang” disguised explosives as camel poop knowing that German tank drivers thought it was good luck to drive over dung piles. The Germans quickly learned to avoid fresh dung so the war magician began creating bombs to mimic dung that had already been run over."

Finally, in the category of making lemonade when life gives you lemons are the ideas in the photo below. Good to the last dropping--The most expensive coffee in the world ($175/pound) comes from the droppings of the palm civet in Indonesia. The mammal eats the coffee berries, digests the soft part of the berries, and passes the beans in its droppings. The beans are collected, cleaned, and roasted.

Dung Heads--A staff member of the Kansas City zoo makes these colorful figure heads (upper right and lower right in the photo) by painting faces on elephant dung.

Pachyderm Paper--Wild elephants roam Sri Lanka and are sometimes killed by farmers when they destroy crops. Mr. Ellie Pooh, a U.S.-based company, makes paper products from the elephant poop. They hope that the proceeds from the sale of this paper will compensate farmers for their losses, thus making it more profitable to halt the killing of the elephants.

Pretty powerful stuff--poop.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Quilts on Barns

As we left the RV with brochures, cameras, and a thermos for a day of sightseeing, we were approached by a fellow with a television video camera. “Would you mind taking all your materials and going back to the RV so I can film you leaving for the day?” asked the cameraman.
We did not mind and retraced our steps so that we could “leave” again. After the 15 seconds of taping, we learned that he was from Channel 5 in Bristol. “You may be on the news tonight,” he noted. In fact, we were.
Let’s see, we made the newspaper while camped at our first site (see 7/1 and 7/18 entries) and television while at our second site. Could film be next?

We were off to visit Tennessee's oldest business, the Dungan-St. John Milling Company. The mill of today bears little resemblance to the mill built in 1778 by Jeremiah Dungan.

The original 16-foot high, wooden, overshot, water wheel was shut down and the mill store was extended out over the wheel in the late 1960’s. All the grinding mechanisms were dismantled when federal agencies ruled against further grinding of grains.

“I have to compete against six Wal-Marts that surround me,” said Ron Dawson, the present owner. “So, I sell anything made by local folks that Wal-Mart can’t carry,” he continued. Instead of grinding wheat and corn, the mill now sells locally produced honey, jams, sauces, as well as quilts--all made by local residents--and products to meet the needs of the rural residents--feed, seeds, and saddles.

As if to drive home the point of the challenge he is facing, he showed us a coin trick in which he changed a nickel into a fifty-cent piece.

While the big guys keep their eyes on the half dollar, he has to keep revising his business to make the nickels. We think he has the right idea, so we purchased some of those local food products.

As we left the Mill, we noticed the quilt on the barn across the road. We had learned about the Quilt Trail, and had gathered information about the locations of these barn quilts.

The Quilt Trail is a project of the Appalachian Resource Conservation & Development Council, which consists of a growing number of heirloom quilt patterns permanently displayed on barns in the form of painted murals. These quilt murals are sparsely located throughout the farmlands of the surrounding counties.

Barn quilts are large, colorful wooden blocks. Most are 8-foot square. Later that afternoon, we found two more quilts.

We thought these were really attractive additions to the barns and the countryside. The little reading that we've done indicates that people select these, often historic, patterns for a special reason and apply to be included on the Tour.

I don't know the origin of the idea, but farms in Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois, and West Virginia are at least some of the states that have adopted this beautiful custom.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Day in 1791

The year was 1791.

We stopped to visit the William Cobb family in Rocky Mount in the Southwest Territory. Governor William Blount, appointed Territorial Governor by George Washington, was staying with the Cobb family. Since the Governor was living and working here, Rocky Mount became the first Capitol of the Southwest Territory.

When we were met at the door, I mentioned that I was from Philadelphia and was working for The Pennsylvania Gazette. I asked to take some photographs to accompany an article about Governor Blount. Neither the Cobb family nor Governor Blount was available, so Mrs. Cobb’s sister was unable to grant permission for photographs. Even after dropping Ben Franklin’s name, I was unable to obtain photographs of the Governor’s office.

(I had used Ben’s name because the area now known as the Southwest Territory had, from 1784-1789, been known as the State of Franklin, in honor of Ben Franklin, when it had seceded from North Carolina because the members of the Watauga Association did not believe their taxes paid to North Carolina were benefitting them. In the Battle of Franklin, North Carolina regained the area and then ceded it to the federal government to pay for its portion of the War costs. The Territory would later become part of the state of Tennessee. But I digress.)

The Cobbs were a relatively wealthy family, with a two-story home and a large barn as the main buildings.

I am not sure whether Mr. Cobb would acknowledge the strain that the presence of the Governor and his frequent visitors had on the financial and personal life of the family, but I am sure these factors weighed heavily on Mrs. Cobb and the children.

The kitchen, shown in the photograph above (rear view)and to the right (front door), seemed to be constant use during the Governor's presence. The Cobbs received no governmnet allowance or personal funds from Mr. Blount to pay for his food and supplies.

The Cobbs were able to have a separate building (foreground in the photo on the left) for spinning wool and weaving articles of clothing. The slaves' quarters are in the building in the background.

It was a nice visit, but I didn't get my indoor photographs.

[Rocky Mount, located in Piney Flats, TN, is the oldest original territorial capitol still standing in the United States.]

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Lunch Counter Theater

"It takes two of you to carry this one little bag?" asked the Captain of the Counter as she handed a take-out order to two young men.
"Well, we're busy today," came the workers' feeble answer.
"If you were busy, one of you wouldn't be here," came the quick answer.

Meet Jackie Tipton. She can fire off retorts from behind the lunch counter at Broadwater Drugs faster than she can . . . well, than anything. A sign behind the counter reads: "I have two speeds. If you don't like this one, you really don't want to see the other one."

"Would you like some more iced tea?" she asked me.
"Yes, please," I answered.
"Just wait," I was told.

If you fidget at the register, you will receive a stare of admonition. So, seeing state troopers waiting patiently at the register to pay for their meal was of no surprise to the regulars at the counter. Jackie plays no favorites.

"Where have you been?" asked Jackie of one of the troopers. "Are you afraid of me?" she continued without waiting for a reply. "If you come in more often, I wouldn't yell at you," she said without smiling.
She then switched the conversation's tone to express her sympathies to the trooper about his father's death.

"Jackie, I can't make this hot dog order. We're out of buns," said the cook at the grill.
"He can eat it on bread. It won't hurt him," came Jackie's response, relating to my hot dog order.
Upon hearing that response, one of the customers got up and walked across the street to the dollar store. He returned quickly with a package of hot dog buns before the hot dog was off the grill.
Talk about customer loyalty.

"Is this your first time here?" Jackie asked Kate.
"Yes, it is," was the answer.
"It'll be your last," Jackie responded.
"She makes a great burger," interjected a customer behind Kate, waiting to pay her bill.
"And we get all this free entertainment," was Kate's Jackie-quick retort.
And a slight smile crossed Jackie's face. It was quick, but Kate got Jackie to smile.

We have visited cities that have revitalized their downtown district with a theater as the focus of the effort. Gate City, VA, is a town that has its own "theater" in this ordinary drug store.

The theater's star announced to a customer, "I'll be 65 on Sunday."
"Are you going to retire?" asked Kate, fully aware of the unlikelihood of this occurring.
"I wouldn't give them the satisfaction," quipped Jackie, much to the delight of the few remaining people at the counter.

The marquee (in the first photo) should read: "Broadwater Drugs, starrring Jackie Tipton."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Touring the First Planned City

So, we're sitting in a hotel in Fairbanks, Alaska, talking about our plans to travel the Crooked Road when we hear another person say, "I know the Crooked Road."

This began a conversation with Betty McLain that wove among the activities of a nine-day Elderhostel program last November. We learned that Betty is from Kingsport, TN, and we received several suggestions about things to do when we reach the Bristol, TN/VA-Kingsport, TN portion of our Crooked Road travels.

We made it a point to get together with Betty (left, in the photo) as soon as I was healthy. After watching hummingbirds feed and play in her beautiful, wooded back yard and benefitting from Betty's Southern Hospitality in her warm, comfortable home, we toured the historic portions of Kingsport.

Known as the "Model City," "Kingsport (with its unique layout of areas for commerce, churches, housing, and industry) was the first professionally planned and privately financed city in twentieth-century America" (Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture). The main street through the downtown shopping district leads from the old train station (right) directly to a round-about known as Church Circle with its "spoke and wheel" street pattern. Here, four large, brick churches with beautiful white steeples line the circle. Two of them are pictured below (First Baptist, left; First Presbyterian, right; not shown are the Broad Street Methodist and the First Methodist churches).

In the four blocks between the two cornerstones of the district are restored and renovated stores, from antique shops to up-scale restaurants.

The blocks have combined restored buildings with sculptures at each intersection. Here the State Theater, which is in the early stages of restoration, is shown with a work of Hanna Jubran entitled "The Four Elements." Combined with the trees that line the wide street, the result is a very pleasant setting that makes one want to linger in the area.

While I lingered, I noticed the artwork on the buildings along this stretch. The small touches, such as the figure on the top of the Progress Building and the colorful designs in the brick storefronts, become significant additions to the beauty below.

Similarly, the logo shown at the right stood out even with its subtle tones of gray because of the peaceful settng below.

The banners hanging from the buildings state "Downtown Synergy;" the work occurring below the banners fulfills that message.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Discovering The Red Panda

As we turned the corner to enter the permanent display room of the Gray Fossil Site and Museum, we were greeted with the scene below:

WOW! What a powerful presentation of the saber-toothed cat. The lighting, the terrain, and the positioning of the skeleton gave us the impression of a living animal in its native environment. Whether I focused on the teeth of the cat or the size of its paws, I saw a truly menacing animal.

Near the cat was the skeleton of the tapir. This animal is related to horses and rhinos.

The rhino (left) is one of five that have been found at the Site. If the only finds were the skeletons of these three species, the Site and Museum would be worth a visit to see some animals that roamed the area during the Pleistocene Age, some 15,000 to 30,000 years ago.

But it is the skeleton of the alligator (left) that threw this assessment off by five million years. This meant that this skeleton was from the Miocene Age (5-7.5 million years ago). With this discovery, the Gray Fossil Site caught the attention of paleontologists around the world.

The Fossil Site is under the direction of the faculty in the Geology Department at East Tennessee State University in nearby Johnson City. With these discoveries, the size of the faculty increased significantly (from a total of one), and the department now has 20 graduate students in its masters' degree program. In addition, funding for the construction of the Museum was obtained, and therein lies an additional find of monumental importance.

Some background information: In May of 2000, highway construction was halted on what was to become the Gray Fossil Site when the crew noticed some black dirt that was very wet. The photo below shows how far down the grading had progressed from the top of the hill in the right of the photo. They soon found a rhino head in that black ooze, and construction was halted permanently.

In the course of constructing the Museum, large earth-moving equipment was brought in to make fast work of digging the foundation. In the photo below, you will see some piles of gray dirt. This dirt came from the digging of the foundation.

Just about exactly one year ago, one of the geologists started to sift through one of the piles. What he found was 60% of a skeleton of a new species, the red panda. The official unveiling of the skeleton of the red panda will be this Friday. It's on our calendar.

Our tour guide, Scott Evans, noted that two new species have been discovered here already and hinted that another two or three new species may be added to that list very soon. Discovering one new species is a paleontologist's dream, so you can imagine the excitement around this site.

Even to us as visitors, this seemed like pretty exciting stuff.

The tour took us past the lab. In this first photo, there is a large clump of bones (labeled "Rhino skull") that has been carried into the lab in a plaster basket.

The two people in this photo are volunteers who will spend many hours identifying and cleaning bones, fossils, pieces of wood, and other items. The is an extensive period of training to earn one of these highly-valued volunteer positions.

Estimates are that on this simple five-acre site, there is enough work for volunteers and faculty members to extend into the next century.

But, we left thinking what treasures may have been carted away in the early highway construction (no one knows where the dirt was taken) and what might be located under the Eastern Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum, Gray Fossil Site, in Gray, Tennessee.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Just Off the Parkway

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway through the section from Linville Falls, NC to near Boone, NC presented us with grand vistas, but there were also opportunities to stop and find some of the smaller sights.

We stopped near Price Lake and were enjoying the solitude of the lake when a kayak quickly came into view from behind several bushes. The oarsman was soon out of close-up range, but seen from a distance, the kayaker seemed to fit the serenity of the scene more appropriately. The setting was certainly meant to be accompanied with oars rather than motors.

Later, as we walked along the trail to photograph the Linn Cove Viaduct (see yesterday's entry), we had time to look down at the composition of the vegetation as well as up to the structure of the Viaduct. We found this one blue-purple flower in a sea of yellow, red, and green.

I regret not knowing the names of these flowers, but at the time I was more concerned with the contrast of the colorful patch with the grayness of the highway watching over it. (I think the yellow flower is the whorled-leaf coreopsis.)

I found myself thinking "How many people have passed by these flowers and wanted to pick them, but resisted?" It looks as though the answer would be "Many."

Finally, as I look at these "lonely" rocks, I hope that the folks here get the rain they need.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"The Missing Link" of the Parkway

Over the past couple of months, we have made a number of short trips on portions of the Blue Ridge Parkway which runs 469 miles from Rockfish Gap, near Waynesboro, VA southward to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina. Today we traveled about 30 miles of the Parkway between a point below Linville Falls, NC north to the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, near Boone, NC.

I thought I would just present some of the photos of the scenes that we saw today without precise location. In some instances, the overlooks have foliage that has grown over the years to block the original vistas. More often the beautiful views are reduced to brief glimpses while traveling the Parkway.

One of the most scenic overlooks was at Altapass. The next two photos show the view from the Parkway overlooking the Orchards at Altapass

At Linville Falls Visitor Center we took a short hike on one of the trails and stopped by one of the rivers running through the mountains.

It was quite clear that the lack of rain in the area was having an adverse impact on the rivers.

We had lunch at a table near a river where other travelers were having lunch. The kids shown here could almost walk across this river on the rocks exposed due to the lack of rain.

All but 7.5 miles of the 469 miles of the Parkway were completed between 1935 and 1967. Then began a 20-year period of controversy, centering on how to construct the "missing link," the 1,243-foot section of the Parkway that was to become known as the Linn Cove Viaduct, "the most complicated concrete bridge ever built."

In order to construct this section of the roadway without destroying a portion of the mountain, the Viaduct was built from the top down. That is, "the Viaduct itself was the only access road for constuction. Each pre-cast section was lowered by a stiff-leg crane and epoxied into positon against the preceding segment. Steel cables threaded through the segments secured the entire bridge deck" of the sweeping "S" curve that snakes around Linn Cove. Only one (the southernmost) of the 153 segments that make up the 1,243-foot curve is straight (from Building the Viaduct, NPS).

You will see "bird's-eye-view" photos of the Viaduct on virtually any printed information about the Parkway. I thought you might like to see what it looks like from underneath.
It's a quick, easy quarter-mile drive, but it's an exciting one--the road seems to float in mid-air.