Category Archives: Outdoors and Nature

Stonehenge: Archeological Myths and Truths

Stonehenge is on my bucket list to visit one day. Until then, I had the opportunity to dig in to some of its history for my anthropology class research paper. I received an A, so here it is in all its APA glory. Enjoy!

            The ancient ring at Stonehenge has baffled historians, researchers, and archeologists for centuries. While it is not the only stone ring found in Britain, it is the most famous and most intact of the mysterious neolithic structures (Pearson, 2021). Archeologists have no definitive consensus on how the structure was built, but they have come to agree that Stonehenge was likely used as a central gathering point for worship, offering a comparison of the concentric stone circle simply being a form of neolithic outdoor church. However, not all accept such a basic approach. Many modern theorists speculate that it was a primitive calendar, star chart, or a sacrificial site built as part of a druidic or Roman temple. Archeological excavation beginning in the 1950s has proven the formation predates both druids and Romans in England (Stonehenge, n.d.). Those cultures may have used it or improved upon it, but they did not build it. There is some evidence backing the calendar and star chart theories, yet the timeline of construction proves that was not its original purpose for being built.

Stonehenge today is not what it looked like when first built.

            Excavations at Stonehenge have revealed artifacts proving multicultural and multi-use purposes over long periods. These finds prove that Stonehenge may have been built for a specific reason—which remains a mystery—but was utilized for many different purposes based on which culture controlled the landscape in its over-five-thousand-year history. The site underwent three distinct phases of construction spread over 2,000 years beginning in 3100BC. Sometimes the site was not utilized for anything, with archeological evidence showing the site was built, abandoned, reclaimed, and rebuilt multiple times (Stonehenge, n.d.). This continuous restructuring and reuse by multiple peoples and cultures shows an interconnected web of relationships to this complex structure that are similar, though not necessarily related.

            Many legends surround the stones concerning origin, purpose, transportation, alignment, magical creatures such as elves, trolls, giants, and even aliens. The application of fantasy to the unexplainable was a result of a limited frame of reference for early archeologists. Anything that could not be interpreted as biblical truth was assigned a supernatural origin (Wolcott Paskey and Beasley Cisneros, 2020). While the legends are mostly fantastical in nature, some of them may contain grains of truth that are not yet understood. Modern researchers and archeologists are suspending the obvious disbelief of such stories and examining these fanciful origins to extract the reality behind them with some success. While the mysticism of Stonehenge conjures unbelievable feats of magic and fantasy, the evidence shows that the stone circle was not created by magic. It was built by early humans devoted to their cause in three distinct phases over two thousand years, and possibly a reconstruction of an earlier monument called Waun Mawn.

Waun Mawn in western Wales, a possible earlier predecessor to Stonehenge. (Photography by A. Stanford)
Waun Mawn in western Wales, a possible earlier predecessor to Stonehenge. (Photography by A. Stanford)

Stonehenge Phase One: An Early Cemetery

An early-period grave discovered at the Stonehenge site.

The first phase of Stonehenge’s construction began with a circular twenty-foot-wide ditch and chalky berm flanked by two large barrows and a standing stone entry. The ditches were dug by hand with tools made of stone and antler by native neolithic peoples about 3100 BCE prior to the arrival of the Beaker peoples (Stonehenge, n.d.). The perimeter was ringed with fifty-six holes, called the Aubrey Holes, that went unused and refilled naturally with silt. Early scientific excavation strictly focused on human remains, grave goods, and typographical classification of monuments (Pearson, 2021). Since early neolithic inhabitants of Britain cremated their dead, little biological evidence remains to prove the holes were intended for graves. Though many remains were found, the discoveries were inconclusive on the intent of the Aubrey Holes. Prevailing theory states they were intended for erecting the first standing stones of the monument, but the effort remained incomplete. After five hundred years of use as an early cemetery, the entire Stonehenge site was abandoned and reclaimed by nature. The reason for abandonment is unknown, though some stone features remained intact afterward. One of the two ‘Slaughter Stones’ marking the entrance, the ‘Heel Stone,’ and two of the four ‘Station Stones’ within the circle is still standing (Stonehenge, n.d.).  

The Slaughter Stone

The ‘Station Stones’ appear to also be aligned with lunar cycles and sunrises, possibly marking times for harvests or seasons and lending to a theory that Stonehenge could have been intended as an agrarian monument before becoming a cemetery (Introductory Astronomy: Stonehenge, n.d.). Archeological excavations due to a highway tunneling project revealed not only graves, but further evidence of agrarian uses around the site as well. The discovery of Late Bronze Age pottery shards, hazelnut fragments, cereal grain husks like barley, and wheat with some hulled varieties with evident preservation is proof of the site being used for purposes other than funeral ritual. The 2018 excavation of the Winterbourne barrow ditches by Wessex Archeology on the Stonehenge site also revealed multiple neolithic pottery shards, worked flint, cattle bones, deer antler, and a stone axe (Roberts et al, 2018). The infamous bluestones and triliths seen today would come much later.

Stonehenge Phase Two: The Myth of Magic

The second phase of Stonehenge is the most active and hardest to explain because the landscape of Britain during this time is extremely complex. Beginning around 2100 BCE, the Bell Beaker peoples migrated into areas not occupied by the original Neolithic peoples who built phase one and lived side by side with them. This blending of migrating cultures heralded the beginning of Britain’s bronze age. While the two cultures shared ideas and culture, it is likely the Beaker peoples resurrected the Stonehenge site with further ideas of burial ritual relevance of the site up to and including a limited understanding of astronomical marking (Pearson et al, 2019). The decision to create artificial sacred places was an early indication of the ability of humanity to transcend its environment (Devereaux, 2000, 119). Stonehenge is surrounded by other neolithic sites that the Beaker peoples adopted into their own culture of belief systems and used them for ritual burials, even though they were unrelated biologically or culturally to the original builders of Stonehenge. (Pearson et al, 2019). During this time is when the first bluestones arrived, and the legends began.

A bluestone of Stonehenge

Arthurian legend tells of an ambitious plot to capture sacred healing bluestones from a stone circle in Ireland. Briton King Aurelius Ambrosius desired a monument for the murder of over four hundred British nobles at Mount Ambrius (modern Amesbury) by Saxon assassins. His advisor Merlin suggested these magical stones should be erected as a monument to the dead at their burial place on Ambrius (Coghlan, 1994, 225). Ambrosius sent his brother, Uther, and Merlin at the head of a vast army to bring the stones back to England, which according to Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, they do. In Geoffrey’s history, Uther was the father of the mythical King Arthur. To explain the logistics of moving monoliths weighing over five tons, Geoffrey escapes the difficult engineering question by asserting Merlin simply used magic to move them over water.

An illuminated 14th century text depicting the wizard Merlin

Two facts give a breath of truth to the bluestone origin legend. First, that due to the large amount of actual human remains discovered on the Stonehenge site, perhaps some massacre did occur there, and this site could be their monument. Second, the bluestones were hewn from a quarry at the Perseli Mountains in southern Wales. The Irish kings controlled parts of southern Wales where the Perseli Mountains are located causing Wales to possibly be considered part of Ireland at that time (Pearson, 2021). These facts blur the lines of Geoffrey’s tale to determine if his story was a work of pure imagination or based in any historical truth. In either case, his timeline depicts Stonehenge being built around 400 CE when there is overwhelming proof against that date, further diminishing his historical credibility.

In this second phase, the structures known today began to take shape. The addition of two concentric circles of standing bluestones came about but was left incomplete. Also, the entrance, now called ‘The Avenue’ was widened and fitted with additional stones that aligned with the summer solstice sunrise, showing a more advanced understanding of marking time by the builders (Stonehenge, n.d.). This period is also when the myth of healing properties within the bluestones becomes prevalent in historical record. This evidence is linked to the discovery in 2008 of burials near the site with unusual injuries. A Bell Beaker grave known as the ‘Amesbury Archer’ with a jaw abscess and severely damaged kneecap was found, along with two burials with trepanned skulls, appearing to be some sort of early attempt to cure head injuries and swelling (Pearson, 2021). These finds show a potential link to pilgrims travelling to the site seeking relief through the purported healing power of the stones. Framed in a medieval mindset of biblical truth, these legends likely influenced Geoffrey of Monmouth again for other ecclesiastical claims that water splashed on the stones gave them additional healing properties (Pearson, 2021).

Gravesite of “The Amesbury Archer”, photo: Wessex Archeology

Stonehenge Phase 3: A Remodeling for the Heavens

            The third phase of construction can be broken into three parts: the early stage, second stage, and the final stage, and is begun around 100 years after the second phase of construction (2000 BCE). Within this time, Stonehenge is transformed into what is found today on the Salisbury Plain in England. The features are grander and more ceremonial than in previous phases and are seemingly aligned on axial lines with purpose to mark annual events of nature, such as the times of solstices and equinoxes, sunrises and sets, and cardinal directions.

Phase 3: Early Stage

            Phase three construction of Stonehenge suggests a large tribal or chiefdom-led social structure due to the relatively coordinated labor of many people and craftsmen to cut, shape, transport, and erect the sandstone triliths that are seen on the modern Stonehenge landscape (Wolcott Paskey and Beasley Cisneros, 2020, 161). In addition, the motivations of a small population to take on such a monumental project must come from a deep-rooted belief system in the effort. The first change in the site during this phase is the addition of thirty upright stones in a circle with a continuous lentil cap called the Sarsen Circle, and five triliths in a horseshoe shape within the circle. Each stone is approximately thirty feet long, weighs an impressive fifty tons, and shaped in a curved fashion by hand with stone hammers, with mortise-and-tenon and tongue-and-groove joints to support the lentils. These were erected into the shape of a horseshoe at the center of the stone ring and aligned with an expansion of ‘The Avenue’ entrance stones, further suggesting a large amount of expected visitor traffic (Stonehenge, n.d.). Some evidence suggests the stones were taken from another dismantled stone circle at Waun Mawn over 200 miles away, which ironically, has similar astrological alignments of the solstice with Stonehenge (Pearson, 2021).

            The ‘Heel Stone’ that remains on ‘The Avenue’ appears to be in direct northeast alignment with the opening of the horseshoe shape, casting a long phallic shadow into the triliths at the summer solstice sunrise. This is thought to be an intentional representation of the mating of earth and sky. These mythical coincidences of shadow usage do not appear coincidental at all but are also not scientific, leaning more toward astrology than scientific astronomy (Devereaux, 2000, 140-141). The Station Stones remain intact throughout reconstruction, furthering the likelihood they were still used for lunar cycle and sunrise alignments. These alignments with astrological events also strengthen the popular myth of a druidic ritual purpose for Stonehenge, but no archeological proof of this has been discovered.

Phase 3: Second Stage

            Less than a century later, this stage sees a removal and realignment of the bluestones, suggesting the continued belief and use of them as healing objects. When wet, the bluestones take on a distinctive blue hue which was thought to deliver their healing properties (Pearson, 2021). About twenty of the bluestones were redressed, some carved with small axes and daggers, then replaced in an oval pattern within Sarsen Circle. The remaining bluestones were set aside for later installation in yet another circle to surround the Sarsen Circle. The holes were dug in two circles for their placement, yet never filled and left open to fill with silt on their own. Shortly after, for an unknown reason, the oval resetting of bluestones was removed, and the installation of the two surrounding bluestone circles was abandoned (Stonehenge, n.d.).

Phase 3: Final Stage

            After the abrupt removal of the oval bluestone circle at the center of the triliths, they were replaced in a specific sequence and horseshoe pattern within the trilith horseshoe. The removed bluestones from the second stage were redressed yet again into obelisks and pillars, with the largest bluestone, misnamed the ‘Altar Stone,’ at the axial center. The remaining bluestones were also reshaped and reinstalled outside the horseshoe but within the Sarsen Circle (Stonehenge, n.d.). There is no evidence revealing why such drastic changes were made in short succession. A final change to the site dated at 1100 BCE was another widening of The Avenue and a lengthening of almost two miles to connect with the River Avon. This suggests an increased interest in travel to the sight, now including a road access for river travelers and that the enduring site of Stonehenge held a popular relevancy and attraction still two thousand years after the first chalk berm and ditch were excavated by its neolithic founders.

A Lack of Consensus on Stonehenge Archeology and Research

            Since the first excavation at the behest of King James I by the Duke of Buckingham in 1620, Stonehenge has only offered more questions than answers as to its origin, purpose, and builder’s motivations. Even amongst modern technological advances, the simple neolithic stone circles of early man remain largely closed. However, certain truths remain clear: Stonehenge was not built by magic, and it was not a druidic or Roman temple, but some of the myths and legends have yielded supporting facts that help unravel the mysteries. A final point that becomes clear in the dedicated people who study Stonehenge and monuments like it, is that there is little agreed upon and even less definitive answers to the questions such sacred places ask.

The Summer Solstice sunrise at Stonehenge

            A deeper study of the astrological significance may reveal how early humans used sacred places like Stonehenge, at least in phases two and three of its construction, to further advance their societies, particularly in agriculture. Even in modern times, many still make the annual purchase of Farmer’s Almanacs, though they amount to about the same result as a newspaper horoscope. However, that modern written tradition may have roots carved in the same stones that the builders of Stonehenge sought out in the movements of the sun and moon to guide their harvests and mark their seasons. A further study of the burials around the site could also reveal the thinking of early humans within the limited framework of their beliefs in nature being a great healer. In this research, I have learned a great deal that early man may have been more advanced than modern society gives them credit for, and that perhaps they were able to find answers among the stars that our modern minds cannot comprehend, begging the question of which society is more advanced after all.

References

Coghlan, R. (1994, September 1). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends. (pp. 224-225). Element Books, Limited.

Devereux, P. (2000, November 1). The Sacred Place. In The Ancient Origin of Holy and Mystical Sites. (pp. 114-119). Burns & Oates.

Introductory Astronomy: Stonehenge. (n.d.). Introductory Astronomy: Stonehenge. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from http://astro.wsu.edu/worthey/astro/html/im-lab/stonehenge/stonehenge.html

Pearson, M. P. (2021, December 30). Archaeology and legend: investigating Stonehenge. ScienceOpen. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://uclpress.scienceopen.com/hosted-document?doi=10.14324/111.444.ai.2021.09

Pearson, M. P., Chamberlain A., Jay, M., Richards, M., Evans, J., and Sheridan, A. (Eds.), (2019, March 31)., The Beaker People: Isotopes, Mobility and Diet in Prehistoric Britain (Vol. 7). Oxbow Books.

Roberts, D., Valdez-Tullett, A., Marshall, P., Last, J., Oswald, A., Barclay, A., Bishop, B., Dunbar, E., Forward, A., Law, M., Linford, N., López-Dóriga, I., Manning, A., Payne, A., Pelling, R., Powell, A., Reimer, P., Russell, M., Small, F., . . . Worley, F. (2018). Roberts et al. Internet Archaeology. 47. Recent Investigations at Two Long Barrows and Reflections on their Context in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and Environs. Summary. Roberts Et Al. Internet Archaeology. 47. Recent Investigations at Two Long Barrows and Reflections on Their Context in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and Environs. Summary. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue47/7/

Stonehenge. (n.d.). Stonehenge. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/glossary/stonehenge.html

Wolcott Paskey, A. and Beasley Cisneros, A. (2020). Digging Into Archeology: A Brief OER Introduction to Archeology with Activities. (pp. 19). Academic Senate for California Community Colleges.

A Case for Birds of Prey and the Importance of Raptor Conservation

Have you thanked a raptor today? If not, read on to see why you should.

Barred Owl
Pearl, a female Barred Owl rehabbed and released in Normandy, Tennessee after being hit by a pickup truck. (photo: Alan MacFarland)

A farmer who sells their bushels of grain to market should thank raptors for their pest control services. Just as dogs are considered man’s best friend, hawks and owls could be considered a farmer’s best friend. One mouse in a grain storage bin can ruin up to 3,000 pounds of grain in a few days. On average, rodents destroy 1% of the world’s cereal grain supply, with 3-5% loss reported in developing countries (“Rodents”). A single Barn Owl can eat one rat or up to one dozen mice per night. Imagine that statistic with a breeding pair of Barn Owls along with two owlets in the nest for approximately five months. They can consume 1,030 rats and/or 9,780 mice in a year (“Barn Owl”). Hawks are just as voracious, preying on a high number of rodents and rabbits during daylight hours. While open acreage makes for prime hawk hunting habitat, many acres of old family farms are being converted into subdivisions. Raptors are being pushed out by development that is bringing the built world into conflict with the natural environment and shrinking those ever-important hunting grounds. This loss of habitat and increased negative human interaction creates unsustainable competition for dwindling food sources, and for unrecoverable injuries in vulnerable bird of prey populations. Farther reaching protections should be enacted in areas where wild raptors are in decline due to negative human interaction that impacts habitat loss and environmental quality, natural prey availability, and preventable human-caused injuries.

Barn Owl
Remington is an education ambassador for the Barn Owl ‘Tyto alba’ species that visits over 1,000 schoolchildren per year in education outreach programs.

Raptor populations are in decline around the world, and that is cause for great alarm (McClure et al). A new analysis of data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and BirdLife International found that 30% of 557 raptor species worldwide are considered near threatened, vulnerable or endangered, or critically endangered (Larson). A primary driver of this decline is the poorly planned spread of human developments and invasive built environments. In the last several hundred years, the North American landscape has changed greatly because of human development, and suitable raptor (and wildlife in general) habitat has decreased in turn (“Hawkwatch International”). A secondary driver of the decline in raptor populations is a sharp downturn in environmental quality. Prairie landscapes that intersperse the continent are the least protected biome worldwide, which has resulted in the large-scale loss and desertification of habitats and the species that rely on them (Wallen and Bickford). Without these critical prey species being able to flourish, declines in prey population will certainly result in a sharp decline of their predators.

American Kestrels
These orphaned American Kestrel fledglings were raised by a surrogate Kestrel mother and successfully released back into the wild. Kestrel populations are in decline worldwide, especially in North America. (photo: Middle Tennessee Raptor Center)

The western plains states in the U.S. have experienced extensive grassland conversion to agriculture, and temperate grasslands have suffered greater species loss than any other North American biome (Wallen and Bickford). Non-native invasive plants, such as aggressive-growing Cheatgrass, have caused a decline in the native grasses which rodent and rabbit populations feed on. Those losses have depleted natural prey for raptors, like Prairie Falcons and Harris’ Hawks, to feed on (“Hawkwatch International”). In addition, humanity’s insatiable appetite for expansion has resulted in those prey species populations finding fewer places to succeed. Where prey populations do thrive, humans then deploy pesticides and rodenticides to eradicate them. Irresponsible use of these poisons then kills off the natural predators and destroys the ecosystem.

Harris's Hawks
Cobra and Stark, a hunting pair of Harris’s Hawks native to the southwestern United States, scan a grassland for prey. These birds hunt in cooperative casts (groups) for greater hunting success and share prey when caught. (photo: Ian Turner)

Due to these compounding challenges, many raptor conservation organizations, such as the North American Falconers Association (NAFA), are undertaking focused efforts to preserve these sensitive environmental areas to reconstitute quarry populations. By taking a prey-centered focus, the efforts broaden an organization’s conservation perspective as it does not exclude raptors in the plan but allows raptor conservation to be viewed with a different lens; one that includes and prioritizes quarry habitat as well as primary and secondary prey consumers (Wallen and Bickford). An alternate approach to habitat and prey conservation is occurring in Future Farmers Association (FFA) clubs in high schools. At Coffee County High School in Manchester, Tennessee, one ninth grade FFA student is undertaking a personal project to restore habitat for wild quail—a staple food source for wild raptors—on his family’s 48-acre farm in rural Coffee County. In addition, he is funding his project by breeding and selling captive live quail to falconers and other consumers. Grassroots conservation efforts such as this are the lifeblood of launching larger movements that will help establish greater protections not only for birds of prey but also their quarry.

Red Tailed Hawk
Lady, a Red-Tailed Hawk, enjoys her quail snack (photo: Middle Tennessee Raptor Center)

While all animals are subject to natural threats such as disease and predation, raptors suffer far greater harm from human causes (“Hawkwatch International”). A resident of Winchester, Tennessee brought a wounded Cooper’s Hawk to Middle Tennessee Raptor Center for treatment. The mid-sized predator was shot through its wing and side with a .22 caliber rifle by a homeowner defending their favored songbirds from becoming a meal: a federal crime punishable under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (“Migratory Bird Treaty Act”). The bird survived its wounds and was released back into the wild, but not all who suffer from negative human interactions are so successful. Small amounts of lead can cause fatal poisoning in raptors, which can consume lead fragments from scavenging on carrion, or from eating birds or fish that have accidentally ingested lead or have been shot like the Cooper’s Hawk mentioned above (“Raptor Conservation”). While shooting is an extreme example, it is a common occurrence in rural areas and a reportable offense to wildlife authorities.

Red Tailed Hawk
Shelby, a Red Tailed Hawk, was admitted to rehab at Middle Tennessee Raptor Center in 2022 with a gunshot wound in his right wing and right side. He fully recovered and was released. (photo: Middle Tennessee Raptor Center)

Urban areas are also fraught with significant chances for negative interactions with humans and built environments, such as collisions with cars and trains, window strikes, and accidental electrocution. Due to these recurrent events, licensed wildlife rehabilitators are frequently overburdened, leaving many raptors and other wildlife to suffer or die through no fault of their own. Though dedicated and passionate, rehabilitators are not veterinarians. They are usually underfunded and minimally equipped citizens assuming the heavy mantle of care for wildlife (“Middle Tennessee Raptor Center”). The best way to help conserve both raptors and their caregivers is to be responsible stewards of the local environment and reduce as many controllable conflicts between humans and wildlife as possible. Another simple way to help is to support legislation and enacted protections for wildlife.

Middle Tennessee Raptor Center logo
Consider donating to your local wildlife rehabilitator. A little bit can go a long way in helping our raptors and other injured wildlife.

An alternative method to boost raptor conservation efforts without the arduous task of becoming a wildlife rehabilitator is through the installation of habitat nesting boxes. In urban areas where there is a shortage of suitable nesting sites for cavity-nesting birds, installing nest boxes can help support raptor populations, such as the American Kestrel in particular, and give the unique opportunity to possibly observe the birds up close (“Raptor Conservation”). Plans and videos for boxes that suit different species the best are readily found with a quick internet search. Providing raptors with nest boxes is an excellent method to facilitate a natural form of rodent population control on adjacent properties. Even in rural areas, suitable nesting and breeding sites may be lacking, and nesting boxes could make a tremendous difference. There is also less opportunity for boxes in rural areas to be disturbed often by humans, giving the species an even better chance of thriving.

Barn Owl nest box
This Barn Owl nest box was installed near a municipal airport for a pair of nesting Barn Owls in a nearby hangar with the assistance of the local Fire Department in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

The human population continues to grow, and with that growth comes more opportunities for conflict with the natural environment. It is inherent on people to manage economic growth and urban sprawl responsibly, and with more than just humans in mind. Being better environmental stewards is incumbent on all nations and peoples. For some species or countries, the conservation action that likely could bring the most immediate change is to improve legislation—including implementation and enforcement, and policy changes, such as improved regulation in the use of poisons or mitigation of dangerous power lines (McClure et al). With minor adjustments in behaviors, humans can significantly reduce the negative impact on raptors and their prey, helping preserve these magnificent creatures for future generations (“Raptor Conservation – Raptor Inc”). If up to 5% of the world’s grain supplies are already lost to pests, imagine the percentage without raptors doing their natural jobs. The world’s food supply may be dependent on increased protection measures for raptors. Without them, farmers may end up with nothing left to sell, and humans with even less to eat.

To help and support raptor education programs, you can donate to Middle Tennessee Raptor Center at www.middletnraptorcenter.org.

Lucy, a female Great Horned Owl, wows kids at summer camp in 2022. (photo: Bean Acres Farm Camp)

Works Cited

“Barn Owl – The Peregrine Fund.” Barn Owl | the Peregrine Fund, 21 Jan. 2001, peregrinefund.org/explore-raptors-species/owls/barn-owl.

“Hawkwatch International – Threats to Raptors.” Hawkwatch International – Threats to Raptors, hawkwatch.org/learn/threats-to-raptors. Accessed 25 Nov. 2022.

Larson, Christina. “Birds of Prey Face Global Decline from Habitat Loss, Poisons.” AP NEWS, 30 Aug. 2021, apnews.com/article/health-environment-and-nature-birds-science–0c7d627f236fe1ff86aa4fc34b22916c. Accessed 18 Nov. 2022.

McClure, Christopher J.W, et al. “State of the world’s raptors: Distributions, threats, and conservation recommendations.” Biological Conservation, Volume 227, 2018, Pages 390-402, ISSN 0006-3207, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320718305871.

“Middle Tennessee Raptor Center.” Middle Tennessee Raptor Center, http://www.middletnraptorcenter.org/rehabilitation. Accessed 29 Nov. 2022.

“Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” FWS.gov, 26 Apr. 2020, http://www.fws.gov/law/migratory-bird-treaty-act-1918.

“Raptor Conservation – Raptor Inc.” Raptor Inc, 2022, raptorinc.org/raptor-conservation. http://raptorinc.org/raptor-conservation/. Accessed 18 Nov. 2022.

“Rodents.” Rodents – IRRI Rice Knowledge Bank, http://www.knowledgebank.irri.org/step-by-step-production/postharvest/storage/storage-pests/rodents-as-storage-pest. Accessed 18 Nov. 2022.

Wallen, Kenneth E. and Nate A. Bickford. Stakeholder Perspectives on Raptor Conservation and Falconry in North America, Global Ecology and Conservation, Volume 24. 2020.

Would You Want to Know When it’s Your Time to Die?

If you could know the appointed date and time of your demise, would you want to?

Or, would you prefer the random, “when it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go” philosophy we humans abide by now? Perhaps just embrace the concept of YOLO?

Or what about this: what would you do if you knew the exact time and date of death for another? Would you tell them or keep it a secret?

July 27th, 2020. 4:30pm CST.

That was the knowledge I was doomed to carry for two whole weeks.

I lost a family member that day and I knew exactly when and where it was going to happen. I even knew how they would die. How would you feel if you were burdened with this knowledge? For me, it was absolutely crippling.

Anything you say (or write, in this case) in an emotional heat of the moment can have unintended consequences, so I tend to bottle up until I can make better sense of what I’m feeling before I speak or write. I’ve waited until now to pen this post in an effort let some of my raw emotion simmer down. I know it’s always going to be there but after time it settles into the fabric of my being. Now that I’ve had time to process, I feel I can write this with a small bit of coherence. As best an effort this will be, it will fall short of the eulogy this family member deserves.

Allow me to introduce you to Tinker Bell. Tink was our 14-year-old Akita/Pyrenees mix that, sadly, had to be put down after a long bout with hip and knee problems in her back legs. It wasn’t the standard dysplasia larger dogs are typically plagued with. A couple years ago, it was discovered she had damaged both meniscus in her hind legs at an early age. She never outwardly showed signs of injury, so it went unnoticed until it was too late to repair. As she got older, the problem manifested and robbed her of any remaining quality of life. She became almost immobile. The simple task of getting up from the floor to go outside was a painful chore that required human assistance, and even then it wasn’t guaranteed she could get up anyway. She was hurting, and we just couldn’t let her suffer anymore.

Let’s talk about that phrase for a second: quality of life.

Most people give context to that phrase at the end of a life as opposed to the beginning or middle. Think for a moment about what that phrase means to you right now, today. For humans, it might mean the amenities of your home or car, your decor and furniture, your bank account or investments. Most (but not all) younger folks only consider it as a material reckoning. I think very few in the human realm contemplate what “quality of life” means to them or that it applies until they’re at the end of it. Why wait til then?

Tink has her Doggles on!
Tink has her Doggles on!

I have found a thread common with some other friends of mine: J.J. in New York, Greg in Indiana, Mary Jane here in Tennessee, and my youngest son Eian. What do we all have in common? We were dog dads and moms who have all lost our beloved fur babies this year. Back in March, J.J. lost his Boxer, Memphis. In July, I lost Tinkerbell. Earlier this week, Eian lost his mixed-breed, Shiloh. Mary Jane lost her rescue dog, Simon, and Greg lost his beloved German Shepherd, Scarlet, just today as I write this. When they leave us, there is a chasm that even time struggles to fill. For me, I’m a better person because of my dog.

Something else we all have in common is that our dogs were a major part of our quality of life considerations, even though we may not have thought about it that way. They are our family. I feel it safe to say I speak for them when I say that our dogs, probably much like yours, provided some of the happiest moments in our lives as well as saved us in some of our lowest. There is no greater unconditional love on this earth than a dog’s love for their family. My friend Mary Jane even wrote a book about Simon: Life Lessons from a Rescue Dog.

If you want to see a grown man (or woman) cry, wait until something happens to their dog. I’m not ashamed to admit it. When I had to take Tink for her last ride, I bawled like a newborn baby that was just smacked on the butt. I mean I ugly-cried. I was a wreck and so was everyone else in the house. The vet could not have been nicer or more gentle, and gave me all the time I needed with her both before the deed and after she was gone. I’m terrible with goodbyes, but I stayed and made this one meaningful.

A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself. - Josh Billings

I say this often as a joke, but I mean it with some level of sincerity when I say the more people I meet, the more I like my dog. Sometimes people just plain suck. But dogs? Never. I’ll say it again: Never on earth has the unconditional love for people been seen in a greater host than a family dog, and Tink was no exception. I know I am not the first one to say it, but we do not deserve dogs. Cat people, I know you’re scoffing right now. You might argue that cats are the same way, but I will argue back that no greater love exists than that of a canine. None. Anywhere. Search your feelings… you know it’s true.

Tink's last photo. I'll always remember her this way, with a smile on her face
Tink’s last photo. I’ll always remember her this way. Even when she was hurting, she had dirt on her nose and a smile on her face 🙂

Read more about J.J.’s dog, Memphis, here: Goodbye, My Memphis

So, I go back to my original question to you: If you could know the appointed date and time of your demise, would you want to? Personally, I don’t. I can tell you from my experience with Tink that knowing for two weeks about her final appointment tore me apart. And even though we spoke different languages, I never told her. In the end, I didn’t have to. I think she knew, and I think she was alright with it. Godspeed Tink, Shiloh, Scarlet, Simon, Memphis, and all the other fur babies out there who left us too soon, with memories in our minds and aches in our hearts. Enjoy that big dog park in the sky until we can get there to throw sticks and tennis balls for you again one day.

I walked one 1 mile on the Appalachian Trail (and why it matters, too) Part II

IMG_20181229_143203993_HDR

29 Dec 18 – Not long ago, I met a lady that summited Lobuche in Nepal. Lobuche is a mountain on the Everest Base Camp trek. Yes, that Everest. Mount Everest… the Roof of the World. She, along with her cousin and some climbing friends made the long trip halfway around the world to take the peak of that 20,075-foot mountain. And they did. I learned after hearing her Lobuche story that prior to that, she took a trip to Africa to the 19,341-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.  It was fascinating to hear her stories of how she would choose her destination, set her climbing goals, plans her trips, and then conquers whatever mountain is next on her list. Those feats are impressive, at least to me anyway.

I mention her story not because I want to do what she has done. As I said in part one of this blog, I am not that ambitious. I can live out my days not having climbed over 20,000 feet up a snowed and iced mountain of death and be perfectly content with that decision. I tell you about her because I admire the ambition she has to hit those goals. The desire to go and see and do something you might not ever get the chance to again. Those were items on her “list”. That is the type of goal-setting I’m trying to achieve for myself. The goals I want to accomplish before it’s time to punch my ticket… my bucket list.

I whetted my appetite for the Appalachian Trail in Vermont right before Christmas. Even though those initial 100 yards checked off an item, it just felt incomplete. Like my inner-Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor was grunting at me for stopping there. About four hours from where I live is the peak of Springer Mountain, standing at 3,782 feet above sea level. She’s nestled in the Chattahoochee National Forest, which is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia.  Believe me when I tell you it is in the middle of the area that is formerly known as the middle of nowhere. At least it felt like it. Oh, and did I mention that it is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail? How convenient. Now I can make a bigger check mark on this bucket-lister!

IMG_20181229_142207521_HDR

After talking my youngest son into going on this adventure with me, we grabbed a few items for the trip and off we went. He was a little reluctant at first, not knowing what he was about to get in to, but finally relented. We got a late start that morning, leaving home about 9:30am. Sunset was at 5:02pm that day. With the distance and time zone change, we would be racing the sun to reach the peak and get back off the mountain by dark. Time was against us, but wasn’t going to stop us. Again, undaunted, our heroes plunged on!

IMG_20181229_145251447_HDR

After a long and winding drive through the beautiful Chattahoochee National Forest, at long last we finally arrived at the trail parking area about 2:45pm Eastern time. In the six mile drive up the mountain you gain about 1,200 feet on hard-packed dirt and gravel called Forest Service Road 42-3. I will give credit where it is due… whoever maintains that road does a marvelous job. It’s somewhat daunting, being just wide enough for one vehicle the majority of the way with occasional pull-offs where you could let cars coming down the mountain go by. We met a few on the way up, and the conditions were wet and muddy. I wouldn’t call it “white-knuckle driving”, however, there were some unsettling moments. In the end, we made it to the packed parking lot and were ready to start our trek to the peak. I was excited… I was getting ready to be on the AT once again!

IMG_20181229_142342903_HDR
IMG_20181229_143614553_HDR

From the parking lot to the peak is about one mile. One of the websites I researched this trip on gave the trail to the peak a moderately strenuous rating, however I did not find it to be that difficult other than just going steadily uphill. It was wet and muddy in parts, but that wasn’t going to stop us. The peak was our prize and wet socks were but a penance to be able to say we conquered this mountain! At the beginning of our ascent, a group of about thirty college-aged people passed us on the way down. They were talking and carrying on as we passed by, but once they got out of earshot, I noticed something that I became aware of the rest of the entire time we were on the trail… the quiet.

Whatever noises you would hear up there were the ones you brought with you. The day was cool, with temperatures in the mid-’40s, slightly overcast skies and a light breeze. That breeze is the only thing you could hear. There were no birds, no planes, no sounds of civilization, just the light breeze making its way across the hillsides and giving the trees a gentle sway. It was a deafening silence, and it was amazing.

IMG_20181229_143335371_HDR
IMG_20181229_142804129_HDR

We passed a few other people on our way up. Small groups of two or three, and some families, all out enjoying this beautiful day just as we were. The occasional friendly greeting was the only sound we heard making our way up. After about 30 minutes of our steady uphill climb, we passed two young ladies on their descent who kindly informed us we were about 100 feet from the top, and no one else was up there right now. We stopped for a quick water break and I looked out into the horizon through the leafless trees. I introspected on how Benton Mackaye and Myron Avery determined this place to be the southern terminus of their trail. What I had first thought of as just the middle of nowhere was becoming the perfect place to end it, and there was no better place on Earth to be right then other than where I was standing. I had to imagine they thought the same thing when laying out this amazing trail. The peak was within sight, so up we went.

IMG_20181229_150545214_HDR

Throughout our history, man has created some amazingly beautiful spiritual buildings. Each is unique and beautiful in its own way, and many of the older ones have long and storied histories. I’ve been blessed to see inside several different ones of all shapes and sizes, and of different denominations. One thing I have not been to, however, is the top of many mountains. If I can be so bold to make a comparison, the top of a mountain has to be nature’s most spiritual place. Though this mountain is not the highest or most difficult to climb, none of that takes away from the feeling you get in your soul to sit quietly at the top and look out onto the world.

IMG_20181229_150131296_HDR

At the top of this particular mountain, I was experiencing another feeling. I wasn’t just checking off another item on my bucket list. I was feeling closure. I didn’t realize, nor fully appreciate, how the research work I did on this historic landmark had opened up a need to experience it. I’ve always wanted to hike it, and for weeks this trail and its stories consumed my entire work life. I would compare it to a lifetime Red Sox fan getting to go to a game at Fenway Park for the first time. You just can’t describe it… you have to feel it to understand. It’s not just pictures on a screen or words on a page. It’s a real place and I’m here, and in this moment, there is no place I’d rather be.

We had the peak to ourselves for about 20 minutes, just taking it in. Sitting on the rock at the center of the overlook, I happened to notice to my left this little trap door. Inside was a visitor log book. Not uncommon throughout the entire AT. They can be found at almost every trailhead or shelter along the way. I started looking through the pages to see what others had written. Several were just signatures and dates, where they were from. Some had encouraging or spiritual messages, birthdays, even marriage proposals as you can see below. I sat and read through some of it just to see what others had to say. Suffice it to say, there were some neat things in there. The book was full so I went back a few pages to leave our mark. Nothing prophetic or poetic. Just a little something saying we were here, and we loved it.

IMG_20181229_150824421_HDR
IMG_20181229_150924763_HDR
IMG_20181229_150819567

The sun was sinking quickly and it was time to head home. We took a few more pictures, gathered our things, and started back the same way we came for the journey home. At about the same spot we stopped for our earlier water break, we passed three guys coming up. We conveyed the same message we had received earlier, that they only had about 100 feet to go and they would have the peak to themselves. From there on out, we only saw two other people. Now we had the trail to ourselves. It was just as tranquil on the way down as we made our way to the car.

IMG_20181229_150218204
IMG_20181229_150256633
IMG_20181229_150121487

Now I have officially hiked 100 yards plus one mile on the Appalachian Trail.  There’s a bigger check mark on my bucket list I’m dang proud of it. My son asked me on the way home if I was planning to hike any more of the trail. I thought about it for a little bit before I answered. I’m sure the opportunity will present itself again. I told him I probably would and maybe next time we’ll bring gear and plan it as an over-nighter or maybe we can do part of it over spring break. He jokingly said if you’re going to do that, why not just plan to thru-hike it. I laughed. I like his way of thinking, but I’m not that ambitious.

IMG_20181229_150237697

I’m not normally a selfie person, but in this case, I made an exception.

I walked 100 yards on the Appalachian Trail (and why it matters), Part I

IMG_20181222_123535762_HDR

Dec. 21, 2018 – Everyone has thought about, at some time or another, what would be on their “bucket list”. At the ripe old age of 44, I have yet to make one on paper. However, I have a few ideas swirling around my head of certain things I’d like to accomplish before my time on the third rock from the sun is up.

One of those swirling bucket ideas is to perform the American National Anthem at a major sporting event. I would gladly do it anywhere there is an opportunity, but I’m a big hockey fan at heart. I’d love to belt one out on center ice. I even hedged my bet and learned the Canadian National Anthem as well, just in case I ever get the chance!

Another long-time item on my list is to become a published author. That’s a goal I work towards every day, even if it’s only a little tiny bit. I try to write at least one thing daily and I set regular benchmarks for myself. I tested those goals in 2017 when I wrote 51,055 words in 30 days for NaNoWriMo. I’m still proud of that one!

Recently I was fortunate enough to accomplish one item on my list. For the longest time, I’ve wanted to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail. I do quite a few short day hikes or overnighters with my Boy Scout troop at nearby State Parks, and they’re great, but to trek the AT… now that is some real hiking! Up until now, I would have classified this as a passive bucket-lister. It was on the periphery… one that I wanted to do but I didn’t actively seek to check it off. It was more like a target of opportunity should the occasion arise. Then, one day, it moved from passive to very active.

For my day job, I am a programmer for my city’s Parks and Recreation department (writing doesn’t pay the bills…yet!). One of my 2018 programs was a “virtual walk” of all 2,158 miles of the AT. The southern terminus is at the peak of Springer Mountain in north Georgia, and continues all the way up the eastern United States, with the northern terminus at the peak of Mount Katahdin in Maine. Teams of six people would sign up and count all their miles collectively toward the goal of “walking” the trail. In the end, over 300 people teamed up for the walk, covering over an impressive 50,000 miles as a group, and fun was had by all.

During the program, I had to do a lot of research for the weekly e-newsletters on the trail and some of the better highlights of its history. Each week of the walk, every participant received an email with the current standings, trail facts, silly hiking memes and stories from the trail. Over the course of my work, I caught the bug. The more research I did, the more I wanted to push the needle from this is something I’d like to do over to this is something I have done.  Not the whole trail, mind you. I’m not that ambitious. But hiking a small section would satisfy my curiosity and put a checkmark on my mental bucket list. Then, suddenly, it happened. While perusing a trail-finder website one afternoon, an opportunity appeared like a distant ship on the horizon.

My oldest son currently lives in Woodstock, Vermont, which also happens to be an AT “trail town” along with Barnard, Vermont. Woodstock is to the south of the trailhead, and Barnard to the north and the AT passes right between them. It just so happened that my wife and I were planning a visit to Woodstock right before Christmas this year.

Do you hear that?

Hear that sound?

That would be the soft  knock of opportunity!

I had a six-day window to answer that door. I packed my hiking boots and some halfway decent winter garb, hopped on a plane, and off we went. Upon arriving in Woodstock, I waited for a some decent weather and set out to find the trail off of Barnard Road/US-12.

IMG_20181222_123224472_HDR

A few days before our arrival, a snowstorm passed through the area dumping about a foot of snow. The day before we went in search of the trailhead was rainy and warmer, causing a lot of snow melt and high water everywhere. Suffice it to say, I did not have high expectations with the weather conditions of what we would find. This was truly meant to be a “let’s-just-say-we-were-here” kind of stop. After passing it a couple of times (we didn’t have a GPS), I noticed this little sign (above) behind the guard rail. We finally found it!

IMG_20181222_123413518_HDR
IMG_20181222_123428209_HDR

A small wooden bridge crossed a raging creek, through a gate, out into an open field and up a low hill. After eight weeks of researching and newsletters and pomp and circumstance about the Appalachian Trail, I was finally walking on part of it! Now you can tell by the photos that I wasn’t joking about conditions. Under that snow over the bridge is about an inch of solid ice. The snow was packed and crunchy. Every step was like walking on a floor that gave way under each footfall, about eight inches down. Then you had to try not to slip while taking your next step. The temperature was sitting right about 35 degrees, and I forgot to bring a jacket with me. But undaunted, our hero plunged on!

IMG_20181222_123708229_HDR
IMG_20181222_123658126_HDR

I’m sure to most, these just look like 100 yards worth of tracks through the snow, and it could be anywhere the white stuff falls, in any field, in any part of the world. However, these were my tracks on this national treasure of a trail fulfilling one of my bucket list items. My wife and son were in the car watching me tromp through the snow and ice, probably thinking, “Look at that idiot going off in the snow, and without a jacket even…”. It could have been waist-deep and I still would have done it. It could have been below freezing and I would still have gone up there. All the maple syrup in Vermont would not have kept me from walking up that hill, just so I could say “I was here, and this is what I did”.

As I’ve gotten older, I am more of a mind that material things are less valuable to me than experiences. I’d like to think I’m not alone in that thought process. That meager 100 yards was meaningful to me. It took all the reading, research and effort I put into that AT walking program and made it a real, tangible thing. It’s a real place in this wide world of ours and not just something on the other end of a keyboard.

If you haven’t thought about your bucket list yet, I encourage you to do so. Not as some sort of race against the grim reaper to see how much you can get in before he comes knocking, but as a scorecard of sorts. To give anything and everything you’ve ever wanted to encounter a chance to be realized. Go somewhere and experience it, even if it is only 100 yards at a time.

________________________________________________________________________________________

My AT journey doesn’t end here!

My trip to Springer Mountain is coming in Part II.

To be continued…