Blowin’ in the wind

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

It’s finally warm enough for me to leave my windows open at night. This lets me wake to the sounds of Wild Turkeys gobbling and Phoebes scolding, rather than the ring of my alarm clock. I don’t even mind the occasional midnight interruption of sleep by barred owls, coyotes or distant trains. I welcome it after a winter closed-off from the sounds of nature.

The past two days have been the nicest yet this spring. Perfect temperatures and a steady breeze that’s been bringing in more that just optimistic thoughts. At T.C. Steele State Historic Site yesterday, I met retired I.U. biology professor Don Whitehead. He was out scouting for birds for an upcoming hike. He noted that the recent winds had brought in a lot of migrating birds overnight and he expected even more to have arrived by the next day. Perfect timing for his bird hike.

I listened to Don as he listed the birds he was hearing — Scarlet Tanager, Vireos and others. I couldn’t filter out individual calls through the noise of the wind, much less identify which bird was doing the calling. Identifying birds by their songs seems as much magic as skill to me.

I know that any skill can be developed with practice and repetition, but some people seem to have a gift for languages, including the avian ones. Spring is a season of optimism, so I’ve set an ambitious goal — to learn one new bird call this year. I’ll never match Don’s repertoire, but I hope to have another familiar sound to listen for next spring when I open up the windows again.

So, where’s the connection to the title — a line from a Bob Dylan song? These recent breezes have reminded me of our need to (re)sharpen our senses. Today’s world leaves us isolated from nature and we’ve lost skills once taken for granted. By listening to the wind through my open window, I can tell which way the wind blows. It sounds different coming through the pines to the north than it does from the west where it passes through deciduous trees.

The Steeles didn’t need the weather channel either. The House of the Singing Winds was named for the sound the breezes made blowing through the porch screens. A sleeping porch was included in the house’s original design, so they woke up knowing immediately what the weather was.

Dylan’s weatherman reference has a double meaning, which those of us who grew up during a ‘certain era’ may recognize. But the winds blowing this spring are not ones of discontent, and I hope they will return this summer to blow away the humidity Indiana is so famous for. I don’t want to be too tempted to shut the windows, turn on the air, and have to rely on the weatherman to tell me wind direction.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

When I Say, “Arbor” You Say, “Day”…

Marcus Harshaw, museum program specialist and Arbor Day facilitation extraordinaire, shares his thoughts on the 2009 Arbor Day Celebration.

Children enjoying the "Trees, Who Needs 'Em" program.

Children enjoying the "Trees, Who Needs 'Em" program.

Did you ever say, “I want to be an arborist when I grow up?” Me neither, but after another successful Arbor Day Celebration, it has me considering a career change! (Part-time of course) The day was filled with so many activities and so much to learn about trees that one could not leave the museum without a new respect for trees.

Greeted at the front door by Indiana 811’s Holey Moley, over 1,700 visitors from schools across the great state of Indiana were on hand to participate in the festivities. DNR Forestry distributed free redbud trees to everyone to plant in their own backyards and ran out of trees by noon! Tim Womick returned to play his classic role as Johnny Appleseed, and a towering 15-foot tall Smokey Bear was on hand reminding us that only we could prevent forest fires.

arbor_day_smokeyTim’s visit was joined by Treesearch Scientist Professor Arbor E. Tum, and Indiana’s favorite survivor Rupert Boneham of Survivor: Pearl Islands and Survivor: All Stars. They all joined forces to teach everyone about proper tree care, stewardship. We were all reminded of the wonderful things trees give us including oxygen, and food. Trees create a treecosystyem and provide plants and animals with shelter and food. Trees even help the treeconomy by providing jobs! One job in particular is one held by Chad Brey. As an arborist he climbs trees to take care of them, and demonstrated how to climb trees by climbing up and down the side of the café building in the Governor O’Bannon Great Hall! My favorite part is when Tim asked the audience if it was ever okay to cut down a tree, and we all answered no as if we were hypnotized! Of course the answer is yes it is okay to cut down trees as Tim reminded us with a roll of toilet paper.

After the t-shirts were distributed and the Frisbees were tossed into the crowd, it was time to plant a tree! Dozens of students migrated to the redbud garden on the east side of the museum to help Tim plant this year’s redbud tree, and as quickly as the event began it was over. Learn, teach, give away free stuff, and have fun? All in a day’s work at your Indiana State Museum.

Until next year,

When I say Arbor, you say Day, ARBOR …

Thoughts on the Food Chain

Preparing for the Spring Wildflower Foray, I did a pre-hike of the Wildflower Trail here at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. So far this year the trail hasn’t really lived up to its name. Spring has sprung cold and wet. I wasn’t finding many blooms — yet I wasn’t disappointed. As with most hikes, I came upon something unexpected, and that made up for the lack of wildflowers.

Down in a ravine, where the trail runs alongside an intermittant stream, a small animal skull was laying in the middle of the path. Bending down for a closer look, I could see that it had very recently been someone’s dinner (or breakfast). The question was, who-who-who-whos?

The skull was fresh, picked nearly clean with traces of blood still visible. That was all though — no other body parts around. Then I noticed several large white patches on the ground surrounding it. I knew these were some kind of bird droppings, so that narrowed my list of suspects. The second puzzle was the identity of the victim. My first thought was an opossum, but inspecting the teeth, I found they weren’t pointed. The two center teeth curved down and were blunt on the ends — typical of a rodent.

I stood awhile trying to imagine the scene that had taken place only hours earlier. Perhaps an owl had ‘dined’ on a chipmunk then dropped the leftovers from a branch overhead … bad manners. The skull was too large for a chipmunk though. I’ve noticed lots of squirrels this year, maybe there’s one less now. Really, all I could say for certain was, “Bird killed rodent,” but a short while later I heard another possible explanation.

I was telling a co-worker what I’d seen and was overheard by a visitor out birding. He asked what I’d found and I offered my suspicions, that an owl had killed and eaten a squirrel. He thought a squirrel was pretty big prey for an owl (unless it was a Great Horned owl), plus there was no real evidence that the diner was also the killer.

Many birds, like crows, belong to the Clean Plate Club and will finish up what some other critter has already killed and left behind. Hmmm … that could explain why only the skull was there. I was impressed by his reasoning, but frustrated, since he had just reopened the case.

Sometimes trying to figure out a puzzle is as satisfying as finding the solution. I hoped that the skull would still be there the next day for the hike I was leading. Maybe someone in the group would have yet another explanation. Still wondering about it, I went in search of lunch. Maybe I’d just have a salad.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

One native, one not. Both beautiful!

steele_lilac_walkA spring rainstorm has painted the gravel along on the ‘Road of Memories’ with fallen Redbud blossoms. Close by, a Lilac echoes the color, in a lighter hue. Martha Stewart couldn’t have planned a better combination. Maybe Selma Steele planned this one.

The Lilac was certainly planted here. Originally from Asia, this shrub quickly became an American favorite, loved for both its color and fragrance. I once ‘discovered’ a Lilac hidden amidst trees that had grown around it. I’d passed by it for a few years, not knowing it was there until I happened to be nearby when it was in bloom and its scent led me to it.

The Redbuds’s beginnings are less certain. The small tree, native to Indiana, may have just started growing here on its own. It doesn’t look to be ancient, so Selma probably didn’t plant it there, even though Redbuds transplant easily. But it’s a nice thought. She would have appreciated the effect that the two plants have created — complementing each other even as they compete for human attention.

steele_fallen_blossomsThey are different, yet similar. Redbud (Cercis canadensis), is a member of the Legume (or pea) family and Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) are in the Olive family. But both are easily grown and both grow quickly. Lilacs send up shoots around the parent plant that can be dug up and moved to a new spot. Redbuds produce hundreds of peapod-like seed pods in the fall that apparently have no trouble germinating. It is known as a recovery species—one that soon appears along the edges or in open areas of a forest.

Selma surely planted the lilacs here at T.C. Steele State Historic Site and she may have planted (or transplanted) some of the Redbuds as well. The area across from the entry arches to the site is known as the ‘Redbud Field’, and is now brilliant with color. The spacing of the trees looks as if it had help from a human hand.

I don’t know how the Redbud got its name, since its color is closer to lilac than red. I do know that I wouldn’t want to have to pick a favorite. Where they originated doesn’t matter to me; they are equally yet differently beautiful. But you can decide for yourself — if you visit before the last blossom falls.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

In Search of Shrinking Violets

This informal wildflower foray was before Kay's time. The undated photo from the early 1930s shows friends of Mrs. Steele's hiking along the Peckerwood Trail, one of five trails at T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

This informal wildflower foray was before Kay's time. The undated photo from the early 1930s shows friends of Mrs. Steele's hiking along the Peckerwood Trail, one of five trails at T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

If you’re like me, you classify violets as blue, yellow or white. If you’re wildflower authority Kay Yatskievych, you know that violets are far more varied. Her book Field Guide to Indiana Wildflowers lists 22 species, plus subspecies — and they can hybridize as well. She’ll be quick to tell you that they are her favorite wildflower.

Kay has led very popular and well-attended hikes on opening day of Brown County’s Annual Spring Wildflower Foray. This year marks our 24th Foray, and we’ve added an extra hike at T.C. Steele State Historic Site to give flower-seekers one more chance to benefit from Kay’s plant expertise.

Kay has a quality not always found in experts. Although she literally ‘wrote the book’ on Indiana wildflowers, she is eager to share her knowledge in a way that is interesting and informative. Even if you are just a beginner at wildflower identification, you’ll find Kay easy to understand and patient in answering your questions.

I first met Kay sometime around 1986 while working at Brown County State Park and was amazed by her curiosity and persistence. Using field guides can sometimes be frustrating. If I couldn’t locate a flower in the guides I’d just assume it was my fault. Kay figured there needed to be a better book, and like the little red hen she just decided to write it herself.

She was instrumental in developing the annual species count which soon grew into the Spring Wildflower Foray that we look forward to each year. Most people don’t get too excited about statistics. Kay does. She has lists — and more lists. She tallies lists from all 20 plus hikes offered during the Foray, and compiles them for Saturday’s evening program.

Her summary of the wildflower count is worth listening to. If a flower that’s not listed in a previous count was found, the announcement is greeted by cheers. Kay seems to enjoy it even more if she can’t identify a plant immediately, but she always has it figured out by the end of the Foray.

If you haven’t been on one of Kay’s wildflower hikes yet, don’t be a shrinking violet — make this year your first — April 24, 25 and 26. If you are a returning Foray-er, you’ll find even more opportunities to ‘quiz Kay’. Either way, you’ll find her enthusiasm contagious and the violets more colorful. (Did you know there is even a Green Violet?)

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

A New Track Record!

Hundreds of Boy Scouts from a 4-state area converged on the Indiana State Museum last week, for the 2nd Annual Pinewood Derby, and the World’s Largest Pinewood Derby track did not disappoint.  Science and technology came into play as dads and scouts designed cars for looks as well as performance.


In the end, it all came down to mere hundredths of a second as the winners were awarded trophies and drank the official celebratory milk.

Guest Blog: Native American Plant Use

dani-tippmanNiila Myaamia! (I am Miami!) If you have been outside, or even looked through a window lately, you can see all the changes that are going on in nature. The rain has encouraged some of the first wildflowers to peek out and the sun enticed them into blooming. There are ephemerals of all types! On a recent walk I saw everything from wild geranium to spring beauty and even a few skunk cabbage! Many folks tend to focus on the beauty of the woodland flowers in Indiana. Although they are beautiful, we shouldn’t forget the many other applications for which the spring wildflowers can be utilized. Many are foods, medicines or used for technology.

Even the lowly skunk cabbage has its place. Did you know that the Miami used skunk cabbage as food? Considering the smell that exudes from the well named skunk cabbage, it is hard to believe that it was used for food. Still, there were times at the end of a long winter that any green food would have been appreciated. I believe that it was a survival food because it is one of the first green plants to come up, it is relatively easy to find and always easy to identify. But, I believe that it was relegated to being only a survival food, and not used regularly because of the smell!

If you live near a pond or ditch you may know the cattail plant. Its little sprouts are above the water and waiting to hold a place of honor on someone’s plate! Last fall we enjoyed roasted cattail roots, but now it is time to harvest a few of the young sprouts and cook them up similarly to asparagus sprouts. I like to add a little butter and salt to my cattail sprouts, but I think that a little butter and salt makes a lot of things taste better! All parts of the cattail are useable, if not for food then for something else just as handy.

Next time you come to the museum, make sure to stop by and see me. We can talk about some of the plant’s other uses or uses of other plants!


Meet Dani at the Indiana State Museum on the following dates:
Friday, April 24
Thursday, May 7
Friday, May 22

Visit the official museum website at for more information about Dani’s demonstrations.

Dani Tippmann is a Native American demonstrator at the Indiana State Museum.

Spring “cleaning” at the Whitewater Canal State Historic Site

whitewater_shaftHow do you prepare a six-mile section of the Whitewater Canal to turn a wheel, maintain water flow and float a canal boat for the thousands of visitors who want to ride on this unique piece of Indiana history? Jay Dishman, site manager of the Whitewater Canal State Historic Site, knows how. He and the rest of the Whitewater Canal maintenance crew have been working hard to get ready for the May 1 launch of the Ben Franklin III canal boat.

In addition, the Metamora Mill has returned to waterpower! The shaft, which is turned by the waterwheel located within Lock #25 and turns the gears in the mill’s lower level, has been repaired and placed back into action by the Vuckson Excavating Company. The mill had been running with the use of an electric motor located in the gear room. The pictures to the left show how this tricky replacement took place.

The Whitewater Canal grounds and maintenance staff also made several needed repairs to the mill wheel and during the winter months that included tightening the rods, building and placing new cleats on the wheel, checking buckets against the shrouds, and cleaning out the pathway between the mill and the wheel.

Repairs and work in other parts of the six-mile stretch included the Laurel Feeder Dam west abutment. Water is flowing through the canal nicely after sediment clean-out areas were created near the Feeder Dam. A major repair of the canal bank took place at an area that had been washed out approximately halfway between Metamora and Brookville. The crew also spent a full day clearing out beaver dams located on the canal between Brookville and Metamora.

Finally, Whitewater Canal personnel will be spending the month of April working on the canal boat. The bow cabin roof and the rub rails will be repaired and the entire boat will be repainted. Everything will be ready for a season full of new experiences, so come join the Whitewater Canal crew beginning May 1 for a voyage like none other.

Joanne Williams is the program developer at the Whitewater Canal State Historic Site.

Straight From the Front Lines

The following report comes to you from Aaron Braithwaite and Katy Harvey, Museum Program Specialists at the Indiana State Museum. Both give an inside look into the action that took place at the Indiana State Museum on March 28 during the 4th Annual Civil War Drill.

civil_war_drill_01“I never thought once in my life I’d be serving in the military, but there I was in the Union Army, ‘fresh fish’ as they called me. Standing there with my newly issued rifle we drilled, marching together to prep for battle. On such a beautiful day I don’t think any of us expected what was to come, but as we marched on, shots rang out! A Confederate ambush! Quickly we gathered and returned fire; splitting into two groups. As the main group kept the southern soldiers pinned, three others including myself pressed from the east, flanking the Confederates’ position. With minimal losses victory was quickly ours! I guess I didn’t realize just how dangerous working at the museum could be.” (Aaron Braithwaite)

civil_war_drill_02“Like most days, I began my day began by photographing the soldiers practicing their morning drills. The troop had been drilling intensively for the past week in anticipation of a Confederate attack. During the morning of March 28, the captain caught wind of Confederate movement to the south, and sent three soldiers to scout the area. I grabbed my camera just in time to capture the scouting team face to face with Confederate soldiers. The three soldiers hurried back to the troop to warn them of the approaching danger. I heard the captain order his troops to fall into ranks and prepare for battle. As the soldiers marched forward, I was able to photograph the pride and hesitation in the new recruit’s faces. Suddenly, the Confederate soldiers fired! Although new and inexperienced, the recruits charged courageously forward to fight and protect the Union. The troop did lose a few good soldiers that day, but was able to stop the Confederates from advancing farther north. Although my day started as any other, it ended with me in the center of an ambush photographing a battle between the Union and Confederates.” (Katy Harvey)

The 4th Annual Civil War Drill was presented by members of the 1st Irish Infantry of the 35th Indiana Volunteers, a local Civil War re-enactors group. The group presents during the last Saturday in March each year. During the presentation, visitors get a glimpse of civilian and military life during the Civil War.