Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Boom and Bust

I recall April of 2007 very well. I remember that late frost that literally nipped Missouri's grape harvest in the bud -a well-advanced bud at the time- and the same frost that turned all of the fresh spring green in the canopy into rustling immature black leaves. Walking through the woods in late April was reminiscent of mid-October with leaves falling all around and crinkling in the wind. For a while in spring of 2007, there was a huge flush of understory production under the canopy impacted by the very late hard, killing frost. I remember the Carex socialis that served as a lush, an unnaturally occurring carpet in the Bootheel's bottomland woodlands I was stationed in that spring, all thanks to that late frost and the newly available sunlight. I recall asking professionals if the frost would damage the hickories which had already leafed out, or if the frost would impact acorn production that year or in 2008. There may have been some lasting damage to trees, shrubs and woody vines that year, and I know for certain that it is very difficult to find a Missouri-grown 2007 vintage of Norton, with the grapes having been set back significantly because of that frost. But I was never really given a sufficient answer about the short-lived or lasting impacts of that killing frost to our natural systems.

Fast forward to the drought of 2012 which ravaged the Midwest and the entire Ozark Highlands of Missouri. We had summer wildfires that August, huge wildfires that threatened to move into storm damaged areas, a 100 mile swath in the Ozarks that witnessed massive straight line winds that swept through the region on May 8, 2009. All of the drought-cured downed wood, the dense flush of woody sprouts and understory components including highly flammable warm season grasses and rank forbs were in the line of wildfires. The extreme weather event in 2009 undoubtedly caused lasting impacts: in 2011 I worked on a landscape-scale bird survey in areas impacted by that May derecho, (a new word for most of us, coined by the folks at NOAA, the Spanish word for a bow-echo effect resulting in straight line winds at hurricane force) where I surveyed bird response to areas impacted by the wind event compared to control units, areas that did not see the winds in excess of 100mph. I hired the best botanist in the Midwest to help with the vegetation component in an effort to compare areas impacted by the wind event to those that had seen only regularly occurring fires for 25 years. But I won't get into that study here, though it was very interesting and a fun project, barring the hours and hours of busting through the thankfully unsalvaged woods, a whole landscape of beetle food, an impenetrable network of downed trees and a ridiculous flush of understory plants and associated bird populations. Yellow-breasted chat and prairie warbler city.

What was notable in the years following both of these "natural" events is the lack of monitoring and research. Here we have a perfect laboratory of natural systems in the Ozarks, most of them highly damaged by years of grazing, logging, and fire suppression, but still wooded landscapes with some semblance of what folks in other fields call "ecosystem services." Birds, bats, mammals, insects (including the pollinators!), thousands of species of life exist in our damaged Ozark natural communities. So one would hope that teams of scientists are measuring how extreme weather events are impacting not only vast suites of wildlife, but also the fragile flora, the last remnants of our biodiversity that has managed to persist through 200 years of extraction. I work with some folks who work in research and I have personally not learned of much research being conducted on the impacts of weather events in recent years. I'm probably out of the proverbial loop and perhaps I'll catch a lot of flak for even questioning the integrity of our researchers in the Ozarks. I would love to be called out....with valid proposals with valid questions and true science in hand. I just don't see much of that, of Science, being practiced in Missouri, even in our fancy universities. A classic Caesarian recusatio:I won't write here about how shameful it is that organismal biology is being shown the door, that herbaria are dissolving, or that students wanting to conduct research continually fail to make contact with experts in the field in which they aspire to become an expert and therefore produce shoddy work. No, I won't talk about that here.

So, wildfires from the drought of 2012 left a scorched landscape and I have not yet seen or heard of any vegetation monitoring occurring on these areas. But let's fast forward to spring 2013 when I am driving down Hwy. 54 between Eldon and Camdenton and I see a roadside covered in pale blue flowers. I had never seen a blue spring wildflower on this route before, and I travel Hwy. 54 at least once a week and have done so since December 2005. I pulled over at Linn Creek next to the post office exit and take a look: a vicious plant, hundreds of them on the roadside, robust plants with millions of little threadlike thorns surrounding pretty blue flowers. Viper's Buggloss, once listed in Illinois as a noxious weed akin to today's sericea (Lespedeza cuneata) in Missouri. One report from Illinois in the 1960s suggested that Viper's buggloss would "take over" every natural system. I had never seen it before spring 2013. And I haven't seen it since.

Was it a response to the 2012 drought that latent seeds of this weed germinated in the otherwise bare ground? Is it still there? I don't see it. I've pulled over at the post office again to see if I could find it to no avail. Now that we're in a somewhat normal rain pattern, barring June's daily rain tally, typical roadside weeds have shown their normal colors of typical thick, rank, weedy roadside vegetation. No Viper's buggloss. However, on the same route, princess tree is skyrocketing--Paulownia, a major invader of southeastern states, has appeared almost overnight on Hwy. 54. I have never seen it outside of the Bootheel, and here it is in the Niangua Basin, which is scary.

Similarly, take Gaura biennis. During the drought, roadsides around Salem and the surrounding Current River country were flush with the pale pinkish blooms of Gaura, a real pretty thing, but highly weedy, low C value of 0 or 1. I haven't seen it in robust populations since the drought. In fact, it's hard to find Gaura on roadsides in 2015. It's even disappeared from my yard, even though I know exactly where it was in 2012.

Drive Western Ozark roads this month and witness an amazing explosion of sunflowers with a profusion of blooms. Who doesn't like roadsides with wildflowers, especially nice -and native- sunflowers with persistent blooms? But is it a result of our unnaturally wet and rainy June followed by a dry August? Are the weather extremes are directly impacting vegetation? My observations are anecdotal, but anecdotally I can attest that I have never seen so much Helianthus on Ozark roadsides as I have this year. Is anyone measuring the impacts of weather events and patterns on vegetation? Granted, I'm mostly mentioning roadsides, but also anecdotally I can attest to a flush of woody shrubs in high quality, burned, nice woods. Is this a natural event or is the woody flush, the crazy sunflowers on the roadsides, the thick populations of Asclepias stenophylla on glades a result of extreme weather events? The predictability of nature and natural events is gone, and in short order.

Notably, the species that are spreading, growing robustly and reproducing and thriving are generally low quality plants, barring a few exceptions (such as the A. stenophylla). The weedy generalists are doing just fine with climate change, if that's the cause of the boom and bust, but the conservative and loyal to high quality soils and systems are not. Instead, the high quality species are being predated by deer overpopulation, misapplied herbicide, lack of appropriately placed prescribed fire or prescribed fire out of prescription, or just plain neglect. Biotic homogenization is occurring more rapidly than any of us could have ever imagined.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Passing the Weed Inspection

Several years ago, my landlady sent me a nasty-gram email from the city with a little smiley face attached to her note: our address had been cited by the Office of Neighborhood Services for a Weed Violation. It was noted by a city official that there were "weeds in excess of 12 inches" growing throughout the property. At that time, my landlady (now a resident of Los Angeles, California) alerted us that she had received weed violations in the past, and tried, in vain, to work with local officials to recognize that her "weeds" were beneficial to pollinators, wildlife, and so forth. She battled with them for several years, even secured an interview with the local NPR affiliate about her struggle. So, when the weed violations ended up in her post office box in California for the property that she owns in Missouri, she wasn't too concerned. Her note to us was "work on this ASAP. I know the yard isn't full of weeds!" But the threat of the city mowers brush-hogging all of the yard and sending her the bill for it wasn't very desirable either.

It must have been almost four years ago that the first Weed Violation came in during our tenure at our present residence. At that time, I had amassed a plant list for the yard of 125 vascular plant species, none of them planted, all having been volunteers from our regularly occurring prescribed fire events. We live on a flatwoods, a classic Missouri River Hills landscape with a massive old growth chinquapin oak and scattered walnuts and black oaks. The vegetation isn't of the highest quality, of course, having been mowed and grazed and treated like a lawn for many years. My house was built in 1906 and has had only two owners and lots of careless renters who parked their cars on the "lawn," damaging trees, but no real maintenance of the yard (or the knob and tube wiring, our appraiser has kindly told us for insurance purposes). So the Weed Inspector himself came to the house after we showed up at his office with a plant list, an insect list, a map of the trees, and a detailed plan of the regular ecosystem management we conduct on an annual basis.

At that time, the Weed Inspector went through the yard, truly impressed with the biodiversity, all the legumes and long-lived perennial wildflowers, and asked that we post a sign that lets passers by and other civic officials recognize that the area is not overgrown from benign neglect, but is being managed as "habitat." Quickly, we posted metal signs issued from the National Wildlife Federation proclaiming our property as a "Backyard Wildlife Habitat" project. Not weeds. We didn't hear from the Weed Inspector for years. Until early August. Same routine: the Office of Neighborhood Services sent a Weed Violation to my landlady in California. She forwards her scanned letter to us two weeks later, giving us five days to "clean up" the yard or show up for a hearing. We spend three days trimming by hand, pulling the grape vines from the fencerow, deadheading the Echinacea that I had planned to leave for the wintering chickadees, and we make an appointment with the Weed Inspector two days before the hearing before City Council.

Maybe the city officials know us? Maybe when I called a week in advance to make an appointment to "discuss the weed ordinance" they took the time to come by the property themselves? Regardless, I showed up at City Hall with my my notebook of plant and insect species, as well as a vasculum of plant specimens from the yard that might be considered "weeds" because they are "tall." Helianthus hirsutus, Silphium perfoliatum, Desmodiums, native Lespedezas, all native flora from the yard. The Weed Inspector came out to the lobby and didn't even show us to his office. "I went by your house. I saw your sign in the yard. I can tell you don't have weeds, you have native plants. It's your neighbors who are the problem....." Success without the litany of the benefits of "gardening for wildlife" and so forth. Two weeks later, the yard is still in tact, the city's brush-hogger mowed the abandoned lot next door, all covered in rank fescue and thistle. My Helianthus hirsutus is about to start blooming, the ageratum is in full bloom, the Desmodiums are in bloom, and for at least one more growing season, the yard is in tact.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Catch it while you can....

Last week, my kid sister visited Missouri for the first time since the early 1990s, her first trip to visit me- a transplant from New Orleans after Katrina -in my new homeland. It's been ten years since I relocated to Missouri so it was, as my mother would say, "high time" my kid sister came to visit from her fancy world of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Her first introduction to Missouri was Blue Spring in the late 1980s, not the Kansas City-area Blue Springs, but the little Ozark spring somewhere on the Scenic Riverways, a deep water hole accessible by car on truly rustic and not well-maintained gravel road. The karst landscape and blue waters were entrancing to her. At that time, my kid sister lived in a fabulous 1983 Westphalia van while following the Grateful Dead, years before Jerry died and the whole Dead scene degraded to a...not very pleasant experience for anyone but grifters. She had an outpost cabin in northwestern Arkansas: fall colors without the cold weather, a patch of land to grow some food, no running water, barely any electricity and a wood stove for heat. She had a great place in the Arkansas Ozarks, but she had never really ventured into Missouri, barring a random trip where she ended up at Blue Spring.

Three days. She flew in for a three day stay in Missouri. How to cram everything I want to show my wonderful, very smart, and perspicacious kid sister into three days, making sure to show her the best the Ozarks has to offer in an effort to entice her to come for a longer stay, to explain to my family who wants me to move back home that Missouri has a lot to offer. So we went to the headwaters of the Current River. Trout dinner (not locally caught, since most of that tastes like antibiotics and cat food), fireflies and katydids on a streambank, and an 8 mile float complete with a lot of hummus, carrots, Fig Newtons and 2011 St. James Norton in steel canisters. My kid sister has a lot of experience kayaking on the Snake River, on the Henry's Fork, the Green, and so forth, so the little riffles and tricky rootwads were very relaxing to her. Damselflies! Louisiana waterthrush! Kingfishers shooting lazers as they fly down the river corridor!

We took a mid-week float on a vaguely popular stretch of river. There were many others on the river, some in the same boat we were in, folks wanting a wild experience to truly capture the upper Current, to see the wood ducks and herons, the wonderful drone of the morning cicadas. And then there were those with the loud radios playing horrible music coming from behind, the folks bringing their domestic disputes to the river, the scene that I try to avoid by floating on early weekdays. It was unavoidable. We were committed to our float.

I see the numbers of canoes and kayaks and inflatable rafts and other floatation devices, I see them issuing forth onto the river system and I wonder how wildlife manages with all of this recreational use of the river. How much of the party scene can persist before the people who are wanting to float the river for the scenic and solitary value become disengaged to the point that they don't want to return? So many stretches of Missouri rivers have been relegated to "party" status that they have been allowed to become degraded. The Gasconade, once a home to numerous rare mussel species, is now a jet-boat stream with so much sedimentation and streambank erosion, and no protection of the streambanks from cattle grazing, that the whole river is trashed ecologically. The Niangua River, once a focus area of biodiversity, has been seriously degraded in recent years with the explosion of float outfitters in the watershed with improper wastewater systems and land clearing.

I tried to show my kid sister what was good in the Ozarks. The areas I showed her are in good standing at present time but under pressure for more development, more "growth" in the American model. But people don't come to the Current River country for wifi access and fancy dining. If they do, they can just as well visit Shaw Nature Reserve or Branson. Leave the Current River Hills country to the people who respect the land and love the river for its smallmouth bass population, for the rugged hills and bad cellphone reception, for the wood ducks and cooters. I hate seeing development in the watershed that is driving pollution and nutrient loading into the streams. Do you give up? Is it all in the name of progress?

Sunday, August 02, 2015

August on an Ozark Stream

The morning cicadas drone beautifully on warm August mornings. In great hopes of normal flow patterns and clear, swift waters this week, I looked back at last August's float and recalled streambanks full of life, the pulse of late summer with katydids calling until sunrise.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Old Saw

With the publication of the 2005 edition of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri by Paul Nelson, I thought the debate regarding the necessity of fire for the restoration of Missouri's woodlands was over. I didn't think I would end up explaining that there is no silvicultural treatment that can be used as a substitute for the ancient chemical process of fire to restore an ecosystem in a fire-adapted landscape. Carefully prescribed and applied, fire is integral to the sustainability and promotion of the genetic biological matrix that define a woodland system. I am well aware of misapplied fire, fire in damaged systems, fire conducted in inappropriate seasons, fire out of prescription that causes significant, irreversible damage.

Further, fire behavior is shaped by slope, aspect, topography and fuels. Fire will move differently (and hotter) through dense, thick leaf litter resulting from an overstocked canopy than through a rich grass-forb matrix. Fire behaves differently on south facing slopes than north facing slopes and so forth, so blasting a north slope with fire to "create" a woodland is irresponsible. Fire will burn hotter and potentially more damaging through out-of-context systems, those areas that have not had regularly occurring fire, or have been highly damaged by years of logging and grazing, areas without a grass-forb mix in the understory, the historic condition.

Unfortunately, high quality systems where fire has been applied responsibly and carefully are rare in Missouri. Today, researchers are conducting fire effects studies in degraded systems, areas that have not been restored and never had integrity to begin with. What is disconcerting is that these flawed research projects are allowing for authoritative pronouncements proclaiming that the results of improperly applied fire in ecological trash is damaging, that all fire must be bad. But it's not. A lot of the new research is irrelevant to ecosystem management in high quality systems.

I'm sorry that there are so few areas in the Ozarks that still have the intact soil profile and herbaceous layer that supports native biodiversity on a landscape scale. Long histories of grazing, logging, and fire suppression have destroyed the opportunity for recovery, especially in today's climate that is far removed from natural. There are still thousands of acres that would benefit from carefully applied fire and ecological thinning, but there are so few land managers qualified to do it.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sticky Heat

Stepping onto the tennis court yesterday in a seersucker skirt and the lightest possible shirt I could wear without it being transparent, the heat from the Decoturf hard court hit me square in the face. I had a hard time breathing on hard courts at noon, and even harder time catching my breath after long rallies with my favorite hitting partner. I asked for summer weather back in May when I was still wearing a fleece and never saw the sun; in the meantime, I seem to have forgotten how to manage true summer weather in a house with no air conditioning. In New Orleans, one holes up in a coffee shop drinking iced mochas and completing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. Here, I garden, take a cold shower, play tennis, take a cold shower, walk the dogs, take a cold shower, and sleep with fans strategically placed throughout the house to push out the hot air and bring in the cooler night air. 84 degrees in my house this morning at 7:30. The dogs are restless and the frogs are right at home.

It seems that our weather patterns have switched with Oregon's this summer. Poor Willamette Valley is in drought with highs in the 90s and the Ozarks have had continuous rains, flooding rains, which have caused all kinds of structural problems. A four foot wave of water through a riverfront campground? Not normal for a July day in Missouri and such a departure from the drought of 2012. Perhaps that 12 mile float on the Jack's Fork River I have planned for my sister's visit in August won't require a lot of portaging after all.

Vegetation sampling began a few weeks ago and my scratched up arms from all the sensitive briar and switch grass can serve as evidence that I've been in the field. The frequent rain events have caused much delay in completing surveys, but the longer day lengths allow for 12 and 14 hours days in the field, which is great. I sweat a lot, I look like hell, but I get my work done. Oh, it's sticky there on a glade in stagnant July air with all that sod holding moisture and prairie grasses averaging 4 ft. tall. But this has been a banner year for flowers, lots of orchids and all the composites and blue curls in full bloom lately. I remain grateful that I grew up in a hotter climate so I can manage Missouri summers, which really aren't so bad at all. In fact, they're downright nice.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Summer Reading List

When I was an undergrad, I had the wonderful chance to work with a brilliant scholar, Dr. Tom Samet. He died way too young, but his summer reading list offered up to all of us was recently uncovered. This from the man, a Fulbright Scholar, who invited his whole class to his house to watch Breaker Morant an influential film that gave us this: "The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations." It took me a few years into my thirties to break into Pynchon novels, but as a 42 year old, I'm glad I waited and remain sad that one of his followers, my favorite modern writer, David Foster Wallace (tennis player who went by Dave to all of his friends)left this world too soon. After an immensely stressful week that brought me to the cliff, I'm done. See this great reading list and escape, too, the mediocrity of people in higher paying jobs. The state's natural history is doomed.

See below Dr. Samet's reading list for budding scholars. I'm pleased to know I've read most of them.

SUGGESTIONS FOR SUMMER READING Tom Samet I've listed below a handful of titles that you may want to consider reading while you bake at the beach. Naturally, the list reflects all of my personal biases, quirks, and preoccupations. Though there are exceptions to each of the following principles, I've in general been guided by these considerations: a. length: the list includes a number of very long books, on the assumption that if one doesn't read these during the summer, one doesn't read them at all; b. period: most of the volumes included are from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which is where I'm most at home; c. familiarity: with few exceptions these are well known and celebrated books--classics, if you like; but I've tried to avoid those that you are most likely to encounter in the classroom.

  • Richard Altick, The Scholar Adventurers: as the title suggests, an account of major literary discoveries, including frauds, secret codes, and other mysteries; Victorian People and Ideas: an exceptionally useful and readable introduction to the life of nineteenth-century England
  • W. H. Auden, Selected Poems
  • Jane Austen, Mansfield Park: novel
  • James Baldwin, Another Country: novel
  • James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain: short fiction
  • John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor: novel
  • Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: an enormously important study of the "disjunction" between economic structure and cultural values
  • Saul Bellow, Herzog: novel
  • Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers: major essays on Tolstoy, Herzen and others by one of the great British thinkers of the twentieth century
  • Randolph Bourne, War and the Intellectuals: important essays by a central figure in American intellectual life during the first decades of the twentieth century
  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth: one of the few memoirs of World War I by a woman
  • Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: probably the best book on Freud ever written, and an indispensable introduction to psychoanalysis
  • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France: a major work by the central figure in English conservative thought
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote: novel--arguably the first one
  • Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: novel--his most ambitious and possibly his greatest
  • Malcolm Cowley, Exile's Return: the most important account of the writers of the "lost generation"--Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Cummings, etc.
  • Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Little Dorrit: novels
  • Morris Dickstein, Gates of Eden: a cultural history of the sixties
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: novel
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch: novel
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, Selected Letters
  • Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education
  • Ford Madox Ford, Parade's End: a series of four novels, and arguably the finest work of fiction to emerge from the first world war
  • E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy: essays
  • Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: historical study by one of the most important and influential of recent French thinkers
  • Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Totem and Taboo, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex
  • Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory: an award-winning study of the impact of the First World War upon the modern imagination
  • Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, No Man's Land: major studies of women writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd: important reflections on childhood in America at mid-century
  • Edmund Gosse, Father and Son: a major Victorian autobiography, recording the conflict of faith with the secular pressures of the latter half of the nineteenth centuries
  • Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That: memoir of World War I by a major modern writer
  • Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls: novel
  • Walter Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind: the best available account of the climate of thought and sentiment in Victorian England
  • Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, The Princess Casamassima: novels
  • James Joyce, Selected Letters
  • Franz Kafka, Letter to His Father: as the title suggests, a letter from a great writer to his businessman father
  • Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion: novel
  • Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon: novel
  • Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American life in the seventies by one of our major cultural historians
  • D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow: novel; Studies in Classic American Literature: critical essays; Phoenix: essays
  • Norman Mailer, Armies of the Night: novel; Of a Fire on the Moon; journalism
  • Thomas Mann, Death in Venice: short novel
  • Mary McCarthy, On the Contrary: essays
  • Herman Melville, Moby Dick: novel
  • V. S. Naipaul, Guerillas, A Bend in the River: novels
  • George Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism, Letters (4 vols.)
  • Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, V: novels
  • Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: novel
  • David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: a classic study of American character at midcentury
  • Katherine Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate: a history of misogyny in literature
  • Philip Roth, Letting Go, The Ghost Writer: novels
  • Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: an important study of English women novelists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • Patricia Meyer Sparks, The Female Imagination: a study of women's writing by a major American scholar
  • Stendahl, The Red and the Black: novel
  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace: novel
  • Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve, Fathers and Sons: novels
  • Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men: major novel by a major American writer, based in part on the life of Huey Long
  • Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall: novel
  • Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: a profoundly important account of the emergence of capitalism from the change in religious sensibility brought about by the Reformation
  • Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, The Long Revolution, The Country and the City: major studies by one of Britain's greatest cultural historians
  • Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: historical studies in European socialism-- indispensable reading; Patriotic Gore: historical and biographical studies in the literature of the American Civil War
  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own: an appeal for sexual equality; Three Guineas: an appeal for sexual equality; A Writer's Diary
  • Richard Wright, Native Son: novel; Black Boy: autobiography