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
  • Sunday, June 21, 2015

    Summer Solstice

    I live in an un-airconditioned bungalow built in 1906. I thought it was built in the 1930s (based on land plat maps), but after last week's appraisal, I learned this house is much older than I thought and that the knob-and-tube wiring is original to the 1930s upgrades. This is charming to a degree, but not from an insurance policy or the modern day appliance angle: I cannot run a ceiling fan and charge my cell phone at the same time, or use the microwave and the computer printer simultaneously, or a lamp in one room and the washer in the basement without my power going out. I like my house a lot, I love the yard even more, and during summer months this cottage reminds me of living in a cabin in Arkansas that I would take to as respite from the Louisiana heat back in the day before the storm.

    The longest day of the year, the summer solstice is still underway but under cloudy skies, which is unfortunate. I thrive in sunlight, try to spend as much time as humanly possible in the sunlight and delighting in pretty days. Upcoming travel plans include Jackson Hole and the Willamette Valley, both areas that normally see rain, cloudy skies, cooler temperatures, but have switched weather patterns. Oregon is sunny! And dry! And warm but not too hot! With the flooding rivers in the Ozarks I have yet to go on a float, having seen all the gravel bars underwater on the Current and Jack's Fork. June seems to be as fleeting as spring wildflower season, which is disturbing. Before I can even catch my breath it will be time for the tennis tournament in Cincinnati. We're already approaching Wimbledon and I haven't even eaten a blackberry. Strawberries are on the menu in England, but by the grass court season in Missouri, we should be eating peaches. This year may be different having heard that the Malden peach producer has been impacted by a misapplication of herbicide, so we may not be seeing Bootheel peaches, depending instead on the north Missouri farms. Or, worse, Georgia. Raspberries showed up this weekend at the farmer's market, so summer isn't as fleeting as it seems with the solstice marking the beginning of shorter days and the coming of winter. Ach. Where is the time going?

    Friday, June 19, 2015

    June 20: Augusta AVA Appellation Day!

    Every year I write about it, about how Missouri harbors the initial American Viticulture Area, and how great that it was awarded to my favorite part of the state rather than somewhere out in California. Missouri's wine history is long and storied with some interruptions due to anti-immigrant sentiments, which is a sad period in our state's history. Beer fans will agree, considering the impact of anti-German movements during World War I had on beer production in and around St. Louis. It was all very sad and deeply entrenched in the American psyche.

    But in the 1980s, when Napa Valley was exploding with great vinifera-based wines, the Augusta region in the Missouri River Hills of the Ozark Highlands was designated as the first AVA. Missouri wineries are releasing their 2012 vintage, the grapes grown during the drought. Supple, highly tannic, and delicious wines characterize this vintage, certainly one for setting aside to see how it ages. Visit Augusta this weekend, follow the maps of the detours around the flooded Highway 94, and make your way to their special events. Live music, games, sparkling grape juice for non-wine drinkers, and the first sunny weekend we've seen in weeks.

    Tuesday, June 09, 2015

    Hey, pollinators, these woods are open for business.

    It was a cool morning in early June after two days of severe thunderstorms when the woodlands erupted in the lilting calls of Eastern wood pewees, so many pewees, summer tanagers, pileated woodpeckers, just too many birds to count. Coming back from two days of dodging rain in the lush Current River Hills, we took a detour on the Central Plateau to check out one of the best examples of an upland flatwoods landscape in this part of the Ozarks.

    The area had been treated with fire in February, the latest of a long history of prescribed fires, including one in late April in 2013 a year when the vegetation was as advanced as early June. Most fire practitioners can tell when it's too late to burn, when the vegetation is advanced and when wildlife is setting up shop for breeding. With responsibly applied prescribed fire, when Ozark woodlands are largely dormant, there will still be some direct mortality of early emerging biota. However, for the health of the system, and for the sustainability of an ecosystem, prescribed fire on regular return intervals in healthy natural communities must continue for the viability of all plants and animals. I was personally opposed to the burn on these flatwoods in late April 2013; it was conducted much too late, and no one knows what was lost in that late fire. And that's a problem.

    So I returned there this year and found the traditional floral display that makes this landscape so nice to walk through--dominated by spiderwort and penstemons with a remarkable suite of legumes and grasses, and so forth. Hopefully the area's vegetation will be sampled to track changes through the years following fire events and analysis will show fire effects on the vegetation. Nodding a head up and down and proclaiming "it looks good to me" is not science. But that day last week, it did look pretty and it was fun to see so many butterflies and bees. But what about the insects and spiders that are not pollinators? There are certain specialists studying the impacts of fire on other suites of insects, but during my hike on a nice day it was great to see so many pollinators taking advantage of the rich floral display that, yes, included five species of milkweeds.

    Because most of our Ozark ecosystems are out of context with their historic character, and because nature today requires active ecosystem management to sustain biodiversity, the contrast of burned and thinned versus unburned was stark. At least the burned and thinned section, the area with all the flowers and plants and birds, spans over 3,000 acres. But I wouldn't spend a day walking through the unburned doghair even-aged stand of red oak-black oak ecological trash with an understory of leaf litter and a Virginia creeper sprout here and there. Crops of trees are not my specialty. I like plants. I like restored ecosystems that harken to a world mostly lost of highly functioning systems that have natural processes in place to shape and influence wildlife populations and all of biodiversity. Yes, I spend my time there.

    Saturday, May 30, 2015

    A Rumble becomes a Roar

    Stepping out of the car into a beautiful woodland on a clement 70 degree day, I could hear the calls of the yellow-billed cuckoo and Eastern wood pewee loud and clear. They were directly above me, along with the summer tanagers setting up their breeding spots and the red-headed woodpeckers chattering among the post oak snags. Large, contiguous, high quality forested blocks of uneven aged mixed white oak-post oak-black oak woodlands with a well-developed understory are becoming increasingly rare in the Missouri Ozark Highlands, and this White River Hills area, nestled just west of Cassville, represents one of the best examples of this natural landscape. After thirty years of carefully applied prescribed fire in the dolomite glade-woodland complex I visited, few can argue that the wildlife and herbaceous response to this management has not been beneficial: plants rare in Missouri have a stronghold in the region, including American beakgrass, Liatris mucronata, Callirhoe bushii. Greater roadrunners, wild turkey, black vultures are common inhabitants here, and Bear #1, the first recorded black bear in Missouri's modern era, was documented from this area, a region that certainly supplies enough food, wild land, and denning areas to support a teeming population of this incredible mammal.

    Unfortunately, the outreach and education aspect of prescribed fire management has not trickled down through the generations. Today, longtime practitioners of prescribed fire in Missouri take it for granted that they've passed that political hurdle, that surely everyone has read the Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri(Nelson, 2005, 2010), as well as all of the supporting literature that reiterates the importance of prescribed fire for our once pyrrhic landscapes--academic papers that support fire for the benefit of wildlife, oak and pine regeneration, and rare plants. So, today, resentment and anger is mounting in this fire-mediated landscape, with outcry against prescribed fire, perhaps because of misapplication of this management tool, but outcry against all such management. Serious criticism and a misunderstanding of the benefits of low intensity prescribed fires for wildlife and endemic flora is evident in a mounting campaign, complete with yard signs.

    It's a shame, really, that I don't live closer or that I can't get involved in politics because I would like to explain that properly applied prescribed fire is beneficial, that Eastern red cedar is only in the area because of a long history of overgrazing, and once you get rid of it and apply fire, a suite of indigenous plants and animals will rebound. The White River Hills Important Bird Area, a designation from the National Audubon Society, has been elevated to a Globally Significant IBA because of the high level of endemism, all the rare plants and birds and functioning ecological systems. Without fire, all of the rare elements that make this such a special place in the Ozarks will disappear. Unfortunately, and conversely, with improperly applied fire, all of these assets will disappear. Ecosystem management and restoration should be accomplished carefully, and it has been on thousands of acres in the region. Sadly, the results of a couple of situations in recent history have unleashed a firestorm of criticism.

    I don't know the outcome of all the politics and I can't get involved, but I hope that the lovely woodlands and glades, rich with such an incredible diversity of flora and fauna rare in Missouri because most of the state does not see fire, will persist. Fire remains the primary management tool to restore healthy ecosystems in Missouri. I'm sad that it has been misapplied, and hope for the future management that prescription parameters including humidity, wind, date of green-up, and fuel loading will be taken into account before causing another firestorm.