Wednesday, July 23, 2014

In mesic streambank forests

The morning cicadas starting their droning around 10 o'clock this morning when the temperatures had already climbed into the lower 80s. I would rather have been on a river this morning but drinking hotel coffee along a streambank rich with the big strapping blades of Carex albursina and drooping white flowerheads of Polymnia, loyal to talus slopes and forested settings, was also nice.

Walking the spring branch and seeing the forces of nature working alone as they do in these mesic woods, shaped not by fire but by windthrow and rain events, I was reminded of comments from a forester who visited the site with me years ago. He tried to tell me that these moist north-facing slopes should possess a carpet of warm season grasses and widely spaced post oaks rather than the old maples, white oaks and wild hydrangeas that exist today. He tried to tell me that we need to burn these areas, these mesic forest settings, to "promote savanna." It's just silly, frankly, when folks unfamiliar with ecologically complex systems try to offer one prescription across all landscapes for "restoration." So today I was reminded of the anti-maple craze going on in the Ozarks in reaction to papers and studies from the Appalachians. The Ozark Highlands do not have a "maple problem" along the lines of the deer-infested Eastern Deciduous Forest range northeast of the Ozarks. Our widely spaced large girth maples and white oaks, pine and Kentucky coffee trees are not necessarily out of context with the historic character of so many acres across the area, and these wanton maple eradication projects that I'm discovering throughout the region are not based on any ecological standards but as a draw for timber? Or just meddling with forested settings because practitioners have chainsaws and Tordon? I really do not know.

Streambanks and mesic forests in the Ozarks are rich, rich sites with a suite of flora that includes Solidago flexicaulis and delicate little plants that depend on cooler temperatures and deep soil. Streambank wildlife in the Ozarks usually include Louisiana waterthrush and those sneaky green herons. Today we encountered a den of four mink frolicking in a fallen tree along the sreambank, the young pups chasing one another and the adults swimming through the Sparganium and duckweed in the cool 56 degree water. The hike in shady conditions represented such a vast departure from working on glades in the summer months. But, like so many other fabulous natural history sites in the Ozarks, the moist forested conditions along streams here are associated in a heterogeneous matrix with hot, dry uplands and glades where fire-mediated flora and fauna exist just a stone's throw away from the maple-white oak woods on the north slopes.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Long July Afternoons

I have something even greater than the deepest depths of empathy and compassion for people like my Daddy who worked hard all his life and has been absolutely lost since he retired from teaching many years ago. Now age is taking its brutal toll on him (and probably thousands of other Americans) who worked for years socking money away into a retirement system only to find himself without a creative outlet and passion for healthful living so he spends entirely too many hours in doctors offices and spending hours in front of the television. Ach.

So the glade mapping project that lasted almost four years is over; the final shapefile will be made available in the next couple of weeks for anyone interested in seeing all 88,000+ mapped glades in Missouri (complete with substrate and a fully stocked attribute table!). Much fieldwork for the past four years has included field truthing mapped glades across the state--thousands of glades of questionable quality, but glades nonetheless. Even though the glade project is over, I'm not heading off to die in a pasture like an old bull bison but my days-hours-minutes are still absolutely packed. Summer is chugging along and I only learned last night that my yard harbors two species of katydids (which explains the heretofore unidentifiable nightly chorus that joins the "regular" katydids and cicadas). I have encountered monster-sized beautiful timber rattlesnakes in the St. Francois Mountains (moved this one off the road with a stick which his girth broke) and really nice pine woods full of Rudbeckia. I've devoured all of the compilations of David Foster Wallace's essays and really enjoyed all of his tennis-related articles. Regular fieldwork, visiting nice woods, chanterelles! my garden so full of kale, cucumbers and basil, daily tennis, and the early lights of the fireflies as they come alive in the yard at sunset I just don't have time to do anything indoors.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Moving Gravel

Over 100 years ago during the Big Cut in the Ozarks when every square inch of the Ozark Highland dome was ravaged by logging, hillsides throughout the region were stripped bare of vegetation. Without vegetation, major erosion occurred with every subsequent year--streams once characterized by limestone or dolomite slabs and narrow streambanks were filled with gravel accreting from the eroding hillsides. All that chert rubble in our Ozark streams are generally artifact of overlogging and the subsequent grazing by domestic livestock. It remains unfathomable that anyone would consider any of these practices coincident with conservation of our natural places.

And so, with all that gravel in the streams grew yet another industrial pillaging of our state's natural places: Gravel Mining. I won't explain how detrimental this practice is to benthic creatures and to the structure of these streams that have now adapted to life socked in with gravel, nor will I complain about how destructive it is to bring heavy equipment associated with mining and logging into our now highly erodable and fragile Ozark soils which clings to every fragment of vegetation to hold it together. One of the state's largest gravel mining companies existed along the lower Current River around Doniphan, now a truly trashed out part of the river that is subsequently littered with gravel mining equipment that was abandoned there when the industry lost its allure. However, gravel on all of our new roads and driveways and continued "improvements" must come from somewhere.

Now we have gravel quarries in the Ozarks. Sure, there's still a lot of gravel mining of the streams going on despite the significant ecological toll this practice has on native environments and biota, and the evidence can be seen on certain ridgetops that now have thriving populations of Ozark witch hazel or sycamores, plants normally associated with low, wet, bottomland woodlands and forests but have been transplanted through gravel traveling to our dry rocky uplands. Leave it to unassuming folks to file Element of Occurrence records for such out of place and unnatural occurrences of these species.

Last November, I went backpacking into the timber rattlesnake country of the St. Francois Mountains, home to enormous igneous domes and glades and flatwoods of significant integrity. When we returned to the parking lot after a three day trip into the backcountry, my colleague noted a strange population of a Rudbeckia unseen on the top of the igneous dome before. Thinking not much of it, I filed the conversation away until yesterday when I returned to the same site to see said Rudbeckia almost in flower. Not only was there a strange Rudbeckia uncommon in Missouri taking over the area, but the ever burgeoning perennial rhizomatous population was sandwiched between multiple limestone-dolomite glade and fen plants that had absolutely no reason to be on top of an igneous dome. The area had been "enhanced" by the addition of a limestone chat parking area, with the gravel carrying with it an entire natural community type that is now encroaching on the dry igneous flatwoods at the top of this dome.

Homogenization is occurring at a breakneck speed in the Ozarks, and most of it is caused by our own carelessness. It is not an accident if the results could be prevented.

Friday, June 20, 2014

June 20, 1980: Appellation Day for Augusta, Missouri

Missouri's wine and grape industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the past thirty years, perhaps even surpassing our prominence in the business during the 1800s--but probably not. Today, Missouri wineries are producing lovely, supple, and diverse wines, award winning numbers worthy of collection and aging. We've past the stage of being one of the largest producers of Concord grapes for jam (but you can still buy truly delicious Concords from roadsides around St. James every August), and we now grow what may be the best Norton grapes in the country (in my opinion).

On June 20, 1980, Augusta Missouri, nestled on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River Valley, was recognized as the first U.S. Wine District, or American Viticultural Area #1, because of its unique soil, climate, historical significance, and quality of wines produced from grapes grown in vineyards that date to the 1800’s. While New York and California both were huge producers of grapes and wine at the same period, Augusta reigned supreme for their palatable wines. And so, in 1980, Augusta Missouri put America on the map for their wine production. Tomorrow, Augusta Winery will be hosting an Appellation Festival to celebrate this historic event. If you're looking for remarkably great Missouri wines (including Norton port!) head to this terrific region and start tasting...

Sunday, June 15, 2014


The recent tropical weather pattern of late afternoon thunderstorms and high humidities has made planning long days in the field a little tricky. Vegetation is blooming like proverbial gangbusters and the leaves on my redbud shrubs are enormous, resembling South American philodendrons ready to climb into the forest canopy. While I don't know what all of this rain is doing to the Missouri vineyard grapes, I know that strawberry season is officially over with the last strawberry harvest last week of watery, overripe, and not very flavorful berries. The peach harvest in the upper part of the Ozarks is expected to be later than normal, so if you see peach vendors from the Bootheel selling peaches in June on your rural route, snatch them up. When they're in season, I generally live on a diet of Missouri peaches, Queen Anne cherries from the Pacific Northwest, and vegetables from the yard. While we don't have the 365 day growing season like we have in New Orleans, Missouri gardeners have all the growing conditions to grow some stellar food.

I don't like the sound of words like "moist," "nourish," and "belly," all of which have come into frequent use in my news venues with the not-so-recent upswing in the locavore movement, cooking, health, etc. but there's no substitute: the moist days have allowed early summer native vegetation to bloom profusely and perfectly, just waiting for a disastrous drought, a pummeling hailstorm, or worse. Chanterelles are popping up all over dry woodlands in the Ozarks, just gorgeous mushrooms, so charming it's almost difficult to pick them (but sauteed with olive oil, Tony Chachere's Cajun seasoning and red wine? Hard to beat the flavor. Especially on pizza.). High quality native ecosystems without too many deer and with a good not-too-frequent fire history should be in full bloom these days. It's always depressing to see shrubs like Ceanothus all clipped off by deer, so I go to those places without too many deer. Like my own land, I may try to find a way to put a massive fence around nice woods to keep the hooved locusts out.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

In the Flatwoods

The instructions I gave the group were simple: hike up the hill to where the land flattens out. In the Niangua Basin, these broad flat hilltops are ubiquitous, and, in many cases, still in wonderful ecological condition. The Upland Flatwoods here are characterized by a clay fragipan that allows for pooling water and stunted canopy growth; so, the scattered blackjack and post oaks that populate the area are short enough that one can easily see yellow-throated vireos up close in May.

A lovely day in late May awaited us with spiderwort in full bloom in the flatwoods. These perched water table-based landscapes tend to harbor different suites of sedges and, in some of the wetter areas, some different rushes than normal dry woodlands host. We were there to look for birds, but noted every few moments the passing of massive butterflies, at least thirty woodland and tiger swallowtails, along with some little falcate orangetips (host plant: a spring wildflower, pussytoes) hanging on this late spring day. Bird diversity was high, which was expected in an area that is surrounded by a landscape treated with regularly occurring fire for the past 30 years. Among the highlights were the Acadian flycatchers and yellow warblers. I am so fond of yellow-breasted chats with their silly calls and intonations, hanging out in shrubby areas that are par for the course in these fabulous woodlands.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Trashed out

When Doug drinks too much coffee, he grows increasingly anxious about asteroids or meteors slated to destroy Earth in 1,000,000 years or so. I don't share this anxiety about the asteroids or meteors, nor do I lose sleep about the future of the sun, which may involve a massive implosion in 5,000,000 years or something. I lose sleep over what's happening here and now, over unstoppable, largescale ecosystem destruction occurring on our prairies and in our woodlands, over unstoppable climate change, over the lasting impacts of the 2010 BP oil spill (which few are monitoring), Missouri's deer overpopulation problem, birds and cell phone towers, urban sprawl, and the list goes on. And it doesn't take caffeine to make me anxious.

So, for the sake of my mental health, I try to avoid places that show signs of degradation. I seek out the now-rare high quality sites in Missouri, the areas without a deer overpopulation problem, without mismanagement issues, places that haven't been destroyed by development, grazing, or other forms of resource extraction. Sadly, as the years progress, even in my short tenure here, there aren't a lot of places like that left.

I moved here permanently in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, I've focused much of my recreational time in Missouri's Ozark Highlands, especially in the woodlands, glades and fast moving, spring-fed streams. In less than ten years, I've seen biotic homogenization occur at a rapid pace; with development pressing at every corner, the White River glades that had suffered so many years of abuse from grazing are now housing developments. With increased urbanization all over the Ozarks, the deer overpopulation problem has increased exponentially with signs of deer browse on everything from coneflowers and white oaks to boxelder. I try to find places without a deer problem. Or places without a mismanagement problem that show signs of misapplication of fire, of "thinning" with no ecological sense behind it (like the recent anti-maple craze going on), and so forth. It's getting harder by the month.

I try to go to the rivers. In less than ten years, I saw the one last decent stretch of the Meramec River morph from a becoming-degraded stream to a river with ranch style houses on the banks, the smallmouth bass replaced with drum and carp, fertilizer runoff and cattle. Rare mussels don't have a chance. So I stay away from the bush honeysuckle-St. Louis sprawl areas like the Meramec. I try to visit other areas that were under threat of development in 2005, disappearing places that are becoming more urbanized and those remaining natural places more enticing to recreationalists seeking a natural experience. It's a one-two punch: With that love of natural places comes threats of their own right. "Loved to death." Some of the most pristine natural places in Missouri are loved to death with the features that attracted all the photographers and hikers and floaters disappearing because of all that love of place and development at the borders.

So I try to go to the places that helped me decide to move here after Katrina. It's sort of fun -even as a 41 year old- to see that small trees become big trees in nine years. But depressing in a less than juvenile fascination to see that as years progress, the constant pressure of introduced trout has annihilated the sculpin and other native populations in one of the rivers I liked to visit. In 2003, on my first Missouri Ozark river float, my canoe partner told me about growing up on the river and always finding hellbenders under the big slab rocks. And that was in his short lifetime. So hellbenders were history even when I fell in love with the river. But in my nine years I've seen major development of the whole valley by float outfitters with campgrounds (with little regard for wastewater treatment), cows in the river, continuous pressure by trout that have impacted the native crayfish and fish diversity, the introduction of non-native aquatic plants like Potomogeton crispus displacing spring flora, and so forth. Biotic homogenization is occurring at a rapid pace. My visits to the last remaining high quality sites are just writing testimony.