Sunday, December 30, 2007

Eastern red cedar

In the backyard, I arranged 3 bird feeders around the perimeter of an large Eastern red cedar. On cold afternoons, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and white-throated sparrows hide out in the dense branches, keeping close watch on the feeders while waiting for the plush fox squirrels to finish gorging on seed that is rightfully theirs. In the front yard, two cedars grow next the street. One has been hit by a car at least once and the other grows in such a strange spot that it must have been here before the house. Otherwise, the placement doesn't make sense.

I never had a problem with cedars until I moved to Missouri. After learning more about them, I'm compelled to grab a chainsaw and remove a large part of my yard's canopy. My yard, however, is so far divorced from its natural state (having been developed and incorporated since 1938), that ecological stewardship really wouldn't improve anything. So, the cedars will stay and the wintering birds will keep their shelter.

Eastern red cedars are native to the eastern U.S. and occur in almost every county in Missouri. In the Ozarks, large, gnarled cedars averaging 500 years old grow on rocky outcroppings in shallow limestone-based soils. As large, individual trees, they have a rightful place in Ozark ecosystems; but in the absence of land management and with the presence of largescale grazing, cedars have aggressively moved into woodlands, glades, and prairies, creating dense thickets that shade out any traditional herbaceous growth.

The historical Ozark landscape was largely shaped by fire. Coming off the prairies in the west, fire crept across the rocky landscape, keeping the understory free of brush while encouraging the growth of oaks, hickories, native grasses and wildflowers. Small cedars are intolerant of fire, so the frequent low surface fires kept them in check. During the past 80 years, since the days of open range grazing that encouraged this cedar invasion, natural fires have been squelched and cedars now grow prolifically throughout the Ozarks.

Dense stands of cedar not only shade out understory grasses and wildflowers, but they leach out a resinous substance which actually restricts plant growth. Public land managers in the Ozarks have made cedar removal a top priority. While small cedars are intolerant of fire, large cedars are resistant to it. Moreover, fire is unable to penetrate thick stands of cedar due not only to lack of grassy fuels, but to the high humidities caused by the dense canopy. Now, in prairies, woodlands and glades throughout the Ozarks, crews set out with chainsaws to remove large cedars, piling them into big heaps to burn. Once cedars are cut below the lowest branches, they won't resprout. After large cedars are removed and burned, fire is sent through the area to kill any smaller sprouts that were spared by the saw. It usually takes at least two years before biodiversity returns to the treated area.

Ecological stewardship is big business in the Ozarks these days. Thousands of dollars and Americorps hours are spent on cedar removal and other invasive species control. The few native plants that grow in my yard are typical of the glaciated plains and outer Ozark border. Once I start my own rigorous stewardship plan to remove the thriving populations of exotics (bush honeysuckle, wintercreeper and Japanese honeysuckle) from the yard, I won't even have time to begrudge the cedars in my midst.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Unwanted ungulates

Kirksville is about to be hammered with 6 inches of snow tonight. If temperatures remain below freezing, Highway Patrol and several members of state agencies will be hitting the skies in helicopters to count deer. With leaves off the trees and snow on the ground, deer stand out like a bull in a china shop. Ask any resource manager in Missouri about her thoughts on deer in the landscape and she'll likely say the same thing: they're as destructive as, say, a bull in a china shop.

Helicopter surveys for deer are dizzying affairs. Hovering over wooded tracts, girded with a GPS, passengers count deer from above. There's a handy formula that can translate raw data into deer per acre. One colleague came back from the North Hills' survey with a splitting headache and tunnel vision. Another one came back nauseous from the hairpin turns the helicopter made, insuring that the whole landscape was covered.

Of course, during winter deer aren't very destructive to Missouri's flora. During the growing season, they can reduce a healthy stand of wildflowers and grasses to mown lawn status. When they're really hungry, or if their numbers are so high that there's not enough forage to go around, they'll feed on oak sprouts. And Missouri foresters don't really like that to happen to their oak woodlands.

Several decades ago, deer were almost extirpated from Missouri, overhunted to near extinction in the state. The state's conservation agency outlawed hunting deer until their numbers rebounded. Rebound they did, and quite handily. The landscape had changed, however, and deer thrived without the presence of their natural predator, the red wolf. Wolves were hunted to near extinction east of the Rockies, with the last population hanging on in Tennessee long enough for several individuals to be caught and bred. Outside of Chattanooga in the late 1990s, red wolves were released in Tennessee Valley Authority property. In recent years, red wolves have been spotted in public lands miles away from their release point.

We've all seen the documentaries and articles praising Yellowstone's hotly contested gray wolf reintroduction. With packs of gray wolves roaming the land, elk are forced to move around, thereby allowing the formerly heavily browsed willows to grow up naturally. With the willows growing along the river's edge, beavers have moved into the area, feeding on willows and creating small wetlands. Ducks which haven't been documented from the park in 20 years have returned to the wetlands. It's a cascade effect that is happening in Tennessee, as well.

Now, if red wolves can cross the Mississippi River and navigate through all of the suburbs to Missouri's public lands, we might be in luck. With the increased urbanization of our wild places, available habitat for deer and their associated large predators is disappearing. Deer are showing up in suburbs all over the country: in my father's backyard (built on a floodplain. Killdeer still show up at night, hanging out in the street that used to be a sandflat.), in Greater St. Louis, in Brooklyn. A huge buck crashed through the windows of an Episcopal church in Shreveport. Insurance companies list deer collisions in Michigan as one of their highest risks. As a country, we've not only removed a reliable deer population control method, but most of their habitat. When my colleagues call them "goats" or make an earth-shattering "kerpow!" when they see them feeding on roadside fescue, I'm sure they realize that we are, as humans, singlehandedly to blame.

More than meets the eye

In 2005, the Missouri Speleological Survey listed 5,800 known caves in Missouri. There are more than 500 linear miles of identified cave passageways, with the longest cave, Crevice in Perry County, measuring 28 miles. Cave communities are tied to the terrestrial, geologic and aquatic resources all around them. Every cave is different, just as the surrounding soils and rocks are different. Some caves have elaborate speleothems, others have rivers running through them, some have gravel floors while others are filled with silt. Nevertheless, or perhaps because each cave has its own character, several of Missouri's underground communities have been converted into "show caves," complete with handrails, lights, and concrete floors.

One of the historical show caves is located outside of Leasburg, smack in the middle of the Ozarks. No one really knows when Onondaga cave was first discovered, but its modern history began in the latter half of the 19th century when a small group of millwrights decided to use the cave's springwater to run a mill. Seeking a higher return on the land, plans were laid to mine and sell the thousands of speleothems as "cave onyx." Lack of mining experience encouraged the millwrights to sell the property to other interested parties. One of those was George Bothe, a miner from St. Louis who, armed with experience, intended to sell off the formations.

Thanks to Missouri's saturated cave onyx market, the cave remained in tact. Instead of mining it, Bothe decided to show the cave as a landscape feature during the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Fairgoers could hop a Frisco line down to Leasburg to see one of Missouri's natural wonders. Trips to the cave were so popular that Bothe decided to keep it open after the fair ended. Eventually he sold the show cave to Robert Bradford, who continued to operate tours. Leasburg became a frequent stop for trains carrying tourists to see the cave, but when rail travel dropped, so, too did tourism. Onondaga stayed open for tours, but the monetary return was in steady decline.

A rather fascinating controversy broke out in the early 1930s when the property near Onondaga was sold to Eugene Benoist. Cave ecology wasn't well understood in the 1930s, but it was soon discovered that most of the cave ran under the recently sold property. Using a different entrance to Onondaga, Benoist's lease holder, Dr. William Mook, opened another entrance to the cave and starting running cave tours of his own. A war between the show cave operators broke out.

The dividing line between the two properties was established by a barbed wire fence. Onondaga Cave tours were conducted on one side of the fence and Missouri Caverns tours were held on the other. Unfortunately, the underground property line was so ambiguous that Bradford and Mook couldn't agree on the actual boundaries. Bradford sued Mook, claiming the other half of the cave by adverse possession. The case went to the Missouri Supreme Court. Mook won, but died 6 months prior. Cave tours continued for both operations. Tour guides staged rock fights around the barbed wire fence, while above ground hucksters for both operations continued to bring in tourists traveling Route 66.

After a rather sad and sordid land dispute, the cave ended up in the hands of one of Missouri's famous Ozark personalities, Lester Dill. A master of the tall tale, he always told what he called the "Ozark truth." In 1950, he promoted a 102 year old Oklahoman as the real Jesse James. He received national attention for this stunt.

Dill guided tourists through the cave dressed like a caveman and continued to advertise heavily along Route 66. Despite his showmanship, he remained a staunch protector of Onondaga Cave. Of course, for decades, the thousands of tourists caused serious damage to the formations and water quality; even today, staff continue to pull out antique flash bulbs and other tourist-related rubbish from little nooks and crannies.

Onondaga remains a show cave, but its resources are finally being protected. Despite all of the foot traffic, all of the exploration and exploitation that has continued through the years, discoveries are still being made. In early December, a small passage that opens up into a large room was discovered at Onondaga Cave. I received an email from one of the Onondaga staff two days later. I've taken out the hundreds of exclamation points, but her excitement remains evident:

About a month ago, one of the cave guides pointed out a hole that was 3 - 5 feet deep and was filled with old camera flash bulbs. On Saturday Dec. 8th, a volunteer and I were going to clean out the hole. When we got to the hole, we discovered that the hole was no longer 3 - 5 feet deep. It had collapsed and was much deeper and it appeared that a horizontal passageway continued at the bottom. I sent two very experienced grotto members down the newly opened passageway to investigate. What they found was amazing. The passageway continued for approximately 500'. Within that passageway, there is a small hole that was "blowing" which means that there is a significant amount of cave beyond that hole. A skeleton (a couple of people guessed peccary others guessed dog) was found on top of the clay sediment. The hind legs are articulated. Hoofed mammal tracks (peccary?) as well as slide marks were found. Found within the vertical hole was the barbed wire fence and the sign that separated Missouri Caverns from Onondaga during the famous "Cave Wars". Huge amounts of "trash" (one broken soda bottle was dated 1944) was found at the bottom of the vertical hole.

So, how did all of this "trash" end up at the bottom of a closed off hole? Upon further inspection, we think that we found the answer. During the first part of the cave's life as a show cave, people threw garbage down that hole. Sometime after the mid to late 50's (most recently dated soda bottle found), someone covered the hole with wire mesh and covered the mesh with clay. The hole still existed and people threw flash bulbs down the hole on top of the clay covered wire mesh. At some point, someone covered the flashbulbs with clay. Recently, the flash bulbs were exposed and the wire mesh rusted through exposing the hole.

It reminds me of the highway workers outside of Springfield who discovered a 2 mile long cave (complete with ice age skeletons) while digging a sewer line. Or that house outside of Springfield that fell halfway into a sinkhole, exposing another unknown cave. Or the bridge workers who were putting in pilings near Branson and hit a huge pocket of air that turned out to be an enormous cave. The naturalist was intending to pick up trash out of an old garbage pit and discovered another branch of the cave that thousands of tourists have never seen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Premier example

There are few places left in America that can sum up in a small, 4,000 acre tract an entire landscape. One of those places is in central Missouri, deep in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. Dominated by limestone and dolomite bluffs, springs, seeps, caves, oak-hickory woodlands and glades, the Ozarks represent in rather pristine condition (more than anywhere else in America) karst topography, and one small state park a couple hours south of Columbia so typifies karst topography that is being considered by the National Park Service as a National Natural Landmark. I'm hesitant to even mention the name of the park because too many people know about it already; the fragile landscape is being abused enough by the onslaught of hikers from St. Louis and Kansas City looking for a wilderness experience close to home.

Named after Kars, a region of Slovenia rich with limestone caves, karst topography is defined by the presence of limestone, sandstone and dolomite, underground rivers, sinkholes and caves...lots and lots of caves. Then Governor John Ashcroft officially desingnated us "the cave state" and as of last year, personalized license plates are available with a representation of a cave with bats flying out of its mouth.

The complex features of karst topography can be explored in a short three mile hike: begin at a spring that produces, on average, 48 million gallons of water a day. The recharge area for the spring stretches for over 60 miles; throw some used oil in an old farm pond in Lebanon, Missouri, and it will end up killing fish at the spring. Rocks can't filter impurities, and since the Ozarks are simply a rocky uplift with minimal soils, impurities ranging from atrazine to motor oil end up in Missouri's spring water.

The spring wasn't always gushing forth 48 million gallons of water a day in plain view. The exposed spring is actually part of an elaborate collapse of a cavern system that stretches for several miles, though in various stages of development. Part of the system is a large, natural rock bridge that spans roughly 500 feet. Natural bridges represent partial cave collapses--both sides of the bridge collapse, leaving a small stretch of rock as evidence that there was once, indeed, a cave. A stone's throw away from the natural bridge are three large caves, one of which was only discovered last year. Eventually, through erosive forces, the natural bridge, too, will collapse.

What's so astonishing about this area south of Columbia is that the average hiker, if so inclined, can trace the sequence of events in karst systems in a mere hour. Start at the spring, go under the natural bridge. Climb over the bridge to the highest peak of the park and you're on top of the mountain overlooking the huge chasm. The top of the mountain can collapse at any moment, exposing an elaborate cave system shaped by such powerful erosive forces that clearly peak the interest of millions of hikers every year.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Visit from the Grinch

Snow and ice have moved into the region this past week, which has made driving (and even walking) a serious chore. Last night we were walloped with another three inches of snow on top of two inches of sleet and an inch of last week's ice. Three more inches of snow are predicted over night.

If you turn on any major network in the area tonight, scrolling across the bottom of the screen is a thorough listing of all of the cancelled church services, bingo games, AlAnon meetings, schools. Thrown into the mix of cancelled events and closings are roughly 50 holiday affairs--Christmas pageants, cancelled. Christmas piano concerts, cancelled. Nativity scenes, cancelled. Holiday party for State Farm employees, cancelled. Winter Wonderland Dance in Eldon, cancelled. This snowstorm hasn't kept the Christmas carollers away. Marching down Ash tonight during Molly's walk was a whole herd of MU students, belting out carols to anyone who would stop and listen (which, of course, I did.).

I almost wrecked about three times today; my car stopped two inches ahead of the bumper of a fancy SUV, and I almost slammed into a building and a stop sign. The roads are terrible, but I've been assured that my office will never close. My snowman is cute and small and probably a subject of laughter and scorn next door. I'll probably walk downtown tomorrow for light Christmas shopping in Columbia's well-decorated stores (they're all lit up so beautifully!). Central Missouri needs a few days without snow and ice so we can get on with this fun, musical, and festive season...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ring cycle

Back in October, during a particularly rainy week, hundreds of ringed salamanders came out from under logs and small mammal burrows to breed in small ponds scattered throughout a deep wooded tract of land outside of Camdenton, Missouri. Explosive breeders, ringed salamanders laid over 500 eggs in one small pool of water that collected in a dolomitic shut-in. Since that night, the salamanders hatched. Despite the hard freeze that slammed into the Ozarks last week, hundreds of larval salamanders are swimming around in the shut-in pool, waiting out a six to eight month metamorphosis.

Ringed salamanders (Ambystoma annulatum) can only be found in the dolomite-based Ozark and Ouachita mountain ranges. Because of the rarity of their habitat, they are listed as a vulnerable species, garnering a state ranking of S3 in the Species of Special Concern listing. They breed in the fall and, if the pools don't dry up or freeze completely, they spend the winter underwater feeding primarily on zooplankton and invertebrates. While not too much is known about these fossorial animals, the breeding habits of the ringed salamander have been well-documented. The breeding cycle is such an orchestrated process that it has been likened to the liebesspiel, the loveplay, of spotted salamanders.

Males usually appear at the breeding pool first. They begin breeding after the females arrive. Each female is met with upwards of 2 to 25 courting males. The males nudge the female's cloaca and then swim away to deposit spermatophores at the bottom of the pool. According to the fantastic book, Salamanders of the United States and Canada (James W. Petranka), the more males that come into the breeding area, the less specific they get when depositing spermatophores; they'll actually begin nudging other males and females alike. After the spermatophore is deposited (or the following night), females will swim over the spermatophore, picking up the pocket of sperm with her cloaca. She stores the sperm in a chamber at the top of her cloaca. Later that night or the next evening, she will deposit fertilized eggs in clumps attached to vegetation or rocks. Breeding lasts only a couple of days.

While ringed salamanders traditionally feed on invertebrates during their larval stage, some of them become cannibalistic. In certain species of salamanders, the cannibalistic animals have morphological differences like recurved teeth and a slightly larger alimentary canal. Ringed salamander larvae are all the same morphologically, but the cannibals have an advantage: they metamorphose earlier and are traditionally larger animals.

During my first foray into the Ozarks several years ago, I had the great pleasure of rearing a handful of ringed salamanders. I had never seen one before that rainy night in late September when this large animal (pictured) cruised across my driveway in pursuit of my sewerage lagoon. Of the animals I reared, I had at least one cannibal in the group. Every week, the number of animals in the tank dropped. In the final days of captivity, I had two animals left. One bit a leg off the other one. Salamanders can regenerate limbs, and in a few weeks on a rainy night I released two little ringed salamanders around the dried up pond where I had found them. It is estimated that the desiccation of ponds during the winter can kill upwards of 90% of ringed salamander larvae. They have a long life span, so perhaps the two who spent the winter with me in the maintenance shed returned to the shut-in and continued the cycle this fall.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Called "the most satisfying of all the annual meteor showers" by NASA, the Geminids will be arching gracefully through the skies tomorrow and Friday nights. The Geminids stand apart from the other showers (Leonids, Perseids) because they seem to have spawned from an earth-crossing asteroid named 3200 Phaethon rather than a comet. 3200 Phaethon may actually be the nucleus of a burned out comet that might have gotten trapped in a tight orbit. 3200 Phaethon recently passed a mere 11 million miles away from the Earth. It hasn't been that close since the early 1980s.

Last year's Geminid display was hindered by the moon, which was two days past last quarter phase. The moon will be a mere sliver in the sky tomorrow night, setting soon after 8p.m. The Geminids will be bright and slow, leaving few streaks behind. Mars, blazing orange, will be hanging out in Gemini tomorrow night, as well. 60 to 120 meteors each hour will cruise through the sky Thursday night. As nightfall approaches, look towards the east-northeast horizon. The meteors peak around 9 p.m. CST. I'll be standing in an old field well outside Columbia's city limits, gazing skyward in hopes of finally seeing a meteor shower in Missouri.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Quick clarification

I was asked in a one line email: "Is Columbia in the Ozarks?"
No, Columbia, my new home, is situated in the Dissected Till Plains Region of Missouri, just north of the Ozarks. The plains are characterized by clay and sandy soils, significantly richer than the dolomite/limestone/chert based soils of the Ozarks. The oaks and hickories of the Ozarks are comfortably at home in Columbia, where the older neighborhoods look like forests on Google hybrid maps. Columbia has spared lots of trees and a handful of their Arts and Crafts homes (but let others fall into utter disrepair. Mine, however, is in great shape).

No, I won't discuss how great Columbia is in this medium, because I'm sure someone else is doing that. I won't mention the great sports teams from the University of Missouri or discuss local politics (which are generally interesting and progressive). I won't mention all the great coffeeshops, curbside recycling, the bike trails, the arts theatre, or the gym where my trainer gives me nothing but encouragement.

I live in Columbia but I work in the Ozarks. I wear makeup and wool tights to my new job. I have an office that has no drawers for pencils. I have joined an office community that resembles the offices of New Yorkercartoons: secretaries with egregious holiday sweaters, territorial disputes over coffee strength, sad attempts at holiday cheer with mismatched tinsels and broken lights, an entire department playing the card game Uno in the kitchen at 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday. I wake up really early to get to the main highway before the crush of traffic (few people who work in Jefferson City live there. They all live in Columbia). However strange an office environment may be, I'm allowed plenty of time in the field where I stomp through astonishing landscapes that vary from glades (dry, rocky, south facing slopes) to springs (that produce 80 million gallons of water a day) to virgin oak forests. The Ozarks are so rich and utterly vast, I really don't even know where to start...

Friday, November 30, 2007

Entering the Aux Arcs

No one really knows where the name came from. Every account of basic Missouriana gives a different etymology of the term "Ozark." I've read that it comes from bois d'arc, the French name of Osage orange, a tree commonly found in fencerows in the Ozarks (and is still called bow-dark throughout the region); that it comes from "Aux Arkansas," or "to Arkansas" (but the source of "Arkansas" is just as dubious). I unofficially accept the early surveyors' explanation of the term: Aux Arcs means "to the arches," or, specifically, to the natural rock bridge that once stood as a landmark outside of Springfield, Missouri. Regardless of where the name came from, Ozark refers to the only mountain range west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies, and encompasses 47,000 sq. miles of rugged, rocky terrain in Missouri. The Ozarks stretch from south of the Missouri River to the Boston Mountains of Arkansas. A small part of the Ozarks stretch into Oklahoma, Kansas and even Illinois. The St. Francois Mountains are the nucleus.

Culturally, the term "Ozark" carries almost as much cache as "Appalachian." In fact, the cultural heritage of the Ozarks is so entrenched in the concept of man-living-in-the-wild that locals brand their own souvenirs portraying bearded toothless men in cut-off trousers picking banjos as their blue tick hounds rest on the porch. Regardless of the commercial images of the "Ozark hillbilly," this geologically significant region is rich in a culture that begins with Native American settlements and continues today in Mennonite villages and a thriving population of Scots-Irish and German decendents.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Goodbye, Southeast Missouri

The Nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value. -Theodore Roosevelt

I had great hopes this week that I would be able to write tonight that the USACE's appeal had been accepted by the courts. Instead, I've read letters written by no fewer than 5 different lobby groups calling the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project a pork barrel project that aims to "turn wetlands into corn fields." This is perhaps the only time I will write this, but I hope the current administration decides to support the USACE instead of the environmental lobby groups. Within the next few weeks, Bush is scheduled to fork over 23$ billion to the USACE in support of various and sundry other projects. I don't know yet if the SJ-NMF Project is included.

Meanwhile, back in southeast Missouri, the great horned owl who lives behind the house continues to call every night around sunset. A pack of coyotes has made my house part of their nightly rounds through the county, lurking in the shadows of the mown lawn, leaving behind scents that drive Molly batty. I heard my first flock of snow geese last week but they were headed north where duck hunting enthusiasts have planted fields to make the birds stick around. Recent winds knocked all the brightly colored leaves off the trees in the park, leaving a barren landscape that makes visible all of the neighboring fields. Winter is setting in and Brother continues to shell pecans for his dog, Tip, and for his freezer.

I leave southeast Missouri tomorrow for my tiny bungalow in Columbia. While it's truly possible that I'll fill all of the closet space in the house with nothing but my vast collection of shoes and sundresses, I've felt guilty living among a 35% poverty rate in this big, nice house for two years. While many folks in the county have to ask for assistance from the state to cover their energy bills, I never see mine. Considering the size of the house, I imagine they're high, despite the weatherstripping and my constant scarf and hat use during the winter. My movers arrive tomorrow and will have to pack into the truck several big bags of mixed paper that I can't recycle here (but can leave on the curb in Columbia). With my smaller ecological footprint, I leave behind the comfort of having wildlife in my yard, the freedom to sit on my back balcony in nothing but undergarments, the tranquility of isolation, and the fabulous sunsets over the park. However, much to the dismay of my regional supervisor, I'll still make all of the natural resource decisions for the park (I hear him tonight: "Dang it! I thought I would be able to RoundUp all the poison ivy!").
The new Ozark Highlands banner will go up in a couple of days and I'll try to explain the geologic function that gave rise to such a diverse collection of mountains. Funny thing, the pictures in the banner will represent several divergent habitats, but each one is found in the confines of a mere 6,000 acres, all a short hiking distance from one another.

For now, I'm attaching pictures of me and Brother (as I interrupt his afternoon biscuit-in-milk time), several fun guys who made autumn surveying a blast, and a lovely old growth beech tree from Crowley's Ridge.

While I realize I'm not a great writer, I've had fun ginning up interesting aspects of southeast Missouri's natural and cultural history. I've left behind several topics that I really wanted to cover (vigilante Night Riders of Reelfoot Lake, mussels, deer...can't believe I never wrote about deer), and might (in an uncustomary fit of nostalgia) fit them into the context of the Ozark Highlands. Regardless, I hope, above all else, that as you drive through southeast Missouri on your way to Memphis or Chicago, you'll take time to see the sand prairies, the old growth forests, and the relictual sand forests of Crowley's Ridge. There are a few good places to eat, some nice vistas, some interesting history sites in the area. While I always thought of Missouri as a bland fly-over state like Iowa, I've since realized it's a truly dynamic state, rich with resources and certainly worth exploring.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Into the woods

Several months ago, I ranted about how American children don't spend enough time enjoying nature. Richard Louv's book, The Last Child in the Woods has inspired my agency to create an initiative called "No Child Left Inside" geared towards getting kids back into the woods, back to nature. More nature-oriented programs are brought to schools, classes are specifically invited to visit state parks, and teachers are encouraged to recognize the need for unscheduled play outside.

It dawned on me today as I was stomping around a particularly pristine patch of Missouri's oak-hickory woodlands that American children are not the only ones suffering from a nature deficiency. I've been in a really bad place lately, extremely tense about moving, change, my new job. I spend time in the woods almost everyday. The woods across the road are rich, thick woods, but they're sick. They're not as biodiverse as they should be and I know it. I hiked around some of Missouri's healthiest ecosystems today, flipping rocks looking for salamanders, collecting acorns and hickory nuts, going way off the beaten trail. About 30 minutes into my afternoon, I felt lighter. An hour passes, and I feel all the tension of the past few weeks drop to my sides, left alone in the leaf litter.

It makes me wonder tonight if American adults had easy access to 5,000 uninterrupted acres of woods, would the country be a better place? Would everyone be so tense? So angry? So hateful? Now, if some evil drug manufacturer could encapsulate the freedom of walking through healthy woods in an antidepressant, we probably wouldn't even be at war anymore.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive!

Every November 14, Americans herald the arrival of a traditionally lovely, charming, fun little French wine with parties in airport hangars. I've only been to one Beaujolais Nouveau party in Wisconsin, but I imagine they're all the same: fancy people in velvet clothes and heels feeding on baked brie and apricots, standing around waiting for the wine shipment to arrive from France to Madison, New Orleans, New York (or any other decent-sized town that contains enough wine lovers to mandate a welcoming party for a short-lived red wine). I, of course, wear cotton and wool, lots of layers, and sensible shoes, because I don't want to lower the efficiency of my immune system by spending the November evening in an airport hangar.

Every year's Beaujolais is different. Two years ago it tasted like turpentine with an Alka-Seltzer added to it. Last year, it reminded me of cheap grape jelly, which can be fine in certain circumstances. In 2000, it tasted salty. I think I liked 1999 a lot, but I can't remember it well. I remember that I bought a lot of it for Thanksgiving dinner with Alyssa but I'm certainly not the type to keep a "wine journal," so I don't remember anything else about it. Nouveau is easy to come by in New Orleans, of course. Easy to find in Brooklyn, where huge posters are hung outside every bistro and haute cuisine restaurant advertising availability. Several chateaux produce Nouveau, but for the past two years, I've only been able to locate George DuBoeuf's. His is the Nouveau with the terrible label, traditionally a brightly colored Matisse rip-off with a clunky serifed font. Gold leaf. Awful label and (usually) a mediocre wine.

Columbia, Missouri. Several days after the release. We made the first shipment of items into my new house (which looks totally different in daylight...neighborhood looks rundown...stairs leading to the basement are about to fall tire stains on the matte finish walls...frog bath mat might not fit in the bathroom....yes, I wanted an old home, I remind myself, and a smaller ecological footprint.). After a brief meeting with my charming landlady (Molly, ever sweet, growled at her), after listening to loathesome Top 40 music pumped from the porch across the street, after assessing the invasive species populations alive and well in my new backyard, after defying physics to fit a 1930s oak desk into the study, after watching my poor little dog slip and slide all over my wonderful hardwood floors that I so earnestly desired, I, guilt-stricken, scared of change, overwhelmed by the exotics and hopeful that the new neighborhood really isn't that tough, decided to foray into the downtown wine shop in search of Beaujolais Nouveau from whichever available chateau.

Columbia's great. Fabulous restaurants. Bike paths everywhere (but not on the major thoroughfares, where another cyclist was killed this week). Progressive politics. Curbside recycling. Urban green spaces, actively managed. Really good service, where folks behind the counter look you in the eye and say "hey, thanks..." Top notch university (It's no Kansas, but close). Big oaks. Rolling hills. And TWO wine shops within a stone's throw apart.

"You should really just pay a few dollars more for the Villages." Pardon? "Yeah, I only stock DuBoeuf because Nouveau isn't that good, overall."
"Yeah, but it's the tradition...," I countered, "Villages is like selling out. There are better ones than DuBoeuf. And that label...." When Nouveau ages past 2or 3 months, it's called Beaujolais Villages and is available for years. It's fine, really, but it's no Nouveau, which can only be properly consumed between November 14 and Christmas. The aging process alters Nouveau, which is made from delicate little grapes in one part of France. I don't know what happens to all of those unsold Nouveau bottles purchased by wine shops countrywide. In New Orleans, the stores just put them on sale for $8.99 the day after Christmas for the folks who really don't care. Magically, by New Year's Eve, they're gone.

The sommelier returned to the fancy people drinking Petite Syrah out of a decanter. I scoured the place, sure that I would find a hidden case of Joseph Drouhin's classic off-white, engraved Nouveau label. I found some outrageously priced Oregon pinot noirs that I'll never get to try and some interesting wines that Alyssa and I have tried together that I'll definitely invest in later. But in the whole store, only one Nouveau. He didn't really have a reason to lie to me about it, did he...

I'll never be able to make it to the downtown wine shop's daily 5pm tasting with my new job, but I really wanted to introduce myself, to let the fancy sommelier know that even though he disappointed me today with his solitary Beaujolais, and even though I looked like a hayseed in jeans, that I'd be back with questions and a checkbook. I admit it. I cook with wine. I like it. I consume it. Considering that here, in southeast Missouri, I'm still trying to manage bags upon bags of recyclable glass by lying to the Cape County Recycling Commission (who regularly asks, "so, you drink wine, olive oil and no beer? And you live in Cape?"), that Beaujolais Nouveau bottles from 2005 are still languishing in my garage, I imagine in Columbia, they'll know my name and maybe even order a better Beaujolais Nouveau next year with my bidding. Of course, I'll be able to recycle every bottle I drink without having to lie about my address, too.

Oh! Right! DuBoeuf's Nouveau is fine this year. Better than last. More pinot than not, which is key. Who knows about the other great chateaux. I bet you can find them in St. Louis.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How appealing!

It's official. The USACE has decided to appeal the ruling against the St. John's-New Madrid Floodway Project. The Environmental Defense Fund argued successfully last month that the Corps' project to stop flooding in southeast Missouri neglected rough game fish habitat. The Corps filed an appeal hours before the official cutoff hour of midnight, November 14, 2007 to counter the argument. The appeal sits on the Solicitor General's desk in Washington, D.C. tonight, awaiting approval.

Several things can happen now: The Corps can appeal the ruling and revise the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) which details the impacts of closing the gap to fish habitat. The Corps can offer to install the mitigation plan (restoration of 8,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forests and swamp habitat) without the project being completed. Or, finally, the Corps can revise the entire mitigation plan, allowing for more fish habitat that wasn't ever included in the original plan.

Here's the part that has me clicking my heels tonight: regardless of the ruling, the park will have a restored hydrology project. Whether through the Corps or through state funding, the federal environmental impact study requires that hydrology is restored to the park. If hydrology, the dynamic flood regimes that gave rise to these ancient forests, is not restored, the forest will die. Hydrology could be restored faster and easier if the appeal passes the courts, but if it doesn't, the Missouri congressional delegation could invite a legislative fix which would overturn the court for the sake of a worthwhile project. The last time the legislative overturn affected a project was for a measly $40,000 project. The Corps project is estimated at $87 million. Let's hope the appeal is accepted...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


My Thai basil was bruised by this morning's frost. Temperatures dropped to the 30s last night for the first time since March. I bid farewell to my thriving oregano, parsley, and basil plants today, all of whom played important roles in my culinary adventures this season. Tonight's frost is supposed to be the killer; outdoor plants move inside on nights like this one. I have a colander full of green tomatoes.

I imagine my zinnia bed will be a desiccated wreck in the morning. My dahlias will look like rotting slime. The last pictures: a dinnerplate dahlia (yellow), a sachem on a late season zinnia.

The woods are lovely right now, full of yellow and red leaves littering the forest floor. Deciduous holly has set fruit, bright red berries essential to wintering bird populations. The last of the woodland asters are in full bloom across the woods.

The winter bird species are back. A Northern harrier hangs out at the park entrance every afternoon. Since days end earlier now, I have to complete my run before 5. Now, it's just past 8, and the kitchen is already cleaned up after dinner. The short stack of books breathes down my neck; this is the season of productivity, indeed.

Hedgehog (Hericium erinaceus)

I walk the little two mile trail in the park about three days a week. Lately, I've been tracking the maturity of a whole suite of interesting mushrooms growing on the downed oaks, hickories and maples. Today, I discovered a newly fallen tree across the trail, a mighty swamp chestnut oak, covered in these giant (one foot across!), shaggy mushrooms.

Hedgehog mushrooms (also called Bearded Tooth and Bear's Head mushrooms) grow on wounded oaks and dead beech and maple trees east of the Rockies. They are most commonly found in the South and are one of the few edible mushrooms that has no poisonous look-alikes. As usual, when I discovered the hedgehog mushroom, it had already turned yellow, the sign of old age. The mushroom had matured past the prime harvest time. Hedgehogs should be harvested when solid white so as to avoid any bitter aftertaste. Used in Japanese and Chinese medicine and cooking, hedgehog mushrooms pack a powerful antioxidant punch and have been used to regulate blood lipid and glucose levels.

H. erinaceus is the only North American species that forms a single clump of spines. Other species of Hericium mushrooms suspend their spines from branching structures. However, when immature, other species can appear to have only one clump of spines. If wanting to harvest the mushroom, it doesn't matter which species you've found, whether the immature branching one or the single clump species, because all members of the genus are edible.

Mycologists claim that hedgehog mushrooms taste like lobster. They recommend eating them with a cheese-butter sauce, maybe a béchamel? If I had taken the trail 2 days ago when the hedgehog was at its prime, I could have slipped it surreptitiously into tonight's Choux de Bruxelles à la Milanaise . Instead, I'll watch as the mice make mince of it later this week.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Perennis, a newsletter

The anonymity of this format has its downsides. While it's nice to sit here, at my 1940s table next to a dusty wooden chess set writing into space, I often wonder who, besides my family and close friends, ever reads my rantings. There was that lady who played badminton who wrote a comment about tennis. And there was that French guy who responded to my US Open post that Gasquet was, indeed, dreamy (at least his backhand was). But times like this, when I'm trying to find local support and involvement, I'd like to know who actually reads this thing.

This past summer, my enthusiastic entomologist, a colleague with my sister agency, and a Botany professor all confronted me in a matter of three days: "Why don't you start a Native Plant Society chapter for southeast Missouri?" They know I have a tireless enthusiasm for the native plants of southeast Missouri, that I stop my car to check out sedges in ditches and have allowed half of my yard to succeed from a manicured lawn to an early successional woodland. The turtle project is over. Plant surveys are complete. Burn season hasn't really started yet. I have no excuse not to start drumming up local support for a native plant society chapter. The first edition of a newsletter, named "Perennis" after the lovely swamp milkweed, Asclepias perennis was completed about 10 minutes ago. The Latin term perennis, by the way, means "everlasting, continuous, for a long time," which is what I would expect of a local NPS chapter.

So, I invite any and all interested parties to join a handful of native plant enthusiasts for an organizational meeting on November 16, 5 pm, at the restaurant at River Ridge (outside of Commerce). Considering that the statewide chapter has had the last 3 annual meetings in the vicinity, I think it's high time we celebrate our own natural heritage.

(And if anyone wants copies of the informative, well-designed first issue of the newsletter, just drop a line.)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Quercus macrocarpa

Visitors to southeast Missouri's forests should be careful these days. The bur oak acorns are starting to fall, and despite the spring frost and the summer drought, they are big and plentiful this year. Falling from an average tree canopy of 140 feet, the plum-sized nuts can cause minor bruising if they manage to find your head.

The park is home to Missouri's co-champion bur oak, a title it shares with a noble tree located in an open field outside of Columbia. It's almost impossible to capture the size and grandeur of the park's bur oak because several other enormous oaks (and a whole suite of smaller maples and hackberries) grow right next to it. The tree outside of Columbia, large, alone, and tidy is featured in a sunset picture on the cover of Don Kurz's Trees of Missouri. Last year I made a short pilgrimage to see the co-champion; it may be a few feet wider, a little taller, but it looks smaller than the one in the park. Nevertheless, without the historic reverence due to a huge bur oak of the same size and age class as the co-champion, the park's woods would have been harvested and converted into agricultural fields long ago.

A 300+ year old bur oak, located on a gravel road in Mississippi Co., served as a meeting place for local citizens. There are few landmarks in the area, so to "meet at the big oak" became a custom. Children often played in the woods surrounding the stately bur oak and every fall, locals burned off the woods around it to gather hickory nuts. And while this hasn't been documented, per se, I imagine the local squirrel and deer hunters also appreciated the woods around the big bur oak.

So, in 1937, alarmed with the rampant destruction of southeast Missouri's forests and, essentially, the rural way of life, citizens rallied behind the bur oak. They began raising money to buy the tree from Three States Timber Co. Local schoolchildren jumped into the act, saving nickels and dimes at the height of economic depression. After the community had pooled together $1,000, a small group of citizens appealed to the governor of Missouri, asking him to buy the tree and the surrounding woods from the timber company. The state's burser, like the rest of the country, had fallen on hard times. The plight of this small patch of woods in southeast Missouri, however, was printed in newspapers throughout the Midwest and immediately caught the attention of philanthropists.

St. Louis native Jacob Babler stepped up to the plate. Other, anonymous donors pitched in to help the local citizens save their woods. By 1938, all of the combined efforts equalled $8,000. Gov. Lloyd Stark furnished the rest of the money needed to buy the big oak tree and the adjacent woods from the timber company. The bur oak was saved! Foresters from all over the world began flocking to the area to pay homage to the bur oak. What they found was not just one big oak, but hundreds of exemplary trees, many the largest of their kind in the country. By 1961, 16 trees from the 1,004 acres of protected woods had been designated as National Champions. There were more champion trees per square foot here in southeast Missouri than in the entire Shenandoah Valley. Bur oak, swamp chestnut oak, cottonwood, bald cypress, Shumard oak, shellbark hickory, slippery elm, et al.--all the largest on record for Missouri and the United States. So much attention had been paid to the big trees in Missouri's bootheel, but the ecological systems which gave rise to them went largely ignored.

In the early 1950s, the cherished bur oak was struck by lightning. Foresters offered advice on how to save it from certain death and the base of the tree was filled with concrete. By the late 1950s, an executive decision was made to take down the now dead 335 year old big bur oak. To fell the tree required the labor of 6 men and 3 two man saws. Brother says he has never heard anything louder than when that stately old giant fell. Cross sections were cut and distributed to the Chamber of Commerce, state parks, and other interested parties. Articles ran in several Missouri papers about the tree cutting event. No part of the tree was given to a timber company.

By the early 1960s, localized ditching projects had destroyed all the rivers, swamps and sloughs in the bootheel, turning them from natural waterways into straight line levee systems. The lake and swamp located half a mile away from the cherished bur oak was drained and the regular flooding that gave rise to the big oak and the rest of the forest was forever removed to make way for agriculture. In fact, recent dendrochronological work has revealed that the last class of oaks regenerated roughly 80 years ago, just as the drainage system was completed. So, while the woods were saved from the impending timber harvest in the late 1930s, the processes that formed the woods were resolutely removed in the course of 30 years.

The co-champion bur oak might be the last of the generation in the park. After two years of searching for smaller oaks to take its place when it falls, I've come up empty. It's not just bur oaks that aren't regenerating, it's every oak. And cypress. And hickory. The woods are succeeding unnaturally, becoming overrun with drought-tolerant species like hackberry and boxelder. Without flood regimes and the nutrient load that comes with them, the woods will continue to succeed, continue a rapid march away from an oak-hickory forest to a hackberry-maple woodland, a landscape now common in other altered floodplains. When I go to the rich, ancient woods, they whisper to me, "Help me, I'm dying," but without restored hydrology, there's not a thing I can do about it.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

"Dry, cluttered space"

When I first moved to Missouri in the summer of 2003 for seasonal employment, I lived in a maintenance shed. Half the shed held tractors and tools, while the other half had a desk, a bed, a camp-style shower, and a couch. The wall separating the living quarters from the maintenance area didn't quite reach the ceiling, so on workday mornings, I was invariably woken up by that noxious stench of cigarette smoke coming from the maintenance staff. The floors of the shed were concrete, light was provided by a dramatic single bulb dangling from the ceiling (whose operational string was too high for me to reach without standing on the desk), and the recent installation of plumbing left a hole in the wall big enough for a small opossum to traipse into the shed every night, knocking over dishes in search of food.

I liked the change of scenery that the rural quarters provided. I liked living on a gravel road that became inaccessible after heavy rain events. I liked having morels grow outside my door. I liked the nuthatches that crept around the white oaks in front of my shed. Their persistent, unfamiliar "quank!" always made me laugh. I grew accustomed to spotty cell phone service, to the lack of available groceries, to the Ozark accent that can be almost unintelligible to a New Orleanian.

After my first week, I decided to finally sit down on the cheap, foam couch in my new living quarters. As I sat down with a bowl of soup, 60, maybe 75, maybe 100 mice fell out of the couch, quickly scrambling all over the concrete floors of my maintenance shed. I slept in my tent for several months after that, going inside only to shower, make coffee, and empty the 20 Sherman live traps that I had set up to repatriate the white-footed mice back to the woods where they belonged. Every morning, I had to lure the opossum out of my quarters with a plate of scrambled eggs.

Before I moved to Missouri, I read Sue Hubbell's A Country Year, her charming account of experiences as a New Yorker recently relocated the Ozarks to tend to bee hives. It's a fine read, regardless of where you live. She explained why Missourians don't believe in a late afternoon sherry hour, how to deal with the road grater (you don't tip him, however much you want to), and finally, most importantly, she taught me about the commonality of the brown recluse in Missouri.

They're a part of life here. A recent study revealed that populations of brown recluses reside in 70% of Missouri homes. The spider's range is mid-Missouri down to Texas. I don't think they're very common in Louisiana, so I had never seen one before I moved here. On my second day of work, I was warned before heading into the attic to "watch out for brown recluses!" I rushed back down the stairs to consult my sister agency's guide to spiders: "Brown recluses," they say, "thrive in dry, cluttered spaces." This Ozark park's attic can only be classified as the perfect habitat for the spider. Literally pounds upon pounds of unused Halloween and Christmas decorations are stored in this attic in anticipation of some mythical party atmosphere summarily contrary to the park's mission.

Hubbell tells the story of her first brown recluse bite and how she lived to deal with the spiders. They generally live up to their name, preferring undisturbed clothing, old boxes, anyplace that doesn't see a lot of light. Brown recluses are such a part of living in Missouri, as Hubbell points out, that everyone just expects them:
Brown recluses cannot climb smooth surfaces, and I often find them trapped in the bathtub or the sink, skittering about trying to escape. A friend and her daughter stopped in for tea not long ago. I made the tea in a pot and handed out cups. Accustomed to country living, the daughter wisely peered into her cup before I poured the tea. "Hmmm! A brown recluse," she said calmly, and we dumped the spider out.

I learned from her book to always check my cups, bowls, shoes, and towels. Every item of clothing gets a firm shake before I put it on. Every shoe is emptied of potential spiders before I put it on my foot.

I finally left the maintenance shed after a couple of summers for the fancier digs of southeast Missouri, my sprawling house built with steel beams to withstand earthquakes. Lots of space, little furniture, unused rooms. In one room, we've stored almost 2 years' worth of recyclables. You see, I have to take my recycling to Cape Girardeau, but to recycle in Cape, you have to be a resident of the county, which I'm not. I truly despise having to lie about my residency to the man who helps unload my trunk. Before he ever asks, I nervously blurt out "I live on Bessie!" A friend of mine lived there once and surely would have accrued as many olive oil bottles, dog food cans, wine bottles and junk mail as I have. I just can't throw away recyclables.

Sorting through two years of recyclables has uncovered lots of dead brown recluses and a host of live ones, which were either released outside or killed by the weight of my running shoe. While the recycling room was definitely cluttered, it did not house a food source for the spiders. They subsist on insects, and aside from the occasional escape of the dart frogs' walking fruit flies, the house is free of insects. I don't see the cute little white-footed woodland mice inside, either, and I certainly don't have an opossum to keep me company. Occasionally a scrappy, gray field mouse enters the house from the adjacent soybean fields. I lose sleep until it's caught. Of course, in the fancy house I live in, I don't have gaping holes in my walls, but brown recluses still manage to get in.

Brown recluse bites hurt, and the younger the spider, the more painful the bite. Early treatment of the bite is highly recommended, even if the victim is unclear how sensitive he is to the spider's venom. Some folks are sensitive to the bites, while others merely experience a mild irritation and a small pimple-like bump (which causes the health care provider to ask, repeatedly and with disdain, "are you sure it was a brown recluse? How do you know...."). The venom essentially disables the body's immune system where it is injected. Any bacteria, including flesh-eating bacteria and streptococcus, can come into contact with the punctured skin and kill the tissue cells, leaving behind a deep pit about the size of the dime. Treatment for brown recluse bites involves a tetanus shot and a full course of antibiotics. While they remain the most venomous spider in Missouri, contrary to local lore, they can't kill you.

Some Missourians spend lots of money fumigating their homes to eradicate brown recluses. When they do, they knock out harmless little jumping spiders while poisoning the air and every available surface with a toxic chemical. I've learned to live with spiders, and I'm getting less nervous about mice in the house. In fact, by the end of my first summer in Missouri, I had grown so deft at checking live traps and releasing the animals that I didn't run maniacally to the woods with the traps anymore. I just moseyed away from the house, opened the trap door, and threw the mice out for the owls. While I genuinely feel that both spiders and mice would be much better off outside, in nature, I take their presence in the house as evidence that I live, happily, I think, in rural Missouri.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Jelly ear fungus

Last week, it rained every afternoon in southeast Missouri. Of course, fall rains come a little too late to affect the fall color display; white oaks and hickories are quickly turning brown in southeast Missouri, reminding everyone of the hardships our natural world encountered this year. The growing season began with a killing frost on Easter weekend and continued with an extended drought that lasted almost all summer. Of course, the recent rains saturated the farm fields, brought the bayou behind the house up to full pool for a few days and refilled the park's water features, making it possible to boat around the moat again. Also encouraged by the rain was a full suite of fall mushrooms, all bursting out of decaying wood and leaf litter.

The most common mushroom in the woods these days, jelly ear, is common throughout North America. It can be found primarily on dead elms and elders, but also on cedars. Jelly ear fungus belongs to a group of sabropic (word of the day! a wood-rotting fungus that lives on decomposing wood) mushrooms called the Basidiomycetes. Members of this group don't merely leave their spores hanging around to set up shop, but physically catapult their spores from small spore holders. The part of the mushroom that faces downward is fertile, springing forth new spores before they dry out; the upward facing part of the jelly ear is sterile.

Within the Basidiomycetes, jelly ear mushrooms belong to the family Auriculariales (pronounce every syllable slowly and drag the accent to the penult), which includes other gelatinous fungi that lack stems. They are featured prominently in Asian cooking, where they soak up other flavors rather easily. Jelly ears are a staple in sweet and sour soup. Eaten raw, jelly ear mushrooms have the consistency of Gummi Bears (the original ones by Hairbo, not the knock-off American candies which have more granulated sugar) and taste like soil, which can be nice if that's what you like.

Jelly ear fungus has a second name which reminds us all of the early American taxonomist's propensity towards antisemitism and imagination: "Jew's ear" or "Judas' ear." Apparently, it has been surmised that Judas hanged himself on an elm tree, the host plant to the fungus. Yesterday, when I asked thirty-seven 4th graders if they had ever heard of Judas (supposing their parents might have shown them the fungus that grows prolifically in the park and given it the alternate name), none of the Bible-belt students raised their hands. "He...." I stammered, "was this guy...who liked elm trees...?" and I left it at that. When we passed the stand of jelly ears on our way out of the park, I asked the students crowded around me what it was called. In unison, roughly 20 kids hollered out, "jelly ear fungus!"

(I wonder, sitting at home a day later, why on earth would I have mentioned to these impressionable kids that a. Judas hanged himself, b. that antisemitism was so widely accepted that a common name for a mushroom reeks of it and c. that more than one name is accepted as a common name? Isn't that precisely what I despise? Hrmph.)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Comet in Perseus

From Sky and Telescope, nothing to do with southeast Missouri directly, but I thought I'd share:

"Sudden Naked-Eye Comet Shocks the Astronomy World"

"A distant comet that was as faint as magnitude 18 on October 20th has
suddenly brightened by a millionfold, altering the naked-eye appearance of
the constellation Perseus.

This startling outburst of Comet Holmes (17P) may be even stronger than the
one that occurred 115 years ago, in November 1892, when the comet was first
spotted by English amateur Edwin Holmes.

According to IAU Circular 8886, issued Wednesday October 24th by the Central
Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams in Cambridge, Massachusetts, A. Henriquez
Santana at Tenerife, Canary Islands, was the first to notice the outburst
shortly after local midnight on the 24th. The comet was then about 8th
magnitude, but within minutes Ramon Naves and colleagues in Barcelona,
Spain, caught it at magnitude 7.3.

Internet discussion groups came alive with the news. 'To my amazement, 17P
had brightened to naked-eye visibility,' exclaimed Bob King when he spotted
Comet Holmes shortly before dawn in Duluth, Minnesota. 'What a sight!' he
posted to the Comets Mailing List. Alan Hale of Cloudcroft, New Mexico,
concurred. To Hale (well-known codiscoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp) it appeared
essentially starlike in a telescope until he switched to high power.

Then things only got better. As Earth continued to turn, nightfall arrived
in Japan. 'It is visible with naked eyes in a large city!' posted Seiichi
Yoshida, who observed the comet from beside Tsurumi River in Yokohama. By
17:15 Universal Time he was describing Comet Holmes as magnitude 2.8."

Much more ... with charts and pictures:
Look towards the northeast, just south of the delta Persei. Other reports claim that it can be seen despite the full moon!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Resurrection fern

Like the rest of the Eastern U.S. this week, southeast Missouri finally received rain and cooler weather. Storms traditionally rumble into the area over the park, sending leaves and branches flying off the drought-stressed trees. I'm never very eager to head into the park after a storm, mainly because I don't like seeing carnage: huge trees fall across the trail, enormous branches block the roads and shellbark hickory nuts make running the trails impossible. Usually the day after a storm, I have a date with a chainsaw.

Before I moved here, the National Champion Swamp Chestnut oak, the largest of its kind in America, lost roughly 40% of its crown during a storm. The large branches remain right next to the tree where they landed, ever slowly decomposing. Of course, the tree is likely no longer the National Champion (up for the title again in 2008) thanks to the missing branches. When the branches fell in what was surely a deafening crash, they brought to the ground level a thriving population of resurrection ferns.

Found only east of the Rockies, resurrection fern grows on the high branches of oaks and cypresses in humid regions. One of only two ferns recorded from the park, resurrection fern is particularly notable because it traditionally grows in old growth forests where Spanish moss grows. We don't have Spanish moss here, but we do have stately oaks and cypresses.

Resurrection fern is an epiphyte, which means it gathers its nutrients from the air, rainwater, and particles that happen to land on the bark upon which it grows. Epiphytes are unlike parasites in that they do not receive nutrients from their host plant. While most ferns dry up and reproduce by spores during times of drought, resurrection ferns can lose up to 76% of its water content and remain alive. Most other plants can only lose up to 12% of their moisture before they die.

During dry spells, resurrection ferns curl their fronds inward, allowing the underside to be exposed to air and available moisture. When it rains, the fronds unfurl and remain green for at least a couple of weeks. I've kept resurrection fern alive in a tank with dart frogs for about three weeks under constant hydration. The small fronds on a bit of live oak bark shriveled up after a month, despite having moisture. It probably realized that it was being held captive.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Squirrels fallen on hard times

Last spring, after the oaks and the forest understory had flowered, Missouri froze. A hard, killing frost reduced the spring woods to crinkly black leaves and desiccated flowers. Foresters speculated about the impacts such a late freeze would have on acorn production this fall. I didn't think we'd see a single white oak acorn, personally. My sister agency released the 2007 Mast Report last week and in it, they announced that white oak acorn production is down 58.5%. Even though their Mast Report only covered the Ozarks and other significantly forested areas (which leaves out southeast Missouri), I'm finding the same low numbers of white oak acorns in my small patch of woods as the rest of the state.

Red oak acorns, on the other hand, are only down 8% from last year's crop. White oak acorns are formed the same year as the flowers are formed. Red oaks, the group that includes scarlet oaks, Shumard's, and pins, take two years to produce acorns. This year's production is based on last year's flowering event. Of course, next year will be a bad one for red oak acorns since this year's flowers were killed by the frost.

As a courtesy to hunters interested in mast-eating mammals like squirrels and deer, foresters in my sister agency have produced Mast Reports since 1960. Foresters report that this year's production is the lowest in recorded history. Squirrels will be impacted more dramatically than deer. Squirrels distinguish between white and red oak acorns; red oak acorns are higher in fat, but also high in the distasteful tannins. White oak acorns have less fat and also fewer tannins.

While squirrels prefer fatty red oak acorns, if the white oak acorns are more abundant, they will eat more of them just after acorn drop. White oaks send out taproots days and weeks after they fall, while red oaks sprout the following spring. Since the tannins in white oak acorns are concentrated in the taproot, squirrels tend to eat them first, and store red oak acorns for the winter. Recent research has shown that squirrels will only eat the top part of the red oak acorn (about 60% of it) to avoid the concentrated tannins at the embyronic end. Even though squirrels eat the bulk of an acorn, the remaining part can still produce a tree. Estimates suggest that 74% of all buried acorns are never found again.

With white oak acorn populations impacted by the frost, squirrels will be forced to eat and store red oak acorns if they plan on eating this winter. If you live in an area impacted by the Easter freeze, I recommend stocking up on peanuts, suet and corn for your squirrel feeders. This winter, you should do it not just for selfish viewing reasons, but because they actually need the help.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Reynolds House

The city of Cape Girardeau can't handle money very well. Every week, another article appears in their fine Southeast Missourian about how the City Council allocated funds for one project, decided at the last minute to funnel it somewhere else, and now they're asking for tax dollars for the original project. This seems to happen all the time in Cape Girardeau. Ask anyone in Cape Girardeau Co. about the public swimming pool fiasco, and you'll get an earful.

Now, the only house in the area that represents the French Colonial Period in Cape Girardeau is in desperate need of a $3,000 roof. The city can't find the funds. Neither can the state's Historic Preservation group, and neither can anyone else, apparently. Read here a frustrating tale about a property of great historic significance that will fall to pieces within months if it doesn't get a new roof. Where are the public pleas for money? Where are the roofing companies who can step up to the plate, get great press and save a historic property in a few days? Where are the musicians for a benefit concert? $3,000? That will get you a one bedroom apartment in New Orleans for a month. Or an entire century of history in Cape Girardeau.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sand prairies in fall

Sand prairies are really dynamic year round, but in the fall, they're truly spectacular places.

Splitbeard bluestem, the dominant grass in most sand prairies, sends out white, fluffy seedheads every October. Jointweed and partridge peas bloom once the cooler nights arrive. Dusky hognose snakes and scorpions bask on the warm sand. Turkeys and quail hide among the tall grasses.
After the colorful display is over, sand prairies are burned, removing all cover for wildlife on the open plain, sending every animal into the nearby stands of oaks and hickories on the savanna.
From my friend A.J.'s collection, southeast Missouri's sand prairies and a savanna during October.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


Each spring, foragers of wild edible plants set out in search of spring greens. They generally collect the first tender leaves of dandelions, purslane, wild mustards and lamb's quarters, but the prized plant for the steaming pot of spring greens is pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Once the initial leaves are removed, more come up; fresh greens can be secured all spring if you're the one who located the plant. In the South, locals usher in spring with poke salat (not salad, like the song. I've also seen it spelled "salatt"), a scrumptious pot of greens that taste a lot like spicy mustards drenched in butter.

Preparation of pokeweed requires diligence. All parts of the plant are toxic to humans if eaten raw. Cook poke leaves in two batches of salted water; if eaten raw, they cause severe stomach distress. The stem of the young plant can be cooked like asparagus. In Louisiana kitchens, the stems are cut into rounds and fried like okra. Once the stem starts turning bright red, it is no longer edible.

The dark berries that suspend like grapes from the red stems every fall were once used to darken Portugese ports. They apparently lent such a bad flavor to the sweet wine that the use of poke berries was outlawed. Jan Phillips, the patient, dare-devil author of Wild Edibles of Missouri once used poke berries to color an icing for a cake, but advises others against using them because they taste bad.

In every group of plant enthusiasts I've belonged to, there's always at least one person who is really into mushrooms, one really into ferns and one or two who are nuts about wild edibles. Wildflower walks are interrupted with the instructions on how to prepare spring ephemerals for the table, how many thousands of plants can be made into tea, or how to make flour out of hickory nuts. In modern times, with cultivated food widely available in most communities and our natural communities feeling stress from every possible direction, I think harvesting native plants is a little irresponsible. Just knowing that milkweed can be eaten raw or that reindeer lichen can be used as a substitute for flour should be rewarding enough. Milkweed, as one measly example, is significantly more important as food for wildlife than novelty food for humans.

Anyway, I have a huge pokeweed plant that is growing among my morning glories and that sad, failed attempt at growing Thompson seedless grapes. The berries are ripening now. I could have had fresh greens all spring, if I wanted them. I have ignored my pokeweed all year, much to the dismay of my superior who regularly disdains my yard as "full of weeds." I always assumed that the rich black berries must be a great find for wildlife. I listen more to my friend Charlotte Seidenberg, whose The Wildlife Garden: Planning Backyard Habitats has been more of a guiding force in my gardening than any book on wild edibles:
The 6 inch racemes of white to purplish flowers are followed in the fall by dark purple fruit eaten by many birds including bluebirds, cardinals, thrashers, thrushes, waxwings, doves, and mammals such as raccoons, opossums, and foxes. Pokeweed reseeds rampantly. Every part of the plant is poisonous to humans.

I can't imagine all the trial and error that goes into discovering the toxicity of native plants. If you're into eating plants from Southern woods, check out Dr. Charles Allen's latest offering, Edible Plants of the Gulf South. For what it's worth, he grows his own.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Benign neglect

When I first broke ground on my small bed for native plants almost two years ago, I had some idea what I wanted it to look like. I wanted an organic feel, rich with grasses and wildflowers, with no real order. I call the native plant bed my "prairie," a genuine misnomer since true prairie implies uninterrupted expanses of not only certain plants, but wetlands, woody draws and all of the associated faunal communities. My native bed has a small, wet draw that was installed this year after several hours of laborious shoveling through southeast Missouri's clay soils.It's not a true wetland, of course, not a wetland that my brilliant wetland biologist friend Neal could improve upon, but it's a depression that holds water long enough to attract a number of leopard frogs on a daily basis. I put in a small stand of woody sumacs this year, too, large enough to merely (again)imply those undulating stands of sumacs in true prairie. Prairie managers fight sumacs by burning, disking, "brushhogging," but grassland bird experts agree that sumacs are vital to populations of meadowlarks and even bobwhite quail.
I don't manage my little prairie. I pull out the creeping turf grass whose presence in my yard I truly despise. I burned the prairie this past spring. I let the morning glories move in and climb all over the dead sunflowers, which I continue to ignore until the goldfinches finish digging out all the mature seeds. I added more asters this year and have allowed the goldenrods to bloom where they volunteered. The only time I water my little prairie is when I'm filling the draw for the leopard frogs. My management regime, that of benign neglect, continues to reward me with a rich floral display and the accompanying invertebrate life.

Molly really enjoys the prairie. She's found a low spot in the sumacs that she continues to deepen, thereby encouraging rainwater pooling if it ever rains. She hunkers down in the prairie after her walk. She walks through the wet draw, filling her paws with Tunica sharkey clay soils which manage to find their way onto my bedsheets. The small patch of prairie attracts not only my little dog, but a panoply of moths, bees, flies, wasps, spiders. My entomologist has written a note for a journal about the importance of small patch habitat to yehl skippers, a rather nondescript little skipper. The only place in the county he ever finds them is in my front yard, in the "prairie," which literally teems with activity.
I've been asked by a local community to help design native plant beds to be installed on city property. I've sent pictures of my native plant bed to the community's parks department; I specifically chose times in the prairie's cycle when it was less wooly, when the native plant bed looked significantly more manicured than it does now. If the organizers of the project were to see the it now, after it has been genuinely neglected for months on end, I imagine they'd scratch the idea of a native plant bed and opt for thousands upon thousands of petunias. Anyway, the prairie is scheduled to be burned this fall. Grasses respond better to spring burns, wildflowers prefer fall burns. I can't fathom wildflowers responding better to fire than they did this year. Next year, I imagine, will be truly spectacular.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Silver spotted skippers

I first saw this large skipper last fall, hovering over a mound of purple asters in my native plant bed. To be honest, I was downright lazy in my pursuit to identify it. I flipped through Butterflies of Missouri looking for a nice color plate. I looked through the butterfly and moth sections, but completely ignored the thick mass of pages dedicated to skippers, generally small insects that noticeably "skip" from plant to plant. The silver spotted skipper was too large, I thought, to be a skipper.

This spring, when they appeared by the droves on my pink zinnias, I was finally forced to figure out who they were. For some reason, the name "gray spotted checker"--an abomination of three other insects, the gray hairstreak, spotted skipper and checkered skipper-- stuck in my head. All summer I called the silver spotted skipper a gray spotted checker. I said it with such conviction that even my herpetologist remembered the name until he tried looking it up. Times like this, when I'm obviously wrong, Alyssa laughs hysterically, she bends over at the waist in delight. I hope my herpetologist did the same thing.

To make up for my negligence towards learning this insect, I've gorged on its natural history. My entomologist has fed me some fun facts about silver spotted skippers and I've finally consulted all of my departmental books. Skippers belong to a large family, the Hesperiidae, that includes several thousand species. Most skippers generally have rather stout bodies and small wings. The larvae prepare their nests by curling leaves around the cocoon; the skippers that feed on grasses web blades together for shelter. The silver spotted skipper is the largest skipper in Missouri, which is probably why I didn't think it was a skipper.

This skipper, the most common skipper in my zinnia bed, is responsible for my lack of fresh lima beans, fresh flageolets, and fresh heirloom haricot verts this summer. The silver spotted skipper larvae feed on members of the Fabaceae family, the pea family. While the adults traditionally lay their eggs singly on woody members of the family like honey locust and false indigo, they will just as easily lay their eggs on bean plants, encouraging the larvae to devour all of the plant's leaves in a matter of days. Considering that 92% of my county is planted in soybeans, which are also members of the Fabaceae family, the commonality of silver spotted skippers is no mystery. They are an identified crop pest and can be "treated" with a gnarly combination of pesticides. Of course, I just let them have their way. If I'm not meant to have beans, I'm not meant to have beans. I still have the all-important tomatoes and basil and a great patch of oregano. Nevertheless, a single caterpillar can destroy 50-70% of the leaves of a single bean plant.

My entomologist works part-time for local farmers identifying crop pests. He has discovered that more silver spotted skippers live in RoundUp Ready soybean fields than in the area's few pristine woodlands. Because the skippers have lived for so long around pesticides, the larvae are now resistant to RoundUp. While this is utterly disheartening for so many reasons, it's also somehow...good? that they're not being killed by an herbicide. They still manage to exist in high numbers, despite the presence of toxic chemicals that are systemically grown into their food source.

Silver spotted skippers only visit nectar sources that are pink, purple, blue, red and white. They don't visit yellow flowers very often, which explains why I only see them on my zinnias and not on my goldenrod and asters. With a food source so widely available as soybeans in southeast Missouri, this is one insect that is holding its ground in light of the terribly depauperate habitat.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Oh, dear Missouri!

Remember that part in Homer's Iliad that went on for about 100 lines, listing all the towns that sent ships for battle? It was neverending. And it really didn't have much to do with the narrative at all. In graduate school, I think I skipped the whole section, having labored through it in translation as an undergrad.

I've been asked recently by someone I hold in high regard, "why all the Missouri-bashing lately?" Honestly, I didn't realize I had been grumbling at the state, but maybe I have. So, in a post you're welcome to skip, a catalog of great things about Missouri:
I cherish Missouri's white oaks, prairies, the dissected till plains of the North Hills, clear, fast-moving Ozark streams, caves, seeps, fens, spring wildflowers, box turtles, wetlands, dolomite cliffs. I respect their remarkable dedicated state taxes which directly protect large, vast stretches of land, their utterly bizarre position during the Civil War (which always makes for an interesting story), their riverboat history that had such an impact on the spread of jazz. Sedalia's Scott Joplin Festival is fantastic: upwards of 30 pianos scattered on the streets of downtown, all outfitted with pianists playing ragtime. Columbia is a fine little town, one with bike trails, a decent natural foods store and farmer's markets. St. Louis has some fantastic, significant architecture, which is finally being carefully restored after many years of neglect. Missouri's wineries are very special places, all dependent on the the interesting soils and rock layers below. Ste. Genevieve has done a fine, fine job at maintaining the ambience of a French colonial community; it's like a well-funded Cajun town.

I'll always cherish every moment I've spent at Hawn and Prairie State Parks, both extraordinary places anytime of the year. The antique stores in Hermann are always great places to find antique embroidery. The red rocks of Arcadia Valley are stunning, with rather disjunct, fascinating plant communities. I find the state capitol building beautiful, complete with murals by Missouri's own Thomas Hart Benton. Kansas City has finally started to protect its Vine Street neighborhood, an area so important to the great Billie Holiday that it should have National Register status.

The people here aren't as tough as they are back home. Along the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau, there rests a large mural of famous Missourians (like Rush Limbaugh). My herpetologist put it succintly: "If that was in New Orleans? It would be covered in graffiti." There's not a lot of trash floating around the city streets like there is in Brooklyn. You can leave your car unlocked in most rural communities. In modern history, no Missouri town has had the dubious honor of being the country's "murder capitol."

No, I think Missouri's fine for a land-locked state. The state's political, natural, and cultural histories are truly fascinating. What do the Jesuits say? Bloom where you are planted? Yes, that's it.