Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hard Frost

Before today, the Chief of Natural History had never said these three words in sequence to me: "I don't know." Like many Missourians I have been concerned about the recent spate of freezing weather that interrupted spring, killing the fresh green leaves on almost every tree in the state. So I went to the expert to find out what was going to happen to all the trees. Would they have a second budding? Would larger, drought stressed trees give up and die after all the sap production? What does the frost mean for acorn production?

Chief admitted he had never seen anything like the recent weather event. He's a solid guy, a lot like Gary Cooper. He told me not to worry, that a lot of trees will green out again, but the hickories might not. Trees and shrubs that produce berries important to fall warbler populations will likely not produce berries this year. In the southeast, I can expect few if any acorns. Low mast production will have terrible effects not only on oak regeneration, but more immediately on mammal populations.

After creating several scenarios of fully recovered forests and greatly altered landscapes, Chief repeated himself, "I really just don't know." I have a feeling that, without telling me, and while colleagues are pummeling him with questions about the frost, he's thinking "That's nature. It can be cruel." This is a man who once asked me why I was taking a box turtle (who had been flushed 2 miles into a cave) out of a cave. Natural processes sent the box turtle deep into the cave where it would surely die and serve as a food source for invertebrates who are a food source for salamanders, etc. I told him I respected his thoughts, which I did, but I also respect the life history of box turtles whose numbers continue to drop in Missouri due to car traffic.

From an agricultural standpoint, things are not okay after the frost. Farmers on Crowley's Ridge lost all of their peaches and apples for the season. Some of the older trees might die. Throughout the southeastern states, the 6 consecutive days of killing frost utterly destroyed crops. Blueberries from the South will be unaffordable this summer, if they're available at all. Grape growers in Hermann, Missouri have placed orders in California for this year's grapes. The folks at River Ridge haven't. Jerry grows heirloom varieties (he has some from Thos. Jefferson's vineyard) and natives which will all put out a second bud. It might not be the best vintage, but his crops aren't a total loss.

The frost has a meager bright side: with spring growth stunted, we're able to burn 900 acres of Taum Sauk Mountain on Tuesday (if the mountain doesn't get walloped with 2 inches of predicted snow). Birding in the short, nude trees of the Ozarks this afternoon was a cinch. I saw more black and white warblers, blue grey gnatcatchers, hermit thrushes, and prairie warblers than I've ever seen before. Pesky leaves weren't in the way. Finally, the boxelder samaras bit the dust, which means fewer invasive boxelders in the bottomland forest this year.

As usual, I'll listen to Chief and not worry about the state of Missouri's woods after the frost. For those of you who have asked, my garden fared well. I threw bed sheets over it every night and I only lost the Swiss chard. Cilantro, sweet peas, lettuces and dill are doing just fine. Maybe that's what the country needed last week: one big bedsheet.

post scriptum: I arrive home to find a small wire connecting the stereo to the ficus tree in the corner. With the wire, I have NPR again! I think the little piece of wire is called an antenna. The Cape Girardeau station comes through now, but I think I missed their spring pledge drive.

No comments: