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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Poor little goldenrods

They've been so maligned. Every fall, Americans mistakenly blame the bright yellow flowers of the goldenrods (Solidago sp.) for causing sneezing fits of hayfever. Alas, goldenrods aren't to blame. As plants pollinated by insects, goldenrods can't cause allergies. Ragweed, on the other hand, which blooms at the same time as goldenrods, is open-pollinated; its pollen granules are dispersed wildly by wind, causing terrible allergic reactions in sensitive people. Ragweed happens to bloom at the same time as showy goldenrods, often right alongside them in prairies, savannas, and, most commonly, in disturbed soils and waste places.

There are over 100 species of the genus Solidago in North America. They all belong to the Asteraceae family, a ridiculously large family of plants that includes everything from asters to thistles. The Asteraceae family is showy, colorful, sort of disdained by fans of bryophytes and ferns. (In an interview for a natural history job many moons ago, I announced that I was a huge fan of the Asteraceae, being that they were the first group of plants I learned. The guy across the table scorned, "no one ever says 'the sedges' or 'ferns'...") Nevertheless, there's a goldenrod for just about every habitat: Solidago gattingeri only grows out of dolomitic cliffs in the Ozarks, while Solidago canadense shows up in rights of way, in the parking lot of your local gas station, and on the edges of agricultural fields. Regardless of where goldenrods grow, they always provide an important nectar source for the fall migrating butterflies.

The brilliant flowers can be boiled down and used as a dye (but you have to use a brass kettle and gobs of the flowers); the resulting color is a lovely chartreuse, like absinthe. Goldenrod leaves and flowers have been boiled into a tea to stop bruising and to break up kidney stones. Of course, man's uses of plants are far less important than the natural history or importance of goldenrods in the grand scheme of nature. As fall-blooming wildflowers, goldenrods stand taller than the asters, ready for the monarchs to gorge on their nectar.

Monday, September 24, 2007

My herpetologist's eyes

The turtle project is coming to an end, which means the end of conversation during my workday. My herpetologist and I have other things to do, like looking for fall-breeding amphibians, checking out other areas that are under my care, looking for snakes on Crowley's Ridge. I'll make that long drive to Cape Girardeau to spend time with him, his cute fiancee, Melita, their dog, Pimp, and his really great mother who recently moved here from Chalmette, Louisiana. He's one of the few people I've met in Missouri worth keeping in touch with...and he's from New Orleans.

From his patient hands, pictures which can be enlarged by merely clicking on them: a great blue skimmer dragonfly (Bones learned his dragonflies this summer, thereby completing his knowledge of southeast Missouri's natural history), a great shot of a green heron who used to sit around while we were checking nets, my favorite frog of them all, the green treefrog, spotted while Bones was frog-sitting my dart frogs, and a spiny softshell turtle (we've caught some monsters during the survey, and this is one of them). I've been asked what I plan to do with all the time that the end of the turtle survey allows. I'll be playing catch up, finally seeing what the plant life is doing in the park.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Autumnal equinox

Fall arrived so imperceptibly that I must have missed the day that the shadows lengthened and the smell of fallen cottonwood leaves overpowered the stench of burning fields. Maybe because my birthday coincides with the new school year, a time of great new adventures in learning, I have always cherished fall days. When I was in college, I tried to remain immersed in autumn as long as possible, trying to hold on to that fresh feeling of new beginnings and sharpened pencils, even driving to great distances into Arkansas to glimpse oak-hickory forests ablaze in "fall colors." In the Deep South and, therefore, southeast Missouri, fall ushers in subtly, bringing slightly cooler days and the bloom cycles of asters and morning glories. We don't have the white oaks and hickories of the Ozarks which paint the landscape in purple, red and yellow; no, autumn in the south is just quiet. The cicadas stop chirping, frogs stop calling, the rumbling of grain trucks no longer interrupts the quiet when autumn sets in.

Annually, I set forth new goals on my birthday. Last year, I promised to Master the Art of French Cooking (check), keep up with correspondence (check), and maintain a certain fitness goal (check). For my 35th year, I've upped the ante, as it were. This year, I will learn my ferns (shouldn't be too hard), visit Vienna and Budapest(passport willing), and finally come to terms with emotional issues that have plagued me since early adulthood, which make it impossible to create lasting emotional connections. If I don't deal with issues now, I never will. I hope that I will discover that my chosen living arrangements, at once secluded and distant from all cultural and social opportunities, are to blame for my lack of personal connection since moving to Missouri. I hope it's nothing more than that.

I thought that maybe the problem was within, that maybe I didn't nourish the friendships that I began in college, in New York, in New Orleans. I worked on keeping in touch last year, but I think the problem must be something deeper, something more sinister deriving from the lack of a loving father, an early-adulthood abusive relationship or a even scarier, a really recent revolting relationship that has made me question the very core of my personality. I'll find the root of the problem this year. It's going to be hard, much harder than learning my ferns, but the bright moon of the equinox, the fresh smell of rotting leaves and the bright, dappled light filtering through the forest ushers in a new beginning.

Tomorrow I'll post some great pictures from my herpetologist's camera. His photographs are fantastic. My herpetologist is a lot more patient than I am, much more assiduous in tracking wildlife. Most of my pictures are of plants and insects that don't really move around very much. I need to acquire the patience of my herpetologist this year, but I need to stay on task, to learn how to deal with past issues that haunt the present and keep me from true happiness. Southeast Missouri is a fascinating, though drastically altered place. True happiness comes from within, regardless of the zip code.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

An Update

Remember the kingfisher who was tangled in the fishing line?

Every morning, my herpetologist, Bones, listens to one of those "morning zoo" programs, called Kid Kraddick in the Morning. At some point during the show, the announcers offer a prize to the numbered caller. My herpetologist never wins these things. A couple of days ago, he won! He was the whatever-number-caller and therefore won a gift certificate to a spa treatment somewhere in Cape Girardeau.

Today, he went to pick up his prize. Last month, after Bones dropped off the stressed out and exhausted kingfisher at a wildlife rehabilitator, he erased the name of the rehabilitator from his brain. The wildlife rehab outfit was supposed to call the park with updates, to let us know how the bird was faring. They never did. Today, when Bones went to the spa to pick up his prize, he noticed that the spa was next door to the kingfisher's wildlife rehabilitator.

Not one for shyness, Bones went in to ask after the bird. Apparently, the bird recovered from its wounds. A wildlife conservation agent from my sister agency picked up the bird from the vet and let it go. In Sedgewickville. 50 miles from where the bird was found dangling from a tree. While I'm thrilled that the bird is still alive, I'm chagrined that he is not zooming around the swamp where he belongs. This represents reason number 452 why I refuse to work for my sister agency. Anyone in my outfit would take the bird back to where it came from....

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Western mud snake

Every once in a while, my herpetologist, Bones, is late. Granted, he drives an hour and half every other day to check turtle nets as part of our ongoing population survey. Sometimes, when he’s more than 15 minutes late, I think of the extra 15 minutes I could have slept, wondering if they would have made a difference. Other times, while I’m waiting in my office for him to arrive I ask myself over and over (with my head on my desk), “why can’t you just go to bed at a reasonable hour?” Bones normally has a good excuse for running late: school buses, the Saints game, a slow line at McDonald’s for his bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich.

Bounding around the garage one morning last week, 30 minutes late, he proudly announced that he had a great excuse for his tardiness that morning. Wrapped around his hand, high above his head, was a lovely red and black mud snake he encountered while driving 60 mph down Hwy. 102. Like most of my colleagues in Missouri, Bones stops his car to help turtles and snakes cross roads. He likes to see what species are around and will often whip out his camera for road-crossing animals. I don’t know how much this common practice among wildlife enthusiasts really helps populations, but recent studies have suggested that while road kills do not affect overall populations of mammals, herpetofaunal populations are seriously impacted by automobile traffic.

I had never seen a mud snake before that morning. I had seen countless pictures of them in publications where they’re situated alongside pictures of bird-voiced treefrogs, swamp rabbits and other species that are supposed to be found in swamps. In 1982, a mud snake was recorded from the park, but it hasn’t been confirmed since then and it’s not because we haven’t looked. The likely reason we haven’t found a mud snake is because their primary food source, amphiumas and sirens (long, eel-like salamanders that live in sluggish backwaters), haven’t been documented in the park since the early 1980’s. The regular drainage of the swamp by adjacent landowners seriously impacts the park’s ability to hold any permanent water. Without a permanent water source for the amphiumas, the mud snakes have moved on. In fact, they’ve taken up residence in Wilkerson Ditch, the degraded main waterway in the county that collects water from 13,000 acres of land. Of course, the park’s meager 1,026 acres is included in that number.

Mud snakes are particularly secretive and seldom seen during the day. They are semi-aquatic animals of the embayment, found from southeastern Missouri to the Gulf Coast where they live in shallow waters under rotting logs and debris. The one Bones found was a pretty small one. As he put it, they can grow to about 7 feet and get “real beefy.” We’ve encountered beefy turtles and beefy diamondback watersnakes, both particularly large for their kind. The largest mud snake on record measured 81.5 inches, which is, indeed, beefy.

Unlike every other snake I’ve ever met, mud snakes do not bite to defend themselves. Instead, when captured, they gently touch your hand with the end of the tail. It doesn’t hurt or even come close to breaking the skin. Local myths suggest that mud snakes have a sharp scale at the end of their tail that delivers a deadly venom, hence the local name “stinging snake.” Once again, the irrational fear of snakes has probably caused senseless killings of mud snakes throughout their range.

Bones held on to the mud snake for a few days so he could show it to his fellow snake-loving friends. These days, it’s becoming hard to get excited about the park's natural history since our species count in the turtle project has dropped to about three a day. We haven’t found a mud turtle, a Mississippi green water snake, a broad-banded water snake, or the grail animal, the Western chicken turtle--all animals that were likely in the park before all of the drainage projects came online. As I suspected when I started this job, the altered hydrology has literally destroyed the ecological health of the last presettlement bottomland forest in southeast Missouri. Naturally, I’m thrilled I finally saw a mud snake, but for Bones’ sake and the state of the park’s herpetological status, I really wish he had found it within our boundaries.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


Gasquet is out with a sore throat and a fever. Sharapova played terribly today (wonder if there are any mob connections?). Isner gave Federer a good run, proving that all is not lost in the way of American men's tennis. It's time for salty snacks, pinot noir, and hoping that the wind doesn't knock out reception in the middle of a game. The US Open is in full swing so I'm glued to the makeshift television, a computer with satellite hookup. Check out the weblog listed to the right called Gasquet and Racquet. It might explain why every Nike-sponsored player except Federer wore the same terrible yellow and gray striped number straight out of East Germany c. 1986. If Nike required that everyone wore the same thing, shame on them for their undemocratic display of branding.

Tomorrow promises great tennis: both Williams sisters and Nadal. I don't know if I'll see the light of day.