Thursday, August 30, 2007

Before the drought

I can't remember the last time I used my camera in southeast Missouri. The dry conditions have left the woods a shriveled wreck and any traces of a swamp, a desolate wasteland. I haven't heard frogs in months (though have seen 3 too many dead in my yard), hardly anything is blooming now and all of the tall, charismatic sedges look like unpoetic dead grass. So, I culled a few pictures taken during May and June to remember how lovely Missouri can be under the right conditions.
In some vague order: My fondness for clean water at Pickle Springs, Krigia biflora at Crowley's Ridge (this is the only one that turned out. It was actually raining that day and the light was terrible. No rain at Crowley's Ridge since June 28th), a couple of pictures from my little patch of prairie plants, a 3-toed box turtle hatchling, the high mesic woodlands, thick with sedges, and finally, the appropriately named Big Spring in Van Buren. On average, 115 million gallons of water rush out of the limestone/dolomite cliffs everyday at Big Spring to feed the Current River. Last time we were there, flow averaged 80 million gallons a day. The Civilian Conservation Corps developed the Big Spring area, building charming cabins and lodges that are available for rent (they welcome pets!). The CCC rerouted the Current River so that boaters wouldn't pass the spring as they float down the river. The CCC must have had the foresight to know that drunk kids from St. Louis have a particular knack of ruining Missouri's natural wonders. So, they moved the river as a precaution.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Speak Out! v. Homer Simpson

The Southeast Missourian, Cape Girardeau's newspaper, offers a call-in opinion line. The folks of southeast Missouri use the call-in line to complain about their neighbors, which cracks me up. In New Orleans, they'd complain to your face. Here, they use the newspaper.

"Movie chatter"

I WANT to thank the couple who effectively spoiled an enjoyable movie
experience for me. The couple behind my wife and me felt comfortable
making various comments and asking questions to each other as if they
where sitting at home in the their living room. After several attempts
to turn around to them and give "the look" were unsuccessful, they had
a long period of acting as if they were actually in a public place. But
then, at the apex of the movie the older gentlemen says to his wife in
a not so low tone, "Now who is that?" That was the last straw. I turned
to her as she started to answer him and had to actually had to snap my
fingers to get her attention. "Shh!" I said sternly. Her husband then
chuckled, showing how much he cared. I would expect this behavior from
a younger group of people, but not an older couple. Most people have the
common courtesy to lean in and whisper to the person for a little bit
of movie chatting, but I guess common courtesy isn't that common anymore.

THE SIMPSONS (Colonel Homer)

Homer: We'll take two tickets to "The Stockholm Affair".
Marge: Ooh. The paper called it a "taut political thriller".
Homer: Political? [ Groaning ]
Advisor: Mr. President, disturbing news! Serious cracks are
developing in the Greco-Bolivian alliance.
President: Get me Jed Colic!
Homer: [ Slurping ][ Gagging ] Oh, this movie's too complicated....
Homer: Hey, the floor's sticky.... [ Grunting ]
Homer: Who's that guy?
Homer: What did that guy say when I said, ''Who's that guy?''
Marge: [ Growling ]
Homer: Oh, that submarine is so fake. Look, you can see the strings.
Ooh! An octopus!
Man in next row: Shh!
Homer: What?
Homer: I think that guy's a spy.
Marge: [ Whispering ] Of course he's a spy! You just saw him go
through spy school!
Homer: Oh, wait. I heard how this ends. Turns out the secret code was
the same nursery rhyme he told his daughter.
[ Audience Moaning]
Homer: It's pretty obvious if you think about it.
Marge: Shut up, Homer! No one wants to hear what you think!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Aliens among us

There's a great early scene in Orson Welles' 1939 broadcast of War of the Worlds : a policeman quietly holds up a white flag of truce to the Martian pod. The commentator suggests that the Martians probably don't recognize the white flag as a sign of defeat. The creatures in the pod respond by sending out an enormous ball of fire to the dry field across the road. The field quickly erupts into flames and the policeman stands there, dumbfounded, holding a handkerchief tied to stick.

Land managers across America resemble the policeman, defeated, holding backpack sprayers of herbicide while nonnative invasive plants quickly rip across the landscape with no end of their invasion in sight. Invasive plants are those which are not native to a certain region but nonetheless colonize ecosystems. Some invasives, like honeysuckle, the mimosa tree and multiflora rose, were brought over to the New World as ornamental plants. They escaped cultivation and now choke forests from Louisiana to Illinois. Others, like sericea lespedeza, were introduced by my sister agency for erosion control. Now, Missouri agencies spend literally thousands of dollars spraying sericea. The U.S. Forest Service names 33 nonnative invasive plants whose populations have dramatically altered southeastern forests. The upland sand forests of Crowley's Ridge are not exempt. 13 of the 33 species have a stronghold on Missouri's Crowley's Ridge.

Invasives move in primarily through bird and mammal seed dispersal. Automobile tires are another important vector for the spread of invasives, which is why roadsides are more often than not thick with invasive species. When invasive plants move into an area, they choke out native plants by using the nutrients, moisture and light that the natives have depended on for a millenia. Honeysuckle, for example, begins to leaf out in March, weeks before most spring ephemeral wildflowers poke their first leaves out of the soil. Honeysuckle leaves persist through November, thereby blocking light throughout the entire growing season.

Invasive plants dramatically lower the biodiversity of an area. Aside from development or conversion to agriculture, invasive plants pose the greatest threat to biodiversity in America. Invasives often grow quickly, creating thick mats along roadsides, in prairies, covering trees in woodlands, savannas, glades, forests and streambanks. Essentially, invasive plants have adapted to thrive in any habitat that supports plant life.

As the biodiveristy of an area decreases, so, too, does wildlife habitat. Grassland birds, in particular, are negatively impacted by the pervasive, impenetrable swathes of sericea; the seeds provide no nutrients, the plants supplant grasses and forbs that grassland birds require for nest building, and young chicks are unable to navigate through sericea's thick stalks.

Bush honeysuckle (pictured), a bushy version of the vine that is literally choking the entire state of Arkansas and Crowley's Ridge, produces sugary bright red berries in the fall. The fruits have no protein and no fat, the two nutrients most important to wintering bird populations. A recent study has found that the feather color of certain birds(cedar waxwings, yellow breasted chats, common yellowthroats, for example)changes if the birds have subsisted on a diet of bush honeysuckle berries. Rather than yellow feathers, the birds develop orange feathers. A recent photograph of a cedar waxwing reveals jagged orange-tipped tail feathers (instead of smooth yellow tipped feathers). The jagged edge indicates that they developed under intense stress. Breeding behavior of these traditionally yellow birds has been interrupted by the honeysuckle diet; feather color is an extremely important aspect of bond pairing.

To combat nonnative invasive plants, an integrated approach is required. Manual removal can slow the spread of certain species, but for most, regular applications of herbicide and prescribed fire is required. Every plant has a particular prescription for removal. Small infestations of vining honeysuckle can be eradicated with a series of successive spring fires. Bush honeysuckle, on the other hand, must be cut down and stump-treated with a glyphosate-based chemical for several years in a row to stop resprouting. Sericea, the scourge of Missouri's prairies and savannas, actually likes fire. Infestations that are burned grow back stronger every year. Repeated herbicide treatments seem to work on sericea, but great care must be taken with the application; sericea leaves close up if they sense a strong chemical concentration. Because most herbicides are absorbed through the leaves, sericea's defense mechanism can block the treatment altogether.

An informal poll conducted in Jefferson City last year determined how much time land managers in one agency spent treating invasive species in the course of a year. Over 38,000 man hours and over $242,000 were spent spraying, disking, chainsawing, stump treating, and manually pulling invasive species in the public lands owned by one agency in Missouri. States like Arkansas and Louisiana have been decidedly passive towards invasive control; The Nature Conservancy chapters in both states are responsible for any aggressive eradication projects. As neighboring states refuse to treat their nonnative invasives, Missouri will always be threatened.

(Do your part. Remove your honeysuckle, autumn olives, mimosas, wintercreeper and trailing vincas. Don't buy purple loosestrife, burning bush, Japanese privets, English ivy, nonnative wisteria. Contact your state conservation agency about which native plants can be used in your landscape.)

Saturday, August 18, 2007


The NOAA radar shows bright red and yellow storms all over southeast Missouri and western Kentucky tonight. The radar also shows those storms breaking up once they move north, hitting the cool temperatures of the Mississippi River and the small patch of forest across the road that- no doubt -controls weather patterns in the area. Paducah is getting hammered. New Madrid is getting drenched, but I'll probably just have to pick up limbs all day tomorrow from the strong winds that never brought any rain.

The County Commissioner officially declared drought last month. The county has not only seen no rain, but has continued to irrigate the cornfields, leaving the water table significantly lower than average. Trees are already dropping not only their leaves but tiny acorns, smaller even than my thumbnail. The forest has adapted to life without water lately. In the past 80 years, with the completion of the drainage projects, areas that should see standing water for most of the year have seldom seen water for longer than days at a time. The forest has responded with no oak regeneration and an explosion of drought-tolerant species like maples and hackberries. This summer's drought might even be too much for the dry condition-loving trees to deal with. As trees fall from drought and, subsequently, windy conditions, light is able to reach the forest floor, allowing a rich understory to develop in some areas, but no oak regeneration. Bottomland forests need light and water.

In an unnaturally dry swamp and bottomland forest complex, one affected by drainage projects and levee systems, unnatural succession occurs rapidly. No longer do oaks, hickories, cypress and tupelo gum regenerate; as the dominant canopy species die, they are not replaced by others of their kind but drought-tolerant species like maples and hackberries. I was hired to somehow stop that rapid march of forest succession, to stop the maples and hackberries while encouraging the cypress and oaks. To stop that kind of unnatural succession requires the institution of natural processes--dynamic flood patterns and infrequent, light surface fires to remove the leaf litter to allow light to the forest floor.

An act of Congress is required to see dynamic flood patterns restored to the dying forest, but we can apply fire. We might not need to this year, if the lightning continues to strike above the woods tonight. While many agencies (including the USFS and our sister agency) use bulldozers and helicopters to stop wildfires, the agency I work with embraces natural processes, we try to mimic them as much as possible. I've thought about this a lot tonight, knowing how dry the woods are, feeling the wind on the porch and seeing all of the lightning striking above the woods. If one of those mighty oaks catch fire, I'd do what Chief tells me to do: let the fire go, let it burn what it wants to burn, just don't let it damage any neighboring property. Instead of bulldozers and tractors, my agency goes into a wildfire with rakes and backpack blowers, containing the fire but not squelching it.

In May, 2007, Florida's drought-stricken Okefenokee Swamp caught fire. A tree fell on a powerline, igniting the cypress-gum swamp in a fire that ripped through almost 600 acres before it was contained. While it wasn't really a natural fire, it still served a purpose. Because the Okefenokee hadn't seen fire since the 1950s, there was a lot of fuel built up. Flame lengths reached almost 12 feet on the cypress trees, and the forest duff burned for several weeks. The federal staff were hoping for hurricane rains that week. The estimate was "9 inches, no fewer than 9 inches" would have put out the fire which burned underground for days. Today, the Okefenokee Swamp is a lot healthier because of the fire.

The dying woods across the road? The woods with no oaks younger than 100 years? I've decided that light surface fires might not work anymore. Those sad little woods need a large, hot, crown fire that will kill the hackberries and maples which have colonized the past 50 years. Before I go to bed, I'll step out to the porch to make sure I don't smell burning hickory. Knowing that we would never prescribe a massive, hot fire to drought-stricken woods (because it would be irresponsible), I wonder secretly and quietly if we really just need a good wildfire like the Okefenokee received.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Duckweed firetail

The park hasn't seen a drop of rain since June 21, when the rain gauge measured a measly .5". Premature acorns are jettisoning off the oaks and the stinging nettles are dropping their leaves 2 months early in protest. In a landscape of drastically altered hydrology, the lack of rainwater pooling has had detrimental effects on the summer's turtle survey. The water that sat since September is a mere memory, thanks to the adjacent landowner who tore down the beaver dam that was responsible for keeping water in the swamp this summer. And in case you were wondering, the Clean Water Act does little to nothing to protect fragile nature preserves from the needs of the farmer.

Last week, I was visited by one of my more esoteric colleagues, an entomologist who worked for the Illinois Natural Heritage program. He loves finding species new to science and will go to great lengths to get his records published. He cut his teeth on the insects of the embayment, so a visit to southeast Missouri to check out our embayment insects was in the cards this year. He had two goals in mind when he came to the park; he wanted to see the butterfly Portlandia, a pale version of the Creole Pearly Eye that lives in cane, and a damselfly called the duckweed firetail, a bright red damselfly that only perches on duckweed mats.

Anyone can imagine my colleague's disappointment when I told him that there was only one section in the entire park, entirely classified as a wetland, where duckweed mats might be found (if they hadn't dried up, too). We hiked to the small patch of water left since the destruction of the beaver dam. We looked for about 3 minutes before I found one, perched on the duckweed in all its fiery redness. My herpetologist took pictures (above) for evidence that the embayment insect persists in the park, despite the recent drainage of the swamp.

Damselflies and dragonflies belong to the order Odonata. The differences between the two are obvious: dragonflies rest with their four wings open while damselflies close their wings behind their bodies. A dragonfly's eyes generally touch one another while a damselfly's eyes are widely spaced. Dragonflies can live without standing water, but damselflies will only perch near water. Needless to say, we have many more dragonflies than damselflies these days.

Odonates breed while flying and deposit their eggs on or near water. Odonate larvae are entirely aquatic and require clean water for breeding. In fact, they are one of the bioindicators of water quality. Odonates are voracious feeders, eating everything from small fish and mosquito larvae to salamander larvae and tadpoles. Adult odonates can live for 1 to 9 months and feed entirely on insects. They are largely responsible for keeping mosquito populations in check.

The duckweed firetail larva, like many other species, emerges as an adult in the spring. The emergence is fascinating to watch--the nymph crawls out of the water, breaks open its skin along the midline and releases a winged adult. Unlike other damselflies, the duckweed firetail matures deep in the forest, rather far away from aquatic habitats. This insect is rather uncommon west of the Mississippi and has only been documented in eastern Louisiana from two sites and in Texas at one site. The adults tend to perch on duckweed simply because the larvae tend to congregate underneath. After they emerge, they stay near their nursery site until they set out for the forest for maturation.

We only saw one of the embayment damselflies last week before my colleague (who spends way too much time in the office) got overheated. I can't imagine the populations are very healthy in such an altered landscape devoid of available habitat, but maybe if it rains soon, very soon, they can hold on for at least another year.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Perseid Meteor Shower

This year's new moon makes viewing conditions ideal for the annual meteor shower. The Perseids peak tonight just after midnight and continue through tomorrow night. Look northeast for "a meteor a minute," according to the Farmer's Almanac. Because it never rains in southeast Missouri these days, and we're never even granted the shade of a few clouds, we'll be out on the porch after midnight looking skyward. If you can't see it where you are, you can always watch a video of it on NASA's website.

"Appalling want amid abundant plenty"

The following quotes from Thad Snow's papers correspond to Bonnie Stepenoff's Thad Snow: A Life of Social Reform in the Missouri Bootheel, available at Powell's Books.

In the early 1930s, many white planters in southeast Missouri did not support the federal government's plan to establish sharecropper communities. Racial and class disparity was at the root of the argument; Negro labor was cheap, for the most part, and wealthy planters hired sharecroppers by the droves as they arrived from Deep South in search of work.

Labor union sympathizer and planter Thad Snow held a rare opinion among farmers. He supported the federal programs that built housing for sharecroppers, even recognizing that organization into communities would likely lead to "fool ideas" that would "overflow the countryside" (65). Snow hired sharecroppers to tend his own fields which he created several years earlier by clearing hundreds of acres of forest (an act he later regretted). As an employer, Snow appreciated the work the sharecroppers accomplished but remained a product of his time. While he sympathized with the plight of the sharecropper, during the 1930s Snow managed to dissociate himself from the African American population to protect himself from ridicule. According to Snow, sharecroppers "know their place and keep to it pretty well during the daytime"(65). Organization might lead to rebellion, but he recognized that sharecroppers had a reason to revolt.

Under the New Deal, crop quotas were instituted that forced farmers to produce less than their land offered. If farmers produced more than their allotted quota, they had to pay extra taxes on their overages. Farmers still benefitted from bumper crops of cotton, but sharecroppers suffered. Farmers often failed to pay sharecroppers their share of federal subsidies earmarked for them. Moreover, many farmers in southeast Missouri often lied about their soil conservation practices but accepted the federal benefits that were created to encourage soil and water conservation. Because sharecroppers were not properly compensated, many went without meals, often subsisting on cornmeal, water and salt. Seeing the disdain towards the sharecroppers by the wealthy white planters, Snow declared that the evident poverty was "the amazing paradox of our time--appalling want amid abundant plenty" (66).

Snow was unlike most farmers in the 1930s. He was disheartened by the poverty and wanted to see change. When he accepted the federal government's crop reduction contract, he explained to his sharecroppers that they would have to reduce their production by half. They would receive a parity payment but wouldn't have to pay taxes. Snow's sharecroppers produced 480 and 580 lbs./acre, exactly half of their regular production, but Snow's allotment was 380 lbs./acre. The sharecroppers had to pay taxes on their overages and harbored resentment towards Snow for offering false promises. Snow felt embarrassed about the situation and blamed the government program for causing economic hardship among sharecroppers.

By the mid-1930s, Snow realized that the New Deal cotton policy was seriously flawed. Having heard of labor strikes in nearby Harlan, Kentucky,* where coalminers violently revolted in reaction to working and living conditions, Snow feared southeast Missouri's sharecroppers were headed in the same direction. In fact, Snow feared that Missourians might "go to beating and killing these poor devils for trying to improve their lowly estate by organized effort"(68). Because the sharecroppers were already organized into communities like La Forge, they had schoolhouses and churches where they could meet and discuss the obvious injustices shown to them by the policies of the New Deal.

Next: The Sharecropper's Revolt
*A fantastic documentary, Harlan Co. USA, follows the labor strikes from the 1930s-1970s. The film won the Oscar in 1977 for Best Documentary.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Nearly Death Line

I don't think Jason Thomas realizes that he saved a kingfisher yesterday. I don't think he's going to call my office asking about it, even. I do know that Jason Thomas learned firsthand the danger to wildlife caused by irresponsible fishermen who leave their lures, hooks and fishing line tangled in trees.

While I was in the swamp yesterday afternoon, Jason Thomas left a note, scrawled on an old paper bag, on my truck: "There's a bird tangled in fishing line hanging from a cypress tree in the lake. It's the first tree off the dock. Sincerely, Jason Thomas." I didn't even go down there to see what kind of bird it was, but headed straight for the boat, scissors, wirecutters and a pushpole (a retractable device that is used primarily in still waters). I don't know how long the bird had been there, hanging by his wing about 15 feet above the water level. The agency I work for has published posters since the 1970s titled "Death Line." The image of a dead bird tangled in fishing line is truly disturbing, but unfortunately public service announcements in Missouri don't help the literally thousands of birds and other animals that die a miserable death in discarded fishing line every year. Anglers continue to leave wads of old line on banks, in the water, in trees. Over 500 feet of fishing line was pulled from a sea turtle's stomach several years ago and I have untangled at least 2 egrets from 50 lb. test weight on the Gulf Coast. Nevertheless, I continue to post the dated posters and unwittingly call all fishing line "death line," as a sort of joke. Well, probably not anymore.

As soon as we paddled to the tree with the flapping bird, I quickly climbed as high as I could on the sad, dead cypress branches. I grabbed at the fishing line, trying to pull the bird closer. I climbed higher, trying to break the tangled branch with the pushpole. Leave it to the smart, sensible, fearless leader in the boat to suggest using the pushpole as a tool. He wrapped the line around the pushpole and then pulled down, thereby lowering the bird to a height we could reach. I climb dead branches, he uses his brain. Oh, the gulf that separates us.

The kingfisher's heart was racing, but he sat patiently as we untangled his wing, sacrificing only one end feather to the line. He wasn't able to fly off immediately, so I set him down in the shade by the water and went home. I checked on him an hour later; he was swimming around trying to flap his wings. I thought he would likely make a meal for an otter or a snapping turtle because the natural world can be cruel like that. Nature is ruthless (as described by Woody Allen: "one big restaurant") but man's irresponsibility to nature is worse.

This morning, my herpetologist spotted the kingfisher before I did. The bird was perched on a cypress knee near the water. We paddled towards him and he flapped off, swimming towards the bank. After checking the turtle nets and listening to two other kingfishers calling, divebombing and harassing the injured animal all morning, we finally caught him as he cowered under a buttonbush. We packed the bird into my frog's pet porter and my herpetologist drove him to a wildlife rehabilitator in Cape Girardeau.

The veternarian said they would keep us posted on the kingfisher's health. I'm sure the bird was famished by the time he arrived in Cape Girardeau, so hopefully he had a nice meal of minnows this afternoon. My job for the next week: remove any trace of fishing line from the recreational lake and thank Jason Thomas for his note.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Crowley's Ridge in late summer

It's been a dry few months in southeast Missouri. The acid seeps and springs of Crowley's Ridge are barely trickling these days, keeping the rich layer of ferns and mosses alive by a thread. After the spring burn, large stands of woodland sunflowers have appeared as well as a very unwelcome population of agricultural weeds who have capitalized on the open space in the woods. Late July on Crowley's Ridge was hot, but rich with scarlet tanagers, poison ivy and a handful of wildflowers. So, see! The shrubby Devil's Walking Stick in flower (left), Euphorbia corollata (the white compound flower whose common name I don't know), woodland sunflower (above), the great fern Thelypteris hexagonoptera, and the legacy of those fine, Crowley's Ridge soils, a field of rice that has played host to migrating stilts, dowitchers and egrets this week. Even though the rest of the area doesn't have any water, the federal government pays rice farmers to keep their fields flooded for the sake of the crop. The narrowmouth toads appreciate the water, too. They were calling all the way from Malden to Risco.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

La Forge, Missouri

The following information comes from Dr. Bonnie Stepenoff's book, Thad Snow: A Life of Social Reform in the Missouri Bootheel, available at Powell's Books. The broad topic of sharecroppers and labor rights will be spread out over the next week.

By the mid 1930s, southeast Missouri wasn't a friendly place to be if you were a sharecropper. Most of the area had been converted to farmland by the early 1920s. By 1926, the size of landholdings increased when small farms were consolidated in light of crashing textile markets. Around 1935, sharecroppers who traditionally tended small farms were hard pressed to find work and housing. The Farm Security Administration estimates that "between 1926 and 1936, more than 60% of sharecroppers in southeast Missouri had to look for jobs as day laborers."

Before that, between 1900 and 1920, more than 17,000 African Americans arrived in Missouri's bootheel in search of work. In my county alone, the black population tripled between 1910 and 1920. Most of the new population were tenant farmers or sharecroppers who worked in the cotton industry. Many of these new workers were recruited from Mississippi, lured to southeast Missouri with the promise of land to farm. Landowners provided the seed, the farm implements, mules, and meager housing while the sharecropper worked the land from planting to harvest. During the winter months, after the harvest, the landowner offered a little money to feed the sharecropper's family. But after the stock market crash in 1929, when the cotton market fell apart, planter landlords no longer needed sharecroppers and by the thousands, sharecroppers throughout the bootheel were evicted.

Farmers in southeast Missouri welcomed Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, which set forth that the drop in cotton prices was largely due to overproduction. Under the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933), farmers were offered a cash benefit if they plowed up acres that had previously been in production. Of course, the New Deal policies didn't really help sharecroppers and tenant farmers to earn a living. Farm laborers turned to the federal government for help. As a direct response to the rising homelessness and unemployment felt by sharecroppers, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and a division of the Dept. of the Interior funded the construction of 100+ agricultural communities throughout the cotton-producing South.

One of these communities, called Southeast Missouri Farms, was located on 6,700 acres outside of New Madrid at the small town of La Forge. In 1937, the Farm Security Administration supplied housing to 100 displaced (40 black and 60 white) sharecropper families in southeast Missouri. Two bedroom wooden houses were built without running water, but each with its own privy and well. Each house had a wood-burning or coal-burning stove, cabinets, and enameled sinks. The sharecropper communities were staunchly segregated, giving rise to racial tensions. Nevertheless, families managed to subsist in this environment, forming a cooperative community where most needs were met. From Dr. Stepenoff's book:
In the La Forge colony, farmers worked the land and pooled their profits. The government loaned money at low interest so that farmers could purchase mules, supplies and equipment. Cotton remained important as a cash crop, but the members of the cooperative also raised cattle, hay, chickens, hogs, and vegetables. The cooperative also established a library, a night school, knitting clubs, softball clubs, and churches. (65)

Several of the original FSA buildings remain standing at La Forge, now a small dot on the map next to New Madrid. Between 2005-2006, photographers from Southern Illinois University revisited sharecropper communities like the one at La Forgeto document what remains of the FSA's project. In other communities throughout the South, tenant farmer stores and shools are still standing, but in La Forge, mainly homes and a cotton gin remain.

Resettlement communities like the one at La Forge helped only a small number of sharecroppers. Regardless, local landowners were opposed to the idea of sharecropper communities because organization into colonies gave the underprivileged working class a chance to organize politically.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)

Few forbs represent the Midwestern tallgrass prairie as well as the plants of the genus Silphium. The compass plant, Silphium laciniatum, served as an orienteering device for early explorers: the tall, deeply cut leaves are oriented to turn north and south based on the sun's direction in order to conserve water. Prairie dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum, towers several feet over the rest of the prairie when it blooms in the early fall. At an average height of 12 feet, Cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum, thrives in the wet draws of prairie, often occupying the same areas as the dense, woody sumacs and rough leafed dogwoods.

Last winter, as part of my effort to restore a small patch of prairie to an area with "prairie" in the town's name, I bought two big pots of black soil fromMissouri Wildflowers. In fact, I bought a whole truckbed full of what looked like pots of soil devoid of plants. As soon as the first leaves appeared (four months later), I quickly planted all of my perennials, thick masses of rootstock with little vegetative growth. Having worked in horticulture for a few years, I learned the hard way that the best treatment of native wildflowers is no treatment. If you actually take care of native plants, they'll send out nothing but vegetative growth and few flowers. Therefore, I never water or fertilize my prairie plants and they reward my lack of effort with enormous stalks and prolific blooms.

Until a few years ago, prairie plants weren't given proper bidding. The medicinal uses of Amazonian rainforest plants were well known, even discussed in mainstream media. Prairie continued to be a neglected habitat, respected only by a handful of botanists and historians who recognized the ethnobotanical virtues of prairie and the value of historic landscapes. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, the author William Least-Heat Moon and several other individuals and non-profit organizations, prairie is now respected as a viable landscape worthy of our protection.

To win the American public's support of prairie, economic values of prairie had to be discovered and advertised. Prairie proponents capitalized on the medicinal and traditional Native American uses of prairie plants. For example, the plants of the genus Silphium are collectively called "rosinweeds;" when the top of any of the rosinweeds is broken off, a sweet smelling, clear, resinous sap pours out. Several tribes used the dried resin as a chewing gum. The Winnebago tribes believed S. perfoliatum had supernatural powers; braves drank a tea made of the rhizome before setting out on a buffalo hunt. The Winnebago believed that the plant purified their souls. The Chippewa used part of the plant's root to stop hemorrhaging from the lungs, to alleviate back and chest pains and even excessive menstrual bleeding. Over 203 prairie plants have been identified as having been used as medicine by Native American tribes. 78 different types of disease have been traditionally treated by different prairie plants.

Based on ethnobotanical history, modern researchers are investigating the medicinal properties of prairie plants. The sap from S. perfoliatum not only provides protection from HIV in infected cells, but is a known anti-cancer organic extract. The healing properties of the genus Echinacea are well known, as are the anti-cancer treatments afforded by the genus Ceonanthus.

S. perfoliatum stands tall in the yard, taller even than my bluestems and switch grass. The leaves of the plant are arranged in a perfoliate fashion, which means the leaves wrap around the entire stem, creating a small cup which captures the morning dew and rainfall. Considering that the last appreciable rain occurred June 21, the morning dew collected in my prairie plant serves as the only water source in the area for all of the local butterflies.