Sunday, December 28, 2008

Redmon's Candy Store

You probably reached my blog about Ozarks natural history because you were looking for the hours of operation for Redmon's Candy Factory, the big candy store on I-44 outside of Lebanon. I've noticed that hundreds of people each month end up at my blog, and suffer through a post I wrote about feral hogs and how destructive they are. I never offer many of them any of the information they want. All I give in this post is a personal experience from visiting the store. Considering that Redmon's doesn't have a website, and their phone number is listed incorrectly in at least one online source, here's the information you're looking for:
Open daily from 7:30 am-9pm
Phone: 417-589-2123

It was a warm November afternoon when my colleague and I set out from Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains. Donned in the same grubby clothes we had worn for the past three days, we made our way back to Missouri, stopping only for coffee and petrol. Winds near our campsite were vicious that morning, so we hiked out of the wildlife refuge without coffee, without oatmeal, never lighting a match on the campstove for fear of starting a massive wildfire. Buffalo Grounds, the small, charming, independent coffeeshop near the refuge was closed for bible study, operated as it is by a contingent of evangelical Christians. We found coffee after 20 miles on rural Oklahoma roads and continued east on I-44, refueling on big cups of decaf and bottled water to suppress hunger. For the past few days, we had eaten nothing but lentils, quinoa, fruit, oatmeal, cheese, and almonds and we simply weren't presentable enough to sit down to a meal anywhere in the Ozarks.

It was just outside of Joplin when my colleague announced that we would break our pace, that we were going to stop for a while outside of Lebanon. On our way westward a few days before, he affected a halted and hushed tone, one that traditionally connotes the discussion of a serious or audacious topic: "Can you believe the governor of Illinois?" or a line I always say, "Have you ever had the butternut squash risotto at Higgins?" He took a deep breath and said, slowly, "have you ever stopped at the candy store outside of Lebanon?"

I had seen the billboards literally hundreds of times: a cartoon boy in a red shirt, red baseball cap, holding his hands in the air with a manic smile as though screaming the words on the billboard. World's Largest Candy Store! Drive west a few more miles, and the boy is happy about the World's Largest Gift Store! Despite the claim that the largest candy store is outside of Lebanon and I, frankly, love candy I truthfully and casually told my colleague that no, I never even thought of stopping there. Not even for their homemade fudge.

"Oh, we have to stop there. You won't believe it." A seasoned veteran of Missouri roads, he had only pulled into Redmon's earlier this year at the request of another colleague, a Baton Rouge native who loves good food and treats as much as I do. "The entire store is nothing but candy. Aisles of candy!" He went on to explain that it wasn't just any candy, but every candy. Big bins of penny candy fill the store: Mary Janes, Walnetto, those brightly colored foil wrapped flavored toffees, little Italian anise candy, IBC rootbeer candy, etc. On the right side of the store is the fudge factory where they make about 15 different kinds of fudge. Peanut brittle, cashew brittle, long strands of licorice, chocolate covered nuts of every variety. He was right. We had to stop.

The bright fluorescent lights provided a brilliant contrast to the cloudy fall day. Screaming colored cellophane candy wrappers of pink, orange, blue, green and red turned an industrial warehouse into a place so joyful that I laughed as I grabbed a white paper bag from the end of the aisle. Candy by the fistful! I took handfuls of every candy in the bulk bin aisles (except starlight mints. How boring.). I grabbed a pecan log, a nougat filled roll covered in chopped pecans that I used to buy when we'd stop at Stuckey's when I was a child. All of the Atkinson Candy Co. candy was represented: peanut planks (my all-time favorite candy, wrapped in paper that looks like wood grain), Chick-O-Stick, those Neapolitan coconut bars. I picked up peanut brittle for my stepfather, licorice for Doug. I ignored the fudge, since no one can make fudge like my mother can. When I finally set my bulging bag on the scales, it weighed almost 15 pounds. 15 pounds of sugar.

"Wasn't that great!?" my colleague exclaimed as we hopped back in the car. We debated about what to eat first. We broke into the pecan log and began to exchange childhood stories, rather competing with one another about who used to eat the most candy. Actually, despite how much I loved sugar as a kid, I think he won. I spent allowance on stuffed animals and ice cream, but he spent his solely on penny candy, Zero bars, Heath bars, chocolate bars. Together, my esteemed colleague and I littered the floorboard of the car with candy wrappers that afternoon.

I knew I wouldn't be able to run for a while after the first day of the backpacking trip when I injured myself. So, really, my candy purchase resembled my monthly pastry purchase. I pick out pretty pastries for my colleagues (nice strudels, things with pink icing, eclairs), but I won't eat them. Oh, I'm sure they're great, but I'm careful about what I eat. So I didn't actually plan on eating all the 15 pounds of candy, I just wanted to pick it out and think about eating it. I wanted to look at it, to run my hands through it.

I rolled up the bag from Redmon's as we pulled into Osage Beach following my colleague's hesitant "okay, that's enough." That night, back in Columbia, I made a generous donation to Doug, another lover of sugar, who looked just like the happy boy on the billboard when I dropped 14 pounds of candy on his desk.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Make it interesting

Every once in a while, thanks to my current position, I have the chance to read beautiful natural history essays and reports written by seasonal naturalists. Students of Missouri State University or the University of Missouri-Columbia working in these temporary (but vital) jobs make better writers: MSU graduates tend to have a fantastic understanding of karst features in the Ozarks, freshwater mussels and wildlife biology, while a lot of MU graduates still refer to trees as "timber," but have a working knowledge of Ozark fire-adapted landscapes. Regardless of curriculum requirements, most of the graduates from these schools can write effectively.

While plowing through projects written over the summer (finally submitted for my edits last month), I came across a fantastic 32-page document pertaining to the natural history of the Springfield Plateau. The writer started with the geology, the soils, then wrote about anthropogenic fire regimes, the importance of grazing by large, native herbivores, the "changes in populations" (read: European settlement) that caused the general degradation of so many Ozark landscapes. Knowing that the writer was a temporary employee, one with a solid understanding of Ozark natural history, I was determined to track him down, to see if he was interested in being a full time employee.

"I think he's backpacking out, for several months," his former boss said. This fueled my desire to find him a job even more; a lot of folks who work in natural history don't actually go to the woods, much less go backpacking. His former boss gave me his number, telling me that he's "really hard" to get in touch with. I left a message in the morning, he returned the call that afternoon. He was, indeed, backpacking out west: Oregon, Washington, British Columbia. He set out in August just after he had finished his writing project and wasn't set to return to Columbia until after Christmas, after seeing Utah in December (lucky duck). Naturally, we talked about Oregon for a while; the coast is great! We exchanged email addresses and I told him to keep in touch after he finished his backpacking trip.

Last week, I received a friendly email from him. He was excited about Oregon and Washington, but "Utah," he wrote, "made geology interesting!" Wait...this guy who waxed so eloquently about Ordovician formations of dolomite and limestone had to go to Utah to find geology interesting? I casually wrote him back, feeling unjustly slighted (considering I'm not even from here), offering suggestions of available jobs, contacts, the website for applications. I closed with a simple, probably blatantly defensive "yeah, but dolomite and limestone can be interesting, too, especially when it's gushing ice...." I figured I had lost him to the bright red rocks of vast Western landscapes. After all, I'm the one who regularly checks out Nature Conservancy job openings in Idaho-Montana-Wyoming-Oregon when I get aggravated at work. I fully understand the allure of western landscapes and sunsets.

Moments later, my email quietly pinged at me. He countered, without a greeting: "But dolomite isn't a red sandstone hoodoo at sunset." Dang it. He's right, it's not. The Ozark Highlands will never be Canyonlands or Arches; they'll never make a person in a photograph turn bright red. But grungy, black dolomite seeps water, it supports rich, rich floral attributes, it makes up incredibly diverse cave systems. Ringed salamanders are known only from dolomite caves. Glades! Where would glades be without dolomite and limestone? I quickly dug up a (hopefully interesting geology) picture: a nice close-up from the Jack's Fork River, a moist image of glacial relict ferns, mosses, little purple asters clinging to the side of an ancient dolomite outcropping.

"Dolomite and limestone are pretty great, I'll admit," he wrote back after a few moments, "and my loyalty, my heart is always in the Ozarks. Float trips, where would we be without float trips?" The Jack's Fork keeps me here, too, I answered.

Pictures from the first snow event in the upper Ozarks: frozen fog, which turned the landscape into a 19th century English painting; snow and ice, which caused a fine Buick owner to lay on his horn for almost 1/4 a mile when he was stuck behind my slow, plodding snow tire-less Honda (not wanting to end up in a ditch in rural Missouri where I don't know the people who drive trucks to pull me out); ice coming out of rock. Fascinating.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Army at Vienna

"Oh, come on. You're not a lawn ornament person. Your family are not lawn ornament people...Really, Allison? A Santa Claus?" Doug reiterated for the second time after I asked if I should find a 4 ft. plastic light-up Santa Claus for my sloping front yard, currently covered in wet pin oak leaves. For the past week, I've been thinking of those plastic Santa Clauses that I have never, ever, not once in my life, ever even paid attention to. Doug's right, of course, that my family are not lawn ornament people. We aren't outdoor-Christmas-lights people, either, but I've insisted on those for the past three Christmases in Missouri, switching to truly exquisite -brilliant!- LEDs this year. Only two other houses on my block have outdoor Christmas lights, and one neighbor filled his picture window with spray-on "snow" that reads (from the inside, no less) "MErRy Xmaglorb." (So, if you didn't expect a "Merry Christmas" in the window, you'd be hard pressed to understand not only the abbreviation and the backwards writing, but that the writer didn't accurately map out how much space he needed to write the greeting, thus ending the abbreviation with a big splotch of carcinogenic flocking.)

And here I am wanting to supplement my Frazier fir garland, red velvet ribbons, and bright little lights with a mass produced plastic Santa Claus. I don't have Santa Claus things, I don't collect things (other than jointed wooden Pinocchio figures from Tivoli. I think I have 6 of all different sizes. The Italian folktale entrances me.), and I don't put plastic figures in my yard. But something came over me this week as I drove through the Ozark Highlands. Not a lot of Christmas cheer evident in the upper Ozarks, with only a few houses decorated in uniform white lights strung on the eaves or draped in netting form over shrubs. But in Vienna, several miles outside of Jefferson City, I grew utterly transfixed (causing me to slow to 20 mph on a major highway) by an Ozark family who collects plastic Santa Clauses.

Driving north out of the luscious Gasconade River Hills, homes along Hwy. 63 are uniformly Ranch-style, set back from the highway with big, empty, regularly mowed front yards of fescue or Bermuda turf. Not a tree in sight save a sad Japanese maple girdled by the mower. But as sun was setting that day last week, no fewer than 30 Santa Clauses lit up an open field adjacent a sprawling white house covered in little white lights. I immediately called my colleague who runs the same road weekly:
"Oh, man, have you seen this? The Santa Claus yard in Vienna?"
"Oh, yeah, the army of Santas at Vienna. This is their first year out. Never seen it like that before. A whole mess of them."
"It's so danged jolly!"
Hours later in my gray walled cubicle, I couldn't stop thinking about the Santa Claus yard. How did this happen? Did the family innocently buy one Santa Claus clutching a candy cane one year, and relatives, upon seeing the lit up statue, decided the plastic saint needed a companion, perhaps one holding a present? Or 20 more in different positions? Did the husband simply go to wherever these things are sold and buy all of them, in one fell swoop, because he liked them? Did the family run a store that carried these things, forced to close their doors because of the Walmart in Rolla, leaving them in possession of 30 non-returnable light-up Santa Clauses? Is it a measure of mirth to have a yard packed to capacity with Santa Clauses? And if this is their first year on display, were they all waiting for a certain number, a critical mass, to debut?

There's something very peculiar about this yard. So peculiar that I made a point to return there with a camera. The Santa Clauses, you see, are not all the same. Some are bailing out of chimneys, others are holding gifts, some are waving. There are a couple of jolly snowmen out there, as well. Directly in front of the house, the Santa Clauses are joined by the illuminated three men from the East and the equally bright Holy Family. A couple of Santa Clauses hang out by the ornate, green-roofed dog house. The statues are not all facing Hwy. 63; some are turned towards the house, others are turned facing one another, a few wave at drivers. Based on the pristine snow, I was apparently the only one since the snow event who stopped, walked into the yard, and smiled at all of the statues. Maybe the family is really ironic or full of postmodern thought, making a statement about humankind and the homogenization of our culture, of our souls? Isn't there just one Santa, one individual we can believe in to bring joy on one morning each year in every kid's life? Oh, no, illustrates the family in Vienna, there are countless of them. For some reason, I didn't have the nerve to march to the door and ask.

This peculiar fascination illustrates nothing less than that my brain hasn't been the same without regular cardiovascular exercise. I don't know how sedentary people live their lives, because this lifestyle change is brutal. Earlier last week, following the discovery of the Santa Clauses, I grew obsessed with the concept of Christmas pins. Since I work in an office now (the first time since I lived in New York in the 1990s), I'm surrounded by office people who wash their hair every day and wear stockings and makeup and Christmas pins. My secretary has two of them, a Santa Claus and a wreath. She casually tilted her head at me last week and asked, sincerely, "don't you have a Christmas pin?" Well, no, actually, because I'm usually not inside enough to wear jewelry at all, much less jewelry I can only wear for 30 days. But here I am, entering week 6 of that stupid injury, and I'm still inside. Without a Christmas pin. I didn't even know where to find one. Is it the only mark of joy and happiness in an office to wear sweaters with reindeer on it and earrings with jingle bells? I've noticed that the women in my office with the most ruthless positions, those in budget and finance, wear more Christmas cheer than any of us.

So I found a wreath to wear on my black sweaters, a classy little pin that I discovered on my first-ever foray into the heart of Columbia Mall. I'm not searching for a plastic Santa Claus, because I like the effect of a whole mess of them, arranged scattered in an old field, not just one sitting on my wooden porch. Further, I'm not a collector, a hoarder of things and stuff, and besides, despite how transfixed I've been on the yard in Vienna, light up Santa Clauses are terribly inefficient.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Aw, shucks

So, I turn uncustomarily sheepish when anyone hurls a compliment at me. I tend to altogether change the subject really fast, turn attention to someone else, or dismiss the compliment ("oh, no, really, it's's easy....stop.") and back away from the situation. Earlier this month, an esteemed, truly brilliant entomologist and gifted writer bestowed upon me a fine award which he had justifiably won. A California-based blog, The Scholastic Scribe, created The Superior Scribbler Award (artwork undoubtedly inspired by Sempé) for weblog writers. Ted, author of Beetles in the Bush and Bikes, Bugs, and Bones, won this award and bestowed the esteemed prize on me. Winning the award, however, comes with a set of rules:
1. Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.
2. Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author and the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
3. Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog and link to this post, which explains The Award.
4. Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
5. Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

Like Ted, my entomologist friend who was given the award by another talented writer, Huckleberry (a natural history expert in British Columbia), I am stumped by the first rule. I read a private blog, available to close family friends only (thus exempt from the award). Shamelessly, in moments of desperation, yearning for tennis season, I flip to Maria Sharapova and all of her excessive exclamation points and pink hearts and read her blog about "how wonderful (insert tennis tournament name here) is!." Occasionally, I'll end up at a blog about vegan cooking while looking for an eggplant recipe. But really, Ted writes the only blogs I actually read: beautifully crafted essays about insects and the world they live in, offering great depth to the natural history of the world's unsung heroes. Ted has such a wealth of knowledge that he carefully and deftly connects the life history of a single beetle to an entire landscape. He writes of host plants, of water requirements, of the incredibly intricate details that make entomology as fascinating as it is. His photographs are stunning, capturing the essence of a landscape. He's also an avid cyclist and regularly takes great, long rides in and out of the country and writes beautifully about the places he's gone through, about tribulations and triumphs of an avid cyclist. Ted's a fascinating man, a responsible father, extremely well-respected in his field, and yet I've never actually met him. Never even heard his voice. I imagine when I do meet him, I'll give him a warm hug.

So, in a way, I feel like I've failed Ted by not being able to uphold my end of the award. I'm usually so embarrassed by recognition that I just don't show up at ceremonies or I use thick wooden engraved plaques as door jambs. But an award for writing? Tell that to my Terence professor who wrote: "your paper on the running slave had such potential!"

And worse yet, this comes 5 weeks, 3 days, and 8 hours after a ridiculous running injury that has forced me to stay out of the undulating Ozark landscape that inspires me to sit down at my 1920s table in Columbia and write. I haven't been outside at all, barring the walk from my Honda to the misplaced, out of character, unhealthy bass trees outside of my office (complete with 10 years' worth of compacted mulch around the bases, which has essentially girdled each tree). I'm hoping to get back into the field once this week's gnarly weather passes. I was told to rest my leg for 6 weeks. 6 weeks without a run, without a hike in the woods, without a scramble through a burn unit has been torturously slow. I've managed to plow through embroidery projects, (pictured, from last year's projects, 1940s patterns!) keep a clean-ish house every once in a while, spend more time reading.

As I accept Ted's compliment, the charming, illustrated Super Scribbler's Award, I promise to write more (once my leg heals) and to finally investigate all of the other writers who spend time behind the cool glow of a computer screen at night to share their thoughts, however intimate or vaguely interesting, with the world.

Friday, December 12, 2008

It's the substrate, silly.

I learned this week that plant ecologists haven't really investigated the odd ecology of possumhaw. The little tree whose seeds are spread by birds grows just as well in wet bottomland forests as on Missouri's limestone glades. Rigorous online searches and lunch hour investigations in the Natural History Program's herbarium came up empty of answers to my question.

My trusty colleague muddled the topic even more today when he volunteered "oh, yeah, and supple jack (Berchemia scandens) grows in swamps of southeast Missouri and dry limestone glade openings of the southwest. Huh. I guess that doesn't answer your question, does it...." No, dear colleague, it doesn't.

So I collaborated all of the information I could gather about possumhaw and supple jack to determine that, indeed, these plants depend on limestone and limestone-based soils to thrive. Flipping back to the occurrence map in Julian Steyermark's benchmark Flora of Missouri, I notice that possumhaw is known from counties in the lower and upper Ozarks, west to the Osage Plains, but it doesn't appear in the Ste. Genevieve area (dominated as it is by sandstone), the granite-based St. Francois Mountains, or those counties with chert-based natural communities around Springfield.

Oh, as usual, I'm open to suggestions about the growth patterns of deciduous holly. At this point, I merely surmise they're all based on the high pH of limestone and the associated soils. Sounds like a good project for a graduate student.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Bright red berries

I distinctly remember the July afternoon when I grabbed the smooth gray branch covered in glossy green leaves and yelled at my colleague (stooped down over a sedge): "is this possumhaw?" Having known the deciduous holly from years spent down south in swampy backwater regions, I was stumped, truly perplexed to find it here, perched as it was on a limestone bluff in the middle of the dry, dry White River Hills of southwest Missouri.

Of course, it wasn't the first time that I stood utterly confused over a plant growing on a limestone glade. These dry, rocky outcroppings harbor a whole host of restricted plants, including the brilliant, charismatic Trelease's larkspur (bright, vibrant blue flowers!). This spring, we found a population of stunted ninebark, a charming little understory tree found primarily in moist woodlands, in full flower on a limestone glade. I did precisely the same thing upon both discoveries: I stood there, grasping branches of these plants, wondering if I had lost my mind or if they were really growing on glades. That day in the natural area, I learned that a certain plant that grows in bottomland hardwood forests of the southeastern U.S. can grow just as well on a rocky limestone or dolomite glade in Missouri. It's the exception, of course, and not the rule.

In Missouri, deciduous holly (Ilex decidua) is known from southeast Missouri, Mississippi River Valley floodplains, and Ozark regions based in limestone and dolomite substrates. As represented in its common name, deciduous holly loses its green leaves each year, thus exposing shiny red berries that persist into the winter months. Winter bird populations (Eastern bluebirds in particular) relish the nutritious berries found on possumhaw. Heading towards Columbia on the dolomitic regions of the Outer Ozark Border, fencerows are lined with possumhaw shrubs. They're so common, in fact, that they're characterized as "weedy."

In full sun, possumhaw branches burst forth with berries, covering every inch of bark. Because my nagging running injury persists (1 month, 3 days, 8 hours) and I still can't walk up inclines (or run, or drive without pain, or walk more than four blocks at a time), I was unable to see the brilliant red berries on top of the Butler Hollow Glades Natural Area outside of Cassville, Missouri this year. Instead, I rely on a dim photo taken in August from deep within a moody bottomland forest in southeast Missouri to express the subdued beauty of this shrub. (Berries occur in greatly diminished populations in the understory.)

So what are the requirements that allow possumhaw to thrive in thick, mucky soils of the Mississippi Embayment as well as dry, rocky glades of the Ozarks? Is it the low acidity of the soils? Is it the substrate? The esteemed Julian Steyermark doesn't provide an answer, and because the plant isn't particularly cherished by anyone but gardeners in Louisiana, I doubt anyone has investigated it. I can't get around anywhere these days, so I'll see what I can find out.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Oink. Bang!

I think we were talking about my mother's plans to make Grandma Betty's date loaf when Daddy slyly left the Thanksgiving table. No one even looked around until we heard the tell-tale "sh-cock" of the gun as Daddy checked the rifle for ammunition. When he glided to the table with a lovely something-or-other gun and said, "Hey, Ally, try this one" and I shouldered the rifle, all of us knew what he was thinking.

Earlier this week, my mother told me that she would "really appreciate it" if I repeated the same story about my encounter with feral hogs in Oklahoma once more. She knows I don't like repeating stories, but when she plaintively asks (with her head tilted to the side) "Come on. Please?" any loving daughter would oblige. So following a three pie dessert at Thanksgiving dinner, I told my Daddy and everyone else at the table about my backpacking trip into Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge earlier this month. "Charon's Garden Wilderness Area is unlike anything you've ever seen before...." Enormous granite boulders cover thousands of acres. Staff don't manage the refuge with fire, but with grazing; elk and bison herds roam the landscape here, providing an ecological function unmatched east of the Rockies. Imagine Taum Sauk Mountain (Missouri's highest point, located in the St. Francois Mountains) covering thousands of acres. Granite boulders covered in grasses, stunted post oaks and blackjack oaks. From the tops of the mountains, you can see the flat lands of Texas and the prairie of Oklahoma. Several species of cacti grow here, along with fields of Indian blanket (Galliardia grandiflora), a habit which is likely a sign of overgrazing by large herbivores rather than anything natural.

Getting a permit into the Wilderness Area is nothing short of a hassle. Twelve backpackers at a time are allowed into the backcountry. You can only stay two nights. No open fires. You have to camp in a designated area. You can request a permit two months in advance (which I did and was put on a waiting list, thus making me call every morning for three weeks until I scored the permit). Refuge managers feel that visitor overuse is compromising the integrity of the wilderness resource, so they're strict about entry. But after hiking in less than a mile, we saw evidence of a much greater threat than off-trail trampling, than overgrazing by bison and elk, than even fire suppression.

Midday, my colleague and I set up camp in an old buffalo wallow (no rocks!) when he heard a snorting from below the rim of the mountain. Listening closely, he thought it was an elk, but as he peered over the mountainside, no fewer than 30 feral hogs came charging up the mountain towards our camp. I made a lot of racket, the hogs made a 90 degree turn north, headed towards a grassy field on the lee side of the mountain. Oh, we took pictures as the enormous animals and their piglets walked single file over rocky terrain, but by the time I grabbed my camera they were pretty far away. Rogue trails, too many illegal campsites, overgrazing by native herbivores? None of these threats pose even a fraction of the danger to the integrity to biodiversity and other natural resources of the Wichita Mountains that feral hogs do.

I had never seen feral hogs before, despite all the time I spend in the woods. Several hundred miles east of the Wichita Mountains in the heart of Missouri's St. Francois Mountains, feral hogs run wild, rooting up glades and fens, devouring torpid amphibians, disturbing the soil, making it amenable for exotic species to move in. I know that feral hogs in south Louisiana have so devastated bottomland forests by overturning logs and rooting up soil that once common salamanders are hard to find anymore. My mother wanted me to tell the story about the hogs rushing our campsite because she's heard horror stories of hog populations on a family member's land. She knows they're destructive, and they're dangerous, too. I think my mom liked the image of her 100 lb. daughter scaring off 30 hogs without the use of a gun.

After the hogs were no longer in sight, my colleague and I discussed whether we should stay -unarmed- in the wilderness area for the next three days. Knowing that it took 8 hours to get there (following weeks of trying to secure a permit), we decided to stay, but agreed that if each of us was there alone, we'd high-tail it out immediately. Thoughts on that lovely mountaintop turned to Missouri and her feral hog problem. But first, a long grousing over the irresponsibility of the Wichita Mountains' refuge manager for not warning backpackers about the presence of hogs.

Missouri is one of the few states that has designated a team of resource specialists to contend with the feral hog problem. The Governor's Feral Hog Task Force is a multiagency team that traps, kills, and removes feral hogs from public lands. Aside from the Missourians who illegally release feral hogs on public lands, the task force members tend to be the first to know about new hog populations. Colorful ArcView maps track populations, where traps are set, how many animals have been killed in each location. The locus of activity these days is the glade-rich Taum Sauk Mountain area, where populations of federally endangered Mead's milkweed grow. On Taum Sauk, as in other areas with hogs, wire fences with one way doors are baited with corn, and as the hogs are trapped in the small area, they're killed and hauled off the mountain via an ATV. Endangered Species biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have dealt with hogs in their own way: they've constructed hog wire fences around fens where Hine's Emerald dragonflies breed and where known populations of Mead's milkweed grow. A low-tech way of dealing with hogs, indeed, but if hogs are in the area, the entire landscape is threatened with utter destruction. And hogs certainly don't discriminate based on biodiversity ratings. Apparently, there are so many hogs in the St. Francois Mountains these days that black bear sightings have skyrocketed. Hikers tend to mistake one for the other.

Efforts are underway to make hunting hogs illegal in Missouri. While this may seem counterintuitive to our problem, it's actually very sensible. Currently, locals buy hogs from farms in Texas, release them on public lands, and offer guided hog hunts to folks from St. Louis and as far away as Wisconsin. Hound dogs are trained to locate hogs, and a Missourian from Shannon Co. with a pack of hog-hunting dogs can make upwards of $200 a hunt by renting out his dogs. To make the process easier on the dogs, they'll release hogs themselves in known locations so dogs can quickly find them and hunters go home with bacon and pork loin. As it stands, the Feral Hog Task Force is waiting for the day that a feral hog released in Missouri tests positive for brucellosis or pseudorabies. Once that happens, they just might have the support of the Farm Bureau to outlaw hunting, as the brucellosis threat to existing domestic hog populations will outweigh any economic benefit of renting dogs.

So, conversation at the warm, comfortable Thanksgiving table turned to discussions of Ally killing hogs with a 30-06. Actually, my older sister Ashley (who avidly kills things but specializes in home decorating) and Daddy debated whether I could handle a 30-30 or a 30-06 better. My concern in the discussion centered around how a big rifle would fit into my Gregory Denali backpack. I'm notorious for overpacking as it is, and a loaded gun would add an awful lot of weight. Ashley tells me that she doesn't even take a stroll in Louisiana's woods these days without a gun because of hog populations. I imagine when I go backpacking in the St. Francois Mountains this winter, I may carry a gun for self defense against hogs. I'm a good shot, really, and can shoot down any clump of mistletoe in Caddo Parish. But Ashley and Daddy talked about the best place to aim for on a hog if you have limited ammunition, the thickness of the bone between the eyes. They never ventured into how to field dress a 500 lb. animal when you're a vegetarian who can't even touch raw chicken without getting nauseous. You see, in Missouri it's illegal to kill animals and leave them where they died. (Of course, laws don't stop folks in the Ozarks from wantonly killing coyotes.) Before I go backpacking, I'll have to find out if I can just kill hogs and ask someone else to haul them out.

We finally left Daddy's without a gun, but with a catalog of guns to show to my boss (despite my insistence that the state will not pay for a gun). When I returned to my mother's house across the Red River, she referred to the hog killing discussion: "You know, I think your father now understands that you have a real job." Yes, talking about killing things, the prospect of using all of those clay pigeon skills in a paying job, that's how a girl can make a father proud.

Pictures! The Wichita Mountains, hog damage in the Charon's Garden Wilderness Area, and me with a gun and a scope. I decided I liked the Japanese WWII gun that came with a bayonet most of all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Late November evenings

I do a lot of sitting these days as I wait (most impatiently) for this injury to heal itself. I think I'm making the most of my sedentary days and nights by reading (oh, and playing online Galaga while I sulk about not being able to run). I'm enjoying Jonathan Franzen's early rantings, pre-Corrections, some Wallace Stegner, every article ever written about a certain specific running injury (plus, how not to get fat while you have one). I'm rereading Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac for the third time, skipping the parts about killing wolves and enjoying his poetic imagery of Wisconsin's savanna. I pulled out some of my favorite poets earlier this weekend and remembered that I used to read more poetry before I moved to Missouri. I need to work on that.

I can't walk up hills these days, so I can't really go into Ozark woods after leaf fall as the yellow-rumped warblers move in. So, I'm packing my bag tonight and heading south for the week, the low, flat land of the pine where I can wear short sleeves and walk without causing more harm to my stupid injury. Enjoy the following Wallace Stevens poem, from an incredible collection that represents one of my favorite Christmas gifts from several years ago. A special prize if anyone can guess where the picture was taken.

The Reader

All night I sat reading a book,
Sat reading as if in a book
Of sombre pages.

It was autumn and falling stars
Covered the shrivelled forms
Crouched in the moonlight.

No lamp was burning as I read,
A voice was mumbling, "everything
Falls back to coldness,

Even the musky muscadines,
The melons, the vermilion pears
Of the leafless garden."

The sombre pages bore no print
Except the trace of burning stars
in the frosty heaven.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Passenger Warren

By the time I arrived at the stop light in Camdenton, the audience at Carnegie Hall and I had heard John Coltrane's incredible accompaniment in Thelonius Monk's Crepuscule with Nellie about four times. Distracted by a recent running injury, I slowly walked out the door 8 hours ago headed for Arkansas' Lake Dardenelle with only 4 cds (which, I guess, I expected to last the whole trip). Over and over again, I listened to Charlie Parker outtakes, Miles Davis: Live from Newport 1958, and the Carnegie Hall concert. Obviously, my head's not right without a run, and it's been over a week since my last one (the one that put me in this pickle). So I found myself tonight in Arkansas' gorgeous Ozark Highlands without a single Carter Family cd. What was I thinking....

I normally don't listen to commercial radio because I don't like commercials or, for that matter, most of the music played. Today I gingerly ejected the bright red jazz cd and scrolled to Columbia's wide-reaching NPR station. I swore off NPR a while ago, just after Bob Edwards was forced to leave and the programmers stopped airing actual news items. This afternoon, Andrea Seabrook introduced her next piece (following a fluffy article pertaining to the Obama family's choice of dog): cute pet stories from listeners. Quickly, quickly, scroll past NPR again.

My colleague once asked me if I had ever heard the preachers who broadcast from who-knows-where in Missouri's Ozark Highlands. The stations that carry hell-fire-damnation preachers don't reach very far, apparently, and they probably cut out in the steep dissections of the Current River Hills. I was headed west of lovely Shannon Co. where he's heard these stations, but I went looking for one anyway. Lots of contemporary Christian music stations, but no one yelling at me about hell, no one who pronounces "God" in two syllables.

Instead, turning onto Lebanon's Rt. 66, I run across a Springfield station, KTXR, 101.3, playing Frank Sinatra's That's Life. On Saturday and Sunday nights, a self-avowed "old record collector" named Warren plays an incredibly diverse set. Tonight he played Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, a really bizarre Roger Miller rendition of Me and Bobby McGee, The Highwaymen's Michael Row your Boat Ashore (wow.), Joan Baez, early Stax recordings, some Mary Wells. Warren clearly has a great record collection -nice, big, diverse- and I think he really seeks out obscure music to share with the citizens of the Ozarks. I wonder if he carries his carefully selected records to the studio in milk crates like all of my deejay friends do?

Warren has a terrific on air presence, talking casually with his listeners about how his audience ranges from 30-80 years old. He was curious how people who didn't grow up with Mel Torme know of Mel Torme albums, and suspected, correctly in many cases, that they learned it from their folks (My sisters and I, however, learned almost every Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mandel tune from our Episcopal summer camp's brown songbook, which, unfortunately, had printed in each cover "thou shalt not steal."). Warren probably recognizes that folks my age grew up in a musical wasteland, one between the cool, methadone clinic-sounds of George Harrison and the interesting musical times of Camper Van Beethoven and Elvis Costello. We grew up with the greatly diminished, once great, Jefferson Starship (whose We Built this City... sends chills up my back it's so bad), after Van Morrison's benchmark Astral Weeks, during the heydey of Michael McDonald and Phil Collins. Blech.

Warren's show reminded me of the King Biscuit Flour Hour in some respects. His commercials were part of his dialogue; his friend, Barry, does something with home repairs in Nixa. Barry, in fact, worked on Warren's house just this week! Great guy, what a friend, and I think he must be an underwriter. Warren talks about how great early Motown recordings are, then plays some. He really cares for the music he plays. He even takes requests.

Just as I was heading off the Springfield Plateau, he tells his listeners that he's stumped. "I just don't know...this really happened...I had two listeners call and ask for the same song! That just never happens! So here goes..." What followed was the jolliest, happiest, most orchestrated version of Dixie I've ever heard in my life. Never suspect that two people in the Springfield area would ask for Dixie? After we elected a black president? Come on, man. It's the Republican stronghold for the state of Missouri!

After the horns died down on Dixie and the soulful singer whistled off the record, Warren played a live recording from the Grand Ol' Opry: Barbara Mandrell busting her lungs in The Battle Hymn of the Republic , complete with fanfare and pomp and flag waving. Totally creeped me out. I slapped the darkened console in search of the scan button.

No angry Baptists hollering on the air in northwestern Arkansas, but I heard a very earnest young man try to explain to me why we needed to continue to detain "terrorists" in Guantanamo. He used language I use a lot to convince people to burn their woods: "...but it's the right thing to do." Scan...Scan...faster!..Scan. Enter the curving roads of Highway 65 where the bluffs and rivers make it imperative to drive at or below the speed limit. The calm, cool voice of Joe enters the car from somewhere else in Missouri.

"All Elvis, All Hour! It's an All-Elvis Hour!" Joe doesn't just play all Elvis, but he plays snippets of records from Elvis' collection from which the King drew inspiration. I heard some incredible Mississippi gospel music followed by E.'s interpretation of the same song. Joe owns a lot of those concert recordings of E. that include interviews with fans: "I have every single-licking-cotton-pickin' article, picture, advertisement, snippet of paper every written about EL-viz," one woman says to the reporter. I sat in with Joe until static moved in. Two stations down, I tuned into a Beatles-specific station out of Little Rock that was playing a song I haven't heard much in a few years, despite the need for it: the original version, complete with all the weird noise at the beginning, of Give Peace a Chance.

I listened to commercial radio for almost 6 straight hours and I don't want to buy any Belly Fat Burner or a used car in Malvern anymore now than I did in Columbia. Of course, I have to return to Columbia on a night when Warren won't be on the air, so I'll have to keep up the search, looking for someone who'll yell at me for not doing the right thing in life.

Friday, November 14, 2008


The following lousy story elucidates a serious subject. For the record, I live in North Columbia, and the boys managed to "hang on to their candy" despite the odds.

Halloween candy suspects arrested

Published on Friday, November 14, 2008

Police have arrested three juveniles in connection with a Halloween night assault of two boys trick-or-treating in south Columbia.

A school resource officer received a tip leading to the three suspects, who were interviewed and made incriminating statements about their involvement in the robbery, Sgt. Eric White said Friday in a news release.

The unidentified boys, two 12-year-olds and a 13-year-old, were arrested on suspicion of third-degree assault and turned over to juvenile authorities, White said.

Two 12-year-old boys told police they were in the 4200 block of Baurichter Drive at about 8 p.m. on Oct. 31 when six or seven boys approached and one demanded, “Give me your candy.”

One of the suspects threw a rock that hit one of the victims in the head. That boy also was hit in the head with a BB gun and lost a tooth after an attacker punched him, police said. The other boy was hit in a head with an unknown object, causing a minor injury.

The two boys managed to hang onto their candy, and the suspects fled, police said.

The police investigation has not revealed any other suspects, and the case is considered closed, White said.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fire season begins

For the past week or so, following the front system that knocked all the oak leaves off the trees, the first order of business in the morning hasn't been making coffee, but consulting the fire weather forecasts.

Until today (when the relative humidity crept up to 51% in the lower Ozarks and rain moved into the Niangua Basin), grassy glades and restored woodlands throughout the Ozark Highlands could have burned. Of course, land managers have to make sure they're not going to smoke out neighboring towns so they can only burn when wind directions are conducive. The relative humidity needs to hover between 21-35% for results (though some burn when it's 19% and others when it's 42%). Winds can't be too high, either, during a prescribed fire and it would be truly swell if a puttering rain event moved into the area following the fire event. And this is all relevant only if the fuels are dry enough.

Furthermore, the fire prescription depends on one thing: meeting the desired condition of the land. If the humidity is too high and the wind sends fire creeping along, leaf litter may burn off. But a raging, stand-replacing headfire simply can't happen unless humidities are low, winds are high, and fuels are crispy. Oh, but good burn conditions only coalesce rarely in the fall. Experienced land managers can feel a good burn day in their bones, days when the leaves are dry enough, when the air feels crisp, when smoke columns from local chimneys don't go crazy the higher they rise. Before the responsible managers set fire to their woods or glades, they ask NOAA for an on-the-ground, immediate forecast. Check back here for listings of possible fire events in the western Ozark Highlands based on those forecasts. And see today that Laura (hopefully) burned off her glades!

From lovely David

My lovely Classics major friend from Penn who writes Christmas cards every year, performs in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals every summer, sends the following to me and a whole host of others every year on Veteran's Day. From World War I to Homer, he reminds us that war is never the answer. A little sing-songy, but the sentiment is nice.

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae, died 1918

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I think I will add a bit of Homer. This is from book 6 of the Iliad, lines 146-149, from the conversation between Glaucus and Diomedes:

Hoie: per phyllwn genee:, toie: de kai andrwn.
phylla ta men t' anemos khamadis kheei, alla de th' hyle:
te:lethowsa phyei, earos d' epigignetai hwre:.
hws andrwn genee:, he: men phyei, he: d' apole:gei.

Just as are the generations of leaves, so too are the generations of men.
Some leaves the wind causes to fall to the ground, others the burgeoning
Forest brings forth, and the season of spring has arrived.
Thus the generations of men, one buds forth, another passes away.

And finally from Vergil, Aeneid, book 1, line 462:

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

There are tears for human affairs, and mortality touches the heart.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Abierto? Cerrado.

In the unseasonably mild weather of June and July, I spent time in the White River Hills mapping the terrestrial natural communities of a large, uninterrupted patch of woods. I saw several plants I hadn’t seen before (big populations of the stunning Aster linariifolius), scrambled up my share of steep limestone benches, down draws and hollows, and across undulating belts of glades. I stood at the woodlands’ edge contemplating the rules of engagement: am I looking at a degraded, closed dry-mesic woodland or a fragment of actual forest (a community that shows up infrequently in Missouri)? Would fire willingly, naturally run through this patch of woods? What about the soil composition and moisture, geology, grazing history, aspect, slope, topography, ground flora, canopy (and on and on)?

I wrote about the tedious nature of this project back in June or July, focusing on the parameters that determine terrestrial communities. Early on in the project, I almost gave up, daunted primarily by the challenges posed by degraded woodlands mimicking forest. I finally figured it all out, thankfully, and can somewhat confidently distinguish between woodlands and forest in various stages of restoration and degradation. So, last week, I ventured to the other side of the Ozark Highlands looking for restored, degraded, and restorable woodlands, wondering if I could tell the difference between them all.

The lower reaches of the Current River Hills and Eleven Point River valley include thousands of acres of sandstone and chert woodlands. Shortleaf pine dominates the landscape in acreage primarily owned by the federal government. Heading southeast out of Van Buren, our guide promised to show us woodlands in various stages of restoration: woodlands that have been regularly burned, woodlands that need to be burned more, woodlands that should be thinned and burned, and sad woodlands with no treatment at all (mainly trashy old clearcuts that haven't had any management whatsoever).

Right off the bat, it was pretty easy to tell which areas had been treated with management and which areas had (essentially) been neglected. Thick, dense stands of trees with no understory told the story of fire suppression. Mile after mile of formerly open woodlands and savanna, now overgrown, overstocked, degraded and closed to all light. While the designation of forest implies a depauperate understory, a well-developed midstory and closed canopy, the degraded and closed woodlands that perhaps had the same low light requirement as a forest was clearly not a true forest. Fire wanted to go into these places. The roadsides leading up to the closed woodlands wasn’t populated by ferns and gingers or other forest plants hanging onto the edge, but tall bunches of little bluestem, growing so close together to make the right of way almost impenetrable to the average girl with two legs. With light made available by a roadcut, the woodland understory- grassy, full of goldenrods and asters- thrived. And with a little fire and thinning, the surrounding closed woodlands could be opened up to light, thereby allowing suppressed grasses and wildflowers to return to the understory making it a nice, open woodland.

The leader of the fieldtrip didn’t have to say a word when we entered a management area that had been burned five times in ten years. The open stands of pine trees and grassy understory spoke for itself. Because prescribed fire is unlike natural fire events (which burned until they ran out of fuel or were squelched with rain or snow), demarcation lines illustrated burned and unburned areas rather effectively. On one side of the road sat managed woodlands with Solidago odora (whose leaves smell like Dutch licorice candy), sweet everlasting, and Aster patens (a nice, quality woodland plant that I think I've shown about 80 times in the past year) growing among little bluestem. Twenty feet away across a graded road were impenetrable acres of maple, oak, scattered pine growing among nothing but leaf litter. But the roadsides next to the overstocked woods, those areas where light could reach the ground, were rich with diverse woodland plants.

We continued on the fieldtrip, driving through open, open, open woodlands and then closed, closed, desperately-wanting-to-be-open woodlands, what with woodland edges filled with wildflowers and grasses. We learned that a little restoration goes a long way in Missouri’s woodlands. The healthy systems we witnessed hadn’t been burned as regularly as they would have been if, say, they were owned by The Nature Conservancy, but they’ve been burned at least twice in ten years. (Of course, The Nature Conservancy probably doesn't own a single acre of lousy woods in the state of Missouri. They have crews and funding to burn on schedule, weather permitting. They always possess great woods.) The potential for woodland restoration is there in the lower Ozarks, the seedbank is there, waiting, and the energy is there with full time federal staff wanting desperately to set fire to these areas. If appropriate funding and good burn weather windows find their way to the lower Current River Hills, these closed woodlands will gladly, easily, happily open.

See, interspersed among the text, a single picture at the top of a closed woodland that makes my chest hurt, followed by pictures of open woodlands that make me say "ah....that's nice." I've included one with Erianthus alopecuroides (tall, bushy seedhead grass) in the foreground. Known from only a few counties in Missouri, E. alopecuroides appeared on a roadside after a pine woodland burn. Sweet everlasting in seed in honor of my colleague who always crumbles the flowerhead of this plant in his hand to inhale the interesting scent. And finally, a hopefully illustrative image showing an open pine woodland with a closed woodland across the gravel road.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

First frost

Last year's first frost in the Ozark Highlands found me southeast Missouri wearing shorts and playing badminton in my backyard. Not only did I miss all the fall color, I missed the formation of elegant frost flowers, the result of freezing water in the stems of plants of the genus Eupatorium and Verbesina. I found myself in the lovely Current River Hills last week, just as the oaks and hickories were blasting the landscape with red and yellow leaves.

The first frost in the Ozarks hit the valleys outside of Van Buren, Missouri pretty hard. The turning leaves hit fast forward Tuesday night when temperatures dropped to 21 degrees as I was comfortably warm with plenty of firewood in a CCC cabin at Big Spring. By Wednesday morning, the steep hillsides in the area that Monday promised picture perfect fall colors had turned a uniform brown. I had great hopes of sharing the splendor of Missouri's fall colors with my friends in the South who are surrounded by (equally cool, really!) pine and cypress communities. Admittedly, however, the maples throughout Columbia are stellar right now.

So, see, frost flowers at Big Spring and charming 1930s cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps that have great stone fireplaces and comfortable beds.

Friday, October 31, 2008

What's wrong with Mounds?

Last year, two days after Halloween, I left southeast Missouri for the fine town of Columbia to check out a lead on a rental advertised on Craig's List. Close to downtown, close to a grocery store, historic yellow house, and I had to dodge the kids playing in the street. I knew it back then when I saw the pumpkins next door. This would be a great place to be on Halloween. A year later, excited about all of the trick or treaters -the fun costumes, the kids banging on the 80 year old door- I could barely focus on work today. Instead, I stared a lot at a small tray of cookies, cupcakes and Reese's peanut butter cups on my desk.

Thanks to some fine judging on the part of state leadership, I won the office costume contest this morning (where only three of us dressed up in an office of over 100. I felt a little like Pam from The Office who was the only one who wore a costume.) I stayed in full costume all day, making green tree frog noises on command, squatting on the ground and clumsily hopping to my colleague's cubicle. I had a fancy lunch with an important agency, clip clopping through downtown Jefferson City's Madison's Cafe in green SCUBA flippers.

I violated the speed limit to make it home in time to carve my strange little pumpkin, to finish decorating cupcakes, to touch up my green face paint which had chipped from all the smiling I did today, to spread out almost $60 worth of candy on a tray. 100 shimmering tea lights lined the banister and the walkway, every light in the house was on to attract trick or treaters like moths.

Sunset finally came, as did Hazel and her older sisters. She took her big Heath bar and then said that they were going to her "grandparents' neighborhood" for trick or treating. Kylie, a new kid on the street, came over dressed like a cat. She took her big Hershey's with Almonds and hopped into the running car to go to her "grandparents' neighborhood." Same story with the three kids from across the street who at least had the decency to stick around their own street long enough to devour the cupcakes I made. This "grandparents' neighborhood" must be a code word for "better off" or "wealthy" or "better candy." It just can't mean "safer." My neighborhood is quiet, populated with older homes, and full of kids. I hear them on other blocks and see them when I ride my bike to the gym, but none of them came down my street. I saw several cars throw kids out in front of single homes (which weren't nearly as lit up as mine. And they didn't have carved pumpkins or pumpkin lights!) to grab candy and rush back into the car, likely slated for the mythical "grandparents' neighborhood."

I think back to what Doug, age 40, said: "Well, when I was a kid, it didn't matter if a murderer, child molester or a ghost lived in the house. We still went there looking for candy." Is it a culture of fear that has kept the trick or treaters from my block, what with its cute homes and recently full occupancy? Are people really that scared to send their kids out anymore? Maybe its the fault of candy and nut allergies? (I was sent this horrible email generated by the state of Missouri recently that recommended handing out boxes of raisins or "non-food items like pencils" instead of candy for Halloween. Frightening.)

My mom was upset that she only had 25 trick or treaters this year in her neighborhood (that is probably a destination for kids in neighborhoods like mine). I was pretty shocked that only three other people in my office dressed up today (and no one downtown, in the grocery store, on the streets of Jefferson City). So I'm joining the Social Planning Committee at work and then writing a letter to Paul, my City Councilman, to ask what I can do to make this neighborhood more like the grandparents' neighborhood. Do we need more lights? Organized block parties? More green space? The older neighbors are here, as is way too much leftover candy to make me comfortable in my own home. While I'm ranting to Paul, I might also ask him -as any nutty citizen would- why the kids of Columbia don't like the fine dark chocolate coconut confection called Mounds.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

As candy holidays begin

Several weeks ago, long before the kids on the block even knew what they were going to be for Halloween, I asked each of them to name their favorite candy. Since then, as the nights have grown progressively cooler and Sierra has announced that she will be Dorothy to Keshon's zombie, my small house has swelled with each child's favorite candy. In large bar form. Poor Keshon and his peanut allergy, his favorite bar is Hershey's plain.

As one of my favorite holidays approaches, vast storehouses of candy for trick-or-treaters has found its way into my house, one bag at a time. I have a huge pewter platter from the Court of Two Sisters upon which I'll place the rest of the candy (190 bars), destined for plastic jack-o-lantern buckets belonging to kids I don't know. Since I didn't see a single costumed child in southeast Missouri, and while I would randomly see roving bands of uncostumed teenagers in New Orleans asking for candy, I didn't really see little kids dressed like Cleopatra there, either, I'm excited about living in a neighborhood dominated by single family homeowners. Halloween's going to be fun in Columbia. So, see the chart of the candy currently stashed in a cloth grocery bag in an unnamed part of my tiny house. The Junior Mints are meant for those kids who are strange like I was, wanting nothing but peanut butter toffees, Tootsie Rolls, and Special Darks. I bet they'll like Junior Mints.

Thanks to my awesome mother who picked up a frog hat for me last year, I'm dressing like a Southern leopard frog for work on Friday. Oh, I have an important lunch date with another agency, but I'll be in a costume that includes painted SCUBA flippers and bright green leggings. I'll bail out of work early to distribute jack-o-lantern cupcakes to the kids on the block, ensuring they'll get jacked up on sugar as they get dressed for the night. I'll wait to carve pumpkins until late in the afternoon, knowing that my cool heirloom red pumpkin will be no match to my neighbor's artistic creations, kept -even as it decomposes on her porch table- well into December.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Goal #2

It's late October and my birthday month is officially over. I can't eat cake and write it off as "..but it's your birthday, come on...." anymore. My birthday lasted a good, solid month, one that included camping, half-hearted backpacking, lots of great cheese, good wine, lots of ridiculously excessive calories and less time at the gym. It's time now to actually embark on my 36th year, to start accomplishing that which I set out to accomplish back in September when the goldenrods were in bloom.

#1. Learn how to make cheese. Cheese plays a huge role in my life and is likely the only reason my cholesterol is 130 rather than some better, lower number. Sheep's milk cheese is beautifully produced in the Ozarks and goat cheese is very capably made in Columbia. I will likely tap these production sources for secrets. I have a cool basement and access to raw milk from the Mennonites in the Niangua Basin, so I'll make my own cheese this year. Oh, don't worry, I won't serve it on a cheese plate if you come over for supper.

A charming mug at Columbia's Cafe Berlin inspired Goal #2 a few weeks ago: Find bluegrass. While I was home, I realized that what I missed most about being home is the absence of indigenous culture. A firm believer in the Jesuit dictum of "bloom where planted," I've tried to understand, accept, and love every place I've lived. I hung out in this weird mob-operated bar in Hoboken to feel closer to Sinatra and his black-suited fans; a Roman trattoria without walls (that served amazing vegetables) to feel like Henry James; this dirt floor taverna in the Cyclades that served terrible homemade retsina and gloopy meat-based food to somehow get closer to the spirit of the islands. But maybe I just haven't looked hard enough in the Ozarks to really find culture here.

When I first moved to the Niangua Basin, I scouted out bluegrass festivals, taking copious notes of every Hatch show print poster, dragging my little Honda through ungraded county roads to find bona fide bluegrass in the Ozarks. I wanted to find people who made their own fiddles like they do in Louisiana. While on my search for authenticity, I heard the Grammy-winning Del McCoury at the Meramec County Fair, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Sullivan playing to a crowd that sat down the whole time (barring me and my boss). But I was looking for Ozark culture. After all, the Ozark Highlands of Missouri gave rise to the Dillards, so the musical traditions must be out there, right?

My search led me to Dixon, Missouri a few years ago. Hatch poster in an independent grocery store. It must be real. I follow the cardboard signs to the bluegrass festival and pull into this old field filled with motor homes, side by side. My little car was dwarfed. Michael Doucet from Lafayette was going to be there, along with a couple of other fatois players I had heard of in south Louisiana. Committed, I bail out of my car with my backpack of food, drink, blanket and hat. In front of the main stage, the crowd had -voluntarily!- lined up their chairs in straight lines, in rows! No one was dancing, no one was moving, no one was doing anything much but some cross stitching. I think I was the only one in the county that night under 80. No beer tent, no food tent, but plenty of music about God and Jesus.

Now, if anyone knows me, they know I'm pretty averse to religion in general, but especially when it interferes with music. Oh, people can do what they wish on their own time, but don't let religion influence public policy, and certainly don't try to convert me when I'm trying to listen to the intricacies of bluegrass. Intellectually, I recognize religion in the bluegrass tradition of the early Lomax recordings, but when people in the audience start raising their hands towards some higher power, it's time for me to leave. I'll take A Closer Walk with Thee, I'll Fly Away, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, but the stylings of modern religion in Dixon that night was unnerving. I apologized profusely to my agnostic friend for interrupting his Friday night poker game with old time religion and then promised him a good meal of lentils and rice over my campstove.

Goal #2 is to find bluegrass in its native Ozark context. I'll take lousy Forest Service roads to lean-to's, go into places where Democrats aren't welcome, even if they're operated by the creepy white supremacist culture that exists in certain Ozark counties (despite how much I despise it). I won't be judgmental and I won't cast aspersions, of course, because I try to bloom where planted. I want technically interesting and competent musicians playing traditional music that I can't find in any store. I know it's here. And I know that finding it would make me supremely happy to be here because I'll be living in a state that appreciates its heritage, its culture, its traditions, those facets of life which I love in Louisiana. I'm heading to Van Buren next week to talk about woodlands for a spell. If any of the 5 people who read this know of anyplace in or around Van Buren (50 mi. radius) where I can hear local music, pray tell. I'll make you supper one night in Columbia and promise not to drag out my cheese experiment.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

My Daddy looks particularly cute in his grassland-old field-wetland camouflage. When he's decked out head to toe in it, I can't help pretending not to see him, bumping into him in his beautifully appointed living room, decorated as it is out of an L.L Bean catalogue (with walls bedecked in paintings of cypress swamps and canvasbacks). While it's hard to miss my daddy standing in his own house counting shotgun shells, despite his attire, I was truly surprised to see two equally camouflaged boys crouched in a corner watching one of too many televisions scattered in the house. Since Daddy's friend Rebel died a few years ago, Rebel's 20-something year old son has taken a shine to my pops, joining him on hunting excursions, fishing trips, and at clay pigeon practice in the longleaf pine woodlands nearby.

However much I adored Rebel and his genuine, infectious joie de vivre, I think he may have been a little remiss at teaching his kid the rules of outdoor recreation in Louisiana. In fact, Ricky grew up shooting everything in his line of vision, a practice my daddy calls "if it flies, it dies." That my pops has taken Ricky under his wing bodes well for Louisiana wildlife. My daddy is a very ethical hunter, one who not only obeys the lax rules set forth by the Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, but uses his judgment and knowledge of life cycles, population dynamics, and simple outdoor rules that he was taught. He certainly won't kill anything he won't eat, and however much he loves quail, he knows their numbers are abysmal in Louisiana and so won't hunt them. He'd never shoot a canvasback, a pintail, or any other uncommon-to-Louisiana duck, however much he'd love a mount. So Ricky has a few things to learn from Mr. Vaughn...

Daddy introduced me to Ricky and his friend, connecting me to the USFWS. I think he wants me to be a wetland manager at a National Wildlife Refuge who sports around in a pontoon boat with a gun on my side or something, so that's how he introduces me. I go through the rigamarole of explaining what I really do, which doesn't impress many people at all because it's not glamourous, doesn't bring in lots of money, and doesn't warrant free fishing licenses in Missouri. Nevertheless, Ricky proceeds to tell me that he's studying forestry at Louisiana Tech University, that his classes include botany, GIS training, even fire school. Impressed, happy even that forestry students have to learn ground flora, I tell him how great it is that Louisiana burns the snot out of their longleaf stands. Big units, hot fires, rich ground flora all over the Tertiary Uplands and Florida Parishes. I think at this point, Daddy left the kitchen to clean his gun, start on a Natural Light, anything to stay away from his middle child who gets giddy talking about fire.

I couldn't help it. "I hope when you land a job in forestry in Louisiana," I said hopefully, "that you'll burn more."
"Oh, well, you can't burn hardwoods," Ricky says, confidently.
"Really? Like your oaks?"
"Oh, yeah, fire's bad for timber," as he stood up straight and knocked back his LSU cap.
"Huh..." I muttered, then channeled Paul Nelson, the author of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri, the man who lit the first match on our public lands many years ago, thus ushering in the use of prescribed fire in our management toolbox. I launched into a calm, hopefully persuasive monologue about fire behaviour, fuel models that include highly flammable palmetto, and how fire isn't bad for timber harvest. I talked about the Mark Twain National Forest, our state lands, old growth, clearcuts. Daddy finally cut me off, reminding me that I was at his house so he could show me the recently protected bottomland-batture lands two blocks away before he and Ricky set off for a grain field south of town to "kill the bird of peace," as he put it. Daddy likes dove season because you don't have to wake up early to participate.

So I went home late last week for Bones' wedding. After the storm, a herpetologist, Bones, and his lovely bride, a graphic designer named Melita (both from Chalmette, east of New Orleans) ended up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Shortly after moving there, Bones -pedigreed with a M.S. in herpetology from Middle Tennessee University- applied for a seasonal position with my outfit. Thrilled to find someone a. from New Orleans who understood the flora and fauna of the Mississippi Embayment, b. who thrived on fieldwork exactly the time I needed a thorough turtle survey, and c. who reminded me of my friends back home: affable, approachable, and possessing that accent that I can't even mimic, we became fast friends. Of course, I spent every day that summer with him conducting the turtle survey, laughing at his great stories, enjoying his company. He and Melita, his Greek girlfriend, made life in southeast Missouri bearable for us. Spending time with them was like going home. And their Greek-Italian wedding in New Orleans East was, finally, the chance to hang out with them in our native landscape. (I had to share a picture of the groom's cake...)

However much I love Missouri and her rivers, I get genuinely homesick here. I used the weekend of the wedding as a chance to do everything I miss doing. I miss good music, the good food of long, luxurious meals, the creative spirit of the city, where everyone in the neighborhood was either an artist, a musician, a glass blower, a woodworker, a writer, all doing mundane jobs just to make ends meet but always putting their craft foremost in their lives. I miss languid afternoons at coffeeshops spent writing correspondence, the cashiers who call you "baby" (and don't judge you when you buy lots of wine and Pimm's), almond croissants, Treme's brass bands, super late nights (because the weather in New Orleans is only bearable at night). Oh, I dig my Columbia neighborhood and particularly appreciate my next door neighbor, an art professor-roller derby girl with impeccable taste in music (and who stays up a late as I used to in New Orleans, often still up from the night as I'm trudging to my desk job. sigh.). But several people I know here won't come to my house because they're scared of the black people who live on my block, so I don't get to entertain as much as I would like.

Anyway, I don't get home much anymore for several reasons (12 hours from Columbia, no friends to dog sit Molly here, for starters), so it promised to be a busy weekend.
I found myself doing something I've never done before. I was taking pictures not only of the few people I still know in the city, but of buildings. I took a picture of my old house on Dauphine, of my post-music 3 am watering hole (Lafitte's, pictured, where old grizzled pianists played jazz piano on a lovely grand piano late at night), my beloved Italian restaurant where they serve Baked Alaska, lots of pictures of neighbor's houses. I felt an urgency, like a tourist in Europe never to return again rather than a citizen coming home for a visit.

The appointments with friends came first. My dear old high school friend Rebecca urged me to move back home for no better reason than she wants to hang out with me more. My neighbor Russ, one of those Faubourg Marigny residents who is connected to everything and everyone in the city, pressed us over a really mediocre pinot at the Marigny Brasserie to move back, "but you can't get sick. We still don't have decent health care in the city." Back in 2001, Russ gave this lecture at his Christmas party that Doug and I fell into the 10% of New Orleans' residents who can affect change (if we so desired). "The brain drain," he tells me, "is being reversed. Come back." He told me about all of this "development" going on and how he could get me involved with courses, manicured riverfront parks (even in St. Bernard Parish, which was flooded for weeks), urban green spaces, with no mention whatsoever of wetland restoration projects that are utterly necessary for the protection of the city. Before I could launch into why I need to be in Missouri and why urban green space development runs counter to what I think needs to happen in New Orleans, he quickly turned to me and asked, "name three people that influenced you and why. Quick." Easy. 1. My mother, who told me to never depend on a man for money. 2. My major professor, who told me I was a failure and would never amount to anything, thus spurring my competitive need for success, and 3. Paul Nelson, who taught me to look at the big picture, the landscape, and the little parts -the plants, animals- would fall into their rightful place.

It was there at that high table in the Marigny with the late afternoon sun streaming in through the floor to ceiling windows that my thoughts returned to Ricky. If the kids in Louisiana's Forestry Departments are still being taught that fire is bad for oaks, how could I even try to save the state's desperately overgrown oak woodlands? My pronouncement about fire and black oaks in the Niangua Basin triggered a "what's a girl like you know about timber?" from an enlightened Missouri state agency, what on earth would a Louisiana agency say to me if I told them to burn their oaks? And for an influential neighbor to invite me to return to my hometown where, even if I garnered the same salary as I have now, I couldn't afford to live, (and where the leadership is not addressing the real problem, the wetland destruction) I had to say no, once again, to New Orleans.

After the storm, city planners drafted grandiose plans for major wetland restoration south of the city. I don't know where the federal dollars are going, but they're not being spent on wetlands. In fact, from talking to friends in the city, most of the positive changes going on have been driven by private grants and non-profit organizations. The St. Roch market, a historic landmark building on the other side of the Treme (America's first black neighborhood), will be restored and the rest of the business district around it will be redeveloped under a grant through Tulane. A very good move, but unfortunately, most of the Treme was bought by investors who have flipped the houses, turning the neighborhood that pre-storm housed most of the city's musicians into a gentrified part of downtown. All of those cute houses on the other side of Rampart from the French Quarter was referred to as "The New Marigny" when I was home. It used to be a pretty tough neighborhood. But I really love New Orleans for her culture, for the funky Bywater kids who bike around in July with angel wings on their backs, the quirky Marigny neighbors who play piano in their underwear with the French doors open, the late night culture that kept everything relatively safe. But after the storm, non-natives with lots of money moved in, snatching up Creole cottages, willing to pay upwards of $900/mo. in rent. These folks are leaving now, their sources of money drying up in light of national economic downturn, and owners are starting- just starting- to drop prices. In the Bywater, the cool, hip neighborhood next to my neighborhood where rents used to run $350/mo., single bedrooms are going for $800/mo. Where do the cool kids who work at coffeeshops and play clarinet by night live now? What is driving the economy that allows people to live in my old neighborhood? I lived there as a waitress for years but couldn't afford it at all now...

Yes, of course, New Orleans is a changed city. Yes, the federal projects geared towards wetland protection and restoration are stalled somewhere in Washington. And yes, the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans are lacking the kind of leadership that would set the course right. I was asked at Bones' wedding by a girl from Metairie if I lived in the city. When I told her I lived in Missouri, she crinkled her nose and said "ewww, landlocked." "Yeah, but the woods are nice...and, um, Columbia's cool...I don't's....Missouri. We have salamanders. And bike lanes." She wasn't convinced. She knew I lived in a place very different from home, but a place that under the leadership of people like Paul Nelson takes the landscape very seriously, making the management of her woods and wetlands a top priority rather than an afterthought.