Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft

“I begin my tour where others have ended theirs, on the confines of wilderness, and at the last village of white inhabitants….” Such are the first words of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s journal of his travels through the Ozarks, “into the interior of Missouri and Arkansaw.” His journal remains a primary source for land managers as the best description of the Ozarks before settlement by Europeans. He writes extensively about the land, describing the geology, landscapes, rivers, wildlife, but not once in his journal does he call the rugged, rocky terrain “the Ozarks.”

Schoolcraft, passionate about geologic wonders, set out from Potosi, Missouri in 1818on a 90 day tour through a wilderness as yet undiscovered by white settlers. Osage tribes thrived throughout the Ozarks, and in a second book, Schoolcraft documents the lifestyles and cultures of them. His travel journal entries, prosaic at times and fanciful in others, even verging on eldritch in places, detail a landscape hardly recognizable today. He describes herds of elk and bison roaming through “extensive tallgrass prairie on barren, rocky soils,” a terrestrial community we now call glades. He writes of acres of bottomland forests and wetlands dominated by grasses and sedges; located on declivities, oak woodlands, “a country being of that open nature which is in a great degree destitute of shrubs and bushes.” The presettlement Ozark landscape was so open, in fact, that on several occasions, Schoolcraft notes that there is seldom enough firewood to cook his evening meals.

After Schoolcraft's tour, and, more importantly, as the populations changed in the Ozarks, so, too did land management techniques. Natural and anthropogenic fires were squelched, inviting open woodlands to mature into dense forests. Cedars ran rampant over the glades. Cedars invaded so quickly and ruminants overgrazed what little grass was left that pristine glades are rare; they are, in fact, listed as a critically imperiled landscape by the Natural Heritage Database. Timber harvest and subsequent agricultural practices have caused rivers and streams to become choked with gravel; as the land was cleared of trees, erosion brought ancient gravels and soils into the riverbeds.

Now, in the 21st century, managers are able to use his descriptions as guiding tools for restoration. We know from Schoolcraft that the igneous glades of the lower Ozarks had large populations of stunted post oaks. Unlike chert and limestone glades, both traditionally free of trees, restored igneous glades are now free of cedars, and after several seasons of prescribed fires, they are dotted with stunted post oaks. We know that around Findley’s Fork, the land was “a level plain moderately elevated, covered in white and black oak, and some underbrush, with a soil susceptible of cultivation, distinctive, however of streams.” Naturally, as Schoolcraft presumed it would be, this area is now in cultivation, awaiting restoration.

Unlike land surveyors who traditionally only document witness trees, Schoolcraft described the trees, shrubs and even the herbaceous layer. His thorough documentation instructs us of what should be there, be it populations of prairie chickens on the Springfield Plateau or black oaks along the White River. What should be there would be there, but for the hands of the European settlers.

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