Thursday, February 28, 2008

Niangua Darter

As February draws to a close, we enter the spawning season for the Niangua darter, a federally threatened, state endangered fish. Actually, most of the year the Niangua darter looks like other darters, skittering around riffles in rather non-descript, drab colors. But when breeding season begins in mid-March, their bellies turn a brilliant orange and blue-green stripes appear on their sides.

Niangua darters were widespread in the Ozark Highlands before the construction of lakes and reservoirs interrupted their breeding phenology. Now, their disjunct populations are restricted to the Osage River drainage, which includes the Niangua and Little Niangua Rivers. They live in small, shallow pools created by eddies along the edges of fast-moving streams. Niangua darters prefer streams with cherty gravels with little to no sediment. The 8 existing populations of them live in small streams next to steeply dissected woodlands based in dolomite and chert gravels.

Niangua darters tend to stay around the same area for days at a time. In one survey, the same fish were found in the exact spot for 4 days in a row, venturing out only to feed periodically in the riffles. Their long, snout-like nose allows them to probe the gravel looking for stonefly and mayfly larvae. Occasionally, they'll feed on small crustaceans and mollusks. Relatively small fish (3-4 inches long), they certainly don't qualify for game fish, but federal agencies and non-profit organizations have stepped up to protect their habitat, nonetheless.

The list of direct threats to their continued existence is long. In Missouri, there's this downright awful practice of gravel mining: backhoes move into the rivers and dig out bucket loads of gravel to sell to developers (while they also remove mussel beds, crayfish and a whole host of insect larvae). Obviously, dredging streams removes shallow water habitat for darters and increases the sediment load in which they can't survive. Land clearing and cattle production in adjacent woodlands sends sediment and high levels of nitrogen into the water. One threat, however, is being actively managed. Culverts and low water bridges that isolate populations are being replaced with fish passages, allowing the populations to travel the length of the rivers.

As spawning season approaches, a short description of their breeding habits: males follow females into the shallow waters of riffles. Males will compete for females and spawning sites, often engaging in combat with other males. As the male approaches a female, she will bob her head rapidly. She'll then plunge, head first, into the gravel, leaving only her head and tailfin exposed. After spawning takes place, she emerges from the gravel, burying the eggs, leaving them behind, protected from predators in the chert.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

St. Francois Knobs and Basins

A cold day with warm, lively conversation deep in the structural center of the Ozark dome. Billion-year-old Precambrian igneous rocks, exposed through millions of years of upper sedimentary strata erosion prove resistant to the forces of wind and water. Dull red granite and rhyolite boulders create little shut-ins, narrow constrictions that form gorges in streams. Bright green lichens (pictured: Usnea strigosa) and mosses punctuated an otherwise wintry landscape. The steep igneous-based slopes reveal evidence of a sedimentary past, with sandstones and cherty dolomites poking through the leaf litter. Melting ice dripping from the old growth oaks onto the ice-encrusted forest floor provided a continuous soundtrack. The firm, deliberate sounds of boots crunching through the sleet hopefully reminded the winter-struck hills that despite the lack of other footprints in the snow, they are deeply cherished.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Upland Flatwoods

Before this week, I could sum up what I knew about upland flatwoods in one sentence: "Upland bent grass (Agrostis perennans) grows there, dependent on the perched water table." I've given myself a crash course in upland flatwoods, not only because they represent a somewhat significant acreage in the Ozark Highlands, but because I imagine that when all of this snow and ice melts, the community will play host to breeding salamanders.

Upland flatwoods are located on broad, relatively flat ridges, a topography which allows for rainwater pooling events to occur (imagine a wet-mesic bottomland forest from southeast Missouri, but in the Ozarks). They generally have open canopies, aided by a rigorous prescribed fire regime. The acid soils are silt and clay-based, comprised of loess and chert gravels. The fragipan layer underneath the topsoil drains slowly, thus encouraging a rich layer of sedges, wildflowers, and few, if any, shrubs. Upland flatwoods are traditionally populated by blackjack oaks and black hickories, with some blackberry canes in the understory.

This is another terrestrial community absolutely dependent on fire for survival. Without fire, the canopy closes and the ground layer, sparsely populated under ideal conditions, disappears. Because of the lack of fire to much of this community, the existing stands warrant a ranking of S2 (state imperiled) in the Conservation Concern checklist. Extensive grazing on these areas hasn't helped them much, either.

The invertebrate populations that may exist in upland flatwoods fascinate me. Imagine, if you will, an entire woodland setting with standing water for weeks at a time. The life cycles that must take place! No extensive surveys have been completed on micro or macroinvertebrates of upland flatwoods, but I hope they'll happen soon. In southeast Missouri, there's a shrimp (looks like a lentil) that lives in shallow, ephemeral pools. When the pools dry up, the invertebrates are dispersed by the wind, taking up residence wherever (or whenever) another pool of water appears, dormant until they reach water. Imagine the possibilities of an entire flatwoods community, acres of an ephemeral pool! Rest assured that I'll be out with a dipnet in a couple of weeks to see if salamanders are utilizing this interesting, imperiled landscape.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Almost over

Alyssa watched the eclipse from the comfort of her wood-stove heated house, what with that huge picture window overlooking the valley. A clear night, perfect viewing, neighbors out in the street, we went out, bundled up, every few minutes to insure that the kids stayed warm enough but were able to track the perceptible changes. After a lengthy discussion about lunar eclipses, how, no, the moon really is not cheese, Ruben, age 9, turned to me and asked, "so, how did you do that?" Wow, I can't even change the oil in my I started over, again.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Lunar eclipse

Not that I need to remind any of my fair readers, all of whom have a keen eye for the natural world, but tomorrow night's lunar eclipse will take place during regular hours, between 9-10 p.m. EST. Cloud cover is expected throughout much of the Ozarks, but in the Central Dissected Till Plains, we're expecting clear skies. Tomorrow night, I'm rustling up all the neighborhood kids, pulling them away from Nintendo, for a cram course in astronomy.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Glacial relicts

Many great writers have tried to explain the Pleistocene Epoch in Missouri. It's a daunting task, because the Pleistocene covers 2-3 million years of history, four major ice advances, and four interglacials, extended periods of warming and thawing. To really understand the Ice Age in Missouri, we need to understand that during alternating periods of freezing and thawing, different plants and animals rose to the foreground, creating their own distinct communities. That being written, the ice sheets never made it to the Ozark Highlands, but the climatological effects are evident even today. Thousands of years after the last glacial retreat, tucked away in cool, moist places, thrive small, relictual plant and animal communities that represent our definitive link to the Pleistocene.

While the land north of the present-day Missouri River was locked under 2,500 feet of ice, the Ozarks were a thriving boreal forest, rich with spruce and jack pine. When we think of glaciers, we must think of a long time frame as ice sheets moved across the landscape. It never was a fast process as the neighborhood kids tell me the films show, sending mammoths and sloths running for cover. Whether advancing or retreating, ice sheets demanded thousands of years to reach their extent or withdraw completely. During those alternating cooling and warming periods, a dozen generations of trees lived and died before the land was ousted by a glacier.

The Ozarks, while untouched by the glaciers, were directly impacted by the cooling and thawing periods. Century after century, as the climate changed in response to the retreat and advance of the glaciers, seeds and sprouts of one kind of forest were replaced by others. As the glaciers retreated for the last time 11,000 years ago (the beginning of the Holocene), the boreal forest moved north, into Wisconsin and Canada. The oak-hickory forests that now define the Ozarks moved in after the last glacial retreat, during a warm spell that spruce and pine couldn't handle.

But in a few sinkholes, on a blufftop along the Jack's Fork River, at Taum Sauk Mountain, some of the plants and animals present during the Pleistocene never left, living now as they did then, though in very small, specialized communities. Moist, cool fens house Riddell's goldenrod, with the only known populations in Missouri in the Ozarks. Wood frogs were left behind, living in small, scattered populations (well, until a state agency decided to introduce them outside of St. Louis) in the Ozarks. On the Jack's Fork, if you park your canoe around a certain bend, you can hike up a north facing slope and witness a plant community that is well represented in Wisconsin and no where else but in this one spot in Missouri.

These areas where glacial relicts still live deserve protection. With increasing temperatures, they might disappear from the landscape altogether, but in the meantime, we should appreciate Goldie's fern by just knowing it's growing in a sinkhole in Camden Co. We shouldn't have to see it, because aesthetically it's really not anything special. Looks a lot like your average Thelypteris. But scampering down into the sinkhole, tromping through relictual populations just to see it and other relicts seriously damages these very rare, very threatened populations.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Oregon weather

I love thunderstorms. I like interesting weather. I like quiet afternoons spent in a coffeeshop reading and writing when the weather is lousy. But, really, when you want to be outside hiking or biking around, the last thing (I think) anyone wants is a cold, wet day with intermittent rain and sleet. Lousy, almost uninspiring weather that turns trails in the Central Dissected Till Plains Region into a muck. You can lose a shoe walking through these soils when they're wet. Biking on muddy trails requires stronger quadriceps than I'll ever have.

Leave it to my favorite Latin poet to remind me that days like these are fleeting...even in Columbia. Make the best of it, be productive. Read, write, do laundry. Make gnocchi. For my lovely friends who prefer Horace in his native tongue, I'm attaching the Latin at the end. From a fun collection of translations I received as a Christmas present, from Horace's Odes, II.9.

Clouds do not send their rain down endlessly
On the rough-whiskered fields, nor do
Dogged gales work up the Caspian Sea
All year, nor in Armenia, dear friend,

Do glaciers remain inert month after month,
Nor do those rough oak-forested headlands
Poking out into the Adriatic suffer squalls that
Pull leaves continually away from their branches...

Columbia's cultural sites are closed on Sunday mornings and the coffeeshops and restaurants are packed to the gills with college kids, who left not even a single chair open. I shuttled back to my little house, armed with a fantastic Morbier, and finished my book. Missourians should be like Oregonians at times like these, grateful for everyday...reading, writing, cultivating interests, doing quiet indoor things while the landscape takes in the pleasures of rain. In Columbia, these stretches of crummy weather only last a week or so. In the wonderful state of Oregon, the great state I'll live in one day, weather like today's lasts for months. July at the beach cabin? 50 degrees, windy, rainy. Christmas in Salem? 30 degrees, windy, rainy. I need to be more of an Oregonian at times like these. Good, productive folks, I've never heard a one complain about weather.

Non semper imbres niubibus hispidos
manant in agros aut mare Caspium
vexant inaequales procellae
usque nec Armeniis in oris,
amice Valgi, state glacies iners
menses per mones, aut Aquilonibus
querqueta Gargani laborant
et foliis viduanteur orni...

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Several years ago, during my first adventure in the Ozark Highlands, I spent the night of Februrary 14th wrapped in rain gear and green Wellipers, walking up and down 6 miles of country roads with a flashlight (covered in red cellophane) shuttling salamanders across the road. The spring peepers were deafening that night, thousands gathering at small ephemeral pools scattered throughout the rich, mesic woods. The spotted salamanders were out, too, in droves, crossing the road to get to the same little pools of water to partake in their annual breeding frenzy. (What's the line? "We're from the government, and we're here to help.") All told, by the time I made it back to my drafty cabin well after midnight, I had assisted 129 spotted salamanders and a host of peepers across the road, saving them from death by intermittent truck traffic.

Spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) can be found in moist woods throughout most of the Eastern U.S., except Florida and parts of South Carolina. Roughly 50 years ago, before rampant habitat destruction, acid rain and widespread feral hog populations, they made up over half of an average woodland's vertebrate biomass. Though seldom seen, their populations (based primarily on breeding period surveys) appear to be stable. Unlike most other salamanders, their populations are largely dependent on healthy small mammal populations. Spotted salamanders occupy the living quarters of short-tailed shrews (Blarina brevicauda) for part of the year; during the winter, they move into holes built by white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus), whose burrows are deeper than the shrew's. In fact, range maps of short-tailed shrews and spotted salamanders overlap perfectly. Some suggest that the shrew, a venomous mammal, benefits from salamander secretions, while others think the salamander gains something by the shrew. Whatever the relationship is, it seems to work, making proper land management that supports thriving small mammal populations a priority for salamander conservation.

Stimulated by warm, rainy, winter/early spring nights following a cold spell, spotted salamanders make their way out from under logs, leaf litter, and mammal burrows to return to certain, specific fishless pools of water. Several studies have been conducted in an effort to understand their honing devices, how they find the same pools year after year; many spotted salamanders even return to the pools from which they were born. In light of that, what happens when their traditional pools have disappeared, been paved over, drained? (I hope to hear from my fine herpetologist about this...I've read several studies that suggest the animals just stop breeding, but surely, hopefully, they keep moving until they find something suitable?)

Courtship commences with a dance ritual (dubbed liebspeil, or "love dance"), followed by the release of the spermatophore by the male. The female salamander picks it up with her cloaca, then lays eggs on sticks, rocks, or other vegetation that rests, submerged, at the bottom of the pool. Spotted salamanders lay two kinds of egg masses: the most common consists of a glass-like jelly casing, and the other appears as a milky white gel. In both forms of egg masses, spotted salamanders farm a symbiotic alga (Oophilia amblystomatis) in the laying process. The alga that colonizes the egg masses increases the oxygen supply for the embryos. Brilliant.

So, in about 30-40 days, the eggs hatch and remain in the pond until late March-June. Occasionally, a few larvae will stick around the pond through the growing season, delaying metamorphosis through the following winter. The gravest threat to the success to spotted salamanders during the larval stage is the drying out of the pools. I've seen way too many times close to 100 desiccated black larve plastered on a leaf or a rock (they look like little tapeworms). Explosive breeders, an average egg clutch can contain any number between 20-334 eggs (most clutches contain about 75).

In an effort to spend more time outside, I've volunteered to go back to the park where I lived several years ago to conduct an actual survey of spotted salamanders. It's the common animals whose populations are never tracked, falling under the assumption that their commonality will remain in tact. Flocks containing millions of red knots back east have dwindled to the low thousands in light of the overharvesting of horseshoe crabs (their primary food source). Of course, the lessons of the passenger pigeon needn't be explained. With the spread of feral hog populations, spotted salamander populations in the Midwest may drop as dramatically as they have in the Southeast. But, tonight, I don't want to think about that. I want to think of that warm, rainy night several years ago when I met my first salamanders as they marched to the other side of the road.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Poor, dear Ozarks

Earlier this week, all the state parks in the Ozarks were closed to the public. They were walloped with a ridiculous ice storm that has knocked out power to Springfield and its surrounding areas. Even tonight, Valentine's Day, something on the order of 20,000 people are without power. With all of the broken limbs, slash production in our burn units has increased tremendously. Last month's ice storm brought down hundreds of branches, adding to last year's big ice storm debris which caused fuel loads to reach ridiculous levels. More fuel for the fires, according to Chief. Apparently, all of the extra slash won't really make a difference in the upcoming prescribed fires. Now, if we can just get past these high humidities, rain and snow events, we can burn. I think traditionally, by this time in years past, we've accomplished at least 30% of our scheduled burns. We're so far behind now, that we'll likely never catch up.
For a gallery of ice storm pictures from the Springfield area, click here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


When I first drove to Missouri from New Orleans, I pulled over around Springfield to take pictures of limestone bluffs, all dripping with icicles. I was excited about being in a new place, having come from the alluvial, geologically simple Lower Mississippi Alluvial Basin. As I drove deeper into the Ozarks, I stopped again to take pictures of dolomite outcroppings, ever impressed with roadside geology. Of course, these pictures are long gone, replaced with stellar shots from natural settings where the rock layers are covered in grasses, ferns, and mosses rather than represented in road cuts.

On my first canoe trip on the Niangua River, I recall laughing heartily, with great glee, upon seeing an entire riverbed filled with beautifully colored, interesting rocks. I collected so many rocks that by the end of the 12 mile trip, my colleague had to sit down and reason with me: “Allison…it’s just chert…it’s everywhere in the Ozarks…you really don’t need to take it home with you…it’s just chert...think of the crawfish who live under that chert.” But chert, unlike dolomite and limestone, is pink, blue, green, red and white striped! Every rock is different, all with interesting patterns, many of them with fossils. I inconspicuously packed about 8 big pieces of chert into my colleagues’ car. When I returned to my cabin, I carefully lined them up on my bookshelf, which was otherwise empty but for the Flora of Missouri and a big chunk of bright red rhyolite I picked up in a parking lot.

Chert is usually a sedimentary rock, but can, on occasion, be formed in igneous rock. It’s a silica (SiO2) and calcium silicate rock that measures 7 on the Mohs hardness scale. In other parts of the Midwest, chert is called flint. Because of its hardness and abundance in the Ozarks, chert was used presettlement in the creation of arrowheads.

It formed in one of three ways, all occurring when the Ozarks were underwater: first, silica’s solid particles chemically separated from water molecules to form a soft nodule, which was then embedded in layers of limestone and sandstone. Second, silica was incorporated in soft bodied organisms like algae and cyanobacteria which formed into colonies, or reef-like structures (called stromatolites). As these were compressed, they turned to rock, which was then embedded in limestone. (Fossils of reef structures are pretty common in chert.) Finally, chert was laid down during the cooling of volcanic lava events, where it formed a thick layer on the seafloor below the depth of limestone formation. So, now, when limestone and dolomite erode, previously embedded chert is left behind. This, of course, explains why chert pebbles are so common on glades, for starters.

Precambrian fossils of algae (which may or may not have depended on photosynthesis) have been found in chert. Cambrian Period fossils of plated, chitonous mollusks representing an extinct class have been found in chert. As late as the Ordovician Period, chert fossil records reveal the higher order of cephalopods. In Missouri’s Ozarks, in areas where limestone and chert prevail, you can pick up 20 rocks and find fossils in at least one of them. I’ve just combed through my fern and algae fossil collection, which is lined up on my bookshelf. I can’t attach a picture tonight, because my fossil collection is all limestone-based. My big chert rocks from the Niangua went back to the Niangua on a later canoe trip because I had great hopes I would end up in the Ozarks, where chert-- lovely, dynamic chert --is everywhere.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Mountain lions in Missouri

A few weeks ago, following a managed deer hunt at a nearby Conservation Area, a colleague was approached by a hunter. The hunter asked, casually, "what kind of big cats y'all got around here?" My colleague naturally replied "bobcats," a very common animal in Missouri. "Can a bobcat have a long tail and the same fur color as a deer?" No, sir, you actually saw a mountain lion. The hunter probably knew all along that he had seen a mountain lion (and her two cubs trailing behind), but the official stance of my sister agency is that mountain lions no longer live in Missouri. They were extirpated in the late 1920s. The hunter's sighting chalks up a new mammal for the Conservation Area's list.

Common in the Midwest presettlement, mountain lions occupied dry, rocky areas and dense thickets found mostly in the bottomlands. They were deemed a threat to human habitation and livestock, and were summarily shot by early settlers. In 1927, the last mountain lion (on record) was killed. Granted, it's probably just as well that they were all killed, since their primary food source, deer, were also almost extirpated from the state around the same time.

Mountain lions tend to be nocturnal and crepuscular animals, which explains why they are not seen very often. The average range for a female is 50-75 square miles, for a male, 90-several hundred square miles. They subsist primarily on deer, often killing one deer a week. Their presence in Missouri bodes well for our woodlands, which are horribly overbrowsed by a deer population hardly kept in check by natural predators and hunters. An entire population of ginseng, for example, was wiped out by deer in two years, with the only plant remaining in the area fenced off as a control plot in a research project dealing with deer browse preferences.

Nevertheless, the official line from my sister agency is that "based on considerations of human safety and risk to livestock, it is undesirable to have a breeding population of mountain lions in Missouri." The hundreds of sightings, the road kills, the tracks and scat, are all investigated by their task force which was designed to determine breeding populations. Mountain lions remain endangered in the state even today, just shy of the ranking of "extirpated" a couple of years ago. Now that they have been found at Lake of the Ozarks, Kansas City, Fulton and everywhere in between, the agency doesn't want to announce that they are alive and well in the state. Officially, these mountain lions are mere transients, pushed out of their native range by territorial males and habitat destruction.

So far, no cattle rancher or homeowner has killed a mountain lion (and reported it to the agency). The official line is that if the animal is causing a direct threat to livestock or domestic animals, the mountain lion can be legally killed and the carcass turned over to the agency. I don't know how many more sightings will have to occur before we announce that we have mountain lions in Missouri. Regardless, any natural predator that can keep deer in check as they are squeezed out of the woods to make way for more urbanization is a welcome predator. We've managed to alter the landscape so dramatically and resolutely that, really, any natural process, be it fire, mountain lions, ice storms, are a welcome occurrence.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Pinus echinata

Before the 1880s, Missouri’s Ozarks were a very different place than they are today. Then, shortleaf pine and pine-oak woodlands occupied 6.6 million acres of the eastern Ozarks, down around Shannon, Taney, Carter Counties. Pine woodlands supported a rich understory of little bluestem, blueberry, a whole host of wildflowers and the occasional oak sprout. The latter part of the 19th century introduced the lumber industry to the Ozarks and, with that introduction, came the utter destruction of the pine woodlands. Between the late 1880s and the early 1920s, millions of acres of shortleaf pine were removed from Missouri. Obviously, the parent seed material was cut, so pine never regenerated after the devastating overharvest. Instead, red and black oaks moved in to occupy the high ridges and acid soils where pine should be today.

Timber harvest in the Ozarks at the turn of the century wasn’t nearly as resolute as it was in southeast Missouri, where nary a cypress or oak was left in the wake. As lumber prices dropped in light of the Depression, several thousand acres of shortleaf pine were spared. Traditionally, shortleaf pine occurred in those fantastic dry chert woodlands that I appreciate so deeply and ramble on about. Historically, shortleaf pine occurred on rolling or dissected hills, and almost solely on the Roubidoux formation of sandstone which produces acid soils. The historic populations of shortleaf pine were directly linked to -you guessed it- the soils, the hillslope (topography impacts fire frequency, after all), the climate and the associated fire history.

The abundance of pines in the Ozarks was largely due to mixed intensity fires, which ripped through the area at 10-20 year intervals. During the timber harvest and in the years following the deforestation, fire was suppressed in an effort to reforest the clearcut areas. Areas once rich with shortleaf pine morphed into oak woodlands and forests with an undeveloped understory. Landowners introduced grazing to these second growth oak woodlands. Without fire, with too much timber harvest, and the added stress of grazing, open stands of pine with their requisite bluestem understory almost ceased to exist in Missouri. Even now, if fire is not applied to the existing stands of shortleaf pine, Missouri’s pine population will occupy a mere 10% of the landscape rather than the historical 53% in a matter of years.

Luckily, Missouri is home to a whole suite of land managers who work assiduously to maintain our pine and pine-oak woodlands. After the timber industry obliterated their own crop source, foresters planted thousands of acres of shortleaf pine trees throughout the lower Ozarks. In the late 1920s and 1930s, landowners with shortleaf pine on their property were encouraged to sell their seeds to foresters to help out with the reforestation efforts. Today, some of these pine plantations are managed as if they are native landscapes. Unfortunately, the rich understory associated with pine woodlands had been so mangled by tilling and other disturbances, that these plantations hardly resemble an undisturbed pine woodland. That the trees are planted in vague rows doesn’t help, either.

Nevertheless, with lots of management, lots of fire, and yes, reforestation efforts, shortleaf pine is in resurgence. My colleague who said that pine would be better suited for warmer climates? He’s not all wrong (if there was enough land, fire, and a massive oak die-off). Drought and warmer temperatures will help pine trees in the Ozarks. During winter months, which will be wetter and warmer in light of climate change, pines will be able to photosynthesize, giving them a stark advantage over deciduous trees. If the summers produce drought, pines will have the advantage because they have the ability to grow during the warmer winters. Increased carbon dioxide levels seem to benefit pines, based on a study through University of Missouri. However, speculation holds that higher carbon levels will harm the understory, the plants that make up the rest of the pine woodland complex. Because landscapes are so intricately linked, with all plants and animals playing important roles, we don’t know how the pines will fare. If the pines thrive but their components falter, the whole landscape might collapse.

A good portion of the state’s pine woodlands are in the careful hands of three awesome land managers who will make certain that they thrive, who will make certain that they will be as strong as possible in light of climate change. If you’re anywhere around Licking, check out the Peter A. Eck Conservation Area, located 12 miles northwest of Licking along the Big Piney River. A state designated Natural Area, part of this CA preserves a wonderful 254 acre tract of dry-mesic chert woodland, a glimpse into the lower Ozarks before the 1880s.

My baby sister

Allow me to direct your attention to a website link located to the right of your screen, Alyssa Beck Designs. My baby sister has been snowed in most of the winter and has, as a result, produced some great pieces lately. Each piece is made by hand in her big studio that overlooks Teton Valley. An inspiring setting for an inspired girl.

She had her first big show today, which was a huge hit. She's submitted three pieces to the Sundance Film Festival, where they will be cast, mass produced and sold. In time for Valentine's Day, she's made a cute little heart (her first...she's more interested in leaves). Unfortunately, the Teton pass is closed due to an inordinate amount of snow, so she can't promise delivery by the 14th, but she'll certainly try.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Everything will change

Most people in my field agree that there are three major issues facing natural resource conservation right now. In order, they are: habitat destruction (urban and agricultural encroachment), exotic species, and climate change. If state and federal agencies had any teeth, we could stop habitat destruction and get a handle on exotic species. But climate change…what’s a conservationist to do besides ride her bike more and change light bulbs? Of course, non-profit organizations like the Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation are lobbying to change energy policies, but most state governments (other than California and a handful of others) are mum on the issue.

I spent an entire day listening to theories about what will happen to the beautiful, biodiverse Ozarks between now and 2050, when the temperatures in Missouri will have increased by 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I heard theories on how herpetofaunal populations, bird populations, and insect populations would be impacted by global warming. I heard one of the most respected men in my field tell us that due to the increased possibility for drought, landscapes will become drier. We’re moving towards an age, he speculated, where Ozark oak hickory woodlands will morph into xeric (dry) shortleaf pine woodlands. Missouri used to have almost 6 million acres of shortleaf pine, but most of it was harvested at the turn of the century (more on that next). Managers have been working tirelessly to coax it out of the degraded, timbered landscape, but are having limited success.

My esteemed colleague further speculated that the prairies of western part of the state will magically march across the landscape, taking over areas that were once oak savannas. His maps and models showed a Missouri very different from the one we live in now. With higher temperatures, the flora and fauna of Arkansas will move into Missouri. Mud snakes will leave the southeast and move into the lower Ozarks. Our glacial relicts, those rare little patches of the Ozarks that the ice age left behind when the glaciers retreated, will disappear, no longer having the comfort of lower temperatures and cool spring waters. They simply won’t have anywhere to go. Fens, for example, may cease to exist.

His theories sounded plausible to the rest of the audience. His maps showed shifting ranges, expansion of the now small, relictual pine forests that land managers have been trying to expand, in vain, for almost 40 years. Everyone in the room agreed with him. He’s a truly brilliant man, a great speaker, and a fantastic person, in general (he lives in Columbia, after all). The only problem with his theory was the one thing he didn’t mention: us.

In a presettlement landscape, these changes might feasibly occur. We might have seen a change in diversity, another blip on the ever-evolving geologic timetable. But now, in 2008, we have roads, cities, millions of acres tied up in agriculture. These precious landscapes of mixed pine-oak woodland, prairie, and oak-hickory savannas won’t expand or move into other landscapes because they don’t have anywhere to go. Shortleaf pine won’t magically move into the oak hickory woodlands. Prairies are so dissected and fragmented even now that prairie chickens don’t have anywhere to go. Our native landscapes exist in patches, with the largest in the Ozarks in the southeast: Mark Twain National Forest (where, incidentally, grows the largest stand of uninterrupted shortleaf pine in Missouri). Landscapes can't move around Springfield, or even cross I-44, for that matter.

Aerial photos of Missouri depict a landscape very unlike the presettlement landscape. St. Louis continues to sprawl westward, pinning in Babler State Park on all sides. Springfield is growing in every direction, impinging on the degraded prairies of the western edge and the karst areas of the east. My very own wonderful town of Columbia is growing, creating two small islands of trees in Three Creeks Conservation Area and Rock Bridge State Park. Statewide, our natural resources are feeling the pinch of urban and agricultural encroachment. Climate change is just another battle to fight.

So, what’s the answer? What’s a land manager to do in light of climate change and continued urban sprawl? The best he can. We should be more vigorous in our management regimes, protecting what’s left, managing to the best of our abilities. With increased temperatures and lower humidities looming large on the horizon, we’ll see fewer days when we can safely send fire through a landscape (a process which gets harder and harder in light of increased urban encroachment. No agency wants to smoke out a town or a highway.). Higher temperatures will likely break up the pollen of many plant species, rendering them sterile and slated for extinction. Warmer ambient temperatures will alter groundwater temperatures which will affect our struggling mussel and Ozark hellbender populations. So, we need to be doing the best we can to make our remaining landscapes as strong as possible in light of future dire consequences. Our actions today will make the Ozarks stronger in 2050.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Mardi Gras among the diaspora

I'm doing something really untraditional tomorrow. I'm working. I'm going to be loathed by my fieldstaff by this time Mardi Gras Day. Tomorrow I have to tell them to dig up all the exotic horticultural cultivars that they've planted. Or use Round Up on them. I never expected to be the popular girl on the block.

I've never worked Mardi Gras Day. I have a stack of cds that I'm going to distribute among my fellow stewards so at least we'll all be tapping our feet while we work.

Since I'm worthless, dead to the world first thing in the morning, I've laid out my clothes for tomorrow. I can't really wear my Hillaire Bellocq costume, my black eyed susan costume that I wore several years ago, spending Mardi Gras Day in blackface. But I have fabulous green tights, a purple sweater (the only purple item of clothing I own), and a really egregious yellow striped skirt that I found at Talbot's (and couldn't really live without). Regardless of how brightly colored I'll be, I'll still look more professional than the women in that department across the hall. I dug out Zulu and Rex beads and a really charming strand of red beads and rice beads, in honor of tomorrow night's supper.

My expensive grocery store up the street had king cakes for sale on Sunday (baby attached on the outside for litigious reasons). I decided to wait until today to pick one up for my wonderful colleagues. Sold out! I asked the girl behind the counter if there were any stored in the back. None. No more king cakes. I told her that I guessed too many New Orleanians had moved to Columbia. "Yeah, I guess we did." Danyelle is from the 7th Ward, Rue St. Anthony. I asked her how she liked Columbia: "man, it sucks. No music. Bad food." I imagine, too, that she misses the camaraderie of the 7th Ward, a neighborhood known for their raucous brass band second lines and street barbecues. She probably misses sitting on her stoop and talking to everyone who passes her house. She probably misses being able to walk everywhere and most especially, her sprawling family members who all reside in the 7th Ward.

I, too, miss the music, the food, friends, my cute house, bookstores. I haven't made a lot of friends in Columbia, but the city is filled with stellar personalities. I feel at home in my little bungalow with my fabulous rugs, my wingchair, my books and music. I adore my job. I cherish my immediate colleagues (but that surly horseback rider in some other department who plays country music in my general vicinity really needs to retire). I told Danyelle that since she didn't have to work tomorrow, she should blast the Rebirth Brass Band and make a big pot of red beans. Since she works the bakery, she had first dibs on the king cakes. Was it as good as Gambino's? "Yeah," she said, "it was good." I'll do my best to make her experience in Columbia a little friendlier, stopping by the bakery to say "hi" as often as I go to the store.

Finally, without further ado, a link to WWOZ, New Orleans' Jazz and Heritage radio station that will be broadcasting good, traditional Mardi Gras music. Lots of Professor Longhair, New Birth, probably some Dirty Dozen. Be careful, though, it will make you want to jump out of your seat.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

No Child Left Inside

It happens every night at almost any given hour under every possible weather condition. High pitched laughter and screams punctuate the otherwise quiet night air. The kids across the street break out of their houses for late night play, even on school nights when they really should be in bed. One of the girls has a little dog, so she uses the dog's nightly walk as her excuse. Never quiet, her hollers alert the kids in the other two houses come barreling out to play chase, to ride their bikes, to run around the street. They do this as late as 10:30.

Of course, during the day, they climb trees, play in their new fort, ride bikes, conduct foot races, or, my favorite incident, repeatedly throw a metal pipe (that inexplicably appeared in my yard) down the street to see how far it will roll. My wooly yard is part of their play area and their presence is always welcome. Actually, it reminds me of the utter lack of respect I had for private property when I was their age. (My best hide and seek hiding spot was in some guy's garage. I distinctly recall asking him not to call attention to my presence when he found me crouched in his tool cabinet. We were, after all, in the middle of a game.)

These kids are really charming, thoughtful, well-adjusted. The older ones have a keen eye for the natural world, pointing out hawks, regaling me with tales of our block's raccoon, gathering acorns into piles for the squirrels. Back in May, I wrote about Richard Louv's The Last Child in the Woods which details American children's lack of connection to the outdoors. I don't think he ever visited my street. The neighborhood kids live in a fabulous city, full of green spaces, but their parents have never taken them out to enjoy them. They've never been to the local state park or to any of the nature areas protected by Columbia Parks and Recreation. Never mind to them, they make do. But according to Louv, most kids don't.

I had the fortunate opportunity to sit down and talk to Louv recently. His was a message of hope. Since the publication of his book, several states have started a No Child Left Inside initiative geared towards getting kids out in the natural world. On July 9, the House of Representatives will vote on a NCLI bill that aims to provide funding to schools for environmental education. When No Child Left Behind was passed, funding for field-based science classes and other environmental programs was slashed, keeping kids confined to the classroom to learn more math and reading. This lack of connection to the outdoor world has a direct impact on creativity, which in turn hinders the problem-solving process.

Louv mentioned the new urbanism movement taking place countrywide. Land trust organizations are sprouting up all over the east coast. Cities are trying to build green spaces as part of their development. Despite the positive nature of his discussion, he mentioned two words that have barely crossed my mind as the kids are romping in my yard: nuisance litigation. In Broward Co., Florida, "No running" signs are posted in every school playground. Chalk drawing has been outlawed by some neighborhood associations because it leads to cocaine use. Rose bushes have been prohibited in other neighborhoods because they might injure someone. Louv brought up an interesting point: since most wild areas are in private ownership, they are likely off limits to kids. Times have surely changed from the days when we could follow the creek from my grandparents' property onto their neighbor's.

The kids in my neighborhood, deprived of wild areas due to lack of parental interest, are creative nonetheless. They make up games which generally involve lots of scampering and climbing, games which are probably deemed unsafe in the structured environment of school. They have little to no parental supervision. In fact, before I went back to help them with the fort, they had constructed it with discarded lumber full of nails, all facing inwards, ready to require a tetanus shot.

For other kids in America, Louv points out an irony. The NCLI movement, designed to get kids to appreciate unstructured play in the natural world, is requiring an inordinate amount of multi-agency structure, organization, and funding. Of course, I know 8 little kids who would be very confused if they read a book about kids not wanting to play outside.

I should probably mention to those of you who know me, that no, I am not changing my tune about wanting to have children of my own. They're fun to play with, granted, but I still don't want them. I have enough responsibility.