Saturday, March 29, 2008

Deutschland on the Missouri

I guess I was expecting men in lederhosen dancing the polka. Hermann, Missouri celebrated all things sausage-related this weekend: bratwurst, leberwurst, sommerwurst, knackwurst, saurkraut and (a sort of runny and sugary) kartoffelsalat, all produced in town in 100+ year old smoke-hause. The billboards advertising Wurstfest invoked images of Bavaria, traditional dress, brass bands and accordians. Settling in under a tree with an 8 year old French oak Norton (Missouri's state grape), we were instead greeted with a synthesizer set to the "polka" beat, a recording of a drum kit, and a guy singing Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. Not at all what I was expecting. Before the second verse, we left the courtyard in search of the real Hermann, a lovely German settlement on the Ozark border, rich in history with streets named after Schiller, Mozart and Goethe. German Vernacular architecture abounds in Hermann, where almost 100 structures display National Register of Historic Places plaques.

Founded as a colony by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia in the 1830s, Hermann was determined to be well-suited for agriculture, riverboat trade, and mineral mining. The goal of the German Settlement Society was the establishment of a German settlement that would maintain and preserve German culture and language. The land south of the Missouri River so resembled Germany topographically and aesthetically, that the poor soils were seen as a challenge to overcome rather than a hindrance. In the General Report by the Deputies of the German Settlement Society concerning the proposed land suitable for settlement, the virtues of the rocky Ozark soils were extolled:
The hill land is, in part, very good and so, also some extensive hilly plateaus as the growth and species of trees and the grain found here and there testify. If the land is not everywhere favorable for cultivation, it is so much the better for pasture and cattle grazing....The few fruit trees found in this region have good growth. Vineyards will probably flourish when more of the land is cleared.

So, settlers moved into the area and found the land less than arable. Nevertheless, the natural resources around Hermann--the abundant limestone, the fruit and nut trees, grape vines 36 inches in diameter--enticed the settlers to make the best of their new town. In the mid-1840s, using grape vines collected from the woods around Hermann, Michael Poeschel began producing wine at Stone Hill Winery, located on one of the highest hills in the area. Within a matter of years, Stone Hill Winery became the third largest producer of wines in America, bottling 1,250,000 gallons of wine a year. Poeschel set off a cascade effect. Wineries employing native grapes popped up all over the rocky hills of Hermann.

By the early 1900s, Hermann, Missouri became one of the country's top two wine producing towns and actually exported more wine than any other town in America. Hermann's wines consistently won international awards. When certain French vineyards almost collapsed from a nematode infestation, French vintners turned to Hermann's wineries to ask for our grape vines (so, while you may think you're drinking a bordeaux, it could be a Missouri wine...). In light of poor soils, Hermann was a thriving community. Great schools, nice churches, orderly streets. Even today, Hermann resembles a little German town, tucked into a hillside.

All was well in Hermann until the enactment of the Volstead Act in 1920. Prohibition put an end to winemaking in Missouri, and for a small town like Hermann, completely dependent on viticulture, the results were disastrous. Barrels were emptied, destroyed, burned. Wine making tools were destroyed, grape vines destroyed. In fact, only three populations of the original Norton grape were spared, thanks in part to a family who was growing the vines in small batches for edible purposes. Only one handcrafted barrel from Hermann's early history remains in town; it was found almost half a mile in a cave on the outskirts of town where government officials failed to search.

Because of the natural German industry, some of Hermann's vintners converted their wine cellars into mushroom farms. But in the 1960s, the owners of Stone Hill Winery, that first winery in Hermann, decided to replant the original vines and start all over. They salvaged some of the original machinery, and continue to use the original cellar and production room. Since then, several other wineries have reopened in the Hermann area, producing award winning wines again with the support of the state agriculture department. Hermann is justifiably proud of its agriculture history and is making great strides to attain the same level of sustainability in today's competitive market.

Hermann's Chamber of Commerce surely recognizes the marketability of historic towns and preserved culture. Tourism dollars drive the economy here. Small museums, restored theatres, an opera house and many private homes all remind the visitor of the 1840s and 50s. Unfortunately, restaurants open and close pretty regularly, with most visitors only cruising into town for the big German festivals: Maifest, Oktoberfest, Kristkindl. Wurstfest was the first festival I've attended in Hermann, usually opting to spend time there in the middle of the week camped out in a great Shaker-inspired bed and breakfast on Schiller (where I work from the spacious top floor room). Despite many recommendations, I'll likely skip Maifest but will return one quiet spring Wednesday to mill through the streets, wondering what Hermann's founders would think of its promising future.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Just last week, my former boss, Larry, and I walked through a recently burned landscape with the state's leading botanist. I'm a competitive person, so when a game of identification commenced with the first break of a fire scarred, desiccated stem, I set aside the warm and fuzzy side of my brain that defers to others for answers. I can see his big brown eyes, the botanist squinting at me as he presents me and Larry with a brown stem, one leaf, no seedheads. Larry taught me everything I know about dry chert woodlands (and glades, and fens, and how to deal with people), so I -rather uncharacteristically- deferred to him for the first guesses. When he stammered, I threw out an answer. I'm pleased to report that Larry and I were right more times than not, flubbing up only rarely, mostly on the graminoids.

Anyway, it's fun to play the winter game. So, that was a week ago. Today I ventured out into the lovely Current River Hills: steeply dissected terrain, lots of dolomite outcroppings, my cherished dry chert woodlands everywhere, erosion from the 12 inch rain event. I was happy to see the floodwaters receded and the high water mark as evidenced by the leaf debris stacked over 20 feet high in the sycamores. Quite a sight. Spicebush was setting buds today, but no sign of life from the oaks and hickories. I expected the early spring wildflowers, the usual suspects, in the more mesic sites...rue anemone, false rue anemone (and to tell them apart, I have to consult a guide every single year), Claytonias. Instead, I found myself oddly happy to see a still dormant landscape. I love the winter landscape, prefer it sometimes to the bold, bright, verdant spring woods.

Maybe it's in the name, ephemeral spring wildflowers, that makes me sad when spring sets in. A bloom period so short, so fleeting. To really understand spring in the Ozarks, you have to be out in the woods every single day to catch all of the beauty typical to the region. Spring is so fast, changing every morning with another plant in bloom, another shrub bursting in white flowers. And maybe that fast pace is why I sometimes prefer the cold, dead winter landscape. As one who appreciates floral displays, life is less manic in the winter. You don't have to rush to the far reaches of the state in hopes of catching a certain flower in bloom. During winter you can focus on mosses and lichens, still silence, ice, and personal projects that (gasp!) might not include plants.

Oh, of course, I love the growing season. I love driving 100 miles to see a single orchid in a fen or hiking 12 miles to see a glade full of yellow coneflowers. I camp, I canoe, I travel, I seldom spend time inside and my hair turns white blonde during the growing season. Nevertheless, I cherish the brown woods of winter. They don't change very much and I can rest from the constant cataloguing of plants, from remembering genus and species, constantly quizzing myself. When growing season starts, I have to move, to recall every little grass, sedge and wildflower. When you're with a true botanist (I learned last week), even dormancy calls for a plant identification game.

Today, among the several years' worth of leaf litter, a charming spring ephemeral poked through blaring its white or purple petals (depending on the soil chemistry, I guess). Yesterday I saw the vegetative structure of the same flower and tried to convince the leading botanist that it was something that it wasn't. (I love it when the natural world stumps me, reminding me that I'm just a Classics major.) Mind you, my first forays into the Ozarks included a lag time: I was traditionally laid off between December and April, so I missed learning any plants that bloomed before April. I was in Louisiana in the interim, enjoying Coreopsis and other late spring wildflowers.

So, I added this plant to my life list today. Hepatica nobilis (pictured). It's funny, really, that I tried learning Missouri's natural history before I moved here, gorging on any and every book that pertained to the state's natural features. I recall passing the early page in the white wildflower section of Edgar Denison's Missouri Wildflowers, Hepatica nobilis. A pretty little flower. I had taken almost 15 pictures of the same flower in different shades and tones today before it dawned on me what it was. I haven't looked at a wildflower guide in several years because I learned most of the plants in the field, but this one, lovely and delicate, I had never seen before, and it was everywhere today.

The Ozarks continue to fascinate me. Their steep hills, rich woodlands, even richer understories, soon to be flush with spring green. Once spring really sets in, I'll get past my maudlin attachment to winter and you, dear reader, will be subjected to photos of canoe trips, woodlands in bloom, fresh ferns, morels, and every other aspect of life worth celebrating.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Spring!

Since this is the time of year when most Americans set out into the woods in search of wildflowers, I've cobbled together a handful of pictures of the most encountered spring ephemeral wildflowers of the Ozark Highlands. I'm forcing myself to highlight the woodlands...glades, prairies and even cliffs have their own suite of spring wildflowers, but mesic and dry mesic woodlands are significantly more common than these other communities. Most of these can be found in rich woods east of the Rockies, and all of them in the exquisite Ozark Highlands of Missouri. For a good wildflower guide, check out Edgar Denison's Wildflowers of Missouri, available at state parks and Conservation Nature Centers throughout Missouri.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)forms a dense carpet along stream banks, where it shares the territory with mayapples and morels.

Trout lily springs from a small bulb every spring, often growing in clusters around ferns and sedges.

Related to the horticultural cultivars that come in reds and pinks every summer, wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) only comes in this exquisite pink. Usually found growing all alone, among other species, but seldom in clusters of its own.

The first plant to come up after a burn in the Ozark Highlands, wild phlox (Phlox divaricata)carpets the woodland floor.

One of the few brown flowers in nature, this trillium (Trillium recurvatum) is significantly more common in the Ozarks than the delicate white one found in the North Woods.

Finally, the host plant to the spicebush swallowtail, the first flowering shrub of the spring, spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Crush the leaves and they release this delightful, spicy smell that reminds me of the white spiced jelybeans.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


It was pretty strange hearing NPR's Steve Inskeep mutter the two words "Elllington, Missouri" earlier this week. Ellington's a sleepy little town in the Current River Hills, one of many towns that witnessed the full brunt of a 12 inch rain event. The images from the Ozarks plastered on the news reminded me of typical high spring rain seasons in America: swollen, brown rivers, lots of debris, water everywhere. The images could have been from Pennsylvania, California, even Houston.

But you see, water normally runs clear in the Ozarks. These gruesome images of roiling waters coursing through normally pristine Ozark rivers this week made me realize that most Americans viewing these same images don't have a point of reference; they, too, could be looking at Buffalo or even the Susquehanna. Most Americans don't know how alarming these pictures are to those of us who appreciate Ozark rivers. Naturally, I did what I had to do when the rain totals flashed across my screen Tuesday. I scoped out available roads and drove through the Ozarks to witness for myself some of my favorite streams and rivers that I was, actually, planning on floating in a week or so. The Gasconade is cresting tonight, lapping over the Hwy. 63 bridge. The Meramec has flooded my canoe rental outfitter, located a half mile away from the river bed. Most of the Meramec Valley is flooded and the cresting river has closed part of I-44, sending interstate traffic through Forest Service roads. Never before has Western Star Savanna, tucked away in the Mark Twain National Forest, seen so many cars. Huzzah Creek, a small, shallow tributary of the Meramec, is almost as wide as the Missouri River in some places.

Land use practices in the watershed have seriously compromised the water quality and quantity of the rivers into which smaller creeks and streams drain. 200 years ago, a huge rain event would have likely flooded rivers, but most of the water would have seeped slowly into the ground, recharging aquifers and nourishing woodland soils. Before this week, I thought the Missouri's Ozarks had at least enough protected woodlands to keep most of the sediment out of the rivers. Au contraire....

Sediment loads to the degree we're seeing now in the Ozarks may be commonplace in the Mississippi Valley, unfortunately, but for the most part, Ozark waterways are generally clear. Now I'm seeing how dramatically modern land use practices throughout the region have compromised our waterways. All of the rainwater draining off fescue fields, off construction sites, off degraded land in general has caused this massive sediment load in our rivers.

To test my theory, to make sure the waters surrounded by alternative land use practices were different from waters surrounded by managed woodlands, I went to Hawn State Park (beautiful, wonderful LaMotte sandstone and preCambrian igneous outcrops, all in one place...shortleaf pine trees, lots of ferns and lichens). Coursing through Hawn's vast acreage is Pickle Creek, a permanent stream that normally runs clear. Pickle Creek is fed by small tributaries outside the park, making it subject to muddy rain waters. Next to Pickle Creek is a smaller tributary, beginning at a small spring within the park's boundaries, surrounded for its entire 4 mile distance by dry sandstone woodlands. The entire 4 miles ran fast, roiling clear water.

Finally, because karst topography dictates spring water, I'm attaching two pictures of a spring in Camden Co. The recharge area for this spring is 17 miles wide and includes plenty of managed chert woodlands, but also fescue pastures, impermeable surfaces such as roads, and degraded woodlands deprived of fire and other forms of management. It was an awful sight to behold this afternoon.

I don't know how long it will take before the Jack's Fork, Eleven Point, Current, or even the Meramec Rivers are clear again. I know four people taking off tomorrow with kayaks in tow to the upper Jack's Fork to take advantage of the challenging waters. Maybe all of these awful images of Ozark rivers will serve as a deterrent to tourists who would otherwise crowd the rivers, throwing beer cans into springs and hollering around the corners.

Oh! While in the upper Ozarks, I saw my first bloodroot of the season today. Get out to see them soon because they only bloom for a few days each year. Remember, check mesic sites, bottomlands, limestone-based soils...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ozark pickle

Annually, on March 1, fly fishermen descend on a handful of beautiful Ozark springs, standing in 56 degree water, shoulder to shoulder. Throughout trout season, they cast their wooly boogers and stoneflies made of squirrel fur in an attempt to catch farm raised trout by the buckets. Trout fishermen supply one of our state agencies with serious revenue with every trout tag they buy. The trout they catch have been reared on pellet food, so any fly that looks like a little gray nub would be more effective than any accurate mayfly representation. Brown trout are not native to Missouri, but our fast moving, cold, clear water streams resemble western brown trout habitat. Millions of dollars are spent annually to support fish hatcheries in the Ozarks, and fishermen spend millions of dollars when they visit the Ozark Highlands to catch grain-fed animals.

Since the 1930s, a state agency has been rearing trout and dumping them into springs and rivers throughout the Ozarks. It's another form of recreation, they say, one that supports conservation of the very rivers the trout pollute. The problem with grain-fed brown trout in Missouri is that, in short, they're not supposed to be here and continue to upset the fragile biota of our rivers. While supplying Missourians with another recreational option, brown trout are decimating the very natural history that the same state agency aims to protect.

As fingerlings, they're set free in rivers where they feed on anything and everything that comes into sight. They'll eat invertebrates, smaller darters, and even Ozark hellbenders, the largest salamander in the state slated for federal listing this month on the Endangered Species Act. Ozark hellbender populations have dropped in the past 30 years. They've been extirpated from several rivers in the Ozarks and are never found in thriving populations anymore. Many adults now have small nubs for limbs, having served as a food source for trout. Young Ozark hellbenders aren't being found at all, likely predated by trout.

Research abounds on the hellbender populations. Degraded water quality from sedimentation and fertilizers is one culprit. Sedimentation from too many floaters on the river has been offered as another reason for the sharp decline. Increased E.coli from floaters relieving themselves in the rivers has been listed as yet another reason. The problem with all of these reasons is that the studies have been conducted by the very agency which dumps millions of trout into Ozark rivers every spring. Hellbender predation by trout is largely to blame for the declines, but, because of the income trout fishermen generate, the agency can't do much about it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Soul quenching

It's burn season in the Ozark Highlands, the time of year when relative humidities, fuel moistures, and wind directions dictate the day's events. Fire shaped Missouri's landscape, which was once largely dominated by expanses of open woodlands with rich, grassy understories. To maintain what's left of this presettlement landscape, agencies and private landowners alike mark their calendars on February 1 each year, ushering in burn season. It lasts until about April 7, just when the sedges start greening up. I spent almost every day this week working a fire. One with 50 foot flames. Another with raging headfires. Yet another that gently creeped up slopes. Working prescribed fires beats any day in the office.

I love burn season almost as much as I appreciate cool, fall nights and spring sunrises on a prairie. I love the way woodsmoke smells in my hair, the way fire takes out three, four, six years worth of seral woodlands, thereby allowing the understory to revert to its transcendent, presettlement state. I love the way fire creeps up hollows, creating convection, producing big, fast flames that can sound like a tornado. I love the results of a good, hot, spring fire: Phlox divaricata shows up first, along with mayapples and morels. Bright blue flowers poking up from the charred remains of oak and hickory leaf litter. I love seeing stunted post oak sprouts being consumed by fire. The hiss and crackle of inland sea oats as they disintegrate is truly musical. When burning season arrives, I'm seldom inside, and seldom in clothes that don't reek of diesel fuel.

I like controlling fire. I like seeing the way it works around corners, up hills and slopes, into little crannies. Fire can create its own weather patterns, change wind direction, and it can be very predictable, under the right prescription. Many esteemed ecologists have devoted their lives to understanding fire behavior. Fire behavior is truly fascinating, and I love watching it work. So, it's really no surprise when I show up at a prescribed burn asking for the torch. I like to have some form of control over the fire, to either drag it, flaming, into the unit or to start it altogether. Oddly enough, no one ever argues against me when I ask for the torch. Others prefer to carry rakes or backpack blowers, but I like the torch. I like dripping fire into flashy grass fuels, listening to the dessicated stems pop. I like burning out draws, where you have to take into account radiating heat and convection before you drip flames everywhere.

Above all, I love seeing the effects of fire. I've been burning woods all week. Today we walked the firelines after a 572 acre burn. We realized we had burned almost 95% of the area: the wetter, more mesic areas received only splotchy fire, despite my liberal application. (Of course, traditionally, these areas didn't burn very resolutely to begin with.) The fire cleared several hundred acres of glades of their sumacs, stunted post oaks and sassafras saplings. Rock outcroppings glisten in the sunlight after a fire, having been covered by leaf litter for several consecutive years. After a fire, every inch of topographic relief reveals itself.

The satisfaction of fire's effects is indescribable. My dear friend Paul, singlehandedly responsible for the prescribed fire program in Missouri, waxes eloquently about it when I mention that I am setting out to burn one of his first units. If anyone thinks I love fire, know that Paul loves it more:

There is no greater human orchestrated use of nature's power on the Earth, primordial and ingrained in the spirit and soul...that smell of smoke in your hair...You have captured the burning bug: it makes you restless at night; keeps you daydreaming, it's an elixir that charges your mind's senses and sends thoughts wandering, of life, of great outdoor experiences. Here's hoping the winds, humidity, temperature and air stability are just the right mix for the "its a go" decision. As you splash fire's paint across the land, know that I've walked and stripped fire across those hills many a time; I've laid down in the thick bluestem grass of Lodge Glade, closing my eyes and listening to the red buffalo roar...

Seeing that blackened landscape, derived from the fires of four driptorches, mine included, makes me joyful. I never imagined those small drops of lit fuel I scattered into the leaf litter would clear an entire hillside of its 4 years of accumulated leaf litter. I know fire loves to climb up slopes, but this fire followed a textbook.
Above everything else, I love knowing that with a flick of a strong wrist, with a little diesel and fire, one person can alter a landscape, can bring back a disturbance regime that dictated woodland composition. The process of restoring those disturbance regimes is a soul satisfying, incredible experience that I cherish every time I'm given a torch.

Sunday, March 09, 2008


In a week or so, after the latest round of 2, 4, 8 inches of snow melt across the Ozark Highlands, spring will descend on the area, ushered in by the exquisite flowering event of bloodroot (Sanguinaria candensis). Found in moist woods, at the foothills of mountains, and in undisturbed wooded tracts, bloodroot is one of the first spring ephemerals to grace the land east of the Rockies. The bloom period is short, lasting for only a few days. The flowers only open up in full sun and they close at night or on cloudy days. They are so ephemeral, in fact, that I've only been able to catch them in bloom once, and it's not from being tied to an office (but for being in New Orleans, between job appointments). However, when I finally did see it (last year on a wildflower walk in the Outer Ozark Border), I recall laughing heartily. An exquisite flower, all around.

The single, stark white bloodroot flower rises out of a single, deeply cut basal leaf. The leaf remains evident on the landscape well into May, almost mocking those who didn't get to see the flower in March or early April. The common name "bloodroot" can be attributed to the blood red sap that courses the veins of the plant. Cut the stem or the leaf, and red sap oozes out. Derived from the root, the red sap was traditionally used for dye (and as an emetic, some say) by native Americans. Highly toxic, it causes blisters to form on the skin if applied directly. The FDA, however, has sanctioned bloodroot's use in mouthwash to fight gingivitis. Herbal practitioners have used it to treat skin problems; speculation holds that it may even hold a cure for some cancers.

But the value! The true value of this plant is in its interesting natural history, not in random ways we can exploit its dwindling populations. The seeds of bloodroot are dispersed by ants. The seeds have an organ called an eliasome, which is a desired ant food source. After the eliasome is eaten, the seeds are stored in the nest, where they rest, protected until germination.

I mention bloodroot now, in early March, so you won't miss it. Bloodroot blooms before even the sedges start greening up. Wintry Ozark Highland landscapes can be punctuated not only by the high pitched "preeps" of spring peepers, the presence of spotted salamander eggs, but by the earliest of the ephemerals, blazing white against an otherwise brown landscape.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Scattered throughout the Ozark Highlands, in areas underlain with carbonate rock, rest deep, rounded depressions called sinkholes. Typical of karst landscapes, sinkholes occur when bedrock dissolves and the land above collapses into an underlying cavity. Considering that the Ozarks were formed billions of years ago, sinkholes can be found throughout the region in various stages. Because of the moisture content and cooler temperatures afforded by the deep depression, some sinkholes that were formed thousands of years ago support glacial relics: ferns, mosses, and salamanders that were present throughout Missouri during the Pleistocene. Other sinkholes, like the ones pictured below, were formed in the past 3, 10, 50 years, long after we built roads, homes and shopping malls on top of eroded bedrock. Recent collapses remind us that the ancient Ozark Highlands continue to evolve, sometimes even despite our actions.

The steep slopes leading down into ancient sinkholes are often covered in mosses and ferns, thriving on the weeping limestone or dolomite walls. Within the deep depression, moisture levels remain high year round and temperatures are traditionally lower than the area above. Soils are generally rich, supporting wild hydrangea, white oaks and maples. Four-toed salamanders live here, appreciating the same temperatures and moisture that was present before the glaciers retreated. A rare shooting star (Dodecatheon amethystinum) population is found in one nearby sinkhole, one of only a handful of populations that remain in Missouri (pictured above). Several years ago, I found no fewer than 50 morels here.

Sinkholes can also support a rather distinct terrestrial community similar in characteristics to upland flatwoods. Called, appropriately, sinkhole flatwoods, soils here drain slowly, which can impact the understory flora. Sedges grow here, and if the soils are particularly acidic, not much else will. Undisturbed sinkhole flatwoods are pretty rare, though they traditionally occurred in the lovely Current River Hills, the Central Plateau, the Springfield Plain and the Outer Ozark Border. Many of these communities which range in size from one to (rarely) 30 acres were drained and heavily grazed by livestock.

Because sinkholes open up in the Springfield area every few years, developers are now able to consult geologists to determine if land is situated on top of a cavity. However, a few years ago, during road construction in Springfield, workers discovered a vast cave system, complete with Pleistocene skeletons and tracks. The road was rerouted, obviously, and, sadly, the cave was vandalized mere days after discovery. Ancient sinkholes are special, delicate places, rich in biodiversity. The more recent ones are, I guess, filled with asphalt, fescue, and housing material.