Thursday, April 17, 2008

White River Hills


Within the first 24 hours of my residency in Columbia, I joined the local gym. Barring the past painful couple of weeks while recovering from a nerve-wracking injury, I went to the gym everyday since I joined, trying to rebuild what I had lost while living in southeast Missouri (that landscape without hills, physical challenges or even good bike routes). I knew I needed to be in shape to work in the Ozark Highlands; I definitely knew that I did not want to be considered an office-bound bureaucrat who couldn't keep up with fieldstaff as they scamper through the hills. So, I routinely set the treadmill at an incline, increasing the grade weekly, pushing myself to the point where I could track a mountain goat over the St. Francois Mountains, if the Ozarks had mountain goats.

It all paid off this week on my first visit to the southwestern White River Hills region of the Ozarks. Some of the steepest topography in Missouri is found here, with local relief averaging 300-800 feet. Nevertheless, I comfortably scampered up dissected hills to incredible vantage points overlooking Arkansas' Boston Mountains and never lost my breath (though fieldstaff remained several steps behind, red-faced and short of breath upon summit). Huzzah, I thought, I'm not an office-bound bureaucrat.

A distinctive limestone bench called the Burlington Escarpment separates the Salem Plateau from the Springfield Plateau in southwestern Missouri. It provides the northern border of the White River Hills, an area defined by steeply dissected wooded slopes, narrow valleys, glades (those dry, rocky, normally south facing slopes that harbor prairie species and few trees) and areas dominated by karst topography. The White River Hills represent Ordovician and Mississippian formations: on the eastern side, spring fed streams and creeks cut into the Ordovician dolomites and limestones, providing a gentle topography that includes caves, springs, seeps and other typical karst relationships. On the western side, cherty limestones of the Mississippian formation encourage the rather continuous band of glades and bald knobs, rich in warm season grasses and wildflowers, that wrap around the higher reaches of the steep hills.

A significant acreage of the White River Hills is publicly owned, allowing uninterrupted views of hills, valleys, glades and hollows. Plant diversity is high here, with large populations of Ozark endemics and several plants represented in the northern or western reaches of their range. In Barry Co., for example, the casual driver can witness the end of the North American range for shortleaf pine; small mixed pine-oak woodlands morph into oak-hickory woodlands and savannas within a matter of yards. My beloved Ozark least trillium, that exquisite flower I first saw in Arkansas, grows here in a couple of isolated populations. In fact, it was the Ozark least trillium that allowed me to test the theory I developed while living in southeast Missouri.

Unlike the White River Hills, southeast Missouri has been so greatly altered by agricultural practices and ditching exercises that only a handful of the native cypress swamp/sand prairie/oak woodland communities remain in tact. Because one can drive for over 100 miles and see nothing but corn and soybean fields- with nary even a fencerow of trees in sight- I believed that the lack of natural landscapes had a direct impact on the emotional and sociological well-being of the area's residents. They had, in fact, ruined their recreational hunting, fishing, hiking, exploring grounds. Economic development was relegated to the few farmers who consolidated into corporations, leaving an entire community impoverished, and, more importantly, with no semblance of the natural history that likely brought their ancestors to the area to begin with. Domestic violence rates were through the roof here. Barns, empty because small family farms no longer exist here, became the unwitting property of methamphetamine addicts.

Friday night adventures included driving a circuit from sad little town to sad little town, tossing beer cans out the window into the corn fields. In a community where no natural resources inspire protection of what semblance may remain, destruction and unhealthy living conditions abound. Diabetes rates were ridiculous here. Poverty levels in my county were Missouri's second highest. All the while, hunters complained that "...then one day, all the wildlife just vanished!" Hm. That moment coincided with the day the logging machinery denuded the last acre of stately oaks and the dipper dredge ditched off the last swamp, shunting water into the Mississippi River, leaving no room for amphiumas, cypress minnows or associated prized game fish.

But in the White River Hills, I discovered a local community that genuinely cherishes the very landscape in which they live. Waitstaff at the good restaurant in town, learning that I was from Columbia, asked if I came for the fishing. "I know a great spot," the owner tells me. He and the rest of the staff live there for the landscape, for the woodlands, for the quiet country life, for the trout fishing. While the owner wished more patrons knew what spring mix was or ordered wine (thereby forcing him to learn how to operate a wine key), he loved life in the White River Hills.

The following day, belly full of well-steamed asparagus and a mediocre pinot noir, we set out in an effort to find the Ozark least trillium in my own state. After badgering one of the citizens for the well-known location, we drove to a series of 1950s resort cottages just outside of town. One of two known populations exists here, but our guide couldn't tell us whether it was in flower or not. Nevertheless, we pulled into the cabin parking lot and came across a grizzled 50 year old woodworker working in the back shop. Barely looking up, he told us that he had heard "something" about "some rare plants" that he wasn't "supposed to mow over." Yep. We had found the spot.

My fearless leader reassured the woodworker that we could find the plants without his assistance if he pointed us in the general direction. No, we meant no harm to this rare population, we just wanted to see it. Within moments we found the first of hundreds, literally hundreds, of plants behind this small cabin development. We showed the smoking woodworker the plant, explained its significance, its rarity in Missouri, why it shouldn't be paved over (but mowing after it goes to seed isn't a bad idea). Within moments, the proprietors of the charming cabins pulled up and quickly bailed out of their truck, happy to see that, indeed, there were others who appreciated these truly exquisite plants.

Last year, a member of the Missouri Native Plant Society approached the cabin owners to explain the significance of their population. This small population is the one for which the variety of T. pusillum var. Ozarkanum is named. The highly esteemed Julian Steyermark, author of the Flora of Missouri, chose this very spot to name the plant. Genetic work has been done on this population. Annually, a handful of visitors descend on the area to take pictures and to make sure the population is being cared for. The owners, both kind, gentle folk, reassured us that they intend to preserve and protect their trillium population. They've been clearing brush from the understory to give the plant more room to spread in the degraded third growth oak-hickory-maple woodlands.

They wanted more from us. They wanted to know what they can do to help the rare population. They wanted to know more about Julian Steyermark. They wanted to know the natural history of the rare plant in their care. Leave it to my trusty leader to whip out his copy of the hefty Flora (which remains on my desk because it's too heavy for my backpack) and turn right to the page describing that very population. The landowners were happy, as were we, all of us able to gaze upon this exquisite blooming flower, one among hundreds, surviving in this compromised landscape.

The cabin owners promised to rope off the area, to not allow RVs to park anywhere near where Ozark least trillium grew. They wanted to, in fact, rename their business "something with 'Trillium' in the name," but, like me, they didn't want to call attention to the location. Part of me wanted to post the name and website of the landowners to help drum up business in an economically challenged area, but the other part of me didn't want people descending on the area with shovels in any attempts to collect these deep rooted plants (which seldom, if ever, survive transplanting). If you want to see them in bloom this year or next, write to me directly, let me know that your aim is good and true and that you will only take pictures, stay in the cabins, or that you'll tell the landowners that they are, in fact, doing a fine job of ecological stewardship for their relictual population...then I'll tell you how to get there.

So, while I posted a picture of the same plant a mere week ago, I'm posting another one. This one is from the White River Hills of Missouri rather than from the Lost Valley in Arkansas. My fearless leader pointed out that this picture speaks volumes. It represents the stalwart nature of the delicate species, that even though the land around it is totally disturbed (as evidenced by the surrounding population of white blooming chickweed and dead nettle), the Ozark least trillium thrives. This population has a protector. The rest of the unimpaired White River Hills do, too, in the form of state and federal agencies. Local citizens live in the area so they can fish, hunt, live around "woods." People I met in the White River Hills were very happy to see us, to see that others were taking note of their exquisite landscape and natural history. The folks of the White River Hills were kind, gentle souls who called me either M'am or honey, both terms I never once heard directed my way in other parts of Missouri.

1 comment:

Ted C. MacRae said...

The White River Hills have been a favorite of mine since my first visit to Roaring River in 1980. There are several insects whose occurrence in Missouri is restricted to this area, including the state's largest species of tiger beetle (Cicindela vulturina), a handsome velvety dark-green insect with small white markings.

I enjoy your blog so much!