Friday, May 30, 2008

In honor of Molly

Every morning, for the past 20 years or so, I wake up wondering what I will learn in the course of the day. It never has to be anything huge like a new calculus formula, a conjugation, or even a new recipe, but I have to learn something by sunset that I didn't know at sunrise. Of course, professionally I'm learning to recognize the presence of certain plants thanks to their connection to grazing history. Too, I learn everyday that somehow, persistence pays off. While I'm learning bigger lessons, I try to learn a new plant, warbler call, or how to better prepare curry.

Earlier this week, I spent a day in the Gasconade River Hills, an area characterized by shortleaf pine, white oaks, and an understory terribly compromised by an earlier clearing for agricultural purposes. While I was out there, I learned a new fern (Athyrium pycnocarpon, pictured) that closely resembles the more common Christmas fern. I also indulged my inner 12 year old by grabbing at every animal I encountered, barring the exquisitely colored diamonback water snake, basking bright red scales on a log.

My little 15 year old dog Molly, a stubborn quadroped, would likely be disheartened to learn that for every 10 plant photos I post in this medium, I post a single animal photo. I don't pride myself on knowing wildlife very well, and I certainly don't photograph wildlife seriously. Nevertheless, the canine who serves as the wildlife disturbance in my backyard, Molly, had a crummy day today. In her honor, I'm posting mediocre pictures of wildlife: little turtle hatchlings, a gorgeous pumpkinseed sunfish (a common Ozark river species), a bee gorging on the ubiquitous Texas blue star, an extremely young crayfish (I venture O. luteus, but I'm not certain). Actually, I don't know who had the crummier day, my dog or myself.

Today's lesson was in animal husbandry, and it was a terrible lesson that I don't wish on my worst enemy (you know who you are, mwahhahahaha). In 3 short hours, Molly's kind doctor (my brilliant boss' wife) taught me how to feed intravenous tubes through an elaborate system of valves and gadgets that I will employ eight times over the course of two days in an effort to flush toxins out of my little dog's system. Anyone who knows me may recall that I ran 4 blocks out of the doctor's office at the age of 24 when I saw the needle for the required gammaglobulin vaccination.

So, today I learned that I have to overcome my fear of needles and blood for the sake of my dog's health. I learned that the aging process is cruel. I learned that Molly will have to forego periodic smoked salmon, treats of sausage grilled over fire, leftover trout from Columbia's great Sycamore least for now. I learned that my boss can be terribly sarcastic when he asks, "what did you do, feed her antifreeze?" and deeply caring when he softly says "I'm just a botanist, but I hope your weekend gets better." I learned that even though I cried mightily in front of my esteemed colleague, he likely understands my genuine love of Molly and won't judge me too harshly for crying emphatically while sitting on the floor with my arms around her neck. Molly's wonderful vet whispered to me, "I'll hit him if he does."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Desired condition

My eyes, welling with tears, were a dead giveaway. After a full day of fieldtrips to degraded woods, my desperation at the obvious mismanagement and lack of dedication towards restoration goals became overwhelming. I spent most of last week in a nearby state at a conference focusing on fire as a management tool; there, I quickly learned that Missouri is the leader in woodland restoration, that the prescribed fire program which began over 20 years ago is responsible for our healthy landscapes. Other states are only now building fire programs, but in light of invasive species and urban encroachment battering woodlands from every direction (and no true leadership dictating goals), land managers outside of Missouri are collectively throwing up their hands. They're facing the challenge of landscape restoration with apathy and dismay that, really, their landscapes will never be as biodiverse as they were historically, so why bother? After zooming past 50 miles of wall-to-wall exotic Russian olive and closed maple-dominated woodlands (where oak savanna and prairie should be), my colleague leans over to me and utters, simply, "we'll stop by some pristine limestone glades when we get back to Missouri." Yes, that will make me feel better.

In Jefferson Co., just outside of St. Louis in the Inner Ozark Border, rest the largest tract of continuous bands of limestone glades in Missouri. So vast is this glade belt that acre for acre, they rival the glade complexes in the White River Hills. Most of the glades are choked in cedars and in desperate need of prescribed fire, but active management on many acres of land has resulted in speciose, rich (and aesthetically pleasing) landscapes that likely mirror what the earliest European settlers encountered.

When the Natural History Program initiated the prescribed fire program over 20 years ago, it looked to historical documents for guidance. What did Missouri look like before large native herbivores were extirpated? What did it look like before open grazing? Before the entire Ozark Highland was cut over in the 1920s and 30s? Before roads and urban centers were established? Using survey records, early explorer accounts, fire history and even tree ring data, natural resource managers constructed a concept of what Missouri landscapes should look like. This isn't to say that today's resource managers are trying to recreate a 200 year old photograph of our woodlands, glades and prairies, but that by reinstating historical natural processes to the best of our abilities, we can peer into a Missouri before we extracted most of her resources.

Throughout the conference, I furrowed my brow at the elementary discussions bandied about concerning the concept of desired condition. Land managers and foresters outside of Missouri refuted the basic idea of striving towards a historic landscape. They know that fire is "good for the landscape," and that most of the eastern U.S. was "shaped by fire," but they don't quite know exactly what they're aiming for, how to encourage biodiversity through landscape management. In Missouri, we know, for example, that limestone glades in Jefferson Co. harbor certain endemics that respond positively with the application of fire. Based on the understory response to fire, we know that fire, simply and resolutely, was a key element in shaping this diverse landscape. Managers outside of Missouri are still in the stages of contemplating this concept. And because of that, I left a neighboring state without understanding what it looked like before exotics, grazing and 50 years of fire suppression. Sigh.

I guess it was silly to think that at a conference dedicated to fire that I would be surrounded by fellow pyromaniacs, all bragging about acres burned and positive results. One forestry major from Madison told me on the fieldtrip that "Missouri burns too much." I sputtered, "my agency only burned 3,467 acres in the Ozarks this year! We're several thousand acres behind schedule!" "Yeah, maybe," she countered, "but it's still too much. You're harming your trees." Astounded, knowing that unlike other states that have problems with exotic pests damaging their oaks because their woods are impaired due to fire deprivation, Missouri's managed woodlands are, for the most part, in good shape. I recognized that I wouldn't be able to change her mind and hoped that she wasn't going to be in charge of any of the awesome savannas in Wisconsin. The savannas, after all, require frequent fire.

One night, heading out to the degraded woods behind the hotel for cool fresh air, I passed a table of foresters pounding down Bud Light. "Why should we try to make the landscape look like it did 200 years ago?" one of them muttered as he leaned back in the faded plastic chair. Part of me wanted to sidle up to him and explain that you shouldn't manage for a snapshot, but that you should restore the forces that shaped the land before European settlers. Within the framework of natural forces, the land will meet a desired condition well within the historic range of variability, a condition that harbors biodiversity on all levels, from the understory to the canopy to the wildlife inherent within. In the late stages of the burn cycle of limestone glades, I wanted to tell him, a shrub layer of scrubby post oaks may develop along the edges of adjacent dry chert woodlands. Fire knocks back most of them, but every once in a while, one persists creating a structural component that happens to mirror the survey records (from Schoolcraft on a glade in the White River Hills: "no trees for 50 chains until lone post oak..."). So we're not trying to keep the glade looking exactly like it did this week--clear of trees, fresh green grass and rich forb component--but that should be one of the desired stages of a natural cycle. Knowing that the forester was more concerned with harvesting timber than managing for biodiversity, I kept walking until I hit the tree line, where I sat down on a muddy bulldozer track and listened to cricket frogs.

Sometimes, in Missouri's unmanaged woods, I find myself in a lousy mood when I see large tracts of Asian day lilies displacing native wildflowers or, maybe worse, no understory at all. Driving back from the conference along Missouri's roadsides choked in bush honeysuckle and crown vetch, I thought of the pristine places scattered throughout the state. Our actively managed landscapes are healthy, strong, able to withstand the encroachment of exotics. The St. Louis area may contain the largest contiguous blocks of bush honeysuckle in the country, but a few yards off the road was an incredible, managed, healthy glade complex, am area that should be a state-designated Natural Area. If we continue to manage our woodlands, prairies, and glades, identify the sites that have some semblance of restoration capability, we'll sustain biodiversity and combat the forces of exotic species with inherent strength. The species richness of the limestone glade kept the crown vetch and bush honeysuckle relegated to the roadside. There's nowhere on the glade or woodlands for exotics to take hold.

Obviously, I'm really grateful to be in a state that started managing landscapes long before exotics started their brutal march across the country. But with dedication and lots of serious work, other states might be able to catch up to Missouri. So, really, I'm hoping that the cross section of land managers I met at the conference doesn't represent the future of management in our neighboring states. If so, they're doomed.

See, from Jefferson Co. limestone glades: tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata) from the top of the glade; Houstonia nigricans, a common little plant of limestone and dolomite glades alike; Fremont's leather flower (Clematis fremontii), restricted to limestone glades; green milkweed (Asclepias viridis); and an interesting shrub component of this particular limestone glade, ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), which traditionally grows in gravel bars, rocky riparian zones, in other moist soils, a testament to a true soil layer on the glade and an unimpaired hydrology, both almost rare in the state thanks to overgrazing.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


"ALLISON! Come here! I have to show you something!" Ruben bellows as he hangs out his bedroom window. "It's a rock! Come see, hurry!" Ever since one of the lousy neighbors called the police about the neighborhood kids playing in the street, all 8 of them have had to stay inside unless adult supervision was present outside. Considering that the adults in these households don't really like being outside, the kids are forced to call me over to their windows to show me what cool snakes, frogs, lizards, and rocks they've found.

I respect the kids for minding orders from the police. I think the recent restrictions on their outdoor recreation has seriously impacted their freedom, but I've stepped up to the plate and performed the role as "adult supervisor" every once in a while, letting them play in my wooly yard. Since I have a serious aversion to the whole concept of mowing, (the energy it uses! the almost socialist concept of what is the perfect lawn! the wildlife benefits of a yard filled with wildflowers!) the kids adore being in my backyard, a rangy little stand of oaks and hickories with an understory of violets, grape vines, small elms and knee-high sedges.

The kids call my rental yard a "forest." When in the backyard, they pretend to be wolves stalking prey, leopards wading through the tall grass, rabbits, grazing deer. I told them that they simply "can't be" cows, goats, or any other form of domesticated animal that has wreaked havoc on our landscapes. Only wild animals. Ruben pretends to be a bat, an animal that requires him to be high in the treetop. He's found a great path to the top of a cedar that allows the tree climber a good view into a cardinal's nest. The kids like to sit on my big rugs inside to read their library books. I'm privy to the garter snakes, lizards, frogs, wounded squirrels, and cool rocks they find. I feel pretty lucky that I can enjoy them on my own terms, but I don't have to waste my life trying to finance their college careers or, worse still, trying to protect them from all the ills of the world. No, I'm just the fun neighbor. So, next week, when I return from a great conference on oaks and fire, we're all going to make piggy banks out of plastic bottles to hold all the pennies and nickels they keep finding in the street. So, see, the kids with my daffodils; Ruben, Angelina, and Marcos playing with my summer hat collection; Marcos delicately touching a ladybug while it was feasting on aphids; Winter in one of my hats in the hallway, proud of the nice chert she found in my backyard; Angelina and the rehab squirrel (a small creature her cat, Midnight, brought in); all of them stalking a mourning dove--quietly, deliberately. I asked what would have happened if they had edged closer before the dove flew off. Ruben says, "I could have seen her breathe."

Friday, May 16, 2008

St. Francois Mountains' dwarf spiderwort

As I write, scattered throughout the dry igneous woodlands of Missouri's St. Francois Mountains blooms the diminutive purple flower of Tradescantia longipes, known locally as dwarf spiderwort. Found in the igneous hills of the Ozark Highlands of Missouri and Arkansas' Ouachita Mountains, T. longipes represents one of many Ozark endemic wildflowers with close relatives in the genus of more common (though no less exquisite) plants. As I discovered today, even, poking up through the rich sedge layer in my Columbia backyard is a thick stand of the taller, rangier spiderwort (T. ohiensis), slated for transplanting to the front yard where it will share company with literally hundreds of wild geranium plants.

But in the dappled sunlight of an afternoon in the St. Francois Mountains, the common occurrence of the deep, rich purple flowers of dwarf spiderwort reminded me that I was, indeed, in a safe place, a managed woodland that cradled biodiversity. The short, squat habit of the plant is vastly different from the common spiderworts. Gazing deep into the flowers with my trusty hand lens, I discovered stamens covered in thick bright yellow filaments (I tried, repeatedly in vain, to capture it in a photo, but my great camera gave me an emphatic "no!" to the close up command). Apparently, the yellow stamen hairs, coupled with the pleasant scent of the flower itself attract its main pollinators, bees and syrphids (though other pollinators sometimes include other Diptera, Coleoptera, some beetles, ants, and rarely butterflies). The fringed stamen provides a function other than attraction; the navigation obstacles provided by the lugubrious hairs may cause bees to drop the pollen particles onto the hairs, which then retain the pollen and allow the flower to (however inadvertently) pollinate itself. The stamen hairs may also serve as footholds for the insects, or even determine insect behaviour altogether. Whether accidental or spontaneous, the stamen hairs offer some semblance of reproductive integrity.

The stamen hairs in another species of Tradescantia serve as indicators of radiation and chemical pollution. The normally blue stamen hairs turn pink when under the influence of radiation or chemical pollution. The stamen hair test has proven so fool proof that Kyoto University and Brookhaven National Laboratory have formalized stamen hair mutation tests as a means to detect gene mutation due to chemical or radiation pollution.

But far away from Kyoto or any lab to speak of, the thriving population of T. longipes in the St. Francois Mountains is in its full glory these days, awaiting honeybees who have been documented gorging on the pollen of over 73 flowers consecutively.

From my 100+ pictures from a big tract of the St. Francois Mountains closed to the public, see a rare-for-the-area dolomite glade, wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), and serene dry igneous woodlands, complete with beloved short leaf pine.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


"Here's the problem with these woods," he says, clutching and gently shaking an old barbed wire fence. Sometimes, going into the woods with my lovely colleagues can be disheartening. They know too much, really. They see things others don't, understand ecological systems and patterns, notice signs of improper land use. Oh, I can tell when woods need fire management, sure, but I'm just exploring the tip of the iceberg in my understanding of other forms of disturbance patterns in Missouri's woodlands.

It all started with a casual stroll through second growth dry chert woodlands on a chilly March afternoon. Excited to see a lush carpet of a diminutive fern (Cystopteris fragilis) covering a hillside, I thought that these woods couldn't be in terrible shape. After all, ferns are fragile little things, surely unable to withstand a lot of land disturbance. "Uh, Allison? I hate to tell you this..." he uttered. My esteemed friend then launched into a poetic explanation about grazing patterns in the Ozark Highlands. The reason pretty little fragile fern carpeted the high ridge, far away from its customary moist outcropping (and therefore way out of context) was directly linked to the open grazing patterns that occurred following European settlement. "You see," he muttered, downcast, "cattle destroyed the understory by overgrazing, but fragile fern was unpalatable, so now it thrives. There's no other competition." Oh. Great. And now, every fence in the woods tells me, immediately, that the land has been compromised.

In April, when the woods were awash in the delicate white blooms of toothwort and the mayapples had just started poking their shiny heads through the leaf litter, I found myself in similar company. "Funny," I said, "I'm not used to seeing mayapple populations on dry ridgetops." In the proper context, mayapples populate streambanks, moist bottomlands, not dry cherty ridgetops. Hesitantly, knowing that I now don't like seeing fragile fern because of an earlier outing, he said about the mayapples: "A sign of grazing. Same with the toothworts. Notice there's not much else around them." Fragile fern, mayapples, toothwort, all charming native woodland plants, all considered "increasers," plants whose populations increase following heavy grazing. I'm sure there are countless others, including cedars, and I realize I'm just scratching the surface of understanding grazing impacts. I likely won't see Ozark woods in the same way ever again.

Knowing that he had, in one sentence, crushed my somewhat pristine view of Ozark woodlands, my companion promised to find fragile fern thriving in the right context, just where it's supposed to be. It took a trip to the Jack's Fork, actually, to find it again. He was excited, as was I, to see it growing in check, not on a dry ridgetop.

I'm a little hard pressed, I've learned, to find Ozark woods that haven't been grazed at all. The more I learn about grazing history, the more I am convinced that despite active management with fire and even thinning, the understory simply can't recover completely. Woods that have been grazed will never be as rich as protected woodlands. Nevertheless, because so many thousands of acres have been grazed, it doesn't mean they shouldn't be actively managed and protected. Sure, they're compromised, but I didn't even notice it until I was told.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Summer's challenge

Every Labor Day, when the cooler air secretly slips in under the cover of night, I start thinking of all of the things I haven't accomplished in my life. My birthday, you see, is in mid-September, and I try to run away from it every year. I launch myself elsewhere, far away from any reminders of failure, usually spending the week with my baby sister, a staunch supporter of most of my choices. I figure if I can't be reached on a cell phone, then my birthday can't find me and the wrinkles won't follow. It's a stupid logic, I know, but it keeps me motivated.

So, every September 18, I set a goal for the year that, when accomplished, will make me feel less like a failure with each subsequent birthday. One year, I read the complete works of two vastly divergent authors, Anthony Trollope and Earnest Hemingway. Another year I translated Ovid's beautiful Heroides (passionate, even in translation) and Virgil's Georgics without the aid of an advisor. Another year I visited every town in Louisiana and Mississippi with a French name, trying to understand settlement patterns. Last year, ringing in the ripe old age of 36, I decided to learn my Missouri ferns. Girded with the beautifully illustrated Field Guide to Missouri Ferns (out of print now, but available at most Missouri state parks), I made flashcards of all of the ferns I could find on Crowley's Ridge. Based on this childish, SAT-based study method, between September and December, 2007 I identified and pressed each species found within the 35 miles of Missouri's Crowley's Ridge.

Primitive, primordial in origin, ferns captivate me. I own fossils, books, and 19th century illustrations of ferns. I adore their delicate fronds and varied habits which send me searching diverse landscapes for them. One can find ferns in mesic woods, along streambanks, on dolomite glades, and even in muddy banks of ponds (the very rare pillwort [Pilularia americana], known from only two Missouri counties).

So, I've altered my goal for the growing season. Not only will I learn my ferns, a goal that could be accomplished through books and flashcards, but I will locate and identify each fern illustrated in the Field Guide to Missouri Ferns before September 18. This proves to be a fun challenge that will take me into landscapes heretofore untrammeled by my hiking boots. Rumor has it that I could chalk up a whole mess of species on a single visit to my beloved sandstone-based Hawn State Park. Nevertheless, I have a slight advantage in this quest. You see, Paul Nelson only used live material for his Field Guide to Missouri Ferns illustrations. And, you see, he would probably be happy to give me directions to sites so I can fulfill my somewhat manic goal.

Before pestering him, I'll follow the instructions in the field guide: attached to each fern is a description of where the plants can be found. In the case of maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), for example, I will look in "moist shaded crevices of sandstone, chert or granitic ledges and bluffs, occasionally on limestone; Springfield and Salem Plateaus, St. Francois Mountains." For rare plants like ebony spleenwort Asplenium x ebenoides, known from only a handful of locations, I'll probably have to call Paul.

Last night, I flipped through the field guide to count how many I have seen since my birthday. 26. I won't mention how many more I have to find, but will admit that I have a long way to go. As it was so delicately stated once: "ferns bless nearly every natural place on earth," and the Ozarks are full of them.

Pictured: Woodsia obtusa (common woodsia), found on a dolomite boulder in the Mark Twain National Forest; Cystopteris bulbifera (bulblet fern), found on a limestone outcropping on the Jack's Fork; Polypodium polypodioides (resurrection fern), found on a big swamp chestnut oak in southeast Missouri.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Monday on the Niangua River

A crisp, clear night with stars so near you could kiss them proved the perfect time to rekindle my love affair with the Niangua River. It's been several years now since I first canoed the Niangua; relocation to southeast Missouri allowed easier access to the Eleven Point and Current Rivers, but it was the Niangua, in fact, that made me fall in love with Ozark streams. Fast-moving, clear, cold water. Lots of crayfish, birds, mussel beds, riparian vegetation. In 2003, the Niangua enticed me so fervently that despite the paltry salary I was making, I was staying in the Ozarks. The Niangua is one reason I came back after the storm.

The past five years haven't been too kind to the Niangua. While it meanders its way through dolomite outcroppings, changes in land use throughout the watershed has seriously impacted the river's health. Development along the banks (in the 10 year floodplain, no less) has resulted in cleared riparian woodlands and subsequent erosion. Cattle grazing in the watershed has seriously compromised water quality. The shallow reaches of the river, from Bennett Spring down, are ripe with green-brown cyanobacteria and sediment washed in from pastures. I've never seen anything like it in Missouri. Crayfish were noticeably absent today, but they have to be there somewhere. With all of the sediment in the river caused by the mismanagement of the land around the river, I simply can't imagine Ozark hellbenders thrive here anymore. I was reminded all day of my old saw: you can't manage your wetlands without managing your uplands.

Sometimes it's hard, really, to imagine what Missouri must have looked like before timber harvest, cattle grazing, channelization and all the other veritable lagniappe associated with settlement. I've finally reached a point emotionally where I can enjoy what's left, cherish the natural history of the Ozarks, seek out the least impaired places. It was, after all, a great day to be on the Niangua: Molly enjoyed her time in the shady riparian areas more than her time in the canoe. Worm-eating warblers and red eyed vireos were concentrated in the Niangua Basin today, singing their curiously complex little songs. I spied a dolomite overhang covered in my favorite fern (Woodsia obtusa). We had a good fire, good food, a decent night's rest listening to whip-por-wills, coyotes and barred owls. The heron rookery is still there on the Niangua supporting at least 30 separate nests. We saw, on two separate occasions, wood duck hens followed by tiny ducklings. Too, the big flood event must have flushed elsewhere all of the Bud Light cans and Mardi Gras beads that normally litter the riverbanks. Yes, you look for the good in the landscape and work assiduously to repair the damage.