Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Upon Lodge Glade

I found myself literally running ahead of my colleague through the rich, dry woodland when I turned the corner to see the great open expanse of Lodge Glade. Several years have passed since I first witnessed the ridiculously biodiverse dolomite glade all awash in stunning yellow glade coneflowers. Unlike their three purple counterparts which appear on limestone, dolomite, roadsides and in deep soils, glade coneflowers (Echinacea paradoxa) grow strictly on dolomite, most often in insanely shallow soils that support little else.

I had never even heard the term "glade" before that first summer in the Ozark Highlands. My colleague held my hand as he taught me about glades, seeps, fens, sinkholes--the various communities represented graphically in the banner above, all taken from the same site (the picture to the right is Lodge Glade, 2005). My colleague taught me plants, animals, associations, and, most importantly, how they fit into the terrestrial communities and how they fit into the larger picture of the Ozarks. With such gentle guidance and nothing but time on the clock in the field, there's no way I couldn't have fallen in love with this part of Missouri. But having spent the past few growing seasons in southeast Missouri enjoying deafening green treefrog choruses and big bald cypress trees, my return to the site that hooked me on the Niangua Basin in the first place has been pretty joyful. Well...not entirely.

Several months before the explosion of glade coneflowers last week, I hiked up the same path (head downcast, slow pace) towards Lodge Glade. My colleague called to alert me of repeated incidents of root digging on the glade. Poachers descended on Lodge Glade with a rototiller this past winter in an effort to denude the glade of Echinacea paradoxa. You see, the price for echinacea roots skyrocketed this winter as herbal medicine continued its popularity trend in light of escalating health care costs. Some buyers in the Midwest practice a "don't ask the source" policy. So, despite that Lodge Glade is a signature away from acquiring designation as a National Natural Landmark by the Department of the Interior, and despite that it remains one of the highest quality state designated Missouri Natural Areas, root diggers plundered the site and buyers bought the roots, source unknown.
Looking out across the glade a few days ago, I couldn't see where the root diggers had accomplished their task. Thousands of individual echinacea plants remain here, standing sentry on the dry rocky slope. But what brought me back to Lodge Glade at the height of the growing season wasn't to see the pretty flowers in bloom (that's a bonus), but to continue a 25 year old monitoring project on the floristics of Lodge Glade. My colleagues have monitored the floristic response to fire on Lodge Glade for years, tracking trends, modeling fire effects, seeing subtle changes in plant composition based on the season of the fire, etc. It was during the monitoring of Lodge Glade in 2003 when I learned my dolomite glade plants. 24 transect lines with 12 1/4 meter squared plots located at random points along the line taking us through various zones of the glade, seeing a different suite of plants with every transect.
So, I spent the day before my outing in the cool, quiet Natural History Program's little Herbarium brushing up on my panic grasses and reintroducing myself to the few sedges that hang out on dolomite glades. While my winter visit to Lodge Glade revealed disgusting patches of bare earth where the rototiller had excavated, I had hoped these areas would recover. Nevertheless, I expected the disturbed areas to be devoid of plant life, namely coneflowers, but also the accompanying grasses and forbs. Thoughts of Lodge Glade were prevalent that day in the herbarium, and since I had been in southeast Missouri (and have a lousy memory for plant names), a day in the Herbarium with glade plants was necessary before setting out. I particularly focussed on the various stages of two crummy grasses that move into disturbed soils. Funny thing, my colleagues haven't collected a lot of specimens of them.

Maybe it comes from my association with folks well-versed in compromised landscapes, but my suspicions about our monitoring transects were right on. All along the transect line, in areas the root diggers had plundered, were plots of bare soil and chert gravel. Adjacent to the exposed soil were plots dominated by those two lousy grasses that traditionally move into disturbed land, Sporobolus neglectus and S. asper. Where root diggers left their mark, there were no coneflowers, no big bluestem, no Indian grass, no Rudbeckia missouriensis (a glade-specific black-eyed Susan), no glade plants whatsoever but these two grass species that indicate disturbance.

Regardless of its modern history, the ashes of my esteemed colleague, the one responsible for the proper management of the place, will be scattered on Lodge Glade. My most memorable sunsets were spent on Lodge Glade when I first moved here as I obsessed over the diverse plant life and clobbered my utter loneliness with knowledge of grasses. When I freaked out after the storm, I rushed to Lodge Glade to be alone, to witness a gnarly hurricane-induced thunderstorm, to simply drench myself in the same waters that would (however inadvertently) ruin my city. I dig it here and I go way out of my way to find reasons to spend time here. I'll be "monitoring" the root digging for several years, I remind my boss...
The great, rich expanse of Lodge Glade proves that despite years of rather intense grazing and pilfering by self-aggrandizing root diggers, biodiversity can, however meekly, return to a site if (and only if) it is properly managed and cared for.

So, see, out of my 171 pictures from the afternoon: lead plant (the purple spikes: the only woody plant that showed up in the monitoring transects), sunlight streaming across the glade in the late afternoon, me and Silphium laciniatum-almost in bloom, the delicate early seeds of wild indigo, and an up close shot of E. paradoxa, whose genus name is derived from the seedpod's resemblance to a hedgehog.

1 comment:

Ted C. MacRae said...

Wonderful post. You've introduced me to this whole new concept of disturbance. I've focused for so long on learning the names of the plants and insects I encounter in our glades and woodlands, never understanding how things used to be and why they are now as they are. Thank you for adding depth and nuance to my knowledge about this landscape we love.