Saturday, November 29, 2008

Oink. Bang!

I think we were talking about my mother's plans to make Grandma Betty's date loaf when Daddy slyly left the Thanksgiving table. No one even looked around until we heard the tell-tale "sh-cock" of the gun as Daddy checked the rifle for ammunition. When he glided to the table with a lovely something-or-other gun and said, "Hey, Ally, try this one" and I shouldered the rifle, all of us knew what he was thinking.

Earlier this week, my mother told me that she would "really appreciate it" if I repeated the same story about my encounter with feral hogs in Oklahoma once more. She knows I don't like repeating stories, but when she plaintively asks (with her head tilted to the side) "Come on. Please?" any loving daughter would oblige. So following a three pie dessert at Thanksgiving dinner, I told my Daddy and everyone else at the table about my backpacking trip into Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge earlier this month. "Charon's Garden Wilderness Area is unlike anything you've ever seen before...." Enormous granite boulders cover thousands of acres. Staff don't manage the refuge with fire, but with grazing; elk and bison herds roam the landscape here, providing an ecological function unmatched east of the Rockies. Imagine Taum Sauk Mountain (Missouri's highest point, located in the St. Francois Mountains) covering thousands of acres. Granite boulders covered in grasses, stunted post oaks and blackjack oaks. From the tops of the mountains, you can see the flat lands of Texas and the prairie of Oklahoma. Several species of cacti grow here, along with fields of Indian blanket (Galliardia grandiflora), a habit which is likely a sign of overgrazing by large herbivores rather than anything natural.

Getting a permit into the Wilderness Area is nothing short of a hassle. Twelve backpackers at a time are allowed into the backcountry. You can only stay two nights. No open fires. You have to camp in a designated area. You can request a permit two months in advance (which I did and was put on a waiting list, thus making me call every morning for three weeks until I scored the permit). Refuge managers feel that visitor overuse is compromising the integrity of the wilderness resource, so they're strict about entry. But after hiking in less than a mile, we saw evidence of a much greater threat than off-trail trampling, than overgrazing by bison and elk, than even fire suppression.

Midday, my colleague and I set up camp in an old buffalo wallow (no rocks!) when he heard a snorting from below the rim of the mountain. Listening closely, he thought it was an elk, but as he peered over the mountainside, no fewer than 30 feral hogs came charging up the mountain towards our camp. I made a lot of racket, the hogs made a 90 degree turn north, headed towards a grassy field on the lee side of the mountain. Oh, we took pictures as the enormous animals and their piglets walked single file over rocky terrain, but by the time I grabbed my camera they were pretty far away. Rogue trails, too many illegal campsites, overgrazing by native herbivores? None of these threats pose even a fraction of the danger to the integrity to biodiversity and other natural resources of the Wichita Mountains that feral hogs do.

I had never seen feral hogs before, despite all the time I spend in the woods. Several hundred miles east of the Wichita Mountains in the heart of Missouri's St. Francois Mountains, feral hogs run wild, rooting up glades and fens, devouring torpid amphibians, disturbing the soil, making it amenable for exotic species to move in. I know that feral hogs in south Louisiana have so devastated bottomland forests by overturning logs and rooting up soil that once common salamanders are hard to find anymore. My mother wanted me to tell the story about the hogs rushing our campsite because she's heard horror stories of hog populations on a family member's land. She knows they're destructive, and they're dangerous, too. I think my mom liked the image of her 100 lb. daughter scaring off 30 hogs without the use of a gun.

After the hogs were no longer in sight, my colleague and I discussed whether we should stay -unarmed- in the wilderness area for the next three days. Knowing that it took 8 hours to get there (following weeks of trying to secure a permit), we decided to stay, but agreed that if each of us was there alone, we'd high-tail it out immediately. Thoughts on that lovely mountaintop turned to Missouri and her feral hog problem. But first, a long grousing over the irresponsibility of the Wichita Mountains' refuge manager for not warning backpackers about the presence of hogs.

Missouri is one of the few states that has designated a team of resource specialists to contend with the feral hog problem. The Governor's Feral Hog Task Force is a multiagency team that traps, kills, and removes feral hogs from public lands. Aside from the Missourians who illegally release feral hogs on public lands, the task force members tend to be the first to know about new hog populations. Colorful ArcView maps track populations, where traps are set, how many animals have been killed in each location. The locus of activity these days is the glade-rich Taum Sauk Mountain area, where populations of federally endangered Mead's milkweed grow. On Taum Sauk, as in other areas with hogs, wire fences with one way doors are baited with corn, and as the hogs are trapped in the small area, they're killed and hauled off the mountain via an ATV. Endangered Species biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have dealt with hogs in their own way: they've constructed hog wire fences around fens where Hine's Emerald dragonflies breed and where known populations of Mead's milkweed grow. A low-tech way of dealing with hogs, indeed, but if hogs are in the area, the entire landscape is threatened with utter destruction. And hogs certainly don't discriminate based on biodiversity ratings. Apparently, there are so many hogs in the St. Francois Mountains these days that black bear sightings have skyrocketed. Hikers tend to mistake one for the other.

Efforts are underway to make hunting hogs illegal in Missouri. While this may seem counterintuitive to our problem, it's actually very sensible. Currently, locals buy hogs from farms in Texas, release them on public lands, and offer guided hog hunts to folks from St. Louis and as far away as Wisconsin. Hound dogs are trained to locate hogs, and a Missourian from Shannon Co. with a pack of hog-hunting dogs can make upwards of $200 a hunt by renting out his dogs. To make the process easier on the dogs, they'll release hogs themselves in known locations so dogs can quickly find them and hunters go home with bacon and pork loin. As it stands, the Feral Hog Task Force is waiting for the day that a feral hog released in Missouri tests positive for brucellosis or pseudorabies. Once that happens, they just might have the support of the Farm Bureau to outlaw hunting, as the brucellosis threat to existing domestic hog populations will outweigh any economic benefit of renting dogs.

So, conversation at the warm, comfortable Thanksgiving table turned to discussions of Ally killing hogs with a 30-06. Actually, my older sister Ashley (who avidly kills things but specializes in home decorating) and Daddy debated whether I could handle a 30-30 or a 30-06 better. My concern in the discussion centered around how a big rifle would fit into my Gregory Denali backpack. I'm notorious for overpacking as it is, and a loaded gun would add an awful lot of weight. Ashley tells me that she doesn't even take a stroll in Louisiana's woods these days without a gun because of hog populations. I imagine when I go backpacking in the St. Francois Mountains this winter, I may carry a gun for self defense against hogs. I'm a good shot, really, and can shoot down any clump of mistletoe in Caddo Parish. But Ashley and Daddy talked about the best place to aim for on a hog if you have limited ammunition, the thickness of the bone between the eyes. They never ventured into how to field dress a 500 lb. animal when you're a vegetarian who can't even touch raw chicken without getting nauseous. You see, in Missouri it's illegal to kill animals and leave them where they died. (Of course, laws don't stop folks in the Ozarks from wantonly killing coyotes.) Before I go backpacking, I'll have to find out if I can just kill hogs and ask someone else to haul them out.

We finally left Daddy's without a gun, but with a catalog of guns to show to my boss (despite my insistence that the state will not pay for a gun). When I returned to my mother's house across the Red River, she referred to the hog killing discussion: "You know, I think your father now understands that you have a real job." Yes, talking about killing things, the prospect of using all of those clay pigeon skills in a paying job, that's how a girl can make a father proud.

Pictures! The Wichita Mountains, hog damage in the Charon's Garden Wilderness Area, and me with a gun and a scope. I decided I liked the Japanese WWII gun that came with a bayonet most of all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Late November evenings

I do a lot of sitting these days as I wait (most impatiently) for this injury to heal itself. I think I'm making the most of my sedentary days and nights by reading (oh, and playing online Galaga while I sulk about not being able to run). I'm enjoying Jonathan Franzen's early rantings, pre-Corrections, some Wallace Stegner, every article ever written about a certain specific running injury (plus, how not to get fat while you have one). I'm rereading Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac for the third time, skipping the parts about killing wolves and enjoying his poetic imagery of Wisconsin's savanna. I pulled out some of my favorite poets earlier this weekend and remembered that I used to read more poetry before I moved to Missouri. I need to work on that.

I can't walk up hills these days, so I can't really go into Ozark woods after leaf fall as the yellow-rumped warblers move in. So, I'm packing my bag tonight and heading south for the week, the low, flat land of the pine where I can wear short sleeves and walk without causing more harm to my stupid injury. Enjoy the following Wallace Stevens poem, from an incredible collection that represents one of my favorite Christmas gifts from several years ago. A special prize if anyone can guess where the picture was taken.

The Reader

All night I sat reading a book,
Sat reading as if in a book
Of sombre pages.

It was autumn and falling stars
Covered the shrivelled forms
Crouched in the moonlight.

No lamp was burning as I read,
A voice was mumbling, "everything
Falls back to coldness,

Even the musky muscadines,
The melons, the vermilion pears
Of the leafless garden."

The sombre pages bore no print
Except the trace of burning stars
in the frosty heaven.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Passenger Warren

By the time I arrived at the stop light in Camdenton, the audience at Carnegie Hall and I had heard John Coltrane's incredible accompaniment in Thelonius Monk's Crepuscule with Nellie about four times. Distracted by a recent running injury, I slowly walked out the door 8 hours ago headed for Arkansas' Lake Dardenelle with only 4 cds (which, I guess, I expected to last the whole trip). Over and over again, I listened to Charlie Parker outtakes, Miles Davis: Live from Newport 1958, and the Carnegie Hall concert. Obviously, my head's not right without a run, and it's been over a week since my last one (the one that put me in this pickle). So I found myself tonight in Arkansas' gorgeous Ozark Highlands without a single Carter Family cd. What was I thinking....

I normally don't listen to commercial radio because I don't like commercials or, for that matter, most of the music played. Today I gingerly ejected the bright red jazz cd and scrolled to Columbia's wide-reaching NPR station. I swore off NPR a while ago, just after Bob Edwards was forced to leave and the programmers stopped airing actual news items. This afternoon, Andrea Seabrook introduced her next piece (following a fluffy article pertaining to the Obama family's choice of dog): cute pet stories from listeners. Quickly, quickly, scroll past NPR again.

My colleague once asked me if I had ever heard the preachers who broadcast from who-knows-where in Missouri's Ozark Highlands. The stations that carry hell-fire-damnation preachers don't reach very far, apparently, and they probably cut out in the steep dissections of the Current River Hills. I was headed west of lovely Shannon Co. where he's heard these stations, but I went looking for one anyway. Lots of contemporary Christian music stations, but no one yelling at me about hell, no one who pronounces "God" in two syllables.

Instead, turning onto Lebanon's Rt. 66, I run across a Springfield station, KTXR, 101.3, playing Frank Sinatra's That's Life. On Saturday and Sunday nights, a self-avowed "old record collector" named Warren plays an incredibly diverse set. Tonight he played Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, a really bizarre Roger Miller rendition of Me and Bobby McGee, The Highwaymen's Michael Row your Boat Ashore (wow.), Joan Baez, early Stax recordings, some Mary Wells. Warren clearly has a great record collection -nice, big, diverse- and I think he really seeks out obscure music to share with the citizens of the Ozarks. I wonder if he carries his carefully selected records to the studio in milk crates like all of my deejay friends do?

Warren has a terrific on air presence, talking casually with his listeners about how his audience ranges from 30-80 years old. He was curious how people who didn't grow up with Mel Torme know of Mel Torme albums, and suspected, correctly in many cases, that they learned it from their folks (My sisters and I, however, learned almost every Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mandel tune from our Episcopal summer camp's brown songbook, which, unfortunately, had printed in each cover "thou shalt not steal."). Warren probably recognizes that folks my age grew up in a musical wasteland, one between the cool, methadone clinic-sounds of George Harrison and the interesting musical times of Camper Van Beethoven and Elvis Costello. We grew up with the greatly diminished, once great, Jefferson Starship (whose We Built this City... sends chills up my back it's so bad), after Van Morrison's benchmark Astral Weeks, during the heydey of Michael McDonald and Phil Collins. Blech.

Warren's show reminded me of the King Biscuit Flour Hour in some respects. His commercials were part of his dialogue; his friend, Barry, does something with home repairs in Nixa. Barry, in fact, worked on Warren's house just this week! Great guy, what a friend, and I think he must be an underwriter. Warren talks about how great early Motown recordings are, then plays some. He really cares for the music he plays. He even takes requests.

Just as I was heading off the Springfield Plateau, he tells his listeners that he's stumped. "I just don't know...this really happened...I had two listeners call and ask for the same song! That just never happens! So here goes..." What followed was the jolliest, happiest, most orchestrated version of Dixie I've ever heard in my life. Never suspect that two people in the Springfield area would ask for Dixie? After we elected a black president? Come on, man. It's the Republican stronghold for the state of Missouri!

After the horns died down on Dixie and the soulful singer whistled off the record, Warren played a live recording from the Grand Ol' Opry: Barbara Mandrell busting her lungs in The Battle Hymn of the Republic , complete with fanfare and pomp and flag waving. Totally creeped me out. I slapped the darkened console in search of the scan button.

No angry Baptists hollering on the air in northwestern Arkansas, but I heard a very earnest young man try to explain to me why we needed to continue to detain "terrorists" in Guantanamo. He used language I use a lot to convince people to burn their woods: "...but it's the right thing to do." Scan...Scan...faster!..Scan. Enter the curving roads of Highway 65 where the bluffs and rivers make it imperative to drive at or below the speed limit. The calm, cool voice of Joe enters the car from somewhere else in Missouri.

"All Elvis, All Hour! It's an All-Elvis Hour!" Joe doesn't just play all Elvis, but he plays snippets of records from Elvis' collection from which the King drew inspiration. I heard some incredible Mississippi gospel music followed by E.'s interpretation of the same song. Joe owns a lot of those concert recordings of E. that include interviews with fans: "I have every single-licking-cotton-pickin' article, picture, advertisement, snippet of paper every written about EL-viz," one woman says to the reporter. I sat in with Joe until static moved in. Two stations down, I tuned into a Beatles-specific station out of Little Rock that was playing a song I haven't heard much in a few years, despite the need for it: the original version, complete with all the weird noise at the beginning, of Give Peace a Chance.

I listened to commercial radio for almost 6 straight hours and I don't want to buy any Belly Fat Burner or a used car in Malvern anymore now than I did in Columbia. Of course, I have to return to Columbia on a night when Warren won't be on the air, so I'll have to keep up the search, looking for someone who'll yell at me for not doing the right thing in life.

Friday, November 14, 2008


The following lousy story elucidates a serious subject. For the record, I live in North Columbia, and the boys managed to "hang on to their candy" despite the odds.

Halloween candy suspects arrested

Published on Friday, November 14, 2008

Police have arrested three juveniles in connection with a Halloween night assault of two boys trick-or-treating in south Columbia.

A school resource officer received a tip leading to the three suspects, who were interviewed and made incriminating statements about their involvement in the robbery, Sgt. Eric White said Friday in a news release.

The unidentified boys, two 12-year-olds and a 13-year-old, were arrested on suspicion of third-degree assault and turned over to juvenile authorities, White said.

Two 12-year-old boys told police they were in the 4200 block of Baurichter Drive at about 8 p.m. on Oct. 31 when six or seven boys approached and one demanded, “Give me your candy.”

One of the suspects threw a rock that hit one of the victims in the head. That boy also was hit in the head with a BB gun and lost a tooth after an attacker punched him, police said. The other boy was hit in a head with an unknown object, causing a minor injury.

The two boys managed to hang onto their candy, and the suspects fled, police said.

The police investigation has not revealed any other suspects, and the case is considered closed, White said.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fire season begins

For the past week or so, following the front system that knocked all the oak leaves off the trees, the first order of business in the morning hasn't been making coffee, but consulting the fire weather forecasts.

Until today (when the relative humidity crept up to 51% in the lower Ozarks and rain moved into the Niangua Basin), grassy glades and restored woodlands throughout the Ozark Highlands could have burned. Of course, land managers have to make sure they're not going to smoke out neighboring towns so they can only burn when wind directions are conducive. The relative humidity needs to hover between 21-35% for results (though some burn when it's 19% and others when it's 42%). Winds can't be too high, either, during a prescribed fire and it would be truly swell if a puttering rain event moved into the area following the fire event. And this is all relevant only if the fuels are dry enough.

Furthermore, the fire prescription depends on one thing: meeting the desired condition of the land. If the humidity is too high and the wind sends fire creeping along, leaf litter may burn off. But a raging, stand-replacing headfire simply can't happen unless humidities are low, winds are high, and fuels are crispy. Oh, but good burn conditions only coalesce rarely in the fall. Experienced land managers can feel a good burn day in their bones, days when the leaves are dry enough, when the air feels crisp, when smoke columns from local chimneys don't go crazy the higher they rise. Before the responsible managers set fire to their woods or glades, they ask NOAA for an on-the-ground, immediate forecast. Check back here for listings of possible fire events in the western Ozark Highlands based on those forecasts. And see today that Laura (hopefully) burned off her glades!

From lovely David

My lovely Classics major friend from Penn who writes Christmas cards every year, performs in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals every summer, sends the following to me and a whole host of others every year on Veteran's Day. From World War I to Homer, he reminds us that war is never the answer. A little sing-songy, but the sentiment is nice.

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae, died 1918

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I think I will add a bit of Homer. This is from book 6 of the Iliad, lines 146-149, from the conversation between Glaucus and Diomedes:

Hoie: per phyllwn genee:, toie: de kai andrwn.
phylla ta men t' anemos khamadis kheei, alla de th' hyle:
te:lethowsa phyei, earos d' epigignetai hwre:.
hws andrwn genee:, he: men phyei, he: d' apole:gei.

Just as are the generations of leaves, so too are the generations of men.
Some leaves the wind causes to fall to the ground, others the burgeoning
Forest brings forth, and the season of spring has arrived.
Thus the generations of men, one buds forth, another passes away.

And finally from Vergil, Aeneid, book 1, line 462:

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

There are tears for human affairs, and mortality touches the heart.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Abierto? Cerrado.

In the unseasonably mild weather of June and July, I spent time in the White River Hills mapping the terrestrial natural communities of a large, uninterrupted patch of woods. I saw several plants I hadn’t seen before (big populations of the stunning Aster linariifolius), scrambled up my share of steep limestone benches, down draws and hollows, and across undulating belts of glades. I stood at the woodlands’ edge contemplating the rules of engagement: am I looking at a degraded, closed dry-mesic woodland or a fragment of actual forest (a community that shows up infrequently in Missouri)? Would fire willingly, naturally run through this patch of woods? What about the soil composition and moisture, geology, grazing history, aspect, slope, topography, ground flora, canopy (and on and on)?

I wrote about the tedious nature of this project back in June or July, focusing on the parameters that determine terrestrial communities. Early on in the project, I almost gave up, daunted primarily by the challenges posed by degraded woodlands mimicking forest. I finally figured it all out, thankfully, and can somewhat confidently distinguish between woodlands and forest in various stages of restoration and degradation. So, last week, I ventured to the other side of the Ozark Highlands looking for restored, degraded, and restorable woodlands, wondering if I could tell the difference between them all.

The lower reaches of the Current River Hills and Eleven Point River valley include thousands of acres of sandstone and chert woodlands. Shortleaf pine dominates the landscape in acreage primarily owned by the federal government. Heading southeast out of Van Buren, our guide promised to show us woodlands in various stages of restoration: woodlands that have been regularly burned, woodlands that need to be burned more, woodlands that should be thinned and burned, and sad woodlands with no treatment at all (mainly trashy old clearcuts that haven't had any management whatsoever).

Right off the bat, it was pretty easy to tell which areas had been treated with management and which areas had (essentially) been neglected. Thick, dense stands of trees with no understory told the story of fire suppression. Mile after mile of formerly open woodlands and savanna, now overgrown, overstocked, degraded and closed to all light. While the designation of forest implies a depauperate understory, a well-developed midstory and closed canopy, the degraded and closed woodlands that perhaps had the same low light requirement as a forest was clearly not a true forest. Fire wanted to go into these places. The roadsides leading up to the closed woodlands wasn’t populated by ferns and gingers or other forest plants hanging onto the edge, but tall bunches of little bluestem, growing so close together to make the right of way almost impenetrable to the average girl with two legs. With light made available by a roadcut, the woodland understory- grassy, full of goldenrods and asters- thrived. And with a little fire and thinning, the surrounding closed woodlands could be opened up to light, thereby allowing suppressed grasses and wildflowers to return to the understory making it a nice, open woodland.

The leader of the fieldtrip didn’t have to say a word when we entered a management area that had been burned five times in ten years. The open stands of pine trees and grassy understory spoke for itself. Because prescribed fire is unlike natural fire events (which burned until they ran out of fuel or were squelched with rain or snow), demarcation lines illustrated burned and unburned areas rather effectively. On one side of the road sat managed woodlands with Solidago odora (whose leaves smell like Dutch licorice candy), sweet everlasting, and Aster patens (a nice, quality woodland plant that I think I've shown about 80 times in the past year) growing among little bluestem. Twenty feet away across a graded road were impenetrable acres of maple, oak, scattered pine growing among nothing but leaf litter. But the roadsides next to the overstocked woods, those areas where light could reach the ground, were rich with diverse woodland plants.

We continued on the fieldtrip, driving through open, open, open woodlands and then closed, closed, desperately-wanting-to-be-open woodlands, what with woodland edges filled with wildflowers and grasses. We learned that a little restoration goes a long way in Missouri’s woodlands. The healthy systems we witnessed hadn’t been burned as regularly as they would have been if, say, they were owned by The Nature Conservancy, but they’ve been burned at least twice in ten years. (Of course, The Nature Conservancy probably doesn't own a single acre of lousy woods in the state of Missouri. They have crews and funding to burn on schedule, weather permitting. They always possess great woods.) The potential for woodland restoration is there in the lower Ozarks, the seedbank is there, waiting, and the energy is there with full time federal staff wanting desperately to set fire to these areas. If appropriate funding and good burn weather windows find their way to the lower Current River Hills, these closed woodlands will gladly, easily, happily open.

See, interspersed among the text, a single picture at the top of a closed woodland that makes my chest hurt, followed by pictures of open woodlands that make me say "ah....that's nice." I've included one with Erianthus alopecuroides (tall, bushy seedhead grass) in the foreground. Known from only a few counties in Missouri, E. alopecuroides appeared on a roadside after a pine woodland burn. Sweet everlasting in seed in honor of my colleague who always crumbles the flowerhead of this plant in his hand to inhale the interesting scent. And finally, a hopefully illustrative image showing an open pine woodland with a closed woodland across the gravel road.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

First frost

Last year's first frost in the Ozark Highlands found me southeast Missouri wearing shorts and playing badminton in my backyard. Not only did I miss all the fall color, I missed the formation of elegant frost flowers, the result of freezing water in the stems of plants of the genus Eupatorium and Verbesina. I found myself in the lovely Current River Hills last week, just as the oaks and hickories were blasting the landscape with red and yellow leaves.

The first frost in the Ozarks hit the valleys outside of Van Buren, Missouri pretty hard. The turning leaves hit fast forward Tuesday night when temperatures dropped to 21 degrees as I was comfortably warm with plenty of firewood in a CCC cabin at Big Spring. By Wednesday morning, the steep hillsides in the area that Monday promised picture perfect fall colors had turned a uniform brown. I had great hopes of sharing the splendor of Missouri's fall colors with my friends in the South who are surrounded by (equally cool, really!) pine and cypress communities. Admittedly, however, the maples throughout Columbia are stellar right now.

So, see, frost flowers at Big Spring and charming 1930s cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps that have great stone fireplaces and comfortable beds.