Monday, December 22, 2008

Make it interesting


Every once in a while, thanks to my current position, I have the chance to read beautiful natural history essays and reports written by seasonal naturalists. Students of Missouri State University or the University of Missouri-Columbia working in these temporary (but vital) jobs make better writers: MSU graduates tend to have a fantastic understanding of karst features in the Ozarks, freshwater mussels and wildlife biology, while a lot of MU graduates still refer to trees as "timber," but have a working knowledge of Ozark fire-adapted landscapes. Regardless of curriculum requirements, most of the graduates from these schools can write effectively.

While plowing through projects written over the summer (finally submitted for my edits last month), I came across a fantastic 32-page document pertaining to the natural history of the Springfield Plateau. The writer started with the geology, the soils, then wrote about anthropogenic fire regimes, the importance of grazing by large, native herbivores, the "changes in populations" (read: European settlement) that caused the general degradation of so many Ozark landscapes. Knowing that the writer was a temporary employee, one with a solid understanding of Ozark natural history, I was determined to track him down, to see if he was interested in being a full time employee.

"I think he's backpacking out west...like, for several months," his former boss said. This fueled my desire to find him a job even more; a lot of folks who work in natural history don't actually go to the woods, much less go backpacking. His former boss gave me his number, telling me that he's "really hard" to get in touch with. I left a message in the morning, he returned the call that afternoon. He was, indeed, backpacking out west: Oregon, Washington, British Columbia. He set out in August just after he had finished his writing project and wasn't set to return to Columbia until after Christmas, after seeing Utah in December (lucky duck). Naturally, we talked about Oregon for a while; the coast is great! We exchanged email addresses and I told him to keep in touch after he finished his backpacking trip.

Last week, I received a friendly email from him. He was excited about Oregon and Washington, but "Utah," he wrote, "made geology interesting!" Wait...this guy who waxed so eloquently about Ordovician formations of dolomite and limestone had to go to Utah to find geology interesting? I casually wrote him back, feeling unjustly slighted (considering I'm not even from here), offering suggestions of available jobs, contacts, the website for applications. I closed with a simple, probably blatantly defensive "yeah, but dolomite and limestone can be interesting, too, especially when it's gushing ice...." I figured I had lost him to the bright red rocks of vast Western landscapes. After all, I'm the one who regularly checks out Nature Conservancy job openings in Idaho-Montana-Wyoming-Oregon when I get aggravated at work. I fully understand the allure of western landscapes and sunsets.

Moments later, my email quietly pinged at me. He countered, without a greeting: "But dolomite isn't a red sandstone hoodoo at sunset." Dang it. He's right, it's not. The Ozark Highlands will never be Canyonlands or Arches; they'll never make a person in a photograph turn bright red. But grungy, black dolomite seeps water, it supports rich, rich floral attributes, it makes up incredibly diverse cave systems. Ringed salamanders are known only from dolomite caves. Glades! Where would glades be without dolomite and limestone? I quickly dug up a (hopefully interesting geology) picture: a nice close-up from the Jack's Fork River, a moist image of glacial relict ferns, mosses, little purple asters clinging to the side of an ancient dolomite outcropping.

"Dolomite and limestone are pretty great, I'll admit," he wrote back after a few moments, "and my loyalty, my heart is always in the Ozarks. Float trips, where would we be without float trips?" The Jack's Fork keeps me here, too, I answered.

Pictures from the first snow event in the upper Ozarks: frozen fog, which turned the landscape into a 19th century English painting; snow and ice, which caused a fine Buick owner to lay on his horn for almost 1/4 a mile when he was stuck behind my slow, plodding snow tire-less Honda (not wanting to end up in a ditch in rural Missouri where I don't know the people who drive trucks to pull me out); ice coming out of rock. Fascinating.

1 comment:

Baton Rouge native said...

Ahhh, but I challenge any western afficiendo to find plant diversity on such a small scale as you will in many places in the Eastern US. You should go to Carmen Springs Natural Area, where alternating 3- and 4-foot layers of sandstone (Gunter/Roubidoux) and dolomite (Jefferson City-Cotter/Eminence) make for a geological layer cake. Couple that with numerous wet, seepy ledges, and voila - Nature's floral masterpiece. Where else can you find calciphiles such as C. reginae and acidophiles such as C. calceolus in such close proximity?

Actually, I have a rule - Moore's rule. Generally speaking, the landscape-scale beauty of a place is in inverse proportion to its native floral richness. That is to say, the wet LL-pine savannahs and pocosins of NC harbor the greatest floral diversity per sq meter in the U.S., and yet "purple mountains' majesty" is not a term I would attach to that place. Same for baygalls. But, oh my the plants! Now, Arches Nat'l Monument is breathtaking in its visual beauty, but dearth is its richness of floral diversity - sq. meter for sq. meter that is. And in LA, if you can shut out the 1,000s of sq miles of clearcuts, and find the xeric sandylands, interior salt flats, and pitcher-plant bogs, you will likewise be rewarded with a floral diversity that is beyond compare!