Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Guilt by the splash

“By the splash! By the glass! By the case! Pinot Noir!” I passed no fewer than 70 of these colorful clapboard signs on the way to the Oregon coast before I lost count, shaking my head in the meantime, truly astounded at the availability of my favorite wine. For every winery I recognized, there were ten that I had never even heard of. I am reminded, again, that the esteemed, noble pinot noir of the Willamette Valley should discourage California vinters once and for all from even trying to create a complex pinot noir. California can have their Cabernet and syrupy sweet white wine, but California soils are all wrong for pinot noir. The Willamette Valley's complex soils hold the key.

Despite my allegiance to the Willamette Valley’s thriving viticulture, we only attended one tasting on the way to the coast. What I really wanted to see was a remnant of Oregon’s oak savanna, a landscape I first met in the Niangua Basin of the Ozark Highlands. In Paul W. Nelson’s 1985 edition of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri, certain large-scale landscapes that are now called woodlands were originally described as savanna: rich herbaceous layer, widely spaced trees, dominated by chinquapin and post oaks. Surveyor Henry Rowe Schoolcraft wrote about the Niangua Basin’s savannas, describing them as areas through which 8 horses can travel side by side, the oaks so widely spaced. With the publication of the revised 2005 ed. of the natural communities book, I learned that I fell for woodlands, never really even seeing true savanna. From the 2005 ed. of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri:
Savannas are grasslands interspersed with open-grown, scattered trees, groupings of trees of various age, and shrubs. These take on the appearance of widely spaced, orchardlike groves or standing individual trees. They are distinguished from woodlands in that savannas are strongly associated with large prairies on nearly level to dissected plains and are generally dominated by prairie grasses and forbs. The tree canopy is generally less than 30%…Savanna topography is associated primarily with gently rolling plains…may occur anywhere upland topography is gently rolling to level, regardless of substrate….

Nelson further adds that savannas, like Missouri’s woodlands, are dependent on fire for maintenance. Before European settlement, 27 to 32 million acres of oak savanna existed in the Midwest, but the range for savanna existed as far away as Texas and Oregon. In 1985, less than 6,500 acres of savanna remained in the Midwest, roughly 2%.

Magic number. Knowing that the Willamette Valley, resting between the Coast and Cascade Ranges, certainly saw lots of fire historically, it came as no surprise when I read the Nature Conservancy’s paean to the historical oak savanna that once dominated the valley. Apparently, TNC recently acquired a small fragment of oak savanna-prairie outside of Salem, but the agency estimates that “only 2% of the historic oak savanna/prairie exists in the Willamette Valley.” Their recent acquisition needs some work, and if the Oregon Chapter of TNC is anything like Missouri's, the restoration will be successful. Kincaid's lupine grows in the prairie there, the big oaks are in place, but the area hasn't seen fire in years.

So, savanna has gently rolling hills? Widely scattered trees? Rich soils? Sounds like France…great landscape for growing grapes. And that's precisely what I encountered embarking westerly towards the coast: acres upon acres of beautiful grape vines, wineries with incredibly landscaped gardens out front, wineries named after their resources: Witness Tree (still standing! A big white oak), Elk Cove, Willakenzie, (after the wonderful soil series that gives Oregon pinot noir so much berry character). Patches of thick, dense woods interrupt the undulating hills of grapes here, but no Serengeti, no savanna. No wineries named after grassland obligates.

The savannas of the Niangua Basin have been protected by the thriving arsonist population there; annual burning, always on a red flag day it seems, has preserved the structure of the savanna. But as anyone can guess, arson is not a popular pastime out west, especially around the state’s economic security blanket, her pinot noir. (If you can employ Google Earth, scroll your mouse to Mack’s Creek, Missouri and you’ll see savanna there, privately owned, frequently burned because Ozarkers understand how important fire is for wildlife food sources and for keepin’ the ticks down. Then move over to Oregon's Willamette Valley and see small patches of trees that, with some help, could be patches of savanna.)

To try to find this relictual savanna, we stopped into Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge, an area managed for waterfowl but containing historical prairie and savanna. Without fire (and following years of grazing and haying), the prairie no longer exists, overrun as it was with Queen Anne’s lace and cool season annual weeds. The white oaks are there—beautiful, gnarly, stately old trees—but the herbaceous layer isn’t. Despite the recent thinning exercise, land managers haven't followed up their management regime with fire (we have the same problem in Missouri: lots of thinning and cedar cutting, but no fire, so the desired condition remains suppressed). The former oak savanna here is crowded, too many trees, but if you look hard enough you can see what it once must have been. We stomped all the way around the refuge looking for a pristine landscape but couldn’t quite find it. That’s when the guilt started, darkly, to creep in.

The short hike to the top of the hill at Baskett Slough NWR allows a panoramic view of the Eola-Amity Hills region of the valley, a narrow range of low hills between the Coast and the Cascades. Based on columnar basalt, the volcanic Jory-McNairy soil series of this region are responsible for the berry overtones that many people appreciate (I personally prefer Oregon pinot that’s grown on loess, usually on the backslopes, because it tastes like burning hickory leaves, not grapes). I tried to convince myself that the recent proliferation of wineries in the past 10 years didn’t put the nail in the coffin of oak savanna, but took land out of cattle and wheat production. I have no idea if this is true, and the question will come up at tastings tomorrow, but with every nice bottle of wine I’ve purchased lately, I’ve convinced myself that I’m supporting a kinder version of agriculture. Vintners take care of their soils. They know their soils. They understand the land, planting certain varietals on north-facing slopes, others on west, and so on. They won't plant in highly erodable areas, because the trick to growing wine grapes rests in the soils and they're not in the business of ruining them. The commitment to the protection of the land is evident in their passionate love songs to the Willamette Valley printed on every bottle.

On the far wall of Christom Winery’s tasting room, a large map of the Eola-Amity Hills region illustrates the gentle relief, the rolling hills of the area in GIS layers. From the high oak stool, one could see how fire would rip through the valley, snake between the hills, stopping only when it reached the Willamette River. Fire adapted landscape? It must have been.

(Another day, a second jaunt into the valley from the coast, and we sidle up to the oak bar at Montinore Estates, an organic winery whose grapes grow on 220 acres of loess, basalt, and volcanic soils (Cornelius series). The hip, young Portlander behind the bar pointed out a videographer hanging out in the pinot gris vines: "Oh, they're filming again today." Having already spent about 40 minutes in his company, I asked the bartender if a documentary was in the works (after all, Montinore produces my benchmark, the best pinot I've ever had: 2006 Parson's Ridge, grown at the toeslope of a south-west ridge in sedimentary soils from the Missoula Flood). A documentary indeed, but not about the terroir.

The Willamette Valley is under direct threat from George Bush's latest energy craze. Plans are in the works to install a liquid natural gas pipeline smack in the middle of wine country. The 6 foot wide pipeline (buried a shallow 2 feet deep) would deliver Iran's liquid natural gas to customers in California. The whole state of Oregon is against the destructive, short-sighted plan that would literally destroy the Willamette Valley. The governor's against it, the congressmen and senators are against it, but it seems all the opposition in the world won't stop Bush from pushing a pork barrel project entrenched in imminent domain. California stopped it, thanks to protests and letter campaigns, but some Oregonians are of the opinion that there's nothing that can be done. Some are throwing up their hands. The staff at Montinore Estates have the right idea: protest. If the pipeline is installed, they -and many other wineries- will be out of business. They've teamed up with the Columbia Riverkeeper in their fight. Go here to learn more about the LNG pipeline.

When I return to Missouri, I'll conduct more research about the project, write letters of protest, make phone calls if I have to, and work assiduously to protect the Willamette Valley. Maybe it will help cleanse my palette of its guilt.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Kindness of strangers

Earlier last week, I received an email from Chris, my former neighbor on Kerlerec Street in New Orleans. After the storm, she relocated to Denver where she thought she would be able to live happily among an enlightened community with bike trails and, unlike post-storm New Orleans, functioning city offices. Apparently, she's had a hard time adjusting to her new home. Her latest email included a letter to the Denver Post written in response to a really unfriendly act taken against her by a neighbor.

You see, Chris has these little dogs, Belle and Annie, who spend their days inside while Chris is at work. Apparently, Belle escaped the house one day while Chris was at work. Knowing that something wasn't quite right about the situation, Belle remained in the yard, barking, waiting for Chris to return. Belle's barking upset a neighbor who, rather than find out why the dog was barking, called the city to file an official anonymous grievance against Chris. Several days after the event, Chris received a nasty notice from the City of Denver explaining that her dog was a nuisance to a neighbor.

Chris grew rather incensed by the notice. Here's part of the letter to the paper:
Had this happened in New Orleans, my neighbors would have responded very differently. Calling the City would have been the last thing on a long list of options. They’d have started with me, and drawn on our life together as a neighborhood.

First, given what they knew about my patterns, they would have recognized that what was happening was very much out of the ordinary and they would have guessed that something was wrong. They’d have called me – ah, but you see, we all had each other’s phone numbers so that we could quickly be in touch if there was trouble. We also had keys to one another’s houses so we could take immediate, friendly action. A neighbor with a key could have come in, retrieved Belle from the yard, given her water and a bit of sympathy, and moved on. Failing that, they would have opened my gate, and taken Belle home with them, alleviating her distress and their irritation. I would have found a note on my door when I returned letting me know where my dog was.

None of that is the case in my Denver neighborhood. In the months since I moved in, I have often called out a friendly greeting to people walking by, only to have them look away as though they hadn’t heard me. On my last visit home to the Crescent City, I stayed with a great friend who has returned to her home in a neighborhood devastated by the flood. One morning, she and her across-the-street neighbor engaged in lively, laughing banter as they each stepped outside to retrieve the morning paper. Fran’s home has largely been restored. Her equally jovial neighbor was still living in a trailer. Touched by the good spirit in the air, I told Fran about what it’s like for me living here, in Denver, where some people don’t return a friendly ‘hello’. “In New Orleans,” she said, “you can be arrested for behaving that way.”

In New Orleans, I lived one block out of the French Quarter and worked for 16 years at Preservation Hall, the noted jazz venue. When I left for the Hall one night, the front door didn’t completely close behind me, and not long after I had pedaled off on my bike, my dogs nosed their way through the door and out onto the sidewalk, where they paced back and forth, perhaps wondering why I didn’t appear. A neighbor saw them from her balcony, came across the street, took them back inside and, since she had a key to my home, not only closed the door behind her but locked it. When she called me at the Hall a few minutes later, the first words out of her mouth were, “Don’t worry: the dogs are safe.”

She continues for a few more paragraphs, finally ending with a plea to the citizens of Denver to simply be nice. Her letter reminded me that Columbia has been a great place to live. I live in a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood, really, and only a few of us on the block have working vehicles and full-time jobs. I think about this now from Cannon Beach, Oregon, because I realize that if anything happened to my little rental property, I wouldn't know until I returned.

The kids across the street would be the first to find out if my house had been burglarized since they use my yard as their playground. (But really, if anyone does break in, he'd be hard pressed to make the danger worth their while. No electronics but a huge computer and a super-cheap cd player. The silver service is buried in the basement in a crummy box. I don't have jewelry but lovely pieces Alyssa made for me and a beat up strand of pearls. Oh, there are expensive instruments and bikes...darn.) Unfortunately I don't think the neighborhood parents like me very much. I wave to them, say hello, comment on the weather, how cute their dog is, how wonderful their children are, bring toys back to their rightful yard. But they ignore me until the day when they want me to drive them 10 blocks to the grocery store. This has only happened a couple of times, when one of the mothers walks to my door, nervously laughing between sentences explaining why she would like a ride to the store. It's pretty uncool, really, and sometimes I feel like a world-class chump when I hop into my moving greenhouse to help a neighbor who otherwise, I think, loathes me. Anyway, I hope I don't get broken into because the neighbors probably wouldn't even close the door afterwards. At least they haven't called the city about my extra wooly yard.

So I've been thinking about community lately. I work with stellar folks, I live in a great city, I'm a member of a supportive family, even the security guard who unpacked my daypack when he saw three strange things in my bag was nice to me (likely because he somehow knew I had been in 103 degree weather in an unairconditioned car for almost 20 hours prior takeoff). What's knocked me off my guard lately has been the kind words coming through the ether from people I've never met, whose eyes I've never stared into over quiche. Thanks, folks, for being so kind and good and supportive. I know my sentences are too long (a result of reading Latin) and I rant and rave about issues that a hot shower might cause me to forget. But, really, thanks for caring about my little dog, for seeing how great the Ozarks can be, for the compliments coming straight out of that far-fetched region of the baseball diamond. Maybe my airport security experience would have been different had I flown out of Denver.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

1985 hunter green L.L. Bean canvas bag

My trusty, sturdy L.L. Bean luggage has seen me through years of travels. Tonight I'm trying to cram field guides, a small handlens, reading material, sweaters, dresses, running shoes, engraved stationary and layers of clothes into it to deal with the clammy Oregon coast weather. While in Oregon, I expect to find interesting shells, to eat great chowder, to play piano, to see savannas, prairies, landscapes adapted to "rain shadows," to have lively, bubbly conversation with really smart friends, and maybe, just maybe, catch the puffins on Haystack Rock.

The farmer's market won't miss me, the blackberries of Columbia will be plundered despite my absence, and my antique work computer will enjoy the time that I'm not banging onto its decrepit keyboard, exasperated. However, I'll have to find the time to think about Missouri to tell you all about Grasshopper Hollow Natural Area, an amazing fen complex in the Ozarks that I dream about as often as I think of Oregon.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Fire season

Since wildfire season is upon us and a large contingency from the Mark Twain National Forest has been dispatched to California, I thought I'd share a fascinating article about America's justice system (found in England's Guardian, no less). A precedent-setting ruling occurred recently that required railroad magnate Union Pacific to compensate the Forest Service for damages lost during a wildfire started on their right-of-way. UP doesn't just have to cover timber losses, but loss to the scenery and damages to recreational opportunities and viewsheds.

Conversation turned tonight (in the hallway of my little Craftsman) to the Ozarks. Could the developers who literally ruined the scenery in the Lake Ozark region by building vast expanses of slipshod condominiums in quality dry chert woodlands be charged for "ruining the scenery?" Or, could a regulatory state agency (ahem) institute a viewshed credit like the Oregon Coast has? Folks who build in pristine wooded areas could receive a tax credit if they had the least possible impact on the viewshed? As we look out from Lodge Glade these days, we no longer see uninterrupted stretches of woodland/savanna complexes, but big fancy houses with bay windows and Bradford pear trees in the front yard punctuating the landscape.

So tonight I'm playing the role of viewshed advocate, knowing that I have four loyal readers (thank you!) who are great writers themselves who can help affect change in this country. It shouldn't take a massive wildfire to require protection of scenery in this country. Now, England's loyal Lib-Dem readers know all about the ruling, but I bet this groundbreaking settlement hasn't seen the light of a St. Louis morning in the Post-Dispatch.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Where the chips may fall

It's been very interesting these past few years to learn how my dear, displaced New Orleanians are dealing with their new environs. I received the following text block (excerpted) from my lovely neighbor Chris who used to live a block away on Kerlerec. She was really excited about moving to Denver after the storm. She felt, in fact, that Denver encompassed the warmth, friendliness, and if not all the cultural comforts of New Orleans, at least a semblance of them. Well, enough of them to live comfortably amongst.

Last week, she received a nasty note from the city of Denver about her little dog Belle. Apparently, Belle and Annie had gotten out in the middle of the day and were discovered barking, uncustomarily, in Chris' yard. Chris was pretty non-plussed by the complaint, knowing that her dogs normally don't bark and that if anyone had a problem with her dog, they should have mentioned it to her. She was simply confused that a neighborwould call the police on her.

So, what follows is Chris' response to the Denver paper, since the complaint was filed anonymously. I guess I'm sharing it with you because Missouri has been a great place to live. For starters, my neighbors would never do anything like this. The city of Columbia, unlike Denver, has been a truly stellar relocation site. In fact, before I received this from Chris, I had spent most of my morning trying on trail running shoes at an outfitter store, repeatedly running around the store making sure the shoes supported my ankles properly. The clerk just smiled patiently the whole time. Columbia's like that. People are good and nice here. They sort of obey four way stop signs. They don't call the police when we build bonfires in the backyard. They don't complain about the rangy, wooly, weedy woodland growing in my front yard.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Berry mania

My quest for fresh berries has reached a fever pitch. Last week, we picked 20 lbs. of blueberries, sending over half of them into the freezer (thereby ensuring blueberry cobbler in December). While I love blueberries, I'm an absolute fiend for blackberries. Apparently, the rest of Columbia has the same affection for the juicy drupes, but Columbians' hording mentality is stronger than mine.

I passed table after table of blackberries at the farmer's market this morning (1 qt. for $6), knowing that as soon as I put up the morning's haul, I would head out Broadway towards a you pick blackberry farm. The owners of the farm even sent out an email declaring that 24 rows of thornless blackberries would be ready for picking this morning at 8.

Only a handful of cars were parked in front of the red clapboard barn at 10:30. Surely the folks at Pick and Pick have an email list longer than 5. "You're too late!" the owner told me as I walked into the open barn. Apparently, people started arriving this morning at 7 by the droves, waiting in line to get first pick of the blackberries. By 9:30, over 500 pounds of blackberries had been picked, sold, and sent on their way to the city.

The owner took me to his golf cart with a bucket: "If you really search, you might find a pint. There might be some on the ground, but the rest of the crop will be ready by the end of the week" (when I'm heading to the Oregon coast). Literally thousands of bright red blackberries hung off the healthy vines. I searched. I dug deep. I scrounged 2.5 pounds of blackberries this morning, a far cry from the 30 pounds I wanted.

On my way back to the city, my thoughts turned to the upcoming week's activity. I'll be in the Ozarks, returning to an area I visited in Reynolds Co. a couple of weeks ago, an area with a big open area where blackberries grew prolifically. Smaller, slightly firmer fruits are ripening throughout the Ozarks right now. I might even take an actual lunch break this week to stock up on the native variety, Rubus flagellaris, a plant that thrives in dry woodlands but proliferates along roadsides where the tree canopy is non-existent.

Collecting berries from public lands in the Ozarks is legal, but on Forest Service property, one has to attain a permit. Other public lands allow berry picking up to a gallon a day per person, for personal consumption only. (Actually, I'm not sure about Nature Conservancy property, so check with the regional office before denuding their plants.) Meanwhile, I'm cutting the top off a gallon jug this afternoon in preparation for my weekly fieldwork. One of the large "tame" blackberries (the name Ozarkers apply to thornless varieties) is equivalent to about three native blackberries. One gallon should be plenty for a while. And anyway, I can always plunk down cash at the farmer's market to satiate my annual needs.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hegel and me in the White River Hills

Leave it to the White River Hills to teach me that everything I know about landscape ecology in Missouri simply doesn't apply at the Arkansas border. I think I've explained that in the Ozarks, on south-facing slopes in dry rocky soils, you'll generally find a glade, a terrestrial community that harbors such species as glade coneflowers, side-oats grama, and in some cases, the charismatic Eastern collared lizard. Well, if you don't find a glade complete with big bluestem and prairie dock, you'll see an area choked with Eastern red cedars that could be a glade if it was managed properly (seedbanks are pretty resilient).

Glades are, for all intents and purposes, an upland community. Walk downhill from a glade, descend through (my favorite) dry chert woodlands into the deep, moist soils of north facing coves that harbor maples, basswood, ferns. Traditionally, these moist areas didn't burn. In fact, because they seldom saw fire historically, they are reluctantly labeled in The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri as forest. True forest is pretty uncommon in the Ozark Highlands, the author of the book argues, except in the Current River Hills where the steep hills burned in 75 year (or more) intervals. Fire-adapted communities reign in the Ozarks, giving the woodlands a certain structure and herbaceous layer upon which early surveyors commented favorably.

I didn't grow up here. I don't own land here. But I spend most of my days tromping through Ozark woods, sometimes getting lost in an unintended effort to find what my boss calls "the sweet spots." I like to think I have some basic understanding of landscape ecology of the Ozark Highlands. And so, I volunteered for this project wherein I'm mapping the terrestrial natural communities of roughly 5,000 acres of the White River Hills. I sit here tonight, sweating, peeved that my project isn't finished yet. I thought that once I understood the landscape, these lower reaches of Missouri's Ozark Highlands, I could draw on previous knowledge of the Ozarks, consult soils maps, geology maps, and survey records to build an accurate community map. With the map, we could plan prescribed burns, ecological management projects, and even where to place a backpack camp (not in a sensitive area, by gum).

But you see, just last week, I entered the Current River Hills in an effort to develop a plant list using someone else's natural communities map for guidance. I wanted to hit the fens, the glades, the deep forested coves. Unsure how this map was made, I found myself in a typical dry chert woodland (which is fine!) that was mapped as forest. A true forest was mapped as a dry dolomite woodland. The demarcation lines on the map may have corresponded to soils and geology maps, layers, but they didn't match up to what was on the ground. Whoever made the map may not have actually stomped on the ground to see what it looked like firsthand. So my map can be used as a guide, I spend my days in the woods, merely consulting the GIS layers. Lots of fieldwork, lots of after-hours time at Cassville's nice restaurant, The Rib (spring mix salad, pan-seared walleye, serious vanilla ice cream..and they will special order pinot noir for me). I stay in these 1950s cabins with a pool, an oven for pie baking, a fire pit. If I actually tallied up my expense account for the past 3 months, I'd learn I was churning the wheels of commerce in Cassville with this project.

But this week marks a big stage in the process. By Tuesday, I realized that everything I've learned about the Ozarks simply does not apply in the White River Hills. I found glades running alongside a streambank where I expected boxelders and rushes. I traipsed through forests dominated by basswood, pawpaw, and maples on the tops of ridges where I thought glades would be. Climbing out of a steep dry dolomite-limestone woodland onto a ridgetop, I came across several acres of spicebush, ferns, and mayapples with a white oak canopy. In the Ozarks, I've learned, these plants generally don't grow on dry ridgetops. If they do, they've likely been planted or the landscape has been otherwise compromised. But down here, thanks to the deep soils on ridges, these associations are exactly where they're supposed to be. Further, I sighed in defeat after I speculated where forest would be based on trends in the landscape (expecting maple-fern-pawpaw) and instead came into a super dry dolomite glade. I was ready to quit. I felt like a fraud. What, pray tell, do I know about the Ozarks? The White River Hills are perfectly anomalous.

Unlike the rest of the Ozark Uplift, part of the White River Hills are perched on the Burlington Escarpment, a geologic structure that provides rich, limestone-basic soils to the uplands. Moist soils with chert residuum rest atop this limestone, allowing forests to occur on ridgetops. In the bottoms, areas that in other parts of the Ozarks consist of alluvial soils, Jefferson City-Cotter dolomite bedrock prevails, encouraging large swaths of glades. Glades, right to the water's edge.

The White River Hills harbor the largest acreage of restorable glades in the state of Missouri. With every bend in the woodlands, I'd walk into another glade. Check out Google Earth images of southwest Missouri and you'll see big tracts of exposed hillsides, glades in various stages of restoration. We have a long way to go for the area to resemble what it must have looked like before European settlement (or even the 1930s). But to really understand the landscape, I'll need to spend more time down there in the woods and in my cabin consulting all of my big fancy maps. I'll need to accept the bedrock geology. The White River Hills have literally turned my understanding of the Ozarks on its head, and this mapping project is proving a serious- hopefully worthwhile -challenge.

See the bright pink Sabatia angularis, a limestone bench, one of countless desmodia (Desmodium nudiflorum)--a pretty little member of the Fabaceae family, maidenhair fern, a sign of mesic woodlands and forests, and Helianthus tuberosus, called Jerusalem artichoke though it looks (and feels) a lot like bristly sunflower (H. hirsutus).

Monday, July 14, 2008

A learning exercise!

"Huh, well I guess we know what happens in dry chert woodlands after several days of rain," my colleague muttered as I laid myself down on the moist woodland floor for the umpteenth time that day. We weren't on a mushroom foray, per se, but we were trying to compile a plant list for this patch of degraded woods recently placed in my care. We managed to eke out 210 species of plants in a few hours (including burned out sedges and some pretty neat grasses) but I took almost 200 pictures of over 100 different mushrooms that afternoon in the Current River Hills.
Actually, the woods and small cedar-choked glades were pretty diverse, considering that they haven't been actively managed in many years, if ever. But, still, they're nothing very special to look at right now. They've been timbered, browsed, grazed. They haven't been burned in ages and lack structure. We almost tripped over hog wire fences every mile or so and there's clearly a deer problem, as evidenced by the obvious browse line in the understory. A few relic gnarly post oaks remain here and there, scattered on the dry ridges. Stately, 300 year old trees stood as sentries, reminders of the open character of these now-closed woodlands. But, really, it was the mushroom diversity that was truly remarkable.

Leave it to me to leave every single one of my mushroom identification books perched on the stack of maps next to my desk at work. I really meant to grab them so I could key out all of these before posting them for your viewing. But I really wanted to get to the gym, so I left in a hurry. I might have even left my computer on for the night.
So, this will be fun! Tomorrow, I'm setting out for the White River Hills until Friday to continue my little mapping project. Meanwhile, I implore my three readers to chime in with any mushroom identification they might be able to glean from these pictures. A few facts about their habits: most of them were found on dry-mesic chert or dry-mesic dolomite/limestone woodlands. Tree canopy here is dominated by hickory, black oak, and red oak (though traditionally, it would have been full of widely spaced post oaks in the dry uplands and white oaks in the more mesic areas...but I'll rant about that later).
As I throw together a backpack of Fig Newtons, beat up running shoes and a new roll of duct tape to keep the ticks off my ankles, enjoy the mushrooms of the Current River Hills. I'm sure all of you are up to the challenge.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

St. Louisians

The great disdain that folks in the Ozarks have for city dwellers goes back many years. I've spoken to 80 year old farmers in Miller Co. who blame "folks from St. Louis" for all the ills plaguing the Ozarks: green, slimy cyanobacteria in the rivers? "All them floaters from St. Louis..." (though it's actually caused by conversion of land to fescue pastures for cattle); low quail numbers? "Hunters from St. Louis killed them all..." (but, really, low quail numbers are linked to conversion of land to agriculture); the increase from .25 to .50 for a cup of coffee? "Those fancy hunters from St. Louis comin' into our stores..."

I learned about this opinion several years ago from a colleague, a lifelong resident of Camden Co. When hikers get lost in the woods, they "must be from St. Louis." When backpackers complain about the ticks and chiggers in August and the whip-por-wills in May, they, surely, are from St. Louis. Always one to defend city dwellers, I learned first hand why Ozarkers might think this way. My first day on the job, a nice couple from St. Louis asked me if their 4x4 could "make it up the hill" to a wildly popular overlook at the end of a paved road. "Well, my Civic can..." And then there was the 25 year old who set out on a 12 mile trail at 7 pm without any water for her or her overweight dog, leaving her family waiting for her at the trail head. She followed a logging road rather than reading a trail map, her dog died from dehydration, and she was discovered at sunset by a local law enforcement who announced over the radio that "the girl from St. Louis was found." It's not the city's fault, just some bad representation.

So it was pretty ironic on Friday night when I read a 1976 column in Sue Hubbell's On this Hilltop titled "Where the Lights are Shining." In it, she compiles conversations overheard in the Ozarks:
When a vacant house is vandalized, the neighbors nod their heads wisely and say that they wouldn't be surprised if the loot turned up in St. Louis. Junk and old tires in our rivers? Someone from St. Louis brought them down special. Land speculators from St. Louis are blamed for driving up the price of land so high that locals can't afford it. When a young man was arrested and tried in the county seat for possession of a controlled substance, he hired a clever lawyer from St. Louis who, an area newspaper reported sourly, "wore plaid pants" and got the case dismissed.

(Here, here: I should quickly point out that three of my favorite people are from St. Louis, and none of them get lost in the Ozarks, drive up land prices, or throw beer cans in the rivers. One has done more positive work for the Missouri landscape than anyone else in the state's history. Another is widely hailed as the "Father of Missouri Wilderness" and works arduously to protect large, uninterrupted tracts of woods in the Ozarks. And the third understands and waxes eloquently about the entomological relationships in the Ozarks better than anyone. At any rate, any city with not one but two opera companies, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and a great REI store is a fantastic place in my book. It's not the city's fault that certain citizens can't read a trail map.)

So, earlier in the day, my colleague and I jumped into the Current River fully clothed to cool off after spending the day building a plant list in a mismanaged tract of woods. We decided to swim across the river to check out the ferns on a big dolomite bluff, but before we could return to shore, a virtual cavalcade of canoes passed by impeding our passage. The Current River is a wide, lumbering old river. No rapids, no whitecaps, and only the occasional rootwad calls for any maneuvering that might make an Ozarker set down his beer. The paddlers, however, were dressed to the nines for Class 5 rapids: kayaking gear, long sleeved water repellent shirts to protect them from hypothermia, fancy life jackets that probably cost more than the rental aluminum canoe, $80 kayak paddles. The two of us sat there on a dolomite boulder in our work clothes trying to refrain from laughter. Maybe they thought the Current was still in flood stage? Maybe they thought a mid-July float in Missouri was as treacherous as the Snake River in April? My colleague and I said it simultaneously: "I bet they're from St. Louis," then snickered at what the float outfitters in Eminence must have thought of all that fancy gear.

Really, though, if it weren't for the deer hunters from St. Louis buying up oak-hickory woodlands to bag their 12 point buck every year, we'd probably have more fescue fields and cattle grazing. If it weren't for floaters from St. Louis descending on the Ozarks every weekend, the canoe outfitters, private campground owners, and restaurants in river towns like Eminence likely wouldn't exist. And anyway, it's not the St. Louis landowners who clear woods for food plots, turning what my boss calls "nature's food plots" into patches of exotic species that threaten the very biodiversity we all want to protect.

Sure, kids from St. Louis can be truly obnoxious on Ozark rivers--they slap paddles against the water, holler in the canyons, act essentially like fools on parade sometimes--but could we really live without them?

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.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


I think the entire city of Columbia heard me yell a gleeful, boisterous "AAHHHHH!" today at Flat Branch. I've waited patiently for years, literally years, to see Rafael Nadal win Wimbledon. I distinctly recall my first year in southeast Missouri sitting on the porch, pondering the sycamore tree that blocked my computer's ability to download matches, telling someone "oh, no, I think Nadal has a great chance this year..." I've said it for years.

5 hours and Federer's B game later, he finally won. I was surrounded by Columbians who really wanted Federer to win. After I finally calmed down, after watching the closed caption read "uh...Roz-air played a great game...you know...it's always great playing Roz-air...we have a long history" (Flat Branch is particularly cool about not having obnoxious sound on when they show sports), a professorial older woman tapped me on the arm and said, in a sort of smarmy way, "you know, the rest of uswanted Federer to win. He would have broken Borg's record." Yeah, yeah, yeah, well, my man of clay finally won on grass.

I made paella and sangria tonight and watched hundreds of fireflies awake and then retire for the night. We sat in the backyard pondering the U.S. Open lineup, wondering how Sharapova would do on hard court. But finally, a grueling two weeks of biting my nails and skipping work comes to a close.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Book list

Alyssa tells me that if I don't learn how to relax, my "head will pop off." She's tried for years to teach me how to calm down, how not to plan every moment of every vacation, how to hang out in her colorful hammock. I'm pretty lousy at it, really, because there's always so much I want to see and do. But, she added in a recent email, "what would you do without a head?"

So, I've decided to set aside serious books for a couple of weeks and camp out for an hour a day in my big white Adirondack chair with lighter library fare. I'm in the middle of Julian Steyermark's engaging Studies of the Vegetation of Missouri: Natural Plant Associations and Succession in the Ozarks of Missouri, but I'm delicately closing the fragile pages for a short while to enjoy an early Annie Dillard book.

I'm a sucker for local color. When I move to an area, I like to read the native perspective. This proved challenging in New Orleans, where stacks and stacks of books by Faulkner, Williams, Percy, etc. lined my constantly sweating walls. But since moving to Missouri, the task is a lot easier. Not a lot of writers wax poetic about the place, unfortunately, but I'll share a few books about the Ozarks I've enjoyed since moving here. None of these are very difficult to read, and all of them hold very valuable lessons about life in the Ozarks. If you really don't care to learn more about the Ozarks this summer, I recommend from a purely literary perspective Sue Hubbell's A Country Year, her memoir of her first year away from New York working as a beekeeper in the lower Ozark Highlands. I learned a lot from this book, the first one I read upon moving here. For example, however much you appreciate their work, you shouldn't tip the guy who runs the road grater. She brought her Brown University tradition of serving sherry at 5 to her farm community, which likely positively perplexed her neighbors to no end, but they enjoyed it nonetheless. (I was reminded of this recently when, following a float trip on the Jack's Fork, we sat down to eat at a small waterside restaurant called River Rats in Eminence. Without skipping a beat, I asked our waitress, clad in flip flops and a tube top, "do you have a wine list?" It just came out. I didn't really mean to ask for wine on the Jack's Fork. She just stared at me. You adapt when you're in the Ozarks.) Hubbell writes of the time when her car needed repairs and the industrious mechanic fixed the gear shaft with a piece of bacon. Too, Hubbell is well-versed in natural history and simply a sheer delight to read.

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in Mansfield, Missouri while penning her Little House series. There's a recently rediscovered manuscript called Little House in the Ozarks that (I confess) I've flipped through (but will read in the course of this two week hiatus from dense non-fiction). Tours of her home in Mansfield are available for a small fee. Pa's fiddle is even on display there!

Thomas Pease Russell, born 1820, compiled a wonderful account of early pioneer life in the Ozark Highlands. In A Connecticut Yankee in the Frontier Ozarks, Russell interviews Ozarkers who recount encounters with Osage hunting tribes, bears, elk and who describe in beautiful detail a landscape untouched by European settlers. It's a little folksy, with lines like "Why, we used to get all the honey we wanted out of the woods. Way back fifty years ago, the woods were full of trees, but now we have to raise all our honey." Of course, they had to raise their honey because they hacked down every stinking tree that had bees in it...but it's a good book anyway.

Walter Schroeder's brilliant Opening the Ozarks: A Historical Geography of Missouri's Ste. Genevieve District 1760-1830 covers the French colonial period in the central Ozarks. The streets of Ste. Genevieve still resemble the small French settlements around Lafayette, Louisiana and Schroeder details the early history and natural features of the area better than anyone. It's a pretty academic book, but I read it on weekends when I lived near there. He uses survey records, early accounts, existing architectural features to pull together a complete history of the area. Fascinating.

Finally, Russell Gerlach's Immigrants in the Ozarks: A Study in Ethnic Geography catalogues each wave of immigrants as they settled in the Ozarks. Well-documented, thoroughly footnoted, Gerlach's book provides a thorough history beginning with the early fur trappers. Cultural diversity was alive and well in the Ozarks 100 years ago, as this book attests.

I'm taking book list suggestions for the rest of the summer. Requirements: I need something to read on the Oregon coast, in Alyssa's hammock, and on chert gravel riverbanks of the Ozarks.

Friday, July 04, 2008


Over 20 years ago, my esteemed colleague looked out into the White River Hills on a south facing slope covered in dense cedar thickets. No herbaceous understory existed on Chute Ridge back then, and my colleague really didn't know how long it would take after the cedars were removed for the slope to even resemble its presettlement condition. Thanks to 70 years of fire suppression and grazing, the original savanna and glade complex that surveyors recorded in the early 1800s almost ceased to exist. But leave it to my colleague to develop a management plan that has culminated in a rich, biodiverse, healthy landscape. Funny thing, he starts so many of these restoration projects that he seldom sticks around to see the results. Last week, he finally witnessed the success of his 20 year old plan.

Several months ago, I made my first foray into the White River Hills region of the Ozarks (I think I posted majestic pictures of a recently burned landscape). Stunned by the uninterrupted views of steeply dissected woodlands and glades, I alerted my boss that I would be spending much of the growing season exploring the area. "Oh, you don't have to go down there. You can see the glades on satellite," he said, only half-joking. The glade belts are clearly visible on satellite imagery; thousands of acres of glades are choked in cedar trees, while several hundred acres are in the restoration stage of cedar clearing and early fire management. Piles of unburned cedars show up on satellite images of Forest Service land, but most of the glades appear jet black, indicating a solid mass of cedars. So I set out again to see the glades for myself.

When we crested the hill onto Chute Ridge all awash in wildflowers and teeming with invertebrate life, the importance of restoring the other thousands of acres of glades on public and private lands became immediately evident. "Wow!" I shouted while scampering through the thick stands of pale purple coneflower and little bluestem. I turned to see my colleague's response to the healthy glade and caught him standing there, dumbstruck. He was actually speechless. Granted, that happens to me a lot these days, unable to say anything because I'm so blown away by the beauty of the Ozarks, but this guy's seen the best of the best, Missouri as it likely looked to the early settlers. It was a rare moment, that of witnessing my colleague appreciating the fruits of his own labor.

We saw seed capsules of Trelease's larkspur, a conservative, lovely larkspur known from the glades of southwest Missouri. Two kinds of poppy mallow were in full bloom (bright pink flower below). Grasses were just starting to set fluffy seedheads and butterflies and dragonflies flitted about everywhere. My colleague kept his mouth open, staring out onto the savanna and glade in awe. "You'd never believe it. There were cedars out here this big around," he says holding his arms out in a big circle. "None of this was here before...well, it was here but it was suppressed...I can't believe it..." he trailed off.

Leaving the glade at the stunning last moments of sunset, it was decided that we needed more of Chute Ridge. The cedar-choked glades of the White River Hills need someone like my colleague to initiate an intense management plan to create more glades like this one. Nature could have maintained Chute Ridge without our help, if we didn't interfere in the first place. But now it requires someone with vision to see what rests dormant beneath the cedars. Post scriptum: The talented author of Beetles in the Bush writes about Chute Ridge: "Chute Ridge – what a fantastic place! There are some great insects there – Cicindela obsoleta vulturina, a large, olive-green beauty of a tiger beetle found in Missouri only in the White River Hills (and representing a population disjunct from the main population in Texas); Plinthocoelium suaveolens, our state’s most stunning cerambycid beetle, where it can be found perching on the trunks of its larval host (gum bumelia) during summer; and probably many others that I have not yet found because of my limited ability to visit to this far-away place." I hereby promise him that next week I'll look for things that move while I'm on the glade.