Friday, October 31, 2008

What's wrong with Mounds?


Last year, two days after Halloween, I left southeast Missouri for the fine town of Columbia to check out a lead on a rental advertised on Craig's List. Close to downtown, close to a grocery store, historic yellow house, and I had to dodge the kids playing in the street. I knew it back then when I saw the pumpkins next door. This would be a great place to be on Halloween. A year later, excited about all of the trick or treaters -the fun costumes, the kids banging on the 80 year old door- I could barely focus on work today. Instead, I stared a lot at a small tray of cookies, cupcakes and Reese's peanut butter cups on my desk.

Thanks to some fine judging on the part of state leadership, I won the office costume contest this morning (where only three of us dressed up in an office of over 100. I felt a little like Pam from The Office who was the only one who wore a costume.) I stayed in full costume all day, making green tree frog noises on command, squatting on the ground and clumsily hopping to my colleague's cubicle. I had a fancy lunch with an important agency, clip clopping through downtown Jefferson City's Madison's Cafe in green SCUBA flippers.

I violated the speed limit to make it home in time to carve my strange little pumpkin, to finish decorating cupcakes, to touch up my green face paint which had chipped from all the smiling I did today, to spread out almost $60 worth of candy on a tray. 100 shimmering tea lights lined the banister and the walkway, every light in the house was on to attract trick or treaters like moths.

Sunset finally came, as did Hazel and her older sisters. She took her big Heath bar and then said that they were going to her "grandparents' neighborhood" for trick or treating. Kylie, a new kid on the street, came over dressed like a cat. She took her big Hershey's with Almonds and hopped into the running car to go to her "grandparents' neighborhood." Same story with the three kids from across the street who at least had the decency to stick around their own street long enough to devour the cupcakes I made. This "grandparents' neighborhood" must be a code word for "better off" or "wealthy" or "better candy." It just can't mean "safer." My neighborhood is quiet, populated with older homes, and full of kids. I hear them on other blocks and see them when I ride my bike to the gym, but none of them came down my street. I saw several cars throw kids out in front of single homes (which weren't nearly as lit up as mine. And they didn't have carved pumpkins or pumpkin lights!) to grab candy and rush back into the car, likely slated for the mythical "grandparents' neighborhood."


I think back to what Doug, age 40, said: "Well, when I was a kid, it didn't matter if a murderer, child molester or a ghost lived in the house. We still went there looking for candy." Is it a culture of fear that has kept the trick or treaters from my block, what with its cute homes and recently full occupancy? Are people really that scared to send their kids out anymore? Maybe its the fault of candy and nut allergies? (I was sent this horrible email generated by the state of Missouri recently that recommended handing out boxes of raisins or "non-food items like pencils" instead of candy for Halloween. Frightening.)

My mom was upset that she only had 25 trick or treaters this year in her neighborhood (that is probably a destination for kids in neighborhoods like mine). I was pretty shocked that only three other people in my office dressed up today (and no one downtown, in the grocery store, on the streets of Jefferson City). So I'm joining the Social Planning Committee at work and then writing a letter to Paul, my City Councilman, to ask what I can do to make this neighborhood more like the grandparents' neighborhood. Do we need more lights? Organized block parties? More green space? The older neighbors are here, as is way too much leftover candy to make me comfortable in my own home. While I'm ranting to Paul, I might also ask him -as any nutty citizen would- why the kids of Columbia don't like the fine dark chocolate coconut confection called Mounds.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

As candy holidays begin


Several weeks ago, long before the kids on the block even knew what they were going to be for Halloween, I asked each of them to name their favorite candy. Since then, as the nights have grown progressively cooler and Sierra has announced that she will be Dorothy to Keshon's zombie, my small house has swelled with each child's favorite candy. In large bar form. Poor Keshon and his peanut allergy, his favorite bar is Hershey's plain.

As one of my favorite holidays approaches, vast storehouses of candy for trick-or-treaters has found its way into my house, one bag at a time. I have a huge pewter platter from the Court of Two Sisters upon which I'll place the rest of the candy (190 bars), destined for plastic jack-o-lantern buckets belonging to kids I don't know. Since I didn't see a single costumed child in southeast Missouri, and while I would randomly see roving bands of uncostumed teenagers in New Orleans asking for candy, I didn't really see little kids dressed like Cleopatra there, either, I'm excited about living in a neighborhood dominated by single family homeowners. Halloween's going to be fun in Columbia. So, see the chart of the candy currently stashed in a cloth grocery bag in an unnamed part of my tiny house. The Junior Mints are meant for those kids who are strange like I was, wanting nothing but peanut butter toffees, Tootsie Rolls, and Special Darks. I bet they'll like Junior Mints.

Thanks to my awesome mother who picked up a frog hat for me last year, I'm dressing like a Southern leopard frog for work on Friday. Oh, I have an important lunch date with another agency, but I'll be in a costume that includes painted SCUBA flippers and bright green leggings. I'll bail out of work early to distribute jack-o-lantern cupcakes to the kids on the block, ensuring they'll get jacked up on sugar as they get dressed for the night. I'll wait to carve pumpkins until late in the afternoon, knowing that my cool heirloom red pumpkin will be no match to my neighbor's artistic creations, kept -even as it decomposes on her porch table- well into December.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Goal #2

It's late October and my birthday month is officially over. I can't eat cake and write it off as "..but it's your birthday, come on...." anymore. My birthday lasted a good, solid month, one that included camping, half-hearted backpacking, lots of great cheese, good wine, lots of ridiculously excessive calories and less time at the gym. It's time now to actually embark on my 36th year, to start accomplishing that which I set out to accomplish back in September when the goldenrods were in bloom.

#1. Learn how to make cheese. Cheese plays a huge role in my life and is likely the only reason my cholesterol is 130 rather than some better, lower number. Sheep's milk cheese is beautifully produced in the Ozarks and goat cheese is very capably made in Columbia. I will likely tap these production sources for secrets. I have a cool basement and access to raw milk from the Mennonites in the Niangua Basin, so I'll make my own cheese this year. Oh, don't worry, I won't serve it on a cheese plate if you come over for supper.

A charming mug at Columbia's Cafe Berlin inspired Goal #2 a few weeks ago: Find bluegrass. While I was home, I realized that what I missed most about being home is the absence of indigenous culture. A firm believer in the Jesuit dictum of "bloom where planted," I've tried to understand, accept, and love every place I've lived. I hung out in this weird mob-operated bar in Hoboken to feel closer to Sinatra and his black-suited fans; a Roman trattoria without walls (that served amazing vegetables) to feel like Henry James; this dirt floor taverna in the Cyclades that served terrible homemade retsina and gloopy meat-based food to somehow get closer to the spirit of the islands. But maybe I just haven't looked hard enough in the Ozarks to really find culture here.

When I first moved to the Niangua Basin, I scouted out bluegrass festivals, taking copious notes of every Hatch show print poster, dragging my little Honda through ungraded county roads to find bona fide bluegrass in the Ozarks. I wanted to find people who made their own fiddles like they do in Louisiana. While on my search for authenticity, I heard the Grammy-winning Del McCoury at the Meramec County Fair, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Sullivan playing to a crowd that sat down the whole time (barring me and my boss). But I was looking for Ozark culture. After all, the Ozark Highlands of Missouri gave rise to the Dillards, so the musical traditions must be out there, right?

My search led me to Dixon, Missouri a few years ago. Hatch poster in an independent grocery store. It must be real. I follow the cardboard signs to the bluegrass festival and pull into this old field filled with motor homes, side by side. My little car was dwarfed. Michael Doucet from Lafayette was going to be there, along with a couple of other fatois players I had heard of in south Louisiana. Committed, I bail out of my car with my backpack of food, drink, blanket and hat. In front of the main stage, the crowd had -voluntarily!- lined up their chairs in straight lines, in rows! No one was dancing, no one was moving, no one was doing anything much but some cross stitching. I think I was the only one in the county that night under 80. No beer tent, no food tent, but plenty of music about God and Jesus.

Now, if anyone knows me, they know I'm pretty averse to religion in general, but especially when it interferes with music. Oh, people can do what they wish on their own time, but don't let religion influence public policy, and certainly don't try to convert me when I'm trying to listen to the intricacies of bluegrass. Intellectually, I recognize religion in the bluegrass tradition of the early Lomax recordings, but when people in the audience start raising their hands towards some higher power, it's time for me to leave. I'll take A Closer Walk with Thee, I'll Fly Away, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, but the stylings of modern religion in Dixon that night was unnerving. I apologized profusely to my agnostic friend for interrupting his Friday night poker game with old time religion and then promised him a good meal of lentils and rice over my campstove.

Goal #2 is to find bluegrass in its native Ozark context. I'll take lousy Forest Service roads to lean-to's, go into places where Democrats aren't welcome, even if they're operated by the creepy white supremacist culture that exists in certain Ozark counties (despite how much I despise it). I won't be judgmental and I won't cast aspersions, of course, because I try to bloom where planted. I want technically interesting and competent musicians playing traditional music that I can't find in any store. I know it's here. And I know that finding it would make me supremely happy to be here because I'll be living in a state that appreciates its heritage, its culture, its traditions, those facets of life which I love in Louisiana. I'm heading to Van Buren next week to talk about woodlands for a spell. If any of the 5 people who read this know of anyplace in or around Van Buren (50 mi. radius) where I can hear local music, pray tell. I'll make you supper one night in Columbia and promise not to drag out my cheese experiment.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Home again, home again, jiggety jig


My Daddy looks particularly cute in his grassland-old field-wetland camouflage. When he's decked out head to toe in it, I can't help pretending not to see him, bumping into him in his beautifully appointed living room, decorated as it is out of an L.L Bean catalogue (with walls bedecked in paintings of cypress swamps and canvasbacks). While it's hard to miss my daddy standing in his own house counting shotgun shells, despite his attire, I was truly surprised to see two equally camouflaged boys crouched in a corner watching one of too many televisions scattered in the house. Since Daddy's friend Rebel died a few years ago, Rebel's 20-something year old son has taken a shine to my pops, joining him on hunting excursions, fishing trips, and at clay pigeon practice in the longleaf pine woodlands nearby.

However much I adored Rebel and his genuine, infectious joie de vivre, I think he may have been a little remiss at teaching his kid the rules of outdoor recreation in Louisiana. In fact, Ricky grew up shooting everything in his line of vision, a practice my daddy calls "if it flies, it dies." That my pops has taken Ricky under his wing bodes well for Louisiana wildlife. My daddy is a very ethical hunter, one who not only obeys the lax rules set forth by the Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, but uses his judgment and knowledge of life cycles, population dynamics, and simple outdoor rules that he was taught. He certainly won't kill anything he won't eat, and however much he loves quail, he knows their numbers are abysmal in Louisiana and so won't hunt them. He'd never shoot a canvasback, a pintail, or any other uncommon-to-Louisiana duck, however much he'd love a mount. So Ricky has a few things to learn from Mr. Vaughn...

Daddy introduced me to Ricky and his friend, connecting me to the USFWS. I think he wants me to be a wetland manager at a National Wildlife Refuge who sports around in a pontoon boat with a gun on my side or something, so that's how he introduces me. I go through the rigamarole of explaining what I really do, which doesn't impress many people at all because it's not glamourous, doesn't bring in lots of money, and doesn't warrant free fishing licenses in Missouri. Nevertheless, Ricky proceeds to tell me that he's studying forestry at Louisiana Tech University, that his classes include botany, GIS training, even fire school. Impressed, happy even that forestry students have to learn ground flora, I tell him how great it is that Louisiana burns the snot out of their longleaf stands. Big units, hot fires, rich ground flora all over the Tertiary Uplands and Florida Parishes. I think at this point, Daddy left the kitchen to clean his gun, start on a Natural Light, anything to stay away from his middle child who gets giddy talking about fire.

I couldn't help it. "I hope when you land a job in forestry in Louisiana," I said hopefully, "that you'll burn more."
"Oh, well, you can't burn hardwoods," Ricky says, confidently.
"Really? Like your oaks?"
"Oh, yeah, fire's bad for timber," as he stood up straight and knocked back his LSU cap.
"Huh..." I muttered, then channeled Paul Nelson, the author of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri, the man who lit the first match on our public lands many years ago, thus ushering in the use of prescribed fire in our management toolbox. I launched into a calm, hopefully persuasive monologue about fire behaviour, fuel models that include highly flammable palmetto, and how fire isn't bad for timber harvest. I talked about the Mark Twain National Forest, our state lands, old growth, clearcuts. Daddy finally cut me off, reminding me that I was at his house so he could show me the recently protected bottomland-batture lands two blocks away before he and Ricky set off for a grain field south of town to "kill the bird of peace," as he put it. Daddy likes dove season because you don't have to wake up early to participate.

So I went home late last week for Bones' wedding. After the storm, a herpetologist, Bones, and his lovely bride, a graphic designer named Melita (both from Chalmette, east of New Orleans) ended up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Shortly after moving there, Bones -pedigreed with a M.S. in herpetology from Middle Tennessee University- applied for a seasonal position with my outfit. Thrilled to find someone a. from New Orleans who understood the flora and fauna of the Mississippi Embayment, b. who thrived on fieldwork exactly the time I needed a thorough turtle survey, and c. who reminded me of my friends back home: affable, approachable, and possessing that accent that I can't even mimic, we became fast friends. Of course, I spent every day that summer with him conducting the turtle survey, laughing at his great stories, enjoying his company. He and Melita, his Greek girlfriend, made life in southeast Missouri bearable for us. Spending time with them was like going home. And their Greek-Italian wedding in New Orleans East was, finally, the chance to hang out with them in our native landscape. (I had to share a picture of the groom's cake...)

However much I love Missouri and her rivers, I get genuinely homesick here. I used the weekend of the wedding as a chance to do everything I miss doing. I miss good music, the good food of long, luxurious meals, the creative spirit of the city, where everyone in the neighborhood was either an artist, a musician, a glass blower, a woodworker, a writer, all doing mundane jobs just to make ends meet but always putting their craft foremost in their lives. I miss languid afternoons at coffeeshops spent writing correspondence, the cashiers who call you "baby" (and don't judge you when you buy lots of wine and Pimm's), almond croissants, Treme's brass bands, super late nights (because the weather in New Orleans is only bearable at night). Oh, I dig my Columbia neighborhood and particularly appreciate my next door neighbor, an art professor-roller derby girl with impeccable taste in music (and who stays up a late as I used to in New Orleans, often still up from the night as I'm trudging to my desk job. sigh.). But several people I know here won't come to my house because they're scared of the black people who live on my block, so I don't get to entertain as much as I would like.

Anyway, I don't get home much anymore for several reasons (12 hours from Columbia, no friends to dog sit Molly here, for starters), so it promised to be a busy weekend.
I found myself doing something I've never done before. I was taking pictures not only of the few people I still know in the city, but of buildings. I took a picture of my old house on Dauphine, of my post-music 3 am watering hole (Lafitte's, pictured, where old grizzled pianists played jazz piano on a lovely grand piano late at night), my beloved Italian restaurant where they serve Baked Alaska, lots of pictures of neighbor's houses. I felt an urgency, like a tourist in Europe never to return again rather than a citizen coming home for a visit.

The appointments with friends came first. My dear old high school friend Rebecca urged me to move back home for no better reason than she wants to hang out with me more. My neighbor Russ, one of those Faubourg Marigny residents who is connected to everything and everyone in the city, pressed us over a really mediocre pinot at the Marigny Brasserie to move back, "but you can't get sick. We still don't have decent health care in the city." Back in 2001, Russ gave this lecture at his Christmas party that Doug and I fell into the 10% of New Orleans' residents who can affect change (if we so desired). "The brain drain," he tells me, "is being reversed. Come back." He told me about all of this "development" going on and how he could get me involved with it...golf courses, manicured riverfront parks (even in St. Bernard Parish, which was flooded for weeks), urban green spaces, with no mention whatsoever of wetland restoration projects that are utterly necessary for the protection of the city. Before I could launch into why I need to be in Missouri and why urban green space development runs counter to what I think needs to happen in New Orleans, he quickly turned to me and asked, "name three people that influenced you and why. Quick." Easy. 1. My mother, who told me to never depend on a man for money. 2. My major professor, who told me I was a failure and would never amount to anything, thus spurring my competitive need for success, and 3. Paul Nelson, who taught me to look at the big picture, the landscape, and the little parts -the plants, animals- would fall into their rightful place.

It was there at that high table in the Marigny with the late afternoon sun streaming in through the floor to ceiling windows that my thoughts returned to Ricky. If the kids in Louisiana's Forestry Departments are still being taught that fire is bad for oaks, how could I even try to save the state's desperately overgrown oak woodlands? My pronouncement about fire and black oaks in the Niangua Basin triggered a "what's a girl like you know about timber?" from an enlightened Missouri state agency, what on earth would a Louisiana agency say to me if I told them to burn their oaks? And for an influential neighbor to invite me to return to my hometown where, even if I garnered the same salary as I have now, I couldn't afford to live, (and where the leadership is not addressing the real problem, the wetland destruction) I had to say no, once again, to New Orleans.

After the storm, city planners drafted grandiose plans for major wetland restoration south of the city. I don't know where the federal dollars are going, but they're not being spent on wetlands. In fact, from talking to friends in the city, most of the positive changes going on have been driven by private grants and non-profit organizations. The St. Roch market, a historic landmark building on the other side of the Treme (America's first black neighborhood), will be restored and the rest of the business district around it will be redeveloped under a grant through Tulane. A very good move, but unfortunately, most of the Treme was bought by investors who have flipped the houses, turning the neighborhood that pre-storm housed most of the city's musicians into a gentrified part of downtown. All of those cute houses on the other side of Rampart from the French Quarter was referred to as "The New Marigny" when I was home. It used to be a pretty tough neighborhood. But I really love New Orleans for her culture, for the funky Bywater kids who bike around in July with angel wings on their backs, the quirky Marigny neighbors who play piano in their underwear with the French doors open, the late night culture that kept everything relatively safe. But after the storm, non-natives with lots of money moved in, snatching up Creole cottages, willing to pay upwards of $900/mo. in rent. These folks are leaving now, their sources of money drying up in light of national economic downturn, and owners are starting- just starting- to drop prices. In the Bywater, the cool, hip neighborhood next to my neighborhood where rents used to run $350/mo., single bedrooms are going for $800/mo. Where do the cool kids who work at coffeeshops and play clarinet by night live now? What is driving the economy that allows people to live in my old neighborhood? I lived there as a waitress for years but couldn't afford it at all now...

Yes, of course, New Orleans is a changed city. Yes, the federal projects geared towards wetland protection and restoration are stalled somewhere in Washington. And yes, the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans are lacking the kind of leadership that would set the course right. I was asked at Bones' wedding by a girl from Metairie if I lived in the city. When I told her I lived in Missouri, she crinkled her nose and said "ewww, landlocked." "Yeah, but the woods are nice...and, um, Columbia's cool...I don't know...it's....Missouri. We have salamanders. And bike lanes." She wasn't convinced. She knew I lived in a place very different from home, but a place that under the leadership of people like Paul Nelson takes the landscape very seriously, making the management of her woods and wetlands a top priority rather than an afterthought.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

As fall moves in




As we stepped through the very dry chert woodlands we had walked through earlier this summer, our eyes were on the ground looking for asters, goldenrods, or anything else that may be in bloom in mid-October. This week marked my third visit to Grasshopper Hollow in as many months, and I found myself in excellent company, among two great botanists. As usual, I skipped ahead of the herd, hurrying to that point of the trail when it opens up into the densely packed and biodiverse prairie fen. But before I threw myself into the towering khaki big bluestem, thinking that the rest of the crew wanted to wade through the grasses as much as I did, my colleague points out a gem of a wildflower, the bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). Rather unlike the downy gentian, the petals of this gentian never fully open, providing a serious challenge to pollinators (all of whom must be pretty hell bent on getting into the bright blue flower).



Save the two botanists in the crowd, no one wanted to stomp through the fen, opting instead to hang out on the small wooden overlook (but asking us what it was that we saw "out there"). I ran into a blooming Spiranthes orchid among the grasses and lilies, but lost it when I waded 20 feet further, leaving the two botanists I asked for help looking at me, disappointed. Another gentian (G. quinquefolia) showed up on the edge of the fen, much smaller and elegant than the bottle gentian. I had to hold it in my hand for a picture of the sole open flower that barely offered room for a fly. Asters and goldenrods were plentiful that day, providing small patches of color in the otherwise muted landscape.

So as we move into fall, fieldtrips to glades and fens are left to the diehards, the ones who appreciate the structure of plant communities, understanding through clumps of dried seedheads that a given area is incredibly diverse (or really lousy). While some may see the images of Grasshopper Hollow in fall glory and see a field that's past haying time, I hope others see an undulating, rich fen complex waiting for a spring burn.





Pictures! Aster puniceus with a spider eating a fly on the rays; bottle gentian (G. andrewsii); G. quinquefolia in my hand; and images of the always stunning Grasshopper Hollow. I'll have to go back there after a burn when the landscape is black.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Playing host


This summer, while combing through the vigorous, green plants of 120 vegetative monitoring plots in the Niangua Basin, my colleague let out a slow, low “uhhhh….huh.” Pointing to a blackened, desiccated flower stalk roughly 3 inches tall, he indicated he was, in short, stumped. Fire had ripped over most of the glade in early April leaving only small patches of grasses and wildflowers standing in the continually moist marly fens. The black stem was there among brown clumps of little bluestem and this year’s flowering loosestrife. We had both seen it on the glade before, but not very often. We knew what it was, but simply couldn’t remember it. Two days later, I called him at home and shouted “Buchnera americana!” into his cell phone. “Yes. Right. That’s it. Good,” he calmly uttered. And so our 2008 monitoring data was complete.

Blooming on Missouri’s glades and prairies from mid-June through October, blue hearts (B. americana) tend to grow in isolated populations, though I don’t know if this is diagnostic or just an anecdotal observation. After setting seed, their stems turn coal black. They thrive in fire-adapted landscapes, sharing ground with big bluestem, gentians, coneflowers and other glade and prairie plants. Blue hearts are hemiparasites, plants that receive at least some of their nutrition from a host plant but photosynthesize for survival, as well. A specialized root structure of parasitic plants, called the haustorium, allows the parasitic or hemiparasitic plant to feed off of other plants. In the case of B. americana, unfortunately, the fragile haustorium breaks easily, making determination of the host plant difficult at best.

Researchers in the 1930s discovered that blue hearts are generalist parasites, living on the roots of everything from sweetgum to Shumard oak. In fact, they lived on the roots of almost every bottomland hardwood forest tree species except cypress and pecan trees. However, I've never seen a blue hearts plant in a woodland or a forest, only on glades and prairies. For questions like this one: what is the host plant of Buchnera americana on a glade? I defer to an expert botanist, a talented, lovely man in St. Louis, who answered my question thus:

My impression is that the species does not show strong host specificity and will parasitize anything from grasses to woody hosts, similar to the situation in Castilleja arvensis.


He further added
This would be a good study for you to undertake in your spare time! You could do some excavations, but also you could harvest some seeds of Buchnera along with seeds of various plants from the immediate vicinity and grow the hosts in pots seeded with the parasite.

He's right. It would be a great study, very elucidating. I could find the plants, gather seeds of various surrounding grasses and herbs, even look for all of the species that cross over from glade to prairie. My loyal colleague suggested last week that goldenrods could be the host plant, known as they are from glades, woodlands and prairies alike; his mentor Julian Steyermark didn't even mention that blue hearts are parasitic. Oh, finding out the host plants of blue hearts would be a fun project. It's that "spare time" part that really confuses me. Where does a girl find that?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Downy gentian


By mid-October, the tall, charismatic grasses of glades, prairies and woodlands have matured to a uniform khaki. Gleaming burgundy and pale green back in July, big bluestem now looks like Indian grass, like gama grass, like side oats gramma, with only the tripartite seedhead distinguishing them from the rest. Most blooming plants have already set seed, offering only a blackened stem and desiccated seedheads to anyone wanting to discover how rich and diverse a certain area is, leaving June's colorful floral display to the visitor's imagination.

But nestled between the clumps of grass, mostly on glade edges and prairies, downy gentian blooms from September through November. Low to the ground, this exquisite flower is one of the last ones to bloom in the Ozarks, reportedly even surviving early frosts. Spotty populations are common in the Ozarks, particularly in areas managed with fire. Thanks to the tremendous rainfall this growing season, I've seen clumps of blooming downy gentian repeatedly this fall, though its allure never fades; I crouch down to stare deeply into the iridescent blue flowers every time I see them.

Just as there are indicator plants whose presence suggest past and present grazing history (like coral berry and Eastern red cedar), the absence of certain plants also indicates grazing pressure, whether historical or current. Likewise, the presence of certain plants indicates a healthy balance between fire, grazing, hydrology, and every other factor that determines biodiversity in the landscape. Downy gentian happens to be a choice plant for grazers and browsers, so areas with too many large herbivores in the landscape may either lack populations of the elegant flower or have largely diminished populations of them. (And, conversely, areas rich with downy gentians likely have other conservative species) Coneflowers, prairie clovers, gentian, native Euonymous shrubs and countless other (now conservative) plants possess certain qualities that make them highly desirable to large herbivores. Where grazing pressure is high, these plants -called "ice cream plants" to some- are grazed to the nub, making their populations less viable every season.

Knowing that cattle intensely grazed every inch of the Ozark Highlands within the past 100 years, it's hard to tell whether the spotty populations of downy gentian are naturally occurring or just what the cattle left behind. Nevertheless, the plants hang on, blooming intently for the next month...even after a frost.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Play with it

Fine, I'll admit it right now. I have serious issues with most nature centers. Some of them are great, wonderful places where visitors can learn about natural history and conservation. Some of them, however, fail in their mission to educate the general public about the natural world. I think many interpret such general themes and ideas so simply that any educational benefit is lost. Nature centers located in exquisite natural landscapes tend to be worse than the ones in urban areas because for some reason they generally lack the level of detail that is required to properly interpret the exemplary values of the landscapes that inspired them.

So, earlier this week I found myself in a fancy nature center whose mission is to interpret a dynamic, rare glade complex. Rather than exhibits on glade soils and plant communities, maybe fence lizards and Bachman's sparrows, I saw a fish tank full of bluegill, one with a stressed speckled kingsnake, a tiny tank with three collared lizards (who do not live in this glade complex or even in a 100 mile radius of the nature center). There were exhibits on Ozark mussels, even though I was in the Osage Plains. There were no exhibits on glades, on glade plants, glade hydrology, conservation of glades, threats to glades. I think the word "glade" appeared once above the collared lizard tank, without the disclaimer that the reptiles do not inhabit the chert glade upon which the nature center was perched.

For the sake of not sounding cranky, I admit there's a role for basic environmental education in urban areas. City dwellers lack the natural history interface afforded by rural settings (not agricultural-based rural, but native landscape rural), sure, so they should have a place to go to learn about phloem, seed production, backyard bird feeding, making compost, why you should leave dead trees in your yard. But unfairly, urban nature centers seem to be geared towards a certain audience with a very low education level. When I visit them, I see 2nd graders with short attention spans, children maniacally pushing buttons and flipping cards of heavy plastic not in search of an answer to the question on front of the laminated card but to make a loud "slap!" when they slam it shut. The interactive exhibits invariably fail from misuse or overuse and often have slung over the broken mechanism a handwritten "out of order" sign that hangs for weeks or months. The animals are often an afterthought, more of a place holder for real information who suffer at the hands of improper animal husbandry. Often, urban nature centers hire staff who lack scientific knowledge, but are very capable of speaking clearly...but the message is often lacking.

Of course, because we live in a country that seldom conducts sociological research, there's little research indicating the educational value of these places on today's youth. Do regular visits to urban nature centers instill an appreciation of nature unafforded by native landscapes, thereby effectively shaping political tendencies? Do kids who go to these places grow up to vote for environmentally sensitive candidates who will work arduously to preserve and protect our natural world? Who really knows, they say, but when else can a kid from St. Louis see a timber rattlesnake. She'll never step a foot on an igneous glade in the St. Francois Mountains, after all.

So, after touring a fancy new nature center that likely cost $2 million in construction alone and lacked interpretive substance, my thoughts turn to the cute little kids across the street. Collectively, they have the attention span of a flea. These are kids who would bang on animal tanks, climb the stairs over and over, slide down handrails, kids who would probably leave without understanding the function of a wetland. When they come home from school, they're pumped with sugary snacks, which quickly sends them into a frenzy, laughing and crying in the same breath. I try to play some role, I, who refuse to have children of my own because I'm selfish and I think there are too many people in the world as it is. My house is open to the kids, for the most part. We give them cheese and fruit on occasion as they play with my camera, flip through the two children's books I own, rearrange the magnets on the refrigerator, or whatever else they can find to do in my 750 sq. ft. bungalow.

I bring them little natural history items from my weekly outings to the Ozark Highlands, so they all have nice examples of fossils in Burlington limestone, Jefferson City-Cotter dolomite, lots of cool chert samples, acorns from dominant oaks, enormous sycamore leaves, abandoned snail shells. They have stellar collections of shells from the Oregon Coast, lichen samples from Montana. Oh, together we've planted zinnias, identified birds, looked at snakes, stood in the rain together while watching the water race down the driveway in rivulets. I've explained the Pleistocene to them, tried to explain to them how five Fruit Rollups on an empty stomach are to blame for their mood swings, talked about why leaves fall. But I wonder if they've ever been to the big nature center outside of Jefferson City? I don't think they've ever left Columbia or had a walk in the woods, except in my backyard.

After my visit to the fancy new nature center, I felt compelled to collect as many items as I legally could from the White River Hills and nearby Osage Plains for the kids. Post oak acorns, which grow together in groups of three. Pine cones from short leaf pines growing on Burlington limestone. Mockernut hickory nuts. I brought home a handful of bison chips for them to see, nothing more than dense prairie plants (and great kindling) and seeds. I packed a bag full of big, beautiful hedge apples (or Osage oranges, or whatever else you call the fruits of Maclura pomifera). I handed out my findings to them today. Sierra had to hold the Osage orange with two hands, leaving her bike strewn in my driveway directly behind my car. "What is it?" she asked. I told her about the trees, the fruits, some of the cultural history behind Osage oranges. "What do I do with it?" Well, I advised, "you play with it. Don't eat it." I brought a whole mess of fruits home so each kid could have three big ones. She held the beautiful green orb out in front of her, scared. "Looks like a brain, doesn't it?" I asked her. She placed it next to her pumpkin, unsure of what it really was, and grabbed her bike. I saw her little brother, 4 year old Keshon, drop his Osage orange to the ground and kick it repeatedly. He probably won't see Osage orange trees lining prairie draws anytime soon, but at least he's now seen and felt an Osage orange. Keshon pulverized his Osage orange into little fleshy sherds, exclaiming from across the street, "there's a bunch of seeds in it!"

So, I don't really know the answer. I don't know how to teach Keshon about watershed protection. He knows now why he shouldn't kill spiders or snakes, why I don't mow my yard...but I don't know how to teach his mother why she should -at the very least- recycle all of the hundreds of pounds of packaging that her food comes in. And voting? How to encourage Keshon's mother to vote for the candidate with a sound energy policy, someone who will secure more funding for the acquisition budgets for our national parks, someone who won't allow drilling in Wilderness Areas. There's a whole league of professionals whose goals include this very type of education. I send out a hearty "good luck," because it's a huge burden, that of educating the general public about the natural world. It's a job way too big for me.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Early fall woods



It's too early for the self-avowed leaf peepers to start driving, ever slowly, through the Ozarks to photograph the splendid Kodachrome display our oaks and hickories offer. It's too late to see most of the sunflowers in bloom, but a trip to Ozark woods in early October can guarantee goldenrods and asters in full glory.

But I spent the day in the outer Ozark Border region just outside of Cape Girardeau in search of beech drops, little parasitic plants that come up around beech trees in early fall. On one slope of these woods, beech, cucumber magnolia, pignut hickory and tulip poplar trees cling to the sandy soils, representing the northern and western reaches of their range. A short hike away, maybe 5 miles, Ozark species dominate: white oak, dogwood, redbud, usual hickory suspects. We focussed on the Appalachian side of the woods where the beech drops grew. Solid Ozark woodland asters and goldenrods were absent here. No Aster patens, no Solidago ulmifolia, no Aster anomalous, all of whom I've seen literally by the thousands a few miles away. Oh, and, yes, of course, I'm aware all the asters have been renamed, but we go by Steyermark in my small world.

Because I've been on the road all day, and because I'll be on the road all week, I'm posting a whole mess of pictures of asters and goldenrods (and I'll throw in beech drops for a lark) taken from woodlands all over the Ozarks in the past two weeks. Goldenrods and asters can be tricky to identify, as there are many, many of each in Missouri alone. I actually watched as two very competent botanists discussed the differences between two asters and never ending up with the name of the one in front of them. And all I know is that I have three aster species in my yard in Columbia, which make the bees seemingly very happy. These lovely fall wildflowers are at their peak right now, but no pressure...fall colors are just around the corner. (Posted: Aster ericoides, Aster pilosus, Aster anomalous, Aster turbinellus, Solidago petiolaris, and for the life of me I can't remember the pretty Solidago at the bottom of the page. It's a goldenrod....)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

No comment

So, I missed tonight's debate so I could talk about prescribed fire in dry dolomite woodlands. Leave it to Doug to find the debate transcript and cull from it great quotes from aw-shucks-folksy-Sarah Palin. I respect clauses, I really do, but they generally need to connect to the rest of the sentence to make sense. (And, to boot, she actually said "ain't," "doggone it," and "Joe Six Pack" on national television...in front of, nay, to Gwen Ifill):

One thing that Americans do at this time, also, though, is let's commit ourselves just every day American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say never again. Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those who are managing our money and loaning us these dollars.

But here, again, there have -- there have been so many changes in the conditions of our economy in just even these past weeks that there has been more and more revelation made aware now to Americans about the corruption and the greed on Wall Street.

We need to look back, even two years ago, and we need to be appreciative of John McCain's call for reform with Fannie Mae, with Freddie Mac, with the mortgage-lenders, too, who were starting to really kind of rear that head of abuse.

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Yes. Well, as the nation's only Arctic state and being the governor of that state, Alaska feels and sees impacts of climate change more so than any other state. And we know that it's real.

I'm not one to attribute every man -- activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.

But there are real changes going on in our climate. And I don't want to argue about the causes. What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?

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Both are extremely dangerous, of course. And as for who coined that central war on terror being in Iraq, it was the Gen. Petraeus and al Qaeda, both leaders there and it's probably the only thing that they're ever going to agree on, but that it was a central war on terror is in Iraq.

Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, the Castro brothers, others who are dangerous dictators are one that Barack Obama has said he would be willing to meet with without preconditions being met first.

And Secretary Rice, having recently met with leaders on one side or the other there, also, still in these waning days of the Bush administration, trying to forge that peace, and that needs to be done, and that will be top of an agenda item, also, under a McCain-Palin administration.

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And we're going to forge ahead with putting government back on the side of the people and making sure that our country comes first, putting obsessive partisanship aside.

That's what John McCain has been known for in all these years. He has been the maverick. He has ruffled feathers.

But I know, Sen. Biden, you have respected for them that, and I respect you for acknowledging that.

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Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. You mentioned education and I'm glad you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and god bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right? I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving.

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Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation.

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There have been times where, as mayor and governor, we have passed budgets that I did not veto and that I think could be considered as something that I quasi-caved in, if you will, but knowing that it was the right thing to do in order to progress the agenda for that year and to work with the legislative body, that body that actually holds the purse strings.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Nodding ladies' tresses orchid


As the days grow shorter and shadows lengthen, fall blooming orchids begin their annual show. Commonly found everywhere from Ozark glades, moist woods, and even some lawns, orchids of the genus Spiranthes send up their truly elegant stalk of white flowers between late July through November. Called Ladies' tresses orchids, these single stalked orchids have twisted stems which resemble braids. Small white flowers arranged in a spiral cover the length of the stem, providing accessible nectar sources for small bees who march easily from the bottom to the top.

Well, not all Spiranthes are fall bloomers; S. lucida blooms in mid-May in Missouri, and S. vernalis, despite the name, begins blooming in early July. Slight differences between the many species make initial identification a little tricky in late summer and fall, when most of them burst forth in bloom. Most species lack leaves during flowering time, but S. ovalis, known primarily from southeast Missouri (Steyermark's site was a previously timbered tract of land outside the park), possesses small strappy leaves at the base of the plant when in flower. The number of flowers per twist provides another defining characteristic between species. Some have two flowers per twist, others have three, and some just one.

I met my first Spiranthes in a cattle pasture outside of Mack's Creek, Missouri. I looked, searched, really scoured the site looking for any hope of savanna restoration potential because the landowner wanted prairie grasses outside his back door: Fescue, fescue, fescue, orchid! fescue, fescue, post oak sprouts. I recommended that he burn his property annually to see what came up. After all, I had just spent months on a reclaimed strip mine that was nominated for a Natural Area as a great example of high quality prairie.

I met the more robust S. magnicamporum a few months later when trying to save a glade from a superfluous trail building exercise in the Niangua Basin. The orchid species used to be tracked by the Natural Heritage Database, with occurrences recorded in a log somewhere in Jefferson City. But with glade restoration projects taking off statewide, the once conservative S. magnicamporum isn't tracked anymore because it shows up early in the restoration process. Nevertheless, I thought a whole thriving colony of the plants would stop a trail from ripping across the sensitive glade resources. (The trail was routed through a gnarly stand of cedars instead.)

When in southeast Missouri, I measured the success of our prescribed fire program by the floristic quality indices in post-burn plant surveys. I remember exclaiming to the surrounding cypress trees and green tree frogs an audible, "AHH!" when I saw the bottomland forest floor literally covered in hundreds of S. ovalis plants. The pictures all turned out really blurry because I was shaking with excitement and the deep dense forest never saw the light of day. My shutter speed never worked well in the forest. (I think it prefers open woodlands, like the owner.)

And then I met this one pictured, this lovely, tall, elegant orchid, perched at the edge of a small degraded fen in the Current River Hills. The botanist I dragged along on my plant list expedition immediately said, "oh, cool...," S. lacera var. gracilis." I dutifully recorded it in my book, then peered into the flowers as we watched a bee take nectar from every single one of them. It's always a treat to find an orchid in bloom in the Ozarks, but sometimes, we get greedy. Sometimes we want it to be the more conservative ones, as in this case when I really wanted it to be S. lucida, known only from fens and seeps of the Shannon-Carter-St. Francois Mountains area. Nevertheless, an orchid is an orchid and it was lovely to see in full flower as we hunkered down to watch the bee and it doesn't matter that it's not rare because it still has value and it's truly exquisite.