Thursday, January 01, 2009

Woods in Progress

Bluebird skies and warm, April temperatures invited me to strip off my cheap blue sweater to expose a thin, green short-sleeved t-shirt from Goodwill earlier this week. For the first time in 7 weeks, I finally found myself hiking in old running shoes through a patch of woods situated high on the Central Plateau. It was a quiet, windless Tuesday, perfect for a slow, slow meander through broad steep ridgetops down into moist, craggy draws covered in fading Christmas ferns and oak-hickory leaf litter.

If there's one small section of the Central Plateau that harbors great hope for savanna restoration, I saw it this week. Fires have ripped through this landscape four times in ten years, leaving behind noticeably black scars 3 ft. high on some of the larger trees. Thick stands of little bluestem populate the canopy openings, and desiccated stalks of last year's wildflowers and sedges indicate that these woods are (sort of, a little, kind of) rich.

Tuesday was a fun day of winter plant identification: a brown, branching stalk with a once-hairy basal leaf was all that remained of elm-leaved goldenrod. A cluster of fine sticks with no leaves or seeds left behind represented a pretty little hot pink flower, slender false foxglove, a member of the snapdragon family. Three kinds of woodland asters were there, even the hard, gray pointed leaves of stiff-leaved aster (I have a big cluster of these above my stove and learned recently that they were being unwittingly used as rosemary.). There's diversity in these woods -- woodland plants galore! -- but no real evidence of highly conservative species, of the plants that would qualify the area as a Missouri Natural Area, for example. Then again, these woods haven't been burned in several years, they're choked in oak sprouts, and I was there well outside the growing season, in late December, for Pete's sake.

As the setting sun cast long shadows on the hills of the Central Plateau, I found it difficult to return to the car. I ran into a cricket out there, the first in months, a little ladybug on a puffy seedhead of an anemone, an enormous baldfaced hornet nest attached to a sapling (Thanks, Ted!). The black oak leaves rustled from the young trees as the wind changed direction, ushering in cooler temperatures. It took a trip to the woods to start compiling my list of 10 resolutions for the new year (plant my front yard with hundreds more bright yellow daffodils; volunteer at the Ozark Food Bank; learn Spanish wines because right now I think they're downright sweet but I know there's more to them; make better roux; etc.).

I thought about the thousands of acres of woodlands in Missouri, both public and private, and how most of them just need fire, some thinning, a little management to restore some semblance of what the earliest settlers encountered. In the past 100 years, these woods of the Central Plateau had been hammered by open grazing, timber harvest, fire suppression, but they're showing signs of hope. The ground wasn't covered in buckbrush and Carex pennsylvanica (telltale signs of intense grazing history). Prairie grasses such as big bluestem and Indian grass poked through the leaf litter in certain spots. Land managers plan to burn several hundred acres of this unit this spring.

After his last visit, my colleague had given up on these woods, written them off as "...okay," assured that the sad history of land abuse has permanently damaged them beyond repair. Knowing that intense fire regimes can, in the right circumstances, turn a fescue field into a decent prairie...that fire and thinning can, in the right patch of woods, transform chert rubble into one of the richest woodlands in the state, I'm relying on patience with this restoration unit. Woodland restoration efforts take time, many years, sometimes. They require regular management (he's told me a million times...). I need to go back there after this spring's fire when the entire understory isn't a uniform brown but a diverse matrix of woodland plants, just to see if maybe, hopefully, the propagules of conservative plants needed a little more coaxing, a little more patience.

Pictures! Let's see: dolomite based creekbed with big slabs of rock; Christmas fern; one of the hawkweeds buried under warm oak leaf litter; seedhead to dogbane; seedhead to a Monarda; sweet everlasting!; an Eragrostis against the bright blue sky; baldfaced hornet nest (huge!); post oak acorns, almost always in threes.


Anonymous said...

Not paper wasp (genus Polistes), but the related baldfaced hornet (genus Dolichovespula). Paper wasp nests are much smaller and open - i.e. the "honeycomb" is exposed.

Pedantism is one of my less attractive qualities.


Allison Vaughn said...

Not pedantic at all! I'm glad you read and let me know these things! The nest was really, really cool...

cedrorum said...

Restoration does take time doesn't it? I find it interesting that much of the work I do now I won't live long enough to see the end result.

Allison Vaughn said...

It takes great vision to do what you do, continue with restoration projects that you won't really be able to appreciate. In Missouri, our best woodland restoration efforts take a much more rigorous fire regime than the one that has been applied here. Funny thing is, my colleague knows this, but he's a little older now and wants the results NOW. On the flip side there are some woods in the state that you can burn, burn and thin, and burn even more, but the diversity simply isn't there anymore. I guess I'm seeing a pie in the sky, not ready to give up on this patch. By the way, it's good to know that people who read this are as into candy as I am.