Monday, February 16, 2009

Green space

Seldom, if ever, have I been driven slowly through tidy asphalt streets lined with white 1930s Sears kit houses in search of an in tact natural community. Never have I been driven through a modern cemetery, the most wretched, terrible place on earth, in search of a dolomite glade. But I was a willing passenger this week as my colleague and I set out in Phelps Co. in search of a small city park, a little green space for the state's grape-growing community, that happens to house a decent glade and woodland complex.

My colleague and I normally beat down the bushes on rutted Forest Service roads to get to Missouri's lesser known sweet spots, but he wanted to show me a city park where he had found uncommon plants soldiering through years of neglect, plants thriving on a mothballed glade.

So I really should have expected a driving tour of a neighborhood to find it. Funny thing about my colleague is that he sees the world in landscapes, not in the grid patterns of American streets. He doesn't get lost in natural settings like I do, but his keen sense of direction was challenged by the streets, all named after trees: Pine, Sycamore, Elm, Chestnut. "It's right there!" pointing past rooftops and gray backyard swingsets. He could see the the woodland, the hillside leading down towards the creek with the sandstone shut-ins in it, the thick stand of cedars surrounding the glade. The glade is right there, but the streets won't take us there. So we ended up traversing the dirt roads of a cemetery and my chest started hurting because I hate cemeteries and death and everything associated with it. "Seriously, can we get out of here? I have to get out of here..." But the glade is just right there! A tiny brown routed wooden sign with "Park" painted in state park yellow, followed by a right facing arrow, finally availed itself to us.

A native stand of shortleaf pine surrounded a small stone picnic shelter and pitched roof boy scout hut with very low ceilings. The manicured park hadn't been seeded in turf grass, dominated as it was by yellowed poverty grass, desiccated Aster anomalous and other general woodland species like dittany and elm-leaved goldenrod. We played the winter plant game, more challenging because the regular mowing regime has encouraged native woodland plants to branch rather unnaturally. My colleague holds up a yellow stick with the hint of a long seedpod on it. "Erebus?" I guess, terrible at this game. I was wrong, and can't remember the right answer.

An old wooden park bench drilled into Roubidoux sandstone overlooks the undulating glade beyond the wall of cedars and woodland, a steep valley below. Big sandstone boulders perched on the ridgetop line a small beaten footpath. Past the thick stand of cedars, the path opens up onto the promised dolomite glade. We scan the site for plants: coneflowers, Rudbeckia, little bluestem, Arenaria stricta, Houstonia nigricans, solid dolomite glade plants. My colleague finds his uncommon plant again, and we express delight that the glade isn't covered in a suite of exotics, save the cedars both small and large. The glade is littered with chunks of shale and sandstone, an in tact glade hugging the land south a stand of native pine.

We head down the (poorly designed, highly erodable) trail into the woodland. Lots of Smilax, gnarly thorny vines standing out green in an otherwise brown landscape, and a typical overstory of oaks and hickories. The small creek at the bottom of the slope runs clear the whole distance we follow it. Spiky Polytrichum sp. and the ferny Thuidium sp. mosses line the creek banks riddled with large dolomite boulders. A typical Ozark woodland down there, a nice glade at the top, both communities in desperate need of some prescribed fire and a two-day, maybe three, cedar clearing project.

But it's a city park, smack in the middle of a town, on the edge of an icky, sprawling cemetery. A little management would go a long way here to protect the natural history of an area whose developed borders are expanding to accommodate Missouri's growing citizenry.

With the country's population ever-increasing, never cowed by economic downturn, these remnant natural areas will continue to feel pressure by developers. A hats off to the fine town of St. James for locking up in green space a small tract of a historic landscape once common throughout the Central Plateau. If it serves to get locals out into the natural world, away from television, it's serving a function. My colleague and I agreed, however, that it could be more. The small city park could be much more than an urban green space.


Justin said...

Fun post! I guess you're not a candidate for an Ophioglossum crotalophoroides hunt (in Missouri, only historically known from a cemetery).

What is the name of the park? I am through St. James often and I wouldn't mind exploring it.

Allison Vaughn said...

I fear death intimately. The park is smack in the middle of town. The turn (by the tiny little sign) is right before the cemetery. The glade, named Luther Branch glade, I think, makes an appearance in the Natural Features Inventory for Phelps Co. Three state listed species known from there. Paul's aster among it, I'm sure. I bet you're great with the winter plant game.