Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Yellow flurries

Thousands of criss-crossing gray lines—some pencil thin, others as wide as Sharpie marks—covered my (ancient) baggy Gap khaki trousers from my ankles to my waist. Thick, opaque splotches of black mud and small chert rubble dotted my hemline and literally covered my fancy Merrill running shoes. Yesterday marked the first day that I donned my fun old lady hat for fieldwork, and altogether, the sight of me walking down the grim hallway at 4 pm caused my sweet secretary to stare and ask, loudly, “where on earth have you been all day? You’ve just ruined your pants…have you looked at yourself in the mirror?”

I spent the day walking through a burn unit filled with trashy little –burned, blackened- whips of locust, hickory and other old field associates; with every step through the 80 burned acres, I added more marks on my favorite trousers. Sweet Angela, feted today with flowers, candy, and a rain check for a fancy lunch (since I was way late for work), she asked me if I just “throw away” all my clothes “ruined” by fire. I don’t, of course, I just throw torch fuel-drenched jeans and blackened tshirts (and gym clothes worn for three weeks straight) into a heap on a lovely 18th century Persian rug in the hopes that they’ll magically find their way into the washer in a few months when I might need them. I don’t make my bed, either, and I never really clean my French press (all gummed up with oils from Louisiana-roasted beans). But I was surprised that Angela was shocked by this admission of never doing laundry, having noticed the state of my little seldom-used cubicle; a tornado must have traveled through it recently scattering field notes and old research papers on field sparrows.

A little while ago, I wrote about a largescale historic landscape restoration project recently initiated on 400 acres on the Springfield Plain. On this site, several “flurries” of Missouri bladderpod were discovered, populations of a federally threatened plant dependent on disturbance and a limestone substrate. The glades that host known bladderpod populations have been managed with fire every 3-5 years for almost 8 years now, and the populations are thriving. Having seen the response to a little active management, the brilliant historian in charge of the area decided to start managing the rest of the acres in his care with fire and thinning projects. We started this year with a February fire on 80 acres of (totally overgrazed, degraded) woodland and an old field that, according to survey records, was once post oak savanna. This area will never be a Natural Area, but we’re trying to at least gain what we can from the existing seedbank.

On Monday morning, I received a ridiculously enthusiastic call from the historian imploring me to stop what I was doing and drive to Greene Co. “You’ll never believe it. There are all these flowers—pink,purple…and the bladderpod is everywhere!” Oh, I had statistical analyses to go through in preparation for a bird survey, but he was so excited by the response of his two fires on the 80 acres and the bladderpod glade that I left that afternoon.

His bladderpod populations, tracked by the Natural Heritage Database, were everywhere. The telephone company installed lines two years ago here, disturbing a big swath of fescue traditionally managed with mowing. Rather than seeding the area with fescue, the historian threw out a big bag of native prairie seed mix gathered from little roadside remnant prairies on the Springfield Plain. He burned this area in September, and now it’s covered in blooming bladderpod. Same story for a little area dug up on the edge of a woodland for a trail: a little disturbance, fire at the right time of year, and bladderpod appears, blooming a brilliant yellow all over his site. Speculation holds that bladderpod populations were dependent on bison herds for disturbance; with the disappearance of bison and the interruption of fire regimes, the bladderpod disappeared. Over 61 sites have been actively managed for bladderpod in recent years, possibly establishing a very stable population in Missouri. Remove the threatened listing, and management may stop. The plant is restricted to a very small area, an area largely converted to agriculture on the Springfield Plain, and management of glades and woodlands that possess these populations also contribute to the larger conservation goals of the area. At the site I visited Tuesday, growing among the bladderpod were thriving populations of lemon mint monarda (Monarda citriodora) and Trelease’s larkspur (Delphinium treleasii?), both conservative species in Missouri.

I wanted to show the historian that I fully supported his restoration efforts, not just his protection of bladderpod populations, so I traveled all over his place, seeing for the first time wet weather springs coursing through a former prairie---12 in all!—and big bluestem growing in his woodlands. I was joined by several Dickies-clad morel hunters whom I greatly annoyed by stepping squarely on an enormous mushroom to peer down into the eyes of the year’s first three toed box turtle. I laughed, announcing that it was my first morel of the season, and my first turtle. I pocketed all 5 parts of the big mushroom I obliterated with my muddy foot, and vaguely started looking around for more, but grew distracted by all the sedges, the glade plants blooming on the woodland edge.

Bladderpod blooms following growing season burns. August burns benefit the plants greatly, and they allow managers to burn off glades without having to worry about fire in the woodlands. This year’s September fire on the glades trickled into the woodlands, and bladderpod responded. Missouri bladderpod grows prolifically at this site when managed with fire.

I finally left the little 400 acres, congratulating the historian on a job well done and promising him dedication of my time and effort towards his project. I went out in search of other bladderpod flurries to see what else grows in their midst. The motherlode, the crown jewel population of Missouri bladderpod exists outside of Willard at Rocky Barrens Natural Area. I was told to expect “thousands of plants,” though I had seen as many at my little historic site. Following detailed, live-from-Rolla instructions, I found myself walking onto a cool limestone glade complex covered in Trelease’s larkspur (not in bloom yet…of course. I’ll post pictures of that one), Carex crawei, thousands of wild hyacinths (not in bloom yet), but not a bladderpod in sight. Seems that the land managers burned this area in the spring, same time they burned the 80 acres at the site I just left.

I had seen a glade covered in blooming bladderpod and was duly impressed. I had seen bladderpod growing in a recently-opened woodland. I had seen a glade, woodland and old field burned in early spring that hosted larkspurs, rudbeckias, goldenrods and monarda, a complex that also holds populations of bladderpod, but didn’t see any bladderpod. The plants are still there, of course, but the managers decided against managing an ecosystem for a single species this year. They managed the glade for the sake of the glade, and the glade has responded. Mid-May promises a literal explosion of blooms on the hyacinths and larkspurs. Bluestem is thick here. If, in a few years, they decide to burn the same area in August or early September, Rocky Barrens will once again hold the crown for hosting the largest population of bladderpod. The population is fine in the Natural Area, just as it’s fine at the little historic site where it’s in gorgeous bloom all over the place. The historian felt better when I didn’t chastise him for burning one of his bladderpod glades in February, his glade now covered in hyacinth. Before I left, we talked about managing systems, about managing parts of the whole, and now he wants to burn the whole county to see what comes up.

Pictures! All from the historic site but the last one, which is of Rocky Barrens NA looking remarkably quiet right now, but the seedbank is just fine.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Meyer, 2002-2009

Meyer was a good frog. Named after the bountiful Meyer lemon tree in the backyard in the Faubourg Marigny, Meyer (Dendrobates tinctorius, Citronella)came to 1908 Dauphine as a rescue frog. Slated for a sad life in a cramped tank full of about 20 other dart frogs hailing from Surinam, we offered to give Meyer a proper home among Gromette (Dendrobates tinctorius, Harlequin) a little black and yellow frog who looked like grommet material, and a charming assortment of tiny little chirping frogs of the genus Epipedobates.

Meyer was a little diffident at first, repeatedly slamming his blunt yellow nose against the fabric-lined tank lid in an effort to get out of captivity (despite his truly illustrious tank filled with bromeliads, two species of Selaginella and other cool plants I jacked from the tropical greenhouse I managed). He settled into his life among many other frogs--a couple of delightful Hyla ebraccatae, a whole mess of these South American walking toads--most of whom he outlived. Meyer lived a long life, having dealt with multiple car rides, a bike ride in a sherbet tub, and trips to Shreveport living in a stuffy pet porter carefully packed with his coconut hut, a wet log, moist sphagnum, and a few sprigs of tropical plants added for cover.

Meyer was laid to rest under a big patch of lilies tonight, lilies only recently sprouted from the burned landscape of my backyard. He is survived by Spots (D. tinctorius, Citronella) and Morton (D. leucomelas), two healthy frogs (despite Columbia's terrible water quality) who continue to thrive tonight on a hearty feeding of vitamin powder-dusted fruit flies. I'll track down some fattening waxworms to offer both of them as an obligatory casserole.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Farmer's Markets in the Ozarks

Early next month, efficient Mennonite farmers of the Niangua Basin (with their matte-black vans, strong hands and their charming straw hats) will descend on Camdenton's courthouse square to usher in the opening day of the Camdenton Farmer's Market. They won't be the only peddlers of asparagus, spinach, lettuce, eggs and other early spring offerings, but will be joined by a whole host of local growers who produce everything from goat's milk cheese to grass-fed beef to soap. The Camdenton Farmer's Market began in the early 2000s, with a handful of vegetable growers, a talented wood craftsman, sheep's millk cheese producer Stoney Acres Farm of Competition, and a baker who sold delicious cookies and breads selling their products from self-furnished tables or the back end of their trucks.

The Camdenton Farmer's Market has grown in recent years, just as many other new farmer's markets have started to take advantage of the upswelling of the "buy local" trend (hopefully one that continues to grow in popularity). Now, the Camdenton Farmer's Market supplies tents to vendors so plentiful as to take up almost every inch of the parking lot at the junction of Hwys. 5 and 54. Unlike at my fancy big city farmer's market that charges body parts for cheese, produce, and eggs, even enormous bouquets of (preposterously large and smelly) pink peonies at Camdenton's Farmer's Market are very affordable (I think here they charge 25$ for five stems). I don't know if Stoney Acres still sells their luscious sheep's milk cheese, soaps, and lotions here anymore, but you can buy directly from them here, at Rolla's (great! expansive!) Foods for Health and a few other health food stores in the Ozarks. (I don't know the farmers, really, but I truly dig their cheese. Oh, and they have border collies)

Of course, Camdenton isn't the only town that hosts a great farmer's market each Saturday during the growing season. In fact, there are two markets on Hwy.19 alone, one in Salem proper, and the other near the canoe outfitter town of Alton. The Lebanon Farmer's Market, located downtown near Meeks Lumber, is another great one, with local vendors setting up shop Thursdays and Saturdays from 7 to noon, May-October. Rolla's is small, but growing, hosting vendors on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 7-11. This early in the season at most farmer's markets expect nice brown eggs, meat, cheese, spinach, asparagus, mushrooms, lettuces, jams, breads, and vegetable and herb starts. At some markets you can find big healthy bunches of daffodils now (if you don't live near an abandoned homestead in the Ozarks to pick your own, always great sources for daffodils, forsythia sprays, quince). I've only been to the markets listed below, but there are plenty to choose from. If you're remiss about finding morels (or if someone else discovered your patch), I'd wager you could buy a breadsack of them for about 20$ at one of these....
Go here for a map of registered Missouri farmer's markets, though I myself know of several that aren't listed here. After all, it only takes a handful of farmers to agree to meet up on a certain day to sell their extra produce to create a small impromptu market. Feel free to send information about your own personal favorite and I'll add it to the list!
Fair Grove Farmer's Market at the Mill: Wed. 3:30-7, Apr. 22-Oct. 7
Ava Grower's Market: Sat. 7-noon, April-October. At the junction of Hwy. 5 and 76
Dent Co. Farmer's Market (Salem): Tues. 3-6 pm; Sat. 7:30-noon, May-Sept. On Hwy. 19, 1/2 mi. south of the courthouse
Branson Farmer's Market: Sat. 7-noon, May 9-Oct. At the corner of Pacific and 35.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


During the early days of the Carter Administration, my mother sent me off to Camp Wawbansee, a CCC Girl Scout camp located outside of Simsboro, Louisiana, deep in the heart of towering pines. I spent a couple of years here among second growth pine trees and roadsides filled with coreopsis until I grew really bored with Girl Scouts. I was a lousy girl scout, really, impatient with the charge of being a good samaritan, intolerant of the daily dining room chores inflicted on 8 year old campers, and tired of all the public service events like singing at nursing homes. I really enjoyed building fires, stomping through the woods, identifying plants, and (of course) breaking into the storehouse of purple boxed Samoas that sat 5 feet high next to my piano awaiting delivery to paying customers up and down the block. I only went to Girl Scout camp a few years before attending Camp Hardtner, an Episcopal camp on the edge of Kisatchie National Forest in central Louisiana. I can't think of a single skill I learned at Camp Hardtner. I didn't have chores or duties there, no bed making or sweeping the cabin floors everyday, but I dove into friendships that span history, time and place. I can't name a single cabin mate from Camp Wawbansee, but have the email addresses and phone numbers of almost 50 friends from Camp Hardtner, many of whom I haven't seen since 1990.

It wasn't the fault of the camp or even the structure of Girl Scouts that left me uninterested. I learned about Louisiana forester and naturalist Caroline Dorman, one of my childhood heroes; I learned why you shouldn't pick wildflowers in the woods; I learned that throwing longleaf pine needles into a campfire makes the fire explode; I learned my trees and shrubs of Louisiana. But it was a lousy camp...even the songs weren't fun, all focused on service, God, and good citizenship (Conversely, we sang Hoagy Carmichael protest tunes at Camp Hardtner...I swear the diocese bred little socialists there). I left girl scout camp with the skills to build a great fire, but didn't really accrue lasting memories or tools for living life.

Few things I remember from those two mid-1970s summers probably shouldn't have been retained. Much like the lyrics to Steely Dan songs which loop through my head when I'm on the treadmill, lessons from girl scout camp creep up periodically. One of the troop leaders at Camp Wawbansee was a young mother with thick, salt and pepper feathered hair, skin-tight jeans which she professed to wet before rolling them on, tight black concert t-shirts from crappy bands like Boston and REO Speedwagon with the sleeves rolled up, snakeskin cowboy boots, a big pink comb in her back pocket. She came to the pine woods with a big luxury van with 8-point buck transparencies on the windows, white shag carpet stained with her daughter's spilled Coke, a macked out 8 track tape player with Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell tapes scattered between the seats. She killed snakes -big, harmless things like rat snakes- with a shovel she carried in the van expressly for that purpose. Never really enjoying the quiet of pine woodlands in northeastern Louisiana, she blared her bad music from the van which she parked right next to the CCC shelter, about a mile away from the designated parking area, directly on top of a bunch of oak sprouts. I was grateful that my mother wasn't anything at all like her. I once saw my educated, talented, pretty, trim mother talking to her after a girl scout meeting and I felt unclean, like my mother had to use the payphone in a Bourbon Street strip club or something.

The troop leader led us on half-hearted "nature walks" up and down old logging roads, not wanting to go on the trail system (that Caroline Dorman herself designed) because she'd get mud on her boots. Along the way, she would flip logs in an effort to locate snakes to kill, pick strapping bouquets of roadside wildflowers, and create fiction designed to scare us. (Such as: our cabins were perched on Caddo burial sites, and that our cabins are haunted). I also learned from her that "all snakes are poisonous," a line I told my father who just laughed and laughed and laughed afterwards. This woman was so anti-snake that after she killed the ones around the dining hall, she skinned them ("to make a belt!"), chopped the meat into bite-sized pieces and then roasted them over the campfire. Ick.

But one afternoon that summer, she taught us about edible plants. My fellow scouts in Troop #36 watched as she ate grungy old dandelion greens, dusty from our repeated foot traffic. We saw her eat wild onion bulbs speckled with Tunica-black soils. We watched as she carved big chunks off of a big sassafras tree, undoubtedly killing it, to boil into a tea. In the pine woodlands of Louisiana, small sassafras trees can be found in the openings, along roadsides, wherever light can reach the woodland floor. I was enchanted by the varied leaves of these little midstory trees: one leaf looks like a mitten, another like a 3-fingered glove, maybe for a great blue heron, and the other a simple leaf without lobes. I asked the troop leader about these trees, how one tree could have three distinctive leaf shapes. She ignored my question, and showed us the dented Wearever pot full of a steaming, hibiscus tea-red sassafras infusion.

Always one to trust adults- even though I had very little respect for this woman -I drank some of her sassafras tea. I liked it, and thought it was pretty amazing that a slice off a tree boiled over a campfire could turn well water into something potable and red. Of course, she told us that afternoon that sassafras leaves are ground into a powder to make filè, an essential ingredient in gumbo. I then fell in love with sassafras trees. I wanted to know what else they could do.

Fast forward to my first growing season in the Ozarks. Walking through high quality dry chert woodlands in mid-April, my colleague and I come up to a ridgetop on the edge of a recently burned glade. Thick stands of 7 ft. tall shrubs fill the space between two large post oaks. Half of the trees were top killed by his April fire, scorch heights two feet up the brown twigs. The other half of the dog hair stand were thriving shrubs sending out big bunches of brilliant yellow flowers up and down the smooth brown stems. I peered into the simple, waxy flowers and asked my colleague what they were. "#$%&*^ sassafras. They love fire. You can't kill it," and he kept walking. I stopped, then questioned him like I always do when I'm surprised, with a loud and excited "really?" I thought of Louisiana and gumbo and root beer and that red infusion the woman with bad musical taste made.

Once I met flowering sassafras in Ozark woodlands, I saw them everywhere that spring, growing thick along fencerows, along woodland edges, on glade borders, in unburned savanna. I remembered the faded, pale orange hue the leaves take on in early September, the smooth bark, the list of cures attributed to sassafras. In Ozark woodlands, sassafras seldom grows into large, singular mature trees. They propagate by suckers and are difficult to transplant. Of course, hearing the disdain heaped upon them by my colleague, I'm not sure I would try to transplant one anyway. In fact, when he realized I was so thrilled to see so many sassafras trees with their interesting leaves, he asked if I wanted to come to his house to dig some out of his woodland.

I had great plans for these sassafras trees. I would do what I was taught to do in Girl Scouts. I would carve a chunk of the bark and soak it in water until the water turned a nice amber color. I would dry the leaves and make my own filè, an essential spice I can't find in central Missouri. But first, consult the beautifully illustrated Trees of Missouri by Don Kurz to see what he says about sassafras:
Root bark tea is a well-known spring blood tonic and "blood purifier;" also a folk remedy for a variety of internal ailments. However, safrole, the oil found in sassafras, has been found to cause liver cancer in laboratory animals. In 1976, the FDA listed it as carcinogenic and officially banned the sale of sassafras tea, roots, and oil.

Never one to invite cancer into my life, I decided to leave the sassafras where they were, clogging the woodland edge at my colleague's 50 acre property. That afternoon, I started to wonder what other misinformation I had retained from Girl Scouts. The FDA listed it as carcinogenic 4 years before the woman with bad taste fed it to us. I'm grateful I learned about the tree at a young age, and even more grateful that my mother realized my soul gained nothing from girl scout camp and sent me packing to Camp Hardtner, a place where I learned nothing whatsoever but grew nonetheless.

Book list

Now that my sage green down jacket and bright red wool scarf spend their days in a rumpled heap at the bottom of my closet, it's time I close the door on my winter reading list and begin gathering forces for late spring afternoons in my Adirondack chair. But first, a few recommendations from this year's exercises, some from my basement stash, and others from the fine, fine Daniel Boone Library located a few blocks away. I spent more time in the orange speckled wingchairs upstairs in the reading room (with natural light streaming through the floor to ceiling windows) than I did in my own green wingchair this winter, my favorite $50 purchase now inhabited by a pillow covered in lupines. But the backyard is already shaping up to be a great space again; violets and sedges have taken full advantage of the available light following the burn, and my trusty colleague has donated a truckbed's worth of firewood to the reading cause. I hope my summer list includes as many great books as my winter list did...

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen. A terrific, intimate book by one of my favorite modern writers. Detailed character studies of a middle class family dealing with Alzheimer's.

How to be Alone, Jonathan Franzen. A book of essays regarding the modern condition of happiness in a world where we're constantly barraged by worthless stimuli, never able to simply exist.

The Discomfort Zone, Jonathan Franzen. Excellent autobiographical book about growing up in Webster Groves, Missouri in the late 1960s. This book made me want to run into the author one day at a coffeeshop. I felt very close to a writer I've never met after reading his book.

On Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell. Another wonderfully researched and thorough history account, this time about the original Puritan settlements. As a typically great Sarah Vowell book, it connects the modern political situation to the early American settlers. I think she may hate Reagan more than I do.

The Earth is Enough, Harry Middleton. As much about flyfishing for trout in the Ozarks as The Sun Also Rises is about bull fighting. This short book is a poetic tale of a man's affection for the natural world.

Louisiana Hayride: Radio and Roots Music along the Red River, Tracey Widiger Laird. Written by a childhood friend, this historical account details the rich musical history of Shreveport, Louisiana, a town now so far detached from the production of interesting music, that this book serves as a paean to a brilliant moment in it's history.

Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America, Bruce Babbitt. I bought this book a few years ago when Bruce Babbitt visited Columbia to pitch his idea of turning the Missouri River from a seldom used thoroughfare for barges to a scenic riverway allowed to ebb and flow along the floodplain. The audience was tough that night, as most of them spend their summers paddling the Missouri, participating in cleanups along the Missouri, preserving and protecting the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge. He came with a pie-in-the-sky idea, but never really addressed the cost of buying out the countless farmers who plant crops in the Missouri River floodplain. Nevertheless, his book suggests a more sustainable America, where land use planning is not solely the responsibility of developers, but of the local community and the federal government. A thorough history of the development pressure around the Florida Everglades during the Clinton administration serves as a backdrop.

Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, Bill McKibben. From the leading environmental sciences author (whose environmental books are ALWAYS checked out from the Columbia library) comes a fun journal about testing the limits of his body. Never before an athlete, McKibben spends a year training to be a competitive downhill skier. The book is less about the passion he develops for skiing and the search for snow (a topic he addresses as it pertains to global climate change), but about how he became addicted to training. Near the end of the book, his father's failing health comes to the foreground, providing contrast to the manic pace best illustrated by his devotion to running.

Rabbit Redux, John Updike. Actually, I'm adding this one to serve as a warning. Following Updike's death, I checked out a few of his early books, having mostly read his later pieces and eloquent poetry in the New Yorker. After undergrad, I plunged into writers from the late 1960s-early 1970s: Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby, Bernard Malamud, Phillip Roth, Updike. I was actually tired of George Eliot and Trollope. I wanted nothing to do with high English writers, wanting instead to understand the modern condition so I'd be prepared for the heartbreak, failure and infidelity that seemed to follow so many people around after they left the safe confines of college. But I'm grateful I didn't read this book back then. I likely would have given up on modern writers altogether. As a typical Updike book, it paints a vivid portrait of 1970s America. If you're my age or older, you can almost see the shag carpet and orange lighting peering out from oversized brown lampshades through his words. The despair of being trapped in a loveless marriage and of subsequent adultery (a common theme in his writing) takes a backseat to a graphic, often lewd fantasy world of pedophilia. I stuck with it, this first book of the Rabbit series, despite my constant moaning and groaning about how downright icky the second half of the book was.

Hear Me Talkin' To Ya: The Story of Jazz as told by the men who made it, Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff. Amazing collection of interviews with early jazz greats like Danny Barker, Lil and Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Jelly Roll Morton, Coleman Hawkins and about 40 others. The interviews include detailed descriptions of life in jazz clubs of Harlem, Kansas City, New Orleans and New York. Great book.

The Invisible Pyramid, Loren Eiseley. Another heady book from a talented naturalist, this time about space exploration. In this book he argues that since we can't take care of our own planet, we really shouldn't be sinking millions of dollars in space exploration. Written in 1970, he mirrors my own thoughts: the biggest threat to biodiversity is a growing population, especially one that consumes as irresponsibly as we do today. Like his other books, this one is written mystically, sometimes difficult for me to understand when the kids are whispering on the chaise in the reading room.

And so, I'm taking suggestions for my summer list now...