Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Levity for the year's end

I stepped on Ozark soil once in the past 10 days and it was in Arkansas at a gas station so it doesn't count. I know that post oak savanna country in the Western Ozarks received 4 inches of snow recently (allowing for helicopter deer counts if we can find a helicopter and a pilot on the same day). I've heard that some of the rivers in the southern part of the Ozarks were really high last week after the walloping rain and wind event (the same event that knocked down the 450-ish year old state co-champion bur oak I featured several times here when I lived in the Southeast Missouri Lowlands--sad, sad day). Otherwise, I've been woefully out of touch with Missouri and engaged with Louisiana at the height of satsuma season. On average, I've eaten 10 satsumas every day trying to conserve them for the long winter ahead in Missouri.

Having only moments ago opened Christmas presents sent forth from Oregon, I decided to share a gift we received. I won't post pictures of the awesome hot pink knee socks with polka dots that I intend to wear to work with a knee length black skirt/black sweater and gaudy orange vintage brooch from Salvation Army. Nor will I post the classy Eileen West nightgowns (because I suspect Carolyn couldn't decide on one so she bought both as a compromise), but from a charming hand-bound booklet covered in a William Morris inspired print of Indian elephants marching around a navy blue field, I'll post jokes. The inscription to the booklet reads:

We could not locate the old Elephant Jokes [Elephants, Grapes and Pickles, c. 1960s sometime] book around the house which we wanted to send to you as a stocking stuffer. At a used book website, a copy was priced at $44. So, in place of that, we in great cheapness compiled our own selection of these silly jokes. -Christmas 2009

Of the 65 jokes they carefully typed in for us, I couldn't choose favorites because they're all so silly and absurd. Everyone likes jokes, right? And no one wants to read about the biodiversity crisis when Christmas trees are still gleaming bright with C7 bulbs and handmade ornaments from 1978.

Q: Why do ducks have webbed feet?
A: To stamp out forest fires.

Q: Why do elephants have flat feet?
A: To stamp out burning ducks.

Q: Why do giraffes have long necks?
A: For spitting on burning elephants.

Q: How do you keep an elephant from charging?
A: Take away his credit card.

Q: Why do elephants paint their toes yellow?
A: So they can hide upside down in the custard.

Q: What is black, yellow, and dangerous?
A: Sharks in custard. That's why the elephants paint their feet yellow.

Q: How do you shoot a blue elephant?
A: With a blue elephant gun.

Q: How do you shoot a yellow elephant?
A: There's no such thing as a yellow elephant.

Q: How do you shoot a red elephant?
A: Hold his trunk shut until he turns blue, then shoot with the blue elephant gun.

Q: What is gray, has four legs, and a trunk?
A: A mouse going on a vacation.

Q: How many elephants will fit in a VW Beetle?
A: Four: two in the front, two in the back.

Q: How many giraffes will fit in a VW Beetle?
A: None. It's full of elephants.

Q: How can you tell if an elephant has been in your refrigerator?
A: Footprints in the Jell-O.

Q: How can you tell if there are two elephants in your refrigerator?
A: You can hear giggling when the light goes out.

Q: How do you know there are three elephants in your refrigerator?
A: You can't close the door.

Q: How do you know there are four elephants in your refrigerator?
A: There's an empty VW Beetle outside.

Q: How do you get an elephant into the refrigerator?
1. Open door.
2. Insert elephant.
3. Close door.

Q: Why are there so many elephants running around free in the jungle?
A: The refrigerator isn't large enough to hold them all.

Q: Why do elephants paint their toenails red, blue, green, orange, yellow, and brown?
A: So they can hide in a bag of M&Ms.

Q: How did the pygmy break his back?
A: He tried to carry a bag of M&Ms home from the store.

Q: How do you get an elephant on top of an oak tree?
A: Stand him on an acorn and wait fifty years.

Q: What if you don't want to wait fifty years?
A: Parachute him from an airplane.

Q: Why isn't it safe to climb oak trees between one and two in the afternoon?
A: Because that is when the elephants practice their parachute jumping.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Growing Army of Santas

Sad to admit, I drive Hwy. 63 from Columbia into the Ozarks more times a week than I eat apples. Ever since my discovery last December of a veritable army of plastic Santas and Snowmen located in the vast mown lawn of sprawling one story house outside of Vienna, I've been obsessed with these statues that require one light bulb for illumination. Last January, I noted the passing of the Vienna Santa lawn with a heavy sigh--Christmas is over, no more long hours baking for others, no more garland over my home's lovely arches, no more severe destruction of my kitchen while making Christmas candy for gifts. One week the Santas were standing sentry in the lawn, and the next week they vanished. Bleak midwinter sets in.

But they're back! The Santas are out again, and this year, there are more, many more Santas and Snowmen and candy canes and lights! Drive a couple of miles north of Vienna and you'll see it, too, the jolliest house in all the Ozark Highlands!

While I've always really cherished Christmas time, the nights spent writing long winded cards to people I never see anymore, baking cookies for the neighbors whose names I don't know, wearing red and green together because even though they're opposite on the color wheel, you can get away with it in December, I've grown sentimental towards Christmas since moving here. Here, of course, is away from friends, family, a piano, parties in the Faubourg Marigny, Meyer lemons and satsumas and outstanding Reveillon meals that last until 2 am.

So, I've thought about the Santa Army in Vienna all year.

Back in February, I attended a conference with 200 people I had never met before. I sat down with a plate of cheese slices, an egg that was intended as garnish on a salad of iceberg lettuce, and a heap of carrots right next to someone who didn't look like he would bother me while I ate. I guess I asked this unassuming chap where he was from, and when he volunteered "Vienna," I grabbed him by the shoulders and asked him frantically, "tell me about the house with all the Santas!"

He couldn't offer much in the way of information but that the local newspaper (it's a very old newspaper with a really strange name that I can't remember tonight...) once ran an article about the family with all the Santas. According to the second hand account of the guy who grew up in Vienna but lives in Osage Beach now, and who probably didn't read the article with the same fervor that I would have, the family "collects statues, and every year, people give them more. It started out as a way to commemorate their children: one Santa for each kid, but the Santas just kept coming..." The result is really delightful. I especially appreciate this year's alignment of about 8 Santas, all standing guard over the rest of the herd.

But it's not just about Christmas at this house. During October, the same yard hosted about 20 large single-lightbulb-illuminated pumpkins, jack-o'-lanterns, and black cats. There may have been a smiling ghost in the mix.

My year long desire to meet this family remains in place. I'd feel awkward and rude introducing myself to a Christmas house without pumpkin bread or divinity, and every time I'm driving through town I'm due somewhere north or south at a given time. So, now, entrenched in my mind is a mythology of a charming retired couple who probably have Fostoria candy dishes with cinnamon disks and those big recliners covered in taupe velour and a space for a remote control, a chair perfect for an old man to lean back and visit about spring turkey season or what's wrong with this country or maybe the meaning behind this charming collection of Santas that makes me smile every time I crawl through Vienna.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Green in winter

Stepping down into the ancient, moist sinkhole, I felt like an elf--or a hobbit or a dwarf or some other little woodland creature usually portrayed as living under a bright red Russula mushroom amidst ferns, mosses and bright orange salamanders. Enormous ferns draped the hillsides, offering a dramatic difference from the brown leaves/yellow grass landscape I had spent the whole morning walking through. Even now, in the cold, harsh, short days of December, mesic and dry mesic woodlands harbor thriving populations of brilliant green ferns.

Of the most commonly encountered, Christmas fern (Polystichum achrosticoides) takes the prize for the most charismatic. Found throughout the Ozarks near creek beds, in sinkholes, in the uplands where even slightly mesic soils exist, Christmas fern stands out like a giant among the leaf litter. Big, strapping evergreen fronds lie close to the ground during winter; the base of the plant is typically ringed with desiccating fronds, but during the growing season, new growth is erect, averaging 2 ft. tall. Because the leaves are so leathery and thick, the older, brown fronds persist all winter next to the green fronds.

According to Steyermark's Flora of Missouri, "pioneers used the leaves [of Christmas ferns] for making Christmas wreaths." Imagine that! There weren't enough cedars to go around for Christmas greenery in the late 1800s. Settlers resorted to fern fronds for Christmas greenery. And now we can hack down all the cedars we want for Christmas trees (and wreaths, and garland, and for kindling for backyard fires) without anyone even noticing! [Thanks, overgrazing livestock and 80+ years of fire suppression. And, thanks trashed out roadside for my stunning Christmas tree.]

Check out moist woodland rocky slopes, sandstone outcroppings and other acidic soils in the Eastern Ozarks to search for marginal shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis). In Missouri, this is the most common species of the genus Dryopteris, and can be found throughout the Ozarks and Ozark Border Divisions. I've seen it on igneous and sandstone, and not once on dolomite.

I stumbled across another Dryopteris in the Ozarks recently, D. goldiana, Goldie's fern. Known from a mere seven counties in Missouri, Goldie's fern is uncommon in the Ozarks. Missouri represents the southwestern edge of the range of this species, though Goldie's fern may have been more common here before the last glacial retreat. One of the few glacial relicts we still have in the Ozarks, Goldie's fern populations aren't very well known and should remain protected. As I told one fan of any and all rare and endangered species (I think he kept a checklist), do you have to see it to know it's there? Or is it good enough to just know it's there and being protected? He wanted to SEE it. Never mind conservation of the site, he wanted to stamp his footprints all around the plant. Probably wanted to steal a specimen. I didn't tell him where it was. D. marginalis is lovely, too, and you can find it in full, fresh green foliage right now in the Ozarks.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Textbook example, II

So, if you've ever wondered what a dry mesic bottomland forest looks like in the Ozarks, here it is:

According to my esteemed colleague, the distinct characteristics are rather specific:

Main characters: losing stream; rapidly drained; soils dry to dry-mesic but subject to flash floods. Get this. Usually no discernable stream in many. Its hard to find good ones because of all the shitty pastures upstream-hence why there's a good quality DMBF along White's Creek as there's no development in that watershed and it directly enters the Eleven Point River.

And since there were so many questions about this, I've reposted Paul Nelson's answer to all of you here:
Ok Scott, Allison, Travis and Ted. I must succumb to answering all, with a disclaimer that we might never know the complete truth. Ted. The terms "forest" and "woodland" can have many different meanings depending on the context. But for my purposes, woodlands are specifically described as a certain type of natural community distinct from forest. Allison is right; I hope you have the book. Scott. Your observations of Wildhorse Creek west of Big Spring is right on. That is the country that typically loses most rainfall that filters and percolates through porous substrate through cracks and caves eventually emerging at Big Spring (and other springs). I could just as easily taken the photo there instead of Whites Creek in Irish or Big Barren Creek elsewhere on the Eleven Point Ranger District. You are also correct that to some degree of severity, nearly every stream and river in Missouri now contains sediment overburden, the cause which is post European settlement overgrazing, land clearing, poor silvicultural practices (sorry for the politics) and overburning followed by abandonment of now degraded and worn out woodlands. And I'm not familiar with Logan Creek. Oh, and Allison you know that most every "forest" at some time in history will burn, even if every 50 to 500 years, but the point is despite an occasional fire, their structure is multi-layered.