Friday, July 31, 2009

Late summer moves in

How did that happen? One day, not that long ago, I was crouching down in the sandy soils of the Elk River Hills to look at bloodroot poking through the leaf litter. This week, in the blink of an eye, I met two goldenrods in bloom (S. gattengeri, S. drummondii), two beautiful harbingers of fall. Every week during the growing season, just as fire season comes to a close, I spend at least one, usually three, sometimes four days a week in the woodlands and glades of Missouri's Ozark Highlands. With the clement temperatures and excessive rain this spring, the growing season has been nothing short of explosive. Blooms have persisted longer than usual on certain plants, while others, like my beloved Buchnera americana, came up for a brief blue showing in late June, the plant quickly turning black despite all the rain. But the long summer days are coming to a close, and there's an urgency now to stay outside in tank tops and hats as much as humanly possible.

Running through plant lists of my favorite places, I'm hard pressed to think of late-late summer bloomers other than the goldenrods, asters and orchids of the genus Spiranthes. Even my own backyard, with its healthy stand of 10-12 foot tall Silphium perfoliatum and ground cover of Tovara virginiana is in full bloom already (pictured, S. laciniata). So, by my birthday in September, my yard will look like a jungle of strapping brown stems and leaves with a dense carpet of blooming asters. And on dolomite glades in September? There's downy gentian, that pretty wild onion, some asters...not so grim, after all.

But dolomite glades and managed-with-fire open woodlands are the place to be right now for blooming wildflowers: several species of Liatris, Silphium terebinthinaceum, S. lacinata, Rudbeckia missouriensis, and some of the danged goldenrods whose brilliant yellow blooms remind me that seasons change without my permission.

So, I'm going home. I'm headed to Louisiana for a while where summer lasts 10 months and you can grow food every day of the year. But it's too early to shake the muscadine grapes into your canoe with a stick from the black waters of the bayou.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Kansas in Missouri

That afternoon, after the boat was piloted out of the water and we had eaten more Fig Newtons and peanuts for the ride to our respective homes, my colleague asked if I had ever seen the Flint Hills of Missouri. I've seen a nice 5,000 acre prairie on the far western side of the state, I explained, but certainly not anything remotely similar to the expansive, undulating landscape in Kansas (except for in Kansas). But we were in the Gasconade River watershed, and nowhere near prairie country. "You're not going to believe what you see," he said, ushering me into his truck, leaving my Honda at the boat ramp. So I hopped into his passenger's seat and we set out in the streaming late afternoon sun to see a landscape very much unlike anything else in Missouri's Ozark Highlands.

For 8 miles, every so often, my guide pointed out his window to a 40, 80, 100 acre hay pasture: "Look! It's lovely, isn't it?" followed by a snicker. We drove past acre after acre of dense woodlands, interrupted periodically by fields of fescue, roadsides of sericea. Historically, he explained, this part of Missouri was post oak savanna country, and large stretches of prairie. No traces of that landscape remain, according to the Natural Features Inventory for Osage County.

We kept driving, the sun continuing to dip lower on the horizon, until we rounded a bend and saw this:

A loud "holy mackeral!" came from the passenger's seat. Beautiful, recently burned native prairie on the roadsides, and 8,000 acres of land cleared of most woody vegetation, a handful of older trees toughing it out. Baptisia australis, known primarily these days from the White River Hills (5 hours away) grew on the roadside, along with lots of rattlesnake master, Liatris squarrosa, and lots and lots of grasses: they were all there: big and little blue, Indian grass, switch grass, etc. and various sedges, unable to be keyed out even by my expert-sedge-guy driver.

The storyline is that this wealthy Texas oilman decided he wanted a ranch in Missouri. Many years ago, he cleared the land of timber and grazed camels on it to keep the woody vegetation at bay, giving new meaning to "vegetation management." At some point, the landowner burned the land regularly. As evidenced by his roadsides, native prairie existed here. The landowner now has cows on the land, and it looked as though he had seeded the land with fescue, grazed to a nub. But I can't imagine how incredible his 8,000 acres looked after his intial clearing and a few years of fire (without cows). 8,000 acres of prairie-savanna country. In Osage County.

We stayed there for a while combing through the roadside prairie, not even able to identify some of the rushes that grew in the swales. We want to return there to conduct a full botanical survey of the last known tract of prairie in the whole region, perhaps inviting my colleague's talented botany contractor to come along. The roadside prairie, all 1,000 yards long and 80 feet deep of it, seems to be holding its own these days, thanks to fire and the absence of exotics. We're keeping our fingers crossed that the highway department doesn't come by to gum it all up with their random seed mix.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Morel hunting in the spring is an long-lived Ozark tradition, one that continues to send Missourians into their special patch of woods where they've found morels every April before. But late summer mushroom hunting can rustle up another Ozark chert woodland delicacy, a mushroom I've paid mightily for when I lived in Brooklyn. It's chanterelle season these days, the same time of year that Liatris begins to bloom on the glades and the Schranckia holds on to its latest hot pink flowers in the woodlands.

Just as morels have a "false morel" relative, a mushroom similar in appearance and taste, chanterelles have the same, a similarly tasting version of itself, though a different species altogether. (Quick note: I don't encourage anyone who isn't absolutely positive in their identification skills to eat wild mushrooms....) Chanterelles look like a rather toxic mushroom also found in the woodlands in the late summer days, commonly called a jack-o-lantern mushroom, eating these would cause negative effects on your internal organs.

But I trust Travis. A passionate, avid outdoorsman who feels itchy when he's indoors, Travis spent part of last week gathering chanterelles for chili, for a mushroom tart his darling wife, Mindy, makes, for a whole storehouse of good recipes that also include other awesome produce he's grown. He may even freeze some of his cache this year, an easy task along the lines of freezing morels. But like strapping leaves of fresh basil, fresh chanterelles can't be beat.

And so, along with the peaches, the cucumbers, the zucchini, the yellow squash, the green beans, the tomatoes, homemade salsas, and other sundry items, Travis sent me back to Columbia last night with an entire grocery bag full of chanterelles he picked from his woods. They're too nice to eat. Chanterelles are like the silver set or the Waterford clock you keep in the box so the dog doesn't knock it off the table with his wagging tail. Chanterelles are so nice I'm eating them this week by themselves with nothing on them but garlic, Grenache and olive oil, all very simply, to really appreciate the special fruit of a good chert woodland.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Smallies on the Gasconade

Pulling away from the cracked concrete boat ramp in the bright red boat, my colleague recounts his Saturday on the Gasconade: "Hundreds of jet boats, some of them tied together in blaring from the boats...lots of raucous drunkenness...girls baring their breasts...." He was vividly describing to me the details of one of my worst nightmares wherein I'm stuck on a Missouri river on a Saturday in July. But on the overcast early summer weekday we set out for a day of smallmouth bass fishing, I couldn't believe the scenario he created. There wasn't a soul around that day and I didn't see the rafts of beer cans commonly seen on a Monday river trip.

But I don't really fish. I fished a lot when I was a child and I loved it. I liked fishing for bream off the bank of a bayou with Mabel (sitting on a bucket with a cane pole). I once caught a truly enormous alligator gar that sent me running far away from the bayou, Mabel holding my Snoopy rod and reel looking at her dinner I caught on a worm. I guess at some point in my life, maybe between the ages 6-14, the concept of taking a live fish off a hook didn't make me nervous. It actually makes my stomach hurt when I think of the necessity of carefully prying a barbed hook out of a live animal's gaping mouth. Unlike plants, animals move around a lot. Fish flop around without warning, and I certainly couldn't kill anything like a fish. So, I don't fish. But my colleague wanted to take me fishing to distract me from a very negative source of stress that has actually caused health issues. He took me fishing to make me relax. I was nervous the whole time, not wanting to turn his open faced reel into a bird's nest or to lose his fancy $5 lures.

The Gasconade River banks remain relatively undeveloped, with rank second and third growth lining the shores for miles. Corn fields and pastures punctuate the landscape, and periodically, cows will find themselves knee deep in the waters of the Gasconade. Years of excessive motorboat use on the Gasconade has resulted in serious erosion problems. During flood events, acres of pasture end up in the river, resulting in steep, muddy drop-offs along the shoreline.

But despite all of that, the Gasconade is a river teeming with life. Mussel beds can be found near the big boulders up and down the river. On a quick sweep of a large gravel bar looking for mussel shells, I found burned out versions of five species. My colleague likes to fish the Gasconade because it's "loaded" with smallmouth bass. A game fish found primarily in nicer, less polluted waters, smallmouth bass are managed as trophy fish on the Gasconade.

Having floated several Missouri rivers with my colleague, I've learned some of the characteristics of a "good smallie hole"--near the shoreline, usually in a cove with big slabs of dolomite. But I don't fish, so I don't really know much about smallmouth bass. I know that when my colleague caught the first fish of the day, he wasn't very excited because it was a largemouth bass, what he calls a "trash bass," capable of living in crummy waters.

"So, why do you like smallmouth bass so much?" I asked as we hummed down the Gasconade. For starters, "they taste better. They usually indicate better water quality, and they fight when you catch them." Having recently completed Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, I understood what he said. Page after page of my Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway can be summed up in these three reasons.

Even though I went fishing to relax, I became almost obsessed with catching a smallmouth bass; I wanted to feel a fiesty, fighting fish on the line. We didn't plan to keep anything we caught that day. Nevertheless, neither of us spoke very much that day, focussed instead on casting and reeling, casting and reeling. Perch repeatedly nibbled on my wiggly brown worm lure. One, two, three clamped down, causing me to jerk the rod back. And every time, they got away. "You never really had them..." he tells me.

Cows bawled on a distant shoreline. The red boat quietly rested in a cove filled with blooming water willow. "Hand me your pole. I'm changing your lure. You need to catch a fish." Moments later, I find a highly engineered lure, jointed and brightly colored, plastic molded into a Paul Klee version of a fish. Cast, reel, cast, reel, over and over until I actually watch the lure move through the clear water. It moves just like a fish! How could a smallmouth bass resist it?

Well, one couldn't. Tucked away in the cove, I cast out into the eddy. As soon as I felt the first tug, I started reeling in, quickly and vigorously. What a fight! I gave up reeling in and pulled the rod back, dropping a flopping fish into the boat. The first smallmouth of the day! My colleague moved to the front of the boat to find that the fish had taken himself off the hook (so I didn't have to handle it). Grasping it by its mouth, my colleague offered the fish to me to hold. He coached me through the caught fish photography, showing me how to hold it, where to put my finger, where to put my hand. I stared into this large gaping mouth of an animal and really didn't want to put my hand anywhere near it.

So, the resulting picture is almost a joke. He told me that the fish would start thrashing about as I held it, instructing me to "hold it tighter" if that happened. I wanted to gently place the fish back into the water where he belonged, as quickly as possible. It was all very exciting, catching my first ever smallmouth bass--the only one we caught the whole day.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Shafts of Light

Early morning light in the woodlands still knocks my socks off. The prairie clovers and gama grass have just started blooming. I saw my first purple bloom of Liatris cylindracea this morning before the terrible tennis match, but I think it was just a little eager--buds are still forming on most of the plants. The woodlands are now full of young birds whose calls are a little tricky to determine sometimes. The warm season grasses continue to grow, and the big bluestem clocked in today at 7 ft. tall.