Monday, May 31, 2010


I must confess being rather proud of myself for amending the thick, sticky clay in my yard well enough to coax from it three dinners worth of produce this weekend. Previous land uses in my yard includ: tenants parking their cars in the yard, tenants jacking car bodies on concrete blocks for months on end in the yard, tenants trying to build a compost heap (I guess?) by mounding hundreds of cardboard boxes and thousands of newspapers all over the ground, and, during restoration of the bungalow, the yard was used as a trash dump for all of the darling clay tiles that once served as roofing materials.

But even more important than the bowls of broccoli, kale, chard, arugula, buttercrunch, and cilantro that I've hauled into the kitchen from the loess-clay backyard is the opportunity to spend several hours watching the bright orange clay courts at Roland Garros. The French Open ends this week, and now that all of the American men are knocked out because they each played hard court tennis on clay (can't do that and expect to win), the last days of the tournament should prove to be filled with great tennis. ESPN2 is broadcasting matches tomorrow and Wednesday from 11-4:30, and Thursday 7-noon.

If you live in a town like mine, one ruled by soccer players, soccer enthusiasts, and lots of people wanting to fit into either demographic by pretending to care about soccer, you'll likely have a hard time lobbying the bartender to switch one of the five televisions from the qualifying rounds of World Cup to the much more fascinating, deliberative, and skilled clay court matches.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Potato, apple, turnip, whatever

While I'm not great at Missouri botany, I'm abysmal with common names of Missouri plants. Perhaps because common names are so capricious, seldom based in the botanical nomenclature that was so carefully chosen to describe most plants many years ago, I just haven't taken the time to learn all of the variations on a theme of common names of plants in the Ozarks. (Of course, leave taxonomists in charge for an afternoon and they'll quickly create pseudo-Latin names that have no basis whatsoever in Linnean nomenclature or recognizable Greek and Latin roots...)

So when I ran into a healthy, blooming Psoralea esculenta in the western Ozarks recently and my fieldmate asked what it's "real name" was, I dug deep to call forth, hesitantly, "prairie turnip." Or prairie artichoke? Or maybe wild potato. Or jiggleywig. I just reiterated "Psoralea esculenta" and told her to call it whatever she wanted to call it, but to take note of it because this legume is not too common in the Ozarks anymore. Though historically, it was.

Psoralea esculenta grows on limestone prairies, glades, and in limestone-dolomite woodlands in the western Ozark Highlands and Osage Plains. Fire dependent, as are most of our legumes in Missouri, prairie turnip/potato of the prairie/white apple/breadfruit?/and so forth served as a food source to Native Americans who dug the tuber to eat for its nutritive properties. Evidently, you can grind the root to make flour, as well. So common was this plant that when early French settlers came to far reaches the western Ozarks where prairie intergrades with woodlands, they named a river after it--Pomme de Terre, Apple of the Earth.

This highly flammable part of the Ozarks, characterized by super dry woodlands packed to the gills with Indian grass and gnarly, stunted post oaks (with an average canopy height of 60 ft.), harbors several prairie species that seldom appear in other parts of the Ozarks. Ecologically, the area is true Cross Timbers country, with fires moving across vast, open prairie through wide open savanna with orchard grown post oaks punctuating the landscape and then racing through nice open woodlands. Settlers in Cross Timbers land regularly wet their trousers to the knee from walking through all the tall grass.

Prairie species are out still there, holding their own on frequently burned glades and in well managed woodlands. Call them what you will, but without fire, our very cultural relicts of ancient, biodiverse landscapes that once sustained entire races will disappear.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Maintenance phase

This past winter's persistent snowpack made it virtually impossible to implement prescribed fire on a large scale in the Ozark Highlands this fire season. Just as the wet fuels dried out from one snow storm, another one rolled in dumping 2, 3, 6 inches of snow and sleet. My favorite tract of woodlands morphed into an ice rink for a week, sleet so thick the hordes of deer that live here traveled the salted roads for slipping on the 3-4 inch ice (while clipping off almost every white oak, sassafras, and sumac twig along the way).

So I return to this same tract of well-managed woodlands biweekly (at least) for my own research, for birding, for sheer pleasure. Fire ripped through this area two years ago in November, a big raging fire that topkilled oak sprouts and consumed one year's worth of leaf litter and a thick, dense, high quality grass-forb mix.

When I returned this spring, I expected to find the tall, rangy yellow stalks of gama grass, bluestem, and the tall, dark brown twigs of false foxglove and penstemons. But just as in Western landscapes --not managed with fire but with snow and ice that lasts for weeks and months on end, the landscape here in the Western Ozarks showed no sign of last year's vegetation or leaf litter. Fresh, green grass slapped against my calves, with no seedheads raking my arms or rank, chest high blades crunching at the base when I stepped ahead. The entire acreage looked as though fire had coursed throughout sometime in February, but it's been two years since a fire.

I return to the same place as often as I do not because I expect to find a new plant, a life list bird, or something extraordinary, but for the mutability of a restored landscape, of a resilient and pristine place where fire reigns and all the pieces of woodland ecology in the Ozarks fall into their proper place.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mt. St. Helens: 30 years later

See here three aerial images from Livescience of Mt. St. Helens before the eruption in 1979, afterards in 1980, and today.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Among the elves

Earlier this year (back when the outside world was a nice hue of khaki), I wrote about true forest and some of the characteristics of this not-too-common Ozark natural community type. I posted some photos that must not have been too illustrative of big, ramrod straight trees, moist soils and fire infrequency, as my dear friend Ted so eloquently stated: "I just don't see it," the difference between forest and woodland. So, I admit, it's more difficult to determine forest from dry mesic woodland when the ground flora is unseen and buried under brown leaves for months on end.

As spring moved in and I visited burn units throughout the Ozarks, I witnessed firsthand mesic chert forest, dry mesic chert woodland and, of course, the dominant community: dry chert woodland. When we think of natural community types in the Ozarks, we must think of fire behaviour. Where does fire naturally move, where does it naturally stop? Where does a prescribed fire extinguish naturally from the landforms, moisture, and vegetation? If you set a ring head fire around a 700 acre burn unit in the Ozarks and you don't send anyone into the interior to strip out the hollows, you'll see where fire moves naturally (if the unit isn't full of firebreaks like old logging roads and overused deer paths).

This year, I photographed the signs of true forest, actually captured some of the characteristic traits before the canopy closed in and made the vegetation "spare" and "scattered" on the ground level. After spring wildflowers have their day in the sun, the canopy closes up in true forest, leaving behind a depauperate understory with little dogwoods and sedges reigning supreme. But spring in true Ozark forest is remarkably lovely, as most nature photographers will attest: maidenhair ferns, bluebells, trillium, and wild ginger, plants also found in unburned dry mesic woodlands, they're more common and more robust in true forest. Located on north facing coves and in areas sheltered by cliffs and geology, forest doesn't see fire on a 3 to 5 year rotation like a typical chert woodland. Set a fire all around a forest and watch as the flames extinguish when they hit the moist mosses, thick stands of ferns, certain spring wildflowers, those places where you'd expect to find little elves that live under red-capped Russula mushrooms. Think like a fire and you'll understand natural community variation in the Ozarks.

Friday, May 14, 2010

From lovely woodlands without deer problems

It's been a stupid awful week. The entire food web is collapsing on the coast, and industry officials are thinking so creatively that I expect them to throw a bunch of old refrigerators and burned out cars into the water to plug the leak. Really, putting up entire walls of rip rap (that no one has any plans of removing, I'm sure) so that you'll flood out the marshes in an effort to keep a liquid out? Nesting Wilson's plovers are toast. And no one is hearing about the kidney and liver problems most of the coast-dwelling birds have developed from eating contaminated fish. Cnidaria are dying from all the chemicals various companies are throwing into the water willy nilly, and without jellies, you can say goodbye to Kemp's ridleys and hawksbills. But the brown pelicans, the poor dears, just nesting innocently on the lower Chandeleur Islands, their populations rebounding ever slowly to almost being delisted. Huh, not anymore. Red tide doesn't have anything on the BP Oil Spill.

And, inevitably, WNS is now documented from the Ozarks (not that I thought the Pike Co. animal was an anomaly) on an endangered species who was recovering so nicely from years of mismanagement of caves. Just when locals stopped setting raging spring bonfires in maternity caves...

So I'll step back to last week, before Louisiana, when I spent two late afternoon days with a darling old colleague and her gut laugh stomping through her beautifully managed woodlands all aflush in a heterogeneous matrix of nice blooming forbs. It's only on occasion these days that I've visited woodlands without browse lines, woodlands without every single cotton picking forb clipped off mid-stem. Two days in nice, calming, pleasing, aesthetic and biodiverse woodlands full of warbling warblers and dappled sunlight. Pure respite. Just a bunch of pictures in nice light, all for you Denise.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Killing trees

I love fire. I doubt that either of the two (maybe three) of you who regularly follow this journal ever wondered (from reading my posts for the past 5 years) about my positions on the implementation of prescribed fire in our fire-meidated systems. In the past few years, I've gained an uncanny ability to turn any innocent conversation about almost anything to a discussion of either fire or wine. I can talk about either rather voluminously and passionately (i.e., ad nauseum); as the night wanes, passion waxes, and fire and wine can take on poetic forms borrowed reliably from Horace, Ovid or Homer.

But it's come to my attention in recent years that not everyone who applies fire really understands fire or even how to apply it properly. Oh, through this medium I've ranted against land managers, who, scared of scarring trees, try to burn woodlands on 70% humidity days following a rain event which results in a stupid blackline around 500 acres, then labeled as target. I don't think I've ever written about the other side of the spectrum.

In Greek, there's a construction found in a single word that represents "there are those who..."--an efficient and succint way of labeling a fingerpointing incident. While we don't have that concise construction in English, I will proffer with the same accusing finger that there are those who burn under extreme conditions, resulting in inherently damaging fires that impact rather fragile, compromised landscapes (fire suppression, intense timber harvest, grazing history). In the past four years, I've encountered thick, dense, overstocked and trashed out woodlands that desperately need thinning only to be burned under conditions that do not kill canopy trees, conditions that don't even put the canopy in the hospital (which would allow light to the woodland floor during the early growing season), a practice which can leave behind a barren and desolate landscape. In many thousands of acres of Ozark woodlands, the tree canopy has closed in so densely that even after a fire has removed the countless years of leaf litter, the canopy trees leaf out so quickly that light never reaches the ground floor.

Maybe this is less of an informative post than a request to those who plan to implement prescribed fire for ecosystem restoration projects: know your prescription.

If your goal is to maximize biodiversity by increasing light to the woodland floor, and your canopy is measured at 90-100% closed, you'll need to either thin out the fire intolerant trees (like scrappy little maples or hackberries) or send a stand-replacing fire through parts of the area. If you don't kill some trees, or at least set them back to the point that they don't leaf out completely in the spring, canopy cover will preclude ground flora popping through the bare soil. While this may sound mercenary, and likely unpopular with those who hate fire, positive results can come from certain, selective, and deliberate killing or damaging out-of-context trees. I'm not promoting clearcutting, timber harvest, or even salvage logging, but in certain prescribed situations, hot, stand-replacing fires are vital to the sustainability of a biodiverse natural community. You can't just burn because it's a good burn day, you have to really know and understand your prescription, how fire works on your landscape. You can promote biodiversity by implementing fire with this result:

Or scorch the earth for a season like this:

It's all in understanding your landforms, your fuel load, your vegetation types, your natural communities, your land use histories. In overgrazed, deer-infested woodlands in the Ozarks, hot, late spring fires are probably not the best prescription for maximizing biodiversity. Damaged systems throughout the Ozarks have been treated with fire and no other means of management, which has resulted in a depauperate ground flora--spare twigs of grass, generalist woodland species. [I won't point to textbook examples of these places because I'm nice.] The whole landscape needs to be assessed before crafting a fire prescription: burn too hot and you'll sterlize the soil and still not allow enough light to reach the floor. Burn too cool and you still won't do a lick of good for the ground flora. You have to know fire, understand fire, obsess about fire, think about how fire moves on a landscape, envision fire consuming biomass. There is no other process that can mimic fire and its biophysical and chemical properties. (I probably sound like a creepy religious cultist for fire. Hmmm...maybe I am? Mwahhahahha.)

Of course, we're now officially well out of spring fire season (sigh...) and into the time of year when it's safe to burn off all those cedar slash piles on glades. Burn them now, before it's too late, because the surrounding woods will not burn. Wait too long and you'll end up with a tangled mess of cedar skeletons, Rhamnus and oak sprouts so ugly and disgusting that no clearcut can even compete for the "Miss Out of Context Award."

Monday, May 10, 2010

Greetings from Louisiana

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Stage 4: Route du Vin

Ste. Genevieve: home of beautifully restored French colonial homes, narrow streets, an ethos reminiscent of my neighborhood in New Orleans and a surrounding landscape of dry mesic sandstone woodlands which host populations of elegant pink wild azaleas, now in full bloom. The search for outstanding Nortons continues this spring, and my trusty friends from Louisiana, Judy and Spencer (those with the large cellar of European wines and discriminating palates) continue the exploratory missions by my side.

One of Missouri's designated wine routes courses through the Ste. Genevieve area. Named the Route du Vin, it represents one of the older wine regions in the state (the oldest wine-producing area in Missouri is the St. Charles region). Well marked off I-55, the wineries here are centrally located, allowing visitors to the region to experience several wineries in one day. Having spent the previous night in my remarkably dry tent and the morning hours drinking coffee and ambling through exquisite (managed with fire) sandstone woodlands, we allocated a mere 6 hours to only three wineries along the Route du Vin: Chaumette, Charleville, and Crown Valley.

Historically, shortleaf pine-black oak-white oak woodlands with a little bluestem/lowbush blueberry understory dominated the landscape here. This deeply dissected and rocky country possesses super sandy soils which drain quickly. These highly acidic soils are shallow with cobble, stones and boulders commonly found on the surface. Much like the gravelly, cherty soils of the Ozark Highlands, sandstone woodland soils are not very fertile from an agricultural perspective, but the native grapes (especially Vitis aestivalis, one component of the Norton grape) and a suite of endemic wildflowers thrive here. And so, thousands of exquisitely trellised grape vines cover the gently rolling hills around Ste. Genevieve.

Heading down Hwy. WW, the vast acreage of Crown Valley Winery's grapevines stretch for only a short distance before the sprawling complex of parking lots and metal roofed buildings appear. We passed up Crown Valley precisely because of the commercial nature of the enterprise, though returned at the end of the day to compare their wines. Chaumette Winery is next in line on the Route du Vin, a much smaller operation that makes an effort to portray the region's French influence.

Historically, throughout Burgundy vintners planted rose bushes at the end of each row of grapevines to serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine for plant health; if the roses showed signs of disease, the grapes were next. Of course, by the time the roses were affected, the grapevines were already at risk. Nevertheless, at Chaumette Winery and Vineyards, the Burgundian tradition continues, and red rose bushes are planted at the end of each row.

Inside the Grapevine Grill at Chaumette, tables are bedecked in rich blue and yellow Provencal tablecloths with rich wooden chairs and cabinets reminiscent of a French chateau. Behind the tasting bar, a sumptuous mural depicts the history of the Chaumette family of winemakers from their beginning in France to Virginia. There's an exuberance at Chaumette, an enthusiastic love of hearty wine and good food that the baristas pass on to everyone at the tasting bar. The staff of two gentlemen behind the bar spoke professionally about wine, without a beat telling us about the oak barrels and the aging process for each wine we tasted.

The Grapevine Grill menu is remarkably diverse and chocked full of healthful items, including a fantastic roasted vegetable panini with tofu, beets, portobella mushrooms and chard. Even if you don't drink wine for some reason, the restaurant is worth the trip. But Chaumette's dry wines are solid, big, and bold, not necessarily complex, but full of character. While the 07 Norton Reserve will surely age well (as most Nortons do) it's ready to drink now. I never try the sweet wines, but appreciated their names: Huguenot Red and Huguenot White.

Make a right out of Chaumette's drive and continue down Hwy. WW until you see a gravel road with a big Charleville Winery sign. The winding road continues for a while past a house, grapevines, and roadsides chocked with native vegetation: Silene virginica, columbines, Tradescantia virginiana, a nod to the true character of the unburned/ummanaged woodlands. What Charleville Winery and Microbrewery lacks in French Colonial decor inside their charming cabin in the woods is made up with the prestigious lineage of the Charleville family. Francois Chauvin dit Charleville b 1754 "assisted George Rogers Clark, brother of William Clark, in the capture of Vincennes during the Revolutionary War. For his service in the campaign, Francois was granted 200 acres of land near Ste. Genevieve." Today, his descendents operate a little winery and brewpub that offers a suite of dry and sweet wines and--according to my beer drinking friends--serves up mighty fine pale ales.

The 07 Chambourcin has the texture of an 05 St. James Norton, dry, thick, and without the berry sweetness of most other Chambourcin. The 07 Norton, on the other hand, was a little thin, with the feel of a California pinot noir (very unlike the brassy green oak Norton found just up the road at Chaumette). The commanding view from outside shows only one sign of human habitation, an old field and house on the opposite ridge. Mature oak woodlands surround Charleville, a truly serene setting for the bluegrass musicians from St. Louis playing on the porch yesterday. Charleville offers picnic baskets, cheese and sausages, and cozy outdoor seating. On the way out of town, I stopped into a gas station for water and found a full rack of 05 Charleville Norton, just aging and aging, collecting dust under the fluourescent lights next to beef jerky and Fig Newtons. Nortons aged for five years seem to be perfect, so I picked up a few of the 05s for the first float trip of the season.

Judy and Spencer left the Route du Vin with a trunk full of wine: 14 bottles from Chaumette, and armfuls of Chambourcin from Charleville. Having lived in Europe for several years and frequenting world class wineries like Phillipine Rothschild's and Chateau Haut-Brion, Judy's thumbs up at the end of the day was a good sign. The massive Crown Valley complex located on the way back from Charleville was not in the cards for Judy and Spencer, but it was for us.

In the Osage Beach Hy-Vee, one long aisle is dedicated to Missouri wines. I recall the day I went there to find a bin at the end of the aisle full of affordable wines of various grapes made by Crown Valley--none of the grapes I recognized. In fact, their wines were so affordable that I was dubious, thinking they were producing fortified jug wines a la 1950s Krug and other early Napa wineries (a movement in American viticulture that coined the term "wino" as a skid row appellation). Since then, I've tried the Crown Valley Norton, which is nice.

Crown Valley's big billboards and well-lit hotel lodging speak to a different crowd than mine. I associate Crown Valley as the Ste. Genevieve version of Les Bourgeios--plenty of good grapes, world class winemakers, but making and selling sweet junk to buses full of Mizzou kids wanting to "party." Not my crowd at all, but we pulled in anyway, so I could see what it was about and to find out if I was wrong.

A vast diversion from Chaumette's and Charleville's little tasting bars, Crown Valley's tasting bar is in a room the size of a megaplex. The tasting costs 5$ for five wines, but, like at Augusta, your tasting buys you a lovely Reidel Norton wine glass (so now if I break one I won't whine about it). Big pours, a long wine list that includes Petit Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Norton, Chambourcin, and some of the lesser known Missouri-grown wines like Frontenac. The staff at the tasting bar are still pretty new for the season, but show great eagerness towards learning about wine (always a good sign).

Sidled up next to us as I swirled my wine in the Norton glass was a couple in their 20s. They're new to Missouri wine, and Crown Valley may have been the first winery they visited that day. As I ran through my own glowing tasting notes of Crown Valley's dry reds, I thought of the niche this massive commercial operation was filling. Like St. James Winery and every other winery in the state, Crown Valley does make sweet junk for Mizzou kids and people who like sugary cocktails on a beach. I realize the Reidel glass seems to make almost every wine taste better, but Crown Valley's Petit Syrah, DeChaunac and Cabernet Sauvignon were really quite nice. Like the early days of Robert Mondavi Winery, maybe Crown Valley is introducing a non-wine drinking audience to wine; let them start with a sweet red and then ease them into a Chambourcin. But if visitors here spill over to the rest of Route du Vin, Chaumette will always have a reason to honor the Huguenots.