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.

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