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.

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