Sunday, October 31, 2010


Early October with moving vans on the block. Renters across the street in the official "domestic violence house" who can afford a moving van! Tibetan prayer flags decorated the porch the first day they arrived.

Three days later, pumpkin lights went up in the front window, and three pumpkins of various sizes dotted the steps leading to the front door. My new neighbor threw down the gauntlet. Can she out-decorate me for Halloween? In early October, absolutely swamped with field work, my porch was littered with black oak leaves, acorns, houseplants, and a grapevine wreath with sunflowers and a red checkered ribbon at the bottom. She already had her pumpkin lights up.

Out came my pumpkin lights, orange lights, fall wreath-making materials, three pumpkins (two for carving, one for Thanksgiving).

She carved her pumpkin two days before I even thought about my pumpkin. Her pumpkin has a very nice smile and big, bright eyes. She probably even invested in spooky music to lure in trick-or-treaters.

As night fell on Halloween on my block, the Tibetan prayer flag girl blew out the candle on her jack o'lantern, turned off her porch light (the official Missouri sign that the house is not participating in candy giving), and unplugged her pumpkin lights. Across the way, my house looked like the Griswolds', only for a different holiday.

One trick or treater came by early tonight. I was working, and didn't see the costume or even have a chance to thank her for recognizing the welcome mat that we've laid out for three years. She took one of 6 full size Hershey bars and left.

Moments ago, two teenaged gentlemen rapped on the door. No costume, no "trick or treat," no "hi, neighbor!" but a pitiful sandwich bag held open to hold candy. I gave them each a Reese's and sent them on their way. Hazel stopped by, dressed like a baby, and her mom, the fine neighbor who allowed me to garden in her full sun, stopped by wearing a wig. By that time, Hazel's designated Heath bar had already been consumed. Actually, so has almost all of the Reese's and Hershey bars, with only one of each left on the dragonfly tray. It may be time to douse the light.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Maybe it was the rainy spring, maybe it was the same combination of climatic factors that also gave parts of Missouri a hearty grape harvest. Regardless of the cause, this has truly been a banner fall for persimmons. Trees in full sun (fescue pastures, banks of recreational lakes, yards...) are loaded with the bright orange fruits that dangle from the leafless branches like monochrome Christmas tree ornaments.

There are those who are hesitant to eat fruit that has fallen to the ground, but persimmons picked off a tree tend to be unripe, and the taste and sensation of biting into an unripe persimmon is unforgettable. When the fruits look like the photo I took above, a little banged up, super tender, they're ready to eat.

In Ozark lore, if you split the persimmon seed in half and it splits into a spoon-like shape, the upcoming winter will be full of snow. If the inside of the seed looks like a knife, winter will be icy and bitter cold. According to the first seed I spit out last month, we'll have a snowy winter in Missouri.

So how to prepare persimmons? Gather a whole mess of them, rinse them off, put them in a colander and mash the pulp through the sieve until only seeds are left in the colander. Use persimmon pulp like prepared pumpkin in pies, cookies, or bread (or like one of my readers, in mead). Persimmons are loaded with vitamins C and A, and have a distinct taste that raccoons, deer and opossums particularly appreciate.

Here's my reliable pumpkin cookie recipe (from New Orleans chef Susan Spicer's bakery) with a persimmon substitute. I don't measure spices and additions, but the rest of the ingredients need to be measured out. You'll need about half a grocery bag of persimmons for one recipe. Please make sure the fruit is ripe before baking....

Persimmon (or pumpkin) cookies
1 c. butter
3/4 c. brown sugar
3/4 c. white sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 c. persimmon pulp (or a can of pumpkin for pumpkin cookies)
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
spice it the way you like it: loads of cinnamon (S. Spicer writes 1 tsp. but I wing it), allspice, ginger, a little clove, maybe some nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
pecans or walnuts and raisins (again, however you like it. I load up my cookies with debris...)

Cream butter and sugars. Add egg and persimmons to the mixture. Slowly add the dry ingredients. Drop teaspoon sized onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 18 minutes or until they look done.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fall moves in

The asters are fading fast, but the maples on north and east facing slopes are ablaze in color these days. Super dry conditions and other factors have left much of the Ozarks with a less-than-spectacular fall again this year; even the white oaks are skipping that remarkable maroon stage and turning a muddy brown. The Gasconade River Hills, however, are in peak fall color, and the drive to Hermann is lovely.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Indian Summer, Part II

From the Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri:
Many early explorers in Missouri chronicled numerous accounts of periodic fires....Add to this the overwhelming, universal and pervasive evidence for historic fires as presented in many other documents across North Anerica (McClain and Elzinga 1994, Williams 2000, Nowacki 2002, Vale 2002) and it becomes clear that the influence of fire is the primary explanation for the observed presence of otherwise fire-dependent natural communities distributed across the Missouri landscape. Pyne (1982) stated, "The evidence for aboriginal burning in nearly every landscape is so conclusive, and the consequences of fire suppression so visible that it seems fantastic that a debate about aboriginal fire should ever have taken place."

Fire scars provide valuable records in establishing fire regimes. Guyette and others reconstructed fire histories by tree-ring analysis of red cedar and post oak for various regions of the Ozarks (Guyette and McGinnes 1982, Guyette 1989, Guyette and Cutter 1991, and Guyette and Dey 1997). Their results showed evidence of frequent fires occurring during the last 500 years in the Ozarks. Historical records indicate that most fires occurred in the fall with less frequent fires occurring in the spring and a few taking place in winter or summer.

Fire scars do not necessarily equal fire frequency (Pyne 1984). Whether a tree registers a fire scar depends on varying fire intensities. A fire of greater intensity would kill or consume a tree while less intense fires may not register scars in certain years. Additionally, most of the signature trees that contained fire scar data are today gone due to the nearly complete clearcutting of Missouri's original forests, woodlands, and savannas. At best, fire scar data is only one piece of information in formulating fire regimes, and perhaps offers a conservative estimate of actual fire frequency. p. 20

In March, 2009, we burned half a dolomite glade as part of a larger unit. The fireline went down the middle of the unit. In September, 2009, we burned the rest of the dolomite glade, a piddling little fire that left the landscape looking like it had been doused with RoundUp. The fire went out when it hit the woodline, trickling around in the dried leaf litter but extinguishing immediately when it moved under the treeline.

In May, 2010, we set up six randomly located 50 m. transects on the glade. Three transects were located on the site of the March 09 burn and three transects were set up on the side of the glade burned in September 09. Using a random number generator, we plotted six .25 m2 quadrats along each transect. We recorded and assigned a cover value to each plant located in the quadrat. The results of the survey indicated that the relative importance value and floristic quality index of the quadrats located on the side burned during the growing season were higher than the same values in the transects on the side burned in the spring. Below you will find two tables. The top table is the analysis of the transects located in the area burned in March 09. The lower table is the same analysis of the transects located in the area burned in September 09.

The scale of this research is small. I fully recognize this. I am happy to report that a graduate student will be conducting a similar though much more extensive study throughout the next two years (we just completed the fires on the growing season plots).

The area burned during the growing season responded well to the fire, with a higher forb count and slightly higher FQI than the area burned in the spring. Burning available fuels during the growing season in Missouri is not destructive to the landscape. The fires that occur in Missouri during the growing season are not on par with late April fires--woods seldom if ever burn in Missouri during leaf on (barring drought conditions).

From Paul Nelson, the father of Missouri ecology, comes this:
"The Mark Twain NF is conducting growing season burning for two reasons: first, as a means of most effectively combatting vigorous woody regrowth resulting from decades of tree farming, and second, because we choose to emulate growing season fires. One major conservation restoration approach described in the 2005 MTNF management plan is the coarse filter approach to ecosystem restoration. This comes at a time when it's not possible to answer all the myriad of "effects" questions raised by hundreds of interest groups regarding proposed management actions. The approach is to base restoration on what we already know about achieving desire conditions for healthy ecosystems and emulating the historic disturbance regimes by which ecosystems evolved. I've always believed land managers would not sway far off the mark by emulating fire (and other processes), even the absence of studies. DNR had no data nor baseline research when it took a bold chance and commenced a burn program at Ha Ha Tonka nearly 30 years ago. Imagine all the scientists and managers screaming about burning woods back then. This is certain. It's an extraordinary fact that Missouri's 40 million acres of fire-adapted ecosystems is today reduced to scraps of small remnants. I would think that anything we can do to increase fire on the landscape would have extraordinary conservation outcomes. Missouri's best woodlands, glades, and prairies -along with their diverse biota- are owed to the restoration of fire regimes. The Mark Twain NF implements prescribed fire on 30,000 of it's 1.5 million acres each year. That's about 0.6 of 1% each year. Pitiful. I can't believe we are risking anything given we otherwise have so much former fire adapted landscape remaining unburned. Surely, the species those concerned about find refuge elsewhere. For detractors of naturally occurring fires, we suppressed two wildfires due to lightning just this past season. Finally, we, and you, don't burn vast amounts of acres during the growing season. Why would we want to suppress the burning of 20 to 90 acres during late summer within a 5,000 acre burn unit? That's not extraordinary nor extreme."

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Norton Wine Travelers in Missouri

Charming people, the Norton Wine Travelers, who travel the country in search of great Norton wines. They visited Missouri a couple of weeks ago for a relative's wedding but also to visit some of the wineries in the Ozark Highlands. They visited the Ste. Genevieve area, Durso Hills, Twin Oaks, and countless others, even setting up their vintage camper on site at some to wait for the opening hours of the tasting room.

I'm constantly updating my list of wineries in the state that produce Nortons based on the Norton Wine Travelers' sleuthing efforts. See here for their reviews of Missouri wineries, noted in the individual winery journals; look for the characteristic photo of a rhododendron. Not only are the NWTs Norton experts, but enthusiasts of rhododendrons and magnolias. Botanists! Overall, the NWTs are entranced by the winemaking prowess in the state, and their reviews are really fun to read. I particularly like one that noted a "hint of barnyard on the nose...."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fire Safety Rules from 4 yr. old Lillie

Driving south on I-55 through Mississippi, blackened roadsides dotted the landscape. Mississippi- home to open pine woodlands with highly flammable grass-forb fuels- has posted "High Fire Danger" for weeks in a row. The highway department there has taken the responsibility of burning off roadsides along highly trafficked roads to allay the spread of wildfires started from a rogue cigarette butts tossed out of car windows. Rank grass still exists on the roadsides in some areas, as well as in the in tact pine-bluestem woodlands here, but as we entered the residential part of Hattiesburg where my camp friend Heather lives, the charred roadsides disappeared and big turf grass-filled yards of blooming impatiens and geraniums and pots of yellow chrysanthemums came into view.

(My friends in Southern states prefer to burn pine woodlands during Indian summer because it promotes forb diversity. Heather knows this, and knows that her little smidgen of woods behind the house would really appreciate a little fire, but she also fully recognizes her neighborhood association and the basic laws governing fire within city limits--i.e., residents can't burn woods in the middle of Hattiesburg, regardless of the fuel load.)

There are those precious moments that, as a child, many of us cherish: parents staying up late, enjoying adult beverages with old friends whom they haven't seen in many years, and, as a child, padding out in jammies to the edge of the living room to overhear what they're talking about, possibly being seen by said parent and then scolded, "go back to bed..." after being asked to perform a trick for dinner guests. "Do that thing you do. Play the piano, just one song. And then bed."

We didn't see Lillie that night in Hattiesburg. Heather's kids are so well behaved, I doubt either Lillie or Madeline ever leave the confines of their rooms to sneak up on their parents; they went to bed around 8, maybe 9 that night that we rolled into town with my car leaking oil from a part unknown to any mechanic but a Honda-certified one.

Lillie must have overheard me talking to her mother about fire and her pine trees.

At some point in the night's conversation, I must have muttered to Heather that I had a dream burn unit, a scheme to burn off all the pine woodlands in her neighborhood all at once. She lives in historic longleaf pine savanna country, a landscape I cherish and know well (burn a high quality longleaf savanna in October, a savanna that hasn't been grazed to crap by cows and horses, and you'll likely end up with a landscape chocked with grass pink orchids in April. Great country, pine savanna, good sandy soils and cool little microhabitats associated within). Actually, because Heather was so distracted, I don't even know if I mentioned to her how fun it would be to burn off her neighborhood or if I just kept it to myself.

Nevertheless, the following morning, while waiting for Heather to take Madeline to school, Lillie casually asked me for her crayons. I found markers and colored pencils too numerous to count, so she used those instead.

"I'm going to teach you about Fire Safety. I know all the Fire Safety Rules that my teacher taught me."

Out of the blue, Lillie decided to teach me fire safety rules. Granted, I know fire, I know fire safety, I know fire ecology, I know fire behavior, I know the calculus associated with fire movement, how it moves upslope, fingers into coves, across a broad, flat plain and how one can protect oneself by running to the fire shadow if fire threatens one's personal safety.

Lillie must have heard me talking to her mother about fire. She simply must have come out late at night to listen to me wax about fire and ecosystems and the benefits of implementing natural disturbance factors blah blah blah.

"First!" she tells me emphatically, "don't play with matches!" Crap. I've already disobeyed Lillie's Fire Safety Rules.

"If there's a fire, stay low to avoid the smoke." I wanted to tell her this doesn't work in landscape-scale fires....but possibly in those nightmarish structure fires which I don't ever want to witness or be a part of, staying low is a good lesson. In woodland fires, just try not to be on the side of the fire of the wind direction. Someone has to be over there, so if you're a baby about smoke, be on the lee side. I don't mind smoke. I love it actually-- woods smoke, that is, but if it's a good old fashioned Ozark tire fire or burn barrel full of plastics emitting dioxin and other known carcinogens, I'll run far away. Burning plastics, one of the easiest ways Missourians contract cancer.

"Stop! Drop! and Roll!" she told me, a lesson I first learned in elementary school while absolutely paranoid that my parents' friends who smoked in our house would inadvertently cause a massive house fire (despite our humid weather and persistently wet carpet from keeping the windows open). Having been on fire a few times while wearing Nomex clothing, I think the very last thing one would want to do in a woodland or grassland setting is to roll around in live fuels. Smother the fire with your wonderful leather gloves. Please don't roll around while you're on fire surrounded by rank grass. That's a recipe for disaster. But regarding a structure fire, I see that the same lessons I was taught as a four year old in 1976 remain in place.

I clearly got over my fear of fires as a child, and now see few greater pleasures in life than laying down flames where they belong, burning high quality native ecosystems that depend on fire for their sustainability, ecosystems well outside the city limits of Hattiesburg and miles away from Lillie's bedroom filled with yellow and white ducks.

Indian Summer in the Ozark Highlands

NOAA's red flag warnings and High Fire Danger notices persisted throughout the Ozarks last week, serving as an indicator that historically, Missouri's highly flammable landscapes burned during Indian summer. In fact, thick, rank bluestem on glades and in woodlands and waist high asters and goldenrods burn so well this time of year that most officials are hesitant to even allow rural residents to burn their corn fields for fear of setting the world on fire.

Fires implemented in late October are less likely to encourage a flush of fresh green warm season grasses and spring blooming wildflowers as early September fires do. To revisit an old saw, implementing the natural processes at varying times of the year will help to restore or maintain high quality ecosystems with their full complement of native flora.

Combing through the dog-eared copy of Schoolcraft's journals a few weeks ago, I ran across passages written in early November. Schoolcraft commented that the thick grasses he had encountered earlier that week had been recently burned all the way to the riverfront, "a dreary and desolate place" without firewood or green grass for his horse. As late as the 1930s (evidenced by 1938 aerial photos), thick warm season grasses dominated most of the woodlands in the Ozarks. Down in the White River Hills, trees were so widely scattered that even as recent as the 1930s, travelers would be hard pressed to find sufficient firewood. Prairie grasses and forbs and fire-adapted trees mantled the Ozarks before European settlement, and prairie grasses burn beautifully in October. Prescribed fire during Indian summer may knock back the tail end of blooming fall wildflowers, but will spring life anew the following March.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Close, but no cigar

What's the line? That annoying "road to hell is paved with good intentions" line that my teachers used to tell me when I opted for a long night of playing tennis instead of writing a paper that "I intended to finish it, but didn't..."? That smarmy, preachy line has taken on new meaning for me lately as I've visited almost 20 good, old-fashioned glade restoration projects that were doomed from inception. In fact, some of these restoration projects are proving to be downright destructive.

When we think of glades in the Ozark Highlands, many of us think of areas with thin soils with rock outcrops, warm season grasses, usually south or west facing slopes, areas likely punctuated with chinquapin oaks or post oaks and scattered shrubs like Rhamnus lanceolata and redbuds. Of course, one can't think of glades in the Ozarks without calling to mind the 80 year old Eastern red cedars that commonly occur here, relicts from years of grazing and fire suppression that have served to suppress native vegetation with the thick duff of needles and year-round shading effects.

While glades in the Ozarks are typically characterized as "nearly treeless" openings in usually dry woodlands, most of the glades in the White River Hills, Niangua Basin, and Current River Hills historically possessed widely scattered fire-adapted hardwood species like post oaks and (on limestone) chinquapin oaks. One can see these gnarled 100+ year old trees on in tact glade systems in the Ozarks, but not on some of these more recent restoration areas.

So disheartening. I was casually asked recently about "all the trees" on a glade in the Niangua Basin. Looking over survey records from the original General Land Office Survey, large glades appeared on the landscape as part of a woodland complex, a gentle gradation from a more closed canopy dry-mesic woodland in the bottoms to dry woodland (white oak-black oak-post oak) on the slopes and ridges to large open expanses with scattered post oaks. Gum bumelia grows here, knocked back every few years with a fire fueled by the rich grass-forb mix. So when I heard that the folks working on the glade slicked off every single woody plant, including a twisted chinquapin oak that had likely been there for 100, maybe 150 years, I asked why. No good answer followed.

Glade restoration in the Ozarks is easy. Step-by-step:

cut cedars. stack NOT in big piles but in loose windrows. burn cedars either when green or red needle stage (preferably when there's snow on the ground or the surrounding woodlands won't burn; cedar slash burns spill out a lot of embers, so spotting potential is high)--gray needle stage never gets hot enough and the cedar skeletons stick around forever. apply fire to the glade after the cedar slash is gone. don't pile the cedar slash to reach the moon--the intensity of such a fire often sterilizes the soil, leaving behind nothing but fireweed for many years. don't stack cedars near old chinquapins or post oaks or gum bumelias or even hawthorns. if the hardwoods aren't supposed to be there to begin with, fire will knock them back. no need to chop down hardwoods. simply employ the very natural processes that gave rise to these dynamic natural communities and they'll respond positively. in the early stages of glade restoration, frequent fires may be necessary. mix up the seasonality, the intensity, the frequency of the fire regime. "nearly treeless" doesn't mean treeless.
Photos from Bank Branch, a glade with some cedar clearing exercises in the 1990s, managed with nothing but fire...