Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Shortest Day of the Year

Winter hasn't moved in with the same vengeance as it did last year with Arctic blasts every week. We were lucky for that long fall, for the opportunity to burn over 2,000 acres in my area, and grateful I am that the roads haven't been totally wrecked by snow and sleet during my commute. Today marks the first true day of winter, the shortest day of the year. The morning started out cloudy with cardinals at the feeder, a still, warm enough day. As the winds picked up, the sky cleared, the sun came out and the temperature dropped, but not much. It doesn't feel like Christmas 2010 when we were all bundled up and putting chains on our tires to manage the snowfall while finishing our shopping. Nevertheless, the shorter days are on the wane, thankfully. Driving to and from work in the dark makes me consider if I'm really cut out for 9 to 5 office work. Actually, I know that I'm not, which is why I'm in the field more than at my desk, leaving office work for weekend nights when I'm snuggly in my jammies and working from home at 1 am.

Seed catalogues started arriving last week, bringing the promise of kale and chard and slow bolting cilantro. Seeds need to be in starter pots as early as February! Winter birding, however, is at its peak these days, with brown creepers and yellow bellied sapsuckers showing up throughout the Ozarks. The charismatic waterfowl haven't moved south to Missouri yet (the weather has been so clement in the northern climes that they haven't needed our food plots and little ephemeral pools). My backyard squirrels have enjoyed the larder of unshelled nuts ranging from Brazil nuts to walnuts to pecans, all intended for my nut dish but ending up on the platform feeder in the backyard and disappearing within moments of being placed there. I like to think that the squirrels live in the crevices of my witness tree Chinquapin oak, an old gnarly thing that deserves a plaque--a remnant of a fire-mediated Columbia. Alas, I think the squirrels are living in the abandoned trailer behind my house, squirreling their nuts in old siding, hoarding them all for the Christmas morning feast and sleeping in insulation.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Results are in!

We crested the first ridgetop around 7am, the sun barely shining through the bare branches of the black oaks. Our Christmas Bird Count was shaping up to be a bluebird skies kind of day with winds light and variable, highs expected to reach the mmid-40s from this morning's low of 22 degrees. On the drive to our assigned woodlands, we counted two Northern mockingbirds and a Cooper's hawk hanging out above an empty bird feeder (and all the feeder birds next door in the quince). I left the regular group I bird with for the count because I'm really not very good with identifying waterfowl at a distance, and I don't really like birding at sewage treatment plants.

The sun finally came up above the hills, shining brightly on the dolomite cliff above the creek. Like clockwork, birds came into the sunlight, in plain view for our tally sheets. Yellow-rumped warblers, Red-bellied woodpeckers, a single Yellow-breasted Sapsucker drilling into a cedar, good woodland birds were tallied today with no sparrows to speak of and not a single Hermit thrush. Today's highlight included listening to the little warble of Golden-crowned kinglets as they flitted around the white oaks in the valley.

The highlights of this year's count include the spotting of 5 million blackbirds in one roost, blackening the trees for a mile; 50 screech owls along one stretch of the KATY Trail (a historic number); watching an American kestral swoop in and attack a mouse; Virginia rails and Sand Hill cranes in the wetlands at the sewage treatment plant. The best part of the day, however, was the solitude we found in the 8 mile trail through the woods where my small team of two didn't see another person until we met the rest of the Area 4S group for a late lunch to compare notes. We never found a Hermit thrush, but found the Winter wren and the only Golden-crowned kinglets in the section. Overall, we tallied 103 species for the Count Circle, which isn't too bad for an urban setting with a horrible sprawl problem.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

112th Christmas Bird Count Begins!

We've come a long way since the 19th century when a popular Christmas sport called the "side hunt" entailed shooting every bird seen on Christmas Day. Back then, whichever group came back with the most birds was considered the winner for the day. The tradition worried ornithologist Dr. Frank Chapman for obvious reasons, and in 1900 he started what he hoped would become an annual tradition, the Christmas Bird Count. Over 110 years later, the count is still conducted annually throughout the country. While some consider birding a sport (one that involves checklists and high counts, winners for the most bird species seen, etc.) the Christmas Bird Count is no longer a side hunt but a terrific way to monitor winter bird populations.

In the Ozarks, there are 8 count circles from Dallas Co. to Springfield to Big Spring country around Van Buren. The Christmas Bird Count takes place in these designated circles, a set area that can encompass thousands of acres. Within that circle, birders fan out to count individual birds. So, after a full day of birding in Missouri, bird counts often reflect hundreds of cardinals, flickers and juncos with species counts ranging from 60 on the low end to 120 (usually those circles with significant waterfowl populations). One active count circle in Missouri was established in the 1960s, and data from each bird count is stored online. In this one area, for example, one can see how many pintail were there in 1965, how many brown creepers in 1980, and so on. Audubon uses the CBC information to track changes in North American bird populations; in recent years, for example, hooded merganser populations in New England have soared while grosbeaks have declined.

I'll be in dry mesic woodlands on Saturday with someone I've never met counting woodland birds for the day. We plan to do some owling, calling in screech, barred, great horned owls to see how many may be detected that day. Check here to see if there's a circle in your area. Contact the local organizer if you'd like to join the fun! Otherwise, don't be nervous if you see a car stop in front of your house between now and January 4 so the counters can add your suet-feeding woodpeckers to their list.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Organizing the Troops

I think it was in August, the hot desiccating month of August when I slowed to a crawl at the Vienna city limits and saw the sign: "Yard Sale." Out in front of the late 1970s ranch style house were no fewer than 30 plastic Santa Claus lawn ornaments, the vintage type Santas, the kind with little incandescent bulbs inside of them that light up at night. The ranch house on Hwy. 63 outside of Vienna is always a welcome sight during the holdays; starting in late November, the elderly couple who have lived there for many years begin setting out literally hundreds of plastic figurines, mostly Santas, but also snowmen, the Holy Family (surrounded by snowmen), enormous candy canes, the three Wise Men (located on the opposite side of the yard from the Holy Family throughout Advent, of course). For the past three years, the number of Santas has continued to increase. When I saw the Yard Sale sign, I panicked. I asked everyone I knew if the Santa house in Vienna had been sold, if the elderly couple's kids decided to stop the tradition of light up Santas, if the elderly couple just couldn't afford the electric bill and all those danged blanged extension cords going all over the yard.

A sigh of relief this week as I once again slowed from 70 to 35 mph at the first sign of the Vienna city limits and beheld not 100 Santas, but a tripled, ever-burgeoning population of plastic light up Santas (and snowmen, a Holy Family, the three Wise Men, and candy canes). I'm not a lawn ornament person, and didn't grow up in a family fascinated with lawn ornaments, but I'm transfixed by the Vienna Santa Army. I really appreciate the spirit of the holidays this couple portrays by populating their sprawling fescue lawn with plastic ornaments. This year, unlike the past three years, the Santas are all in a straight line, a phalanx of Santas just south of the highway right-of-way. I think the Santas are organizing a coup. I think the elderly couple- spied setting out more Santas earlier this week -are sending us a message. The Santas are truly an organized force this year, an army of Christmas cheer. The message is loud and clear: the rows of light up Santas are warning us, imploring us to be ye of good cheer during Christmastide. Let not the frustrations of daily toil and stupid politics wreak havoc on this wonderful season when cookies are meant to be shared and late nights spent drinking egg nog with fancy rum by the bright C7 lights adorning the cedar sawed down at dusk in Phelps Co.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Slow and Steady Meets Target

Red-headed woodpeckers cackled above as they flitted between white oaks, distracted as they were from gorging on this year's bumper acorn crop by the huge plume of smoke and small flames down below. It's the most wonderful time of the year, fall fire season! when all of that preparation of firelines really pays off. Today was no exception.

We're in maintenance mode here in the Niangua Basin unit, an area that's been burned for the past 30 years. The fire program started in this tract of woodlands when I was walking door to door selling Girl Scout cookies. Today's weather conditions were ideal: no frost on the windshield, winds 5-8 mph, relative humidity between 21-32% all day. It's a rare occasion to actually burn woodlands in the Ozarks when the threat of a cold front presses. When frontal systems move in they're usually accompanied by squirrely winds shifting directions and sometimes of high intensity. A quick call to Springfield NOAA this morning revealed that the cold front wasn't going to reach the Western Ozarks until around 5, with winds shifting to the North at 2-3 mph. No real threat there, since the fire will be finished by around 4 with an ignition time of 10:30 am. Be wary of burning on the same day a frontal system is expected.

Fire crept along the toeslope, barely moving. We kept at it, sending strips of fire into the woodlands, walking well into the unit with fire, dripping streams of it at the base of hills in hopes of an upslope run here and there. The fire continued to creep. We kept walking, dripping fire. As I walked through one patch of aromatic sumac with my lit torch, a red bat flew up out of the leaf litter, so close in front of me I saw his charming facial features and the venation pattern on his large, almost translucent pink wings. He was tangled in the brush, in the sumac, but he quickly fanagled himself free to perch in a nearby post oak. Red bats are not only fire tolerant, sensing smoke and fire that trigger them to fly up to a nearby tree to wait for the flaming front to pass, but they're fire dependent: in a recent study, it was discovered that red bats only exist in woodlands that are burned every 3-7 years. Unburned woodlands in the study harbored no red bats. Red bats can't exist in thick, overstocked woodlands. They need fire.

I thought a lot today about a diversity in fire regimes when implementing prescribed fire. In papers and presentations, I often talk about how important it is to change the seasons of fire, the frequency of fire, the intensity of fire. Today, only a few days after a decent enough rain the Niangua Basin, fire intensity was pretty low. Today's fire was the definitive "low intensity, frequent fires" that shaped much of the Ozarks. We didn't need to restore the woodlands here, they were restored 30 years ago when the fire regimes that existed in the Niangua Basin for the past 5,000 years were returned to the scene following active fire suppression since the 1920s.

Today's plodding little fire coursed through the whole 250 acre area. Around 3:30, as the shadows grew long and the deep muck fen (with Carex buxbaumii, no less) burned completely, we met up with the other crew. Fire behavior was simple, and our beautifully formed smoke column could be seen clearly from Westphalia. We stripped the interior, setting all the grass on fire, and walked the beautifully prepared firelines twice to make sure no snags were compromising the line (but they weren't because the awesome fire crew blew out around them...), to make sure the fire continued over the hill to the other hill, through the drainage, through the fen. A classic example of a low intensity fire today, a fire that consumed leaf litter, maybe knocked back some brush but not all, in a burn unit that will be a showcase in April, rich with morels and wildflowers and red bats and woodpeckers.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

November Botany

Stretch the legs and kick the leaves before the sun goes down--the winter landscape is settling in for the long haul. There's more to fall woodlands than leaves, but the venation pattern on oak leaves is particularly beautiful in the fall. The abundance of white oak acorns this year is incredible--those little black bears that live in Missouri will likely be very fat and happy this year. My backyard squirrels are already starting to look like arboreal beavers.
From November walks through the woods in the Ozarks, a few photos of wintery images before the snow arrives to bury plant matter altogether, leaving us only with glimpses of brightly colored yellow-rumped warblers and the bright red head of my favorite woodpeckers.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Black Fieldday

Black is my favorite color these days, not because of its trompe l'oeil properties of hiding my ever-increasing girth (thanks, desk job, for making me fatter than I've ever been), but because it means success. It's becoming increasingly difficult to implement fire, the very natural process that shaped Missouri's natural communities since the end of the Pleistocene--the politics of development, the politics of "harming" timber, the "health risks" associated with air quality during those short pulses of rx fire events (but never mind the cumulative effects of millions of tailpipes spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere). So when we have a 1,126 acre prescribed fire, I'm happy as a clam...especially when the fire took place in the best remaining tract of woodland and glade complex in all of the Ozark Highlands.

I set out this early morning for a field day with the guy who brought me to Missouri, my former boss (whom I still call 'boss', much to everyone's consternation), the man who made me think in 2004 that protecting biodiversity was a statewide priority. Oh, how wrong I was to believe that, but a day spent with him is always a good day! Winter botany games are great, but hiking through a blackened landscape for hours is the best remedy for any foul mood.

I was rambling on about my second job as we hiked up the draw, rambling about the woman who dropped her pants in front of me and relieved herself on the floor while I stood there speechless with a mop, when we crested the ridge to see Lodge Glade, all slicked off. I shut up, and envisioned the fire sweeping across Lodge, my boss setting the fire at the base of the hill. I thought of that doghair stand of black oaks that were originally topkilled during a wildfire in the 1980s, now a thick, dense shrub layer with 100 year old grubs. These trees on the back of Lodge will never mature, at least not under my former boss' tenure, since every three years, after the trees have grown to about 5 ft tall, fire knocks them back to the ground with scorch heights three feet up the trunks. This shrub layer, formed by frequent fire events, is integral for the survival of grassland-shrubland birds such as Prairie Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Indigo Buntings. In a 1996 study here, it was determined that the dense shrub layer, one shaped by fire with a distinctive understory of grass-forb mix, harbors the highest populations of breeding Indigo Buntings in the whole watershed. The shrub layer wrankles a lot of folks who expect the whole fire-mediated area to be park like in existence, wide, evenly spaced white oaks-black oaks-post oaks that Schoolcraft can curry his team of 8 horses side by side throughout. But the early surveyors in the area commented on the shrub layer. In fact, the line notes from the 1845 General Land Office Survey (Surveyor AW Morrison) for this exact area mentions "oak undrgrowth, dense shrubby oaks." Chipping Sparrows, too, dig this area. But the shrub-grassland behind Lodge Glade holds the motherlode of breeding Yellow-breasted Chats, so I started thinking about the shrubs, about Lodge, about how much fun I'm going to have this field season sampling breeding birds again. Ah, field season.

This big fire, obviously, ruined the winter deer browse surveys since every shrub and sapling was topkilled.

We kept walking through the burn unit, admiring the handiwork of the stripping, how the continuous matrix of prairie grasses left no hollow unburned, black as far as the eye could see, revealing a massive crop of acorns. Chipmunks scattered all over the place today, and the birds! The Red-headed Woodpeckers are back! And the Eastern Bluebirds, there were at least 200 of them on our short mile-long hike. The woodpeckers were notably absent from my winter bird surveys for the site for the past two years, dropping from a high in 2005 of 104 birds to 0 in 2009. I detected about 30 today on a non-birding casual survey. Relief. I saw about 20 Field Sparrows on the glade today, flitting from 300 year old chinquapin oak to burned up stalks of gama grass, and back again.

In a place like this, where fire has been a part of the management for the past 5,000years, it's hard not to think positively, to think that at least here, biodiversity thrives on a landscape scale.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Beaujolais et St. James Nouveau est arrive!

I tend to slam on California wineries that release their wines when they're too young to drink. I joke a lot about how California is drinking a Cabernet that they made on Wednesday, when, really, their wine needs to least a while. In Missouri, young Nortons are nice- even out of the barrel- but Norton really expresses itself after a few years in the bottle (which is why I have a whole rack of 09s that I won't touch).

But the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau ushers in two months of drinking wine that was only made a month ago, and it's intended to be imbibed while young, very young, only weeks old. In some parts of the country, the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau is cause for big parties at airport hangars, big events with lots of food and glitter. I live in a town that doesn't really celebrate Nouveau, of course, and it's lucky that I can find at least one to drink. You see, in New Orleans or in Europe, one can find a suite of Nouveau available on this first Thursday. My wine shop in Rome carried at least 10 different ones, and my corner store in New Orleans stocked three. Only one is available in Mid-Missouri, made by George DuBoeuf, and it's fine, it'll do, but there are others...(Randol's in St. Louis probably carries a greater variety).

However, if you're in the Ozarks and you want Nouveau for your Thanksgiving table (because at 12.5% alcohol, a light and fruity body, it's really the best wine for Thanksgiving lunch), St. James Winery has the answer. St. James Winery issued their 2011 Nouveau yesterday, the same day Beaujolais hit American soil, prompting me to drive well out of my way to St. James country pick up a bottle. (Leslie at the tasting bar recognizes me as the girl who specifically asks for Nouveau every year. She hollered at me today across the building as I walked in, "it's here! Your Nouveau is here!")

St. James blends three grapes to make their Nouveau: Chambourcin, Rougeon, and Corot Noir. The last day of harvest for this year's St. James Nouveau was September 2, so the grapes didn't have the advantage -like most of this year's Norton grapes- of those cool October nights. This was a tough summer for Missouri grapes, with drought and excessive heat lasting all summer long.

Back home, I ran past the wine shop for a bottle of (only) DuBoeuf's Beaujolais Nouveau to compare to St. James Nouveau. Bring out the Reidel pinot noir glasses, label them with my cellar tags: 1 and 2. Leave the aerator and the wine bottles to the professional in the house to give me a blind tasting in my dining room:

Wine glasses 1/10 full.

#1: Delicate, fruity, with not a lot of body. Almost effervescent in texture, despite the aerator. The finish isn't as clean as most Beaujolais'. Very drinkable.
#2: Full bodied but with a flat finish. Bigger notes of raspberry. Also effervescent with a barely distinguishable brightness. Clean finish, but a little thin.

Of course, this coming from a big Oregon pinot noir fan, a Walla Walla Cabernet fan, an aged Syrah lover....Nouveau is characteristically thin bodied, fruity, and even a little effervescent (which is why it's a holiday wine and not an everyday wine).

I pegged #2 as the French, and #1 as St. James. I chose correctly! The St. James comes with a screw cap at $9.99 a bottle. I'm drinking the French (plastic cork) and will segue into an 05 Syrah before the night is over. But Beaujolais season is so short, so enjoy! Brightness and Fruit! The Harvest!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fall Fire Season!

In my favorite tract of Ozark woodlands rests my dream burn unit: 800 acres of rich grass-forb mix and a black oak-white oak-post oak canopy so widely spaced the crowns don't touch. I've surveyed birds, salamanders, and plants in this dreamy place for almost 8 years now. I love every hollow and ridgetop, all the creekbeds and glades, and the Red Arrow Fault Line that cuts through the prairie grass like a spiky dinosaur spine.

I didn't get the call on Monday that my dream burn unit was being burned on Tuesday because I was 30 miles south of there flagging out firelines in what could be awesome enough woods, but aren't because the firelines never get installed. So I spent late Monday and Tuesday hiking around through super dense leaf litter in structurally nice dry mesic chert woodlands with no understory. No winter botany games, no fading asters to photograph, just leaf litter and trees. Well, go back there today and you'll see pink and black striped flagging tape (I have a whole box of it because no one ever uses it and it reminds me of Maria Sharapova's US Open dress from two years ago). The flagging tape surrounds a 200 acre hill, traveling down one creekbed, through the flatwoods on top, then down a pretty darned steep slope into another creekbed. I just want to burn that hill. Actually, I'd like to burn the whole acreage, but that hill would be a good start.

Driving back home yesterday afternoon, I saw the enormous plume of smoke from my dream burn unit on fire through the dashboard of my car:

I pulled over to watch the smoke rise from the rest of the area, sipping on cold coffee while envisioning my old boss hiking through the bottoms to send fire uphill. I watched from 20 miles away, all that grass and leaf litter (3 years' worth) go up in smoke. It was beautiful. This is not just burning off a hillside, yesterday's fire was burning off the best tract of woods in the state, making them ready for my post-burn vegetation and bird surveys. Field season will be a delight!

Knowing the burn conditions were optimum across the Ozarks yesterday, I high-tailed it home, skipped the gym, and set fire to my yard. The lines are always so beautifully prepared in my yard--down to mineral soil with plenty of space between our fuels and that huge woodpile next door that has been curing for three years. Winds picked up as the sun started to go down, sending embers from chinquapin oak leaves into the air where, thankfully, they extinguished rather than landing in, say, the neighbor's yard.

To see if your favorite woods are burning, check the NOAA Spot Weather Forecast here. Yesterday's Spot Forecast lists the fuel type for the woodlands as "Grass/Leaf Litter." Not too many Ozark woodlands can be characterized that way...
11/17/11: Check out today's Spot Weather Forecast to see the beautiful torch work of one of my favorite people in the Ozarks! Beautiful dry chert woodlands and glades burned today in the Western Ozarks!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Fall Supper

While many in the Ozarks are busy crocheting red and green afghans, knitting hats and stitching felt onto stockings in preparation for Holiday Craft Bazaars, others are building the roster of kitchen duties for the community's Annual Fall Supper. An age-old tradition in the Ozarks, Fall Suppers serve not only as festive gatherings for the area but as fundraisers for the community and oftentimes for the local church and private school.

Fall Supper menus usually include fried chicken, ham, green beans, rolls or homemade bread, a vinegar-based slaw, and tables of homemade desserts--pies, cakes, brownies. Vienna is serving turkey and sausage this year (November 12). In the German Catholic communities, there's always a beer garden serving Anheuser-Busch products and maybe Pabst Blue Ribbon. These community gatherings are organized locally, often by the women of the church, and can feed thousands of visitors. There are usually games for the kids, raffles for handmade quilts, sometimes raffles for pots of money, all to raise funds for the area. Most Fall Suppers are buffet style, and can run all day. People travel from across the area to attend these festive events.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


The clear blue skies and wind gusts of 20 mph signaled the cold front hours before it moved into Missouri. As the temperatures dropped by 10, 15, maybe even more degrees, the houseplants moved inside, the porch filled with black oak leaves, storm windows came creaking down and the asters were in full bloom.

The true sign of change came the next morning when I stood at the window drinking coffee and spotted my first-of-the-year dark-eyed junco hopping on both legs to feed on a Eupatorium seedhead. Another junco came into view in the traditional bird feeding area next to the brushpile and heaps of Christmas tree skeletons. Stepping outside to fill the thistle feeder, I heard the dulcet little call of a white-throated sparrow and couldn't remember the name of the bird for several seconds. I haven't heard "Oh, sweet Canada Canada Canada" since early May, after all. Moments later, I dressed and drove directly to the hardware store for seed and suet. Winter bird feeding season is here.

You can follow the happenings in Missouri's birding world by visiting Birding on the Net: Missouri , where you can read short notes about all the robins gorging on cedar berries this week, the Ruddy Ducks at Eagle Bluffs. Visit any Missouri establishment with a television to follow the movement of the Cardinals.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Maligned maples

Sometimes, a little knowledge can be dangerous. Take, for instance, the case of land managers and Eastern red cedar. The rightful place of these stately gnarled trees is bluffs, cliff faces, places where fire doesn't travel. When cedars exist in native woodland and glade settings, they're usually artifact of overgrazing and fire suppression. So when well-intentioned folks working on ecosystem restoration projects see fit to remove all cedars from the landscape, including those three hundred or more years old craggy cedars on bluffs, it's usually because they don't know any better. If you've ever been on a boat in Table Rock Lake around Branson, you must have seen the cedars on the bluff faces there--many of them are hundreds years old and should not be removed. They're supposed to be there.

Similarly, there are those who despise sugar maples because of their supposed fire intolerance. If you visit an area that was, according to witness tree records, a post oak-black oak-blackjack oak woodland and it is now a monoculture of sugar maples, I agree--there's a problem...a problem likely related to land clearing at settlement, and an active fire suppression program that allowed for a monoculture of sugar maples to rise up from the once fire-mediated ground. But sugar maples are a naturally occurring part of the fire-mediated Ozark woodland system in certain settings. Those settings are most often perched on Burlington limestone bedrock and usually associated with a white oak dominance.

Visit the few remaining old growth woodland tracts outside of St. Louis or Boone County and you'll see terrific woodlands of white oaks that resemble missile silos and big old sugar maples. Sugar maples are a natural part of a limestone woodland in certain settings, like the woodlands I visited this week when all the maples were a brilliant yellow and the Solidago petiolaris was in full bloom. Maples and cedars by their own right aren't to be loathed unless they're out of context with the historic character of a landscape. In some fire shadow/protected dry limestone woodlands, sugar maples are right at home, existing in an area burned on a five year rotation for the past 30 years, and in full fall splendor these days.
(By the way, here's a gruesome photo of a horrific browse line in the maple-dominated woodlands in Cedar Co. Nothing in the understory but sedges, and a perfect browse line in the canopy. It's preposterous for anyone in Missouri to claim we don't have a deer problem in the Ozarks.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

End of Harvest

Another harvest season has ended for Missouri wineries, with Meramec's interesting heirloom Stark's Star grapes picked just last week. I've had the wonderful opportunity to talk to a few vintners lately to find out what we should expect of the 2011 vintage. Word on the streets of Hermann reported a fine season with cooler nighttime temperatures making up for July's heat and drought conditions. Meramec's talented owner is optimistic about this year's harvest, as well. The cooler nights saved the vintage.

We're nearing the end of Drink Local Wine week, an event that has spurred online conversations about how local wine should not be avoided, how it has changed through the years from the clunky super sweet junk to the rich, supple wines we have today.
The 06s are drinking very well now, if you can find them. Some wineries are selling their 09 Nortons which should be tucked away for a few years. I've tasted a number of 09s at local tasting bars and, truthfully, they're simply not ready. Norton needs time in the bottle. 3 years at the least, 5 and 10 years ideally. 09 Chambourcins are bright and lively and very drinkable.

My own desire to make Norton may be a reality next growing season. Home winemaking was a New Year's goal two years ago, but I've been too scared to do it, fearing I would make some junk that I wouldn't drink. Oh, and the cost of equipment requires serious planning when living on my salary. Ever since that first broken Italian conversation with the little old man grape grower who made the wine at our villa in Baiae-Cuma (near Naples), I've had a desire to make wine. But I need to be successful so that when I slam on cheap California wine that is as elegant as rat urine, I can add "even I can make better wine..."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fast forward

I don't think I stopped thinking about what I saw today until I hit the gym for a truncated run around the track (and only then because I was peeved that the gym was so crowded tonight. I'm never there this late.). I spent a very long day in the heart of the scattered chert and igneous woodlands in the St. Francois Mountains, a cloudy, dreary day, but one spent in utter awe. I returned to the site of the May 8, 2009 derecho, an area that wasn't salvaged and was left in its natural state following a natural disturbance so great that NOAA has added "super" to its now historic name. No one in Missouri had ever heard of a "derecho" before that warm day, but those impacted by it now know what it looks like when it travels through intact woodlands. If the tree didn't bend to the ground, it was uprooted. Thousands of trees crashed to the ground in the Ozarks that night.

So I went back to the site with a long fire history, an area that was in decent enough shape before the derecho--a plant list of over 900 species that rivals any other assemblage in the Missouri Ozarks in species richness. Much of the site is dominated by white oak-black oak, with scattered pine. There's a rare-to-the-St. Francois Mountains dolomite glade here with lots and lots of Spiranthes magnicamporum (the one with the overwhelming scent). Hog damage is here, too, of course. The area impacted by -not damaged by- the wind event, however, is reminiscent of an ecosystem restoration 20 years in the future. It would take many years for fire alone to have this impact, and dragging skidders into the fragile understory for largescale thinning wouldn't have the same beneficial effect, either. The assemblages here have changed, nay, reverted to the historic records of the area: post oak, scarlet oak, pine, with an understory of black gum, hazelnut, and vaccinium. Oh, the many occurrences of "hazel undergrowth" in the GLO land survey records of the early 1800s in the Ozarks...and I had never seen it before, hazelnut dominant in the understory.

But the prairie grasses and forbs in the woodlands! Aster patens is thick. Why, these prairie plants were there all along, just waiting for release, the Sporobolus asper, Indian grass and big bluestem. I could literally kick myself for not setting up monitoring transects here (but I will next growing season).

The message I read from the awe-inspiring site is that if you allow natural processes to occur, if you don't go in and try to repair impacts that occurred naturally, high quality native ecosystems can fend for themselves if they had integrity to begin with and hadn't been damaged to hell by unnatural human-induced processes.

I ran into Aster sericeus today on the dolomite glade and focussed my $100 point and shoot camera on the leaves so you could see how silky and totally sexy it is, especially when nestled in an equally sexy landscape.