Friday, September 30, 2011

Canopy Color

Four weeks ago, flying over the Ozarks in a beautiful Cessna 172 Skyhawk, the drought-stricken woodlands from the St. Francois Mountains to the Missouri River Hills looked like fall had arrived on Labor Day with browned out white oaks dotting the landscape. This won't be the first year the Ozarks has a somewhat lackluster fall color display; for the past 6 years or so, weather conditions and larger weather patterns have made for muted fall colors in the Ozarks, with the highlights actually in the midstory with salmon orange sassafras and blood red aromatic sumac.

Historic photos from the 1980s of the Meramec River Valley resemble an oil painting: bright red maples, maroon white oaks, golden hickories, all without the brown tinge we've seen on the leaves these past few years. However, fall floating season is well underway with canoe rental discounts, no drunk kids, no hordes of well-behaved church groups and boy scouts braiding the river system, just a few fishermen and people like me who don't like to be around other people on rivers. Visit the upper Current with her moist, cool, steep valleys that were spared drought (what with those mesic soil conditions and north slopes)--fall is setting in, and it's lovely down there. The cardinal flower has finished blooming, but the blue lobelia is in perfect flower. (Look for the hybrid between the two on the Jack's Fork.) Grass of Parnassus and the fen-specific Rudbeckia fulgida are both in bloom and the maples are dropping red and yellow leaves all over the river.

For a driving or bike tour, you can't miss Hwy 94 and the KATY across the river from Hermann. The river hills are chocked with sugar maples and when they turn colors, the scene is reminiscent of Vermont-pass the exit to Hermann and head towards Treloar. While in that part of the country, cross the river to see a host of fine Missouri wineries in action--harvest is well underway, with Cabernet Franc and Norton up next. Ask about this year's vintage, talk to Jerry at Robller in New Haven to hear this thoughts on the season. Fall color in the canopy may not be as spectacular as long time residents remember it once was, but the grape harvest is a success, the asters and goldenrods are blooming, and local winesap apples are at farmer's markets.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Unfounded fear

Candy knelt down and extended her arm to the gravel road, placing her fingers just under the densely hairy forelegs of the Missouri tarantula. The elegant, downy spider slowly walked up her pale arm, and began spinning a web around her wrist. We went out that bright September afternoon to stop a tourist from stepping on the tarantula, which was to him a creature to be feared, not protected.

Each fall, in nice dry woodlands and glades in part of the Ozarks, Missouri tarantulas can sometimes (if you’re lucky) be seen traveling to their wintering sites. Little is known about their behavior, though many in the region have observed the tarantula’s habit of crossing roads to move closer to glades for the winter. Plenty of anecdotal evidence of their behavior has been recorded, but few if any scientific studies have been conducted on them in Missouri. A University of Missouri student is currently conducting research on this incredibly beautiful spider to help us all to understand the tarantula's life history.

Candy calmly explained to the tourist that tarantulas live in the area, and are common inhabitants of the region’s dolomite glades. The spider continued to spin a web around her forearm, wrapping it in fine silvery webbing. We waited for the tourist to drive off before walking across the road to send the tarantula on his way, a direct route to a nice glade. The dry rocky woodlands in the area are very open, hospitable to tarantulas, and regularly managed with fire. The spider slowly ambled down Candy’s arm and into the woods, having been saved from death by a hiking boot.

If you visit a Halloween decoration store, you may see an assortment of artificial wild animals for sale for use in haunted houses or spooky porches in preparation for trick-or-treaters. The list of animals includes crows with lifelike sleek feathers, enormous black widow spiders with wiry black tinsel legs, bats (some with visible fangs dripping in red paint), wolves (also with visible fangs in red paint), huge rats, generic owls, and snakes.

The fear of apex predators and wildlife associated with early human history myths and folklore continues in some parts of the world. Even in Missouri, some residents relate the image of blood-feeding bats to our insectivorous bat species. The fear of predators, despite the educational efforts of ecologists since the writings of Aldo Leopold, continues to be a part of the culture as evidenced by the September killing of a mountain lion by a Shannon Co. resident (and the state agency condoning the action). More frightening, however, than rats feeding on human flesh or being chased by a grizzly bear at Glacier is seeing a herd of cows on a prairie or deer in a high quality woodland. These voracious feeders of forbs utterly destroy landscapes by their feeding habits. Once biodiversity is lost by the continuous clipping of high quality forbs by one animal out of place on the natural landscape and the other out of context due to lack of predators--it's gone. That's much scarier than a great horned owl swooping in to feed on a feral cat. Eek!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Meeting the Future Desired Condition

After 26 years of prescribed fire on a high quality pine-oak woodland, an incredible woodland, one with integrity from the beginning....

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Where the Ozarks meet the Prairie": There is no prairie there.

I began my first part-time position in Missouri in April 03 working for a quarter more than minimum wage. According to everyone I left back home in New Orleans, I was too old to be working for so little pay, for the hours I worked, for the menial jobs I did (to justify my employment to superiors) between sampling vegetation and running a two year long breeding salamander survey. I earned so little, knew hardly anyone, and was located emotionally and culturally far, far away from my New Orleans neighborhood situated as I was in the Western Ozarks.

I didn't care to meet people, and didn't have any interest in doing anything else but learning about Missouri's natural history. Native landscapes, though degraded, were everywhere around me then. Often, after my shift ended at 3:30, I drove Hwy 52 to the charming German town of Cole Camp to poke around Hi Lonesome Prairie. I could make it to the prairie in time to watch the sunset, usually catching a handful of swamp sparrows in the prairie swale, and an upland sandpiper in the distance.

Cole Camp took great pride in their prairie heritage back then. A big, charming billboard rested outside of town on 52 with a sunset, the town's name in Fraktur font, and their slogan: "Where the Prairie meets the Ozarks." You can see it, too, how the rolling hills coming out of post oak savanna country become less and less populated with trees, replaced by low hills of historic prairie--mostly destroyed by grazing. Hi Lonesome typified this landscape, and the citizens of Cole Camp were eager for ecotourism opportunities. Why, there were prairie chickens on that prairie, a quirky little winery downtown, a bed and breakfast, an Amish bakery, a few restaurants (including Der Essen Platz--complete with dark wood paneling inside).

Having seen Niawathe and Taberville Prairies in the early part of the 2000s (formerly Grade A prairies, now destroyed by overgrazing), I could recognize that Hi Lonesome lacked the floral attributes of high quality prairie. But the visage, the swale and woody draws, the openness of the prairie was stunning (and a world away from the woodlands I worked in, even though it existed an hour's drive away).

So we returned to Hi Lonesome this past weekend to find the prairie destroyed, a landscape of ragweed and sumac. Oh, there was a stand of Salvia azureaa long way off, and scattered old field goldenrods, but not a single clump of prairie grass on the prairie. I wasn't alone feeling we were gypped out of a field day--we all bailed into the cars, "what do we do now?"

I did what I always do in similar situations. I found a winery. Montserrat Vineyards is located outside of Knob Noster, a charming little area of two wineries side by side, with only one open. I appreciated the directions given to me over the phone as I sped down 50: "follow the sign for Rat Hole, go down a gravel road, and you can't miss us." I passed the sign for Rat Hole, and ended up parking in their neighboring (but closed) winery parking lot.

With my pitiful paychecks in 03, I collected and summarily drank Missouri Norton, thrilled that this great state could make great wine. I regret, of course, not cellaring some of the 01s and even 98s that were being sold in 03. If I hadn't been so broke, I could have had a great vertical tasting this weekend. Alas, I drank them all too young, out of a water glass, in a cabin with a Peromyscus leucopus problem--not a trashy Mus musculusproblem, but a cute little woodland animal with big doe eyes that always found a way to get inside through the gaping holes in the walls. They had the run of the cabin. Every morning I dumped a small mammal and a brown recluse out of my coffee mug.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of my 29th birthday, I think of how I really haven't lived here long enough to call it home, and yet how sad that even I have seen the prairies of southwest Missouri turn into something very different, very sad, very ugly, chocked of grazing increasers and lacking all integrity. There are few Missouri prairies worth visiting anymore.

I have great empathy for folks who have grown up here to see the changes happening through their lifetimes. I think of my mentors who have worked in natural history for 30 years. I try to imagine what visitors to the Cassville area in the 1920s and 193s saw, dissected hills of open savanna (though with open range grazing destroying forb diversity) and then imagine them returning to their favorite haunt and not even recognizing it. Today, the Cassville area is a dense, overstocked thicket with relict savanna trees gasping for dear life in the fire starved woodlands. But the prairies. The little tiny postage stamp prairies that were saved from grazing are now being destroyed by the very process that left us without prairies to begin with.

For my birthday, I do wish I had early vintage Nortons from my $7.25/hr job, but I don't. I wish more than anything that fighting to protect biodiversity in Missouri wasn't a losing battle, but it is, and I will likely see more destruction and conversion the longer I stay here.

Friday, September 09, 2011


It came so fast this year, the perceptibly shorter days, the slower, more deliberate calls of the katydids, the first blooms on the goldenrods. Fall approaches so quickly here, and my growing season surveys are all complete (miraculously), so I'm not allowed to complain. I rue the longer shadows, the yellow green on the leaves, the blooms of cardinal flowers on streambanks, the signs of my birthday month. I'm not fond of the aging process, so I placate my mind with two and three day floats on Ozark rivers. If I don't know what day it is while on a river, my birthday can't find me.

I'm stocked up on instant curries with three vacuum sealed Indian Kitchen Sag Paneers, two Kalaf paneers, one chick pea curry, and four other unknown instant curries whose names I don't even recognize in the downstairs refrigerator. My camp stove is full of fuel. And thus begins the month when I wonder about the choices I've made, if I've accomplished enough during the year, if I'm prepared for online classes with sharpened pencils and for fire season with quick feet. I loathe the aging process, the passage of time, and will duck out of it this year as often as human-made responsibilities will allow.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Sad state of oak savannas

Driving through the Ozarks' Central Plateau, through the heart of Maries County, you can see it too, an undulating landscape of historic post oak savanna. So inspiring is this historic landscape that the Central Plateau represented Savanna in the 2005 edition of Paul Nelson's landmark The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri[p. 233]. The low, rolling, successive hills of widely spaced post oaks occupied a two page spread in the book, despite the utter lack of native ground flora that once covered millions of acres of the Ozarks. It's a Serengeti Plains landscape, damaged beyond repair by years of grazing by domestic livestock and fire suppression.

So it came as no surprise several years ago when we downloaded photos of damaged Ozark post oak savanna from my trusty $100 camera that Doug muttered that "it looks like the Willamette Valley." Oh, yes, the Willamette Valley, home of Oregon white oak savanna and prairie, an area nestled between the Coast Range and the Cascades with a growing condition so similar to France's that winemakers are making such remarkable wine in the Burgundian tradition that I spend entire paychecks on it. Nestled between late vintages of Missouri Nortons are various vintages of Willamette Valley pinot noir; Missouri Nortons meet their best expression on the Central Plateau, and award winning WV pinot noir is made throughout the valley, from Eugene to near Portland [my favorite is grown on Missoula Flood loess...]. Historic oak savanna soils in Oregon and Missouri produce wine full of depth and character on ancient soils that once gave rise to a forb-dominant landscape that makes true botanists salivate. Barely any high quality savanna remains in Oregon or Missouri.

Full of guilt in 09, I went through the WV in search of two things: in tact Oregon white oak savanna and the fragile -though spectacular- 07 vintage of WV pinot noir. I felt guilty driving down gravel roads to wineries whose vines went all the way up and over hills with the only shade provided by ancient, stately, gnarled, fire-scarred Oregon white oaks. I thought that it was the wine industry destroying savanna in Oregon. I thought this, and felt truly guilty about this, until I met Ed, the WV version of Paul Nelson.

Ed is the leading ecologist in the WV--a graduate of Evergreen with a Master's Degree in Botany from Oregon State (Corvallis. Go Beavers!). He can answer any question I ask about natural history in Oregon. Lucky me, I spent a field day with him on Wednesday traipsing through wet prairie and historic savanna, learning a few of the Oregon native plants that I never see at the coast or, well, on the properties of WV wineries. Ed assured me that Oregon's savanna was destroyed long before the valley was transformed into the Rhone. Whew. So, in regards to Witness Tree Winery on Spring Valley Road (outside of Salem), the awesome Oregon white oak that adorns their label (their namesake, a truly remarkable witness tree on the ridge) was always there but not surrounded by native vegetation for many years. While I'm not certain of the crop grown at Witness Tree before grapes, it wasn't native high quality vegetation. (It was probably wheat or hops or berries). The wine industry is not destroying savanna, because savanna was destroyed years before the wine industry took off. Guilt washes away, sort of, leaving a great finish of black cherry and vanilla from the French oak.

Oregon white oak savanna, like our post oak savanna, is associated with prairie in the WV. Imagine the low rolling hills outside of Rolla leading into the broad, flat plains outside of Licking and you'll see the same thing (but different plants). Ed showed me a prairie with a Serengeti atmosphere--Oregon ash, fire scarred, a landscape burned for 30 years.

The best time of year to see Oregon's native prairie and savanna landscape is not in late August, but in the spring when the wild Geranium and Camassia are in bloom. Nevertheless, I can see the beauty in a landscape dominated by native grasses (here, Deschampsia) and a few forbs like Perideridia montana (visit Pomme de Terre country to see P. americana on the limestone glades) and Oregon's stunning Clarkia amoena. But the Oregon white oak savanna is much like ours--relict, hanging on for dear life. There are earnest efforts to restore it, much like in Missouri, but it takes dedication of individuals.

In Oregon, the white oak savanna's biggest threat is fire suppression which leads to an invasion of Douglas firs. Ed didn't talk to me much about the grazing history in the WV, though native elk are still present there, and I suspect there's some livestock grazing? In Missouri, our savannas were destroyed by overgrazing by domestic livestock and fire suppression. It remains unfathomable to me that our land management agency in Missouri has resinstituted domestic livestock grazing to our native landscapes knowing that these very landscapes have been utterly destroyed by the same process. With the WV's wet weather and colder climates, grazing following settlement may not have been so detrimental as it has been in Missouri. Ed also knows me well enough to not discuss livestock grazing in native landscapes while I'm on vacation. But he showed me ugly woodlands of pole sized white oaks being choked out by Doug firs. Ugly, with no understory but their prehistoric sized Polystichum fern. Where the land management ended, where the doug fir thinning ended, the woodlands became dense, thick, overstocked, and places where fire would never travel. The same story as in Missouri....

Ed showed me awesome old Oregon white oaks, gorgeous old trees with gnarled branches, thick trunks, twisted branches. But some of the best remaining savannas in the WV resemble Missouri's--great old trees with little of the herbaceous layer left. Cows, hogs, sheep, goats ate all of our native vegetation. I don't know what happened to Oregon's besides fire suppression. Were they as reckless with grazing livestock as we were in the Ozarks?

Fast forward to the 2010 edition of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri. The photo of Maries County post oak savanna has been replaced with a vibrant color photo of a savanna in North Missouri, up in the Central Dissected Till Plains. It's a gorgeous place, rich with diversity and native high quality warm season grasses, recently made a Missouri Natural Area. Unfortunately, the land manager who made it the landmark savanna landscape it is will be retiring this year. When he leaves, it is doubtful that the agency in charge of this remarkable place will maintain the level of protection and rigorous management. Such is the problem with land management in Missouri--it's left to the discretion of the individual manager with no leadership from the guiding hands of any Natural History Department. With the dissolution of Natural History in most of our land managing agencies, so too will citizens see the demise of the protection of great landmarks. Natural history is hardly a priority in Missouri, but hopefully with folks like Ed (20 years tenured) at the helm in Oregon their land management agencies can locate and protect what fragments of native vegetation remain in my second home, the moist climes of the Pacific Northwest.