Saturday, December 29, 2012

Five Days, Four Chainsaws

On a cloudy and cold Friday morning, I hiked up the steep powerline cut to the site of a 12 acre glade restoration project. I was told they had only just begun work on this big, broad flat in the Niangua Basin; these balds are pretty common in Niangua country--float from Bennett to Prosperine on the Niangua River and around mile 6 you'll see one similar to this one just around a bend. I've walked all over the one on the road to Ho-Humm, (it's totally trashed out), and every time I see it around mile 6 on a float, I want to cut the cedars off of it and send a headfire up to the road.

Anyway, it had only been a matter of days since they had hired the staff to do the work on this higher quality glade, but you certainly wouldn't know it looking at the progress they've made on clearing cedars. Stepping onto the glade next to the newly made lock box created to store tools at the site, the large stumps were visible for almost an acre. All this accomplished while also working on touching up firelines which had been installed in late October.

Some cedar choked glades in Missouri are packed with an even-aged doghair stand of closely packed cedars, but not so here. Widely spaced, open grown, large diameter trees are scattered all over the glade. I counted 90 growth rings on one stump that was surrounded by a thick mat of Carex eburnea , the cedar-loving sedge with wiry, smooth leaves. Even though the trees are scattered all over the glade, the stumps showed evidence of a wall of trees, once removed revealed old post oaks of gnarled character. 

The four men hired to do this fine work moved like streetsweepers down Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras night--methodically removing the undesirable, no cedar standing in the way. Unlike other sad "restoration" projects, these folks don't cut down the post oaks and chinquapins, and manage any oak sprouts or other woody vegetation with natural processes, not with a chainsaw and Tordon. Aside from the four well-maintained chainsaws, another two men are on site to pile these massive trees into heaps which will be burned when there's snow on the ground (or when conditions are favorable to burn the surrounding 110 acres that include the glade). Burning cedars when they're still green (but desiccated) prevents the super hot fires that come from burning at red needle stage and results in less damage to the fragile glade soils beneath the heaps. The potential of airborne embers is also lower when piles are burned when green rather than at red needle stage, so the chances of wildfire are reduced. 

 I've visited about five other glade restoration projects spearheaded by this remarkable team, and they've all been successful--no cedar skeletons left on the glade, no big burn out spots with nothing but fireweed and mullein, just quality glade vegetation that we sample after every burn to track restoration. Glade restoration projects are possibly one of the best "instant gratification" exercises, but only if they're accomplished properly--cut cedars, burn the cedars, burn the glade to keep woody sprouts like Carolina buckthorn and redbud from taking over. It's really easy, and I think this crew needs to write the manual.

Monday, December 24, 2012

My dear mother

My mom is probably very mad that she died ten days before Christmas. At her home in Louisiana, I'm combing through photos of her last trip to Missouri where she spent her 70th birthday in March. I'm thinking of how she wanted me to delete any photos where she was wearing a knit cap (like in fieldtrips to the woods). It was cold on March 3 this year, but she insisted on wearing her birthday crown to every Hermann establishment that day instead of her knit cap, remarking "I bet people are saying 'look at that old lady who thinks she's so cute...'" They probably were because she was cute, and the most beloved woman in my life. She left in her will that she wanted some of her ashes scattered in a certain tract of Ozark woods I visit every week and some in the Grand Tetons where she scattered my stepfather's ashes this past summer.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Santas on the Move

Driving south on that horrible stretch of Hwy 63 into the central Ozarks, the little German towns are lit up with Christmas cheer. Freeburg's Sinclair dinosaur is sitting on top of the white clapboard building, just as he is every day of the year, but his artificial orange fall leaves are taken down from his neck and replaced with Christmas decorations. Homes along the route pull out all the stops to make the drive a little less painful and white knuckle-inducing (especially at dusk with the onslaught of bright headlamps from oncoming traffic).

In the past few years driving this route I've seen a number of homes accentuate their decorations--more and more lighted candy canes, light up plastic figurines, lights in trees, bushes and all over the house, animated deer and Snoopy blow up figures that remain inflated all day. The drive has become very cheery in the past month, especially with the wonderful house in Vienna pulling out their annual Santa display--hundreds of Santa light up figurines, some in rows, one even elevated in a branch of a small Bradford pear.
In years past, the Santas have been organized in rows, about 10 rows stretching to back of the large property. This year, they're randomly organized. At least, they were a few weeks ago. But this year, the Santas seem to be moving around.

On a recent drive I saw the proprietor outside with a jumbled lot of extension cords and another large grouping of Santas in the other side of the house. Driving past on my way back north, the Santas had been reorganized. Or more added. This mutable display is quite spectacular at night when all the figures are lit up against the 6 pm dark skies.

Nearing the town of Vichy, notice a second house that continues to escalate their Christmas decorations to almost the same level as the folks in Vienna. All of these reminders of joy and peace and happiness make all the difference.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Meteor showers

Two meteor showers will be visible this week in the Ozarks. The first, the Wirtanen showers, were going on last night before midnight. The Geminids may peak tonight between midnight and 2am. It looks like clear skies throughout the Ozarks, so read here for more information.

Friday, December 07, 2012

O, Cedar Tree

Following over 100 years of open range grazing, of active fire suppression, of soil disturbance for the proliferation of settlement, the Ozarks are today chocked full of Eastern red cedars. Cedars line roadsides, they populate old fields, glades, woodlands with a history of grazing, they also remain in their rightful place on blufftops and cliffs. So, with all these millions of cedar trees in the Ozarks, one may think it's easy to locate an appropriate Christmas tree.

This is my fifth year to cut down a cedar for my Christmas tree, having abandoned visiting tree farms that spray paint their pine trees in green paint, resulting in a turquoise smoke when the tree is set on fire in January. Of course, by January, my cut cedars are incredibly flammable, which may be why cedars don't make popular Christmas trees? Or it may be that to locate a good Christmas cedar tree is actually pretty difficult.

Drive anywhere in the Ozarks and you're bound to see cedars lining the roadcuts. Around Meramec River country, the cedars are tall and narrow, while around Ava glades area the cedars are fat and bushy. Regardless of their habit, a casual drive past thousands of cedars would make one think Christmas trees are ripe for sawing. But once you stop the car to inspect old field cedars, glade cedars, or even roadside cedars, you'll find that all those perfect Christmas trees aren't so perfect.

Every year it's the same search: I need a cedar that will fit into my 1995 Honda Civic, into my 1931 Craftsman bungalow, a cedar without too many bagworm casings, and then there are obvious traits that must be present that anyone visiting a tree lot will take for granted, such as a tree with only one trunk. Trunks of many cedars are often multibranching. I've had to pass over beautiful cedars because that one tree is actually three main trunks in close proximity, and I don't have a tree stand large enough for three mature trunks. Remove one trunk and you lose half the tree. If the cedars are growing close knit in big clumps, they invariably have whole sides that are basically missing needles and branches. To a degree, one can place the bare side in the corner, but that only works if the bare side isn't completely bare like so many roadside cedars can be. Ideally, find an open grown cedar in an old pasture that hasn't been mowed so many times that it has developed multiple trunks. This year's tree, taken from a friend's old field, has a curving trunk which makes the tree not quite stand up erect on its own, so the trunk is submersed in the stand with the trunk almost on its side. It's a good tree, and will make ideal kindling in a month or so... 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

10 wineries, 2 days

When I took the fly off of my North Face backpacking tent on that 20 degree morning last week, Doug pointed out the significant accumulation of ice crystals that rested on top of the tent: critters breathing all night in a warm tent, all under a Marmot 20 below sleeping bag and all the wool Pendleton blankets from the beds back home. We were on a mission last week as we set out to the Southeast Missouri Lowlands and into the Ozarks, into the Poplar Bluff Ranger District of the Mark Twain NF, to visit all these wineries that have blossomed in the area since I left the Bootheel in December 2007.

Back then, there was River Ridge Winery in Commerce. I went there every weekend: I picked grapes for their harvest, I manned the tasting bar (where I heard the most colorful tasting notes! My favorite was of the Traminette, Missouri's version of Gewurtztraminer: "it's sort of like bees gorging on a lilac bush...but they're not mad, just excited."), I washed dishes for the restaurant, I loved the vibe, the food, staff at River Ridge, which is located at the beginning of Crowley's Ridge and next to the only section of the Mississippi River without a levee for many miles. The charming town of Commerce floods every few years, so the homes are on stilts, built with breathable materials, or up on Crowley's Ridge, which is generally immuned from floodwaters. So the barre was set high moving northward in late 07. I thought every Missouri winery should be as distinctive, as interesting, as amiable, as fun and inviting with fantastic, collectible dry red wines as those found at River Ridge.

I've learned a lot since then, and I've seen the wine industry literally explode in Missouri since I first lived here part-time in 2003. Dozens of earnest winemakers are spread out across the Ozark Highlands making delightful, supple wines, wines to suit every palate, all the while creating an atmosphere that is enjoyable and appropriate to the landscape. Conversely, there are the wineries that buy juice from California and bottle it here in an effort to "grow a financial portfolio." Diversify! In the past two years, I've visited over 90 wineries in Missouri, and even the overtly commercial operations produce something palatable. However, I tend to spend time and money at wineries that Linus' Great Pumpkin would visit; I like to meet the winemaker, I like to talk about the harvest, I like to hear about challenges and successes, hopes for the future. And I love a good Norton. (Right now, the 08s are drinking very, very well.)

In the middle of Marquand, nestled in the midst of the Mark Twain around its borders in a refurbished general store downtown is any Norton-chasers dream winery, Durso Hills Winery and Bistro. That day, the restaurant had just opened for prime rib night (Fridays, 4-9pm)when we arrived, and the winemaker himself was manning the tasting bar. I said what I always say at a winery: "I'd like to try your dry reds, please." When he proffered a long list of dry reds, including three vintages of Norton, I knew we'd be there a while. Locals began trickling in asking for bottles of homemade sangria (made with Norton) and some of their sweeter wines, but at that time I could have crawled into my glass of 06 Norton and stayed there all night. Each vintage had its own character and distinct notes, a testament that Durso Hills knows how to grow grapes as well as make great wine. In fact, the winemaker here is so capable that he's making truly fantastic wines for one of those big multimillionaire commercial operations around Ste. Genevieve country, a winery outfitted with plush chairs the likes of which I couldn't afford with an entire year's salary. "Aha!" I shouted, telling him how much I enjoyed the wine at the posh Ste. Gen location, I especially loved the Norton, but could only afford a glass and no food. I hoped he was being paid well for making such stellar wines out of his beautiful grapes for them, and I think he is.

Moving towards Bollinger County, the last known location in Missouri of the orchid Isotria medeloides (documented from an unknown hill around Marble Hill), stop into Thousand Oaks Winery -closer to Patton than Marble Hill- for a brick oven-fired pizza and a wide array of interesting wines ranging from sweet (which I didn't taste) to a good, dry Norton. Another earnest endeavor with the winemaker behind the tasting bar that day, she was busy making gift baskets, tying up baskets of crackers and peanuts and little treats with a bottle of wine with raffia and glitter-coated ribbon. The winemaker can tell you the story behind each wine, and Thousand Oaks  produces a significant amount of varietals. For a small winery, I was impressed with the amount of wine they're producing, and all of the dry reds are very palatable. I especially appreciated being waited upon by the winemaker who told us the story behind each blend, and the story of each photo on the different varietal labels. I left there with a bottle of their "Decompression Norton" and will stop in again soon. The brick oven is enviable.

A very new kid on the block, Eagle Pass Winery located ten miles north of Poplar Bluff, opened its doors a few months ago. I didn't even know about Eagle Pass until I called directory assistance asking about the now-defunct Bonanza Spring Winery (formerly located on Westwood in Poplar?). While the AT&T folks couldn't connect me to Bonanza Spring, they offered the number to Eagle Pass, "a similar business". At 9:30 am on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a cheery barista answered the phone and gave me terrific directions to their charming cabin on the hill. The drive to the winery is a first-gear sort of drive over a rutted road (in parts), but it's worth the slow drive to arrive at a beautiful pitched roof wooden building unlike anything in the surrounding area. The winemaker works closely with Mr. Durso Hills up in Marquand, and is making great dry wines as a result. Friendly atmosphere, with ample seating, I hope Eagle Pass becomes a destination like Commerce's River Ridge for the Poplar Bluff community. Located in a beautiful setting with truly genuine, friendly staff, with great wine on their side, Eagle Pass has the potential to succeed in the industry.

So many fantastic wineries in the southeastern Missouri Ozarks, I may have to return to my campsite under the spreading canopy of white oak- black oak and deep soils and vegetation unlike the Western Ozarks, unlike the St. Francois Mountains country, but distinct, and possibly harboring a dormant population of Isotria medeloides somewhere on a hillside in Marble Hill.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In Sandstone Woods

Unlike in the Arkansas Ozarks, sandstone is not the dominant substrate in the Missouri Ozarks. In fact, it's difficult to find a high quality, reference condition sandstone glade in Missouri; most of them have been beat to hell by grazing and are now mantled in lichen and moss rather than the rich assortment of perennial forbs and grasses that exist on some of Arkansas' better quality sandstone glades. Even in The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri, Nelson (2010) chose Bona Glade to represent this natural community, and, even though it harbors a population of Geocarpon minimum, Bona Glade is pretty damaged. Lots of lichen, moss, a scattering of Aristidas and some Sporobolus, but not enough fuel to carry fire through the areas that are not exposed sandstone bedrock.

So it is exciting to visit a Gunther Sandstone woodland and glade complex that is quietly asking for restoration. Large, gnarled chinquapin oaks reach through the canopy, all surrounded by Eastern red cedars and 80-100 years old red oaks and black oaks. Considering that this area is bound on one side by fancy homes and the other side by a state highway, it has been almost mothballed, lacking the same rigorous level of ecosystem restoration attention that the rest of the 2,995 acres of dolomite, limestone and chert woods have received in the past thirty years. Like the rest of the area, the sandstone woods possess great potential for restoration.

The prescription? It's easy when you're starting with nice woods and glades to begin with: cut and burn the cedars, but not in massive mounds and heaps or you'll sterilize the soil for about ten years or more. Massive burn heaps are usually colonized by mullein, fireweed, Crotons, other exotics like sweet clover. Send a fire through the woods and glades (but not with red needle cedar slash on the ground--potential for spot fires), not a super hot and shocking fire, not a fire in the middle of April or you'll damage the already sensitive system. A good November fire within prescription seems to work well. And thinning the out of context red oak/black oak?  Don't drop the trees all over the place or you'll be dealing with the mess for years. I wouldn't recommend logging them out of there, either, or you'll damage the fragile understory and soils. Girdling a select few, not all at once or you'll be fighting shrubs for years, but girdle a few at a time and keep up with the fire on a 3 to 4 year rotation in the early stages of restoration. When girdling, or when applying herbicide of any type to any plants, use the mixture dosage as indicated on the product's label. In one sandstone woods I visited this year, I saw the results of a girdling project wherein the person applying Garlon made the mixture stronger than indicated on the label. The Garlon certainly worked on the trees, but the herbicide went into the roots and sterilized the soil surrounding the trees--the area looked like a nuclear holocaust had occurred with lots of mullein and fireweed and nothing else. This is not the desired future condition for an ecosystem restoration project if managing for biodiversity is the goal.

It's unfortunate that we have thousands of acres of restorable woodlands and glades in the Ozarks and certain tracts are being bludgeoned to death by folks wanting to "restore" them for some reason. Is it for biodiversity? Is it for a specific species of wildlife? Is it because some folks like playing with big toys like wood chippers and bulldozers in the name of "savanna restoration"? Most of our damaged systems- damaged by overgrazing by domestic livestock, years of fire suppression, deer overpopulation, logging, other sources- they require kidd gloves during restoration. Be ye good and gentle stewards of the earth and all....

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fall Fire Season!

It's beginning to feel a lot like fire season, these days of low humidities and the crisp morning air. Springfield NOAA's graphics of sunny days, winds 5-10mph, humidities hovering around the upper 40s to mid 30s, plenty of sunlight to dry the fuels are enticing. News came through the post today that one of my friends will be burning his woods around the Niangua Basin country for the next two days. While many in the Ozarks take time off from work to kill deer (please, do more of that, too), others take good fire weather days to restore ecosystems. 

March 23, 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the first institutionalized woodland fire in the Ozarks, a very easy fire that took place on a small 40 acre tract in the central Niangua Basin. That site has come a long way since 1983, considering that the fire regime has continued there on a 3 to 5 to 7 year rotation all these thirty years. But in fact, the regularly occurring fires never stopped following European settlement in this part of the Ozarks. Local landowners kept this country burned for the past 100 years or so, as the rich grass-forb mix (fire-dependent) provided "forage for livestock," the fires "kept the ticks down," and landowners here have known all these years that regularly occurring fire is good for wildlife populations. Burn a nice woodland tract and the deer and turkey will migrate there to take advantage of nature's food plot. Today, with increasing urbanization at wildland borders, the overabundant deer populations are penned into these nice woodland tracts, feasting on high quality native forbs and then hitting up surrounding suburban gardens planted in hostas. 

Considering that the Ozarks landscape is fire-adapted and, in fact, fire-mediated, the rich, biodiverse flora that lies dormant in so many thousands of acres of woodlands will only appear again after a fire. To fully restore the heterogeneous matrix of woodland flora that thrives following regularly occurring fire events in high quality systems, one must apply fire. Mechanical treatment alone may offer the structural component of a woodland, the open canopy, for example, but without fire, one cannot restore an ecosystem and all the complex associations that derive from this ancient process.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Shorter days move in

The long shadows stretched through the dry chert woods to the crest of the ridge on Thursday afternoon. I tried to set out early that day to check firelines, to walk through the woods with the constant swooshing of my bedraggled running shoes through the flammable, fluffy oak leaves that curl and bend in a way that accepts fire so willingly (as most oak woodlands are wont to do in the Ozark Highlands in November). It was nearing 3pm and my camera's flash was activated on a barren, an exposed ridgetop that only a few weeks ago was loaded in an explosion of light and color--asters, goldenrods, the last of the Silphiums. Today, white fluffy seed heads are all that remain of the suite of glade composites, and by 3:30, the winter shadows moved in, socking in the landscape in gray and chill. Winter botany in a high quality (frequently burned) landscape, one rich with long-lived perennial forbs, can be challenging with the distinguishing leaves and arrangement desiccated and fallen off a stalk of goldenrod. I'm brushing up on my winter twigs to prepare for deer browse surveys, which are growing increasingly important as a way to track Missouri's destructive, overabundant (and out of historical context) deer populations in light of our lack of 4" snowfalls (which allow for aerial censuses).

Fire season is upon us--you can feel it upon stepping out into the morning air. The crunch of the leaves, the relative humidity that is distinguishable as good fire weather. After this summer's much- politicized wildfire season, many are a little gunshy of rushing into rx fire season again. But it is an ancient process, fire, the results unable to be replicated any other way. It should be implemented carefully, responsibly, within prescription, with the greater goals of ecosystem restoration and the protection of biodiversity as the driving forces, not politics.  

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Now Featuring: More Ozark Seasonal Wines!

On Halloween night, I went to the grocery store for an extra bag of Reese's Snack Size for my trick or treaters. By 6pm on October 31, the Halloween aisle at Gerbes had been dismantled, replaced with red and green signage, red and green Reese's peanut butter minis, red and green party tablecloths, fake potted poinsettias, an inflatable Santa Claus, red and green M&M's. Halloween items, not yet discounted, were heaped up in a cart in the middle of the bakery. At the local craft store, Christmas craft items appeared in late June-- the red and green pompom yarn, Christmas craft idea booklets, crosstitch patterns of candles and holly. It's age-old, apparently, vendors pushing Christmas long before December rolls around. My daddy recalls Woolworth's setting out their Christmas items in August even as far back as the 1940s, so it's not just during my lifetime that Christmas has been crammed down our throat during the late summer and early fall. But, really, who would buy their Christmas candy in October? However, I laud the handmade community members who start cracking on their handmade Christmas presents in August. I stitch until my fingers bleed to finish my Christmas presents by mid-December, never really starting until after Thanksgiving.

Nevertheless, with the coming of the highly celebrated holidays come the specialty Missouri wines that are only available during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Augusta Winery's trustworthy newsletter alerted me this weekend that they're serving hot mugs of their Hot Apple Pie Mulled Wine at the Wine and Beer Garden. This sweet seasonal mulled wine is made with Augusta Winery's River Valley White wine, mulling spices, apple juice, and brown sugar. On a visit to North Missouri this weekend, we encountered Riverwood Winery's mulled wine, made with one of their lighter red wines, a North Missouri take on Gluwein, the German spiced wine intended to be served warm. Any wine with mulling spices is bound to be sweet, so they're good for sipping after indulging in pie. I tend to prefer Sambuca after dessert while others in my world like Norton or tawny port.

Ste. Genevieve Winery, located in charming downtown Ste. Genevieve, rolls out their Christmas Plum Wine each November. This sweet wine is made with plums, and is popular among sweet wine drinkers. At 10$ a bottle (and festooned with festive label art), the Christmas Plum Wine is one of the winery's more popular wines. Even non-wine drinkers like this one during the holidays, and it's available now at the winery. (I personally prefer their Bolduc, which is a nice dry red wine...) I found the Christmas Plum Wine and Ste. Genevieve's Thanksgiving wine for sale at the New Florence/Hermann exit Phillips 66 gas station today.

St. James Winery, located in the post oak savanna Central Plateau, now offers a cranberry wine during the holidays. This sweeter fruit wine is also appropriate for after dinner sipping, only available during the holidays and, like the Christmas Plum Wine, comes with a nice snowflake-themed label (good for gift giving). But St. James' annual offering of Nouveau, a take on Beaujolais Nouveau, is certainly worth the wait. This year it is made with a blend of Rougeon and Chambourcin and has overtones of bright raspberries and a smooth finish reminiscent of the French Beaujolais Nouveau. For the past several years, I've picked up a few bottles (a steal at $10) to bring home to Louisiana for Thanksgiving dinner and the annual taste test where my family and I compare Missouri wine to locally available French wine.

Meramec Vineyards rolled out their two Christmas and Thanksgiving wines recently (I saw them at Schnuck's): Fireglow is a mulled spice wine, and Harvest Moon is a pumpkin spice wine. (Fireglow's label features a big pit fire at night) As my journey on the Missouri Wine Passport Program continues, we took the day off to visit a fruit wine winery outside of Hermann on Hwy K off Hwy 19. Endless Summer Winery offers lots of fantastic fruit wines which would be very appropriate for after dessert sipping, but their semi-dry pecan and raisin wine would be ideal with a tray of Christmas cookies. It's really not very sweet (writes the Norton fan), and the overtones of nut and butter are just fantastic. Both wineries are open during the week as well as weekends.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

We got spirit

I spent almost two hours in a meeting today wearing a handmade sugar skull mask and a glow-in-the-dark skeleton shirt. No one acknowledged that I was dressed for a holiday, nor did anyone ask me to take off my mask so they could see my lips move while I spoke. I was the only one in my side of the building dressed up for Halloween this year, barring my secretary's headband with ears and a tail pinned on a shirt. I won't explain what defines a costume in the terms of a New Orleanian, but I will say that a tutu over work clothes is not a costume, kitty cat ears with mascara whiskers also does not constitute a costume. A funny wig? Not a costume. I wore a stripped down version of a costume today and the only person who even acknowledged it was the nice cleaning lady from Dallas, Texas, whom I like an inordinate amount for her positivity in the face of working at a sad office building far away from her loved ones and the South.

I repaired northward early to carve the literal bottom-of-the-barrel pumpkins we found at the hardware store, to find enough large Hershey bars, Almond Joys, Heath bars, and large Reese's for the multiple trick or treaters that I am certain would come by tonight thanks to the "Trick or Treaters Welcome" sign prominently placed in the front yard. Before pumpkin carving and candy gathering, it was imperative to check out the local watering hole where staff are dedicated to fun holidays like Halloween. Most of the staff wore their "work costumes" to work today, which were low maintenance costumes like a penguin suit, a Harry Potter costume, a pirate costume, but costumes nonetheless. Like our friends in New Orleans, they all have two costumes- one for the daytime and one for nighttime. Decorations abounded here, with spooky music and the televisions usually covering sports showing horror films all while rolling out their annual batch of pumpkin ale.

Trick or treaters came in low numbers again this year, despite that I live across the street from a new low income day care center. The 6 Hershey's big bars are long gone, the two Almond Joys are gone, and all of the 20 Reese's are in treat bags tonight. Granted, it was disappointing to see only a handful of good costumes--Cookie Monster was great, the Bride of Frankenstein was good enough, but the boys who knocked on the door and said "We're dressed as black teenagers" was pretty bad, reminiscent of trick or treating from my stoop in my New Orleans neighborhood. I need to live in a "grandparents' neighborhood" where folks greet hundreds of trick or treaters who come from all over the city because of the verified fact that the "grandparents' neighborhood" has better candy than anywhere else.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

An Ecosystem Destroyed

For the past few months, in my spare time, I've been assisting a colleague with the monumental task of mapping all of the glades in Missouri. The methodology is a little tedious, but the project is incredibly fun and rewarding. Among the best part of mapping glades is the field verification, randomly selecting a glade that may actually be an old field and not a glade at all. Of course, in trickier situations like in the Springfield Plain, little glades can be situated smack in the middle of an old field. Those, too, can be mapped after they've been verified.

There are thousands of privately owned glades in Missouri, so verification entails meeting private landowners to ask for permission to check out their property. Most folks are really excited that someone with an interest in botany wants to see their land. In fact, everyone I've met has been stellar, very friendly and helpful, and usually thrilled to tell me about the yellow coneflowers in spring, and the tall flowers of prairie dock that appear each summer on their glade. A lot of landowners have never heard of glades, but they know that they own some sort of ecosystem that looks different from the surrounding landscape

One recent field verification trip took me to a geologic anomaly around Decaturville. On the wall behind me is a massive 1979 Geologic Map of Missouri, and at Decaturville is a handdrawn circle with a few lines emanating from the sides. It was once thought that a meteor landed there, which accounts for the strange geology and landforms; for example, LaMotte sandstone shows up here pocked in the landscape, surrounded by a sea of dolomite. I have a vague recollection that this was not the site of a meteor crater, but an erosional feature of downcutting (the LaMotte sandstone that appears on geology maps? It's exposed in a pit created when the area was mined for uranium). Nevertheless, the area is characterized by interesting geology, so I was particularly interested to see the huge band of glades that exist on the different geology outside of Decaturville. No LaMotte sandstone barrens here in the Central Ozarks of Niangua country, just an abandoned pit with some sandstone exposed.

After climbing over and under barbed wire fences, we hiked through the post oak woods that day and encountered a massive glade belt, dotted with askew dolomite boulders sitting in a circle:

This was a massive glade belt with some curious geology, but that barbed wire fencing was still being maintained to keep a massive herd of cows grazing there. The glades were totally trashed from grazing, with absolutely no soil left and only a hint of the warm season grass structure. It's a little grim to conduct field verification to find that what was once most likely a significant landscape feature has been so intensely damaged by grazing or some other destructive process. I took a lot of glade photos that day but couldn't find a single stem of Rudbeckia missouriensis or, well, any other forb.  

In a recent comparison analysis of FQI on glades in the White River Hills, it has been determined that the floristic integrity--damaged by many years of grazing--is slightly improving (ever slowly) since the cows and grazing allotments were removed from the glades. Having conducted floristic surveys in damaged systems in the Ozarks, I have learned that damage such as at this glade belt is not easily reversed. Ecosystems are not "dynamic and ever changing," and nor are they "resilient" when they've been damaged so severely. It won't be in my lifetime that this glade will recover a thick thatch layer and sod which supports a biodiverse glade flora, even if the cows were taken off this week.  But we verified it was a glade, destroyed, but still a glade.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Virtual fire

"The hills are alive!" read the subject heading from Augusta Winery's monthly newsletter. Nestled in the river hills with those cool, north and east facing slopes all chocked full of sugar maples, I can imagine that it looks like the maple country around Frankenstein (C Road off A Road outside of Bonnot's Mill), or even as splendid as the drive I took yesterday to St. Louis where I crossed the Meramec River and saw folks pulled over taking photos at the junction of 270 and 44 as traffic whizzed by at 60 mph.  I can only be jealous of folks who took a float on the upper Niangua and headwaters of the Meramec during yesterday's incredible fall weather. Not quite as idyllic, but I was piloting a vehicle instead of a canoe that day.

I took lots of woodland interior photos, and my friend Don K. sent the second one from the dolomite cliff in the same Niangua Basin location. Mile after mile of maroon white oaks, brilliant red oaks, bright yellow hickories and sugar maples, sassafras in three colors. Even a soon-to-be-restored glade is lovely when framed by fall color. So fleeting...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Color explosion

       With the early blooming of spring and summer wildflowers this year, several were wondering whether fall wildflowers would follow the same track and bloom two to three weeks early, leaving us with nothing but fuzzy aster seeds in October. In mid-October, I'm happy to report that even in the areas hit on the nose by the drought this summer, the fall wildflowers are at their peak.

The composites steal the limelight each fall in the Ozarks, what with all the woodland goldenrods and asters, the glade plants like Rudbeckia missouriensis and Silphium terebinthinaceum. It's especially nice to see fully blooming ice cream plants like Aster laevis that haven't been clipped by deer. Granted, with all the sugar maples in some of the Ozarks woods, fall color driving tours in parts of the Ozarks offer stunning vistas this year, but I'll take fall hikes in clement weather in good woods and glades with wildflower diversity over a long drive anyday.


Thursday, October 04, 2012

Fall moves in

Remarkably, fall color in the Ozarks is turning into quite a show this month (at least in areas where the trees  haven't already dropped their leaves due to drought). Hickories are blazing yellow, tripartite sassafras leaves morph into that lovely salmon pink and the many-lobed white oak leaves are turning a deep maroon. Among the showiest fall color drives in the Ozarks is in Lost Creek country around Defiance with all those maples in the steeply dissected valleys. If you're in the area, stop into Lost Creek Vineyard, a newer winery on the block, to try their Proprietor's Choice (Norton-Chambourcin blend). Beautiful country there, and perfect for fall color drives.

With fall color comes the onslaught of hand-painted plywood clapboards propped up along county roads advertising Fall Suppers in German Catholic communities, fundraisers and community get-togethers that have occurred annually for many years. And while many farmer's markets in the Ozarks have closed for the season, equally as many seasonal markets and truck farms remain open for business as fall crops come to fruition: acorn squash, kale, garlic, onions, and fresh Missouri apples are all omnipresent in area farmer's markets. North Missouri counties (around Moberly, Macon and north) are particularly noted for growing enormous crops of Jonathan apples, but other, smaller orchards are also producing fantastic apples that one can't find in plastic bags in larger grocery stores.

Winesaps, Honeycrisps, baskets labeled with a question mark indicating unknown varieties, I grabbed handfuls of all of them last Saturday morning. I spoke to one grower selling paper bags of apples: "What variety?" I asked. "No clue. We have five trees on the property and they've been there for over 100 years. We've owned the property for 80. I don't know what kind they are, but they're sort of like a Jonathan, but not really...." I paid $3 for a bag of 10 small and incredibly tasty apples. See here for a nice article about my Willamette Valley botanist friend, Ed, and his orchard of heirloom apples.

As most of you probably already know, those beautiful, perfect, Snow White-worthy grocery store staples, Red Delicious apples, the apples that appear in fruit baskets every Christmas lack the texture and crispness and general flavor that local heirloom variety apples possess. I think I was gypped many years ago when I worked in horticulture for a non-profit: we were all offered a free Butterball turkey or a fruit basket as a Thanksgiving token of appreciation. Because I don't eat birds, I took the fruit basket. The oranges were probably three years old, stored in some refrigerator somewhere until they were totally desiccated and inedible; the big shiny Red Delicious apples were also inedible, probably two years old- not pie-worthy by a long stretch, not smothered-in-peanut-butter-to-make-edible worthy. The bananas were fine, of course, and the mango was hard as a rock. I should have opted for the frozen bird and taken it to a food bank. Not all Red Delicious apples are terrible, of course. It's not an issue with the graft, but the variety tends to be grown widespread for shipping stability and for looks rather than for flavor or texture. This, of course, is my personal experience living in the apple-growing countries of New York and Wisconsin (Go Badgers!).

If you visit a farmer's market in Missouri and see a bunch of small, pocked little apples, grab a handful and cut into them to eat or bake them in a pie. My experience with Missouri apples is incredibly positive, with the only downside being that I seldom recall what variety I've purchased the previous week.


Friday, September 28, 2012

New to Missouri, rev.

I really don't know what to say about the site I visited today, a pine woodland burned in late April with thinning slash on the ground:
Late April fires in normal weather/seasonal conditions traditionally hit the midstory pretty hard, but this past April, being advanced two weeks in the greening process, this fire really put the hurt on the canopy. I don't know what to say about a stand replacing fire that was implemented with slash on the ground and years of fuel loading. A few live pine trees remain on the site, and the understory is dominated by incredibly robust fireweed, a few desmodiums (averaging 5 ft. tall in flower--I had stick tights in my hair this afternoon), and a species not documented from Missouri before this fire event.

Missouri's finest botanist, the stellar Justin Thomas of the Institute of Botanical Training, worked plot settings in this burn unit recently, and leave it to Justin to find yet another new-to-Missouri species. It seems that during each growing season I hear of another new-to-Missouri species (almost monthly) that Justin has discovered. He covers more ground than anyone I know in the field, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of vascular plants. These new species aren't the recently-split varieties, new because they weren't classified as such during the last publication of a Flora. No, Justin finds Gulf Coastal Plain plants in the bootheel, Arkansas plants in White River country, and recently, in this fireweed-dominated burn unit with all the dead pine trees and residual slash, he discovered the pine woodland plant, Eupatorium album, in Missouri. Since the first publication of this post, I have learned that he also found E. album in the gravel washes nearby this site, so this is not a fire-dependent species. 

The plant was almost in seed by the time we saw it last week, having been discovered in flower almost one month ago. In my company (the hand) was a botanist from longleaf pine savanna country, Ft. Benning Georgia, who says that this plant is in pine systems in Georgia, but normally associated with low intensity, frequent ground fires and not blazing hot, stand-replacing fires, the likes of which occurred here in the Ozarks in April. Further, said botanist has never seen a more robust specimen than the ones we saw today which were scattered all over this site. 

In Arkansas, this plant is relatively conservative and occurs in Northwest Arkansas in burn units, with the nearest location to today's site over 100 miles away. E. album is not necessarily tied to exceedingly hot fires, and can be found in typical pine-bluestem systems, the same ecotype desired in the tract visited today. 

We visited other super hot spring fire sites today and didn't find the plant, but found -expectedly- fireweed, pokeweed, and robust panic grasses. Why did E. album appear in Missouri after this extremely hot fire, in the absence of other plants, and in nearby gravel washes? Is this another disturbance dependent species in Missouri?  

Across the road from the new plant site, I found a robust Liatris aspera that reached almost 5 ft. tall, surrounded by others (pictured) which had been summarily clipped off by deer. Burn an Ozark woodland and the overabundant deer will come to eat up nature's food plot, namely the conservative forbs. Like the other Eupatoriums, E. album is likely unpalatable to deer since it was the only forb in the area untouched by the voracious hooved creatures. 


Friday, September 21, 2012

Hungry Birds

On those common occasions when I visit an earnest Missouri winery, a winery that produces wine made from grapes grown in Missouri, a winery owned by good folks who want to make a great product rather than running a winery to "grow a portfolio," I usually sign up for their email newsletters. I've subscribed to a few, maybe 10, some which deliver weekly updates (River Ridge, Commerce, every Friday) and others (Augusta Winery, Augusta) randomly, but always welcome. As an email newsletter recipient, I'm among the throngs who learn of case discounts on Norton (which I still can't afford), of live music (which I'll never hear because I don't like being around crowds of people), special pairings (which I never attend because I don't drink whites and pairings always include whites). The best part about the newsletters, however, is the actual news about the winery: how are the grapes holding up in the drought? is harvest underway? challenges to the latest vintage? forecasts on barrel tastings? I look forward to the news-ier newsletters and tend to read them in their entirety.

Last year, I learned that Yellow Farmhouse (Defiance) lost most of their Traminette grapes to the American Robins who devoured them just before harvest. What a tasty treat! This grape-snatching devastated the 2011 vintage, so this year, Yellow Farmhouse invested in simple- but effective -bird netting. On a recent visit to Yellow Farmhouse in Defiance, I saw a few sparrows jostling the netting draped over the Traminettes in an effort to get inside to eat the those big fat grapes, but they were thwarted by the careful application of the plastic netting material. "It's not very attractive," the sweet man at the tasting bar told me, "but it's effective."

In the past few weeks, I've received at least four Missouri winery newsletters with articles bemoaning the loss of much of this year's harvest to hungry birds. One St. James area winery suggests that the drought has encouraged birds to seek food sources outside of their natural settings, so they're hitting up vineyards in the area. The Norton vines were particularly hard hit this year on the Central Plateau, and next year, this winery, too, will be investing in bird netting. Another winery in the central Ozarks invested in bird netting for their Norton grapes, but no others. The Seyval Blanc was wiped out, but the Norton was saved.

Even in years of hungry bird populations visiting unprotected vineyards, Ozarkers are still producing fine Missouri wines. Before my birthday trip back home to Louisiana last week, snaking through the Ozarks I snagged several bottles of 2011 Traminette and Vignoles (since EVERYONE in Louisiana but me drinks whites during hot weather) to hand out as gifts (along with Honeycrisp apples from Moberly and kale from my yard). All well received, and summarily consumed. I suspect that as there are farm forecasts of blackbirds on rice fields, there are forecasts of songbird population impacts to wine grapes. Right? Surely someone is tracking that...

Sunday, September 09, 2012

After the Rain

Fall wildflower season is well underway after the recent spate of rain rehydrated the landscape. The desiccated 100+ degree days which seemed devoid of all natural life may be behind us this fall. During the drought, large populations of Gaura biennis exploded in blooms along long stretches of highway in certain parts of the Ozarks, while other flora (Desmodiums in particular) waited for the rain before they flowered. I don't recall seeing as much Gaura in years past, and I wonder if the lack of mowing on the roadsides this summer accounted for their persistence this year.

Nevertheless, Asters and goldenrods, Boltonia and Bidens, Desmodiums and Spiranthes, they've all perked up since the rains last week. I haven't seen as many box turtles in the woods since spring as I did this week, either. The natural world that virtually went dormant during the drought (barring a handful of species that didn't bat an eye to the three months without rain, especially glade species) is active again, just in time for float season.