Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Wildfires continue

Gosh, it seems not too long ago that I listened to a presentation by an esteemed forester who chastised land management agencies for burning during the late summer and proclaimed that "historically, we didn't have lightning fires in Missouri in the summer." Driving any major highway, any rural road, well, traveling any distance in the Ozarks, one is bound to encounter a burned out roadside from a rogue cigarette or, as the case on Hwy 67, a muffler spitting sparks all along the road (27 fires caused by that muffler outside of Farmington). But last week's pop-up thunderstorms (combined with the crazy KB Palmer Drought Index ratings) spurred several more lightning-induced wildfires in the region, continuing the trend of lightning fires that have occurred all summer in this record breaking drought. One lightning fire in derecho damage burned over 1,000 acres, and the others, smaller in scale, were contained before they burned the whole county down. Growing season lightning fires occurred historically, and they're occurring now. The difference between historic growing season fires and the implementation of this process in today's damaged landscape is about 100 years, 100 years of grazing by domestic livestock, the interruption of the regular fire regime. Today, when folks implement growing season fires in impaired systems that have not seen this sort of intensity for many years, the fire damages the canopy, the soils, the entire ecosystem. Fire is not always a good thing, especially when you're dealing with horribly damaged systems (which is much of the Ozarks today). Growing season fires work well when you already have a flashy fuel in place, a quickly burning warm season grass structure. Dense, thick leaf litter that hasn't burned for 50 years does not represent the historic condition, so the historic fire regimes should not be implemented. All these Ozark wildfires? It will be interesting to see if anything besides fireweed comes up next spring.

This was sent to me through the post today, an image from the lightning-caused fire outside of Dora, a raging fire with a thunderhead nearby that may have thrown off more lightning:

If I understood the report correctly, St. Louis has broken the 1980 drought record for days with continuous temperatures above 103. The canopy throughout the Ozarks is browning out.

I've given up on my woodland sampling plots in much of the Ozarks. Tonight I'm trying to figure out mathematically how I can average this year's data with next year's data with a standard deviation to account for the incredible drought. Normally, warm spring rains follow prescribed fire season, spurring woodland flora to flourish, to spring anew. This summer, visiting some of the sites that burned last fire season has been reminiscent of visiting a radiation site where nothing grows but farkleberry from stump sprouts, and only meager sprouts. The Desmodiums are toast, and a lot of the sedges never flowered, so I'm stuck with dried sterile sedges. Oh, some of the sedges are easy (complanata, muhlenbergii, albicans, albursina, the easy ones) but in a woodland with such rich sedge diversity, I want to key them correctly and it's challenging to do so without flowering stalks and fruit. It's challenging for me, anyway.

Like the rest of the state, I'm hoping for rain soon.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Late July in the woodlands

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Summer Book List

I live near a terrific library with a great book and music collection, and for that I am truly grateful.
In the heat of the summer days, I've managed to plow through a few great books lately and not a few terrible ones that I've abandoned midway, mostly disgusted and frightened by their bizarre and off-kilter principles promoted within.

Among the recommendable, here's a short list:

This is Water, David Foster Wallace: a book on forbearance, a lesson on compassion for your fellow human beings. This book is a transcription of a commencement address Wallace gave to a small college a couple of years before he committed suicide. A must read for the impatient liberal arts trained intellectual. Short, can be read in one sitting.

Franny and Zooey, JD Salinger: I read this book every year or so to keep me grounded. As an inveterate asocial melancholic, I need this book at hand at all times. I have several copies, one at each of my addresses. The first edition hardback is by my bed next to Seymour, an Introduction and Nine Stories. I read a passage from Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter at my kid sister's wedding for her toast, much to the confusion of her husband's sports-oriented Madison friends.

The Bill McKibben Reader- Pieces from an Active Life, Bill McKibben: good collection of McKibben's terrific New Yorker pieces, some of his later works, essays published in esteemed journals through his career. A wait listed book at my library, which speaks volumes about the fortitude of my neighbors. If you're reading this, you don't need to be told about Bill McKibben and his outstanding wisdom and insight.

Everything and More (A Compact History of Infinity), David Foster Wallace: a terrific math book about long troubling math problems and math philosophy. Well written, and an entertaining read on the history of solving the problem of defining infinity.

Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen: Oh, how I love Jonathan Franzen. He's much older than I am, but after reading his entire collection and following his books through subscription to the New Yorker for many years, I feel like I know him very well, like I went to summer camp with him or something. Farther Away is a collection of essays written as a reaction to David Foster Wallace's suicide; he and Wallace were very close friends, and in this collection he tries to come to terms with the untimely suicide of his hitting partner. Franzen's Discomfort Zone, by the way, is a must read for anyone interested in the plight of good, earnest middle class folks in St. Louis or the Midwest. The Corrections is his big famous book, and it must have been truly exhausting to write. I can't imagine the sheer energy that went into this fine work of fiction.

Wine Wars, The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists, Mike Veseth: I live in a town that prioritizes good food, good beer, good wine, so my library carries all kinds of early releases of books on these topics. This one paints a pretty grim picture of the future of wine culture in America, one that includes cardboard bladders of wine from unknown locations and the potential disappearance of small batch wines that are actually produced locally and bottled in glass with cork. Another grim book about globalization.

Wetter than the Mississippi: Prohibition in St. Louis and Beyond, Robbi Courtaway. Fun read on the history of prohibition in Missouri, how the wine and beer industry was impacted by the rampant anti-immigrant sentiment in the Hermann area. If you live in St. Louis, you can actually make a driving game of visiting a lot of the areas mentioned here referenced as speakeasys and bootlegging sites. Neat book.

Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators, William Stolzenburg. Of the myriad of books I've read with "ecology" in the tags, this is the only one of 20 worth reading. I've read terrible books that proclaim that we should "embrace exotic species because they are part of nature now..." and idiocies like that. But this one, I bought several copies of it after reading it so I could give copies to the very small and dwindling number of actual ecologists who work in Missouri. In this terrific documentary of the history of predator extirpation and "conservation movements," the author tracks the history of white tailed deer and the actions of state wildlife agencies that lead to this abhorrent overpopulation problem that no one seems to be able to manage. He catalogues the early days of ecology when researchers began to recognize the important role of predators in natural systems. It includes the case study of wolves at Yellowstone and Rooney's important work on the deer problem in Wisconsin that has now permeated the entire Midwest. Stolzenburg points an accusing finger at wildlife agencies who do not prioritize protecting biodiversity. I'm in league with this guy. Great book, and an entertaining read.

Monday, July 23, 2012

July Fall

In the dry sandstone woodlands down in wine country, this summer's drought has brought on an early leaf drop. Hiking through the woods this weekend was reminiscent of late October, but without all the blooming asters and legumes, without the brilliant yellow hickory leaves littering the path. No, just brown leaves and a spare understory crunching with every step on a late July afternoon. Even the Christmas fern has dried up on what is traditionally a moist north facing slope...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Drought Tolerant Indeed

Last week, the Ozarks finally broke out of that high pressure dome that dominated for over two weeks, that system that stuck us with a stifling heat and incredibly low humidities. In the past couple of weeks, certain lucky areas were subjected to late afternoon thunderstorms, some storms even dumping as much as 3 inches of much needed rain in highly localized places. Sampling, of course, began over a month ago, and before setting out for the Osage Plains on Monday, the glades I sampled looked like this:

When characterizing glade natural communities, the prairie vegetation is often described as "drought tolerant," and the landscape "desert-like" (though many of us are getting away from using that descriptor as it generally pertains to overgrazed glades with no soil left. Visit a glade that hasn't had cows and horses all over it and you'll find a deep, rich glade soil that supports prairie vegetation dominated by warm season grasses without a lot of exposed chert rubble. When glades still have their soil matrix because they haven't been grazed to hell, they are much less desert-like communities than most glades in the state. Anyway...). Nevertheless, glade vegetation on those dry, rocky, mostly southern exposures has adapted to drought and plants continue to bloom on schedule and the leaves of certain plants remain erect:

Others, like the glade obligate Rudbeckia missouriensis, wilts terribly in ultradry conditions:

What has been remarkable, however, is to note the response of glade vegetation to the short bursts of thunderstorms that have occurred in the area. Some of the grasses which remained stunted during the drought have sent up new growth and flowering heads, while others (Aristida purpurascens, in particular) have not been affected at all by the long spate of dry and incredibly hot weather. Recall that in summer 2011, the Ozarks witnessed extended periods of drought, and by fall, with the shorter days and brief fall rains, sexy Aster sericeus flowered and all of the sad little leaves of R. missouriensis were as erect and green and literally carpeting the glades with their darling bright yellow petals. "Drought adapted" most certainly.


Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Missouri Whites

"Romans don't drink red wine in the summer, especially on a 101 degree afternoon," my professor snapped at me after I placed my order for a Tuscan red in a trattoria outside of Tivoli.
"So. I'm not Roman..." I muttered in response, and waited for my wine order to arrive.
At the villa that year, we drank homemade crisp white Trebbiano d'Abruzzo with every meal. The kitchen staff  packed it in our lunches for the field. They served it at breakfast with eggs, post siesta with fresh pears and cheese, at dinner with the customary seemingly thousand course meal, after coffee at night. I don't like cold white wine (I never have); it usually tastes too much like fruit, like pears and apples and apricots, and I don't like cold drinks except my ice water with lemon juice after a run. White wine lovers would probably really love the house wine at the villa, it was clearly a nice little house wine bottled in recycled mineral water bottles. The only white wine I ever drank after Italy was a very inexpensive Trebbiano d'Abruzzo stocked at Robert's, the terrific walk-to grocery store in the Faubourg Marigny. After so much white wine in Europe, I only drank white wine after long August afternoons spent gardening, which was often enough, but I stopped at 1/2 a glass. I'm an inveterate dry red wine person, I always have been (probably due in part to my Episcopalian upbringing). I continue to drink room temperature dry red wine on a 104 degree afternoon.

During my first foray into Missouri wine culture nine years ago, I visited the wineries I could reach within a two hour drive, especially appreciating Buffalo Creek and Grey Bear near Stover. Oh yes, very nice white wine, but I don't drink whites, so I'll taste your dry whites because they're part of the tasting, but I'll spend my extremely hard earned dollars on your Nortons and Chambourcins. During my tenure in Missouri, I have bought two bottles of white wine: a Traminette from River Ridge Winery (Commerce, Mo.) that was reminiscent of bees gorging in a lilac bush, and the bottle I have in my possession today, a 2010 Seyval Blanc from Buffalo Creek (recently reopened under new management--son and daughter-in-law of the original owners), purchased because it was the only wine under their label they were selling that cold February day and I have early Missouri memories of Buffalo Creek. I don't even know if I tasted it before I bought it. Cold wine always tastes cold and fruity, sort of the same regardless of the grapes...it's a horrible admission to make and hopefully one day I'll manage to appreciate whites better. The sugars- perceived or real- in whites tend to make me a little cranky and belligerent, so it's best I stay away from them for now. 

August 2011: I happily found myself at the tasting bar at St. Innocent, a stellar winery situated in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA of Oregon's premier landscape, the Willamette Valley. Oregon vintners specialize in truly remarkable, nay, gasp-worthy pinot noir, and from what I understand, they also make great pinot gris but I usually don't taste them (most wineries in Oregon charge for wine tastings, so I stick to the pinot noir, of course). Sidled up next to us at the cozy tasting bar at St. Innocent was a viticulture professor from a university in Minnesota. I casually mentioned to him that I live in Missouri, and he immediately stepped back a couple of paces: "Missouri wineries produce the best Voignier-style wine in America, their Vignoles tops every other attempt at Voignier in the country." Yes, well, they're nice, I've tried them, but I don't drink them, so...I can't really compare them to other states, etc., I mumbled. I trusted his judgement, especially noting how many multiple cases of St. Innocent's Reserve 08 Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris he was purchasing on an educator's budget. (Alas, on my salary I could only afford one bottle at St. Innocent, and it's the Estate, not even the Reserve bottling.)

So, while I only drink a tasting's worth of most Missouri white wines, I contend that there are some very nice ones out there, with Traminette being the most highly variable among wineries. Traminette is reminiscent of Gewurtztraminer, complete with a customarily floral nose, some of a buttery finish (sometimes, but not always). I tend to always taste Missouri Traminettes as they tend to be the most interesting of the whites. Chardonels are usually very well made in Missouri, along with Seyval Blanc. Because I haven't had a full glass of a cold white wine since the last time I was in Italy, I really can't offer tasting notes. I can tell from the tastings that most wineries in Missouri produce nice whites, however. 

I placed the '10 Seyval Blanc in my refrigerator a couple of days ago in anticipation of opening it alongside a July 4th dinner of sweet corn from north Missouri and a caprese salad sandwich made with awesome heirloom tomatoes and basil from the yard. I took it out, the bottle all beaded in sweat, and I never opened it. I'll never drink a whole bottle of a white wine, so I'll keep it cool until that rare occasion when I have a houseguest who "cannot possibly" drink a room temperature dry red while in my unairconditioned house. Anyway, Missouri Vignoles is highly regarded, and the other whites produced here have much more character than the plonk coming out of bulk wine producers worldwide. It's summer, the time of year when the Romans drink whites. Try some of Missouri's.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Ozarks on fire

Aside from 1980 and 1998, this may be one of the more active wildfire seasons to begin so early in the summer in the Ozarks. The above photo was taken on Hwy 32 earlier this week where crown fires and 70 ft. flamelengths were reported. Obviously, lots of county issued burn bans, restrictions on fireworks use, and so forth...