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.