Friday, January 25, 2013

Black is the color of Beauty

This week's high and dry weather has allowed for several of our state's finest natural history sites to burn, to burn cleanly and easily and without incident. Fire swept through a prairie up in the Lincoln Hills country, an Ozark outlier that has been managed with fire for over thirty years now. Do you remember the derecho that swept through the Ozarks in May 2009, the 100+mph winds that toppled canopy trees for over 100,000 acres of the St. Francois Mountains and the surrounding area? All of those downed white oaks, black oaks, red oaks (pine remains standing) are cured out now, and fire has been reintroduced to the area to stimulate the herbaceous ground flora.
Glade restoration efforts continue with conducive burning opportunities--no cedar skeletons will remain after these crews are finished with their clearing exercises. Good fire weather for burning brush piles and glades alike allows for easy, simple burns to accomplish the goal of ecosystem restoration. A period of rain ensues this weekend, and hopefully by mid-February we'll be back up and running to accomplish the noble efforts of acres treated for the sustainability and encouragement of biodiversity as the highest and most noble use for wild lands.

Monday, January 14, 2013

New Haven's Gem

I occupy not a little of my free time by visiting Missouri wineries, driving to areas with high densities of wineries to try and collect as many "dry reds only, please" as I can possibly taste. I completed the Missouri Wine and Grape Board's winery passport program that lasted several years, and will be spending a weekend at St. Gemme Beauvais in Ste. Genevieve next weekend as the grand prize for all of my endeavors. I really don't think I should be rewarded, per se, for visiting all of these great places, but a weekend at a bed and breakfast well out of my price range is certainly welcome. I look forward to visiting all of the historic sites in town that I haven't been to because usually when I'm in the area I'm in the local pine woods, camping.

I feel remiss that there are at least ten wineries in the state I haven't visited yet, mostly because they're only open on certain weekends or are so far away that I would have to set out on a workday to get there in time. Also a little disheartening is learning of the closing of some very earnest and fine wineries in Missouri in the past couple of years; among one of my favorites was located outside of Warrenton, Rolling Meadows Winery, now up for sale (for a very reasonable price). Nevertheless, despite all of this, I've met some incredible winemakers and collected some terrific wines for my rack. Mixed within the 07-08 Oregon pinot noirs, I still have some 06 Nortons, but mostly 08-09s, and of late I have been drinking a lot of the 09 Chambourcins, since that varietal tends to fall apart after three years. In the mix are a few 04s and 05s from Oregon and Missouri both, and random French Cotes du Rhones that just sort of hang out there, waiting for company or a dinner party.

There are, however, a few wineries that are making wines that are meant for cellaring. Few and far between, one that stands out is Robller Vineyards Winery in New Haven.After several visits to Hermann, we launched out towards New Haven in hopes of finding good, earnest, noble wineries in the area. Robller Vineyards fit the bill in every way--great dry reds, personable staff, grounds for a picnic, a staff wanting to understand what the customer is looking for. I'm pretty easy to please at most Missouri wineries that are making dry reds: don't serve the sweet stuff you give to the folks who aren't really *into* wine, but let me linger over your dry wines, especially your Nortons. Robller is run by a father and son team, and they've been making wine for over twenty years. April 21, 2013 marks the 21st anniversary of the winery! They're hosting a big party in celebration of this momentous occasion.

As an inveterate pinot noir collector, I was intrigued by Robller's Le Trompier Noir, a blend that resembles pinot noir and ages well. I have a few 09s sitting still waiting for late 2013 or much later to see what happens to this complex and intriguing wine. I especially appreciated the attention Jerry gave to us when we mentioned that dry reds were our specialty, a history of his Norton production, a laundry list of the issues he's had making good dry reds, his successes, his challenges. This family winery exemplifies everything that a great Ozark winery should be-- earnest, hard working, producing great product. Robller's Norton is among the finest in the Ozarks, for aging and for drinking now.

Oh, and the wine? Supple tannins, rich texture, more of an international wine than a small batch homemade wine. He oaks his wines, of course, but the oak doesn't mask the cover of the Norton grape. His Le Trompier Noir is exceptional, drinking very well now, but also worthy of aging for at least five years. I get impatient with wine, which is why I invest in Bordeaux futures so I can't touch them, but this one, the Robller Le Trompe Noir is sitting in back of me just breathing down my neck asking me to open it, but I wonder, does it go in a Norton Reidel glass or a pinot noir Reidel glass? I guess I'll have to wait until I go back to New Haven to ask that question....

Tragedy on the Ozark Trail

I think everyone was saddened to hear of unfortunate deaths on the Ozark Trail, a father and two sons who set out on Saturday before the big storm came through. They got caught in the storm and died of exposure. It's all very sad, and a reminder that weather can be violent in Missouri... see the story here.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Winter walk in chert woods

 It was a breezy but quiet 45 degree morning earlier this week when I set out to the woods for a round of winter birding. Highlights of the day include the 14 cedar waxwings sitting still on a gnarly old post oak and the two hermit thrushes that we always see in the same area, year after year for nine years. The diversity of the chert woodlands and the dolomite glades is evident even in winter when the notable stalks of goldenrods and asters and the showy Sporobolus clandestinus remain erect even after a four inch snow event. Winter botany is becoming easier the longer I stay in Missouri.

There have been discussions in recent years from folks unaware of exactly how natural communities exist on the landscape. I've been privy to one conversation with foresters who told me that if we cut trees on a north and east facing slope, the same plant community that exists on a southwest facing slope will occur. Visiting my favorite burned woods this week, I witnessed the effects of those north facing exposures with their closed canopy (though frequently burned) structure. The December 31 snow event is a thing of the past here, except for on the north slopes. Slope, aspect, topography all play roles in the establishment of distinct natural communities. We'll never see a warm season grass-widely spaced post oak-dominated dry chert woods on those north slopes. Some of the dry woodland elements are there, but they're structurally distinct from the harsh environments of the southwest slopes--the trees are closer together, more erect, and there are species differentiations, as well. Fire behaves differently on north slopes compared to south slopes, and since fire is responsible for shaping natural communities, it only makes sense that north and east slopes will have different character than exposed southwest slopes...

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Early bloomer

It was mid-December this year, just as Christmas Bird Counts were starting across Missouri and the rest of the country. Autumn's asters and goldenrods are dessicated little stalks with hardly even seedheads visible anymore, and winter botany games are well underway.

I received a call from a friend who had been hiking in the Potosi area around Lower Rock Creek in mid-December. It's beautiful country down there, a truly iconic Ozark landscape. "Ozark witch hazel is in bloom," he said. I knew it had been blooming earlier than ten years ago, but mid-December seems to be among the earliest dates I've heard. Ten years ago, this delicate yellow flower reliably bloomed in late February. On fieldtrips to catch it in bloom several years ago, I set out in late February and realized I had missed it. I set out three weeks earlier in 2010 and finally saw it in bloom in late January, but it was past peak. In some protected areas in the St. Francois Mountains, I've caught the blooms in early March. But mid-December seems early.

With the fluctuating temperatures last week, the snow is melting both naturally and because of rain events. The four inches of snow around Farmington quickly reduced to two inches and may exist only in patches now, but I can't be certain. The temperatures are conducive to hiking around streambanks these days, so if you'd like to catch Ozark witch hazel in bloom, I may suggest setting out soon, in early January, to see this harbinger of spring.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


The first appreciable snow hit the Ozarks this past week, dumping upwards of 4-6 inches in some places (plenty of snow for an aerial deer census!). The crisp and quiet stillness that comes with snow events here marks the true beginning of winter, this year following another mild fall. From mid-October to late March in recent years, I've made weekly visits to the hardware store for 40 lb. bags of birdseed and cases of suet. This October, however, the regime was interrupted by a mandatory visit by an inspector from a civic office.
I've never owned a home because I don't want to be tied to a mortgage (and I've never had real job security so I've never wanted to commit to living in one place for too long). I realize, of course, that I'm old now and I would have "equity" if I bought a house, if I upgraded my 1995 Honda Civic that has 350K miles on it, and set down roots and all that other stuff that comes with adulthood debt. I'd rather spend my money on travel and entertainment, frankly, and most of my discretionary funds are used to pay off interminable student loans which paid for an education that didn't bring me very far in a career (but I sure did meet some stellar folks and travel a lot those years). And so, I've always been a renter, a disdainful renter that neighborhood associations look down upon because I don't "value property" and I potentially bring down the value of others' homes because I don't have a "real job." I have the potential of "ruining hardwood floors with scuff marks" and I must live "in squalor" for months at a time. It is renters like myself, I guess, the unseemly lot that I am, that actually instigated the establishment of a local office that is in charge of regulating rental properties in order that homeowner property values on the block will not be diminished because of my rental status. (It's actually even more political than I can get into, verging into the desire to tear down large tracts of certain neighborhoods like my little Craftsman-centric neighborhood to make way for low bid but expensive condomniniums etc., but I won't get into that...)

So, rental properties are now inspected by an official who not only checks for working smoke alarms and furnaces during winter, but for peeling paint, for weather stripping, for "indoor furniture misplaced outdoors," and for other "signs of decay and blight." To pass inspection, a renter cannot have a heaps of brush to attract wildlife, because it is surmised that attracted wildlife will include the unseemly sort like rats and other vermin. Oh, my yard with her 400 year old abused chinquapin oak, with her massive brush pile started in 2005 by my landlady in a successful effort to attract birds, with her native vegetation which we manage with annual prescribed fire. As renters, we failed our inspection due to a lathe and plaster crack in the kitchen, mold in the bathroom (poor ventilation and non-mold preventive paint used by the one who restored the 1932 property), and the brushpile. We were given 30 days to rectify the situation, and it's been a mad dash between managing my mother's estate, funeral, Christmas, and so forth, and managing the heap in the backyard that has maintained rabbits, snakes, hundreds of birds throughout the year, wren nests, and so forth. It's been methodical, breaking down the heap by burning it all and cutting up the larger pieces. For the larger logs and brush that I have collected from the street to provide kindling for backyard fires, we have invested in an electric chainsaw. The result? A pristine yard with a largescale bird feeding operation that never gets used anymore. Here's the well-managed and sterile woodpile that came out of the age-old heap:

It's a nice, well-constructed woodpile for a family with a wood-fired stove, but the contents of this woodpile were part of a well-established brushpile that allowed for so many hundreds of birds to come to the yard for shelter, food and their often-replenished water source. I realize I'm grousing, that I should just live in the country where I wouldn't have to manage visits from an office of blighting rental properties, and perhaps I portray myself as a crazy lady with stacks of newspapers from the 1970s who has wren nests in my head of hair that hasn't been cut since 1982, but I'm not. I'm a responsible renter who has allowed the natural upland flatwoods in my relictual backyard to flourish, and the suite of woodland birds that have been attracted to the yard are becoming increasingly uncommon with the onslaught of development and exotic encroachment.

Today, with no brushpile and the only shrubs in the feeding area some young regenerating redbuds, I saw my first white-throated sparrow since the dismantling of the brushpile. It's sad, for me, at least, because it was once nice to come home from the the daily toil of a desk job to a little patch of urban woodland free of bush honeysuckle and nonsense and find a common yellowthroat hanging out, and Eastern wood pewees perched on a strappy walnut. With the brushpile gone, with "all those weeds" cut down to ground level, my yard looks like a yard. I hate it, Mom's dogs who loved the wooliness of the yard hate it, but the inspector will think it's just passable.