Tuesday, February 05, 2013

High and Dry

KOSHKONONG, MO. Early settler accounts from the central Ozarks are always so fascinating, usually offering great descriptions of the landscape before the age of extraction began, before 5 million passenger pigeons were killed in a day and our virgin oak woodlands were clearcut and then riddled with livestock in the name of industry. Our State Historical Society has recently made their catalog holdings digitized, which means you can search for Missouri-related historic documents by county or region. A very fast search for documents pertaining to lower Oregon County, located down south of West Plains (a historic Ozark prairie plain, hence the name), revealed a rich history that my old friend at the former Western Manuscripts thought "wouldn't be of interest." This old friend printed off the photostat of H.E. Starlin's "An Early History of Oregon County, Missouri" which includes a compendium of historic accounts from the late 1800s and early 1900s. It has proven to be of great interest, and I don't know how to repay my old friend besides buying him a pint of KATY Trail Pale Ale next weekend. I realize it's his job to help patrons to the library, but his expediency in the matter was pretty impressive. This document is exactly what I wanted.

I've read Schoolcraft's journals, Theodore Pease Russell's journals from the St. Francois Mountains, Wilhelm's journals, countless GLO surveyors' notes and a lot of highly localized historic accounts. But I seldom spend time down here, a stone's throw from Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, so it's a real treat to have a document in hand while here that offers a glimpse of what the country looked like 200 years ago. Combined with the witness tree map that shows widely spaced blackjack oaks, randomly spaced post oaks and a few, a very few black oaks, the notes about "thinly timbered" and "mantled in bluegrass" appear as a great departure from the current landscape. One of my colleagues called this country "beater land," rugged and heavily abused by anthropogenic forces like grazing. While much of the county is currently in pasture and other development, the few wooded tracts are damaged by grazing. This country is so dry, almost xeric, that "dry chert woodlands" takes on a variation captured in the book that is not seen in much of the Ozarks. These variations capture the essence of repeatable patterns across the landscape, but even the author of the book would say that this Oregon Co. country is exceedingly dry, resulting in spare vegetation and short, stunted post oaks and blackjack oaks.

Well-drained soils based on Ordovician Jefferson City-Cotter dolomite dominate the site that is best characterized as historic savanna--not savanna in the 1980s political term, but true savanna with a 10-30% canopy cover. Of course, today, like most of the Ozarks, this area is out of context with its historic character with densely stocked red oak-black oak and thick layers of leaf litter mantling the woodland floor. But look past all those little whips of 80 year old relicts of grazing, those red oak-black oaks and you'll see massive old blackjack oaks and post oaks. Little glade openings avail themselves on the bluffs, thickly coated in grass cover and scattered forbs (and a few cedars, of course). From a 1919 document submitted by an Uncle Dick Smith: "In the fertile bottoms, the settlers built homes and barricades to guard against wandering Indians, bears and wolves. They cleaned the bottomlands of timber and put in crops of corn, cotton, tobacco, and garden vegetables. There was plenty of timber along the streams but the hills were bare and because of this tall stands of blue and prairie grass stood a yard high on the hills and plains...." I hope to work to bring back all that blue and prairie grass to compliment all those old witness trees that still exist in their full glory in Oregon County.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pretty fascinating. It's hard to get people to grasp that our prairie affinity vegetation extended so far into the Ozarks and that the oak leaf carpet they consider natural is an artifact of fire suppression.