Friday, May 24, 2013

Radiant Heat (or, How I Make S'mores)

I grew up as a Brownie and a Girl Scout visiting the charming pine woodland Camp Wawbansee every summer until I was 7. We made s'mores every night and I grew aggravated that my chocolate never melted before I put the hot, perfectly toasted marshmallow between the graham crackers, a situation which always ended with half of a cold bit of chocolate and hard graham crackers in my lap. Since age 8 until my senior year in high school, I attended the Episcopal summer camp outside of Pollock, Louisiana, Camp Hardtner, where I made lifelong friends and learned some very valuable lessons about bonfires and s'mores building every summer.

We had big bonfires at Camp Hardtner, and we had s'mores events regularly, often preceding our nightly milk-and-cookie hour in the cafeteria. Our bonfires tended to be made with large logs rather than the split firewood that can be bought by the bundle at the entrance to the Kisatchie from any gas station around Boyce. I was impressed by the bonfires, and really appreciated how the staff (usually the older priests rather than the LSU students who were counselors) could manage these massive fires. But when I really learned about how to make s'mores as well as valuable bonfire lessons using large logs was when I moved to the Ozarks.

During my first overnight gravel bar camping float trip, I noted evidence of failed fires, large logs with char marks that never caught, usually punky sycamore but no trace of kindling beneath them. I used to laugh at the sight of these failed fires on gravel bars, thinking that whomever tried constructing them had no clue what to do with large logs in the absence of a saw, until I went gravel bar camping with my colleague. They used to call those abandoned campfires constructed with massive flood debris, usually sycamore, but large in size, they called them St. Louis fires, thinking that the folks who tried to set fire to massive logs without kindling must be from an urban area and lacking fire experience. Granted, I realize there are very fine folks in St. Louis who can build wonderful fires, but when high school kids from any urban area hit a gravel bar without any prior experience of how to construct a fire, the heap of woody charred debris left behind sort of screams "urban kids with no fire experience" to veteran Ozarkers or the veteran Jefferson County 1960s boy scouts with whom I spend my time.

So, for starters, if you're on a two or three or four day float and you don't want to pack in beautifully split red oak firewood or timber mill seconds, gather all those big logs and old punky trees and enough kindling underneath to get a fire going. Once the fire burns through that primary log, you push the two logs together to make more firewood. Rather than one big tree, you now have two logs. This is, I believe, the aim of St. Louis firebuilders, but the abandoned fires I come across usually have no trace of kindling beneath. You can build a perfectly great fire out of a big old sycamore with enough kindling and enough patience to push all those logs together to make an actual fire. See above my own St. Louis fire made from flood debris and three pieces of split wood earlier this week.

Get the fire going, make sure it's hot enough to burn through the punky sycamore so the log will dry out and you can have two logs instead of one big tree, and then focus on the s'mores. Using what I know from Girl Scouts, you can make s'mores utilizing two types of heat: Conductive or Radiant. Conductive is a more direct heat, like throwing your marshmallow on a stick directly into the fire or right above the flame. Radiant heat is a gentler heat, as the heat radiates onto the surface from another surface. I was once a s'mores maker who would set the marshmallow on fire until it turned black because I liked holding fire. Now that managing fire is old hat to me and it doesn't excite me as much as it probably should, I've started roasting my marshmallows with radiant heat. However, and this is a serious matter, to make a perfect s'more, you should really melt your chocolate onto the graham cracker with radiant heat before you even start roasting your marshmallow. Like so: Note that the logs are now burning into a campfire and the chocolate is propped up (chert rocks work better than slabs of wood) on the graham cracker, attracting radiant heat from the fire. At this point in the operation, I hadn't started roasting my marshmallow. I waited until I saw signs of melting on the chocolate and then began slowly roasting the marshmallow in the radiant heat. Once the chocolate starts to droop from being a perfect rectangle into a little amorphous glob, it's time to connect the pieces, to put the marshmallow on your cracker and smash them together.

Here's a picture of the s'more I made this week with a fire made from flood debris: Note how the chocolate is perfectly melted and the toasted marshmallow is melding with the chocolate. Unfortunately, the graham crackers were from the back of my Honda and have probably been there for about a year so there was a staleness about them. Nevertheless, I toasted my marshmallow very well and my chocolate melted quite nicely. Of course, everyone has their own preference for s'mores including using Reese's peanut butter cups instead of squares of chocolate, and setting the marshmallow on fire until it's charred. To each his and her own, but I have learned that employing radiant heat makes my favorite type of s'more.

Monday, May 20, 2013

In Chicago: Native Plant Enthusiast Battling the Weed Inspector

Mayor Daley liked flowers. On my last trip to Chicago during Ravinia 2007, I applauded Chicago for all the rangy native plants growing along Lakeshore Drive. Here's a story about a native plant gardener battling it out with the city over her milkweeds that support the monarch, the Illinois state insect.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Finding Sandstone Glades

Outside of the Pennsylvanian channel sandstones in the southwestern Ozarks, there are thousands of acres of landscape atop other sandstone formations. Roubidoux is clearly the most abundant in the neck of the woods I visited last week, with Gunter sandstone coming in as a close second. Just as there are only small caves formed in Gunter sandstone in the Ozarks, we discovered large glades in Roubidoux sandstone, but you wouldn't know it from examining the Natural Features Inventory or the Heritage Database. As part of the field verification process of mapping glades, I visited two massive sandstone glade complexes last week, both with the rich array of obligate sandstone glade flora.

Granted, none of the newly discovered sandstone glades were in great shape (having been ravaged by a long history of grazing by domestic livestock), but the signature elements were still in place: Selenia aurea, Linaria canadensis, and Oenothera linifolia. These large, privately owned glades have no Element of Occurrence Records on them, which means that in recent times it is highly unlikely that a botanist or other natural historian has visited them.

Peculiar about the site I visited last week was the proximity to the Lake of the Ozarks country. Far away from the channel sandstones glades we visited last month, I found the same assortment of sandstone glade flora in Maries County. I haven't checked Steyermark's distribution maps, but this area may represent the eastern most extension of Selenia aurea in Missouri. And there's no Element of Occurrence Record for the glade.

One of the challenges of this glade mapping project is the concept of restorable versus non-restorable glades. Two of the sandstone glades I visited this week have been so heavily grazed that the bedrock exposure was immense. While sandstone glades as well as glades on other substrates have a component of exposed bedrock, I think these areas had been grazed to hell by domestic livestock to the degree that there is no soil left. The following two photos show the area with a long history of grazing versus what the glade looks like on the protected side of the fence:

The field verification side of this mapping project has taken me to glades that I wish I owned so I could manage them, so I could do what any restorable glade needs: to cut and burn cedars. Conversely, there are glades like the photo above that are so trashed out from grazing that no soil is left and therefore no semblance of biodiversity remains. It was once a glade, and while it remains a shallow bedrock natural community type, it lacks glade flora and associated fauna. It remains unthinkable that anyone would willingly allow domestic livestock grazing in intact natural communities considering that we have lost thousands of acres to this very same destructive process.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Missouri Norton in the News

It's ironic that I recommended Augusta Winery to some esteemed folks lately, and this came through the post from the Norton Wine Travelers who divested themselves of numerous Virginia Nortons that are very nice but I haven't found one yet that beats a Missouri.
Missouri Winery Wins Big At California Competition Posted on: 4:34 pm, May 13, 2013, by Staff Writer, updated on: 04:29pm, May 13, 2013 Augusta Wine Company was a big winner at this years’ Pacific Rim Wine Competition. At the annual competition held in April, thirty wine professionals conduct a blind evaluation of about two thousand wines. Augusta Wine Company received eight awards total between wines submitted from Augusta Winery and Montelle Winery. Augusta Winery brought home Best of Class and Gold with both their 2010 Chambourcin and 2012 Chardonel. Other awards for Augusta Winery include Gold for their 2010 Norton, Silver for the 2012 Seyval Blanc and Bronze for the 2012 Vignoles. Montelle Winery received Best of Class and Gold for their 2010 Norton, and Silver for the 2012 Dry Vignoles and 2012 Seyval Blanc. Augusta Winery and Montelle Winery are both located in rolling hills of Augusta, Missouri off of US Highway 94 in St. Charles County.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The world is alive at 6:30 am

I don't make the best birder because I have a hard time waking up at 4:30am when most of my birding friends set out for the morning. When my colleague told me his work day began at 5:45am everyday, I sheepishly asked if it was even light at that time. "Yes, it's perfectly light and the rest of the world is awake except for you...." This morning I was at my birding location at 6am, and the sun was barely up. Blue gray gnatcatchers called from the canopy, but the bird world was not awake at that time, so I kept drinking coffee in the parking lot.

As the morning progressed, the birds came to life. Birdsong started with the gnatcatchers, then the Eastern wood pewees began, the Nashville warblers, the Northern parulas, and an entire cacophony of bird song that represented what seemed like 5,000 birds in a very localized area. The sun streamed through to the woodland floor riddled in thick stands of Camassia scillioides which has come on like proverbial gangbusters in the often burned woods, and the glade flora was backlit with the creamy morning sun. If I'm prudent enough the night beforehand to be asleep by 10pm, I can be in the woods by 6am, but I now require 7 hours of solid sleep to function properly, so late nights working and early morning birding are incoincident with one another.

The early morning clouds finally burned off by 7am and the sun availed itself to us in order that we could have perfect views of summer tanagers on exposed limbs of old growth post oaks. As my colleague's 5 year old son says, "they're cardinals without the mohawk." I promised folks in my group that we would hear prairie warblers and field sparrows in the woods, and as though on cue, a prairie warbler called with its buzzy trill followed by the more deliberate trill of the field sparrow. I was reminded of my Peterson's Eastern Birds cd wherein the author groups similar sounding birds together. Catbirds and mockingbirds are grouped together, ovenbird and Carolina wren are together, and a whole suite of buzzy little warblers are clumped into a section called "Trillers and Buzzers."

Migration is such an incredible time in Missouri. On Saturday I saw a gray cheeked thrush right next to a Nashville warbler as two Eastern kingbirds flitted to my left. Word from the World Bird Sanctuary is that they have banded record numbers of Nashville and Tennessee warblers this spring, huge numbers of warblers in the state right now. It's always well worth it to wake up early before the world is alive to hear birdsong at daybreak, but for me it takes a little planning the night before.

Friday, May 10, 2013

2013 North American Migratory Bird Count

Tomorrow, May 11, is the annual North American Migratory Bird Count Day, always held on the second Saturday in May when the migration is at its peak. Participation in this great event has slacked off so I don't think any national organizations are storing the data collected. In Missouri, several Audubon chapters continue to participate and now they can store their data on my chapter's website. Most folks in Missouri have opted to spend the second Saturday in May as a Big Day, chalking up as many species in a day as humanly possible. The NAMBC day is now a personal record day, which is a shame for the data collectors who like to track population changes, migratory changes, abundance, relative importance values, etc. If you want to participate in the formal event, my local Audubon chapter will be hosting all of the data on our website. If you have data from previous years and no where to store it, send it my way and we'll make it available on my chapter website. Today in the woods: Black throated green warblers, black throated blue warblers, summer tanagers, scarlet tanagers, gnatcatchers, Chuck-wills widows, and the whole exciting suite of boreal forest interior guys who only spend a few weeks in Missouri. The lovely photo of the black throated blue is not mine, but can be purchased here.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Glades in Bloom