Saturday, June 28, 2014

Moving Gravel

Over 100 years ago during the Big Cut in the Ozarks when every square inch of the Ozark Highland dome was ravaged by logging, hillsides throughout the region were stripped bare of vegetation. Without vegetation, major erosion occurred with every subsequent year--streams once characterized by limestone or dolomite slabs and narrow streambanks were filled with gravel accreting from the eroding hillsides. All that chert rubble in our Ozark streams are generally artifact of overlogging and the subsequent grazing by domestic livestock. It remains unfathomable that anyone would consider any of these practices coincident with conservation of our natural places.

And so, with all that gravel in the streams grew yet another industrial pillaging of our state's natural places: Gravel Mining. I won't explain how detrimental this practice is to benthic creatures and to the structure of these streams that have now adapted to life socked in with gravel, nor will I complain about how destructive it is to bring heavy equipment associated with mining and logging into our now highly erodable and fragile Ozark soils which clings to every fragment of vegetation to hold it together. One of the state's largest gravel mining companies existed along the lower Current River around Doniphan, now a truly trashed out part of the river that is subsequently littered with gravel mining equipment that was abandoned there when the industry lost its allure. However, gravel on all of our new roads and driveways and continued "improvements" must come from somewhere.

Now we have gravel quarries in the Ozarks. Sure, there's still a lot of gravel mining of the streams going on despite the significant ecological toll this practice has on native environments and biota, and the evidence can be seen on certain ridgetops that now have thriving populations of Ozark witch hazel or sycamores, plants normally associated with low, wet, bottomland woodlands and forests but have been transplanted through gravel traveling to our dry rocky uplands. Leave it to unassuming folks to file Element of Occurrence records for such out of place and unnatural occurrences of these species.

Last November, I went backpacking into the timber rattlesnake country of the St. Francois Mountains, home to enormous igneous domes and glades and flatwoods of significant integrity. When we returned to the parking lot after a three day trip into the backcountry, my colleague noted a strange population of a Rudbeckia unseen on the top of the igneous dome before. Thinking not much of it, I filed the conversation away until yesterday when I returned to the same site to see said Rudbeckia almost in flower. Not only was there a strange Rudbeckia uncommon in Missouri taking over the area, but the ever burgeoning perennial rhizomatous population was sandwiched between multiple limestone-dolomite glade and fen plants that had absolutely no reason to be on top of an igneous dome. The area had been "enhanced" by the addition of a limestone chat parking area, with the gravel carrying with it an entire natural community type that is now encroaching on the dry igneous flatwoods at the top of this dome.

Homogenization is occurring at a breakneck speed in the Ozarks, and most of it is caused by our own carelessness. It is not an accident if the results could be prevented.

Friday, June 20, 2014

June 20, 1980: Appellation Day for Augusta, Missouri

Missouri's wine and grape industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the past thirty years, perhaps even surpassing our prominence in the business during the 1800s--but probably not. Today, Missouri wineries are producing lovely, supple, and diverse wines, award winning numbers worthy of collection and aging. We've past the stage of being one of the largest producers of Concord grapes for jam (but you can still buy truly delicious Concords from roadsides around St. James every August), and we now grow what may be the best Norton grapes in the country (in my opinion).

On June 20, 1980, Augusta Missouri, nestled on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River Valley, was recognized as the first U.S. Wine District, or American Viticultural Area #1, because of its unique soil, climate, historical significance, and quality of wines produced from grapes grown in vineyards that date to the 1800’s. While New York and California both were huge producers of grapes and wine at the same period, Augusta reigned supreme for their palatable wines. And so, in 1980, Augusta Missouri put America on the map for their wine production. Tomorrow, Augusta Winery will be hosting an Appellation Festival to celebrate this historic event. If you're looking for remarkably great Missouri wines (including Norton port!) head to this terrific region and start tasting...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Moisture

The recent tropical weather pattern of late afternoon thunderstorms and high humidities has made planning long days in the field a little tricky. Vegetation is blooming like proverbial gangbusters and the leaves on my redbud shrubs are enormous, resembling South American philodendrons ready to climb into the forest canopy. While I don't know what all of this rain is doing to the Missouri vineyard grapes, I know that strawberry season is officially over with the last strawberry harvest last week of watery, overripe, and not very flavorful berries. The peach harvest in the upper part of the Ozarks is expected to be later than normal, so if you see peach vendors from the Bootheel selling peaches in June on your rural route, snatch them up. When they're in season, I generally live on a diet of Missouri peaches, Queen Anne cherries from the Pacific Northwest, and vegetables from the yard. While we don't have the 365 day growing season like we have in New Orleans, Missouri gardeners have all the growing conditions to grow some stellar food.

I don't like the sound of words like "moist," "nourish," and "belly," all of which have come into frequent use in my news venues with the not-so-recent upswing in the locavore movement, cooking, health, etc. but there's no substitute: the moist days have allowed early summer native vegetation to bloom profusely and perfectly, just waiting for a disastrous drought, a pummeling hailstorm, or worse. Chanterelles are popping up all over dry woodlands in the Ozarks, just gorgeous mushrooms, so charming it's almost difficult to pick them (but sauteed with olive oil, Tony Chachere's Cajun seasoning and red wine? Hard to beat the flavor. Especially on pizza.). High quality native ecosystems without too many deer and with a good not-too-frequent fire history should be in full bloom these days. It's always depressing to see shrubs like Ceanothus all clipped off by deer, so I go to those places without too many deer. Like my own land, I may try to find a way to put a massive fence around nice woods to keep the hooved locusts out.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

In the Flatwoods

The instructions I gave the group were simple: hike up the hill to where the land flattens out. In the Niangua Basin, these broad flat hilltops are ubiquitous, and, in many cases, still in wonderful ecological condition. The Upland Flatwoods here are characterized by a clay fragipan that allows for pooling water and stunted canopy growth; so, the scattered blackjack and post oaks that populate the area are short enough that one can easily see yellow-throated vireos up close in May.

A lovely day in late May awaited us with spiderwort in full bloom in the flatwoods. These perched water table-based landscapes tend to harbor different suites of sedges and, in some of the wetter areas, some different rushes than normal dry woodlands host. We were there to look for birds, but noted every few moments the passing of massive butterflies, at least thirty woodland and tiger swallowtails, along with some little falcate orangetips (host plant: a spring wildflower, pussytoes) hanging on this late spring day. Bird diversity was high, which was expected in an area that is surrounded by a landscape treated with regularly occurring fire for the past 30 years. Among the highlights were the Acadian flycatchers and yellow warblers. I am so fond of yellow-breasted chats with their silly calls and intonations, hanging out in shrubby areas that are par for the course in these fabulous woodlands.