Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Devastating Floods

Records rivaling the floods of 1993 have been broken on the Meramec River today, the announcement coming on the heels of horrific photos of an entire house being carried swiftly downstream. The Ozarks normally see heavy rain events in April and in November, but Christmas flooding on this level cannot be explained away as the effects of an El Nino. Roads around the Gasconade River remain closed as I write following another trip to the St. Louis Airport where I saw most of St. Charles underwater. This is not a natural event, this cannot be a natural event. One report from Highway 19 along the Current River is that river levels shot up to 30 ft.

I have navigated FEMA before in New Orleans and I will undoubtedly be brushing off my bureaucratic skills to work with them again in coming weeks and months once the damage has been assessed. From what I see tonight and in the past few days, the damage is severe. Very sad days for Missouri.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Winter Birding

The bright sunlight streams through the dirty windows unimpeded by the leafy canopy in my yard, casting long shadows on my equally dirty hardwood floors. Winter mornings, though hardly winter weather lately, include a routine of taking the dogs to the backyard while also filling the bird feeders, cleaning and refilling the bird bath, and restocking the suet cakes in the feeders hanging from the trees around the laundry line. The winter bird season was off to a great start last month with high numbers of dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows but the warm weather (or better feed elsewhere) has resulted in lackluster backyard birding. But it's winter bird survey and Christmas Bird Count week, so I'm getting my fill of seeing interesting birds in their natural habitat, in the woodlands and glades and streambanks of the Ozarks.

I take particular delight in finding the Missouri winter residents who spend their breeding season in the Boreal forests of Canada. Not only do we regularly see signs of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, the regular drumming in concentric circles around lots of different trees, but we know that we will regularly see these charismatic woodpeckers in a certain area. Like clockwork, we added them to our species list, lovely males showing up in the same area every year. We actually found them in more areas this year than in years past, this year serving as the 12th annual winter bird survey in one of my favorite places in the Western Ozarks.

With the weather patterns shifting to warmer temperatures, and birds able to find insects even in December, our total numbers were down this year. We documented 42 species with a notable lack of waterfowl in a freshwater spring which usually supports bufflehead, mallards, wood ducks, and blue-winged teal. No ducks this year, no cormorants basking in the warmth, and no kinglets flitting about from high to low branch. It wasn't the best birding week, but we kept with our protocol, our regular dates, our regular route, and were pleased to see that the Eastern bluebirds were still out on the south-facing slopes at 8am on a sunny morning. There is little in the world more beautiful than an Eastern bluebird couple in a post oak on a bluebird sky bright winter morning.

Maybe because I've run this winter bird survey route for 12 years, I predicted when we would see our hermit thrush. The only place I've seen the hermit thrush, Missouri's primary winter thrush besides the American Robin, is on a crummy cedar-filled trail through a bottomland woodland. The characteristic tail-bobbing of the hermit thrush was easier to spot than the breast and coloration. For 12 years running, we've seen the hermit thrush in the same area. Surely it's not the same bird, but there must be something in this landscape, this little patch of crummy cedars surrounded by fire-mediated awesome post oak-white oak-black oak woodlands that attracts hermit thrush. Check! We got it. We never found our kinglets, neither of them, actually, but picked up a suite of sparrows at a crummy fencerow with cedars and brush. A big part of me hates that some of the best birding is in crummy anthropogenic landscapes, but I also appreciate that even in our most damaged landscapes birds can still exist and thrive, at least during winter months.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My 2015 Best of the Missouri Ozarks

I recently returned from a few days in the woods and nights in a really fantastic cabin. At the end of the year, many compile their lists of favorite music recordings, movies, and others, and I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time traveling the Ozarks this past year, I felt it incumbent that I would share my favorite places from this year. 2015 marks my ten year anniversary as a full time resident of Missouri and there are still a number of places I keep intending to visit but are pushed out of the way for reliable stand-bys. Further, a good number of great natural places have been destroyed in recent years, some great coffeeshops and wineries have closed, development has impacted the rustic nature of a lot of great spots and the wonderful cabins at Big Spring are still closed for renovation. So here's a list of my 2015 "Bests," not all time, but just from this past year.

Best Float Trip in 2015: Easy. The best (too short)float of the year was when my kid sister from Jackson Hole, Wyoming came to Missouri for a long weekend and we floated the Current River stretch from Baptist Camp to Akers Ferry. I told her in no uncertain terms that I do not recreate on Ozark rivers on weekends, so she would have to fly in early in the week. The beautiful weather and the popularity of the river stretch (chosen by us because it was close to home) brought out the motley assortment of domestic disputes and loud radios which certainly put a damper on the float. I explained that on a Tuesday in February it's just not like that. Nevertheless, the Baptist Camp to Akers Ferry float is a great 8 mile float which, in winter, can easily be stretched out into an overnight float with a few remaining secluded gravel bars, good fishing if you're into that kind of thing, and not too many roads allowing access from non-floaters. Regardless of the rowdiness of a random Thursday afternoon, my kid sister had fun and we look forward to the day when she brings her family to Current River country.

Best Float Outfitters in 2015:This one is a little bittersweet. I do love Akers Ferry Canoe Rentalbecause they are always open and they manage a fabulous stretch of the Current River, and they're close to home. However, I have historic particular fondness for a stretch of the Niangua River (another close to home stretch) that is currently being beat up from every development angle. The float outfitters at Ho-Humm are really lovely people. Ho-Humm offers winter floats and random day floats which, like Akers Ferry, allow floating to your car. The last time I went to Ho-Humm my friend there was not in good health. The river's health is declining dramatically and rapidly, as well. I am grateful I had the opportunity to regularly float the Bennett to Ho-Humm or Prosperine Access ten years ago. The river scene has changed, and not for the better ecologically or recreationally.

Best Cabin Rentals in 2015:

My favorite cabins this year include an old standby, the Royal W Resort in the White River Hills (pictured). Cindy is a wonderful hostess and these little 1950s cabins have small kitchenettes, comfortable beds, and Cindy's homemade soap in each bathroom. The Royal W Resort is a Cora Steyermark site for Ozark least trillium, a population of which the resort owners are well aware and protective. Also down in White River country is the Timbers Resort and Lodge near Shell Knob. Rustic but modern cabins with fireplaces and Christmas decorations in December, a very nice touch. These cabins have full kitchens and are located on Glade Lane, a drive through a huge stand of Ashe's juniper.

Best Coffee in 2015: This is a very important category and will undoubtedly result in my being chastised by friends. Coffee is vital to function and it must be available and fresh at all times of the day and night. It must be available in all reaches of tiny towns and small roads. If an option presents itself, such as needing coffee during normal working hours and an independently owned coffeeshop is nearby, I will invariably opt for that. However, McDonald's coffee is consistently reliable and there are McDonald's restaurants all over the place serving good, reliable, and inexpensive coffee at all hours of day and night. I cannot manage Folger's or any other robusto beans that are often served at diners and cafes. So, independent coffeeshops or McDonald's. Casey's gas stations apparently have good coffee but I haven't tried it yet.

Best Norton in 2015: Noboleis Vineyards, the beautiful setting on rolling hills near Augusta, has produced a Norton Reserve that is absolutely stunning. There are so many capable Nortons being produced in Missouri, but the Noboleis 2012 Norton Reserve knocked my socks off. As with all other Nortons, this one should be served in the Reidel Norton stem. This is not a gravel bar wine to be consumed out of a plastic cup.

Best Wildflower Display in 2015: The wet spring resulted in robust wildflower displays in May and June. On a hike in late May through a glade belt in the Niangua Basin (burned in February 2015), the explosion of Echinacea was matched with every other awesome glade plant that appeared to be on steroids. Spring and summer 2015 were very flowery, providing beautiful memories to take us through these short and cloudy days of mid-December.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

November is Chambourcin Month!

"Polite bottles:" That's what Doug calls my purchases when I buy a Chambourcin instead of a Norton at a Missouri winery. For the past 14 years I've collected Oregon pinot noir, and, since 2004, Missouri Nortons. If a winery makes a Norton not to my taste or out of my price range, I will invariably buy the Chambourcin, the Traminette, or, more regularly, the winery's Chambourcin-Norton blend. Chambourcin is not my second favorite grape by any stretch, it's quite nice, this French-American hybrid planted across 150 acres in Missouri, but I collect Nortons for my rack. Nortons can generally age longer than Chambourcin and often carry a heavier oak component than its lighter bodied dry red partner, Chambourcin. Nevertheless, I buy a bottle or a glass (if the bottles are too expensive or not that great) at every winery I visit. Because of that, I usually go home with fabulous Nortons, but also end up with lots of bottles of drink now-Chambourcin or, the extreme of the polite bottle, random fruit wines for which I have found very specific occasions for serving. Behind me as I type tonight is a bottle of a very good jalapeno-Granny Smith apple wine that I picked up several years ago, and a bottle of tomato wine. Unlike my daily reds, these two bottles will require a very specific cuisine to highlight their very specific qualities. But these non-grape wines merited purchase and will be consumed at some point. I respect winemaking as a craft, a skill, so I respect these wines that I purchased even though they're not my 'go-to' wines for drinking while I comb through my email.

Meanwhile, the list of Missouri wineries making incredibly supple wines out of the Chambourcin grape continues to increase. For those of you less familiar with the grape, Chambourcin is a lighter-bodied dry or semi-dry wine, often bottled in a pinot noir-styled bottles and used often in blending. I'm particularly fond of Chambourcin-Norton blends, or Chambourcin-Cabernet Franc blends, but regardless I treat Chambourcin like a pinot noir, using a French pinot noir Riedel glass for consumption. Unlike Norton, Chambourcin does not have its own glass. But Missouri and surrounding states are producing fantastic Chambourcin wines which are often less expensive than Norton, perhaps thanks to the larger grapes and more available juice, but equally supple and full of flavor. Chambourcin is lovely, a fantastic wine and perfect for the holidays. Light like a pinot noir but full of flavor like a Norton, Chambourcin is the ideal wine for a wide variety of meals.

I have enjoyed Chambourcin aged in steel, American oak, Hungarian oak, and French oak; my favorite is the French oak cask. While I prefer my Norton aged in American oak, preferably from barrels made with staves created from white oak logs harvested from Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest, Chambourcin is really quite nice in French oak. The French oak barrels impart a more subtle oak overtone which highlights the grape's natural fruitiness. Chambourcin is bright, a light red wine with high acidity that not only blends well but also stands alone as its own varietal. The King of Chambourcin, Herr Heinrich of Heinrichhaus Winery outside of St. James makes wines of meatier heft with the Chambourcin grape. He's the annointed King of Chambourcin. I realize that meat and heft are not wine terms, but Heinrichhaus Winery makes heavy Chambourcin, and he has been named the King of Chambourcin. When I visit Herr Heinrich, I purchase his Cynthiana with my limited budget. But his Chambourcin is certainly award-winning.

As Thanksgiving comes in, I'll bring my obligatory bottles of French Beaujolais-Nouveau, a few bottles of Missouri's Nouveau which is made with Chambourcin and a few other grapes, and a Norton for the day after Thanksgiving, a meaty wine to go with chocolate. Chambourcin is a lovely white meat wine. Because the Wine and Grape Board has declared November as Chambourcin month, local retailers are offering great sales on fabulous bottles of wine for the Thanksgiving table.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Mast production

I spent a small part of my Tuesday morning listening to stories of squirrel eradication. Surrounded by folks interested in preserving, protecting, and restoring the natural world, I was a bit surprised by the number of folks at the table who admitted to shooting, trapping, and drowning squirrels to protect their backyard plants and birdseed. While I recognize that there are few natural predators left in the natural world, if squirrels dig up my bulbs or snip off my kale seedlings or decimate my gourds, isn't that part of life of living in a natural setting? Apparently not, according to the folks who think it's perfectly acceptable to shoot the squirrels who threaten their bird feeders. Harsh punishment? Sure, death is definitely a punishment for hitting up $20 worth of sunflower seeds intended for Northern cardinals. Not in my yard. My native woodland setting is full of squirrels in the canopy, in the shrub layer, at the base of my birdfeeders. I set out watering stations for squirrels. I get upset when a careless fast driver on my street recklessly kills a squirrel. I end up throwing the carcasses in the abandoned lot next door so they don't turn into disgusting messes for my dogs to sniff.

While I do not conduct scientific surveys on Missouri's mast production, I can attest to a bumper crop of acorns in my immediate vicinity. Massive bur oak acorns, thousands of black oak, Northern red oak, and chinquapin oak acorns cover my yard. And the squirrels and blue jays are going crazy with them. I was told at the table yesterday that "I don't shoot fox squirrels, they can stay, but all the rest must go." One person shoots squirrels and throws the lifeless carcasses into his yard to "feed local foxes." I have learned that squirrels who mature to three years or greater will begin to forage on non-acorn food, which means that the squirrels eating my green tomatoes and snipping off my kale leaves are older individuals. I live in a city, a very urban area, but a city full of big trees and unkempt yards. I do appreciate knowing that the plush Gund toy-look-alike squirrels in my yard may be old natives, and, hopefully reproducing. I have both fox squirrels and gray squirrels inhabiting my yard. They have as much of a right to the yard's food production as the black-capped chickadees, blue jays, cedar waxwings, cottontail rabbits, and yes, even the hawks that prey on the crummy Eurasian sparrows who hang out in my brushpile.

The spring months were incredibly wet, wetter than normal for April and May. Vegetation is rank in my yard these days, and seed production is high. The white-throated sparrows are gorging on the seeds of Silphium perfoliatum. Black-capped chickadees and Northern cardinals are enjoying the seeds on the goldenrods, asters, and cedar berries, which are plentiful this year. Reports from the area claim huge numbers of acorns for wild turkeys and white-tailed deer. If we can only have a drier spring--not too dry!--the Northern bobwhite quail population may be able to rebound. The climactic changes that may seem imperceptible to folks not trying to implement prescribed fire, or trying to plan a farm planting, or trying to track phenology of wild plants are very real. The ideal burn days that once happened all November just don't occur anymore; humidities are too low, winds too high, fuel moistures too low. Weather events are more erratic, increased moisture has directly impacted wildlife, namely ground nesting birds and others are surely documenting the whole natural web of life.

So I have my yard. I don't shoot squirrels. I feed birds, I burn my yard, I have brushpiles that infuriate my local neighborhood association, and I don't have control over external forces and it's frustrating. A cold front with no rain is moving through tonight. High winds, predictions of 40 mph which may impact my old growth trees but hopefully not. I can't go outside and look at the windsock and feel the crunch in the leaves and call it a good burn day anymore. And I will never kill squirrels.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Natural Integrity

Not too long ago, after I had become trained to recognize landscape degradation while under the wing of scholars in the field, I migrated to the good places, the sites with a high level of ecosystem functioning and integrity. Few and scattered, these sites include my first jobsite in Missouri, an area in the Niangua Basin that I truly thought represented all of the Ozark Highlands. How abysmally wrong I was, of course, but even today in the darkest hours I return there, I hike the trails and go cross country to witness nature on a landscape scale, one without signs of degradation and human impact. I go there like a pilgrim rubbing a damned stone or coin for faith: the rest of the world is doomed ecologically, but we'll always have this place.

The past week, while surrounded by natural history experts, I thought often of visiting this place, the one place I know where I can always go to see a functioning system on a landscape scale, one managed with properly applied prescribed fire. It seems that in the past five years every field visit I've taken results in either a prognosis that the woodlands are doomed from a deer overpopulation problem, a feral hog problem, an exotic species out of control problem, or that most woodlands in Missouri are so out of context with their historic character and an artifact of overgrazing and fire suppression that nothing will bring them back to a level of natural integrity. So I go here, to the Niangua Basin country with stunted post oaks, landscape-scale fire regimes, high quality forbs and grasses and with no exotics. High quality systems with functioning fire regimes generally don't have exotic species problems. Exotic species generally take hold in damaged systems, areas of soil disturbance or where there is no competition by the strong native flora. The only exotics here exist on roadsides or where the powerline easements are maintained with less-than-ideal management regimes.

We looked once more for the Asplenium hybrid between A. platyneuron and walking fern, but to no avail. Both parents are there, existing on the sandstone cliff, but all of the A. ebenoides have been collected to the point of extirpation. I'll keep checking for the cross, and if it shows up I will not collect it. While I understand the value of herbarium collections, there is also value in allowing the natural crosses to exist on the landscape. This is the same location where compass plant crosses with prairie dock, both species of Silphium and they intergrade here. No, I haven't collected it but it has been documented in literature.

As daylengths shorten to a ridiculous degree, dark by 5:30 and the tennis court lights coming on at 5, camping season draws to an uneventful close. It's no fun to camp out when darkness comes so early, especially after a long summer of going to bed in the tent at a 9:30pm sunset. This is the season for buckling down and actually analyzing all of that data we collected this summer, of writing the reports, and planning for another growing season coming soon.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Hog Bomb Explodes

Two years ago, in early November, I set out for a backpacking trip into the interior of the St. Francois Mountains. We pitched camp near Devil's Wall and explored the successive igneous dome landscape for three days. Two years ago, the remnants of the May 2009 windstorm were still quite prevalent, making traversing areas of the mountain range a slow and calculated process. However, it was great to be in the interior with no sign of other hikers or even illegal ATV use. The abandoned logging roads were showing great signs of healing, with no notable traffic. But that was two years ago.

By the time we pitched camp at an early sunset of 5:30pm with the long shadows and low light casting its fall glare, I also felt confident that we would not have wildlife visitors at my camp; with such diffuse backpacking in the region and development miles away, imprinted wildlife was not a threat. I was right that night and weekend--we encountered no signs of feral hogs, black bears, mountain lions or even racoon or opossums. The winds that whipped off the top of the igneous dome were more forceful than any of the wildlife threats posed to us.

I have returned to the St. Francois Mountains on multiple occasions in the past two years, mostly for day hiking. Sadly, ATV use is rampant in the valleys between the igneous knobs, and the old logging roads have been resurrected, reconsecrated with regular use into the once-secluded interior of the mountains. But a worse threat, above all others, is the feral hog situation, aided and abetted by all the access points. On a visit there a few weeks ago, I see that the hog situation is absolutely out of control. Every igneous glade and surrounding natural community has been rutted by feral hogs. The upland flatwoods that exist on the level plain, areas with a seasonally perched wetland and stunted little trees, have been obliterated by feral hogs. So long, those ancient populations of Rhexia. To add insult to injury, the old logging roads that had been healing and essentially decommissioned when I backpacked there in 2013 are now arterial. So, no more pitching camp in any area with an old road nearby. (Similarly on gravel bars--I won't pitch a tent on a gravel bar that has a road leading to it and a connection to a well-trod and populated area. I'm not much scared of wildlife but of other people.)

Trapping efforts are ongoing in the area, but I am unclear if the root of the problem has been addressed. Trapping and removing hogs would seem to be a terrific solution if no more hogs were being regularly released. All of the ATV use, the old logging roads with traffic, this incredibly rugged and precious landscape, the oldest geologic formation in the Ozark Highlands with suites of rare plants and animals, is being seriously degraded by feral hogs.

In 2008, I spent my early November backpacking trip in Oklahoma's Charon Garden Wilderness at the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, an area often referred to as the St. Francois Mountains on steroids. Bison and elk roam across two million acres or more and backpacking into the wilderness area requires a permit, once much sought after. They have waiting lists for backpacking permits so that the camping pressure and human influence will not damage the wilderness character and naturalness of Charon's Garden.

I have only backpacked at Wichita Mountains once and it was the first time I encountered natural communities that looked like a rototiller had dug them up. The rooting, digging, wallowing and sheer destruction of the wilderness landscape by feral hogs in Oklahoma was shocking. I wrote to the refuge, encouraging them to manage the hog situation or, at the very least, alert backpackers of their presence. (This was the trip where I saw a line of 30 hogs coming over the hill to my campsite and I overturned my pan of lentils to bang on it with a wooden spoon so they would go away) I received no response from the staff and since then, other friends have commented that the collared lizard population is not "what it used to be," and the area has been significantly damaged. Threats to naturalness and the wilderness character from backpackers? Try the Russian wild boar bomb that exploded since 2008.

Some will argue that during the age of open range grazing following European settlement, hogs, sheep, goats, cows all roamed freely across the Ozark dome. Because of the very destructive age of open range grazing, we can't even measure what we've lost because there are so few reference condition landscapes left in Missouri. To boot, we're dealing with fragments today, highly threatened fragments that lack a predator-prey relationship, natural processes on a landscape scale, and deer numbers far exceeding the carrying capacity, and now another invasive species threatening biodiversity. Species richness does not readily accrue once the natural community's intact soil profile has been damaged. If it did, we would not be left with a legacy of trashy, low diversity woods and a rare plant list that continues to grow. Playing Johnny Appleseed and "creating ecosystems" is not the answer. Throwing seeds of Mead's milkweed or other rare plants on an igneous knob after the hogs destroyed the fragile soils and microbial components with their rutting is also not the answer. Conservation efforts must look at protecting and preserving our intact native ecosystems. Feral hogs are yet another threat to the longevity and sustainability of our natural heritage.

Friday, October 09, 2015

October

The sugar maples and fall wildflowers are ablaze this week with salmon-colored leaves and goldenrods still shining in the sun. With the cicadas and katydids officially quiet at night, I'll welcome fall and the sweet, timid chirps of crickets who now fill the night air. Sadly, even the most gentle brush against rank vegetation still results in massive slugs of seed ticks, thousands of tiny ticks on the landscape still active in the second week of October. Unfortunately, they remain the bane of fall hiking and will likely persist until the first frost.

Shorter days translate into less time outdoors as we march towards those days of pitch black nights starting at 5 o'clock p.m. It's not as much fun to pitch a tent when nightfall comes so early in the winter months so I'm using my tent every opportunity I can this fall. And there are still so many awesome plants in flower these days, including downy gentians which must possess the richest blue in all of nature, on par with my dart frog from Surinam.

This weekend I will begin preparing my Halloween costume. I wanted to buy a creepy vintage 1950s Collegeville costume from an Etsy seller, a fortune teller or a drunken clown, but I was scolded by not only my secretary but everyone else that it is imperative that my costume is homemade. And pertinent. With the black bear population on the awesome increase in Missouri, and a great source of fake black animal fur on sale at my local craft store, black bear it is. Bear presence awareness is becoming necessary throughout much of the Ozarks, which is spectacular. Now if the mountain lions would reproduce to a degree to control the out-of-context deer overpopulation problem. So many signs of deer overbrowsing, especially on high quality forbs, and few even noticing. Well, botanists notice, but there aren't many of them these days, are there....

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Boom and Bust

I recall April of 2007 very well. I remember that late frost that literally nipped Missouri's grape harvest in the bud -a well-advanced bud at the time- and the same frost that turned all of the fresh spring green in the canopy into rustling immature black leaves. Walking through the woods in late April was reminiscent of mid-October with leaves falling all around and crinkling in the wind. For a while in spring of 2007, there was a huge flush of understory production under the canopy impacted by the very late hard, killing frost. I remember the Carex socialis that served as a lush, an unnaturally occurring carpet in the Bootheel's bottomland woodlands I was stationed in that spring, all thanks to that late frost and the newly available sunlight. I recall asking professionals if the frost would damage the hickories which had already leafed out, or if the frost would impact acorn production that year or in 2008. There may have been some lasting damage to trees, shrubs and woody vines that year, and I know for certain that it is very difficult to find a Missouri-grown 2007 vintage of Norton, with the grapes having been set back significantly because of that frost. But I was never really given a sufficient answer about the short-lived or lasting impacts of that killing frost to our natural systems.

Fast forward to the drought of 2012 which ravaged the Midwest and the entire Ozark Highlands of Missouri. We had summer wildfires that August, huge wildfires that threatened to move into storm damaged areas, a 100 mile swath in the Ozarks that witnessed massive straight line winds that swept through the region on May 8, 2009. All of the drought-cured downed wood, the dense flush of woody sprouts and understory components including highly flammable warm season grasses and rank forbs were in the line of wildfires. The extreme weather event in 2009 undoubtedly caused lasting impacts: in 2011 I worked on a landscape-scale bird survey in areas impacted by that May derecho, (a new word for most of us, coined by the folks at NOAA, the Spanish word for a bow-echo effect resulting in straight line winds at hurricane force) where I surveyed bird response to areas impacted by the wind event compared to control units, areas that did not see the winds in excess of 100mph. I hired the best botanist in the Midwest to help with the vegetation component in an effort to compare areas impacted by the wind event to those that had seen only regularly occurring fires for 25 years. But I won't get into that study here, though it was very interesting and a fun project, barring the hours and hours of busting through the thankfully unsalvaged woods, a whole landscape of beetle food, an impenetrable network of downed trees and a ridiculous flush of understory plants and associated bird populations. Yellow-breasted chat and prairie warbler city.

What was notable in the years following both of these "natural" events is the lack of monitoring and research. Here we have a perfect laboratory of natural systems in the Ozarks, most of them highly damaged by years of grazing, logging, and fire suppression, but still wooded landscapes with some semblance of what folks in other fields call "ecosystem services." Birds, bats, mammals, insects (including the pollinators!), thousands of species of life exist in our damaged Ozark natural communities. So one would hope that teams of scientists are measuring how extreme weather events are impacting not only vast suites of wildlife, but also the fragile flora, the last remnants of our biodiversity that has managed to persist through 200 years of extraction. I work with some folks who work in research and I have personally not learned of much research being conducted on the impacts of weather events in recent years. I'm probably out of the proverbial loop and perhaps I'll catch a lot of flak for even questioning the integrity of our researchers in the Ozarks. I would love to be called out....with valid proposals with valid questions and true science in hand. I just don't see much of that, of Science, being practiced in Missouri, even in our fancy universities. A classic Caesarian recusatio:I won't write here about how shameful it is that organismal biology is being shown the door, that herbaria are dissolving, or that students wanting to conduct research continually fail to make contact with experts in the field in which they aspire to become an expert and therefore produce shoddy work. No, I won't talk about that here.

So, wildfires from the drought of 2012 left a scorched landscape and I have not yet seen or heard of any vegetation monitoring occurring on these areas. But let's fast forward to spring 2013 when I am driving down Hwy. 54 between Eldon and Camdenton and I see a roadside covered in pale blue flowers. I had never seen a blue spring wildflower on this route before, and I travel Hwy. 54 at least once a week and have done so since December 2005. I pulled over at Linn Creek next to the post office exit and take a look: a vicious plant, hundreds of them on the roadside, robust plants with millions of little threadlike thorns surrounding pretty blue flowers. Viper's Buggloss, once listed in Illinois as a noxious weed akin to today's sericea (Lespedeza cuneata) in Missouri. One report from Illinois in the 1960s suggested that Viper's buggloss would "take over" every natural system. I had never seen it before spring 2013. And I haven't seen it since.

Was it a response to the 2012 drought that latent seeds of this weed germinated in the otherwise bare ground? Is it still there? I don't see it. I've pulled over at the post office again to see if I could find it to no avail. Now that we're in a somewhat normal rain pattern, barring June's daily rain tally, typical roadside weeds have shown their normal colors of typical thick, rank, weedy roadside vegetation. No Viper's buggloss. However, on the same route, princess tree is skyrocketing--Paulownia, a major invader of southeastern states, has appeared almost overnight on Hwy. 54. I have never seen it outside of the Bootheel, and here it is in the Niangua Basin, which is scary.

Similarly, take Gaura biennis. During the drought, roadsides around Salem and the surrounding Current River country were flush with the pale pinkish blooms of Gaura, a real pretty thing, but highly weedy, low C value of 0 or 1. I haven't seen it in robust populations since the drought. In fact, it's hard to find Gaura on roadsides in 2015. It's even disappeared from my yard, even though I know exactly where it was in 2012.

Drive Western Ozark roads this month and witness an amazing explosion of sunflowers with a profusion of blooms. Who doesn't like roadsides with wildflowers, especially nice -and native- sunflowers with persistent blooms? But is it a result of our unnaturally wet and rainy June followed by a dry August? Are the weather extremes are directly impacting vegetation? My observations are anecdotal, but anecdotally I can attest that I have never seen so much Helianthus on Ozark roadsides as I have this year. Is anyone measuring the impacts of weather events and patterns on vegetation? Granted, I'm mostly mentioning roadsides, but also anecdotally I can attest to a flush of woody shrubs in high quality, burned, nice woods. Is this a natural event or is the woody flush, the crazy sunflowers on the roadsides, the thick populations of Asclepias stenophylla on glades a result of extreme weather events? The predictability of nature and natural events is gone, and in short order.

Notably, the species that are spreading, growing robustly and reproducing and thriving are generally low quality plants, barring a few exceptions (such as the A. stenophylla). The weedy generalists are doing just fine with climate change, if that's the cause of the boom and bust, but the conservative and loyal to high quality soils and systems are not. Instead, the high quality species are being predated by deer overpopulation, misapplied herbicide, lack of appropriately placed prescribed fire or prescribed fire out of prescription, or just plain neglect. Biotic homogenization is occurring more rapidly than any of us could have ever imagined.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Passing the Weed Inspection

Several years ago, my landlady sent me a nasty-gram email from the city with a little smiley face attached to her note: our address had been cited by the Office of Neighborhood Services for a Weed Violation. It was noted by a city official that there were "weeds in excess of 12 inches" growing throughout the property. At that time, my landlady (now a resident of Los Angeles, California) alerted us that she had received weed violations in the past, and tried, in vain, to work with local officials to recognize that her "weeds" were beneficial to pollinators, wildlife, and so forth. She battled with them for several years, even secured an interview with the local NPR affiliate about her struggle. So, when the weed violations ended up in her post office box in California for the property that she owns in Missouri, she wasn't too concerned. Her note to us was "work on this ASAP. I know the yard isn't full of weeds!" But the threat of the city mowers brush-hogging all of the yard and sending her the bill for it wasn't very desirable either.

It must have been almost four years ago that the first Weed Violation came in during our tenure at our present residence. At that time, I had amassed a plant list for the yard of 125 vascular plant species, none of them planted, all having been volunteers from our regularly occurring prescribed fire events. We live on a flatwoods, a classic Missouri River Hills landscape with a massive old growth chinquapin oak and scattered walnuts and black oaks. The vegetation isn't of the highest quality, of course, having been mowed and grazed and treated like a lawn for many years. My house was built in 1906 and has had only two owners and lots of careless renters who parked their cars on the "lawn," damaging trees, but no real maintenance of the yard (or the knob and tube wiring, our appraiser has kindly told us for insurance purposes). So the Weed Inspector himself came to the house after we showed up at his office with a plant list, an insect list, a map of the trees, and a detailed plan of the regular ecosystem management we conduct on an annual basis.

At that time, the Weed Inspector went through the yard, truly impressed with the biodiversity, all the legumes and long-lived perennial wildflowers, and asked that we post a sign that lets passers by and other civic officials recognize that the area is not overgrown from benign neglect, but is being managed as "habitat." Quickly, we posted metal signs issued from the National Wildlife Federation proclaiming our property as a "Backyard Wildlife Habitat" project. Not weeds. We didn't hear from the Weed Inspector for years. Until early August. Same routine: the Office of Neighborhood Services sent a Weed Violation to my landlady in California. She forwards her scanned letter to us two weeks later, giving us five days to "clean up" the yard or show up for a hearing. We spend three days trimming by hand, pulling the grape vines from the fencerow, deadheading the Echinacea that I had planned to leave for the wintering chickadees, and we make an appointment with the Weed Inspector two days before the hearing before City Council.

Maybe the city officials know us? Maybe when I called a week in advance to make an appointment to "discuss the weed ordinance" they took the time to come by the property themselves? Regardless, I showed up at City Hall with my my notebook of plant and insect species, as well as a vasculum of plant specimens from the yard that might be considered "weeds" because they are "tall." Helianthus hirsutus, Silphium perfoliatum, Desmodiums, native Lespedezas, all native flora from the yard. The Weed Inspector came out to the lobby and didn't even show us to his office. "I went by your house. I saw your sign in the yard. I can tell you don't have weeds, you have native plants. It's your neighbors who are the problem....." Success without the litany of the benefits of "gardening for wildlife" and so forth. Two weeks later, the yard is still in tact, the city's brush-hogger mowed the abandoned lot next door, all covered in rank fescue and thistle. My Helianthus hirsutus is about to start blooming, the ageratum is in full bloom, the Desmodiums are in bloom, and for at least one more growing season, the yard is in tact.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Catch it while you can....

Last week, my kid sister visited Missouri for the first time since the early 1990s, her first trip to visit me- a transplant from New Orleans after Katrina -in my new homeland. It's been ten years since I relocated to Missouri so it was, as my mother would say, "high time" my kid sister came to visit from her fancy world of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Her first introduction to Missouri was Blue Spring in the late 1980s, not the Kansas City-area Blue Springs, but the little Ozark spring somewhere on the Scenic Riverways, a deep water hole accessible by car on truly rustic and not well-maintained gravel road. The karst landscape and blue waters were entrancing to her. At that time, my kid sister lived in a fabulous 1983 Westphalia van while following the Grateful Dead, years before Jerry died and the whole Dead scene degraded to a...not very pleasant experience for anyone but grifters. She had an outpost cabin in northwestern Arkansas: fall colors without the cold weather, a patch of land to grow some food, no running water, barely any electricity and a wood stove for heat. She had a great place in the Arkansas Ozarks, but she had never really ventured into Missouri, barring a random trip where she ended up at Blue Spring.

Three days. She flew in for a three day stay in Missouri. How to cram everything I want to show my wonderful, very smart, and perspicacious kid sister into three days, making sure to show her the best the Ozarks has to offer in an effort to entice her to come for a longer stay, to explain to my family who wants me to move back home that Missouri has a lot to offer. So we went to the headwaters of the Current River. Trout dinner (not locally caught, since most of that tastes like antibiotics and cat food), fireflies and katydids on a streambank, and an 8 mile float complete with a lot of hummus, carrots, Fig Newtons and 2011 St. James Norton in steel canisters. My kid sister has a lot of experience kayaking on the Snake River, on the Henry's Fork, the Green, and so forth, so the little riffles and tricky rootwads were very relaxing to her. Damselflies! Louisiana waterthrush! Kingfishers shooting lazers as they fly down the river corridor!

We took a mid-week float on a vaguely popular stretch of river. There were many others on the river, some in the same boat we were in, folks wanting a wild experience to truly capture the upper Current, to see the wood ducks and herons, the wonderful drone of the morning cicadas. And then there were those with the loud radios playing horrible music coming from behind, the folks bringing their domestic disputes to the river, the scene that I try to avoid by floating on early weekdays. It was unavoidable. We were committed to our float.

I see the numbers of canoes and kayaks and inflatable rafts and other floatation devices, I see them issuing forth onto the river system and I wonder how wildlife manages with all of this recreational use of the river. How much of the party scene can persist before the people who are wanting to float the river for the scenic and solitary value become disengaged to the point that they don't want to return? So many stretches of Missouri rivers have been relegated to "party" status that they have been allowed to become degraded. The Gasconade, once a home to numerous rare mussel species, is now a jet-boat stream with so much sedimentation and streambank erosion, and no protection of the streambanks from cattle grazing, that the whole river is trashed ecologically. The Niangua River, once a focus area of biodiversity, has been seriously degraded in recent years with the explosion of float outfitters in the watershed with improper wastewater systems and land clearing.

I tried to show my kid sister what was good in the Ozarks. The areas I showed her are in good standing at present time but under pressure for more development, more "growth" in the American model. But people don't come to the Current River country for wifi access and fancy dining. If they do, they can just as well visit Shaw Nature Reserve or Branson. Leave the Current River Hills country to the people who respect the land and love the river for its smallmouth bass population, for the rugged hills and bad cellphone reception, for the wood ducks and cooters. I hate seeing development in the watershed that is driving pollution and nutrient loading into the streams. Do you give up? Is it all in the name of progress?

Sunday, August 02, 2015

August on an Ozark Stream

The morning cicadas drone beautifully on warm August mornings. In great hopes of normal flow patterns and clear, swift waters this week, I looked back at last August's float and recalled streambanks full of life, the pulse of late summer with katydids calling until sunrise.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Old Saw

With the publication of the 2005 edition of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri by Paul Nelson, I thought the debate regarding the necessity of fire for the restoration of Missouri's woodlands was over. I didn't think I would end up explaining that there is no silvicultural treatment that can be used as a substitute for the ancient chemical process of fire to restore an ecosystem in a fire-adapted landscape. Carefully prescribed and applied, fire is integral to the sustainability and promotion of the genetic biological matrix that define a woodland system. I am well aware of misapplied fire, fire in damaged systems, fire conducted in inappropriate seasons, fire out of prescription that causes significant, irreversible damage.

Further, fire behavior is shaped by slope, aspect, topography and fuels. Fire will move differently (and hotter) through dense, thick leaf litter resulting from an overstocked canopy than through a rich grass-forb matrix. Fire behaves differently on south facing slopes than north facing slopes and so forth, so blasting a north slope with fire to "create" a woodland is irresponsible. Fire will burn hotter and potentially more damaging through out-of-context systems, those areas that have not had regularly occurring fire, or have been highly damaged by years of logging and grazing, areas without a grass-forb mix in the understory, the historic condition.

Unfortunately, high quality systems where fire has been applied responsibly and carefully are rare in Missouri. Today, researchers are conducting fire effects studies in degraded systems, areas that have not been restored and never had integrity to begin with. What is disconcerting is that these flawed research projects are allowing for authoritative pronouncements proclaiming that the results of improperly applied fire in ecological trash is damaging, that all fire must be bad. But it's not. A lot of the new research is irrelevant to ecosystem management in high quality systems.

I'm sorry that there are so few areas in the Ozarks that still have the intact soil profile and herbaceous layer that supports native biodiversity on a landscape scale. Long histories of grazing, logging, and fire suppression have destroyed the opportunity for recovery, especially in today's climate that is far removed from natural. There are still thousands of acres that would benefit from carefully applied fire and ecological thinning, but there are so few land managers qualified to do it.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sticky Heat

Stepping onto the tennis court yesterday in a seersucker skirt and the lightest possible shirt I could wear without it being transparent, the heat from the Decoturf hard court hit me square in the face. I had a hard time breathing on hard courts at noon, and even harder time catching my breath after long rallies with my favorite hitting partner. I asked for summer weather back in May when I was still wearing a fleece and never saw the sun; in the meantime, I seem to have forgotten how to manage true summer weather in a house with no air conditioning. In New Orleans, one holes up in a coffee shop drinking iced mochas and completing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. Here, I garden, take a cold shower, play tennis, take a cold shower, walk the dogs, take a cold shower, and sleep with fans strategically placed throughout the house to push out the hot air and bring in the cooler night air. 84 degrees in my house this morning at 7:30. The dogs are restless and the frogs are right at home.

It seems that our weather patterns have switched with Oregon's this summer. Poor Willamette Valley is in drought with highs in the 90s and the Ozarks have had continuous rains, flooding rains, which have caused all kinds of structural problems. A four foot wave of water through a riverfront campground? Not normal for a July day in Missouri and such a departure from the drought of 2012. Perhaps that 12 mile float on the Jack's Fork River I have planned for my sister's visit in August won't require a lot of portaging after all.

Vegetation sampling began a few weeks ago and my scratched up arms from all the sensitive briar and switch grass can serve as evidence that I've been in the field. The frequent rain events have caused much delay in completing surveys, but the longer day lengths allow for 12 and 14 hours days in the field, which is great. I sweat a lot, I look like hell, but I get my work done. Oh, it's sticky there on a glade in stagnant July air with all that sod holding moisture and prairie grasses averaging 4 ft. tall. But this has been a banner year for flowers, lots of orchids and all the composites and blue curls in full bloom lately. I remain grateful that I grew up in a hotter climate so I can manage Missouri summers, which really aren't so bad at all. In fact, they're downright nice.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Summer Reading List

When I was an undergrad, I had the wonderful chance to work with a brilliant scholar, Dr. Tom Samet. He died way too young, but his summer reading list offered up to all of us was recently uncovered. This from the man, a Fulbright Scholar, who invited his whole class to his house to watch Breaker Morant an influential film that gave us this: "The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations." It took me a few years into my thirties to break into Pynchon novels, but as a 42 year old, I'm glad I waited and remain sad that one of his followers, my favorite modern writer, David Foster Wallace (tennis player who went by Dave to all of his friends)left this world too soon. After an immensely stressful week that brought me to the cliff, I'm done. See this great reading list and escape, too, the mediocrity of people in higher paying jobs. The state's natural history is doomed.

See below Dr. Samet's reading list for budding scholars. I'm pleased to know I've read most of them.

SUGGESTIONS FOR SUMMER READING Tom Samet I've listed below a handful of titles that you may want to consider reading while you bake at the beach. Naturally, the list reflects all of my personal biases, quirks, and preoccupations. Though there are exceptions to each of the following principles, I've in general been guided by these considerations: a. length: the list includes a number of very long books, on the assumption that if one doesn't read these during the summer, one doesn't read them at all; b. period: most of the volumes included are from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which is where I'm most at home; c. familiarity: with few exceptions these are well known and celebrated books--classics, if you like; but I've tried to avoid those that you are most likely to encounter in the classroom.

  • Richard Altick, The Scholar Adventurers: as the title suggests, an account of major literary discoveries, including frauds, secret codes, and other mysteries; Victorian People and Ideas: an exceptionally useful and readable introduction to the life of nineteenth-century England
  • W. H. Auden, Selected Poems
  • Jane Austen, Mansfield Park: novel
  • James Baldwin, Another Country: novel
  • James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain: short fiction
  • John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor: novel
  • Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: an enormously important study of the "disjunction" between economic structure and cultural values
  • Saul Bellow, Herzog: novel
  • Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers: major essays on Tolstoy, Herzen and others by one of the great British thinkers of the twentieth century
  • Randolph Bourne, War and the Intellectuals: important essays by a central figure in American intellectual life during the first decades of the twentieth century
  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth: one of the few memoirs of World War I by a woman
  • Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: probably the best book on Freud ever written, and an indispensable introduction to psychoanalysis
  • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France: a major work by the central figure in English conservative thought
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote: novel--arguably the first one
  • Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: novel--his most ambitious and possibly his greatest
  • Malcolm Cowley, Exile's Return: the most important account of the writers of the "lost generation"--Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Cummings, etc.
  • Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Little Dorrit: novels
  • Morris Dickstein, Gates of Eden: a cultural history of the sixties
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: novel
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch: novel
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, Selected Letters
  • Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education
  • Ford Madox Ford, Parade's End: a series of four novels, and arguably the finest work of fiction to emerge from the first world war
  • E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy: essays
  • Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: historical study by one of the most important and influential of recent French thinkers
  • Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Totem and Taboo, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex
  • Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory: an award-winning study of the impact of the First World War upon the modern imagination
  • Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, No Man's Land: major studies of women writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd: important reflections on childhood in America at mid-century
  • Edmund Gosse, Father and Son: a major Victorian autobiography, recording the conflict of faith with the secular pressures of the latter half of the nineteenth centuries
  • Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That: memoir of World War I by a major modern writer
  • Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls: novel
  • Walter Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind: the best available account of the climate of thought and sentiment in Victorian England
  • Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, The Princess Casamassima: novels
  • James Joyce, Selected Letters
  • Franz Kafka, Letter to His Father: as the title suggests, a letter from a great writer to his businessman father
  • Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion: novel
  • Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon: novel
  • Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American life in the seventies by one of our major cultural historians
  • D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow: novel; Studies in Classic American Literature: critical essays; Phoenix: essays
  • Norman Mailer, Armies of the Night: novel; Of a Fire on the Moon; journalism
  • Thomas Mann, Death in Venice: short novel
  • Mary McCarthy, On the Contrary: essays
  • Herman Melville, Moby Dick: novel
  • V. S. Naipaul, Guerillas, A Bend in the River: novels
  • George Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism, Letters (4 vols.)
  • Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, V: novels
  • Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: novel
  • David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: a classic study of American character at midcentury
  • Katherine Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate: a history of misogyny in literature
  • Philip Roth, Letting Go, The Ghost Writer: novels
  • Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: an important study of English women novelists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • Patricia Meyer Sparks, The Female Imagination: a study of women's writing by a major American scholar
  • Stendahl, The Red and the Black: novel
  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace: novel
  • Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve, Fathers and Sons: novels
  • Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men: major novel by a major American writer, based in part on the life of Huey Long
  • Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall: novel
  • Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: a profoundly important account of the emergence of capitalism from the change in religious sensibility brought about by the Reformation
  • Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, The Long Revolution, The Country and the City: major studies by one of Britain's greatest cultural historians
  • Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: historical studies in European socialism-- indispensable reading; Patriotic Gore: historical and biographical studies in the literature of the American Civil War
  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own: an appeal for sexual equality; Three Guineas: an appeal for sexual equality; A Writer's Diary
  • Richard Wright, Native Son: novel; Black Boy: autobiography
  • Sunday, June 21, 2015

    Summer Solstice

    I live in an un-airconditioned bungalow built in 1906. I thought it was built in the 1930s (based on land plat maps), but after last week's appraisal, I learned this house is much older than I thought and that the knob-and-tube wiring is original to the 1930s upgrades. This is charming to a degree, but not from an insurance policy or the modern day appliance angle: I cannot run a ceiling fan and charge my cell phone at the same time, or use the microwave and the computer printer simultaneously, or a lamp in one room and the washer in the basement without my power going out. I like my house a lot, I love the yard even more, and during summer months this cottage reminds me of living in a cabin in Arkansas that I would take to as respite from the Louisiana heat back in the day before the storm.

    The longest day of the year, the summer solstice is still underway but under cloudy skies, which is unfortunate. I thrive in sunlight, try to spend as much time as humanly possible in the sunlight and delighting in pretty days. Upcoming travel plans include Jackson Hole and the Willamette Valley, both areas that normally see rain, cloudy skies, cooler temperatures, but have switched weather patterns. Oregon is sunny! And dry! And warm but not too hot! With the flooding rivers in the Ozarks I have yet to go on a float, having seen all the gravel bars underwater on the Current and Jack's Fork. June seems to be as fleeting as spring wildflower season, which is disturbing. Before I can even catch my breath it will be time for the tennis tournament in Cincinnati. We're already approaching Wimbledon and I haven't even eaten a blackberry. Strawberries are on the menu in England, but by the grass court season in Missouri, we should be eating peaches. This year may be different having heard that the Malden peach producer has been impacted by a misapplication of herbicide, so we may not be seeing Bootheel peaches, depending instead on the north Missouri farms. Or, worse, Georgia. Raspberries showed up this weekend at the farmer's market, so summer isn't as fleeting as it seems with the solstice marking the beginning of shorter days and the coming of winter. Ach. Where is the time going?