Mid-January at Alabama’s Gulf State Park: Interior Forests and Prescribed Fire

Because this is the third of four GBH Blog Posts from my visit to Gulf State Park, allow me to repeat elements of my introduction:

Introduction

I toured Gulf State Park (GSP) January 18, 2019 from 8-5:30 with Kelly Reetz, Park Naturalist. See my January 28, 2019 Great Blue Heron Blog Post for my Overview: http://stevejonesgbh.com/2019/01/28/mid-january-at-alabamas-gulf-state-park-overview/ and my February 5, 2019 Post on the beach, dunes, savannas, and wetlands ecotypes: http://stevejonesgbh.com/2019/02/05/mid-january-at-alabamas-gulf-state-park-beach-dunes-savannas-and-interior-wetlands/

The 2016 Gulf State Park Master Plan identified nine distinct GSP ecosystems:

  • Evergreen Forests
  • Pine Savannas
  • Maritime Forests
  • Dune Ridges / Sand Scrub habitats
  • Fresh and Salt Marshes
  • Freshwater and Brackish Lakes
  • Coastal Swales
  • Dunes
  • The Beach and Gulf

I promised three subsequent Gulf State Park GBH Posts:

  • Beach, Dunes, Savannas, and Interior Wetlands (Last week’s)
  • Interior Forests and Prescribed Fire (This one)
  • Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies (Coming soon)

I described the first GSP Post as a broad “Overview of a Globally Significant Coastal Center for Sustainable Tourism and Earth Stewardship.” I issued my second GSP Post February 5, highlighting the beach, dune, savanna, and interior wetland ecotypes, offered “from my perspective as a doctoral level applied ecologist, lifelong Nature enthusiast, environmental educator, consummate champion for responsible Earth stewardship, and a tireless advocate for Nature-inspired life and living.” From that same perspective, I will now reflect with photographs and text on my impressions and interpretation for a second set of ecosystems: evergreen forests and xeric forests. I’ve included a section on the use of prescribed fire in Park vegetation management.

Evergreen Forests

Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) is the quintessential southern pine. When European settlers arrived, longleaf forests covered some 93 million acres across the deep South; today, longleaf occupies just 4.3 million. Loblolly (Pinus taeda) covers far more acreage, yet there is a special magic in those magnificent longleaf needles, open stands, straight timbers, and the associated diverse wildlife and vegetative communities. I like its ecological dependence upon fire. Amazing how the longleaf ecotype evolved companionably with frequent natural fire. Longleaf’s grass stage is a remarkable ecological adaptation to fire. I recently found a 53-minute video by The Southern Documentary Project at the University of Mississippi on longleaf pine (Longleaf: The Heart of Pine): https://vimeo.com/137612421?fbclid=IwAR2BXqIIKA_Y67X7_RcOdaJjF_VcpCVZiB-O1o5756_3wVqf2La2kNVSLKg

The video’s moderator speaks to the hope of future generations seeing horizon-reaching old-growth longleaf pine by quoting Janisse Ray’s poem, There is a Miracle for You if You Keep Holding On:

I will rise from my grave with the hunger of wildcat, wings of kestrel, and with possession of my granddaughter’s granddaughter, to see what we have lost returned. My heart will be a cistern brimming with rainwater — drinkable rain. She will not know my name, though she bears the new forest about her, the forest so grand. She will have heard whooping cranes witnessing endless sky. While around her the forest I longed all my short life to see winks and slips and shimmers and thumps. Mutes and musks and lights. She will walk through it with the azure-bodied eagerness of damselfly. My child, I will try to call to her. My child. I have risen from the old cemetery buried in the forest where your people are laid. Where once a golf course began. That was houses and fields long, long ago. She will be yet a child and may not hear me. Perhaps I will not speak at all but follow her through a heraldry of longleaf, seeking for the course of a day the peace of pine warblers. And in the evening of that blessed day, I will lay to rest this implacable longing.

Auburn University’s Center for Longleaf Pine Ecosystems (CLPE) shares the dream of that future day. CLPE “conducts research to address knowledge gaps in the restoration, conservation and management of longleaf pine ecosystems which provide a variety of ecological, social and economic services for the people of Alabama and the Southeast.” The CLPE mission recognizes the tremendous services (ecological, social, and economic) provided by the longleaf ecosystem. And, I love the CLPE’s action orientation: to enable us and future generations to better restore, conserve, and manage these forests. Keep in mind that “conserve” connotes wise use and management.

Why do we refer to longleaf pine’s first few years as the “grass” stage? The lower left photo answers the question. “Seedlings are stemless after one growing season and this “grass-stage” lasts from 2 to many years. It may last as long as 20 years if brown-spot needle blight or competition is severe. During the grass-stage, the seedling develops an extensive root system, and the root collar increases in diameter. When the root collar diameter approaches 1 inch in diameter, height growth begins. An open-grown seedling grows 10 feet (3 m) in 3 years once height growth is initiated. Branch production is delayed until the seedling reaches 10 to 16 feet in height. If grass-stage seedlings are top-killed, they can sprout from the root collar” (USDA Forest Service). The ability to sprout from the root collar enables the seedling to survive a grass stage fire. Beyond the grass stage, its rapid initial height growth (lower right)permits it to reach above the mortality zone for lighter ground fires.

 

How can you beat the shaggy dog look during the initial height growth years!? I also like the often uneven-aged composition of natural and managed longleaf stands. The foreground sapling (lower left) stands back-dropped by a mature longleaf. One generation looking over the next. How many fires have passed through the stand since the older tree sprung from the grass stage? Without fire, the understory would have converted to other vegetation long before the sapling germinated, survived the grass stage, and began its height growth. Lower right shows another example of uneven-aged longleaf. The sapling stands at the base of a much larger and older individual; many mid-size longleaf occupy the immediate background. Every stand tells its own story of establishment and development. Such a stand offers rich diversity in crown height and canopy density, as well as ground-level sunlight and shade patterns. To upland birds, an uneven-aged longleaf forest offers a hearty welcome: Come one; Come all — There’s something for everybody!

Slash pine (Pinus elliotti) throughout its range develops in even-aged stands. Its seedlings and saplings are far less tolerant of fire than longleaf. The open savanna (lower left) typifies a mature slash pine forest. The relatively flat canopies suggest that these pines have reached terminal height. Same for the individuals lower right — flat-crowns with coarse branching indicates maturity. Visualize botanist William Bartram traveling across the south on horseback through such forests more than 200 years ago.

GSP’s evergreen forests do attract avian diversity, including the bald eagles who were tending young at this nest. One of these days I hope to acquire a real camera (graduating from my iPhone) with a lens capable of capturing more than a mass of branches assembled high above in a tree fork. Please apply your imagination and see the eagle with its white head emerging from the nest. We also saw another occupied eagle nest on the Park. What a great story nationwide of bringing this magnificent avian pinnacle-of-the-food chain back from the abyss to abundance. The message is clear — if we awaken with head, heart, and intent to save a specific charismatic mega-fauna, surely we can respond to save Homo sapiens from degrading our one Earth beyond a threshold of restoration, conservation, and management. The year of my birth, our global population stood at 2.5 billion; we are now at 7.7 billion. The eagle recovery offers hope and promise for our future as Earth citizens… but only if we awaken to our self-induced peril.

Only we can save us from ourselves; the burden is ours alone. Gulf State Park’s Enhancement Project offers a fresh and essential way to demonstrate best practices for outdoor recreation, education, and hospitable accommodations… an international benchmark for environmental and economic sustainability. Two active eagle nests evidence success… success that can be extended in philosophy, principle, and practice globally.

Role of Prescribed Fire

Restore, conserve, and manage we must. As Yoda, the Jedi Master and ultimate sage and life coach, observed, “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” We must not try to save Earth from our own devices; we must restore, conserve, and manage ourselves and our planet sustainably. Lessons from the Park Enhancement Project begin the journey of saving us from ourselves.

Employing tools like prescribed fire is one step in the journey… a journey that occurs one ecosystem at a time and culminates in our global ecosystem here on island Earth. Since the first time a lightning bolt seared tinder grassland or forest, ecosystems have evolved with the ravages and benefits of periodic fire. We employ prescribed (also termed controlled) fire to yield the benefits and avoid the ravages. To burn under our terms to achieve results of our choosing. Consider prescribed fire a tool that we apply judiciously, mimicking nature’s way to reach a desired future condition.

Nature’s seeks to convert GSP wetlands and meadows to forest, a “climax” ecotype that will persist until catastrophic wind or wildfire begins the cycle anew. Were the Park a “preservation,” standing back over the long course of time might be an appropriate option. One summer during my Alaska days, fire consumed six million acres of boreal forest and taiga, with little attempt at suppression and control beyond protecting villages and scattered cabins. Mostly federally-owned wildland, fire amounted to a natural occurrence allowed to run its course awaiting rain or the eventual snowfall. The same no-suppression practice prevailed a few years ago as wildfires raced across vast expanse of remote Yellowstone National Park. We cannot afford the luxury of “preservation” at GSP. We must focus aggressive on restore, conserve, and manage to meet desired outcomes.

Lower left shows a meadow intent upon converting to slash pine forest. Managers control burned the tree-colonizing meadow in November 2018, the 28th day of the month… just before the seasonal burn window was about to close. Crews wanted a burn intense enough to kill the encroaching pine. The two individual saplings may have escaped mortality (they retain tufts of green foliage at their tops); most of the seedling pines are dead. Again, slash generally does not handle fire well at the seedling stage. Managers can eliminate the few surviving trees if they wish. The fire at lower right sought a different result. Managers (that same November day) ran a less intense fire through this established sapling and pole slash pine stand to retard the thick brush and understory hardwood trees that were encroaching, competing effectively with the pine, and that would eventually convert this site (via natural succession) to other than evergreen forest. The Park land management plan designates a desired pattern of ecotypes. Fire helps achieve the targeted pattern.

Lower left is another wet meadow burned to deny the invading slash pine army a permanent foothold –seeing the standing dead small saplings. Lower right demonstrates that once slash pine reaches that critical diameter of 3-4″ it can tolerate a fairly hot ground fire. This individual had a a little lower crown scorch and will thrive this coming growing season. Yet the fire burned or killed the visible above ground vegetation nearby, include the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens).

Here’s an unburned saw palmetto on the Park.

 

Xeric Forests

The Gulf of Mexico coastline has shifted over the long course of time. The Eastern Gulf Coastal Plain physiographic province covers nearly two-thirds of the state. The Lower Coastal Plain constitutes roughly the southernmost one-third of the state. As ocean levels have ebbed and flowed across the past few million years, the beach line from time to time extended inland to the Upper Coastal Plain. We should not be surprised that the entirety of GSP comprises multiple dune lines… upland areas of deep sandy soil. These dry (xeric) and infertile sites support forest types quite distinct from the evergreen forests. Sand live oak (), turkey oak (), and longleaf pine are the major overstory species. Tree heights seldom exceed 30-50 feet. Stocking (the number of stems per acre) is low, as is the biomass per acre. Dense overstory and deep shade are uncommon. The understory is relatively open, contrasted to the more common jungle-like subordinate vegetation in the evergreen forests. The lower left photo shows typical stocking, crown density, species composition, and understory condition. Lower right shows an old access road leading north along the now-abandoned Park golf course to a former cattle-dipping station.

We found a few very impressive sabal palmetto (Sabal palmetto) on these old dune ridges. Attractive fanning foliage.

Sand live oak (Quercus geminata) seem content to occupy horizontal space rather than reaching for sunlight above. Joyce Kilmer would have delighted in this individual (lower left). No designer among our own species could create a finer specimen. Although I am not absolutely sure, I believe the species lower right is southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), the quintessential live oaks that line the streets of Savannah and Mobile, and that grace some of the Old South mansions of movie fame. Note the draping Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). From the Florida Extension Service: “Hanging off trees and landscape plants, Spanish moss is a familiar part of Florida’s environment. Despite its name, Spanish moss is not a moss but a bromeliad—a perennial herb in the pineapple family. Most bromeliads, including Spanish moss, are epiphytes. Epiphytes grow on other plants, but do not rely on them for nutrients. They take nutrients from the air and debris that collects on the plant.”

Did I mention that both sand and southern live oak are “nearly evergreen,” dropping its leaves and sprouting new foliage within several weeks in the spring. Here are sand live oak leaves, during my mid-January visit, still looking quite summer-like.

Turkey oak (Quercus laevis) tolerates the most xeric of the old dune ridges. Its corky bark (lower left) protects established individual stems from periodic fires. Few other hardwood trees can survive the dry, sandy soils of the old dunes. Longleaf pine often shard these inhospitable sites. Easy to see how this oak earned its moniker — its leaves (lower right) resemble a turkey’s foot.

Lichen has colonized this turkey oak trunk. Recall that nature abhors a vacuum.

Lichens find purchase at ground level on these exeric sites. This species is deer moss (Cladonia evanesii), apparent in both small clumps and as a nearly full ground cover.

Dixie moss lichen (Cladonia subtenuis) is common yet less prolific at Gulf State Park. Note its greenish hue contrasted to the near white of deer lichen.

We saw occasional patches of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.), a preferred food for the endangered gopher tortoise. The gopher tortoise digs borrows (lower right) in deep sandy soils across its range. I recall setting aside and protecting habitat and gopher tortoise communities on suitable sites within Union Camp Corporation’s woodlands in Alabama’s coastal plain. From the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: “Gopher tortoises are long-lived reptiles that occupy upland habitat throughout Florida including forests, pastures, and yards. They dig deep burrows for shelter and forage on low-growing plants. Gopher tortoises share these burrows with more than 350 other species, and are therefore referred to as a keystone species. ”

 

 

Park personnel are contemplating a significant habitat shift for the Park’s golf course, which abandoned golf operations in December 2018. Within the Park’s coastal legacy Enhancement planning, what is the highest and best use for the former golf course? Looks pretty good just sitting there with that luscious sky — that beautiful firmament showcasing above it! Perhaps managers will simply allow nature to implement her own plans… doing what come natural to her. Isn’t the golf course yet another vacuum? Another opportunity to creatively fill a void? I’ll look forward to seeing the plans unfold… whether Park staff designed or nature-designed.

 

May Nature enrich your life and living… Nature-inspired living! And may you pass it forward.

 

Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) and the two scheduled for 2019 (Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits: Stories of Passion for Place and Everyday Nature and Natural Elixir: Lifting Your Life through Nature’s Inspiration) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Both published books are available on Amazon and other online sources.

Here are three succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Fire and forests seem strange bedfellows, yet some forests are absolutely fire-dependent; understanding Nature requires that we comprehend relationships.
  • Everything in Nature and life functions according to resource availability and limitations.
  • Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe pay little mind to site constraints and limitations — a majestic evergreen forest possesses no more nobility than a xeric scrub oak forest.

May Nature Inspire and Reward you!

 

Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2019 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by an another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://stevejonesgbh.com/contact/

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

 

Reminder of my Personal and Professional Purpose, Passion, and Cause

If only more of us viewed our precious environment through my own filters. If only my mission and vision could be multiplied untold orders of magnitude:

Mission: Employ writing and speaking to educate, inspire, and enable readers and listeners to understand, appreciate, and enjoy Nature… and accept and practice Earth Stewardship.

Vision:

  • People of all ages will pay greater attention to and engage more regularly with Nature… and will accept and practice informed and responsible Earth Stewardship.
  • Great Blue Heron clients will see their relationship to our natural world with new eyes… and will understand more clearly their Earth home.

Tagline: Steve (Great Blue Heron) encourages and seeks a better tomorrow through Nature-Inspired Living!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mid-January at Alabama’s Gulf State Park: Beach, Dunes, Savannas, and Interior Wetlands

I toured Gulf State Park (GSP) January 18, 2019 from 8-5:30 with Kelly Reetz, Park Naturalist. See my January 28, 2019 Great Blue Heron Blog Post for my Overview: http://stevejonesgbh.com/2019/01/28/mid-january-at-alabamas-gulf-state-park-overview/

The 2016 Gulf State Park Master Plan identified nine distinct GSP ecosystems:

  • Evergreen Forests
  • Pine Savannas
  • Maritime Forests
  • Dune Ridges / Sand Scrub habitats
  • Fresh and Salt Marshes
  • Freshwater and Brackish Lakes
  • Coastal Swales
  • Dunes
  • The Beach and Gulf

I promised three subsequent Gulf State Park GBH Posts:

  • Beach, Dunes, Savannas, and Interior Wetlands (this one)
  • Interior Forests and Prescribed Fire
  • Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies

I described the first GSP Post as a broad “Overview of a Globally Significant Coastal Center for Sustainable Tourism and Earth Stewardship,” offered “from my perspective as a doctoral level applied ecologist, lifelong Nature enthusiast, environmental educator, consummate champion for responsible Earth stewardship, and a tireless advocate for Nature-inspired life and living.” From that same perspective, I’ll reflect with photographs and text my impressions and interpretation for this first set of ecosystems with respect to five of the ecological subsets comprising the Park:

  • The Beach and Gulf
  • Dunes
  • Dune Ridges / Sand Scrub Habitats
  • Savannas and Inland Wetlands
  • Pitcher Plant Bog

The Beach and Gulf

The name Gulf State Park speaks volumes. Two-and-one-half miles of white sand beaches define the Park, the coastal gem in Alabama’s 22-pearl, State Park necklace that reaches to the Tennessee River Valley, nearly 400 miles to the north. Advancing at a rate of a week per 100 miles latitude and a week per 800-feet vertical, spring will reach Monte Sano State Park’s plateau-top six weeks after its arrival on the Gulf coast.

I stood on the pier some 1,500 feet from the shore, visiting with Sam the pelican, who has spent three years in residence. He’s a fixture, banded, recognized by many, and tolerated by most anglers, whose bait he covets and frequently pilfers. He’s twice visited a nearby veterinarian clinic, driven there by Park staff. Once with a broken wing after being accidentally cast-hooked and slammed into the water. Again after swallowing a treble hook. Both times he recuperated in luxury on the Park. Staff aggressively shoo all other pelicans to maintain the permanent pier population at one. We spotted the loggerhead shrike (lower right) as we approached the pier. We saw many others but managed only one photo, this one magnified to the point of blurriness, not doing justice to the beauty of this entertaining insect predator. Audubon’s website describes the shrike’s feeding behavior: “Forages mostly by watching from an exposed perch, then swooping down to take its prey on or near the ground or from low vegetation. Kills its prey using its hooked bill. Often stores uneaten prey by impaling it on thorn or barbed wire, returning to eat it later.”

Because we were at GSP when many of my northern friends (located in PA, NY, NH, etc.) were facing a major winter storm, I asked to have this photo taken so I could (and I did) send them a taunting image of me on our “snowy” south Alabama beaches! I told them that I had no trouble driving, or difficulty shoveling, and didn’t get a bit cold.

Dunes

The dune ecosystem begins immediately interior to the flat sandy beach. The endangered Alabama beach mouse flourishes in this zone. GSP provides the most expansive protected dune system within the mouse’s range. The Park is working tirelessly to expand and stabilize the dunes. One fascinating step in that endeavor involves securing the season’s Christmas trees in small piles, allow nature to work her magic by depositing wind-blown sand around the piles and building new dunes in-situ.

Dune Ridges/Sand Scrub Habitats

Further interior, fully vegetated stabilized dunes transition to dune ridges and upland sand scrub ecotypes. I took this photo from the boardwalk trail on the south side of Lake Shelby. This is a zone of intermingled marsh grasses and forbs, standing water, and thick shrubs on the elevated dunes. I won’t venture a guess at species composition; I know my limits. I do know the Park is intent at maintaining these diverse ecosystems.

Taken from the pedestrian bridge crossing the coastal highway, this view (below left) looks north across Middle Lake to the campground and Nature Center. Nearly a mile inland, the Little Lake shoreline (below right) offers a view of the Orange Beach beachfront hotel high rises more two miles to the southeast. Once again, wildness lies within sight of fully developed coastline. The contrast is sharp; the message is stark. Except for the paved trails, a few non-native species, and the distant commercial skyline, the Park ecosystems are timeless and ageless. From the 2016 GSP Master Plan: Gulf State Park is a one-of-a-kind environmental treasure, with a rich diversity of ecosystems and 6,150 acre area. Restoring the environment and promoting stewardship are key elements of the Master Plan, creating a place where everyone can connect with nature. Outside the Park, wildness lies remote… somewhere else in time and place. Park visitors certainly connect with Nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I suppose that tourists who play at the beach, bask in the sunshine, enjoy food and drink, hit the putt-putt courses, and troll the arcades are, in some fashion, connecting with nature. As for me, I would view such a vacation as a sentence. I would shrivel… mentally, physically, and emotionally. I would expire in body, mind, heart, soul, and spirit. Instead, within Gulf State Park, I soared with its beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. In my younger days as an environmental effete, I would have scoffed at the thought of thousands of snow-birders on the trails. Those days are done; now I revel at the sight of so many people understanding and appreciating wildness. I take solace that the message of Earth stewardship perhaps is finding traction. Again, I am convinced that GSP stands as a globally significant coastal legacy project.

Savannas and Inland Wetlands

Please recognize that the nine identified ecosystems do not stand clearly delineated and distinct. The margins often blend and intergrade… across both space and time. The wet grass and shrub zone below may have once been a marsh, now filling in and “dry” enough that slash pine (Pinus elliotti) insists upon invading. Note the 4-10 feet tall pine extending from the ridge well over a hundred feet into the meadow. Once the pine are established, their powerful vertical pumps and effective evapotranspiration will further dry the site, in effect sealing the transition from marsh to pine forest. Park managers had hoped to run a prescribed fire across the site the prior November. The weather did not cooperate for running a fire hot enough to ignite or kill the sapling pine. They plan to try again this coming fall. A fire will not eliminate or discourage the desirable wetland species, which are accustomed to periodic “catastrophic” burns. Sure, it will kill the above ground vegetation, but it will re-sprout or seed-in-place will germinate in the exposed soil rich with nutrients released by the fire.

Conservation entails wise use and management. Management requires the deliberate application of art (many decisions involve subjective values) and science. The Park is not a preserve, where Nature is permitted to run her course.

Slash pine occupies the upland foreground (below). I snapped this photo to capture the cypress (Taxodium distichum) swamp beyond. The cypress are mature as evidenced by their flattening canopy; that is, they have achieved their terminal height. These two ecosystem types occupy distinct sites — a freshwater swamp and an upland ridge. As we approached this photo point we watched 10-15 cormorants leave their cypress perches. Perhaps some day I will buy a camera with telephoto lens capable of catching images my iPhone can only dream to capture.

Below is a classic slash pine savanna. The University of Florida Extension Service defines the type: “The most extensive terrestrial ecosystem in Florida is the pine flatwoods. This community evolved under frequent lightning and human-caused fire, and seasonal drought and flooded soil conditions. Pine flatwoods are characterized by:

  • low, flat topography
  • relatively poorly drained, acidic, sandy soil
  • typically open woodlands dominated by pines
  • an extensive shrub layer
  • and a variable and often sparse herbaceous layer.”

Imagine the view below if instead of savanna, this forest were closed. We would see a solid wall of forest, devoid of the incredible sky now drawing our eye and accenting the scattered slash pine. Since my early career days with Union Camp Corporation, I have loved the flatwoods aesthetic. However, they can be impenetrable by foot… briars, jungle-like shrub layer, brutal saw palmetto, snakes, biting insects, choking vines, and stifling heat.  Like I said, I love the aesthetic… from the trail!

The Park excels at identifying and interpreting the ecosystems. Vegetation differences correspond to associated fauna — birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals have niche requirements. A devoted naturalist could commit years to learning the intricate intertwined ecological nuances and relationships on GSP’s 6,150 acres and nine distinct ecosystems.

Pitcher Plant Bog

The Park’s pitcher plant bog requires requires third-mile hike off of the 28-mile bike path system, through first a ridge forest, then into a savanna, growing increasingly more poorly drained to the bog itself. Standing water 4-10″ deep challenged my boot waterproofing (below). We tread carefully to avoid stepping on pitcher plants. Again, the sky is visible through the widely-scattered savanna slash pine canopy.

We found three species of pitcher plant. White-top (Sarracenia leucophylla) and purple (Sarracenia purpurea) pitcher plants (below left and right, respectively) were very evident and abundant. The pitchers are modified leaves (trap leaves), which the Alabama Plant Atlas says, “are erect, hollow, tubular in shape with an arching hood over the opening. The trap leaves are green towards the base and white with red veins near the opening. They are pubescent with downward pointing hairs. The hollow interior of the leaf in partially filled with rain water and digestive enzymes. Insects attracted to the colorful leaves drown in the fluid and are digested by the plant. Flowers are solitary on a long scape. The flowers are nodding and red in color.” Last year’s flower stocks and brittle flowers still waved above the basal trap leaves. In contrast to the erect white-top trap leaves, the purple pitchers hug the ground. Kelly, my tour host and Park Naturalist, identified a diminutive third species (I believe she referred to it as a parrot pitcher plant). However, this old guy was unable (unwilling) to go to my knees in the standing water to actually see and photograph the few specimens she spotted. I stood with weak eyes and still-dry knees, humbled that I failed this challenge. Had I remembered to bring my selfie stick, so that I could reach the plant without kneeling, I would have captured all three.

The burrowing crawdad or crawdad (Fallicambarus sp.) is another bog denizen. The genus includes 19 species; I was unable to identify species. The photographs below show the chimneys, composed of piled sand and mud pellets to create a vertical corridor for the crustacean to exit or enter its water-filled chamber 2-6 feet beneath the surface. I have seen these mud chimneys in many places where we have resided, yet never have I seen the actual critter.

 

Water is a dominant ecosystem component within Gulf State Park… from the Gulf to some 800 acres of fresh and brackish ponds and marshes, savannas, and bog sites where water lies at or near the surface for much of the year. Nearby Foley, AL averages 66 inches of annual rainfall, which is 11 inches less than where I live in northern Alabama. Growing seasons are long; these water-based ecosystems in this near-tropical climate are home to dynamic and diverse plant and animal communities. We saw only a sampling of the richness that varies between and within ecosystems… and across the seasons. We scratched the surface. The Park is striving to tell the entire story of life and living within this globally significant coastal legacy site.

I am grateful for the opportunity to spend a day with a naturalist who knows the Park and its life. I learned a great deal, including gaining a deeper appreciation for how much I do not know. I will shift gears in my third of four GSP Posts to the upland ecosystem elements.

May Nature enrich your life and living… Nature-inspired living! And may you pass it forward.

 

Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) and the two scheduled for 2019 (Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits: Stories of Passion for Place and Everyday Nature and Harnessing Nature’s Wisdom and Inspiration) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Both published books are available on Amazon and other online sources.

Here are six succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Restoring the environment and promoting stewardship are key elements of the Park Master Plan, creating a place where everyone can connect with nature — an essential goal for global life and living.
  • Nature offers gifts from the past; we must protect and manage to pass our natural treasures forward without diminution.
  • Take advantage of every opportunity (Learning Everywhere) in Nature to sow seeds for making tomorrow brighter.
  • Living harmoniously within Nature is essential… and it is doable with wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.
  • We must adopt a land ethic as a societal cornerstone in all that we do; conserving wildness is not necessarily self-defeating.
  • Learn Everywhere… every day!

Repeating the sage wisdom of Mr. Rogers and Mark Twain:

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. Fred Rogers

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing you can do is keep your mind young. Mark Twain

May Nature Inspire and Reward you… and keep your mind young!

 

Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2019 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by an another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://stevejonesgbh.com/contact/

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

 

Reminder of my Personal and Professional Purpose, Passion, and Cause

If only more of us viewed our precious environment through my own filters. If only my mission and vision could be multiplied untold orders of magnitude:

Mission: Employ writing and speaking to educate, inspire, and enable readers and listeners to understand, appreciate, and enjoy Nature… and accept and practice Earth Stewardship.

Vision:

  • People of all ages will pay greater attention to and engage more regularly with Nature… and will accept and practice informed and responsible Earth Stewardship.
  • Great Blue Heron clients will see their relationship to our natural world with new eyes… and will understand more clearly their Earth home.

Tagline: Steve (Great Blue Heron) encourages and seeks a better tomorrow through Nature-Inspired Living!

 

 

Mid-January at Alabama’s Gulf State Park: Overview

I had been to Gulf State Park 20 years ago. Since then, several hurricanes, the Deepwater Horizon Spill, and subsequent settlement funds combined to both force and enable creation of an Alabama seacoast legacy project. Judy and I spent three nights at the new lodge January 16-18, 2019. I view the Park as Alabama’s globally significant restoration, preservation, demonstration, education, and recreation project. Here are the Enhancement Project book cover and Vision statement:

One hundred forty million dollars later, the Vision is now reality. We arrived early enough Wednesday to enjoy a near-lodge late afternoon stroll. Thursday’s meeting (which brought me to Gulf State Park) allowed more time for both morning and afternoon strolls. Friday I spent nearly nine hours on-site with Kelly Reetz, the Park’s Naturalist… a “globally significant” naturalist and environmental educator in her own right!

The Park stretches along 2.5 miles of protected shoreline — unspoiled wildness nestled within otherwise continuous commercial and residential development. The 2016 Park Master Plan notes:

“There are no other parks along the Gulf Coast with as many different ecosystems and as many acres preserved overall. Gulf State Park is a very diverse park, with many different ecosystems within its 6,150 acres. The Park includes:

  • Evergreen Forests
  • Pine Savannas
  • Maritime Forests
  • Dune Ridges / Sand Scrub habitats
  • Fresh and Salt Marshes
  • Freshwater and Brackish Lakes
  • Coastal Swales
  • Dunes
  • The Beach and Gulf

As the largest contiguous preserved open space along the Gulf Coast with such a diversity of landscapes, the park is home to a great diversity of wildlife and an important rest stop for migrating birds and butterflies. Some of the animal species that call Gulf State Park home are not found in many other places. For example, the Alabama beach mouse that lives in the park’s dunes is a federally endangered species. Dune restoration will help the park be an even better home for this sensitive creature.”

The Enhancement Project Goals:

  • Restoring the Environment
  • Visitor Experience
  • Improving Mobility
  • Accessible to All
  • Learning Everywhere
  • For All Ages

I checked all boxes as I experienced the Park! Again, Gulf State Park is an international gem. My purpose with this Great Blue Heron Blog Post is to provide an overview… to scratch the surface, offer my own reflections (and photographs), and set the stage for three subsequent Gulf State Park GBH Posts:

  • Beach, Dunes, Savannas, and Interior Wetlands
  • Interior Forests and Prescribed Fire
  • Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies

Overview of a Globally Significant Coastal Center for Sustainable Tourism and Earth Stewardship

The academic in me yearns to tell the Enhancement Project story… the entire story. I promise to resist. The Project Book does just that. And does it thoroughly and beautifully. No need for me to do more than offer a broad overview from my perspective as a doctoral level applied ecologist, lifelong Nature enthusiast, environmental educator, consummate champion for responsible Earth stewardship, and a tireless advocate for Nature-inspired life and living.

I’ll begin with the Lodge — a large, five-story beach-side facility that blends aesthetically with its natural environs and honors the goal to restore and protect the shore and dune environment. The Lodge and Park remind me of Lyrics in Robert Service’s Spell of the Yukon:

There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
   And I want to go back—and I will

The Park’s 1,500′ pier provides access beyond the shore and sand bars. Nothing beats the off-shore perspective on the Park’s 2.5 miles of beach and dunes.

Miles of boardwalk offer easy pedestrian and bicycle access to the Park’s nearly ten square miles. This view, from Pedestrian Bridge East crossing the east-west highway connecting Gulf Shores to Orange Beach, is to the north looking across Middle Lake to the campground (496 sites) and Nature Center.

Dune Restoration is a principal Enhancement Project Goal: “Create a dune system that encourages a connection to nature and maximizes the ability for that system to provide protection, habitat, and resiliency for all types of communities.” That’s the Beach Pavilion beyond the sign — a shelter for escape from sun and inclement weather and for education.

The beachside Interpretive Center Goal: “Create a gateway to the park that excites visitors about the entire 6,150 acres and entices them to cross over into the green side of the park.” The Project Book includes two of my favorite quotes about learning:

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. Fred Rogers

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing you can do is keep your mind young. Mark Twain

Recall one of the Enhancement Project’s primary goals: Learning Everywhere. The Interpretive Center is a core element… and one of many “everywheres” throughout the Park!

Designers engineered a lighter element at the Outpost, a three-platform remote camping area with these Does and Bucks outhouses! The nearby city of Orange Beach designed and built the Outpost in cooperation with the Park — what a great symbol of shared mission and joint venture! It’s the way natural communities operate within vibrant ecosystems.

Here’s one of the three platforms… outfitted with chairs on a front porch and hammocks within. I had little idea how emblematic of the Park this scene is until I viewed the photo several days later. The low stratus began to break, permitting the sun to illuminate the white of sand, platform tent, and clouds to intermingle. Contrasting the life and vitality on this inland dune ridge, the sand pine skeleton symbolizes that both life and death compose the ebbs and flows of these coastal ecosystems. Or, for that matter, any ecosystem on our fine Earth. My mind relaxes when the photo draws me into its intimate setting, emphasizing that this one spot is a microcosm of the entire Park. A special place where life abounds in multiple textures, and senescence and rebirth integrate seamlessly and in perfect long-term balance. The Enhancement Project assures that across the Park human use and Nature are in perfect long-term balance.

The Forest Pavilion and Butterfly Garden, an interior Park learning facility, sits over a mile from the nearest road and parking area. Accessible to only bicyclers and pedestrians, the classroom had a full house of snow-birders enjoying a presentation on Park reptiles. Again, Learning Everywhere!

Here is one of several Pause Stations located throughout the Park and its trail system. This two-story structure allows visitors to explore a representation of a gopher tortoise burrow. Interpretive signs tell the tale while riders and hikers take a break to catch their breath. Aldo Leopold lamented 70 years ago in A Sand County Almanac: “Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?” Dr. Leopold would have enjoyed seeing the visionary outcome of the Enhancement Project. Learning Everywhere!

Nearing completion, the new Learning Campus will house, feed, and immerse up to 64 participants in a state-of-the-art self-contained facility, within a natural setting for hands-on learning. Fencing protects this live oak from construction equipment damage. Other natural vegetation throughout the emerging campus is similarly protected. I hope to return to offer a lecture or lead a future workshop.

I include this photo to evidence yet another option for overnight accommodations and to provide some notion of the Park’s scale. The cottages and cabins sit on the north shore of Lake Shelby. The Park’s water tower stands approximately one mile to the southeast. A cottage resident can walk or bicycle (on paved or boardwalk trails) from this viewpoint to the water tower, beach, lodge, forest pavilion, or any of the other features I’ve mentioned.

What better location to place a resting area and overlook than among live oaks draped in Spanish moss, a quintessential symbol of the deep south!

The Enhancement Project at Gulf State Park represents a new day. A fresh and essential way to demonstrate best practices for outdoor recreation, education, and hospitable accommodations… an international benchmark for environmental and economic sustainability. Two predawn easterly views (below) promise a grand new day ahead, both literally and metaphorically. Aldo Leopold saw deep shadows of environmental decline and degradation on the horizon… unless we changed our human and societal trajectory, again from A Sand County Almanac:

All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.

I believe the Enhancement Project faithfully ensures against excessive seeing and fondling. Although not true wilderness, the Park certainly constitutes nearly ten square miles of wildness, within a long strand of continuous development where seeing and fondling leave little wildness left to cherish.

The Enhancement Project embodies implicitly, if not in so many words, the kind of land ethic Leopold implored in the 1940s, again from A Sand County Almanac:

My favorite quote: The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

May Nature enrich your life and living… Nature-inspired living! And may you pass it forward. Remember: Learning Everywhere, Everyday!

 

 

Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) and the two scheduled for 2019 (Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits: Stories of Passion for Place and Everyday Nature and Harnessing Nature’s Wisdom and Inspiration) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Both published books are available on Amazon and other online sources.

Here are four succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Take advantage of every opportunity (Learning Everywhere) in Nature to sow seeds for making tomorrow brighter.
  • Living harmoniously within Nature is essential… and it is doable with wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.
  • We must adopt a land ethic as a societal cornerstone in all that we do; conserving wildness is not necessarily self-defeating.
  • Learn Everywhere… every day!

Repeating the sage wisdom of Mr. Rogers and Mark Twain:

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. Fred Rogers

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing you can do is keep your mind young. Mark Twain

May Nature Inspire and Reward you… and keep your mind young!

 

Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2019 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by an another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://stevejonesgbh.com/contact/

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

 

Reminder of my Personal and Professional Purpose, Passion, and Cause

If only more of us viewed our precious environment through my own filters. If only my mission and vision could be multiplied untold orders of magnitude:

Mission: Employ writing and speaking to educate, inspire, and enable readers and listeners to understand, appreciate, and enjoy Nature… and accept and practice Earth Stewardship.

Vision:

  • People of all ages will pay greater attention to and engage more regularly with Nature… and will accept and practice informed and responsible Earth Stewardship.
  • Great Blue Heron clients will see their relationship to our natural world with new eyes… and will understand more clearly their Earth home.

Tagline: Steve (Great Blue Heron) encourages and seeks a better tomorrow through Nature-Inspired Living!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interpretive Signage at Cheaha State Park: Enhancing Nature Appreciation through Knowledge

Okay, time for the fifth of these Cheaha-themed Great Blue Heron Blog Posts from my mid-October visit to Alabama’s highest point. I believe fundamentally that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in Nature or is powerfully inspired by Nature. I incorporated that conclusion and its life-guiding forces throughout my first two books: Nature Based Leadership and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. I carry the theme forward in Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits: Stories of Passion for Place and Everyday Nature, which should see  published daylight by mid-2019. Perhaps about the same time, my Harnessing Nature’s Wisdom and Power for Life and Living will be available. Meantime, I will offer Nature’s lessons piecemeal through these Blog Posts.

The message I offer today is that knowledge, wisdom, and appreciation fuel my own passion for Earth stewardship and aid in seeing and interpreting Nature’s guidance for life and living. I am able to read and translate Nature’s language on the bases of: a lifelong love affair and intimate relationship with wildness; bachelors and doctoral level education, respectively, in forestry and applied ecology; and nearly four decades of applied research and practice in natural resources study and management. I bring my science knowledge and emotional embrace of Nature to bear in writing about Nature’s principles, tenets, and lessons.

Cheaha State Park does its part in helping Park visitors understand, appreciate, and accept their obligation to Earth stewardship via some of the most exquisite interpretative signage I have encountered anywhere in Nature. So view this Post as a quick tour of Cheaha through a portfolio of the Park’s signage. Unlike nearly every other Blog Post, most of the formal images below (the 13 with the green banner and message fully contained in the image) are official State Park master images. The photo below is mine taken on-site of one of the official signs mounted and in-place.

Likewise, this is my photo of the wood-routered Bald Rock ADA-Accessible Trail entrance.

And this the first of the official sign images. What better place to begin than with reference to the human occupants who lived within this mountain terrain for 15 millennia prior to European settlement?

Mount Cheaha does not stand isolated and separate from the forests, peaks, and valleys surrounding it. The ecosystem extends across and beyond the Talladega National Forest.

The story of Cheaha shifts to the tale of European settlement; the official image and my photo of the sign on-site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humans account for only a small cross-section of life in these mountains.

Forest harvesting and wood products manufacturing have played huge roles in the cultural and economic vitality of these hills and valleys for the past 200 years.

I’m impressed by a thread of history common to all the Alabama State Parks I’ve visited. The Park chronicles and celebrates the significant role the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps played in establishing Cheaha State Park infrastructure. The CCC built to last (and that’s not just a slogan or tag line… and so much of the stonework stands in its original splendor some 80 years later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The same thread weaved through the story of Maryland’s State Parks and State Forests, where I worked all three of my undergraduate summers. The CCC did incredible, lasting work, ushered a generation of young men into adulthood, and serendipitously helped pre-position a nation for an inevitable world war.

Forest ecology is a complex, interdependent network of relationships, geophysical weathering, and geochemical interactions. The carbon cycle is just one element of this extraordinary symphony of life.

Insects, microorganisms, and non-flowering plants accomplish much of the carbon cycle’s essential processes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Among the most robust and ubiquitous non-flowering plants — the lichens. They aggressively and persistently seem to colonize every square inch of exposed tree bark and bare rock surface. The old saw, Nature abhors a vacuum, is not some flight of fancy. Instead, Nature establishes life wherever opportunity presents a niche to colonize.

We see and admire the Mighty Oak, which I’ll refer to as charismatic mega-flora. Too many of us pay scant attention to the “lesser” flora. But “lesser” to what degree? There is nothing scant about what lichens, mosses, ferns, and algae contribute to ecosystem function. Again, no niche in Nature goes unoccupied. Remember, Nature disdains vacuums. Perhaps more accurately, Nature simply does not recognize a vacuum.

Likewise, critters of many forms and function occupy select positions within the southern Appalachian ecosystem. Snakes, turtles, lizards are common across Cheaha and the Talladega.

Same for mammals. I saw many deer and squirrels during our brief visit.

Ah, if only I could soar over Cheaha and the Talladega like our feathered masters of the sky: hawks, eagles, or vultures! What a thrill it would be to soar above the state’s highest point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Muir so beautifully observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” And so it is with carbon and water — such richness of relationships within our southern forests.

The Park’s signage makes clear that we have an obligation to responsibly tend our State Parks — to understand, appreciate, and enjoy these treasures. Aldo Leopold said with frustration 70 years ago in A Sand County Almanac, “All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” Rather than view use (seeing and fondling) as inevitably synonymous with degradation, I hold firm that informed, responsible, and managed use can be accomplished without trace. I believe that we can use and cherish in a manner that retains equal quality and value for Park visitors of generations hence.

I like Cheaha’s Leave No Trace theme, including Big Foot’s role in spreading the message to kids of all ages!

 

 

 

 

 

The outdoor seating (and messaging) below faces the Big Foot display case. The Park System recognizes that the best way to influence the future is through the eyes and awareness of today’s youth.

I applaud our Alabama State Parks for so effectively employing environmental education, a clear component of the Alabama State Parks’ mission: “To acquire and preserve natural areas; to develop, furnish, operate and maintain recreational facilities, and to extend the public’s knowledge of the state’s natural environment.” And one of the core Parks’ Goals: “To preserve unique natural features and integrity of state parks for future generations.” Extending knowledge and preserving natural features for future generations — the essence of leaving no trace and assuring that our natural heritage reaches seven generations hence… and beyond.

The Cheaha signage is superlative. The 22-pearl State Park necklace is our treasure to pass forward and tend forever. I commend Park leadership for taking their trust responsibility seriously. Well done!

Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my two books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Here are four succinct lessons that apply to me with respect to this GBH Blog Post:

  • Knowledge, wisdom, and appreciation fuel my own passion for Earth stewardship and aid in seeing and interpreting Nature’s guidance for life and living.
  • I am able to read and translate Nature’s language on the bases of: a lifelong love affair and intimate relationship with wildness; bachelors and doctoral level education, respectively, in forestry and applied ecology; and nearly four decades of applied research and practice in natural resources study and management.
  • I bring my science knowledge and emotional embrace of Nature to bear in writing about Nature’s principles, tenets, and lessons.
  • I’ve learned that Nature’s lessons often must pass through a filter to argue their case and make an indelible mark on the recipient… young and more senior. The Cheaha signage serves as that filter and spark… lighting the beacon of understanding, appreciation, respect, and responsibility.

Subtle (and some not-so-subtle) education and awareness efforts can help Park users feel the Magic; sense the Wonder; embrace an Earth ethic; and pass the Torch. May Nature inspire all that you do!

 

Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2018 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by an another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://stevejonesgbh.com/contact/

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

 

 

 

Late November Tree Magic at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge — Alabama State Parks Edition

I issued the core of this Great Blue Heron Blog Post yesterday evening, December 11, 2018. Its text, photos, reflections, and ruminations are applicable to each and every one of our 22 Alabama State Parks and their aggregate 74 square miles of beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. So, permit me to present the original Tree Magic at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Blog Post here, and then offer an Addendum with similarly themed photos from several of our Alabama State Parks beneath the original. My overall message is that we can find tree magic and forest enchantment as we explore and enjoy Nature.

Late November at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge — Tree Magic (Original Text)

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge occupies 35,000-acres along the Tennessee River, its nearest access point just seven miles from my home in Madison, AL; the visitors center is twice that far from me. We and our two Alabama grandsons went to the further point November 25. Forget, for the purpose of this GBH Blog Post, about the thousands of sandhill cranes that greeted us (I’ll issue that Blog Post later) — instead, we discovered magic among the trees at Wheeler during this period of fall-to-winter transition. The cypress (Taxodium distichum) swamp adjacent to the visitors center never fails to inspire me. The boardwalk trail is no longer in deep summer shade. Sun dapples the ferny, coppery-bronze cypress leaves carpeting the walkway! Four-and-a-half-year-old Sam enjoyed scuffling his feet to plow mounds of the feathery leaves.

The canopies still held perhaps a third of their leaves… enough to demonstrate a common misconception about forest trees. Lying on my back, I snapped the vertical shot below. Most people imagine that forest trees interlace their branches to form a solid shield of canopy above, one tree interlocking with another. Such is not the case. These cypress canopies may touch when wind blows them back and forth. Certainly, a squirrel would have an open highway leaping from one to another. Yet, in this stand with no understory nor intermediate canopy, the trees occupy unique aerial columns. Reminds me how in this modern world of living close to one another in crowded cities, most of us still manage to stand isolated. In proximity, yet not touching. Even still, like the cypress, we draw some level of support from living in communities. Shallow-rooted, any of these cypress if standing alone, would topple in a strong wind. Unlike Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond, most of us, too, living alone would soon topple.

This hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) and the same-species smaller tree beside it find themselves in some form of mutual agitation. With the grandkids in tow and distracted by trails, birds, and mischief, I could not fully investigate this unusual growth. Clearly the larger hackberry evidences a burl from which adventitious branches emerge, oddly growing horizontally from the swelling. Is there a fungal or viral infection at play? Or just a physical trigger of contact between neighbors? Next time on this trail I will try to find this peculiarity again for deeper examination and more photos. I’m reminded how often in life and enterprise we find ourselves too late in difficult relationships and circumstances, with consequences suddenly appearing as intractable, with causes nearly impossible to explain and solutions out of reach. Too deep into the agitation to easily extract ourselves from it. I’ve been coached and counseled in such management/leadership situations to first identify the real problem. In this case, the problem is not the odd and seeming out-of-control branching nor the burl; instead, those are the symptoms and results of the real problem. Such is the complication and working of trees… and of life and human enterprises.

We found a standing, not-too-long-dead hackberry sporting some lichen finery (below left) and beginning to evidence the fruiting bodies of the saprophytic fungi feasting upon the recently deceased tree.

And more lichens on this trail-side beech (Fagus americana). Note its poison ivy vine (Toxicodendron radicans) still clinging to a leaf.

Unlike poison ivy, which clings directly to tree bark by aerial rootlets, scuppernong (Vitis rotundifolia) vines depend upon vines wrapping around trunks and stems. Two vines achieve mutual support via inter-twining (lower left) and a single vine by spiraling around the white oak (Quercus alba) trunk (lower right). Is it magic? No, not literally. But to the grandkids and me… YES!

And back to the poison ivy and its profusion of aerial rootlets — no need for intertwining or spiraling around this black cherry (Prunus serotina). Magic? You BET!

For a moment, I forgot we were in the deep south. This 20-foot sugar maple (Acer saccharum) offered a burst of New England color. Sam carried one of its leaves back to the car. He also looted a much smaller, long-dead bamboo (Bambusoideae) stem to the car. You never know when you may need to blast a woods-resident ghost (he’s a consummate Ghost-buster)!

Sam and I found a hiding place behind a twin white oak. I wonder how many more years until the two stems become one. Magic — from Sam’s perspective… absolutely! Confirmed for me when I saw the wonder in his eyes! Magic, too, that the entire time we strolled through this enchanted forest, we heard the nearby incessant clangor, clamor, and clatter of sandhill cranes feeding, dancing, and flying.

We drove a half-mile to another Wheeler NWR trail north of the highway. What could be finer than this bronze-beauty-cypress framing the view across the Tennessee River backwater?! Again, who can deny the magic and enchantment?

My iPhone camera colludes with my psyche, on multiple occasions willing me to photograph hackberry’s distinctive corky-ridged bark, this one beckoning irresistibly. Who can argue with magic?

Will I ever tire of Nature’s inspiration? So long as I breathe, especially with the grandkids along, I think not. My torch burns with compelling passion, heat, and light. I want to ignite theirs… to spur their torches to burn long after mine dims and sputters. For the future is theirs. And their sons’ and daughters’. I thank God for this chance to pass the torch, just as I am grateful for those wise souls who saw fit to preserve these 35,000 acres as a Refuge… an eternal flame. Yes, a flame of magic and inspiration!

Rachel Carson said of the National Wildlife Refuge symbol:

Wherever you meet this sign, respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving, for themselves and their children, as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization.

Feel the Magic; sense the Wonder; pass the Torch. May Nature inspire all that you do!

 

Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my two books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Here are four powerful and succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Don’t be blind to what lies in front of you. “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” (Jonathon Swift) This lesson applies to almost every Great Blue Heron Blog Post that I issue!
  • In this modern world of living close to one another in crowded cities, most of us still manage to stand alone. In proximity, yet not touching. Even still, like the cypress, we draw some level of support from living in communities. Shallow-rooted, any of these cypress if standing alone, would topple in a strong wind. So too, standing alone, would we topple.
  • In any situation, first identify the real problem. In the case of the hackberry peculiarity, the problem is not the odd and seeming out-of-control branching nor the burl; instead, those are the symptoms and results of the real problem, whatever it may be. Such is the magic of trees… and of life and human enterprises.
  • Share your enjoyment of Nature with young people. They are our society’s hope for tomorrow. Do all you can to inspire and spark their awareness of Tree Magic and Woods Enchantment.

Again, feel the Magic; sense the Wonder; pass the Torch. May Nature inspire all that you do!

 

Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2018 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by an another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://stevejonesgbh.com/contact/

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

 

 

The AL State Parks Addendum to Late November at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge — Tree Magic

View these photos and brief text as postscript to this Tree Magic Post. No matter whether you’re exploring an Alabama State Park or walking in your neighborhood, remember to seek tree magic and forest enchantment. Nature’s gifts beauty, wonder, and awe often require looking, seeing, and viewing through a child’s lens. I often jettison my professional lens (PhD in applied ecology) and view through my grand-kid-level filter. Oh, the fairy-dusted view is unbeatable!

Here’s a mid-October Cheaha State Park human skull embedded in a Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana). Pardon my flight of fancy — you know better than to accept these Addendum photo captions as the scientist speaking. What is true is that I snapped the photo on the Cheaha Lake Trail in mid-October.

 

And that same day at Cheaha State Park, I snapped this photo of a sourwood tree (Oxydendrum aboreum) refusing to accept the laws of gravity! Perhaps its under the spell of a woods-troll!

 

Lake Guntersville State Park offered this special introduction to Big Foot (below right)! Remarkable fidelity to the life-size replica of the beast at the Huntsville Botanical Gardens (below right). The Guntersville version displayed no signage nor was it accessed via spur trail. I wonder now whether I had stumbled onto it at just the right moment, and it has now long-since abandoned its tree apparition form. Magic and enchantment — you betcha!

 

Such fantasy does in fact come to life, especially, yet not exclusively, through our filters retained from youth. I’ve heard the sage advice to die young, even if it takes many decades. I plan to keep that youthful lens (visual and interpretive) young for yet another decade or three.

Visit any of Alabama’s magnificent State Parks, where you will experience the most pleasant and enjoyable tree magic and forest enchantment of your life. You will see the Truth in what Leonardo da Vinci observed five centuries ago:

Nature varies the seed according to the variety of the things she desires to produce in the world.

Nature brings fantasy to life… and offers inspiration at every twist and turn in our forested paths… in every visit to our State Parks.

Special Skies as Fall Yields to December — Alabama State Parks Edition

I issued the core of this Great Blue Heron Blog Post earlier today, December 9, 2018. Its text, photos, reflections, and ruminations are applicable to each and every one of our 22 Alabama State Parks and their aggregate 74 square miles of beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. So, permit me to present the original Special Skies Blog Post here, and then offer an Addendum with similarly themed photos from several of our Alabama State Parks beneath the original. My overall message is that we all should occasionally glance skyward as we explore and enjoy Nature.

Special Skies as Fall Yields to December (Original Text)

What a blessing that our home planet tilts 23.5 degrees relative to its orbital plane. We in the northern hemisphere lean toward the sun in summer; Earth stands vertical to the sun at the spring and fall equinoxes; we now tilt away from ole sol at the fast-approaching winter solstice, our shortest day(light). Without the tilt, we would have no seasonal changes. I love the summer/fall/winter/spring swings and pay close attention to their relation to our sun. I’m fascinated by the science, and find that understanding the orbital and seasonal relationships enhances my appreciation of the beauty and magic of Nature’s displays.

Within five weeks of the solstice (November 17 sunset below), the sun sets at about 24 degrees south of due west; by December 21, it sets a full 30 degrees from west. By mid summer, the sun sets at 30 degrees north of due west… far past the right margin of the photo. A remarkable 60-degree swing over just six months. As we approach either solstice, both sunrise and sunset have shallower angles of ascent and descent, thus increasing the duration of displays like this one. During our four years in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the sun rose and set at the solstices 80 degrees plus or minus from due east or west (a six-month 160-degree swing!), spectacular colors could last for 30-40 minutes! Again, knowing the science boosts my appreciation for Nature’s wonder and awe.

I’ll focus most of these remarks and photographs on Nature’s artistry. Again, this is our November 17 sunset:

Here’s the next morning’s (November 18, 2018) dawn. I suppose no words required beyond these implied 1,000 (recall that a picture is worth a thousand words)!

More wonderful dawn images from November 23. I can’t imagine how empty life is for those who never awaken before daylight!

Fitting that I am reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I have tried Walden several times previously, each occasion thwarted by Thoreau’s 180-year-old style and thick language, and perhaps owing in large measure to the demands of whatever job I happened to hold and family commitments of one sort or another. In this semi-retirement stage, I’m still struggling with Walden, working hard to mine gems from his difficult text. Here are some rich words regarding his predisposition to morning:

For my panacea… let me have a draught of undiluted morning air. Morning air! If men will not drink of this at the fountainhead of the day, why, then, we must even bottle up some and sell it in the shops, for the benefit of those who have lost their subscription ticket to morning time in this world.

I think by morning air, Thoreau meant the entire experience of a new day dawning — the actual air, the sounds, the sky, and the darkness retreating westward. Cat Stevens likewise celebrated the morning air in Morning Has Broken:

Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world
Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass
Mine is the sunlight
Mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning
God’s recreation of the new day
Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world

I speak with so many acquaintances for whom morning does not include dawn. An unimaginable fate for me. I refuse to allow the day to begin without me! I don’t want to risk missing something worthy that might be springing fresh from the world. Aldo Leopold spoke of how in these modern times (for him that was the mid-20th century… 70 years ago), Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another. I cannot fathom going blind to the dawn!

Evening’s Farewell Salute

Sunset often trumpets a day well-lived. Why else would Nature end the day with displays like December 3, 2018, when cirrus offered several thousand words of glory and brilliance as the sun neared the evening horizon? I snapped these between passes as grandson Jack and I tossed a football in the street at the front of my house. Jack enjoyed the display as much as I, and what better way to share Nature’s generous gifts than with an Earth Steward of tomorrow!

The same evening and the same magic!

And a few minutes later as the sun dipped below the west by southwest horizon:

I have said often that I prefer paintings that look like well-taken photographs… and I love photographs that look like paintings. These few sky images fit the bill. Nature is not selfish nor selective. She gifts equally to all who care to look… and rewards those who make the effort (as though it should require any effort at all) to see… and graces those who see deeply enough to feel the power, passion, and inspiration infused in and bursting from the image.

May Nature Inspire all that you do!

 

Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my two books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Here are three powerful and succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Don’t be blind to what lies in front of you. “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” (Jonathon Swift) 
  • Pay heed to Leopold’s implied lesson: Do not allow your own Education to devolve to learning to see one thing by going blind to another.
  • Share your enjoyment of Nature with young people. They are our society’s hope for tomorrow. Do all you can to inspire and spark their awareness of Earth Stewardship as an obligation and  lifetime calling.

Again, may Nature inspire your life. Pay attention to what daily springs fresh from the world

 

Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2018 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by an another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://stevejonesgbh.com/contact/

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

 

 

The AL State Parks Addendum to Special Skies as Fall Yields to December

View these photos and brief text as postscript to this Special Skies Post. No matter whether you’re exploring an Alabama State Park or walking in your neighborhood, remember to glance skyward. Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe often require tilting our heads toward the vertical.

Here’s a mid-October Cheaha State Park vertical wall at the Rock Garden. View the wall as simply foreground; focus instead on the wonderful cirrus display beyond.

And that same day at Cheaha State Park, these cirrus burst above the mixed pine/hardwood canopy.

Lake Guntersville State Park offered this special view of the clouds (fog) from the Lodge above!

At Monte Sano, how much more captivating are the old hotel remains with the puffy cumulus floating above the Tennessee River Valley beyond?
A DeSoto State Park dawn brought its own greeting to the day I started in the dark by hiking (flashlight in hand) the Azalea Cascade Trail.

Visit any of Alabama’s magnificent State Parks, where you will experience the most pleasant and enjoyable learning environment of your life, whether on the ground at your feet, within the forest along the trail, or in the myriad other sights, sounds, and fragrances of Nature’s beauty and bounty. You will see the Truth in what Leonardo da Vinci observed five centuries ago:

Nature varies the seed according to the variety of the things she desires to produce in the world.

Nature may not desire that you learn and enjoy, yet she offers inspiration at every twist and turn in our forested paths, along every creek-side mile, and in every visit to our State Parks.

Cheaha State Park — Special Trees and Plants

This is the fourth of my Great Blue Heron Blog Posts from a mid-October visit to Alabama’s Cheaha State Park. That’s Alabama’s highest point (2,407 feet) and the State Park at the center of the photograph. Lifts my spirits squarely back to my central Appalachian roots!

These observations are less about the Park and its Appalachian setting, and more about the special trees and plants I noticed and enjoyed while there.

Form and Character

Near the old Civilian Conservation Corps stone reservoir, this chestnut oak (Quercus prinus) has stood guard along the Park perimeter summit road for decades. Just as a psychologist uses facial expression markers to gauge personality, what might branching form and character reveal about our tree friends? From Simon and Garfunkel’s America:

Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, be careful, his bowtie is really a camera

No bowtie on this Cheaha denizen, yet its massive horizontal face feature must surely reveal something about its past and its location along the road where plenty of light reaches the oak from the road clearing. I wondered how many Park visitors stopped to play games with its face? Paused to climb and then walk or perch on its sturdy limb?

I wrote in a prior GBH Post of this likewise horizontal main stem of a sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) I encountered on Cheaha’s Lake Trail. I won’t repeat the reflections I previously offered on the sourwood and its adjacent chestnut oak. If you missed that Post from November 14, please take a moment, visit that Post, and learn more about my reaction and explanation.

 

Among other things, I speculated that the sourwood, because it pays little heed to gravity, inclined toward horizontal to escape from under the sun-robbing canopy of the chestnut oak standing above it.

I had paused lower on the same trail to appreciate the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) to lower left and its carpet of long-needled pine straw (lower right). I offer no special story for that pine, other than I simply adore longleaf pine, which to me epitomizes the South… just like magnolia, live oak, pecan, and, unfortunately, kudzu!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like Nature, We Humans Seek Balance and Equilibrium in Our Lives

The Bald Rock ADA-accessible boardwalk trail passed above the shallow/stony hilltop soil supporting a stand of mixed hardwood and Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana). A 2014 ice storm broke many pine crowns and brought lots of the pines to the ground; a subsequent severe 2016 drought killed many surviving pines that had been top-damaged by the ice storm. Standing dead trees and downed tops now border the trail. The downed tops are richly colonized by lichens, living luxuriously on stems and twigs still bearing nutrients and providing anchorage for the lichens. All part of the process for recycling living matter back to the soil — Nature’s never ending carbon cycle. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust. Like our own lives, all things in Nature are cyclical.

 

Midway up the Lake Trail I had to step over the white oak (Quercus alba) tree that had fallen perpendicular to the path (the downed log is in the photo lower right). I did not puzzle long over why this long-hollowed tree had crashed to the forest floor. Instead, I wondered how it had stood as long as it had! A narrow rim of sound wood had somehow kept it alive and erect. Imagine this tree, riddled with heart rot, in an ongoing mortal combat with the internal fungal infection. Eventually, the pathogen weakened the tree beyond the equilibrium threshold, to a point where weight exceeded the weight-bearing load limit. The tree and fungus engaged in a decades-long battle. But who had won that ongoing dispute? The active fungus lost its host; the tree its life. Truth be told, there are no winners and losers… excepting the forest ecosystem that will live on untold generations of fungi and trees forward. And also like our own lives, all things in Nature strive for balance. Life is a delicate dance of ebbs and flows, forces and counter forces, joy and sorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Near the hollow stump, this Virginia pine manifest its own fungal infection, a perennial target canker which, like the oak fungus, has lived with the tree for many decades. Similar to the oak heart rot/oak serious engagement, the pine and its pathogen are in some kind of physiological and physical balance. A standoff of sorts. The fungus drawing its own form of lifeblood from the tree. The tree growing at a pace sufficient to “feed” the fungus, build annual layers of wood in an attempt to compartmentalize the pathogen, and boost its own supporting super structure. Again, life is a balancing act… as is every endeavor in Nature. Think of the Himalayas as the Asian subcontinental plate slams (in this case, slam applied over deep time at geologic pace) into the Asian continent, thrusting the mountains to Everest’s greater-than-29,000-feet elevation. Yet there are equally powerful counter forces at work. The constant crushing force of massive glaciers grind the range in an effort to return the marine limestone high plateau back to the sea.

No, allow me an adjustment to that statement. Neither the mountain-building nor the glacial-scouring occur with intent. The glaciers do not excerpt their force in an effort to accomplish anything. They simply do what glaciers do. They follow Nature’s laws of physics, acting on gravity’s powerful pull to Earth’s center. A mountain is nothing to a glacier. How long will it take to reduce the Himalayas to Appalachian dimensions? It doesn’t matter. Time means nothing to a glacier, nor for that matter, to a mountain. Time matters, it seems, to only us humans.

I’ve examined this canker photo dozens of time. However, not until I am making these final text edits did I observe the smiling, toothless skull within the canker, somehow clenching a clay pipe! If nothing else, this discovering leads me to conclude that this will be (must be) my final edit!

Nature’s Complexity and Beauty

Not every element of Nature communicates apparent deep meaning for life and living… that is, unless I delve deeply for messages just beneath the surface. Quite simply, I like the looks of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). It’s content occupying the understory — no need for full sunlight; often satisfied with shallow, stony, dry, and exposed sites. Attractive shredded bark texture; contorted (and visually pleasing) branching pattern. Beautiful spring and early summer flowers. Persistent leaves — a broad-leafed evergreen; a member of the heath family. A tough semi-tree that has appealed to my aesthetic sensibility and ecological appreciation since my undergraduate forestry days. I think of it as a signature shrub of my Central Appalachian home, yet here it is thriving and common in Alabama’s Cheaha State Park. So, allow me to admit that part of the attraction is sentimental.

However, as I admired this specimen mid-October along the trail, I noticed an embedded lesson (actually two lessons — one ecological; the other for our lives and living) that had avoided me over my entire applied ecology career. Notice the lush moss carpet surrounding both the base of the laurel and the Virginia pine beyond it (above right photo). I have long observed the common phenomenon of stem flow. Rainwater reaches the forest floor via two pathways. One is considered through-fall, passing through the crown onto the forest floor. The second pathway involves canopy interception and redirection from leaf to stem to branches and then to the trunk. The second route is termed stem flow, which in flowing transports organic debris sloughed from its journey. The moss is flourishing at the laurel’s base from the delivered water and nutrients. I will pay more attention the next time I am on such an impoverished site. Was this a matter of coincidence, or a pattern I will observe routinely? I will let readers know.

The lesson for life I draw from this? Simply, such collaborative and synergistic relationships exist in our lives and enterprises. For example, individuals in long-term happy marriages live longer generally than those who are not. They draw sustenance from each other. We hear often in the world of business and real estate the long accepted wisdom that success distills to “location, location, location.” Such is the success of the lush moss.

While I attribute that moss vibrancy to basal location, not all vibrant mosses are so located. The moss clump below is lower on the trail under a longleaf pine… on a much more fertile and moist site. The equation for success and fulfillment, whether in humans or mosses, entails many variables.

The moss (lower left) seems quite happy on the impoverished plateau along the Bald Rock Boardwalk. To my surprise as I examined this photo more closely, the moss appears most vibrant at the base of the oak! Again, I will pay much more attention in the future to my developing hypothesis. Also near the boardwalk, dense lichens suggest that the shallow surface soils offer little in way of available nutrients and moisture. I suspect that the trees are gathering their necessary fertility and moisture from soil-filled crevices between rocks and not within reach of the lichens. Location matters… whether to trees or lichens.

Often, lichens’ needs are quite simple. They survive because they need less and are extraordinarily well-adapted to wide daily, weekly, and seasonal swings. They are adept at shutting down during periods unfavorable for active growth, and quite accomplished at reviving when things turn for the better. A deep drought (as in summer 2016) can kill a Virginia pine on the same site where the lichen simply turns off to weather the extended dry period. The rain, when it arrives, brings the lichen to full vibrancy. People and businesses, too, express variable tolerance for adverse conditions. Some are much more adaptive than others.

The lichen below seems content on the surface of a rock. Henry David Thoreau thrived happily for a little over two years on his version of the surface of a rock at Walden pond. I’m re-reading Walden at the moment. Thoreau was more lichen-like than the rest of us. He derived far more than physical sustenance from the experience — he harvested bushels of wisdom unavailable in conditions of plenty.

Are we demanding richness (material, emotional, spiritual, physical) beyond the Earth’s ability to provide it long term? Are we heeding the signals? Are we alert to our species and Earth’s limitations? Are we adequately caring for our common home? The lichens will be resident whatever humanity might do to foul our common home. Will we survive our actions. It is time we awaken. What can we learn from the lichens? What can we learn from a walk in the woods?

Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my two books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Here are succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Individuals, enterprises, and society broadly must awaken to our obligation to wisely steward our environment – from within our local community to globally. The State Park speaks lucidly to this cause.
  • Don’t be blind to what lies in front of you. “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” (Jonathon Swift) Even I, a lifelong student of Nature, had not noticed or appreciated the apparent link between forest floor mosses and stem flow.
  • Our lives, as in all things natural, depend upon continuing struggles seeking balance and equilibrium. Critical thresholds determine the course of our lives and enterprises.
  • Few things in life, enterprise, and Nature matter more than location, location, location! In part, I find my joy in communicating these stories of passion for place and everyday Nature. Are you making the most of your location?

I have said often that Alabamans are blessed with Nature’s richness, including our 22 State Parks encompassing 47,000 acres from the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee Valley. I intend to continue my 22-stop journey… and share my travels, reflections, observations, and lessons from Nature with you.

 

Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2018 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by an another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://stevejonesgbh.com/contact/

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

 

Mid-November Camp McDowell Land Legacy Orientation — Alabama State Parks Edition

Camp McDowell invited me to visit November 15 & 16, 2018. Our purpose — to explore developing a Camp McDowell and Conference Center Land Legacy Story for the 1,140 acre property. In operation on-site since 1947, this Winston County treasure “shows the way the world could be through worship, learning, rest and play in the beauty of God’s Backyard.” McDowell is “the Camp and Conference Center for the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Alabama. We are also home to the Alabama Folk School, McDowell Environmental Center, and the McDowell Farm School.”

The property sits smack dab in the midst of the Bankhead National Forest’s 181,000 acres. I’m astounded that these 283 square miles of exquisite forestland came to the Forest Service under the movement 125 years ago to deal with and manage the huge swaths of abandoned and spent eastern forestland (as well as abandoned farms) referred to broadly as the lands nobody wanted. I drove through miles of the Bankhead as I headed south to McDowell. I’m a softy for unbroken forest. Only someone as I, familiar with the eastern National Forests and their history, along with my perception of the roadside forest as even-aged, second-growth, would see this unbroken cover as anything but forest primeval.

Some might say, “How boring; there is nothing to see!” Au contraire, this was heaven to my appreciative professional forester’s eyes! Rolling hills of mature pine and mixed hardwood forest… some thinned, some periodically burned to control understory vegetation. The Camp McDowell entrance sign appeared as I was still appreciating and admiring the forests.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nourishing Body, Mind, Heart, Soul, and Spirit

I’ve visited McDowell a half-dozen times over the past couple of years, first as guest of then McDowell Director Mark Johnston and Environmental Education Center Director Maggie Johnston. The St. Francis Chapel is emblematic of the Camp’s devotion to Faith, Nature, and the future. What better lens to view the Chapel than the dawn’s first rays of sun on a frosty mid-November morning.

McDowell greeted my Thursday morning arrival with a dusting of snow and 30-degree temperature.

I stayed overnight this most recent time at the far lodge above Sloan Lake (lower left photo). A perfect setting to appreciate the Camp. The day remained cloudy, breezy, and unseasonably cold, never reaching 40. The average daily high for the date is low 60s. I have not confirmed that we set a record low high temperature for the date; I am sure we at least approached a new record. Lakes, streams, and falling leaves don’t mind the early cold. People complain a bit. After an uncommonly warm September and October, I saw the chill as overdue, and found joy in the November look and feel of the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

McDowell tugs at my heart. When in this extraordinary Natural setting, I engage with the place, its mission, its staff, the campers, and spirituality with all five of my life-portals: mind, body, heart, soul, and spirit. The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. McDowell reignites some fundamental tenets and principles that guide my life and profession. I want to make some small corner of this world better through wisdom, knowledge, and hard work. Perhaps McDowell is one element of that small corner I can influence.

The Eppes Dining Hall at the Environmental Camp along Clear Creek fed some 200 fifth and sixth graders (and their teachers/chaperones) Thursday evening. Participants are fully engaged and totally immersed in Nature’s wonders.

I saw lots of places in the Camp core for relaxing and reflecting. Each special location has its story — memories, donors, and wisps of history and meaning. Even as these infrastructure elements tell a tale, the surrounding wildness and Nature have legacy components awaiting exploration, interpretation, and translation… leading to developing McDowell’s comprehensive Land Legacy Story. I would welcome a chance to memorialize McDowell’s Story. I want to help McDowell translate the record written in the land and forests, combine it with key interviews of current and past players, and add bits of history residing in available archives, including old photographs (aerial and land-based), and individual recollections. Oh, if only we could literally wander back in time.

When would have been the ideal time to begin weaving the story? Perhaps 1847, one hundred years prior to McDowell’s formal on-site beginning. Or, if only the Clear Creek rock ledges could talk!

Or the massive loblolly pine (flanked by former Camp Director Mark Johnston) along Clear Creek at Tiller’s Beach. This magnificent specimen (yes, the tree!) likely stood there in 1847 as a sapling.

Or the resurrection fern-festooned oak that shaded the front yard of a long-since gone farm house or outbuilding along the Camp entrance road near the current Camp store. The oak certainly predates the Camp’s origins and may have been planted in the late 19th century. I wonder when the first fern sprouted from the now deeply-furrowed bark. Think about how appropriate it would have been if the first floral resurrection occurred in 1947! In effect, its sprouting could symbolize “the way the world could be through worship, learning, rest and play in the beauty of God’s Backyard.” Here was Camp McDowell rising from an old worn out farm in the midst of 283 square miles of the lands nobody wanted! We can core the oak with an increment borer to determine the tree’s age. Dating the fern’s appearance will take the luck of a chance photo from the Camp’s early days.

If only we had begun detailed chronicling of McDowell’s natural components in 1947. Yet we really cannot begin such deliberate and detailed monitoring and record keeping until now. And begin we must. Who among future campers in 2118, 100 hundred years hence, wouldn’t enjoy seeing the Camp’s first solar photo-voltaic panels? A literal example of “Harnessing Nature’s Power”!

Who would not appreciate seeing the November 17, 2018 sun rising from behind the barn, illuminating a frosted field? Or seeing the Farm School pigs relishing the mud within their enclosure?

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine a permanent photo point capturing this view to the north from the embankment along the beaver pond dam? A snap shot repeated routinely every ten years demonstrating changes the 2118 fifth grader can observe back through time.

What might a permanent ten-year-interval photographic record reveal from Tiller’s Beach? Here are Friday’s view upstream (left) and downstream (with former Camp Director Mark Johnston contemplating the view and reflecting on his five decade love affair with McDowell, beginning with student seasonal engagement). Mark is among those who can fill voids and inform the Land Legacy Story. There are others (in addition to Mark) we must transport virtually via the Legacy Tale to 2118 and beyond. If only I could bottle the elixir-essence of our November 2018 morning stroll along Clear Creek.

Special Vegetation

How many tree and shrub species does McDowell host? No one I asked in mid-November knew the answer or could recall seeing a species inventory. I’m hoping that over the Camp’s 71 years some intrepid botanist has assembled such a list. Legacy Story research will entail scrubbing the archives to rediscover such a list. If one does not exist, developing the inventory will fall to my Land Legacy Story recommendations section.

Longleaf pine is one of my favorite Alabama trees. It’s one of the state’s ten native pines. How many others of those ten are on-site? I saw loblolly, Virginia, and shortleaf pines as Mark and I hiked several trails Friday morning. Mark and associates planted hundreds (thousands?) of longleaf seedlings on cleared land surrounding the beaver pond and at other locations on the property. I was surprised to see direct evidence that the intrepid pond rodents harvested the sticky sap-rich saplings (chewed-off stump in foreground lower left). Easy to see how longleaf earned its moniker (standing tree lower left and the dense foliage lower right).

That’s Mark’s hand (for scale) on a Tiller’s Beach farkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum). Another common name: sparkleberry. It’s the only tree-form member of the blueberry genus. Its deep black fruit shines and sparkles this time of year; the term farkle implies a combination of sparkle and function. According to The Flora of North America, “Sparkleberry grows on sand dunes, hammocks, dry hillsides, meadows, and in rocky woods. It also grows on a variety of moist sites such as wet bottomlands and along creek banks.” This specimen occupies a sand bar site moistened from within the sandy soil by Clear Creek seepage.

According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) “is noted for its huge oblong-obovate leaves (to 30 inches long) which are the largest simple leaves of any tree indigenous to North America. Leaves are green above and silvery-gray below. This unusual tree is rarely found in the wild, being limited mainly to a few rich wooded areas in river valleys and ravines in the southeastern United States.” Carolina Nature describes bigleaf magnolia as a “rare deciduous native.” I saw nothing rare about bigleaf magnolia at McDowell. I’ve never seen such abundance in my travels across its range. By the time I departed Friday afternoon, most leaves had fallen. Thursday morning some trees still held fast to their yellowing leaves (lower left). My boot (size 12!) gives some sense of leaf scale. Oddly, nearly all leaves fell top-side down. A mystery for another day. A future assignment for Environmental Camp sixth-graders?

I couldn’t get over the impressive leaf size — the longest on the sofa below is 26-inches! So, on-site during those two days, we discovered individuals of the only tree-form blueberry (genus Vaccinium), North America’s longest-leafed indigenous tree species, and one of Alabama’s largest loblolly pines (record is ~4.5-feet diameter). McDowell’s Story begs to be told!

We encountered a willowlike-leaf shrub in what I at first surmised was in full flower along roads and field edges. No one I asked could identify it. When I originally posted this essay November 27, I noted, “I am still investigating. I suspect it is an invasive. Because it is so common and spectacularly showy for the season, it is worthy of a mid-November floral highlight for one of the state’s premier environmental education centers. Just another component of the Camp’s Land Legacy Story, which is both a look back… and a careful and deliberate view ahead identifying needs critical to Camp relevance and excellence.” Today, December 5, 2018, with the help of Cane Creek Canyon’s Jim Lacefield, we have identified the shrub as groundsel-tree (Baccharis halimifolia). How on earth did I not properly identify this species that is native to North America from Massachusetts south to Florida and Texas!? I admit total embarrassment. Once Jim led me to identification, I revisited my photographs. What I mistook (sloppily) as flowers were in fact seed heads, the silky seed appearing to my lazy examination as flowers. A big wake-up lesson for me — I sat for far too long in my higher education executive offices, growing dull in my field skills. I pledge to be more diligent, systematic, and persistent — to pay attention to field tools lost to pencil-pushing!

Now, what about the non-tree and shrub flowering plants — a McDowell inventory? My favorite paintings look like photographs (Yes, I am a man of simple tastes); my favorite photos look like paintings. Nature’s frosty brush painted the Friday morning image below. Sedges and goldenrod, frosted pine seedlings, and foreground frost-silvered grass with mixed fall hardwoods providing background. A nice painting!

I’m a sucker for bark encrusted with non-flowering plants. An admirable moss community coats the Virginia pine stem (lower left); lichen adds a nice pattern to the otherwise slate grey of the American beech near the lodge where I stayed. Nature tolerates no vacuums in these well-watered southern temperate forests. Do the Camp archives contain inventories of McDowell non-flowering plants — ferns, mosses, lichens, fungi?

Harnessing Nature’s Wisdom, Inspiration, and Power through Knowledge and Recognition

Even something as simple as a weathered fence rail can inspire. Soaking rain, transitioning to snow before ending Thursday dawn, had saturated the wood. Friday morning’s 24 degrees drew frost-sickles from the wood… a hoar frost decoration. Add in remnant snow around the old knothole, and the adornment is complete (lower right). Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe are wherever we choose to seek and discover. The rewards are ours!

A frosty field and a leaf-strewn woods path at dawn soothe the soul and elevate the spirit. McDowell’s Nature portfolio begins fresh with every new day.

This dawn photo epitomizes the spirit, promise, and hope of a new day in God’s Backyard.

And, again, the Chapel symbolizes “the way the world could be through worship, learning, rest and play” in Nature.

Even if my mid-November McDowell visit does not lead to preparing the Camp and Conference Center’s Land Legacy Story, I will have lived richly in McDowell’s inspired glow for two days. Whether I compile the Story or not, the tale will remain within the land. Every parcel has a Story. Camp McDowell has touched and changed lives for seven decades… thousands of lives. Its Land Legacy Story is all the more powerful owing to the Camp’s mission and cause in service to humanity. If asked to proceed, I would accept the challenge with great humility, and a heartfelt gratitude for a chance to make a positive difference for tomorrow. I would seek inspiration from the mission, the land, and the people who lead (and led) the way.

What an honor and privilege it would be. My efforts would be purpose-driven and passion-fueled. I believe in the noble cause that guides McDowell.

Thoughts and Reflections

I may offer nothing new to Camp McDowell. Sure, I see the 1,140 acres through a composite lens comprising a bachelors in forestry, a doctorate in applied ecology, lifelong Nature enthusiasm, former industrial forestry practice, 35 years in higher education, four university presidencies, author, speaker, and advocate for Nature’s lessons for Life and Living. I believe earnestly in McDowell’s commitment to enable people young and old to employ five essential verbs:

  1. BELIEVE that all of Nature’s wisdom and power are hidden within plain view
  2. LOOK with intent beneath the superficial; LOOK deeply without the distractions that too often obstruct vision
  3. SEE what lies hidden within
  4. SEE deeply enough to evoke emotion; that is… FEEL
  5. FEEL acutely enough to inspire and stir ACTion… ACT to make tomorrow brighter

Although these are my five verbs, I see them implied in all that McDowell does. The Environmental Center mission “is to connect people to the environment, teach respect for the Earth and its beings, and to promote a commitment to lifelong learning.” I watched the Camp in action in form of a Thursday evening Radical Raptors program at the Chapel. I did not need to reach far to witness my five verbs in practice.

The Environmental Center flier states its role clearly: To provide “an experience impossible to find in a classroom. Students are taught by seeing nature up close: wading into a stream to catch invertebrates, touching sandstone canyon walls, identifying trees using a dichotomous key, and solving group challenges with their teammates. While creating self-confidence, students explore the outdoors firsthand, building lifelong awareness and respect for the natural world.”

May Nature inspire all that you do!

 

Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2018 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by an another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://stevejonesgbh.com/contact/

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

 

 

The AL State Parks Addendum to Mid-November Camp McDowell Land Legacy Orientation

View these photos and brief text as postscript to this McDowell Camp and Conference Center Land Legacy Post. Allow me to apply the McDowell  principles, mission, and operating tenets to our Alabama State Parks. Consider the Parks as a type of quasi environmental education center. Paraphrasing from above, each Park’s role is to provide an experience impossible to find in a classroom. Visitors learn by seeing nature, Park by Park, up close; hiking its trails; wading into a stream, lake, or the Gulf; observing wildlife; touching canyon walls; identifying trees, shrubs, and wildflowers; spotting birds; enjoying scenic overlooks; and simply absorbing Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. All that while developing a sense of comfort and fulfillment. Visitors explore the outdoors firsthand, building lifelong awareness and respect for the natural world.

Here’s a mid-October Cheaha State Park vertical wall at the Rock Garden. We learn by seeing, feeling, and knowing the real thing. Nature’s Cheaha classroom covers the entire Park and the adjoining Talladega National Forest.

 

Lake Guntersville State Park offers lots of shoreline for wading, swimming, boating, and fishing. Have you ever encountered a more effective learning and enjoyment laboratory?

 

A field laboratory for seeing and studying the carbon cycle presents itself clearly at Cheaha State Park. Here I borrow from an earlier Cheaha State Park Blog Post: The annual carbon cycle in our native pines is actually biennial. The Cheaha State Park longleaf pine (lower left) holds green needles for two growing seasons. The fresh pine straw (below right) constitutes needles that emerged with the 2017 spring flush. Their chlorophyll-based factories performed through summers 2017 and 2018. They completed their work by mid-October their second year. When I hiked the Lake Trail to the summit, longleaf had just recently mulched the forest floor.

And Cheaha has a wonderful interpretive sign (This is a State Park image; not one of my own photographs) to explain the full carbon cycle:

Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe await us wherever we seek it. Discover Nature’s Truths near your doorstep. Here is one of my fundamental lessons from Nature:

  • Don’t be blind to what lies in front of you. Life rewards those who believe, look, see, and feel Nature’s magic and glory… wherever you are.

Visit any of Alabama’s magnificent State Parks, where you will experience the most pleasant and enjoyable learning environment of your life. You will see the Truth in what Leonardo da Vinci observed five centuries ago:

Nature varies the seed according to the variety of the things she desires to produce in the world.

Nature may not desire that you learn, yet she offers lessons at every twist and turn in our forested paths, along every creek-side mile, and in every visit to our State Parks.

Early November on Bradford Creek Greenway — Alabama State Parks Edition

I’ve often observed over the years that Southern summers only reluctantly yield to the dormant season. November 5, 2018, the morning after a night of rain, we hiked five miles on the Bradford Creek Greenway in Madison, Alabama. Summer held tightly through September and into mid-October this year. Only over the past ten days had our deciduous trees begun to turn and shed. Our colors cannot match the Central Appalachians and New England’s burst of absolute glory, yet I find soothing comfort in summer’s relaxed grip and fall’s dormancy advance. Our autumn involves less of color exploding… more of green retreating internally. Deciduous trees simply go dormant without a lot of hype and fanfare.

As this day progressed through afternoon, our skies remained dark and foreboding, eventually yielding to night and a wee-hours squall line (the National Weather Service termed it a QLCS — a quasi-linear convective system) in advance of a cold front. Strong winds and a little over an inch of additional rain, I am certain, brought a lot more leaves to the trail and forest floor. Nature’s annual above ground organic matter cycle will soon draw to closure. It’s all part of the grand carbon cycle… whether in New England or here in the South.

The southernmost leg of the Greenway (between Mill and Palmer roads) had been closed since mid-July for laying larger diameter sewer lines in the Greenway right-of-way. It had just reopened the week prior. Hence we walked on straw blown in to facilitate grass reseeding of the rehabilitated trail shoulders where the pipes lie. With an imaginative reach for this latitude I visualized snow cover.

The prior night’s rain had wetted this trail-side beech with stem flow, bringing a cloudy-sky glisten to its smooth bark. I photographed this coarse individual for its character — wet, shiny, and darkened stem; low branching; forked trunk at 3-4 feet; and its once-damaged, now healed-over base. All of it back-dropped by fallen leaves and yellowing foliage beyond.

I pointed out to our hiking companions that this entire riparian forest had once been tilled (or pastured), its deep and fertile soils producing fine crops when lowland flooding permitted access, planting, and harvesting. Too often, however, the stream that assured fertility and moisture interfered with reliable production by either preventing access or actually flooding the crop. The forest regenerated naturally… I’m estimating some 30 to 50 years ago. Here and there along the trail we encountered individuals that stood within the fields long before agricultural abandonment. This remnant oak’s massive girth and crown evidence that it was once open-grown, enabling it to reach for sunlight vertically and horizontally without competition from adjacent trees. The old forestry term for such an individual is a “wolf” tree, as in the lone wolf standing sentry in a field its own.

How could I resist inspecting and photographing this musclewood (Carpinus carolinia)? Lichens and mosses have painted the bark’s canvas with a pattern worthy of museum display. And the background — who could have chosen better? Nature never misses an opportunity to inspire. I wondered how many hikers passed by that day blind to the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe within plain sight?

Because this is the Bradford Creek Greenway I feel obliged to include the creek in this gallery. Even during the driest days in mid-October, the creek never failed to flow with confidence. As we enter fall and winter, vegetation and evaporation will make no demands on the creek, and rains will be more reliable. The creek will swell its chest with pride. Occasionally it may even pop its banks and cover the trail. I will plan to be there as witness.

These two water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) found happy anchorage in the stream itself. The typically buttressed trunk and stout structural roots are engineered to withstand the occasional floods that wash creeks such as Bradford. Again, I’d like to bear witness.

A single red, three-lobed sweetgum leaf countered the otherwise drab oak leaves that littered the trail and shoulders. Can a wet and cloudy day along a sewer line right-of-way meet my threshold for beauty, magic, wonder, and awe? You betcha! In aggregate, the entire package (the whole) far exceeds the sum of its component parts. The pieces do not simply compile arithmetically. They combine as multipliers, quotients, and powers to reach levels incalculable. Add in the loud laughing of a pileated woodpecker we did not see. The several scurrying squirrels gathering and storing acorns. The two jays fussing at who knows what. Horses grazing trail-side in the pasture near Mill Road.

And how can we measure the compounding value of the emotional joy in knowing Nature is placing so much at rest, preparing for the winter. No, not bitter cold, extended snows, and howling winds. Instead, a long season of occasional Canadian and Arctic intrusions punctuated by gorgeous periods of reliable sun, comfortable afternoons, and perfect hiking. I have a snow shovel we brought south from New Hampshire. I don’t intend to use it!

Nature teaches that breaks are restorative. I know that firsthand from how good a bit of afternoon shuteye feels. I am certain that the grand old oak, the wolf tree, welcomes in its own way the longer, cooler nights that signal its RNA to prompt recovering chlorophyll and sugars from leaves and forming abscission layers to release leaves to gravity’s tug. I could imagine the wolf tree sighing relief with a winter nap just days away. So apt is the wisdom from Ecclesiastes and The Byrds: To every thing there is a season… and a time to every purpose under heaven.

 

Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my two books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Here are succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Individuals, enterprises, and society broadly must awaken to our obligation to wisely steward our environment – from within our local community to globally. I am grateful that community leaders found reason to marry a utility right-of-way with a recreational preserve along a lovely urban stream. Whether intentional stewardship or serendipity, Bradford Creek Greenway serves a noble purpose and important cause.
  • Don’t be blind to what lies in front of you. “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” (Jonathon Swift) I’m reminded of the musclewood — its exquisite canvas of mosses and lichens. The glistening beech. How many actually realize they walk or bike through the art museum corridors of the Greenway?
  • Nature can serve as an essential life focus. Such is my own pursuit… my own life-chord. Our two-hour stroll paid tremendous dividends to body, heart, mind, soul, and spirit.
  • Nature provides multiple attractions for enhancing life’s journey. Funny how most of my time on this Greenway has passed at 12-14 miles per hour by bicycle. Admittedly, even at that modest pace I miss a lot. Ratchet the speed up or down — the attractions shift in response.
  • Nature demonstrates that nothing is without meaning and purpose. Not a single action or endeavor we witnessed along the trail happened by chance alone.

In her (nature’s) inventions nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous.

Leonardo da Vinci

 

Bradford Creek Greenway is just four miles from our house. I have often observed that Nature is where we seek it. So much is within easy reach. Were I to visit the Greenway alone and not impose a time limit for exploration other than the hours of daylight, who knows what wonders I might discover. Perhaps I will do just that some day. As it was, the furthest I wandered from the paved surface was some 50-feet.

I fear that for much of my life I may have stayed too close to the trail. Have I ventured often enough from the metaphorical paved surface? Another of my lessons from the two books: Test your limits; be bold; ignite and employ your passion. Can such be my mantra for the remaining years of good health that lie ahead? I suppose that is entirely up to me. I know that during the course of 4.5 decades of professional and executive career, I did not often enough choose a pace slow enough to believe, look, see, feel, and act at the musclewood-canvas scale.

May Nature inspire all that you do!

 

Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2018 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by an another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://stevejonesgbh.com/contact/

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

 

The AL State Parks Addendum to Early November on Bradford Creek Greenway Post

View these photos and brief text as postscript to this Bradford Creek Greenway Post. I will remain true to the themes of Nature as an essential life force and focus, and Nature providing multiple attractions for enhancing Life’s journey… no matter where you are.

Here’s a late August Monte Sano State Park photo of a spice bush (Lindera benzoin) in full fruit. Certainly not yet summer in full flight as we witnessed in early November along Bradford Creek, the spice bush is signalling its final summer act. The last push to sustain the species and extend the line before its own season of rest and dormancy.

Other photos from my Alabama State Park wanderings similarly stirred my passion for seasonal ebbs and flows. Like the Monte Sano spice bush (Lindera benzoin), the late summer persimmon fruit drops at Lake Guntersville State Park hinted at the growing season culmination:

As I write these words, I am sure that persimmon tree made its final summer 2018 forest floor deposits of ripe fruit last month. Sure, a few may be persistent and remain tree-secured a bit longer. Our several nights of lows in the 20s will have left its branches bare of leaves. Until next spring, may she (yes, most persimmon trees are either male or female… not both) rest, renew, and recuperate.

The annual carbon cycle in our native pines is actually biennial. The Cheaha State Park longleaf pine (lower left) holds green needles for two growing seasons. The fresh pine straw (below right) constitutes needles that emerged with the 2017 spring flush. Their chlorophyll-based factories performed through summers 2017 and 2018. They completed their work by mid-October their second year. When I hiked the Lake Trail to the summit, longleaf had just recently mulched the forest floor.

 

Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe await us wherever we seek it. Discover Nature’s Truths near your doorstep:

  • Nature can serve as an essential life focus… and life force.
  • Nature provides multiple attractions for enhancing life’s journey… no matter where you are.
  • Nature demonstrates that nothing is without meaning and purpose… and so go the seasons, without end year after year.
  • Don’t be blind to what lies in front of you. Life rewards those who believe, look, see, and feel Nature’s magic and glory… wherever you are.

Visit any of Alabama’s magnificent State Parks, where you will see the Truth in what Leonardo da Vinci observed five centuries ago:

Nature varies the seed according to the variety of the things she desires to produce in the world.

Cheaha State Park — A 1,200-foot Vertical Ecological Transect

We visited Cheaha State Park October 17-19, issuing two Great Blue Heron blog posts prior to this one: first my broad impressions then my musings on the Cheaha sky and clouds. I will focus now on an ecological transect as I hiked October 19, from Cheaha Lake (visible on the valley floor in the photo below) to the summit, passing up through the Rock Garden (the overlook location for the same photo) then on to the summit.

I learned long ago that a top-down-view always amplifies the elevation perspective. That is, looking down at Lake Cheaha seemed far higher than the lakeside view (below left) toward the ridges. The relatively flat terrain around the lake belied the steep topography awaiting me. Nature is like the layers of an onion. Peace and serenity greeted me when Judy dropped me at the lake. Who could ask for a more perfect 60-degree morning start? An RV campground and primitive camping are near the lake, yet I saw just one other person. The lower right photo shows a CCC-constructed building used now as a bathhouse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The relatively flat and fertile bottom-lands were soon to transition to, as the sign warns, a very steep one-mile ascent. I did not have the luxury of past land-use maps or a naturalist accompanying me. Nor did I take the time to scour the land to thoroughly read the signs of past-use. I presume that some portion of the valley saw tillage and certainly served as pasture. It’s hard to believe that over some 200-years of European settlement so many of these seeming remote nooks and crannies in the Appalachians (from here to Pennsylvania, New York, and into New England) saw intrepid pioneers scraping a living and sustenance from the land. However, even the boldest among them would not have attempted to plow or graze much beyond the trail head sign!

Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac), “The only conclusion I have ever reached is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.” He mentioned the three species of pine native to Wisconsin, where he lived and wrote his signature book. I am teaching a Huntsville LearningQUEST (“informal education for adults of all ages”) course on A Sand County Almanac. I reflected on how many species of pine are native to The Heart of Dixie. As I write, I will try to name them, and then I will check my references to confirm, add, or subtract. I pledge to honestly assess my performance. Here goes: loblolly (Pinus taeda), slash (P. elliottii), longleaf (P. palustris), Virginia (P. virginiana), shortleaf (P. echinata), sand (P. clausa), spruce (P. glabra), and pond (P. serotina) pines. Before I verify, I want also to mention table mountain pine. I will not — I think it does not range naturally this far south. I’ve researched. I’ll begin with table mountain pine (Pinus pungens). From the US Forest Service: “its range extends from central Pennsylvania, southwest to eastern West Virginia and southward into North Carolina, Tennessee, and the extreme northeast corner of Georgia.” So, count me lucky on not including it as native to Alabama. All eight of the ones I listed are, in fact, native to Alabama. However, I am embarrassed at having missed the one that I did — eastern white pine (P. strobus), which is native to just five Alabama counties.

My lake to summit transect passed under four pine species: loblolly, Virginia, shortleaf, and a few longleaf around the lake and on the lower slope (below left). My forester friends up-north (and I don’t mean the Tennessee Valley region) have never encountered this signature species of the deep south. I hold its long needles, erect posture, and huge cones in high esteem. Its coarse broom-tipped upper branches stand out nicely against the early autumn blue. Its dropped needles accent the pine litter moss below right. Beauty and magic from tree crown to forest floor!

It’s perhaps inconceivable to readers that I could cherish both sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) and Longleaf pine. On one hand, longleaf pine’s indomitable negative geotropism (geotropism from my online default dictionary: “the growth of the parts of plants with respect to the force of gravity. The upward growth of plant shoots is an instance of negative geotropism; the downward growth of roots is positive geotropism.” The longleaf pine does not know from vertical! Ramrod straight, refusing to twist or bend to seek or secure more sunlight. Sourwood seems oblivious to Nature’s insistence that the law of gravity is universal. Instead, sourwood shuns even the theory of gravity, disdaining any thought of verticality. Still on the lower slope, I wanted to embrace this individual sourwood revolutionary (below), rejecting and rebelling against the predominant rule of law. Even I could have climbed this nearly horizontal arboreum. Odd that its Latin species name should suggest something more intent upon reaching into the canopy.

Why do I relish sourwood? First, I grew up well within its northernmost range in the central Appalachians. I liked its deeply-fissured bark, its fragrant spring flowers (makes great honey!), and its curvaceous form from which a two-by-four will never be sawn. I liked it, too, because once I departed for my bachelors degree in upstate New York, none of my fellow students knew my southern friend. Years later when I served for nine years on the Penn State forestry faculty, I often answered queries asking me to identify understory species I did not recognize with, “It’s a sourwood,” knowing full well that we were out of its range. So now back within its range, I enjoy encountering sourwood frequently. This specimen grows trail side on the lower slope.

It’s adjacent to a 30-inch diameter chestnut oak (Quercus prinus), a massive specimen on a site richer than the shallow upper slopes where we most often find this species. See the sourwood escaping horizontally beyond the oak. The oak crown is fully dominant (lower right)… and has been for many decades. Perhaps reason enough for the gravity-defying sourwood to retreat at little more than 20 degrees above horizontal.

As I began ascending toward the very steep intermediate slope, the boulder-strewn dry stream-bed (below left) drew my attention. The trail paralleled the drainage-way, which obviously carries considerable and forceful flow on occasion. Appalachian-wide, these old mountains are products of erosion. They have long since lost their rugged, towering heights. From my ultimate (translates to lazy and convenient for the purpose of these blog posts) source of internet research, “Cheaha Mountain is part of the Talladega Mountains, a final southern segment of the Blue Ridge Mountains, unlike other elevations of the Appalachians in north Alabama, which are part of the Cumberland Plateau. The mountain is the highest point in the eastern portion of the Sun Belt (east of the Mississippi River, south of Interstate 20, and north of the Gulf of Mexico). Geologically it is composed of weakly metamorphosed sandstones and conglomerates of the Cheaha quartzite, of Silurian/Devonian age, and stands high topographically due to the erosional resistance of these rocks.” A bit further along, I found a trickle of water riding the exposed bedrock (below right).

I’ll venture an untested (by me) hypothesis: I’ll call it Steve’s 99:1 rule of landscape-scale erosion. Simply, 99 percent of erosional impact results from one percent of the storms. And among those impactful storms, think about the relative magnitude and erosional consequence of a hundred-year-storm. Or even more powerful, a thousand-year deluge. Water’s force operates logarithmically. Epic storms carved these valleys. I would like to return when this now-dry channel carries enough volume to tumble a few stones, yet I believe my chances are slim. Such first-order streams are not perennial. From the Geologic Society of America, “A first-order stream is the smallest of the world’s streams and consists of small tributaries. These are the streams that flow into and “feed” larger streams but do not normally have any water flowing into them. In addition, first and second order streams generally form on steep slopes and flow quickly until they slow down and meet the next order waterway.”

Of interest, the Mississippi River is a tenth order stream; the Amazon is twelfth order. The Geologic Society adds, “First through third order streams are also called headwater streams and constitute any waterways in the upper reaches of the watershed. It is estimated that over 80 percent of the world’s waterways are these first through third order or headwater streams.” Somewhat of a footnote, I successfully navigated an upper level undergraduate watershed management course and a graduate hydrology offering, both with three weekly lectures and weekly three-hour labs. I recall a weekend field trip in the graduate course to Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (with its calibrated watersheds) in New Hampshire. Since then and perhaps prior to this formal education validation, I have been fascinated by weather and stream/watershed behavior. Four and one-half decades since that field trip, I am still captivated by watershed hydrology when hiking an Alabama mountain trail at Cheaha State Park.

I soon climbed above drainage ways meriting a stream order rating. Rainwater from here and points above does little more than percolate into the thin soil and find its way among the rocks to the defined channels below. I turned my focus back to plants. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) seems quite content throughout its range finding purchase on shallow rocky soils. This specimen fits my image of its stereotypical site. Notice the mossy cushion at its base, the moss luxuriating from the incremental moisture (and accompanying nutrients) delivered via rainwater stem flow from the laurel. The same benefit accrues to the moss at the Virginia pine base (below right; beyond and to the right of the laurel). I see a few chestnut oak leaves under the laurel, yet another affirmation of thin rocky upper slope position.

Steep stony rubble (moss and lichen adorned), upper slope position, lots of direct sunlight on the forest floor, an aspect facing southwest, and sparsely-stocked forest of small diameter in aggregate signal poor site quality. What I encountered differed little from what I expected.

Likewise, I would not have expected healthy, vigorous individuals. I wondered how the hollow white oak (below left) stood as long as it apparently had, with only a thin band of intact wood ringing its base. It had only recently (within months) fallen across the trail. The Cytospora canker on the Virginia pine (below right) results from a fungal infection. Such target cankers weaken the stem and interfere with translocation. Yet, and I think such is the case with this individual, such fungi can co-exist with the host tree for decades. Perhaps the longevity in this case is owing to the poor site and the tree’s slow growth.

Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac; November) spoke reverently of the tree disease/animal (from bees to birds to mammals) interdependency on his Wisconsin woodlot: “Soon after I bought the woods a decade ago, I realized that I had bought almost as many tree diseases as I had trees. My woodlot is riddled with all the ailments wood is heir to. I began to wish that Noah, when he loaded up the Ark, had left the tree diseases behind. But it soon became clear that these same diseases made my woodlot a mighty fortress, unequaled in the whole county.” He then devoted five pages to the nature of such ecosystem interplay.

The mountain sheds boulders on its higher, steeper reaches. What are the mechanics of these relics from above? Have they rolled and slid downward from The Rock Garden ledges above? I think not. From my experience elsewhere, I’m led to believe these sometime house-sized remnants of the most resistant strata have actually weathered from vertically above, the softer stone weathered from beneath them. That is, these rocks have not slipped from current uphill positions, sliding down and outward, but instead have their origin directly above… an above that no longer exists. Regardless of their origin, they provided steps and handholds for my old-guy ascent, somehow steeper than these photos suggest. The Virginia pine with blue trail blaze (below left) must have had the good fortune of sinking roots deep into fertile soil nestled among the piled boulders. The tree has no equal nearby. The good tree-fortune of chance, fortuity, and serendipity.

 

 

 

 

 

I suppose the same luck of the draw applies to this blazed red oak. An acorn just happened to find security, purchase, and sustenance lodged in the right boulder-pile fissure. To my knowledge trees have no intention and are absent a strategic plan. Instead, by evolutionary design, they produce enough acorns to advantage the chance (perhaps likelihood) that some such fortuitous site lies within reach of gravity, squirrel caching, or bluejay drop. And now, in duty to the species, this oak is producing acorns to secure the future of the line… and to do its part to biologically, chemically, and physically sustain this old mountain ecosystem. Meantime, in a tiny increment of the tree’s life, I hiked upward past it, pausing only to snap its photo and then lean against it to catch my breath. It served me well… without intent.

And ever upward into an area where serendipity furnished few high quality micro-sites. Still a forest, this stand is hard-scrabble. No sylvan-cove cathedral here. The bent and shattered Virginia pine (at lower left in the photo) evidences the ravages of a 2014 ice storm at this elevation. And I scrambled onward.

Suddenly a view from immediately below of The Rock Garden. Picture these nearly horizontal strata reaching out over Cheaha Lake. Time and the inexorable forces of Nature have weathered and transported many cubic miles of weakly metamorphosed sandstones and conglomerates to the Gulf of Mexico. I had taken the photo of the valley and lake at the beginning of this blog post the afternoon prior from atop this ledge.

I found something special and moving in the dark silhouette of the rock backlit by the wispy cirrus.

And I add this photo to demonstrate how tenaciously Virginia pine find purchase on the very ledge. Is the view wasted on them? Or do they simply appreciate the abundant, unimpeded access to the sunlight that fuels them? They have no need to strive vertically among competitors to secure full sun.

I insert that first photo. My reward for having traipsed ever-upward.

 

Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my two books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Here are succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Individuals, enterprises, and society broadly must awaken to our obligation to wisely steward our environment – from within our local community to globally. The State Park speaks lucidly to this cause.
  • Don’t be blind to what lies in front of you. “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” (Jonathon Swift) I saw what I could on this Friday morning ecological transect. Yet I only scratched the surface of the stories unread and untold.
  • Nature can serve as an essential life focus. Such is my own pursuit… my own life-chord. The snippets I read along a two-hour transect are essential notes in my chord.
  • Nature provides multiple attractions for enhancing life’s journey. Why else would I be planning four GBH Blog Posts from a simple two-night/three-day immersion at Cheaha State Park?!
  • Every life… every enterprise is interdependent with all else. While my perspective on every tree, rock, and dry stream bed may be mine alone, this one (among a thousand such transects just here on Cheaha) and I are part of something much larger and grander.
  • Effective and fulfilling living, learning, serving, and leading require full doses of humility and inspiration. I could not view the sourwood/longleaf pine posture and form contrast and not feel humility or a deep sense of inspiration.

I have said often that Alabamans are blessed with Nature’s richness, including our 22 State Parks encompassing 47,000 acres from the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee Valley. I intend to continue my 22-stop journey… and share my travels, reflections, observations, and lessons from Nature with you.

 

Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2018 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by an another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://stevejonesgbh.com/contact/

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

 

Postscript Cheaha Photo from the Official State Park Archives

Picnic pavilion at Cheaha Lake, near the trail head where I began my ascent.