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.


  • 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-November Skies at Camp McDowell

I spent two days at McDowell Camp and Conference Center (Winston County Alabama) mid-November 2018. My purpose was to conduct field exploration and staff interviews prior to developing a McDowell Land Legacy Story for the Camp’s 1,140 acres (see my November 27 Blog Post: http://stevejonesgbh.com/2018/11/27/mid-november-camp-mcdowell-land-legacy-orientation/ )

My purpose with this followup Post is to highlight some of the sky photos I captured while there. I never stop admiring the firmament (the sky or heavens — the vault of the sky). I also never cease to pause when using the term firmament! I remind myself that dry land (not sea or air) is terra firma. Both words employ firma. Odd that somehow one is land and the other sky. Yes, I examined the etymology for both terms. Yet I will forevermore remain uncertain at first blush when using either.

Nevertheless, I admit to being a cloud and sky junkie. Okay, perhaps an addiction, too, to trees, spring wildflowers, thunderstorms, frosty mornings… all things Nature!

So, back to McDowell’s sky. Lots of rain the day and night before my visit had transitioned briefly in the wee hours to snow as cold air advected on the system’s back side. Hence, these frosted-sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) stars… firmament falling to terra firma!

As the vigorous low pressure system departed, northwesterly winds and scudding stratocumulus gave us a classic fall sky. I expected to see a skein of geese at any moment. If only during our deep summer I could conjure a few days of blessed heat-relief… this is how those days would look.

McDowell meets some its electrical needs from solar photovoltaic. Even with the morning’s dark overcast, old sol manages to generate some current.

By mid-afternoon, the sky cleared. I snapped the two dusk shots from my west-facing deck, looking across the pond above with the canoe. From that perspective, my cabin is the one at center-top. I like the framed reflection of the waning firmament in the pond’s now-still surface. Given frontal passage, clear skies, and calm winds, I knew the next morning would dawn crisp and frosty.

As is my usual habit, I awoke well before dawn. This early shot shows crepuscular rays streaming from the rising sun, still below the horizon. As I’ve often pondered, what TV program, video game, or web-surfing late at night could possibly be so good as to beat the rewards of dawn? Henry David Thoreau (Walden) likewise loved day’s dawning, “The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.” Imagine the price some pay for late evening TV, gaming, and surfing — to never experience the awakening Nature offers.

Soon after, the rising sun kissed the oak crowns beyond the chapel. The image stands well and messages succinctly without my words

And a few minutes later, the sun, with lots of work to do on a very cold and frosty morning, kissed the grass. Again, words do little but distract from the gift Nature presents to those willing to seek and embrace the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe.

The ground still frosted, I could look outward (from my terra firma perch) 3-6 miles and negative 15-25 degrees Fahrenheit to an etching of white cirrus against the purest of blues. Cirrus is a genus of atmospheric cloud generally characterized by thin, wispy strands, giving the type its name from the Latin word cirrus, meaning a ringlet or curling lock of hair. The strands of cloud sometimes appear in tufts of a distinctive form referred to by the common name of mares’ tails. Pity the impoverished soul who could not feel inspiration in such an image… and sense absolute humility in the wonder of Nature.

The remnant cirrus from the prior day’s system drifted eastward during the morning, yielding to mostly clear, high blue skies, this view from the south end of a pond north of the Camp proper. This is prototypical Alabama winter: freeze-deadened herbaceous, leafless hardwood, loblolly pine green, open water, and azure-blue sky. Another view worthy of rejoicing.

Mid-morning along the creek as the cirrus drifted to the east. As I have said many times, my aesthetic appreciation leans toward paintings that look like photographs… and to photographs that could be paintings. Could anyone command a brush to match or exceed the beauty Nature provided my simple iPhone?!

As I departed McDowell and shortly thereafter passed the Bankhead National Forest, the sky could not have been more cooperative.

I’ll be back at McDowell several times over the next 3-4 months gathering information, images, and a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Camp and Conference Center. Our goal it to develop McDowell’s Land Legacy Story as a reference and tool in support of McDowell’s mission, which for the Environmental Center is: To connect people to their environment, teach respect for the Earth and its beings, and to promote a commitment to lifelong learning. I can only hope that the firmament above these blessed acres will reward me anew with special magic. Yet as in all things Nature, my threshold for absolute awe and amazement is low. I’m an easy target… for I see wonderment in what too many others view as mundane, if not unpleasant or invisible.

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.


  • 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!

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 two succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Look up — literally and metaphorically — Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe abound… and the composite surrounds us.
  • Learn more — understanding deepens and expands appreciation and wonderment.

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: “©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

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



Idyllic and Pastoral — An Earth Stewardship Surprise and Exemplar

Colleagues Craig Cassarino and Dr. Jean Meade and I visited an east-central Ohio cattle operation owned by friends and associates whom Craig has known for two decades. Because we three are collaborating on a Nature-based, sustainable agriculture-themed education project near Morgantown, West Virginia (Jean’s location), Craig wanted Jean and me to see the property and meet the landowners. Craig flew into Pittsburgh (90 minutes to Morgantown) from New Hampshire to coincide with my travels to the area. We drove over to Flushing, Ohio first thing Thursday, May 17. At this stage I will not reveal the owners’ identity. I want to coordinate telling their incredible Land Legacy Story more fully with them. Theirs is a story meriting recognition and celebration.

Premium Japanese cattle breeds are among Craig’s many interests. He is the catalyst (shall we say “cattle-yst”?) responsible for this operation incorporating Akaushi, what one web site called one of “the most outrageously marbled, incredibly decadent beef on the planet.” The cinnamon-brown bulls below are Akaushi. The operation’s other bull breed is a more common black Simmental, bred on this operation with Black Angus heifers. A Simmental bull grazes beyond the Akaushi in this photo. The family’s home sits atop the hill. A sight (and site) of pastoral splendor, accented and back-dropped by the rising cumulus.


Yet 35 years ago a 100-foot strip-mine highwall would have greeted this view of the home. No lush green grass… just bare rock and debris, something like the stock photo below. The cattle operation family metamorphosed from a family-owned coal mining firm. Both husband and wife worked for the coal company, beginning in the mid-70s. He left the family firm in 1990 for a larger nearby coal company, serving as engineer and land manager. When that company sold its 42,000 acres of inactive mined land (and inoperable non-mined land) in 1999, the couple purchased those holdings. They have since divested all but 13,000 acres. We toured the ~1,100 acres of pastureland contiguous with the home site… derived from a combination of family land (a mix of personal and family-owned coal company) and some 1999-acquired company land. The photos within this post belie the land’s strip-mine past. I believe John Denver spoke less than reverently of strip-mining in his Rocky Mountain High:

Why they try to tear the mountains down
To bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land

I don’t intend to debate the relative merits of strip- and deep-mining, nor discuss the virtues and sins of our fossil-fuel dependence. My point and purpose instead is to recognize that an action as disruptive and seeming devastating as ripping the Earth asunder to extract coal does not necessarily result in permanent “scars upon the land.”


The owners did more than the expedient and minimally expensive to meet the letter of reclamation laws. They acted consciously and deliberately as Earth stewards. Their responsible actions created a landscape of pastoral beauty and productivity. The 16-acre impoundment below supports fish, frogs, and turtles and attracts diverse mammals and birds. I took the photo from the patio of the family’s cabin.


A 50-70-foot-high spoils ridge stands behind the cabin (below left). A clear-water spring exits from the hill (below right) from a point near where I stood to take the photo of the back of the cabin and forest.


The naturally-regenerated hardwood forest would appear as growing upon undisturbed land to the uninitiated. Yet this stand regenerated on unconsolidated, piled over-burden from stripping.


That debris ridge stood already re-foresting when the company rehabilitated the surrounding stripped acreage in 1983. The rolling pastureland where the cattle stand below supports lush forage. Interestingly, native, undisturbed pastureland requires liming to support grass and forbs of this quality. The reclaimed strip-lands include limestone debris, keeping the pH high enough to obviate the need for lime application.


No obvious scars upon the land evident in the scene below, where ten Akaushi momma cows and their two-month-old calves came to greet us when we approached on the Polaris ATV.


Same for the two views below. The owners care deeply about the land… and it shows.


The owners prescriptively manage grazing to ensure healthy forage and cattle. Although I did not probe or shovel beneath the surface, I saw evidence that the site is developing true soil with deep roots and organic matter incorporation. If the landowners agree to composing a Land Legacy Story, I will bring along my soil probe and put my doctoral expertise in forest soils to work.


Nature’s Own Reclamation Methodology

As I write this post, Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is spewing lava… lava that will soon serve as raw material for rich soil as weathering (chemical, physical, and biological) acts upon it. Fact is, all of Hawaii’s land is of volcanic origin. The entire island system and its rich life resulted from severe disturbance. I recall standing at Exit Glacier near Seward, Alaska, reading the interpretive signage chronicling the glacier’s retreat over the past 50 years. Near the current ice front, raw terminal moraines of unconsolidated glacial till stand tens of feet high. At the sign marking the front five years ago, vegetation covers the deposits. By ten years ago, tree seedlings and saplings dominate. Where the glacier face stood twenty years prior, a young forest occupies the site. Nature knows disturbance. Nature pays little heed to whether the cause is human-derived or of her own work.

However, we can assist Nature’s healing and abet her amelioration processes. The Flushing, Ohio landowners returned the land to a near-natural contour. They accommodated drainage and surface water flow to resemble patterns common to this region. The company had stock-piled surface soils and reapplied them to the reclaimed landscape. They re-vegetated quickly and encouraged its growth and establishment. They are conscious of soil formation as a necessary requisite to full and long-term land health and its economic vitality. Land ownership comes with costs (e.g., taxes; access maintenance; protection from fire and trespass; fences); the owners seek a return on their continuing investment of time and resources. They seek an economically viable premium breed cattle operation. They realize that the more responsibly they steward the land, the more viable their operation.

They believe in Earth Stewardship… because it’s the right thing to do and it’s doing things right. As we drove back to Morgantown, we observed many pastures on hillsides that have never been stripped for coal. We saw far too many hillsides bearing the distinctive scars of over-grazing. Corduroy contours of cattle walkways; bare ground where the grasses and forbs no longer constitute a soil-protecting stand; resultant erosion gullies; failed stream banks. Good land practices follow simple and proven treatment sequences and actions. Excellent stewardship can yield exemplary results on land that some would describe as having been decimated, destroyed, ruined by strip-mining. We saw first-hand in Flushing that good stewardship can return such abused land to full (and perhaps better than pre-disturbance) productivity — restoring its beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. In contrast, as we returned to West Virginia, we witnessed that irresponsible treatment of undisturbed land can be a travesty of abuse, devastation, destruction, and ruination without a single bulldozer scarring the land.


Broad Lessons for Our Relationship to the Land

I will draw this essay to a conclusion by offering four relevant quotes from a conservation and land ethic giant, Aldo Leopold.

Leopold wrote 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.” The landowners, my colleagues, and I certainly do not view the property as wilderness yet we do see it as a landscape blend of domesticated and wild. The fish, amphibians, and reptiles within the ponds do not care that their habitat is an artificial impoundment. The critters living within and near the debris-hill forest pay little heed to its origins.

Leopold also wrote that “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” The landowners may not have referred to their operation as a community. However, they spoke of it in such reverent and respectful terms that they conveyed the same sentiment Leopold expressed. They view the land, their home, and the cattle enterprise as fully integrated… and they see themselves as one with it.

I observed earlier that the landowners reached beyond the expedient in rehabilitating the land. Leopold counseled all of us, with respect to caring for the land and its denizens, “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold expressed these thoughts nearly 70 years ago; the Ohio land stewards have been walking the talk for at least 35 years. They have and are doing the right thing.

Even as I quote Leopold, he had his own favorite quote: “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 17, we visited a property cared for by landowners who are clearly citizens of the domain they have the privilege of tending.


Note: I am available for Nature-themed motivational/inspirational speaking and writing… for NGOs, businesses, landowners, agencies, and Nature-oriented enterprises. Contact me at: steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

Land Legacy Stories: This Blog Post is an example of the approach I take to developing Land Legacy Stories, detailed tales of the relationship between caring, informed, and responsible stewards and their land… intended to extend generations forward and linking them to the past. Contact me to discuss your Land Legacy Story

My Premise and Core Belief: Every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature!


Responsible Earth stewardship provides a full measure of humility and inspiration, two necessary components of living life fully:

Northern Alabama Landtrust Hike

On Monday March 26, 2018, I joined a LearningQUEST hikers group (seven of us) at the Landtrust Hikers Lot on Bankhead. We hiked the Bluffline and Wagon Trails to the Waterline Trail and then returned on the Tollgate Trail. A wonderful 4-5-mile circuit with six new friends: Bruce Martin; Sue Campbell; Bob Schorr; Ronda Tenney; Barbara Staggs; Kathleen Haase. Our tour touched upon both human and natural history, the two being interwoven. Here my compatriots stand at the rail above the old Heritage (three caves) limestone quarry.

I will keep this post somewhat abbreviated, highlighting some of the natural peculiarities we encountered and commenting on the deep human signature on the landscape. The red oak below neatly lifted a rock slab when wind snapped the tree at the base. A curiosity as much as anything, this is just one example of how nature can stimulate thought and fancy. How long until decay weakens the rock/trunk union enough for gravity to return the rock to a soil-contact resting place? Funny how the tree “ate” the rock as its girth expanded laterally. Had the tree not been blown over, would it have eventually consumed the entire slab?









The squaw root below is the surface manifestation (the vegetative scaly-leafed structure) of an oak root parasitic plant. It will develop its reproductive, non-showy flower spike at the terminus. Again, a curiosity worthy of inspection and study… and a great photo subject. Nature never fails to astound and stimulate. There is wonder, awe, beauty, and magic in the woods of northern Alabama, whether a mighty oak, or the parasitic plant finding purchase and nourishment on its roots.

And what prehistoric beast do we have below?! A persimmon tree about eight inches in diameter with its deeply-fissured, dark grey to near-black, blocky bark. Not beauty on a Grand Canyon or Rocky Mountain scale, yet still meriting appreciation and enjoyment. I can’t get enough of what Nature offers to an observant spring hiker.

I added a new spring flower to my inventory: purple phacelia, this one clinging (and flourishing) to the vertical face of a limestone ledge. We totaled 20 species over our three-hour trek. Nothing unusual greeted us, yet each one offered beauty and reward. Likewise, each occupies a small window of time during this season prior to canopy leaf-out and forest floor shading.

The eastern red cedar below toppled during this past winter, along with the bush honeysuckle (an aggressive invasive exotic shrub) sharing the very thin layer of soil on the limestone rock surface. We wondered how the cedar found nurture and anchorage to last as long as it did. Not surprising to see that it had yielded to the combined forces of wind and gravity.

Human Disturbance — The Human Nature Element

Even as Nature’s signature marks the property, this land bears the scars and evidence of human habitation, use, and manipulation over the past 150 years. Granted, Native Americans lived here for the preceding 10-12,000 years, yet left little direct and lasting evidence. Theirs was a gentler touch. As we crossed this west flank of the plateau, I observed that surface drainage has shifted over time, perhaps owing to human-disturbance. Here is a well-defined stream channel and plunge basin we crossed. Without a scale reference (I should have placed one of my colleagues on the ledge), take my word that the vertical drop from ledge to basin is about 15 feet. Yet now, even with a wet spring, this channel carries no water. The active stream is not far away.

Here is another form of human touch. Bush honeysuckle (see my list of non-flattering adjectives above) has captured the understory. What has it replaced? Some spring ephemerals? Blueberry? Laurel? Other plants I find personally preferable? This foreign occupation warrants much discussion and thought. What recourse do we have? Should the Landtrust be more active in controlling it, or at least in limiting its spread?

Here is the old Heritage, Three-Cave Quarry, a source of stone for the gravel (milled on-site) that first paved many of Huntsville’s early dirt streets and byways. Again, the photo provides little sense of scale except for the paved sidewalk at the bottom. I estimate that we stood nearly 100 feet above the floor. The access road exits to the photo’s bottom right. My fellow hikers indicated that the three caves (mines) extend hundreds of feet into the formation. The abandoned quarry serves seasonally as an acoustically wonderful amphitheater for concerts. I lamely suggested that it must be perfect for rock concerts! Interesting that a former industrial site now serves a public purpose as a Landtrust recreational preserve. I have said many times that we humans do not stand separate from Nature — we are one with Nature. And I hold squarely to my belief that every parcel of wildland carries a two-dimensional tale: one Nature’s Story and the other the interdependent Human Nature Legacy. The tales are intertwined… inseparable.

When the Monte Sano community atop the plateau took shape in the twentieth century, residents and community developers saw need for fresh water, not sufficiently available by well source. So, why not pump it up this west flank from ample aquifers below. We thus walked the old Waterline Trail (below). This is rough rocky terrain. An impossible place to lay a pipeline underground. So, the chosen solution (economic and physical) involved delineating the route and laying the pipe above ground, and then piling rock and limited soil above it. Thus, a mounded pipeline route that now provides a walking/hiking path.

And, how do you get the water several hundred feet vertical? You build a pump house, find the right pump engine, and send the water up to Monte Sano. Here is the pump house stone foundation, the timbers long since decayed or burned; the actual pump sold when operations ceased.

The story of land use and development is written on the landscape. I am grateful that Bruce Martin knows the history. I will seek further lessons of the human history, even as I dig deeper into understanding the human influence on the natural history.

Final Reflections

Although I took no photo, we crossed an abandoned rail line ROW on our hike. Early in our wandering we crossed an extensive midden, a long ago trash dumping site, the ground covered in broken glass and other human-originated debris. Man’s signature is etched indelibly across this preserve. All of this offers lessons that we must learn. Our touch is not and has not been light. A century ago, we took little note. Land and wildness were inexhaustible. Today, we number 7.5 billion people, who on average consume more per capita as standard of living rises, and occupy more and more of our Earth’s surface. We can no longer afford to not take note. We must teach the lessons to every person who hikes these trails, making sure humanity is aware of our obligation to be informed and responsible Earth stewards.

Every step on every trail offers a teachable moment. I repeat often in these blog posts that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is compellingly inspired by Nature. Are we paying attention? Will we pass the test? Am I doing all I can to spread the gospel of Earth stewardship? Are you?


Visiting a Prospective Forestland Legacy Story Property

March 12 dawned with snow flurries here in northern Alabama. Thunderstorms accompanied a passing cold front the evening before, triggering wind warnings and a small hail alert as it passed. I measured two-thirds of an inch of rain.

I departed 7:00 AM to visit with a landowner and his consulting forester (a former Union Camp colleague from my 1981-85 service as the company’s Alabama Region Land Manager). Some 165 miles south in central Alabama, I met my two hosts mid-morning at the cabin atop a hill overlooking one of the two attractive ponds enriching the 400 or so acres of open land, mixed pine/hardwood uplands, planted pine, and bottomland forest. A major creek at bank-full and a vibrant tributary bisect the property. Chilly northwesterly winds buffeted us as we snapped photos of the view down to one of the ponds and the creek bottom. The old family residence still stands intact, and is occupied by tenants who likewise love the land. The current generation owner has built this exquisite cabin:

We had all agreed via email discussion that this property may be a good candidate for a Land Legacy Story. Here are some of its fitting attributes:

  1. Rich multi-generation heritage; in the family since 1862
  2. Formal Heritage status
  3. Treasure Forest, Tree Farm, and other designations
  4. Active management for timber products and wildlife; formal management plan in place
  5. Evidence of the landowner’s deep land ethic; in harmony with my own belief that land ownership is spiritual and sacred
  6. Two ponds/lakes
  7. The major creek
  8. Its smaller tributary
  9. Diverse ecosystem components
  10. Mix of open land, bottomland, upland mixed pine and hardwood, and planted pine
  11. Strong and ongoing relationship between landowner and the consulting forester
  12. Topography with great character, beginning with the cabin atop the hill overlooking the pond and creek bottom forest

After just a few hours, beginning with fresh coffee, enthusiastically discussing the property, hearing the landowner’s love for the land and his stewardship ethic, grabbing some local BBQ, and touring the acreage, I am soundly convinced that this Legacy Story merits telling and memorializing. This landowner epitomizes the ethic that Louis Bromfield so beautifully captured in his non-fiction book about his efforts to return his Ohio farm to soil health and vitality:

“The adventure at Malabar is by no means finished… The land came to us out of eternity and when the youngest of us associated with it dies, it will still be here. The best we can hope to do is to leave the mark of our fleeting existence upon it, to die knowing that we have changed a small corner of this Earth for the better by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.”

Because I have much yet to do to develop this Forestland Legacy Story, I am not identifying the owner nor the location. I will simply offer the following photographs with some brief annotation. I want to demonstrate the power of informed and responsible stewardship, and to evidence the tremendous strength in telling the Story both to guide current practice and to leave an indelible testimony to those who follow.

A lower pond occupies an old gravel borrow pit along the creek. Excellent habitat for fish, herons, waterfowl, turtles, and multiple other critters. Eagles are a common sight. I saw a red-tail hawk cruising (and calling) above the water. I found two projectile points in an adjacent food plot, witnessing that others inhabited this land long before European settlers discovered its beauty and bounty.

Near the first pond, the owner has planted and protected (from deer and rabbit browsing — see the tubular tree shelters) several species of oak seedlings. The trees are on a 30-foot grid. Note the blind (for hunting) along the woods edge.

Here is an eight year old loblolly pine planting recently commercially thinned by removing every third row.

Adjacent to that planted stand the owner maintains another food plot. Note the mowed grass lane, which serves as a firebreak and ATV access route.

This is one of the fields that the landowner will plant with containerized longleaf pine seedlings. Longleaf, representing yet another species important to wildlife and timber production, does well in this locale, and these soils are well-suited. Note the old field-edge oak, a majestic symbol and survivor from long ago, still standing watch over the field… and providing food and shelter for birds, squirrels, and who knows what else. Just another standard bearer for the story of the land.

The Forestland Legacy Story Concept

My Land Legacy Story concept is novel, rooted in my philosophy of Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. To my knowledge, I may be the only person offering these services… in Alabama, across the US, or even internationally. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am the only former four-time university president who is engaged in writing these Legacy tales! I view this endeavor and this service as a full complement to my current mission, as well as to the spirit and intent of my books and my weekly posts.

I stand to learn a great deal in this story-telling endeavor. I am breaking new ground. I hope to generate demand, get a few of these under my belt, and ensure that others carry the torch beyond what my own limits might be for satisfying what I envision as a latent demand.

I want to sow the seeds of informed Earth stewardship. What better way than by recruiting leaders and enablers like this landowner (the early adopters), and then diffusing the concept, the practice, and the ethic among others. Everett M. Rogers, PhD, an education specialist whose research on early adopters of agricultural practices (Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition), prompts me to seek such innovators for the Legacy Story idea. As Bromfield said, “The best we can hope to do is to leave the mark of our fleeting existence upon it, to die knowing that we have changed a small corner of this Earth for the better by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.”

That is my mission through my writing, speaking, and sermonizing!

May all that you do be Nature-Inspired.

Spring’s Richness

Judy and I visited Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve March 15 — see my March 20, 2018 post for a more general narrative about the Preserve and my impressions. See also my March 26 post for the wonderful examples of life Finding a Place on some seemingly precarious and marginal positions across the 1.25 square miles of the Preserve.

Please view this post as less a philosophical and science-based reflection on lessons for living, learning, serving, and leading, and more as a celebration of spring’s beauty and bounty at forest understory scale. Seldom (no, never) in this part of the south does snow carpet the forest floor beyond a coating to a few inches occasionally during the depths of our abbreviated winter. By the end of April, most forest canopy species are already deeply shading the forest floor. The weeks and months between a waning winter and forest leaf-out translates to an opportunity window for spring ephemerals to grow, flower, produce seed, and fall into senescence — i.e. complete their annual life cycle — before the canopy blocks life’s essential sunlight. We timed our Cane Creek Canyon pilgrimage to hit the peak ephemerals window. Our timing rewarded us with 23 species in flower.

I have been a spring wildflower enthusiast since taking a Systematic Botany course in spring 1971. We journeyed into the field for the lab section whenever weather permitted, and sometimes when it didn’t! We covered diverse habitats, raced up, down, and across hill, valley, and dale, traversing field, forest, meadow, and stream-side. We kept detailed journals and sketched our findings. I still have my weather-beaten field guides and plant keys. I’ve carried one pocket-sized six-ring notebook with me at Cane Creek. Its first-page entry is dated May 17, 1989. The place: Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Education Center. Judy and I tallied 27 species that long-ago day. Hard to believe that nearly 30 years have raced past since then. The joy of discovery and counting is still strong. We’ve grown more appreciative, even if a little slower covering the distance.

So, 29 years later, allow me to take you along for a quick March 15, 2018 inventory of flowers tallied, from first to last in order of seeing them at Cane Creek:

  1. Virginia spring beauty
  2. Trailing arbutus
  3. Red buckeye
  4. Bluet (Quaker ladies)
  5. Purple violet
  6. Plantain-leaf pussytoes
  7. Service berry
  8. Bird’s foot violet
  9. Blue woodland phlox
  10. Early saxifrage
  11. Rue anemone
  12. Beaked trout lily (yellow fawn lily)
  13. Spice bush
  14. Sharp-lobed hepatica
  15. violet wood sorrel
  16. Twisted trillium
  17. Sweet Betsy trillium
  18. Bloodroot
  19. Wood vetch
  20. Hairy phlox
  21. False garlic
  22. Yellow trout lily
  23. Fire pink

One of my all-time favorites greeted us at number 11: Rue anemone, abundant from southern Ontario south to Georgia and Alabama. Its pure-white petals shout from the dormant winter forest floor, sounding a clarion call for the coming season of renewal, life, and warmth. This individual is expressing its joy from a sandstone micro-ledge at the foot of a block in the named ‘Boulder Garden.’

A rich floral arrangement presents atop the same boulder. Yellow trout lily and twisted trillium dominate. Nature has a way of dolling out luxuriant beauty. That morning our Madison, Alabama temperature bottomed at 25 degrees. These spring ephemerals can handle it. They know the drill.

We have here the Hanging Gardens of Cane Creek Canyon’s Boulder Garden. A wonderful oak leaf hydrangea anchors at lower left on yet another boulder. Early saxifrage bedecks a thin ledge about five feet above the ground, conveniently at eye- and camera-level. Several trout lily flowers peek over the edge above the saxifrage. What florist could do better? Nature exploits every advantage… not for us, but for sustaining the species, capitalizing the niche… of time and place. We enjoy her offerings, and relish her boundless beauty and vitality.

A closer look at the hanging early saxifrage. Nature abhors each and every vacuum. A precarious foothold becomes a ledge of luxury.

I recall seeing bird’s foot violet for the first time in Cumberland, Maryland’s Constitution Park on one of those Systematic Botany field excursions nearly a half-century ago. Its aptly-named bird’s foot foliage and bi-color flower are unmatched in the early spring palette. The photo at left below (yeah, the one with my thumb!) I took in western Maryland’s Allegheny Mountains last April. The Maryland photo depicts the flower and foliage more clearly than the photo I snapped at Cane Creek.

This red buckeye is tantalizingly close to opening its flowers. Close enough that I counted it! Will you grant me the latitude to claim 23?

Here’s a close-up of the beaked trout lily. Note that its flower is looking up at the sun. The yellow trout lily (yeah, they are both yellow), in the second photo above, hangs its head as though shy and embarrassed. Both have the same dappled foliage, earning another common name, yellow fawn lily.

I have seen elsewhere rich forested floodplains carpeted with blue woodland phlox. Cane Creek’s population, at least where we traversed, is more scattered, yet there is distinct beauty in even a single stem with a cluster of soft blue.

Virginia spring beauty is another common early ephemeral that I’ve tallied from New Hampshire to Ohio to Alabama.

Our final tally of the day took the prize for its aesthetic elegance. Fire pink seemed quite red. This is the only one in full flower we encountered. Interestingly, and disturbingly, the Lacefields told us of coming across trail-side patches of other showy species where visitors had picked bouquets and then tossed them aside. Reminds me of Aldo Leopold’s statement that “Conservation of all wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle. And when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.” Such is one goal of Cane Creek Canyon Preserve. To inform and educate visitors to the sanctity of Nature. To the imperative to see, appreciate, understand, and cherish. To the imperative to leave behind only footprints; to take with us only what we brought. To respect and enjoy.

Concluding Reflections

Although we timed our visit to hit the early spring peak wildflower window, I long to visit more frequently over this extended spring season. Once a week sees change at a scale suitable for awe and inspiration. So much happens so quickly to the knowledgeable, discerning visitor. There is magic at our fingertips, and lessons aplenty.

Once again, I applaud Jim and Faye Lacefield, as well as the Friends of Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve. All are stewards extraordinaire — land steward exemplars.

Judy and I are grateful for our visit and tour.


Finding a Place

My February 22, 2018 Great Blue Heron post reports on our February 11, hike at Konza Prairie near Manhattan, KS (http://stevejonesgbh.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1752&action=edit). Among other sights of the day, I reflected on a prairie crab apple anchored happily (my view) on a limestone ledge:

I ruminated at depth on the conditions, advantages, and pitfalls associated with its perch, concluding that Nature has enabled life’s many variants to exploit resources across a wide range. Our March 15 hike and tour at Cane Creek Canyon Preserve demonstrated the same lesson in multiple variations. Our northern Alabama climate is a bit more forgiving than the drier Kansas Flint Hills. See my March 20, 2018 post for a more general narrative about the Preserve and my impressions. Today’s follow-up post focuses on Nature’s uncanny, yet millions-of-years-tested, propensity for Finding a Place. For flourishing wherever the ingredients for life are available, whether or not the place appears at my first estimation worthy.

Our first example is a now deceased Eastern red cedar, perched at the canyon rim on a sandstone ledge. This individual survived, and appears to have thrived, on its precarious anchorage for decades. Roots marginally “sunk” in the thin soil atop the rock, holding gamely on the face, able to access substrate only on the uphill side. All is not negative. The seedling cedar faced little competition for light. Its ledge position afforded a 20-30-foot vertical advantage over trees starting at ground level beneath the ledge. Ample moisture, enriched with nutrients percolating from the soil upslope nourished our pioneer cedar. I’m surmising, too, that when our cedar gained a foothold, the soil uphill supported a coarse and unimproved pasture that gradually succeeded to the forest now occupying the site. The cedar actually enjoyed a set of favorable circumstances. It likely produced seed for other cedar trees growing in the neighborhood of the now-dead sentinel. A good life for our subject cedar? What is a good life to a cedar? Adding a little new wood each year and producing seed sufficient to pass genes into the future will suffice, I believe. My sense is that this one met those criteria before entering the great cedar afterlife! Incidentally, that’s not a memorial bouquet attached about five feet up the bare bole. It’s last year’s seed-head from a native oak-leaf hydrangea leaning across it. How fitting and perfectly placed!

This beech (below left) holds tightly to sandstone detritus beneath a similar rim ledge. The cavity visible under its base suggests that the original seedling found anchorage on a decaying tree stump, sinking roots that reached around the stump into the soil among the rocks. The old stump fully decayed, leaving our beech elevated above where the stump once stood. Perhaps a chipmunk shelter alternative to scurrying among the ledge-rock fissures. Like the prairie crab apple, this beech seems to perch on stone, yet I am sure that its roots reach deeply into the debris of the long-crumbling sandstone ledge. Again, our moist temperate climate furnishes ample moisture during all seasons of most years. Note the abundant moss on exposed rock. Life is good in the canyon!

Like the now deceased cedar, the thriving white oak (below right) has a commanding rim-rock view, similarly perched at the edge. Once again, its roots reach into fissures and tap soil uphill, even as the shallow bedrock uphill channels moisture to the oak. See the thick moss on exposed rock. Life is good on the canyon rim!

So, we found forest trees finding a place throughout the canyon. For every tree oddly positioned, we found scores of woody shrubs similarly challenging our perception of a favorable place to grow and prosper.

Judy and I fell hopelessly in love with oak leaf hydrangea, one of those woody perennial shrubs, when we lived in Auburn, AL 1996-2001, when I served as Alabama Cooperative Extension Director, overseeing the operation across the state’s 67 counties. We established oak leaf hydrangea plantings in our Auburn landscape beds, and subsequently in Cary, NC, Urbana, OH, and West Chesterfield, NH. When at Auburn, I hiked the Bankhead National Forest Sipsey Wilderness, marveling at the dense understory stands of oak leaf. How nice to see it among the principal understory tenants at Cane Creek Canyon. Clearly a site opportunist, the species clings tenaciously to the sandstone faces and boulders, thriving wherever it finds purchase. As Jim Lacefield reminded me several times, this sandstone is porous, holding water like a sponge and making it available to plants. Note also the lichens and mosses that coat even the vertical exposed rock faces. Nature truly does abhor a vacuum.




Oak leaf hydrangea examples of finding a place met us at every turn. They also appeared on other than exposed rock — it’s just that the hangers-on beckoned my camera lens.

We did not limit our pondering and amazement to trees and shrubs. After all, we timed our visit with the Lacefields to hit the early peak of spring wildflowers. Although we did not anticipate finding vernal richness on exposed rock tops, faces, and fissures, we found such glories in abundance. I will say much more about the the 23 species of wildflowers we identified in a subsequent Great Blue Heron blog post. For now I offer one of my all time favorites, rue anemone, which grows ubiquitously from Alabama to southern Ontario. Here it is in its pure white splendor in two terrarium-like settings. First, peeking from a horizontal fissure on the lichen-covered face of a sandstone boulder. Below right it is flourishing on a moss draped rock lip of another boulder. Like so many of our spring ephemerals, rue anemone completes it annual life cycle in the forest understory before tree leaf-out and its associated deep shading.

Speaking of terrariums, the Canyon’s designated Boulder Gardens epitomize my finding a place theme. Nature exploits purchase where we observers may not expect it. Her lesson is quite simple. Life flourishes where it can; where the ingredients present opportunity. The barren sandstone boulder offered little initially beyond porous rock, oriented horizontally, in a humid temperate climate. Horizontal is crucial. Lichen and moss, the photos evidence, can grow on vertical surfaces. What horizontal assures is that organic litter from trees collects on the table-top. Dead and decaying moss and lichens accumulate, along with tree-origin litter and any other plant taking root atop the rock. Add mineral debris from the biological, chemical, and physical weathering of the rock surface. Horizontal keeps the products of all this action in-place. In aggregate, soil-forming processes eventually provide a medium for the rocky-top Boulder Gardens. How long did it take? I won’t hazard a guess. Yet I will simply ask, “What is time to a sandstone boulder?” In a very real sense, the plateau itself is little more than a soil-covered boulder top. Nature works magic… wonder and awe there for those who choose to discern it. The ingredients for a life well-lived are not in short supply.

The exposed ledge in the photo below, directly above the feeder stream, has little opportunity to build soil and support plant life beyond the moss carpeting it in green. Why little opportunity? Spring freshets and summer deluges even in this head-water drainage scour the rock of any organic or mineral material that accumulates between those run-off episodes.

Lessons from Nature — Universal Laws Apply

“Nature never breaks her own laws” (Leonard da Vinci some 500 years ago). I may not rise to the level of forensic naturalist (my term), yet I strive to understand the evidence she presents. My absolute favorite graduate course during my doctoral journey involved a kind of forensic sleuthing: Geomorphology, the study of the form of the Earth. Dr. Ernie Muller, a noted Syracuse University scientist (now deceased) who taught the course, viewed the form of the Earth more as poet and philosopher than cold, objective scientist. He employed passion to explain and inspire. He led us on field trips near Syracuse. We examined local relief and landform, and he asked us a simple question: “Why?” Each field visit required an essay describing what we had seen, and explaining “why.” What are/were the geology and geomorphic processes creating today’s expression of landscape form and function. He liked my essay on Green Lakes State Park enough to share it with the Park for use in interpretive literature.

Ernie lives on in what he inspired in me. I can only hope and pray that I have similarly touched others along my pathways since. I employ my Ernie Muller-enabled lens when I write these Great Blue Heron website posts. I do not intend for these to be scholarly mini-treatises, complete with citations and references. I write them, instead, to inspire appreciation and understanding of Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe… to encourage readers and fellow Nature enthusiasts to grasp Nature’s lessons for living, learning, serving, and leading. And to plant seeds for informed and responsible Earth stewardship. I see this particular essay as a catalyst for each of us to Find Our Place… in the web of our own life. A Place where, like Louis Bromfield in Pleasant Valley,  “The best we can hope to do is to leave the mark of our fleeting existence upon it, to die knowing that we have changed a small corner of this Earth for the better by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.”

Nature has infinite Places. The number of Places available for life, living, and thriving on just the 1.25 square miles at Cane Creek Canyon Preserve approaches incalculable… unknowable. What about in your life and enterprise. What can you learn from Nature? Are you advantaging the essential elements of Place where you have rooted or might yet root? Life flourishes where it can; where the ingredients present opportunity. Are you exploiting the opportunity afforded you… gifted to you?

May Nature inspire all that lies ahead for you.

Cane Creek Canyon Preserve

Beware the Ides of March — good advice perhaps for Caesar, but the warning did not apply to Judy and me. We drove 75 miles west to Cane Creek Canyon Preserve, arriving at Jim and Faye Lacefield’s Preserve entry home at 10:00 AM, right on schedule. Our day had dawned at 25 degrees, and already under brilliantly blue skies had climbed into the upper 40s. Two months earlier we had scheduled what proved to be a perfect weather day. Jim had hoped to catch the spring wildflower season at early peak. The day did not disappoint; we recorded 23 different species in flower!

Most of the road trip found us south of and parallel to the Tennessee River, the first 20-plus miles west of I-65 mostly industrial and agricultural flood plain and terrace. Relatively flat the full distance, we turned south about ten miles from the Preserve, immediately ascending 200-300 feet onto the plateau through which Cane Creek has carved its canyon at the Preserve. Here we stand at nearly 800 feet elevation, some 300 feet above the creek behind us to the north.

The Preserve encompasses some 800 acres, including most of what lies within view. Jim and Faye have acquired the acreage in several parcels over three decades. The Nature Conservancy now holds the property in permanent conservation easement. The Friends of Cane Creek Canyon Preserve assist Jim and Faye in their remarkable stewardship of this treasure. Eighteen miles of marked and maintained hiking trails. Great maps. Tree identification tags. The whole package made all the more impressive by Jim and Faye. We had not met them except by email, yet we left late afternoon feeling as though we had know them for years. Because the Preserve attracted many visitors that day, Faye departed our tour after an hour or so to attend to their many guests and the sign-in/registration booth at the trail head. Jim stayed with us some six hours. He drove us over many miles of trail courtesy of his brother Joe’s ATV. The two Lacefield ATVs were shop-bound for spring reconditioning.

Jim and Faye are retired school teachers. Enthusiastically fit, unabashedly passionate about Nature and the Preserve, and knowledgeable beyond compare. Having spent much time with him on-site, I describe Jim as a Nature Renaissance Man. He authored Lost Worlds in Alabama Rocks: A Guide to the State’s Ancient Life and Landscapes (Alabama Museum of Natural History, 2013).

Jim knows more than geology and geomorphology. His knowledge extends deeply across spring ephemerals, woody shrubs, and trees — common and Latin names all! He referred with similar familiarity to every butterfly we saw. Even with a PhD in forestry, I view Jim with absolute inspiration and humility. He and Faye are one with the land they know and love. I cannot do justice to the extent of my awe for Jim, Faye, and the Preserve in this single blog post. I will note that they epitomize Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. They are exemplars. I left that afternoon feeling great admiration for their selfless stewardship of 1.25 square miles.

Rather than attempt to capture the full Cane Creek Canyon tale in this single post, I will give you a broad overview, first impressions, and initial reflections today, based upon this inaugural tour. I’ll include some lessons from Nature that I draw from what I hope is the first of many visits. Within the next week or two, I’ll develop two additional posts. I’ll review and highlight some of the flowers we spotted and photographed in a post I’ll call Spring’s Richness. Then I’ll reflect upon how we saw so much magic in life’s miraculous ken for finding anchorage and sustenance in some unlikely places (boulder tops, rock faces, and elsewhere) in Finding a Place. I may go to a third sequel, exploring whether there are elements of the Cane Creek Canyon Legacy Story not yet told.

Not at all ironically, we found lots of cane along Cane Creek. Judy is holding onto one. In several places the cane grew in thickets, some exceeding ten feet vertical.


Cane Creek Canyon Overview, First Impressions, and Initial Reflections

I’m drafting these words Sunday, three days after our visit. Seeing the photographs accents the memories, yet does not do justice to actually being there. These tough sandstone outcrops send small streams and rivulets down-slope in steps and spills, adding excitement and beauty. I wanted to lean more into the photo (below left); uneasiness with heights dissuaded me. I suppose I could have gone horizontal and slithered to the edge, but I didn’t want to show our hosts the chicken side of my psyche — after all, I had met them just 60 minutes prior! This is the first of many spring falls we encountered. The Friends of Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Friends-of-Cane-Creek-Canyon-Nature-Preserve-126802417335447/) has lots of photos and videos that capture the real essence of the Preserve’s vibrant stream and waterfall environment. Judy, Faye, and Jim are standing in the second photo about where I snapped the first.









I’m sure you have observed that the view from atop a rise (this drop is 30-40 feet or so) always seems higher than standing at the bottom looking up. The applicable lesson from Nature? Perspective matters — where you stand (on any topic or issue) depends upon where you sit. There is no inherent danger in looking up at the ledge. I felt real and palpable risk in leaning forward to take the photo where the stream passed over the edge. Even as I so conclude, I’m reminded that the view from on top is generally superior. That lesson? Exertion yields return.

Once Faye had left us, I rode in the back of the ATV, snapping an occasional photo between jostles and bounces. This photo revealed what I did not see. I simply intended to capture the nice bench placed at a ledge overhang along the trail. Instead, the sun’s rays gave this image a sacred appearance, leading me to dub this as The Altar. The entire Preserve expressed an ethereal character. I felt the spiritual in multiple places that day. Too, I sensed in Jim and Faye a connection to the land of a sacred nature. They do obviously love the land and draw as much from it as they give to it. I’m reminded of Aldo Leopold’s remark about caring for the land, “We can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in.” I feel certain that Jim and Faye are guided by understanding and love for the Preserve, which is itself in whole an altar of sorts.


Life and beauty are where you seek it in early spring. Our humid temperate climate encourages moss, in this case along the upland brook not far below the falls in the earlier photo. As spring advances and multiple shades of green overwhelm the landscape, the moss will not draw our attention so well. In mid March, it speaks loudly and convincingly, commanding its audience. We will watch for its more subtle expressions as summer approaches.


The Boulder Garden, a tumbled collection of sandstone blocks broken from ledge-rock outcrops above, warranted close-up inspection. Each block is a table-top garden, lush with herbaceous and woody plants. We’ll look more closely in a subsequent blog post. Had even the Master Gardeners among us been assigned a bare 8 by 12 by 12 foot block of sandstone and instructed to create a rock-top garden, we would most assuredly have failed. Yet Nature has succeeded on her own. Jim describes this sandstone as a sponge, porous enough to hold moisture available to the individual plants perched there. No, this is not beauty on the Grand Canyon scale, yet it is, just the same, marvel-quality and worthy of appreciation, contemplation, and embrace.

University of the South biologist David George Haskell visited a square meter (his mandala) of old growth Tennessee upland forest floor nearly every day over the course of a calendar year, monitoring the ebb and flow of daily and seasonal life. From his journal, he authored The Forest Unseen. He asked, “Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water? I have tried to find an answer to this question, or the start of an answer.” I suggest that the Boulder Garden begs a similar question, “Can the whole of Cane Creek Canyon Preserve be seen through a small contemplative window of sandstone boulders carpeted with the lush growth of spring greenery and flowering splendor?” I suppose that the Boulder Garden provides an answer of sorts, but instead of providing the answer, I think it composes one chapter in a book of such contemplative windows.

The oak and rock union below is another chapter. Imagine the acorn cached by a squirrel just below the outcrop. The acorn sprouts. The seedling develops to sapling and extends vertically, finding ample room 8-10 inches from the rock’s reach. All is well until the oak’s girth pushes it into the sandstone. The tree has already found great anchorage, a moist and fertile soil medium, and a place of dominance in the sunlight-rich canopy above. What’s a healthy oak to do? Okay, oak trees have accommodated such interference in prior successful generations; its DNA is prepared. It is equipped genetically to form callous tissue to grow around the ledge (or any such interference), strengthen what would otherwise become a point of weakness, and continue to optimize its unfortunate position where tree meets immovable obstacle. Evolution instructs the tree to thrive at least long enough to produce progeny that can pass life along to a next generation. Isn’t that what oak tree life is all about? The poet Longfellow once remarked, “The purpose of that apple tree is to grow a little new wood each year.” So it is for the oak… and to assure that successor oaks carry its genetic signature forward.

Nature’s lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading? Adapt to the circumstances. Persevere. Recognize that not all of the life and enterprise cards dealt are kings and aces. Employ the tools given us by Nature and nurture. Make the most of it! As I have observed in other Great Blue Heron website posts, I firmly believe that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is compellingly inspired by Nature. Because I believe and I am willing to look, I can see the lessons. I assume they are there, and I find them. How many visitors note this unusual union without understanding what lessons it evidences?

Not far from there, also near the plateau top, this contorted chestnut oak likewise invites the camera shutter. What is its story? I can’t say for sure. I offer one scenario. Picture the pole-sized younger version standing mostly alone perhaps at the edge of a coarse pasture, where the slope steepens abruptly toward the camera. An ice storm heavily drapes it, permanently bending but not breaking the top and upper branches. Those branches continue to function, leafing out, and advantaging the sunlight still within reach. The now more or less horizontal crown branches thicken, support multiple vertical shoots, and perpetuate the now T-topped forest denizen. Meantime, the then-abandoned rough pasture converts to the mixed pine and hardwood forest that extends uphill from the contorted one, clearly a younger age class.


A major ice storm can leave an indelible signature. So can a sapsucker foraging for insects on a white oak trunk. Bird peck results. The small woodpeckers continue to work these horizontal lines year after year. I include this photo as just another chapter in the life of the forest, a living community rich with inter-dependencies and intricate beauty. I now offer a confession. I am referring to this tree as a white oak (I also lean toward sweetgum). However, I did not confirm identification in my notes, nor in my memory. I admit that I could be wrong!


Throughout the Preserve, I noted 2-4-inch diameter stumps within a foot of the forest floor. Faye had told me that Jim has been dutifully sculpting the forest by shaping the understory, removing individuals he thought should go. This wonderfully descriptive sign informs visitors of the purpose. Again, my compliments to Jim and Faye for so effectively telling the story and educating the visitors.

As I reflect on our wonderful visit to Cane Creek Canyon, I recall an apt Wendell Berry quote: “Outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread.” The miraculous features at Cane Creek Canyon are indeed not extraordinary, but are the common mode. Nature, in its many variants, is my daily bread. I am certain the same is true for Jim and Faye. I am grateful that Nature enthusiasts like the Lacefields have taken giant steps to make this small corner of the world better through wisdom, knowledge, and hard work. They are Earth Stewardship warriors.

Again, I am both humbled and inspired by the Preserve and its intrepid magicians who have dedicated their lives to its care and conservation. May they and the Preserve continue to delight and inform visitors in perpetuity!


Spring’s Richness and Finding a Place

Watch for at least two more posts from our Cane Creek Canyon Preserve visit. In Spring’s Richness we’ll address the nearly two dozen species of blooming plants that greeted us. Finding a Place will explore Nature’s way of furnishing anchorage and sustenance in the most unlikely of places… right there at Cane Creek Canyon.




Both essays will be rich with Nature’s lessons for living, learning, serving, an leading.

The Nature of Exploiting… Making the Best of the Hand We’re Dealt!

We’ve heard many times the old adage that we must play the hand we’re dealt. Because we’ve made 13 interstate moves over our married years, we’re often asked, “Which place did you like best?” We have a stock answer, one we earnestly believe and have little trouble answering: “We have always preferred the place where we happened to be.” Granted, each location is one we chose to accept and embrace as career progressed. Here’s a quick chronology with mileposts of our journey:

  • Cumberland, MD
  • Syracuse, NY
  • Franklin, VA (then Sedley, VA — an intrastate move)
  • Savannah, GA
  • Prattville, AL
  • Manlius, NY
  • State College, PA
  • Auburn, AL
  • Cary, NC
  • Fairbanks, AK (we maintained a condo in Wexford, PA near our son Matt and his family)
  • Urbana, OH
  • West Chesterfield, NH
  • Madison, AL
  • Fairmont, WV (six-month temporary)
  • Madison, AL (not counting as another because we never permanently left)

Again, we selected each location; we chose to bloom where we were planted. We considered ourselves place-committed. In contrast, we’ve met too many people who strike us as place-bound. Who lament the rain; the snow; the heat; the cold; the wind; the remoteness; the crowding; the shopping; you name it. I suppose that we are half-full people; our glass is never half-empty. I could look out over Big Blue Lake and see only the houses. Instead, I prefer focusing on the water, its diverse fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds:

I know that my own career-nomadic life in early 21st Century America is fortunate… blessed with choices. Few global citizens can choose. At least not so easily as we. February 10 and 11, we toured the Flint Hills in Kansas. A cut-metal hilltop sculpture welcomed us to Council Grove, depicting 19th Century settlers making a far more arduous relocation along the Santa Fe Trail:

And perhaps many of these same families had already crossed the Atlantic from their European homes. Prior nomads had likewise seasonally crossed these tallgrass prairies in search of sustenance, temporary quarters, and life energy:


A Non-Mobile Opportunist

Now, imagine that some small ground-burrowing mammal had enjoyed the bitter fruit of a prairie crab apple, and scarified the hard seed coat through its digestive system. Then standing alert on a limestone outcrop, the ground squirrel deposited the seed and its fecal accompaniment serendipitously at a fissure atop the ledge. The seed might have managed much better in a more fertile setting, yet the small crack provided protection from crows that may have pounced had it been exposed. The seed germinated, having been dealt what I gauged (upon my initial assessment) to be a pretty lousy hand. Yet, Nature has been dealing poor hands to many generations of prairie crab apples. A seed lucky enough to secure purchase on deep and fertile soil in the open would simply not have survived the first fire (a prairie certainty) to sweep across the prairie. Far better to root on the rock:

A bird couldn’t reach the seed; fires burned less intensely across the spartan ledge-rock prairie vegetation. I’m guessing (yes, I admit it’s a wild guess) this specimen has seen a century or more of tallgrass seasons. It’s made the most of what I call at least a questionable hand, if not outright lousy. This tree couldn’t relocate, but it did manage the next best thing. It sent out a scouting party — roots that dipped into the crevasse, and reached deeper soil.

Root exploitation and now brute force (widening the fissure) serve the tree beautifully! The fibrous, moisture- and nutrient-gathering fine roots reach into moist and reasonably fertile soil beneath and below the rock. The best of all worlds, I suppose.


A quick geology side-trip. An interpretive sign diagrams the pancake strata of limestone, chert/flint, and shale that underlie and shape these Flint Hills. Limestone strata are the most resistant. Hence limestone ledges run their contour where they intersect the side slopes (see the cross section upper right).

Other crab apples make a living along the outcrop ledge, but none thrive like this individual. As I write these words, I’m shifting my assessment. No lousy hand for this crab. This perspective just struck me with yet another trump card dealt this fateful seed. As I’ve already noted:

  • Seed dropped with a dose of natural fertilizer
  • Into a fissure sufficient to protect it from avian marauders
  • With enough substrate to germinate
  • And send roots down to underlying soil
  • Elevated above the reach of periodic grass fires

Add a new one — out of easy reach of whitetail deer. We saw nine the Sunday morning we hiked the Konza Prairie Trail, just eight miles from Manhattan, KS, home of Kansas State University. This view west along the ledge shows both the density of woody vegetation and the superior, deer-resistant position of our hero.

Had the small mammal deposited our crab apple seed here (the open prairie photo below), multiple natural forces would have doomed it. Such is one reason why crab apples produce far more than the one seed it takes to grow one new offspring. Even if the seed on this upland prairie had germinated, it would not have reached an age/size to flower and bear fruit. Counter to my lousy-hand original assessment, our heroine may continue bearing fruit for decades to come. She (crab apples bear perfect flowers — male and female on every tree) has all that a prairie crab apple might wish to have. Although her height is suppressed by the rather harsh exposure, the tree does not need to reach far for full sunlight. Nothing nearby is competing for the solar gift. And another favorable attribute — this stretch of ledge faces south, well below the concordant prairie hill summit elevation, a lee position sheltered from howling northerly and westerly winds. What more than a long life, a great view, firm anchorage, ample nutrition and moisture, and protection from adversity could any of us hope to secure?!

So, what is Nature’s lesson. First, as in life and enterprise, what seems apparent upon first glance isn’t necessarily so. Even as a student of applied ecology, I leaped to seeing this rock-bound crab apple as having been given a raw deal. But not so fast — he’s living the good life! I began this blog post in my head even as we stood by this rock-top sentry, thinking it a lesson for persevering under adversity. Yet here in the comfort of my office, examining the photos, and reflecting on this individual, I have switched gears.

I see two levels of beauty, magic, wonder, and awe in this resolute prairie crab apple. The first dimension is purely aesthetic — a full-crowned tree/shrub standing astride a rock. The second level is hidden within the secret of its success. Think about the remarkable alignment of favorable site factors that enable this tree to stand as a symbol for the exquisite opportunism hard-wired in Nature.

Do you know what remarkable potential lies hidden within you and your enterprise? Do you focus on what at first glance seems a lousy hand? Or do you consider what might be… and strive to secure firm footing, satisfaction, and a long, productive, and vibrant life? Are you choosing to bloom where you’re planted? Nature is an opportunist — are you?

I even choose my attitude — life is too fleeting, fragile, and short not to choose upbeat! Although I certainly have always taken what I do seriously, I refuse to take myself with other than a sense of joy and lightness. As we approached trail’s end, we passed the shell of a long-dead snag. We chose to be framed on the Konza Prairie Trail!

Life is GOOD!