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!

Sowing Seeds for Tomorrow

I left Allegany Community College (ACC) May 1971 with an associate’s degree in forestry, transferring to the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry to earn my bachelor’s. Dr. Glenn O. Workman (Doc) mentored and inspired me through ACC. Judy and I established an endowed scholarship in Doc’s name three years ago at what is now Allegany College of Maryland (ACM). October 26, I delivered a late afternoon lecture at ACM, focusing on Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading, and relating experiences from my two books. Doc introduced me to the attendees that evening. At nearly 90-years, Doc continues to inspire and lift me. I dedicated my second book to Doc, as well as to three other mentors who indelibly shaped my early career.

Doc taught systematic botany my first spring semester. I loved the field trips we took after winter began lessening its Central Appalachian grip. We would rush from habitat to habitat, striking across elevation transects, from wet to dry, and aspect to aspect, always seeking to increase our count of flowering spring ephemerals. Early tallies included skunk cabbage, colt’s foot, spring beauty, dandelion, and chickweed. We covered lots of road miles and rough terrain. He sowed the seeds for the spring botanizing I’ve continued these past 46 years since leaving ACC.

I look back on those early spring days (of my life as well as the season of year) and discover with reflection that Doc alerted me to two of the critical verbs that shape so much of what I do, write, and instruct today. I learned on those excursions how to Look. Not just look on the ground for the early bloomers, but to read the landscape, and anticipate what I might discover blooming in accord with site conditions. Seeing is much easier with informed Looking. I knew to seek skunk cabbage in vernal pools and near spring seeps. I knew to scan gravely roadsides for colt’s foot. Columbine on sheltered road cuts. Bird’s foot violet on this south- and west-facing exposed slope.

Astute and informed Looking leads to and enables Seeing. And on those action-packed field excursions, I learned to Feel excitement and passion for counting natural coup. For learning more and more and more about Nature… its patterns and processes. I encountered wonder and awe for these magical, wonderful early bloomers that run nearly their entire life cycle during the few weeks when sunlight reaches the forest floor before the trees leaf-out, and shade the understory, like this oxalis on a spring hillside above Paw Paw Tunnel.

Judy and I have enjoyed our spring-wildflower jaunts for the entire 45 years we’ve been married. We’ve tallied 30-45-count days.

The joy of Looking, Seeing, and Feeling the thrill of Nature discovery has actually spurred us to Act, the fourth of my verbs. Acting in this case is simply being spurred to do it again each year. Nature has a way of doing that. Inspiring me to again and again venture forth, if only to catch a sunrise, enjoy a sunset, or catch a first-bloomer. My Dad first introduced me to the joys of Nature immersion, yet he did so without the doctoral level, scholarly depth that Doc brought to light. Dad inspired my fundamental love, joy, and marvel of Nature. Doc began to inject a more intellectual, knowledge-based appreciation and understanding. Dad clearly planted the seed that enabled me to absorb the power of Nature’s science and scholarship. Both are necessary ingredients for the four-and-half-decades since that I have cultivated, honed, and tended the Nature passion that envelops me now.

One of my Great Blue Heron services involves contracting with forestland owners to develop their Forestland Legacy Story, the tale of Nature and Human Nature that captures the essence of the property for their heirs. Every single parcel of land has its own story – past, present, and future. I realize now that it was Doc who showed me how to Look, See, and Feel the land simply by walking, observing, and deducing. The language of the land is there to discover, interpret, and relate.

I am grateful that along the way mentors have molded me, and inspired me to tap Nature’s wisdom and harness her power. I am thankful that this FSU interim presidency has brought me to within 90-minutes’ drive of Cumberland, ACM, and Doc. Without this six-month gig, I may not have realized that those four-and-half-decades-ago systematic botany field labs began my career-long journey of Looking, Seeing, Feeling, and Acting. Not until I sat at the keyboard to draft this essay post did I attribute my four-verb lesson to those field trips. I’m intrigued by how deep-thinking today can reveal the truth and acuity of lessons previously learned. That Look, See, Feel, Act lesson sunk roots in my subconscious, lay fallow, and left its mark silently and invisibly. I began adding substance and words to the concept only when I began writing Nature Based Leadership, my first book.

Once again, I thank Dad and Doc for sowing the seeds that guided my way. I close all of my emails with the words of Robert Louis Stevenson: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” I hope and pray that my writing, speaking, serving, and leading sow seeds for a brighter future. May your planting be as fruitful.

Life Happens

Life happens, and time marches forward. As I draft this essay, September 9, 2017, I’m reminded of sweeping forces that impact millions of people, and local incidents that change individuals indelibly. Implications surfaced as I visited a nearby 96-acre Tree Farm (established 2004) and spent four fulfilling hours getting to know the owners, chatting in the post-and-beam home they built, and hiking the property.

                                                        The Broader Context

First the broader context. This morning before departing, during my 30-minute drives to and from the Tree Farm, and then upon returning home, I listened raptly to the news portending the catastrophic impact of an Atlantic-spawned monster named Irma. Eighteen million Americans under a hurricane warning; more than five million within mandatory evacuation zones. Northern outer bands this evening pounding Miami, each band laced with spin-up tornadoes. The Weather Channel meteorologists leaning into the gales of torrential rains, microphone in one hand, clinging to a side-rail with the other, shouting above the wind. And the gusts are still under hurricane force. The beast’s eye-wall winds will eclipse these outer band squalls by nearly 50-60 additional mph – sustained! Nature’s power and fury – humbling and inspiring. Dreadful in its path, yet affording magnificent satellite views of spiraled glory from near-Earth orbit. Some lives will end. Millions of lives will bend… some will break.

We have a good friend who owns a winter home near his son and family in Clearwater, FL. Ron texted an hour ago; his son, accompanied by his wife and kids, escaped to their friends’ place in Louisiana. Ron believes that on the projected track, Irma may erase his and their son’s material residences and business just a block from the Gulf. Life happens… on scales both unfathomable and individual. Who knows what sunrise tomorrow and the day after will reveal. Nothing we can do will alter Irma’s chosen path.

                                                                 Tree Farm Family

Now back to the individual. I met the Tree Farm couple for the first time today. Lovely pair with Boy Scout sons. Mom sewed a cloth patch onto a Scout shirt as we talked. Her right hand seemed a bit unsteady. She pricked her finger once, painful enough for me to notice her wince. She explained that several years ago while walking with a cousin, a drunk driver plowed into them. The cousin seriously injured (now fully recovered); Mom suffered severe head trauma and lay five weeks in an induced coma, then invested countless hours in rehab to literally start over again. She now seems quite lucid to me; I saw no facial or otherwise evident scars; she joined us for half of our Tree Farm hike, engaging pleasantly and actively. She expressed that her scars are emotional, persistent, and life-altering. The drunk driver was her Irma. Life happens. Mom understands the consequences, and knows that while her accident certainly rises to the level of serious and life-changing, there are worse things that could happen. We agreed that far too many people believe they have problems… problems that are, in actuality, merely nuisances and annoyances.

                                                Physical and Biological Elements

I drew some observations from my two-hours-plus on the Tree Farm. The ninety-six acres are ruggedly typical of North-Central West Virginia. The creek below their home crosses under the driveway through a three-or-four-foot culvert. During heavy rains, water will rise up and over the drive to a depth sufficient to occasionally imprison them on their homestead. Imprison is temporary and translates to staying home from work or school. From White Day Road and Cherry Run, the land rises more than 300 feet to the 1,800’ hilltops. We covered the property thoroughly via seeded and stabilized haul roads and rehabilitated skid trails.

Extensive, even-then-unimproved, pasture, abandoned perhaps 30 years ago, has long since yielded to apple, hawthorn, blackberry, poplar, black cherry, sycamore, grapevine, sugar maple, oak, and others – a duke’s mixture of early- and mid-succession shrubs and trees.

We saw foundation remains of prior domiciles, some of the stones borrowed and used within the new residence designed and constructed by the Tree Farmers. Some of the land use story within this essay I infer from my own observations, informed and enriched by the landowners’ experience and sleuthing.

Numerous old fence rows segment the property, for example partitioning what was then the pasture from the old home and gardens, and from the adjoining forest, most likely a source for fuel wood, fence posts, bean poles, and occasional beams and timbers. Through the early Twentieth Century, the inhabitants were subsistence farmers. The current owners draw primary subsistence via an in-town-derived paycheck. Mom and Dad are educated with advanced college degrees. And, throw in some garden produce, wild mushrooms, chickens and eggs, and some venison.

We walked along a Cherry Run feeder, a sheltered, mostly perennial channel bordered by large oak, poplar, maple, cherry, and occasional sycamore, all enjoying and profiting from the deep colluvium blessing the lower slopes. A deeply rich spot along the feeder run furnished a location for one of the boys to build his forest retreat adjacent to sadly half-dead white oak some four feet in diameter.

Too steep for pasture, the side slopes have probably supported forest cover since pre-European settlement. Clear-cut most certainly, yet not maintained as tree-free.

Predictably, higher quality, large diameter, and much taller poplar, cherry, red and white oak, shag-bark hickory, and maple grace the concave, north- and east-facing lower slopes. Ferns enliven the ground cover. Facing south and west, convex upper slopes support a far different cover – chestnut oak, beech, mockernut hickory, sassafras, and a barren understory absent fern.

The Tree Farmer had performed a TSI (timber stand improvement) treatment 5-8 years ago, prescribed by his State Service Forester. The sales revenue recovered roughly half his 2004 purchase expenditure for the entire property, yet still the forest looks vibrant and fully-stocked. He plans another harvest in 2025, to coincide with the boys entering college. By then, openings created by the first TSI will have closed, creating an opportunity to conduct another commercial TSI. Planned TSI anticipates and directs stand response, generates revenue, and aims ultimately toward regeneration and a new beginning. Revenue alone does not determine the treatments. The Tree Farmer also is meeting his objectives for wildlife, aesthetics, recreation, and even public education.

We discussed the reality that some parts of his land are far more productive than others. Like a beef cattle, only a relatively small portion of the carcass will yield filet mignon. The loin strip of this property is limited to the lower, concave, east- and north-facing slopes. Forget about timber value on the upper, convex south- and west-facing hillsides. Commercial timber production value manifests in a range from the loin through those spartan upper slopes. Wildlife and aesthetic values do not vary directly with timber management factors. To paraphrase ancient wisdom, “to every thing there is a season… and purpose to every place on the land.” I see magic, wonder, beauty, and awe in every layer of Nature’s onion. The large and colorful box turtle we encountered crossing the trail did not appear to notice or mind the chestnut oak and beech stand evidencing poor timber potential.

                                                                 Human Elements

My sociological and psychological observations are my own, not confirmed by the owners – perhaps I’ll save that discussion with them for another visit. Every forest has a story. As does every life, business, and organization. Many enterprise and life stories are embedded deep in the paragraphs, pages, and chapters composing the tale. The forest tells its story right there on the cover, in plain sight… but only for those who speak the language and can interpret the images and evidence. The human element enriches the Tree Farm tale exponentially.

The prior residents, reaching back well over a century-and-a-half, shaped and molded the forest that now prevails. The shifting land use patterns imposed by the generations of owners still write their indelible signature across those 96 acres. The several-acre reclaimed strip mine also tells a tale of disturbance and recovery, and provides a grassed opening, a type of wildlife cover not otherwise available.

This Tree Farm is also home – not an absentee holding for city folks seeking weekend escape.

The owners feel blessed to reside on their slice of heaven-on-Earth. In this Forestland Legacy Story, the meanings and merits are especially significant. In their case, land ownership and forest stewardship are therapeutic. Mom feels the elixir as salve for her near-fatal encounter, and lasting emotional trauma – PTSD treated by love for and connection to the land and to Nature. Dad likewise saw his life change with Mom’s accident and its lasting implications. Life has redirected them both, perhaps calmed and tamed them beyond words. The land is now a major focus for them and the boys.

Their dream for the land also compels and propels them. They see a center for education and experience. Trails for hiking and mountain biking. A window to know and experience Nature’s soothing and renewing powers. I encouraged them to learn more about their land, its forests, and the Nature that comprises all facets of their property. As Dad and I trekked deeper into the forest and ascended the trail above 1,800 feet elevation, we paused for a photo of the landowner back-dropped by a stand of cove hardwoods. The human signature is written clearly in the forest; the forest’s signature is indelibly expressed on the owner’s face.

The effect is one integrated, interrelated relationship between Nature and Human Nature. Great Blue Heron, LLC aspires to reconnect all of us to the magic, the wonder, the awe, and the beauty of Nature. We are truly a species that is one with Nature, not separate from it.

Given the life-altering consequence of the horrendous drunk-driver incident, Dad spoke to me of the intentional irony of the Tree Farm’s name: Wolfhaven Tree Farm. Acronym WTF! How else to express the needless suffering and life-trajectory inflection imposed by a selfless act of indulgence, ignorance, and stupidity by some nameless stranger more than a decade ago.

We cannot understand nor explain all that our lives deliver to us, whether a drunken driver or the worst Atlantic Basin hurricane ever experienced. An explanation, no matter how clear or illuminating, would not reduce the pain, save lives, or rebuild families and property. Perhaps all we can do is re-direct our living, learning, serving, and leading in recognition of our relative insignificance to the power, might, and fury of Nature, and accept that life is fleeting and fragile – each and every moment a gift. A gift that carries obligations to our families, and to others who will follow us. Life comes with no guarantees, no assurances that we will see tomorrow’s sun rise. All we can do is accept our humility, know our obligation to serve, appreciate our Earth stewardship responsibility, love those dear to us, and embrace our charge to inspire and educate the next generation and beyond.

Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading – nothing is more important.


Featured Image: A cove hardwood stand on a concave lower slope — blessed with deep, moist, and fertile soil.

Pirtle Forestry Services

John Pirtle served as my Special Projects Forester 1981-84, when I was Land Manager for Union Camp Corporation’s (UCC) Alabama operations. The Company owned (and managed) 500 square miles of forestland across 32 Alabama counties in Central and South-Central Alabama. Thirty-three years after leaving UCC for my doctoral studies, and serving since then at eight universities, three as CEO, I visited May 18 with John back in Prattville, AL (200 miles south of here), where Judy and I lived during my UCC Alabama tenure.

What a joy to see John again — certainly, neither of us had changed! Well, maybe a little gray here and there; a few added and redistributed pounds; a little slower moving; a new ache or two. Most importantly, we reconnected as though we had shared coffee just the week before. The beauty of a good friendship in the face of a third-of-a-century absence.

We visited a logging operation on a property John manages. A quarter century ago, the landowner had harvested and replanted to loblolly pine. The current composition is mixed pine and assorted hardwoods; the planted pine had not entirely captured the site. Pine mortality is now common across the stand, hence leading John to recommend this harvest and subsequent regeneration, before the stand loses additional value. Please keep in mind that a twenty-five-year rotation (the time between planting and harvest) in this climate on these soils is not unusual. John considers this a “mature” stand. He will prescribe (yes, just like a doctor) establishing post-harvest a species mix that he believes will be better suited to this site. I want to revisit and watch his plans unfold.

Interestingly, that morning John reported a little friction with the landowner (I’ll refer to him as Mr. Smith), who fussed at John. The logging crew had just returned to resume harvesting, three months beyond John pulling them when heavy February rains fell. John saw then that continuing the logging would have ruined the access road and harmed the site’s sensitive soils. John knows that the soil is the engine that drives site productivity. Degrade the site by logging when too wet, and the future is diminished. What disturbed Mr. Smith? That morning when he visited the resumed operation, Mr. Smith saw that when John reassigned the crew in February, they had left three truckloads of saw-logs on the deck. After three months, the logs no longer met the fresh-cut quality that sawmills demand, thus relegating the loads to selling as pulpwood… a 70-percent reduction in revenue.

John mollified Mr. Smith by explaining that bringing out the three loads then would have severely damaged the haul road, and could have destroyed the dam berm over which the road exited. John’s February decision had likely saved Mr. Smith road and pond damage many times the value lost in delaying extraction. A forest enterprise, like every business, necessitates decisions that involve trade-offs. No business is as purely Nature-based as forestry and logging, yet the operator of every business and enterprise can glean wisdom from Nature. Mr. Smith wisely retained John, who has monitored, learned, and applied Nature’s wisdom and inspiration for four decades. John harnesses that wisdom and knowledge in service to meeting Mr. Smith’s management objectives, both short-term and long.

Forestland Legacy Stories

John and I hatched plans for me to spend additional time with him. I would have loved walking the property with John and Mr. Smith, seeing, hearing, and discerning more about the land and Mr. Smith’s passion and drive for forest stewardship. I am sure this property has a Story to tell — a Forestland Legacy Story with its own lessons from which we all might learn. I just revisited my March 15 and 23, 2017 Great Blue Heron essays reflecting on my less-than-full-day-visits to Westervelt and Rock City, from which I drew related Forestland Legacy Stories.

The quick visit to Mr. Smith’s land sparked an idea, and is leading me to develop and offer a new Great Blue Heron product. Alabama alone has 23 million acres of forestland; well over half of that acreage is owned by individuals like Mr. Smith. Individuals with a deep and lasting passion for the land. Owners whose tenure reaches back, in some cases, multiple generations, as well as new owners whose stewardship will extend forward to children, grandchildren, and beyond.

Mr. Smith has a detailed forest management plan, prepared by John. That forest management plan is a necessary part of the Story, yet it is just one component. The entire Story reaches far beyond the technical forestry and wildlife management implications. The complete Story involves key elements that reach back, not just extend into the future. The Story reflects far more than management objectives, harvesting plans, boundary lines, prescribed burning, and planting. The Story entails interpreting the land through the lenses of mind, body, heart, spirit, and soul. These Stories are worth telling. Forestland Legacy Stories — a gift to those generations who will steward the land into the future.

[A note as I hit “Publish” for this blog five days after visiting the site: I just heard on The Weather Channel that the broad Montgomery area has recorded over eight inches of rain since we visited Mr. Smith’s property! So much for the best laid plans. I am sure John entered full scramble mode to adjust operations. Experience, I have heard and learned, is that thing you get right after you needed it — John has dealt with such weather vagaries often, leaving Mr. Smith’s property in able hands.]

Featured Image Notation: John and I standing at the active logging deck on Mr. Smith’s property.


See Rock City — Some Natural Reactions: A Forestland Legacy Story

Daughter Katy, her two boys (Jack, 9 and Sam, 3), Judy, and I headed over to Rock City near Chattanooga about dawn March 17. Sure, I had seen the promotional barns, bird houses, and bumper stickers most of my life: See Rock City! This was my first visit. Katy and Jack had been a few years back and enjoyed it. Based upon my image of what the tourist “attraction” portended, I could not understand why she believed I would love the place.

Granted, I was expecting another glitter-gulch kind of experience. That’s how Fairbanks, AK residents refer to the commercial strip along the Nenana River near the entrance to Denali National Park. Business after business ready to lighten the cash load of tourists from all over the world who stop by the Park on their whirlwind summer tour of The Last Frontier. I always strived to quickly penetrate the commercial rind and enter the actual Park, an exquisite natural wonder of the world, everything that glitter gulch is not.

Rock City? I visualized faux gem stones in souvenir bags, nick-knack shops at every bend and juncture. Hawkers, pennants, balloons, junk food, garish signs, and disturbing music.

We climbed (well, our car did) the sinuous paved road, gaining 1,000 feet vertical above the valley floor, my queasy passengers’ protests notwithstanding. A Friday just a few days from the vernal equinox, our ten o’clock arrival found only a few cars in the lot. A parking area sheltered mostly by mixed southern Appalachian hardwoods. Nothing disturbing or garish!

A Starbucks outside the turnstile; a gift shop nearby. Stone walls and garden vegetation softening every aspect of the entrance, from the ticket booth to the entry gates. Employees smiling and friendly. Where are the hawkers, obnoxious music, and demanding vendors? And what’s with the soft mood music flowing from invisible speakers?

I found pleasant, unexpected surprises around every corner. No trash; well-maintained plantings. Trees and shrubs placard-identified with common and Latin names. Seamless melding of natural rock features and man-placed walls, paths, and themed statuary. Meticulous care to manage the landscape in a manner stressing and emphasizing natural. I marveled at how densely trails, passageways, tunnels, and other features transited the mountain top, yet did so in a way that masked the use-density. I recall a Dolly Parton quote about herself, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap!” My own corollary at Rock City is that, “It requires tremendous effort to make a dense-use attraction look so natural.”

As we paused near the seven-states-overlook, a gentleman about my age, dressed in a St. Patty’s Day green sweater and flat cap, commented on my Nature Conservancy baseball hat, asking whether I am a TNC member. We struck up a conversation, leading to me to conclude and ask, “Are you the Rocky City owner?” Bill Chapin is indeed the proprietor and has been since 1985. I complimented Bill on his obvious commitment to earth stewardship and fidelity to the natural environment. We ended up exchanging books: a copy of my Nature Based Leadership for See Rock City, The History of Rock City Gardens. His father’s uncle first developed Rock City in 1932. What a fortuitous encounter to meet Bill and enjoy a brief conversation!

I had not even visited Rock City on the internet prior to our trip, much less read any history. I went to the web site today, after reading the book, and grew more and more fascinated with the attraction’s 85-year history. One of the web site buttons is, “Rock City Gardens: Doing our part to find our world’s Green Way Forward:

  • We educate people on the importance of our natural and historic environment. Through internal training, our partners understand the importance of sustainability at work and at home. Externally, we attempt to educate our guests on what Rock City does to protect our world and how guests can help.
  • At the core of our Green Way Forward effort lies the commitment to developing a way of business, a set of Best Practices, that creates a culture of health and vibrancy relative to all things, particularly the environment in which we work and live.
  • Of course, we don’t know it all, and we’re not perfect. So, if you have an idea that will help Rock City find its Green Way Forward, we’d love to hear from you.”

I suggested to Bill in our too-brief conversation that someone needs to tell Rock City’s environmental stewardship story. Now I see from the third bullet that the door is wide open for me to suggest that a Green Way Forward will mean far more within a context chronicling the Green Way from 1932 to the present. These few thoughts and reflections I offer today are just a hint of the Rock City earth stewardship tale to date, and of what lies ahead for the Green Forward Way.

I have relished other positive nature-inspired stewardship surprises along life’s journey. Yet too frequently it’s disappointments that present themselves. Unfortunate surprises that feature ignorance, mismanagement, apathy, and blindness respecting our natural world. What an absolute joy to visit Rock City with low expectations and discover an earth stewardship exemplar. Hours traversing one of nature’s gifts, responsibly stewarded by Bill and his forebears, rewarded our drive and opened my eyes to the imperative to always seek virtue, promise, and hope. I am consoled when I see true stewards embrace and practice a land ethic, adopt the tenets of conservation, and bear the standard of showing the way.

I will share this essay with Bill, and suggest that perhaps Great Blue Heron can help tell the Rock City conservation story, enriching the Rock City experience for all and memorializing the tale for posterity.

The result would be Rock City’s Forestland Legacy Story

Westervelt Explorations and Reflections: A Forestland Legacy Story

March 7, 2017

Along Alabama State Route 69, from Jasper south to near Northport, forests dominate the landscape. We navigated rolling hills, long-abandoned, worn out and eroded, former agricultural land. Frequent vistas afford great views of the mixed pine/hardwood forests across local relief of a couple hundred feet vertical. Some of the timberlands appear intensively managed, ranging from recent harvests already site-prepared and planted, to 20-plus-year-old loblolly plantations. Within 15 miles of Northport we encountered stands heavy to Virginia pine, a species I misidentified from my windshield cruise that late evening as a very dwarf-needled shortleaf pine. My Westervelt hosts the next morning set me straight; I had remembered Virginia pine’s range ending further north. My junior-year dendrology textbook just confirmed a species range map extending Virginia pine into this part of Alabama. Forgive me, I took the course 46 years ago, and I was driving at dusk!

An Incredible Day in the Field

My Westervelt hosts picked me up during morning rains from my hotel. The four of us drove to the nursery and seed orchard, where we met with four additional professionals. We viewed recently collected pollen, carefully sorted and cataloged by source tree, drying in climate controlled chambers. We opened coolers storing likewise catalogued seed bags, destined within the next few weeks for sowing this coming season’s crop of some seven million containerized seedlings. The center-pivot fertigation system walks around the ready-for-action seedling production tables nearby. April through November, these nearly three acres of elevated production tables will buzz. This, my hosts assured me, is state-of-the-art containerized nursery production.

Within a few hundred yards, many orchard trees were in full elegance, some decorated with hundreds of flower bags, each bag covering at least three female flowers, isolating them from the ambient pollen cloud. At the moment of maximum receptivity, technicians will pneumatically inject collected pollen from a single source tree (for a controlled cross and then research field testing) or a blend from multiple selections (for operational seed production). Flowers pollinated this spring will provide the seed for container-sowing next March.

Adjacent to the seed orchard we examined a six-year-old NC State University Tree Improvement Cooperative loblolly pine out-planting of some 100 individual crosses (randomized block design) from across the southeast. Already we could see tremendous variation in height, form, and diameter among the trees. Yield in this fourth-generation improvement lot will be more than double the original non-improved wild collections.

All this science is fine, yet that is what I expected. I knew from a prior visit 4-6 years ago, that the technology was advancing rapidly, and that this company would stay abreast, and operate at the industry’s cutting edge. I knew that containerized production would now be operational. I saw a young, then pre-production 2005 orchard that I correctly anticipated would now be producing seed. I recalled from that earlier visit that Westervelt hired and retained only the best. That reality today was even more striking! Technologically and scientifically sound beyond expectation. Yet what impressed me most is that each person exhibited palpably a commitment and drive that are passion-fueled, purpose-driven, and results-oriented.

To a person, they embraced my own view of their trade as a calling. The Westervelt Way epitomizes my own staunch belief that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by nature. They recognize and embrace the notion that Westervelt forestry and natural resources management are as much art as science. Their eyes are wide open; little escapes them. These are my kind of people — this is my kind of company! Westervelt’s natural resources professionals actually LOOK – they are not blinded by externalities and distractions. They SEE the entire literal and metaphorical ecosystem within which they operate. They see deeply enough to FEEL the passion and purpose, leading them and the Westervelt Company to ACT. What impressive camaraderie and commitment to shared goals and cause. I applaud the approach and philosophy – The Westervelt Way!

We also visited a plantation about to enter its fourth growing season – herbicide treated, burned, planted to a single loblolly family. With banded herbaceous application, post-planting, this stand was about to fully capture the site. I wanted to sit quietly and watch it burst into full-growth mode. The field forester told the site’s story with verbal agility and deep zeal. These folks CARE! A bit further down the same county road, we stopped briefly at a 13-year-old loblolly stand thinned recently by removing every third row and reducing stem count within the remaining two rows. The crew removed roughly half the basal area. I was ready to employ my sense of hearing – I observed that by early June we would hear them growing in response to their new-found release to capitalize on site resources. The hearing part – only a bit of a stretch!

I’ll note that forestry is all about amending and channeling site productive capacity to the crops and amenities we wish to favor. The Westervelt Way in that respect is a joy to behold.

Reaching Beyond the Tale of Westervelt’s First Century

After a quick stop at another regeneration site, this one about to enter growing season number two, we headed back toward Tuscaloosa, spirits remaining sky high. I wanted to bottle the sense of pride and commitment – for the land, for the 133-year-old company, and for The Westervelt Way, a palpable corporate conservation philosophy that infects the entire team. I wanted to plead that my hosts invite me back every quarter – at a minimum. I wanted to immediately begin learning, and then preserving the Story that is Westervelt today, to take the tale 33 years forward from the first-century book that Chairman Jack Warner published in 1984.

In his 1984 Preface to Progress, Mr. Warner wrote of those imploring him to record the Gulf States Paper story “as a record of a bygone era. Often they would add that if I did not do so quickly, the story might never be told.” He observed that the archives, “the bare bones of the salient facts were there, but the underlying rationales were missing, as were the spirit, the life, the essence of what-made-it-all-tick. There was no color, no personality.” He closed the Preface with, “it is a very remarkable story, indeed – one that needed to be told as a record of a fast disappearing era.”

Mr. Warner recently passed away, just shy of his 100th birthday, having lived, learned, served, and led across his own century. The Company has now marked a third of its second century, some 33 years since Progress. Mr. Warner’s Foreword offered deep wisdom, “Progress is especially poignant to us today because of our nation’s present awareness of ecology and industry’s acknowledged awareness of social responsibility. Today, conservation – the wise use of our natural resources – is as fully important as wise preservation – the safekeeping of our nation’s important records and symbols of goals and accomplishments. Both the goals and accomplishments are evidence of the moral and spiritual attitudes and values that were the cornerstones of America’s greatness.”

Just 33 years since Progress appeared, our global population has grown from 4.8 to 7.5 billion, a fifty percent increase. The conservation and social responsibility imperatives are expanding nearly exponentially. Perhaps there is no better time than now to chronicle and update the continuing “record of a fast disappearing era.” It is noteworthy that we stand at this one-third-century mark, a natural milepost. In no small part, the timing is poignant — to acknowledge, memorialize, and celebrate Mr. Warner and the family’s fidelity to a land and social ethic. The ethic remains deeply embedded and transcends the passage of time from post-Civil War into the 21st Century. The advance rate of natural resource stewardship art and science, like global population growth, is accelerating exponentially.

Mr. Warner emphasized the Company’s leadership and employees as he wrapped up the Foreword, “Our people have always worked together, it’s a great team effort. It always has been, and still is, a family of people exemplifying the ideals that made America great.” The team hosting me may not have carried the Westervelt or Warner surnames, yet in every respect, they are family. They exemplify the attitude, ethic, and spirit that have kept Gulf States and now Westervelt at the cutting edge of conservation and social responsibility.

I left Union Camp Corporation, a then sister forest products manufacturing company to Gulf States, in 1984, tracking me into higher education for that same one-third century since then. Before my redirection, I was Alabama Land Manager, responsible for 320,000 acres of fee-owned forestland, mostly south of Gulf States’ Alabama land base. As I reflect on the practices we employed and the technology we applied then, I can see that the art and science of forestry have evolved rapidly, yes exponentially. Today’s Westervelt team employs computers at every level, as well as LIDAR and drones, and even applies sonic diagnostic tools to assess wood quality of standing trees. The list of advances extends well beyond those.

The myriad facts and data will exist forever – not in the pollen cloud, but in the iCloud. The “bare bones of the salient facts” will be there,” but what about “the underlying rationales… the spirit, the life, the essence of what-made-it-all-tick.” Will there be color and personality? Mr. Warner’s 1984 observations still apply today, “it is a very remarkable story, indeed.” It is one that needs to be told as a record of what we can never permit to be “a fast disappearing era.” The deep land and social responsibility ethic exemplified by the Company and its remarkable family (both literal and metaphorical), must be an emerging norm, an exemplar for other businesses, industries, organizations, and citizens to model.

My Great Blue Heron, LLC, seeks to help others adopt and practice what Gulf States and Westervelt have embraced faithfully since 1884:

Great Blue Heron Core Values

Great Blue Heron (excerpted from my web site: assists enterprises anchored in personal integrity and professional ethics. We will help you understand and embrace environmental stewardship and selfless service if those two essential values are not already front and center for you.

  • Responsible Earth Stewardship – your enterprise is a citizen of Planet Earth. GBH works with enterprises who accept and embrace, or are willing to open your eyes to this fundamental value.
  • Intelligent Tinkering – a value that is ecosystem based. We must recognize that all things are interconnected and interdependent; know the consequences and implications of all actions.
  • Doing Good by Doing Well – a value that recognizes our obligation to the greater good now and into the deep future. It involves performing well enough to give back and pay forward. Great Blue Heron works only with enterprises that accept such an obligation for doing good.
  • Sustainability – leaving a world that can provide a future undiminished from the one we occupy. This value recognizes that we have an obligation to future generations.
  • Triple Bottom Line – Making a financial profit is necessary, yet not sufficient.

GBH helps clients understand the environmental and societal bottom lines along with the financial. Managing the financials and generating a fiscal profit is necessary, but not sufficient for our clients. They want to achieve net profit along all three bottom lines.

The Westervelt Company doesn’t need my help to perpetuate The Westervelt Way. Okay, perhaps I can assist the Company at the margins. However, my vision reaches beyond this one firm. Mr. Warner spoke passionately and eloquently of the “moral and spiritual attitudes and values that were the cornerstone of America’s greatness.” I am convinced that he dreamed of that essential thread weaving into tomorrow and beyond, and extending across business and society. My Great Blue Heron Mission is to “apply lessons written in or inspired by Nature to achieve enterprise success.” The GBH vision is to ensure that “clients will perform better (financially, socially, and environmentally), understand more clearly their Earth home, and embrace the tenets of responsible Earth Stewardship.” I believe that Mr. Warner would have embraced both the mission and the vision.

The Westervelt Company walks the talk and models the way – The Westervelt Way. The Westervelt Company tag line alone says it all: “We are stewards, and we’re about the land.” The imperative now to capture the Story that is Westervelt is not to do so “as a record of a bygone era.” Instead, the impetus driving, fueling, and propelling me is to tell the Story now and to do it so compellingly that others see the light and adopt The Westervelt Way.

The result would be the Westervelt Forestland Legacy Story