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:

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 ( 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 ( 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!

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.