Pennsylvania’s McConnell’s Mill State Park

I am a two-year permanent transplant to Alabama. A semi-retired forester, applied ecologist, and former four-time university president, I am ever-more impressed with our Alabama State Parks. Count me among the many champions of our Alabama State Park System. Although this post draws from visiting a State Park, this one is in Pennsylvania.

We visited McConnell’s Mill State Park mid-August. It’s about an hour north of Pittsburgh, and 30 minutes north of where our son and his family reside. Our three Pennsylvania grand kids enjoyed the hike. From the Park’s website: “McConnells Mill State Park, in Lawrence County, encompasses 2,546 acres of the spectacular Slippery Rock Creek Gorge, which is a National Natural Landmark. Created by the draining of glacial lakes thousands of years ago, the gorge has steep sides while the valley floor is littered with huge boulders. Scenic overlooks and waterfalls are popular natural attractions.” Located about 700 miles north of our local north-Alabama State Parks, the McConnell’s forest is clearly different. More hemlock and lots of black and yellow birch.

I had previously been to McConnell’s Mill, but this time I viewed it through my Alabama transplant lens. I drew a sigh of relief to see that our Alabama Parks do not fall short in any manner or comparative dimension. Is McConnell a treasure? Most assuredly, yes, yet so are our 22 Alabama gems! McConnell has no lodge nor marina, nor an interpretive center. In that regard, I swelled with Alabama State Parks pride. I will continue to visit our Alabama State Parks and as I do chronicle my observations and impressions through these Great Blue Heron Blog Posts. More (and more and more) to come!

Rocks and Origins

Yet I found the look and feel very similar. The amazing hemlock perched atop the exposed rock (lower left) is not unlike what I have encountered in our uplifted and eroded Cumberland Plateau. Precipitation in McConnell’s part of Pennsylvania is about 45 inches annually. That’s ten inches less than northern Alabama, yet the evapotranspiration difference probably equalizes the precipitation advantage we hold. The effective available soil moisture differs little. Winters are certainly more severe than Alabama’s. Exposed ledges (lower right) could be many places right here in Alabama’s Monte Sano State Park.

Finding refuge (and cooler air) among the ledges and boulders is an easy task, just as it can be here in the south. Note: I’m the old guy on the left!

I’m convinced that kids everywhere like these outdoor adventures. As the photo (lower right) attests, so do kids of all ages — that’s the old guy again!

Mallory couldn’t resist taking the high road.

Rock ledges (whether in PA or AL) allow for strange bedfellows. That’s a hemlock and yellow birch linking arms. And like here, fern also tops the rock. Moss and lichen find traction on rock surfaces both horizontal and vertical, as well as on the birch itself. Remember the old saw: Nature abhors a vacuum. The greater wisdom is that life-vacuums do not exist in Nature — at least not in these moist temperate climes.

Non-Flowering Plants

This canyon is one extended terrarium. Life is robust and ubiquitous. Christmas fern (left) and hay-scented (I believe) share custody of the rock with rich moss and some flowering plants.

Anywhere my eye gazes presents natural works of art. As I’ve said many times, Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe lie within reach, hidden in plain view. Hidden that is, to those who fail to look, much less see. And I guarantee, for those willing to look and see, the aesthetic and spiritual rewards are many.

I could have filled a gallery with masterpieces. The kids loved touching… an act permitted in this living museum. Touching… not plucking. A fact and rule the grands embraced and accepted with understanding and appreciation.

I particularly admired the mossy rock bordered on one side by a small yellow birch (below left). And who could not but be inspired by the moss living harmoniously with the tri-leaf wood sorrel and the tiny hemlock seedling (below right)! That’s my trekking pole to provide some sense of scale to the image.














Or the side-by-side moss-lichen community (lower left) and the moss-lichen-fern triad (lower right)?

Or these two dense lichen colonies adorning rock surfaces. I am smitten by the dendritic lichen (lower right). I know the trees; these non-flowering plants stymie me beyond their broad identity as one or another of the main groups.

The Trees

Yellow birch extends into northern Georgia. The species does not appear on the list of Alabama tree species. Therefore, what is a dominant species at McConnell is absent here in the south-land. Yellow birch is the most commercially valuable of the birch species. From a USDA online publication: “The wood of yellow birch is heavy, strong, close- grained, even-textured, and shows a wide color variation, from reddish brown to creamy white. It is used for furniture, cabinetry, charcoal, pulp, interior finish, veneer, tool handles, boxes, wooden-ware, and interior doors.” And I just love its textured yellowish barks!

We do have hemlock here in northern Alabama. This individual at McConnell’s, like some I’ve seen right here at home, finds anchorage and sustenance while clinging to a rock ledge! Admire its tenacity and its algae-coated stem.

We do have northern red oak here locally, along with southern red oak. This is northern; its southern cousin does not cross the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania. This individual qualifies as a Mighty Oak — at least two-foot DBH (diameter breast height), 40-50 feet to the first branch, and nearly 100 feet tall. A grand specimen.

Here’s a 30-inch diameter yellow poplar, another majestic specimen. The species is common from the Gulf into New York. We have some spectacular copses and individuals across our Alabama Park system.

Here’s the same tree flanked by another yellow poplar perhaps 12-15 inches in diameter. An offspring? Perhaps. I present this photograph as evidence of the density of tree stems and the deep shade beyond these two. The story of this stand, however, is that when McConnell’s mill operated from 1852-1928, this forest likely saw clearcutting at least once for its original timber and then again for fuel-wood. The Mighty Oak and the 30-inch poplar are most certainly second-growth.

Forests are not static, just like all natural systems (human social and economic systems as well). The photo below enlarges the prior image to highlight the dead black birch (note the fungal fruiting bodies) between and beyond the poplars. My general rule of thumb is that these natural forests lose on average two percent of stocking (stems per acre is the usual metric) every year. This is natural stand development. Some trees grow and flourish at the expense of others. Sounds just like business or athletics.


Nature never fails to both inspire and humble. Time on our human scale means nothing to a sandstone gorge. We can only appreciate the beauty and feel the inspiration. Whether at Monte Sano or McConnell’s Mill, separated by 700 miles, Nature is elixir extraordinaire!

We also visited Cleland Overlook,all but near McConnell’s and providing a view of the Slippery Rock Creek gorge, completing the circuit from creek bottom, through the canyon, and then looking over the terrain. I’ve said before about other attraction, not Grand Canyon scale, yet still inspiring and worth the visit. Unless we set our sights so high that we’ll be satisfied or touched by all but the grandest, Nature offers more than we need no matter where we live. Our only requirement for fulfillment and appreciation of Nature is to open our eyes, look deeply, see what lies hidden with reach, and feel Nature’s passion and harness her wisdom and power.

Reflections and Lessons

If you read last week’s Rainbow Mountain Blog Post ( about taking our Alabama grand kids to a nearby nature trail, you will recognize that I am offering very similar reflections and lessons from visiting this wonderful Pennsylvania State Park.

I want to spread the gospel of Nature-Inspired Learning. What better way than through the next generation. I believe some of my Nature’s inoculum may have found purchase. I’m hoping that awareness, appreciation, understanding, and accepting our obligation to care and steward will infect and inspire these three future Pennsylvania citizens. I will continue to expose them. Likewise, I will persevere in reaching listeners, readers, and potential believers of all ages.

Allow me to repeat three Take Home Messages: first, Nature and Wildness are where you choose to find them! I’ll add to that this call to action. When you can introduce youngsters to Nature, I urge you to choose to find it near where they live… and take them into local wildness. Help them taste of Nature’s elixir. Help them catch the bug (both literally and metaphorically)!

My second Take Home Message: Learn from the mosses and lichens. Understand that life finds a way of flourishing even when conditions seems harsh and uninviting. Know where and under what circumstances you flourish. Anticipate and prepare for adversity and episodic times of constraint and limitation. Adapt to the latter and always be prepared to reignite when the rough spells pass.

Third, and my most urgent Take Home Message: Enjoy and cherish the Nature and wildness within reach.



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

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And yet another: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at


Find an Alabama State Park near you — visit and enjoy!

See my Lake Guntersville State Park Blog Post:

Rainbow Mountain Hike

So Much to See in Our Almost Backyard: Rainbow Mountain Trail

Take Home Lesson: Nature and Wildness are where you choose to find them!

Mountain is a relative term. From my online dictionary: a large natural elevation of the earth’s surface rising abruptly from the surrounding level; a large steep hill. Rainbow Mountain is a little more than three miles (as the crow flies) from Big Blue Lake, where we reside here in northern Alabama. Our water surface is at ~750 feet; Rainbow Mountain is 1,145 feet above sea level. A mountain? I defer to locals who anointed this limestone prominence its moniker long ago.

Even when we lived in Alaska, Ohio, New Hampshire, and West Virginia (yes, we’ve lived in multiple states since 2008, when now nearly eleven-year-old Jack came into the world), I would take Jack (baby carrier and eventually under his own power) to this Madison County park. Judy and I took Jack and four-year-old Sam to Rainbow Mountain August 3, 2018.

We and they enjoyed escaping into the high country. Okay, I’m being facetious. Recall that we could see 20,310-foot Mount Denali (North America’s highest) from our Fairbanks, Alaska campus — we know mountains and high country! I admit, however, that I do appreciate even a summit just 400-feet above the valley floor. I felt elevated… physically and spiritually.

Jack is beginning to understand Nature, plants, and the greater outdoors; Sam liked the rocks, trees, and ledges. We all enjoyed being together beyond our normal environment. As I make clear in these Blog Posts, I have a deep relationship with wildness, whether remote wilderness or a nearby County preserve like Rainbow. The County does a good job with trail maintenance and signage:

Rocks and Geology

Balance Rock is a nice summit feature. Jack reminds me every time we go that the rock is not “balanced,” but is connected in a way that will keep it upright for the foreseeable future. I am not so sure that a group of mischievous ne’er-do-wells won’t one day do their best (worst) to topple the formation.

Sam has a penchant for looking away from the camera lens — witness above and below. The boys and we noticed that even though we could hear the sounds of traffic and residents below us, it was distant enough that we felt isolated from it. We focused on birds, the breeze in the tree-tops, and rustling sounds from the forest floor nearby. The boys paid attention and showed some disappointment when they spotted litter and tree and rock graffiti. They know proper outdoor protocol. It’s so easy (and important) to act responsibly.


We all thrilled at this Luna moth (Actias luna), which we spotted near the trail-head. It’s hard not to marvel at such a beautiful creature… one with a science-fiction-level life cycle!

Summer Blooms

They all know that I will stop to examine wildflowers, including this Pale-flowered Leafcup (Polymnia canadensis). I am a committed spring wildflower enthusiast, just beginning to pay more attention to the summer bloomers. I love the frilled petal ends of the Leafcup.

I failed to take a clear photo of this Slender Dayflower (Commelina erecta), a welcome deep blue.

Non-flowering Plants

Seldom do I encounter mosses without appreciating the deep woods canvas of diverse greens and textures. Three-dimensional art composed exquisitely without the hand of man. Nature has been creating living masterpieces here on Earth for some 3.5 billion years! Her hand is steady and practiced; her composition is purpose-driven. She bases her designs on complex living communities.

Whether mosses on a forest floor or Resurrection Fern and algae on a chestnut oak, her work is functional. Beauty, magic, wonder, and awe are secondary. Function drives the composition. Her creations ebb and flow. This summer our mosses are well hydrated, still rich in color and fullness even as summer fades soon into early fall. The resurrection ferns below stand turgid and flush, responding to rain within the prior 72 hours. It can go dry, shriveled, and brown quickly — entering protective dormancy on its harsh trunk-side anchorage between renewing showers. The plant knows how to deal with adversity and flourish from periodic plenty. Not a bad lesson to learn from Nature: surviving through adversity… thriving opportunistically when the tide turns to favorable.

An Unfamiliar Woody Plant

I had not remembered Tree Sparkleberry or Tree Farkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) from my previous work in the south, yet its distribution extends across most of the southeast from coastal Virginia through east-Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. It’s the only member of the Vaccinium genus (includes blueberries) to reach tree size. All others are shrubs and dwarf shrubs. I love its bronze, shredding bark (lower left) and leathery leaves (lower right), reminding me somewhat of mountain laurel in form, site-preference, and shade tolerance.

I managed to pose Jack and Sam (looking away from the camera!) in a rock passageway framed in the foreground by some farkleberry stems. Don’t you just love its whimsical name — farkleberry!

Reflections and Lessons

I want to spread the gospel of Nature-Inspired Learning. What better way than through the next generation. I believe some of my Nature’s inoculum may have found purchase. I’m hoping that awareness, appreciation, understanding, and accepting our obligation to care and steward will infect and inspire these future citizens. I will continue to expose them. Likewise, I will persevere in reaching listeners, readers, and potential believers of all ages.

Allow me to repeat my opening Take Home Message: Nature and Wildness are where you choose to find them! I’ll add to that this call to action. When you can introduce youngsters to Nature, I urge you to choose to find it near where they live… and take them into local wildness. Help them taste of Nature’s elixir. Help them catch the bug (both literally and metaphorically)!

Another Take Home Message: Learn from the resurrection fern. Understand your life and enterprise environmental norms and extremes. Know where and under what circumstances you flourish. Anticipate and prepare for adversity and episodic times of constraint and limitation. Adapt to the latter and always be prepared to reignite when the rough spells pass.

My most urgent message: Enjoy and cherish the Nature and wildness within reach.



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

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

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at




Biking Local Greenways — An Eclectic Nature View at 14 MPH

Mid-Summer Floral Offerings

I limit most of my wildflower botanizing to our local spring ephemerals, setting the forest floor ablaze (early March through the beginning of May) with life and color before canopy leaf-out casts deep shade below. Cooler spring temperatures make woods-walks much more pleasant than during summer.

I’ve brought my bicycle out of dormancy… now that I once more live near several paved greenways. My morning jaunts (a couple days per week on average) totaled ~250 miles in July. I find it difficult to carefully and effectively inventory the floral inhabitants along the trail at 14-or-so miles per hour, especially those that reside beyond the right-of-way edge into the forest. I paid more attention on two rides during the first week of August. Because I had begun to extend my rides from 20 to as may as 40 miles (multiple laps), I decided to give greater notice to special features and plants in flower during an intentionally slower final loop, a cool-down during which I actually stop when I spot something to examine and photograph.

Here’s woodland spider lilly (Hymenocallis occidentalis), a real beauty. Petal-end to petal-end some flowers are four inches in diameter. I don’t recall seeing this species before this year. I place it into my spectacular range. I’ve actually observed two other parties stopping to admire various individuals and clusters along the trail. I am always pleased to see fellow recreationists paying attention to Nature’s gifts.


I’ve found Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosum) everywhere we’ve lived except Alaska. It grows to 6-9-feet and it frequents rights-of-way, field edges, and fence lines.

Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) is another common summer bloomer along woods edges and as a home-site ornamental.

Wild Potato Vine (Ipomoea pandurata) presents a flower three-inches across. I noted it simply as white morning glory (same species), but Jack Carmen’s Wild Flowers Tennessee set me straight once I did a little work at home. I did notice a blue morning glory (Ivy-Leaf?; I. hederacea) on one of my passes that I could not find again on the final photo-loop.


Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) also brightens the edges. I appreciate its blossom and its finely compound and delicate foliage.

Jewelweed or Spotted Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis) has such an oxymoronic name — both weed and jewel! We do some odd things with common names. I learned sumac as a youngster by the unflattering moniker of stink-weed tree.


Purple Passionflower or Maypops (Passiflora incarnata) is one that merits close examination. The lower left close-up does it justice. Its photo is indeed worth a thousand words.

I’m adding another beauty August 25. This morning, sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) graced the trail-side. To every thing there is a season; and a time to every purpose under heaven. ‘Tis the season for one of Nature’s most splendid gifts.

Other Offerings

I love the sign at the trail’s southern terminus. The wild animals I encountered on my first few rides included rabbits, squirrels, deer, chipmunks, turtles, and multiple bird species. Technically they qualify as wild animals, yet not worthy of a “beware.”

Over subsequent rides I have stopped three times to make sure my friends, the Gray Rat-Snake, completed the trail crossing. I feared that some other person would not appreciate this reptile at the level of my joy in seeing this magnificent predator. Twice I saw this one (I’m assuming a single individual) at about the same point. I made my third observation about a mile to the north.

I found pleasure and satisfaction in seeing this family enjoy the snake as it worked its way into the trail-side vegetation.

I admit ignorance of local fungi. This saucer-size mushroom impressed me. It’s a gill fungus. In retrospect, I should have taken some close-up shots, top and bottom.

I did snap some up-close photos of this compelling hackberry tree. Deep corky ridges with moss, algae, and lichen adornment. The lower right frame includes two dead poison ivy vines with numerous hair-like clinging roots.

This hackberry supports a living poison ivy vine, which was kind enough to offer a leaf cluster and developing fruit at eye level. Perhaps the trail-head sign should have said “Beware Of Snakes, Wild Animals, and Poison Ivy!”

Both local greenways run along urban streams. Here’s a downstream view from one of the bridges. What a blessing it’s been to have a summer of abundant rainfall. I’m finishing this Post August 25; I’ve measured nearly 45″ of rain year-to-date. Greenway vegetation remains at May-green intensity. Very pleasant for late August, when some summers begin to dry and brown.


Reflections and Lessons

I’ve just returned from a road trip to Ohio and Pennsylvania, covering about 1,400 miles, mostly on Interstates with 70 MPH speed limits. I know that I see a lot more in way of trees, landscapes, and even some flowering plants than most people of lesser Nature interest and experience can even imagine. Yet I hunger for immersion when I race past something that catches my eye. I can say that most people cruising along have no idea what they are missing. Sadly, I know what I’m missing, and that adds an element of regret. However, I console myself by knowing that the destination will provide time for closer looks and exploration.

So, what conclusions might I draw from cycling local greenways? I’ve developed thirteen lessons from my Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. Here are some I think are applicable:

One: Nature can serve as an essential life focus — I forget about woes and problems when pedaling along the trail

Three: Don’t be blind to what lies in front of you — so much is within reach, even at 14 MPH

Five: Nature provides multiple attractions for enhancing life’s journey — hallelujah to what cruises along on either side!

Eight: Test your limits; be bold; ignite and employ your passion — perhaps a longer, more demanding ride tests my limits to a greater extent, yet even these 1-2-hour jaunts generate great blood flow and mental reward

Nine: Nothing stands apart from Nature — the trail evidences that we urban residents can quickly find Natural escape

Ten: Recognize the irreconcilable burden of Earth stewardship we bear as individuals and enterprises — how can trail users not feel at least some connection and obligation!

Eleven: Use whatever bully pulpit you have to change some small corner of the Earth for the better — several times I’ve engaged conversationally with other trail users when I noticed their interest in a flower or other feature. Without fail, the persons were interested in learning more. I am grateful for the chance to speak from the pulpit!

Thirteen: Nothing is as it appears at first glance; always seek to know what lies hidden within — I think about those who simply drive past the southern trail-head along Palmer Road and glance northward. What a shame that they sense no hint of the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe that lie hidden along that narrow wildland corridor

Each way-station along my life’s journey furnished Nature of some sort and scale nearby. Each such offering stood within arm’s length… or certainly within a few miles ride. Whether a backyard stroll into the forest at our New Hampshire home, a hike from our Alaska residence into some wild moose and grizzly country adjoining campus, or the 250-mile Rails-to-Trail network accessed a quarter mile from our front door in Ohio, Nature has always welcomed me. Has presented gifts and wisdom beyond compare. Has inspired me to learn and teach… and embrace my obligation to steward this amazing Earth.


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

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

And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at







Lake Guntersville State Park

July 26, 2018 I drove the 62 miles to the Lake Guntersville State Park Lodge, where I met Park Naturalist Mike Ezell. Such a blessing to live so close to a 7,000-acre Alabama treasure. And such a pleasure to have a Park naturalist to dispense wisdom and boost my confidence in plant identification and natural interpretation. My prior solo ventures into northern Alabama’s natural environs left me with not a little uncertainty. I am grateful for Mike’s time and expertise.

Here’s the view over the Tennessee River valley from the Lodge patio 300-feet above water level. We could not have created a better fog-enhanced scene! The rising sun dissipated the fog within ten minutes of the photograph. Glad I left my home at 6:30 AM; otherwise I would have missed the show.

Hitting the Trails

The Park has 35 miles of trails. We devoted some four hours to exploration. We both insisted on walking within the forest… not through it. We refused to allow time or destination to distract us from a deep Nature dive along the way. If something drew our attention, we took whatever time we needed to understand and appreciate. These are two of the signs along the way. The name Graveyard Road doesn’t foretell hazardous conditions or a zombie village; it simply leads to the old King’s Chapel Cemetery! I thought of other names like Deadman’s Curve and Breakneck Road, one from where I grew up! These forests along the lake are rich with history and pre-history. Cherokee occupied these hills and flats for millennia. Hernando de Soto is said to have visited the site in July, 1540. Eighty years ago, TVA’s Tennessee River project displaced thousands of residents and scores of settlements here and elsewhere along the river. The land has many stories to tell.

This 30-inch diameter white ash could likely relate a tale dating back 70-90 years. We examined an American beech of even greater diameter, and likely 200-plus years old. It grew on a lower concave slope on what appeared to be a long-abandoned pasture now supporting mature forest and still evidencing old erosion gullies, long-since healed. The beech’s massive crown suggested that it had stood alone in the pasture long before the new forest invaded the abandoned grazing land. I simply failed to snap a photo — shame on me!

Ah, what a relief to find several specimens of an intermediate canopy tree that had eluded my 100-percent-identification the prior week at DeSoto State Park. Like the elusive trees at DeSoto, we found this individual (12-inch diameter) exhibiting a vertical growth form that is NOT negatively geotropic, a term reserved for vertical tree growth opposite gravity’s pull. Our native loblolly pine and most other main canopy species simply extend leaders 180-degrees from the pull of gravity… hence negatively geotropic. Yes, they are influenced by crown openings and the pull of light, but they remain predominantly driven by gravity’s influence. This species appears to be predominantly positively phototropic, its vertical growth drawn to available sunlight and mostly ignoring gravity’s command. What is this tree? It’s sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). Ironically, during my nine years on the forestry faculty at Penn State, whenever I encountered a species I could not immediately identify, I jokingly declared it sourwood.

A Natural Truth Nothing is Static

The massive loblolly twin (below left) blew down during the severe storm outbreak of April 27, 2011, pulling up an eight-foot-tall root ball. This is a rich lower slope with deep soil. Dominant canopy trees exceed 100 feet.

The cycle of life and death is perpetual. Nothing in Nature is static.

Along the same trail we found a two-foot diameter poplar similarly toppled from its perch above the spring where Mike is pointing.

Death is not limited to windthrow. This 12-inch diameter persimmon succumbed to other cause, dying in place while vertical. At least two kinds of fungi are feasting on its still vertical carcass. I believe these are fruiting bodies from saprophytic fungi feasting on dead wood. I saw no forensic hints of the cause of the tree’s demise.

The dead persimmon will eventually yield to gravity, as did the two well-decayed logs below. As I’ve said often, nothing in Nature is static… and every single cell (living or dead) is edible to something else!

The lower left log symbolizes Nature’s ultimate truth — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven! I’m fascinated by the lower right subject. All that remains of what had been a tw0-foot diameter loblolly pine are its lower still-intact bark and a core of resin-soaked core-wood (fat wood) resistant to decay and standing ramrod upright.

A Spooky Side for Those Who Seek a Scare

Some early Europeans described America’s forests as foul and repugnant, dark and foreboding. Perhaps they saw trees like the ancient white oak below, misshaped and contorted by some agent of infection, almost cancer-like. Even in broad daylight, one doesn’t need much imagination to see face, shoulders, arms, torso, and legs in frontal view. Imagine passing through during the gloaming, already fearful of wild animals and unfriendly Natives, and seeing the nine-foot-tall tree aberration! A northern Alabama Sasquatch!

And a Dimension of Bounty and Fruitfulness

Okay, not all is foreboding. We found a quite happy and vigorous 14-inch persimmon near the dead one from above. Hundreds of fallen immature persimmons drew our interest along the trail. Trees often produce more fruit than they can bring to maturity and ripeness. We wondered how many remained above us and when the tree might begin dropping ripe persimmons.

Questions Unanswered

We pondered what story The Cave might tell. Some prior wanderers/residents had expended considerable effort to transform a deep overhang to a rounded-roofed cave. Native Americans? Settlers? Some CCC workers?






Enjoying a Rare Acquaintance

I direct my wildflower enthusiasm to the spring ephemerals. I just don’t pay a lot of attention to those that follow main canopy leaf-out. Mike drove me to a nearby location I will not disclose, where threatened/endangered Appalachian (or Cumberland) rose gentian (Sabatica capitata) appeared in a cluster of a dozen-or-so plants. This lovely species grows only in isolated populations in TN, AL, GA, and NC. I viewed the entire day as a rare opportunity to venture into Nature’s domain with a competent and enthusiastic naturalist. It’s only fitting that we capped such a day with seeing a beautiful rare flowering plant.

I’ll come full circle to the morning image. We found beauty, magic, and awe wherever we ventured. Lake Guntersville State Park is a treasure trove. Anyone and everyone can access Nature’s wonders. here and at any of Alabama’s other 21 State Parks.

Lessons and Reflections

The morning patio view served as the gift wrapping (and a wonderful element of the gift itself). We spent only 4-5 hours ripping away the wrapping and exploring a tiny part of what lies hidden within. The package within varies across the hours of the day and from season to season. Robert Service in The Spell of the Yukon observed, “There’s a land — oh it beckons and beckons, And I want to go back — and I will.” I share his sentiment… right here in northern Alabama. And I suspect the feeling will follow me across the State Park System.

If only we humans were more aware Nature’s wisdom, power, lessons, and blessings.

May Nature Inspire all that you do!


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

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

Note: Official Alabama State Parks photo of the Lodge at Lake Guntersville State Park

DeSoto State Park — Seeing What Lies Hidden Within

DeSoto State Park (one of Alabama’s 22 State Parks), near Fort Payne, AL, totals 3,502 acres, 7.3 percent of the State Park System’s 48,000. From the DeSoto website:

Continuing in the rustic tradition of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), mountainous DeSoto State Park is nestled atop beautiful Lookout Mountain in scenic Northeast Alabama and accented by many rushing waterfalls and fragrant wildflowers that will simply take your breath away. Developed in the late 1930s, the hard-working and dedicated men of the CCC made many enhancements to the park that have withstood the test of time and will last for future generations. Come commune with Mother Nature as DeSoto State Park offers a family-friendly atmosphere that holds wonders for people of all ages!

Whether a nature hobbyist, outdoor enthusiast, or sporting fanatic — DeSoto State Park has plenty to do to keep you pleasantly entertained. Kayaking, fishing, hiking, biking, cycling, rappelling, bouldering, picnicking, wildflower expeditions, and just plain ole’ exploring nature — we literally have it all! We cater to individuals, families, and small to large groups of all kinds.

A Different Perspective

Judy and I arrived mid-afternoon and spent the night of July 18 on-site, departing late afternoon the next day. I encourage you to visit the website (better yet… visit the Park!) to see the features and sights that normally attract visitors:

The DeSoto website and the excerpted paragraphs above are spot-on. The macro-scale features are indeed worthy of a trip and time on-site. However, I want to offer an alternative look at DeSoto — one that depicts what lies hidden within… one that you won’t see in the standard brochures and promotional materials. I had to break my time at DeSoto into snippets:

  • Met with some folks for adult beverages and enjoyed dinner at the restaurant
  • An after dinner walk in the dark with Judy
  • A very dark two-mile walk pre-dawn alone
  • A dawn walk with Judy as the growing daylight chased the night into the deep shadows
  • A 2-3-mile hike after breakfast
  • 10-2:30 meeting of the Alabama State Parks Foundation Board — I am now a member (effective July 19)
  • Judy and I said our goodbyes (for now) to DeSoto State Park late afternoon as we strolled the Boardwalk Trail

I’ll offer reflections on the segments in this Great Blue Heron Blog Post. We will build our next DeSoto visit to cover the falls and other larger-scale attractions that appear in the brochures.

Night Lights and a Summer Chorus

Finishing dinner after dark, we decided to leisurely walk the paved park road that led from the lodge/restaurant to the cabin cul-de-sac, a fifteen-minute round trip. We talked little, overwhelmed visually and auditorially, leaving no room for other than appreciation and awe. Fireflies brought the deep woods to life. I had left my iPhone (my camera) in our room to charge — I don’t think I could have captured the lightning bug light-show. Even the stock professional photo below does not do the spectacle justice. Add to the image the cacophonous green tree frog chorus and you might appreciate why we spoke little as we strolled. We considered the experience as a gift. Such gifts are available only to those willing to accept them. To those willing to look and see. For how many pre-human eons have such glories blessed these Appalachian woods? What Native American lore and legends tell the story of sight and sound we absorbed spiritually? What other DeSoto State Park magic awaits the visitor?

I reveal the following with some trepidation. Perhaps you may think me crazy for such a habit. First, I set my alarm for 3:55 AM, wanting to be outside to welcome first light. Instead, I awoke a little after 3:00AM wired and ready for the day. Hiking boots laced, flashlight in-hand, a trail map in my pocket, I briskly walked seven minutes in the no-moonlight darkness to the Boardwalk Trail, which extends a little less than a quarter-mile to Azalea Cascade. A few green tree frogs still sounded, but without the prior evening’s volume and fervor. I saw the entrance signs below only in my flashlight’s beam. I thought about inserting a photo of total darkness, yet decided that all of you can imagine such without assistance. I admit some level of disappointment that not once when I turned on the light did I see a pair of eyes reflected. No lions and tiger and bears! I’ve noticed many times before that nighttime woods draw focus to sounds. Beyond the frogs, I heard soft rustlings — a light breeze… a critter or two? Water gurgling… a small cascade, growing louder as I proceeded along the boardwalk.

Nighttime softens everything. Having walked pre-dawn, I more deeply appreciated the daytime reality!

A New Day Dawning

I returned to our room in time to join Judy for our dawn walk, retracing much of our firefly route. A different world, yet no less enjoyable seeing the woods emerge from darkness… wondering where the tree frogs had taken refuge for the day. The sun kissed the cirrus to our east as we looked across the West Branch of Little River from our deck, listening to the rapids below. Amazingly, I have encountered far too many people who consider a summer sunrise something that happens before they awaken!

My Two-Hour Hike through the Woods — A Micro-scale Immersion

DeSoto is a Park of falling and cascading waters. Here are two such features, two of many and incidental to my true focus as I hurried along that morning. I’ll devote another DeSoto hike on a subsequent visit to the Park’s infamous falls, rapids, and cascades.

Instead, I paid little mind to the water and trees, which the forester Steve had trouble intentionally ignoring. I know most of the mega-flora and many of the forest floor spring ephemerals. I am far less familiar with the non-flowering plants.

I ask that you accompany me on the non-flowering plants museum tour below. Enjoy the images without expecting much in the way of identifying captions. The non-flowering plants include: algae, fungi, lichens, mosses, liverworts, hornworts, ferns, and fern allies. It’s a rich variety of such lesser plants that crowd every niche from tree bark to rock surfaces. I find it hard to match the grand majesty of a 110-foot oak, yet the beauty in the collection below challenges the grandeur of the forest rising above. Again, all this from a two-hour hike wedged between breakfast and my 9:30AM shower and change-of-clothes. I’m not sure that any of this incredible display is referenced in Park literature and brochures. These colonies of algae, mosses, and lichens found perfect homes on a white oak (lower left) and a Virginia pine (lower right).

The filamentous beard lichen and its foliose cousin decorate the small sugar maple (lower left) and a delightful combination of lichen, moss, and algae graces the chestnut oak (lower right).

I suppose lichens have been flourishing on bare rock for far longer than early primates began standing on two legs. A few hundred million years longer! Our current human trajectory might suggest that they could very well outlast us by a similar period. Lichens are not in the business of devising means of their own demise. They do not harbor dreams of empire and material consumption. Their primary beauty is simplicity… along with artist-quality colors, patterns, and processes. Although I have not ascertained whether I am correct, I’m guessing that coffee table style books of exquisite lichen photographs are available at Amazon. Okay, I couldn’t resist looking; Lichens of North America looks like a winner! I also found the website for the British Lichen Society (promoting the study, enjoyment, and conservation of lichens), an organization offering many such books and manuals.

Another piece of fine art caught my eye. Is it a grey algal film on this rock face? Was it a hungry snail or two that grazed the delicious coating, leaving intricate feeding patterns, careful not to cross its own path? My normal routine of tree-gazing would have missed this level of detail.

I recall several decades ago what was then a fad — home  terrariums with collections of flowering and non-flowering plants. The fad passed, yet Nature continues cultivating such collections on the DeSoto forest floor among the rocks. Lower left features at least two types of lichens and delicate mosses. Nature achieves by chance what the most ardent terrarium aficionado might create with deep labor and artistic flair. Limestone dominates DeSoto’s ledges and outcrops yet I found this conglomerate… itself a work of art — an algal pebble garden.

I love our humid temperate climate. There are no vacuums for Nature to abhor when 55 inches of rain evenly distributes across the year. There is no such thing as bare rocks in these protected deep woods. Mosses and lichens grow in profusion. I wonder what I might capture with a good camera… one capable (the camera and the operator) of much closer and more magnified views? I like the spider home in the crevasse among the mosses lower right. Not such a spot of beauty and wonder for the hapless insect encountering the sticky web.

My words cannot enhance the magic in these two forest floor images.

These next four photos depict an unusual community perched on a broad terrace of very shallow soil atop limestone. Thick lichen reminded me of northern Finland plant communities far above the Arctic Circle, ideal habitat for native reindeer… ungulates that subsist on lichens during the extended deep winters. No reindeer at DeSoto… nor the extended deep winters typical in the land of the midnight sun! That’s mountain laurel with the distinct gnarled stems and decorative bark (lower right).


Allow me to divert briefly from the non-flowering plants. I couldn’t resist the glossy foliage of this rock-face-located beetleweed (Galax urceolata). Also terrarium-worthy!

Nor could I pass up this gnarled chestnut oak seeming quite content at the ledge-edge.

And how could I not snap this pine sentry guarding passage along the red-blazed trail? I felt like reaching for my photo-i.d. and boarding pass.

Reflections and Lessons

Many wildlife enthusiasts are attracted to what I’ve heard dubbed the charismatic mega-fauna. Same holds for plant enthusiasts (charismatic mega-flora), this forester among them. I’ve focused often in these Great Blue Heron Blog Posts on trees. Not this time. I decided ahead of this series of short hikes to direct my attention to a smaller scale. And what wonders emerged… ones I had not expected. Were it not for spiders, small insectivorous mammals, birds, snakes, toads, and other such forest floor predators, I might have wished for a bit of personal shrinkage to place me among the lichen and moss forests. However, I’m content to view from my top-of-the-food-chain scale!

I know that Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe exist at multiple scales. I believe that her lessons can inform, instruct, and inspire better and more rewarding living, learning, serving, and leading. And because I so believe, I can look with intention, see with understanding and appreciation, feel with deep emotion and spiritual awareness, and practice Earth stewardship in my own small corner of the world.

My focused look at non-flowering plants opened my mind and eyes. Even as a forester and doctoral-educated applied ecologist, I am struck by how little I know… and also by how much I don’t normally see. Had I been in tree-focused hiking mode, within my comfort and knowledge zone, think about what I would have missed. My take home lesson from these DeSoto strolls is that we too often choose selective blindness. We miss the museum nooks and crannies where special treats and exquisite art are displayed, yet seldom seen.

I bicycled 25 miles this morning (July 23) on a nearby paved greenway. I saw lots of hikers, runners, and bikers. Once again, I saw more than half of my fellow greenway users wearing headphones — deaf to the sounds that reward my own passage. They choose their earbuds and impose voluntary sensory deprivation. Sure, they are listening to music or chatting on the phone — their sensory immersion of choice. Yet I think, “How sad.”

Likewise, how many people choose not to avail themselves of our State Park gems. Who miss even the macro-attractions of scenic overviews, mighty oaks, and waterfalls… much less the micro-scale non-flowering plants? Nature rewards those who choose to accept her gifts of beauty, magic, wonder, and awe.

I am grateful to now be a part of the Alabama State Parks Foundation Board. I pledge to do all I can to spread the gospel of Nature’s Inspiration through my engagement. Watch for future Great Blue Heron Blog Posts as I visit each of Alabama’s 22 State Parks over the next couple years. I am sure that much lies hidden within. In fact, I discovered more July 19 than I can cover in a single post. Here’s a teaser of what I will address in a subsequent Blog Post:

Nest Blog Post Preview: A Cycle of Death and Renewal at DeSoto State Park

Nothing is static in Nature. We’ll examine evidence of natural system death and renewal at DeSoto State Park.

May Nature Inspire all that you do!


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

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A Reverse Rainbow

So, what’s a reverse rainbow? Let me explain.

I grew up in the Central Appalachians, where summer showers generally pressed more or less easterly, and most commonly (as do convection-spirited showers everywhere) occurred in the afternoon and evening. The same holds true here in northern Alabama. Here’s the scenario. These heat-and-moisture-enabled pop-up showers often drop heavy rain and quickly move on, followed by rapidly clearing skies, allowing the now sinking-toward-the-western horizon bright sun to illuminate the retreating rain shield. Presto, a rainbow. Not every time yet often enough that the colorful spectacle and its promise of good fortune is anything but rare… yet always a nice visual (and emotional) treat! I viewed the rainbow as what came after the rain. Such was the case with this spring 2016 rainbow; here’s the evening view looking east from my back patio toward a departing shower.

Saturday evening (6:30 PM) July 7, 2018, I had just watched a thundershower pass east-to-west 3-4 miles south of us. Northern Alabama sat on the far south perimeter of a sprawling high pressure system over the eastern US. Its clockwise spin sweeping moist Atlantic Ocean air west across South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, creating deep instability over us. I watched radar with disappointment as the shower missed us — we could use some rain more significant that the 0ne-tenth-inch I measured earlier in the day from two brief passing showers. As I sat watching, vertically bubbling cumulus began to build east of us, their cauliflower tops visibly reaching higher rapidly. Soon radar indicated a spot of red (a deep echo return indicating a shaft of heavy rain) beginning to spread 5-7 miles away. Conditions were triggering new development up-flow from us. My hopes rose. The sky began to darken and then evidence an approaching shower-cell with an emerging shelf cloud. Look closely. There in advance of the rain with the evening sun shining brightly on the homes along Big Blue Lake, a faint rainbow identifies the mists blowing down and forward of the main rain curtain. So, here’s the evening view looking east from my back patio toward an approaching shower — along with its reverse rainbow!

By this time (below) the deep booming and growling from cloud-to-ground early stage lightning sounded within four miles… and closing. We could hear the wind as the shelf cloud bore toward us. Gusts hit us with sprays of mist within just a few seconds of this photo.

Because we scrambled to secure patio furniture cushions indoors, I missed snapping a photo of the first large drops hitting the lake surface with the sun still shining. Only as the downpour began did the darkness from 30-50,000 feet of thunderstorm above us bring the very special light-show to an end.

I checked the radar again. The spreading spot of red had blossomed into a large mass. The cell reached maximum rainfall production right over us, dropping an inch. The storm punched us with multiple strikes whose thunder cracked nearly simultaneously with the flash. I enjoyed Nature’s gift of welcomed rain and special show:

  • Just the day prior I watched a solid line of mature storms march our way and generate an outflow boundary that sparked a new line beyond us, in effect skipping over us with nary a drop of rain.
  • This one blew up just upstream and then gave us its best shot of rain and lightning.
  • Rarely do our storms move from east to west — this one surprised me with its movement.
  • I don’t recall another time when I saw a rainbow lead the charge — conditions proved serendipitous — similar to eating dessert before the main course!


I often see people lost in digital devices. My only digital distraction for this July thunderstorm — the iPhone-accessible radar that informed and amplified my observations and gleanings. I can’t imagine a video game or TV program more senses-rich than watching and learning from Nature. I could not possibly have estimated the value I registered in experiencing the development, approach, and passing of such a simple act of power and fury. An act of controlled violence… controlled by the immutable laws of atmospheric physics. Ours is a planet of turbulence… turbulence whose sole purpose is to achieve balance and equilibrium. The old truth applies: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

I appreciate the lessons embedded in Nature’s forces and mechanisms. Knowing the science underlying the violence amplifies my embrace of the resultant beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. I view that accentuation as akin to how knowing music increases the aesthetic gift from a symphony; how understanding the act of painting enhances our awe of a work of art.

Nature teaches that even the most tumultuous summer thunderstorm evolves according to knowable laws, forces, and actions. Understandable even if not precisely predictable. If only the same were true of the chaos and turbulence in Washington D.C. Passion, emotion, and self-preservation dominate that field of play. Similar to the storm I enjoyed, so much in our nation’s capital creates gust fronts… gusts of sanctimonious bloviation. Ah, if only I could comprehend politics and view it with appreciation, awe, and inspiration.

I suppose there are those who understand politics as well as I do Nature. And those who enjoy politics as much as I do natural phenomenon. I choose to stick with Nature. Perhaps I will more conscientiously contemplate whether and how Nature’s lessons for living, learning, serving, and leading might apply to politics. I am sure they do yet I am unwilling at the moment to penetrate that morass.

I will conclude this Post with deep appreciation for the purpose and natural laws that govern life and living on this Earth. A thunderstorm is Nature’s atmospheric venting… a pressure relief valve. How will Nature relieve the pressures associated with a burgeoning human population and the consequences of the cumulative demands we place upon our One Earth? The storm I witnessed rose to vent an explosive point (time and place) of atmospheric instability. How will Earth and natural systems seek and secure life system stability as we continue to expand our call upon resources of soil, water, and air? The Earth system will secure balance and stability, perhaps at our species’ peril.

I hope we as a species can find our own way to secure balance and stability. Judy and I worry about our five grandchildren and the multiple burdens we are placing on their shoulders.

May Nature Inspire all that you do!


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

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Drought and Nature’s Cycles at Little River Canyon

I previously posted reflections from my April 21, 2018, first visit to Alabama’s Little River Canyon National Preserve:

Time has somehow sped a quarter-year beyond that delightful orientation. Widespread Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) mortality captured my eye as I toured and hiked the Preserve. I snapped lots of photos to remind me of the extent of demise. Only now am I finding time to reflect. Nature’s natural cycles define all life (and much of the physical world) on our home planet. Forests… and trees within forests… exhibit somewhat predictable such ebbs and flows. Does that mean we can attribute some explanation to the Virginia pine decline and mortality I saw in April? The answer is a simple (well, not entirely simple) affirmative.

The Nature of the Species — Virginia Pine

From Silvics of Forest Trees of the United States, Agricultural Handbook No. 271 (USDA Forest Service 1965): Virginia pine is a transitional type eventually replaced by climax hardwood forest. It is a disaster species, coming in after fire, and on badly eroded areas or worn-out old fields. Compared to other associated pines, it is generally more aggressive on the poorer sites. As environmental conditions improve, hardwoods become a definite part of the understory. These become the dominants and gradually take over the area in succeeding rotations, unless fire or other factors retard the hardwoods.

Ag Handbook 271 served as my undergraduate textbook for a Silvics course. Since updated to Silvics of North America, Vol One — Conifers (USDA Handbook 654; 1990), the revised version now reads: Virginia pine often grows in pure stands, usually as a pioneer species on old fields, burned areas, or other disturbed sites… Virginia pine is a shallow-rooted species… Being intolerant of shade, Virginia pine is a transitional type and is eventually replaced by more tolerant hardwood species. It is a pioneer species, coming in after fire, and on eroded areas or worn-out old fields. Compared with associated pines, it is generally more successful on poorer sites. Virginia pine seedlings cannot become established under the shade of an existing stand, so hardwoods invade the understory. 

Picture the plateau top mid-twentieth century land use pattern as mixed agriculture, woodlots, and transportation routes. Transitioning to public use and ownership, marginal farmland gave way to abandonment and natural succession. Virginia pine, a reliable disturbed site pioneer, colonized the abandoned land, forming pure stands in some areas. The species had a job to do — take root, establish cover, protect the land, and eventually transition to climax hardwood. This is the ecological niche it occupies. Not by some self-regulated sense of duty. Instead, by evolution across the millennia. You might wonder how being a transition species serves to further self-preservation? Doing a job to assure replacement by other forest species? The answer may be simple over the vast sweep of time. By acting in selfless service to preservation of the site and protecting its soil, Virginia pine is a guarantor that when some future disturbance brings the replacement forest to the ground, the site can once more welcome and support a new cohort of Virginia pine pioneers.

Mid-summer through late fall 2016 saw much of Alabama suffering “historic drought.” Northeast Alabama stood at the epicenter of what several newspapers in November called “the worst in memory.” The shallow-rooted, poor-site-colonizing Virginia pine, which had evolved as a transition species, suffered fatally across the plateau. Already reaching terminal age and viability, many individuals and stands felt the tremendous drought stress as the straw breaking the camel’s back. This dead individual stands at the canyon rim, in the foreground of many still seeming healthy individuals on the canyon sides where moisture seepage provides a more favorable site during extended drought.

Plateau top stands are in full retreat. Most of the crowns in this view are dead and yellowing. Even the dominant individual in the center evidences a thinning crown. One former main canopy inhabitant has already fallen onto the center tree, suggesting that the stand was in decline prior to the proximate drought.

In some ways, the drought serves as the pneumonia infection that ends the life of the octogenarian human. General health decline enables a secondary infection to push beyond the final threshold. This stand was already dying from age and genetic predisposition — the ultimate cause)… slowly, inexorably, naturally… when the drought delivered the final injury (the proximate cause).

Virginia pine silvical characteristics suggest that hardwood should be invading the understory, replacing the dead and declining Virginia pine stand. We have a bit of a complicating twist here at Little River Canyon. Managers have been dutifully running prescribed fire through the understory, thus controlling the invading hardwoods. So, not much in the way of hardwood advanced regeneration to succeed the pine. The big question that I cannot answer from my quick circuit is this: Is there sufficient seed-in-place or remaining in cones on standing trees to regenerate Virginia pine? The totally dead canopy in this next photo is no longer producing new seed.

Some understory hardwood is evident in places where prescribed fire did not burn hot enough to kill seedlings above ground (photo below). What I could not determine in mid-April is whether hardwood root sprouts will emerge from seedlings burned above ground.

Cycles define Nature. Winners and losers ebb and flow across time. Imagine the boon to insects (and fungi) that thrive on dead wood. And the woodpeckers depending upon tasty wood-boring insects.

Full sunlight reaching the forest floor will ignite plant communities receiving only dappled sunlight barely penetrating the healthy unbroken canopy for several decades.

Reflections and Lessons

I had too little time for an in-depth exploration. Please view my observations above as cursory and shallow, a first approximation. I found nothing on the website to glean additional insight. The Little River Canyon Center (operated and staffed by Jacksonville State University) hosted its Earth Day weekend when I visited. A beautiful Center with lots of enthusiastic staff and students attending to the educational and nature-interest needs of thousands of visitors. I hungered for time to learn more about the Center and its work. I knew that staff and educators could have answered my many questions. I hope I can arrange a future visit with some of those experts.

I remain convinced that every property tells a story. My quick tour serves as a weak substitute for an informed tale. Of one thing I can be certain — the Little River Canyon Preserve Land Legacy Story is rich far beyond my feeble interpretation. I wonder whether it has been written? Perhaps there is a book in the Center gift shop that tells the tale?

I also know that I’m pretty close on the Virginia pine tale. And I know, too, that Virginia pine is just one chapter in the volumes detailing the Canyon from precolonial habitation, to European domestication, through Civil War influences, and all the way to creating a National Preserve and establishing a national-class Jacksonville State University Center.

Like Virginia pine, every individual, business, and enterprise of any sort occupies a version of our own silvical niche and function. We cannot be both the Mighty Oak and the pioneer Virginia pine. We can’t be both the towering yellow poplar along an alluvial plain and the poor-site-colonizing Virginia pine. And we can’t expect the humble Virginia pine to both boldly conquer a ravaged site and live for centuries once it has worked its transition magic.

Wisdom runs deep in Nature and humans have captured its lessons in sources as ancient and revered as the Bible. Ecclesiastes summed the sage knowledge of seasons and cycles:

To Everything There is a Season (King James)

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

May all that you do be Nature-Inspired.


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

Six Years Ago and Plus Twenty-three Degrees Latitude

We’ve been “enjoying” heat indices of 95-105 degrees — it’s deep summer here in northern Alabama. Late June 2012, Judy and I spent ten days at a friend’s cabin along the bay in Sitka, Alaska. I post this now as a reminder that seasons and cycles vary across this pale blue orb. Pick any point in time and shift your location — everything differs. Pick any location and change the time of year — everything differs. The same holds true for life, living, and enterprise. As the old saw observes: location, location, location!

I offer this post mostly as a mid-summer interlude. The photos provide a glimpse of the magic in just a single slice of Alaska. Sitka sits on Alaska’s southeast coast straddling Baranof Island and the southern half of Chichagof Island in the Alexander Archipelago of the Pacific (part of the Alaska Panhandle), with deep fjords and snow-capped mountains rising sharply to >4,000-feet within sight. This is Mount Edgecumbe (dormant volcano; 3,200 feet); Alaska is tectonically active, with lots of volcanoes and earthquakes.

Late June 2012, Judy and I were just six weeks beyond being struck (as we walked in our neighborhood) by a two-ton SUV running a stop sign. We viewed the Alaska trip as recovery — mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Nature is therapeutic, healing, and renewing. We look back on these photos with gratitude for our health and well-being. And for the life we have enjoyed since… and for all the days that lie ahead. Nature continues to enrich our mind, heart, soul, body, and spirit. As you glance through this scenic menagerie, reflect on how Nature has and might salve your days. Lower left I stand along the bay at Sitka’s Totem Park, a celebration of the region’s rich Native heritage. Lower right a view typifying Sitka’s extraordinary beauty. Again, this is the end of June!

That’s me pausing at one of the rainforest bridges across another of the countless freshets of melting snow and almost daily rains. Would be nice to be transported there on days like this when my air-conditioned office is 10 degrees warmer than most Sitka sweatshirt summer days!













The trail up Mount Verstovia — wet and rugged for a guy with a still-mending crushed left wrist, arm in a sling and a soft, removable cast.

A trail-side over-view of Sitka as I ascended taken at perhaps 1,500 feet above the bay.

I repeat — this is the end of June! I hit the snowline at 2,750 feet, by my estimation. I pushed just a bit into the hard pack, by that point at least three-feet deep. The small Sitka spruce (below left) shows evidence of yielding to a far deeper pack slipping downhill, bending the then younger sapling, since recovered by a vertically-reaching leader.

Downtown Sitka’s Native and Russian heritage reminds us that our 49th state came to us March 30, 1867. U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward signed a treaty with Russia for the purchase of Alaska for $7 million. Despite the bargain price of roughly two cents an acre, the Alaskan purchase was ridiculed in Congress and in the press as “Seward’s folly,” “Seward’s icebox,” and President Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.” One hundred fifty-one years later, I say thank God the purchase rose above the still-prevalent Washington D.C. bickering… no matter the issue!













This view alone may be worth $7 million!

And this one as well! We felt blessed to recover from May 3, 2012 and revel in Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. I’ve argued multiple times in these blog posts that Nature’s elixir is at-hand where we live. Not on an Alaska scale yet still rewarding and fulfilling, Nature’s richness is often where we seek to see it.

All creatures great and small! The grizzly made me a bit nervous, even though I snapped the shot with telephoto. That look? I think it’s the same way I inspect the restaurant menu! I continued on slowly and with suppressed anxiety, glancing occasionally to make sure his attention stayed with the water and its salmon. Slugs come large (and far less threatening) in the southeast Alaska coastal rainforest!

Avian friends are constant companions. We could have watched ravens and eagles for hours. In fact, we did!

Here are a couple Sitka blacktailed deer on the muskeg. A nice addition to our visit.

Closing Reflections

Again, Nature is therapeutic, whether recovering from an unfortunate accident or simply dealing with the stresses of day-to-day existence. I’m drafting these words on a hot afternoon following a wonderful 25-mile morning bike ride on a nearby Huntsville Greenway — a paved, mostly wooded, streamside trail along a public utility right-of-way. What a wonderful way to bring Nature to residents… and residents to Nature.

However, as with so much of modern life and living, I observed incredulously how many hikers, runners, and bikers were there… without really being there. At least half wore ear buds. What could be more inspiring than bird-song, stream gurgling, squirrels barking, a horse neighing, and what little breeze we had rustling leaves? Or even conversation with a companion. I watched a runner texting! Several hikers talking incessantly on a cell phone. Some people neither heard nor reacted to my bike’s bell sounding my approach from the rear and asking for passage. I’m saddened that we are so easily and continuously distracted. Are we substituting the urgent and banal for things of real importance? Afraid so.

Judy and I refused distraction in Sitka. No, on second thought, we went there to be distracted… distracted from the urgent and less-important day-to-day issues and circumstances by what is and ought to be paramount. Dedicated time with each other in a place that provides Nature’s 24/7 buffet for nourishing and renewing mind, body, heart, soul, and spirit.

Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading holds that such renewal and therapy do not require a trip to an exotic land. Look in your backyard, in your own community.

As for relief from the heat, memories of summer sweatshirt days help. Beating the hot afternoon sun with a morning Nature excursion likewise works magic. Keep your glass half-full — your iced-tea glass and your life-glass. Remind yourself that these hot summer days will give way to a long exquisite fall that will transition eventually to an equally extended spring. Enjoy the seasons of you life and enterprise. Drink deeply of Nature’s elixir.

Remove the ear buds of distraction!


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

Joe Wheeler State Park

I’ve issued previous Great Blue Heron Blog Posts sited within Alabama’s Monte Sano State Park, which sits on the Cumberland Plateau just to the east of Huntsville. A few weeks ago we visited Lake Guntersville State Park accompanied by our daughter and her family. We didn’t venture deeply enough into the wild to generate a posting essay. Another time!

June 19, I made my first trip to Joe Wheeler State Park (JWSP) downriver (Tennessee River) 35 miles to the west. Monte Sano, Guntersville, and Wheeler are three of Alabama’s 22 State Parks. What incredible gifts to the 4-5 million cumulative daily visitors over the course of a year!

Observations from a Three-Mile Hike

Park Superintendent Chad Davis, North Region Operations and Maintenance Supervisor Tim Haney, and Alabama State Parks Foundation President Dan Hendricks hosted my visit. I appreciate their Park tour and a thorough orientation to the state’s Park System. Alabama is blessed to have this treasure. I commit to learning more about our Parks; I’ve added visiting all 22 Parks to my bucket list. In aggregate, 48,154 acres of State Parks! That’s 75 square miles. And you can visit them from the Gulf to the Tennessee River. Watch for more Blog Posts as I begin my quest! I’m planning to see DeSoto State Park mid-July.

After enjoying lunch at the JWSP Lodge with my hosts, I explored the three-mile trail loop that begins near the Lodge. A hot day with a nice breeze. Lots of deep forest and pleasant surroundings as the trail weaved mostly along the bluff overlooking the Lake. I’ll make observations and offer reflections around the themes of forests and trees; special features; and natural oddities.

Forests and Trees

The forester in me hungers to know more about the Park’s land use history. Prior clearing? Past agriculture? Ownership patterns and acquisitions? The age of these particular stands? I saw a mature mixed species forest perhaps at least a century old. I characterize it as “old growth.” Very large diameter main canopy occupants and considerable dead and down woody debris. Because I am fascinated by the character of individual trees, I will walk through a series of photos depicting the species diversity and accenting the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe of a tree identification element that seldom gets a lot of attention — tree bark. I’m focusing on species I did not include in my June 20, 2018 Bark Portfolio Blog Post:

I’ll begin with honey locust, Gleditsia triacanthos. Note the stout, branched thorns along the main stem and the feathery compound leaves. I’ve always found the thorns a curiosity, likely a defense measure to discourage bark-nibbling foragers and dissuade leaf-eating aerial herbivores from climbing into the canopy.

Very common along the Tennessee River, American hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) has an expressive gray bark — dark woody/corky knobs and ridges. Much more friendly to tree-climbing mammals than honey locust! Look for a couple unusual specimens in the Natural Oddities section.

I never tire of finding sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a wonderfully sap-scented tree just as common near my original western Maryland home as here in northern Alabama. The Joe Wheeler trail presented some of the largest sassafras I’ve encountered, ranging from large main canopy occupants to intermediate and lower levels. The seedlings and saplings are quite tolerant of full shade, surviving for decades awaiting potential release. The bark is distinctive for its interlocking deep vertical furrows. Although the leaves and twigs are nicely scented, pull a seedling and scrape the root collar stem with a knife or fingernail to enjoy the most aromatic fragrance. Smells just like a rich root-beer to me!




I found this paired hackberry and sassafras along the trail. Could two trees be more dissimilar in bark? Nature sure knows how to mix it up. Both are deciduous, broad-leafed trees; eight feet from core to core; sharing substrate and competing for main canopy light; benefiting jointly from common mycorhizal fungi; next door neighbors for life. Yet bark, leaves, wood, flowers, seed, and crown structure differ remarkably. To what competitive advantage do we attribute the differences; by what evolutionary track?

Hornbeam (Ostrya Virginian) thrives in the lower canopy, occasionally reaching intermediate levels. I entered my forestry career knowing this tree (with its very strong and exceptionally hard wood) as ironwood. The close-up photo below shows the thinly stripped bark on a five-inch diameter stem.Were I not the photographer, I might view this image as a much larger shagbark hickory. So, size does matter!

This next image is a three-foot-diameter white oak (Quercus alba). It takes its common name from its whitish, slightly furrowed, scaly bark. The massive tree in the Special Features section below is another white oak. What distinguishes white and red oak? Most red oaks have smoother bark; white usually and flaky. White oak leaves are generally round-lobed; red oak sharped-lobed. Wood is the foolproof diagnostic. Examine the wood end-cut. Red oak pores (xylem tubes) are open; white oak pores are clogged with tyloses. Hence, barrels and casks from white oak; a red oak wooden vessel leaks.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) bark appears irresistible to pocket knives — woodland graffiti. The natural-setting version of a subway wall. Beech bark is grey and smooth whether in southern Ontario or here in the Tennessee Valley.

Chinese parasol tree (Firmiana simplex), an escaped ornamental characterized as an aggressive, invasive weed in the southern US, is a species I did not recognize. I found many individuals along the trail… occupying lower and mid-level canopy positions, and appearing quite vibrant. This is a new one for me.

My Peterson’s Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs of Central and Eastern North America lists 30 oak species. I need to improve my field identification skills. I believe the one on the left below is northern red oak (Quercus rubra). On the right (once again conditioned with “I believe”) is black oak (Quercus velutina).


I snapped this yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera — I love its lyrical name) because it’s young enough to just be expressing its mature bark and already adorned with sapsucker bird-peck. I like its look!

Mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa), like many of the species at JWSP, occupies our eastern forests from Alabama to New Hampshire. Shallow, grey, interlocking vertical furrows characterize mockernut hickory’s bark. Often coexisting, mockernut and shagbark hickories are easy to distinguish by bark alone.

Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) appeared across my three-mile trek, occupying the main canopy. I included this photo for two reasons. First, loblolly is our state’s most widespread evergreen. Second, the poison ivy vine clinging to the pine’s bark provides a nice visual segue to this next section on Special Features!


Special Features

The trail passes by two Alabama Champion Trees, a bonus benefit for me. I admit to having no prior knowledge of September elm (Ulmus serotina).

And the State Champion chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), within the white oak group.

This is the classic old growth white oak specimen along the trail. How can we not be inspired by the giants in our mixed hardwood forests. Yes, I’ve seen Yosemite’s Sequoia, coastal Redwoods, and Pacific rain-forest Douglas fir. Certainly special to visit, yet I remain transfixed by our eastern forests in their mixed-stand splendor, made all the more special by their proximity (no west coast flights required!) and the reality that most are second-growth forests.

Not all of the stands through which the trail winds exhibit old growth character. Nor does it have the frequently steep stony surface that dominates Monte Sano State Park. The JWSP trails are gentler, stirring thoughts of poetry, harmony, and serenity. In itself a special feature.

The far end of the trail enters a disc golf course, a rather sneaky way (I applaud it!) to tempt otherwise mown-grass adventurers into the wild. The lower left photo once again captures the trail’s serene ambience. Please know that I encountered not a single flying saucer!

And what could be more special than the occasional bluff-side view of Lake Wheeler, close enough to hear the waves slapping the shore below?

I saw at least a dozen deer, this one grazing along the trail mostly tolerant of my passing. She hurried off, somewhat ambivalently, as I resumed walking. Yet another special feature. Special… but not rising to the level of an oddity.


Natural Oddities

I once had direct responsibility for furnishing raw hardwood sawlogs to the Union Camp Corporation sawmill in Waverly, Virginia. In those days what drew my attention involved desired species of large diameter… bole straight and logs defect-free. I still appreciate commercial value and a veneer quality butt log. However, it’s often the defects now that pique my aesthetic interest. This hefty white oak has a prominent seam, likely scar tissue from a long-ago lightning strike to the crown that spiraled down the bole stripping bark en route to its forest floor grounding. The air surrounding a bolt can reach 55,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the sun’s surface. Strong enough to strip bark yet often not fatal to the tree. On another occasion, I recall seeing a two-foot diameter white ash in northwestern Pennsylvania shattered into multiple linear fragments, some thrown a hundred feet or more and standing vertically like chucked spears. This old soldier carries the lightning wound like a campaign ribbon.

Carrying the military metaphor a bit further, this 30-inch mockernut hickory bears a horizontal periscope at about 30-feet above the ground. Did I actually see the eye pivot my way as I stood taking photos? What magic has the old hickory witnessed over the decades? The periscope is obviously a branch stub that the tree chose (well maybe not consciously) to callous-over with active cambium and bark, like a blunt-end leg amputated above the knee. An oddity and curiosity — like visiting one of the once-common Ripley’s Believe It Or Not attractions along 1970’s highways. Nature offers a wide selection of the unusual.

Who among us students of Nature’s bark collection would not be captivated by the variety of southern barks? How about the diversity even within a single species? A single species along a three-mail hike!? I offered you a typical hackberry bark photo earlier. A sapsucker artist helped modify the tree below left. Not so much corky ridges — more like corky pits. And the moss-modified deep corky ridges below right lead me to wonder how I ever came to know bark. Just when I think it simple, Nature reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci’s observation: “There is no result in nature without a cause; understand the cause and you will have no need of the experiment.” As my life extends, I hunger more than ever to discern the cause. Nature knows — I seek to discover.


I doubt whether had I taken this same hike 30 years ago I would have noticed half of what caught my attention earlier in June. I’ve learned that wonder and amazement in Nature are always within reach. Find it in the trees and the forest; don’t allow one to blind you from the other. Some people (far too many) see neither the forest nor the trees. I see and celebrate both. You can, too.

I am only now learning to ask the right questions. I will never know all the answers… yet I do know that all the answers lie within Nature. Leonardo da Vince also said, “Nature is full of infinite causes that have never occurred in experience.” Infinite is a daunting quest. I shall be content to follow these pursuits through to my final hike. I find solace in Believing in Nature’s majesty; Looking beyond the superficial; Seeing what others might not even imagine; Feeling the pure power and emotion of discovery; and Acting in some small way to help others appreciate the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe of Nature.

A society can be judged by its willingness (eagerness) and determination to sustain its wild side. To treasure our natural  libraries and museums of Nature-based questions and answers. Alabama’s State Parks, State Forests, National Forests, and National Parks evidence that humanity is alive and well here in Sweet Home Alabama.

I am excited to pursue my Alabama State Parks bucket list check-off.


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

Late June Derecho — Nature’s Fury

I remind you that I am a weather addict, hooked on its captivating nuances, predictable (and not so predictable) patterns, and heart-stopping power and beauty. I witnessed one of Nature’s most powerful land-based weather phenomena last week — a derecho.

Accuweather’s online definition:

Derechos are often referred to as inland hurricanes due to the hurricane-like conditions, in terms of ferocious wind and torrential rain, which are spawned by this weather phenomenon.

This term refers to a dangerous type of thunderstorm complex that travels along a path of at least 240 miles, according to the Storm Prediction Center. These violent severe thunderstorm clusters produce widespread and long-lived, straight-line wind damage.

June 28, 2018 late morning I watched high clouds begin to sag from the north. I checked the radar to see a thickening line of thunderstorms building and dropping from northeastern Tennessee. The high clouds proved to be the anvil ahead of the derecho. Our local forecast soon included a severe thunderstorm watch, followed by a warning. The derecho approached at 30+ miles per hour. Its gust front and preceding shelf cloud brought 12:30 PM near-darkness to us. This photo captures the turbulent underside of that front, extending for tens of miles, racing south well ahead of the rain shield. This view is nearly vertical from my Madison, Alabama driveway. By now the wind howled and thunder boomed less than five miles away.

I raced to our south-facing lawn looking over Big Blue Lake. A fearsome image. I thought the four horsemen of the apocalypse might appear at any moment. Or Willie Nelson’s Ghost Riders in the Sky! Are the Hounds of Hell baying within that violent firmament!












The menacing roiling, massive underside hinted at Armageddon. I admit to some level of deep apprehension and fear. As a student of Nature and weather, I knew and appreciated with certainty what I was witnessing yet something hard-wired within me evoked an involuntary fear/flight reaction, one that may have served a survival purpose. As the lightning grew closer I retreated indoors to window-watch. As the rain hit and continued I snapped a photo to the south, the ugly prefatory sky, strong winds, and initial deluge long since given way to a moderate rain.

I measured 1.3 inches of welcome rain, bringing the June total to 5.15 Inches.

The derecho reached the Gulf coast by evening, far exceeding the Storm Prediction Center’s minimum path of 240 miles for derecho designation. The next morning, 65,000 Alabamians remained without power. I saw a few small branches and a handful of downed trees as I drove into town. By and large we escaped the full fury in this vicinity.


I characterize this derecho as still another episode of Pleasurable Terror for me. We inhabit a dynamic planet… whether a north-Alabama derecho or Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. That dynamism over the vast sweep of time has shaped the Earth and its living systems that sustain us. This is our Garden of Eden. The turbulent, occasionally menacing, and sometimes devastating forces at play are part of the bargain in living on Planet Earth. In fact, such is the case for every life and enterprise within this wonderful experiment we call humanity. Into each life a little rain must fall.

Our burden is to understand these forces of Nature and human nature. We are best served when we know what we face and deal with circumstances accordingly. Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading demands that we pay attention and learn from Nature’s Lessons.

Clouds portending fury certainly do not capture my sole (or soul) attention. Two evenings before the derecho, a thunderstorm dying to the WSW caught my eye (lower left). The next morning, a delightfully pleasant sunrise sky suggested that all would be well for the day ahead (lower right).

May Nature Inspire all that you do!


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