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.”

Bark Portfolio — Beauty and Mystery

A Poem as Lovely as a Tree?

I’ve found fascination, entertainment, inspiration, wonderment, and joy in trees since toddler-hood! Poet Joyce Kilmer’s Trees captures my lifelong sentiment:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

As a kind-of-writer, I’ve thought about communicating my addiction to Nature via the language of poetry. I have yet to take that bold leap. I suppose I am so taken with Nature’s magic, wonder, beauty, and awe, that I fear doing injustice to the real thing in a futile attempt at verse and meter. I’ll stick to prose for now.

I took freshman dendrology (the study of trees) 48 years ago. We learned to identify scores of central Appalachian tree species by leaf, twig, bud, bark, and flower. That course and thousands of forest practice hours since in our eastern forests enabled me to identify many species without so much as a glance into the canopy. I’ve learned that I can do it far more easily than I can explain. Like differentiating among our human friends and acquaintances, bark-based tree identification rests upon recognizing and mentally cataloging features of distinction.

Annie Dillard spoke indirectly to the art and science bases of such tasks:

[T]he notion of the infinite variety of detail and the multiplicity of forms is a pleasing one; in the complexity are the fringes of beauty, and in variety are generosity and exuberance.

Visiting a Forest Museum

These days on a woods walk, I see the beauty, generosity, and exuberance more clearly and appreciatively than ever. Tree identification no longer seems a sordid mechanical exercise. Instead, I peruse the forest and its trees in like fashion to visiting a museum and seeing works of art. Since returning from West Virginia late December, I have enjoyed perhaps a dozen hikes with two different groups. One group tours at museum pace; the other at what I’ll call point-to-point pace. The first walks appreciatively within the forest; the second scoots through the forest. June 8, 2018, I hiked through the forest at Monte Sano State Park, covering some 7.7 miles. I attempted to combine hiking through and within the forest. The result — peristalsis — I frequently halted to examine, appreciate, and photograph museum pieces, and then raced ahead to catch the group of through-walkers. Know that racing ahead at age 67 isn’t what it used to be! In this particular museum tour, I focused mostly on one type of exhibit — tree bark.

Shagbark hickory — such a work of art! I wanted to inhale its magic; imagine its mysteries; ponder its design. No way… I had to catch the group. Why did I focus for that day’s hike on tree bark? The Friday hike a week earlier, I walked within another Monte Sano forest with a museum-paced group, our hike abbreviated by an approaching thundershower. That hike piqued my current interest in tree bark. I decided to devote the next hike to viewing the bark displays. I offer an introduction to the study of native north Alabama tree bark with the photos below. Consider this museum-highlights Blog Post as a teaser… a beginning for future examinations.

I wonder whether our US southeastern region has a corollary to Michael Wojtech’s Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast. Bark is a wonderful compendium of photographs and descriptions. I view it as a catalog of New England’s tree bark museum pieces. Dr. Tom Wessels, a forest ecologist and one of my world-class faculty members when I served as President, Antioch University New England, penned Bark‘s foreword. No wonder I respected and admired now-emeritus professor Wessels so much. We are kindred souls. He sees the forest as the work of art that it is:

The bark of trees has been relegated to the background for too long. With this guide, Michael Wojtech has prepared a forested pageant for our eyes. I encourage anyone who picks up this book to become acquainted with our sylvan neighbors, as I did more than 50 years ago, by the wonderful ways in which they cloak their strong frames.

I’ve not discovered a similar references for our southern forest museum.

I now offer a forested pageant sampler from my recent Monte Sano State Park peristalsis. I present this exhibit registry in no particular order. The inventory is not even fully inclusive of the species we encountered. Again, I did not have the luxury of time and pace to capture images of all species we saw. Perhaps I can begin to compile a more complete directory. In each case below I will identify the tree species (in some cases, species group) in text above the photo(s).

The sugar maple below left bears the trail identification marker for my own future reference. The larger twin sugar maples (below right) conveniently show verifying leaves from epicormic shoots. Note the sapsucker bird-peck on the larger stem just above the fork. Ah, each photo will tempt me with side-track observations. One I can’t resist — the “fork” is likely a union where two competing stump or roots sprouts conjoined as they expanded into one another.

Red Oak is a species grouping. Both photos below show a red oak. As we walked through the forest, I did not take time to assign species. That will await my next hike within the forest!














Eastern Red Cedar is a common pioneer species that invades abandoned pasture, road-sides, and other severely disturbed areas. An evergreen, red cedar has distinctive bark, seldom mistaken in aggregate characteristics for any other species. My experience throughout the eastern US is that most everybody recognizes and can name cedar.

Buckeye (Ohio?) appeared occasionally along the lower slopes and richer sites across the distance. Once more, a distinctive bark… with broad plates and a gray hue.

White Oak is another species grouping. I am reasonably sure that this is Quercus alba. Vertically oriented shallow peeling bark, a light gray color.

White Ash constituted perhaps five percent of the stems along our trek. Vertically patterned interlocking furrows, deepening with age and girth. One of my favorite species, ash is under distribution-wide threat from the emerald ash borer, already devastating the species south to mid-Tennessee.

Black Locust, another pioneer species, is dropping from the forests we transected. I found far more dead stems than living. I would have predicted same. They just can’t live as long as the oaks and other mature forest associates. Somewhat similar to ash in bark orientation, the locust has a coarser pattern and deeper furrows.

Paw Paw is an intermediate canopy dweller, occupying a vertical position beneath the main canopy. I find the bark non-descriptive. Without seeing the leaves, I would have lumped it into “other.” I have not spent enough time around it to recognize it.

Chestnut Oak is another of the white oak group. I describe its bark as alligator hide, coarse and deeply furrowed. We found it most commonly on upper slopes and poorer sites.

Black Cherry distinguishes itself with dark, finely plated flakes, aligned neither vertically or horizontally. The species holds a special place in my heart — Prunus serotina dominated the Allegheny Hardwood forests (NW PA and SW NY) where I conducted my doctoral research. It’s good to see it here in the South.

Sweetgum is, from my limited observation, the most widely distributed hardwood species across Alabama… a companion to loblolly pine from Tennessee to the Gulf. Vertically oriented shallow plates.

I often tell people tongue in cheek that Dogwood is identifiable by its bark. I’m having fun with words, but I am also speaking truthfully. Dogwood’s blocky, dark bark is unique… and instantly distinguishable. Add in a handful of sprout leaves and we have an indisputable i.d.

Persimmon bark resembles dogwood’s, only on steroids. Dark and deeply blocky. Persimmon does reach into the lower main canopy; dogwood is relegated to the lower tier.

Loblolly Pine is our chief Southern Pine. I admit to relying upon a peek to the canopy needles to confidently differentiate among our native pines.

During the hike I rush-snapped this photo of an unusual bark. Already falling behind from several successive stops, I needed to once again close the gap with my fellow hikers. I presumed I would see another of what I am now referring to as a mystery species. I did not! I’m leading toward a hickory, but without any confidence. Note the mid-photo horizontal bird-peck.

We ended the hike back atop the Cumberland Plateau. A fitting end with a great view… our first since emerging from the continuous closed canopy we entered at the parking lot trail head.


Branching Habits — Yet Another Forest Museum Exhibit Category

Bark employs exquisite photos of tree bark by species and stage of maturation — sapling through old growth. I found a related volume during my exhaustive doctoral literature search, The Adaptive Geometry of Trees (Henry S. Horn, 1971). Horn employed meticulous and detailed line drawings of branching form, offering explanations for the adaptive competitive advantages linking form and function:

Botanists seldom give much thought to the shapes of whole plants, perhaps because the growth habit of most higher plants is a repeatedly branched system of units of variable number. It is the form of the units (leaves, flowers, roots) that provides most of the material used by descriptive botanists. The parts, however, are linked to make a more or less integrated whole, a light-trapping, gas exchanging, water-conducting wick extended between the water and nutrients of the soil and the sunlit desiccating environment of the air. The form of this whole may be expected to matter very much, and if adaptively critical elements in form can be isolated and measured we may expect to have a tool of great value for comparing species and understanding the working of plant communities. [This book] is almost wholly an analysis of the effects of leaf arrangements on the trapping of light.

I think we can accept that branching form is a mechanism for seeking and securing competitive advantage. But what about bark pattern, color, coarseness, and other elements of form contributes some advantage? I have no idea, nor will I speculate with this Blog Post. Does anyone care beyond the squirrel, bird, lizard, snake, raccoon, vine, resurrection fern, or other aerial tree-dwellers?

I’ll do a little more homework before I revisit this subject in some future Blog Post.

Novel Forest Museum Art

I seek Nature’s forest oddities, reserved for display in museum nooks and crannies… seldom advertised… always surprising, captivating, and rewarding. Like trees, vine species evidence distinctive bark. I needed more time to fully appreciate these specialty collections. This five-inch-diameter grapevine is about as large as I have encountered.

Poison ivy’s bark carries a shaggy mane, distinguishing it from other forest vines. Like the grapevine above, this is a particularly large poison ivy stem.

I had once again already fallen behind when I found this museum piece: “Spider in Twisted Vines.” A genuine work of art!

Once again, as I hurried through the woods I glanced to my left to see ET peering at me from a shagbark hickory. I considered offering him my digital device to Phone Home!

Ah, if only I could have lingered more along the way!

Reflections and Lessons

I’ll repeat from above:

I think we can accept that branching form is a mechanism for seeking and securing competitive advantage. But what about bark pattern, color, coarseness, and other elements of form contributes some advantage? I have no idea, nor will I speculate with this Blog Post. Does anyone care beyond the squirrel, bird, lizard, snake, raccoon, vine, resurrection fern, or other aerial tree-dwellers?

I’ll do a little more homework before I revisit this subject in some future Blog Post.

The same questions and mysteries apply as well to other tree features, including: wood; leaves; roots; buds and twigs; chemical by-products; flower and fruit; insects and diseases; animal inhabitants. I recall an old Pennsylvania Dutch idiom, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” Such was the case with me on this too-quick journey through the forest.

I believe I know now more than I ever have, yet I now realize how little I do know. A Bob Seger tune includes these lyrics: “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” Sometimes, he suggests, things are simpler when less complicated and unburdened with wisdom, knowledge, and experience. Yet those very contemplations and musings enrich my visits to the local forest museum. Each hike within the woods offers yet another forested pageant for my eyes. I’m grateful for all that I’ve learned and know, for every iota of knowledge and wisdom serves as a lens for deeper appreciation for and celebration of Nature.

Once again, it is Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe that inspire my life and add value to every day. As I so often urge… learn, practice, and hone all five verbs critical to deeply appreciating life: Believe; Look; See; Feel; and Act. Become an informed and dedicated Earth steward. Commit yourself to making tomorrow better and brighter.

Embrace Nature-Inspired Living, Learning, Serving, and Leading!


I’ve said, “Believing is Seeing.” Well even I have my limits!


Six-Hundred-Sixty Mile Transect

We departed our Madison, Alabama home mid-morning, Thursday May 10, destination Fairmont, West Virginia, 660 road miles to the northeast. We stayed overnight in Princeton, WV about 200 miles from Fairmont, where we needed to be early afternoon for events in advance of Saturday’s Commencement ceremonies and my two addresses. We began our journey from near Huntsville’s Space and Rocket Center (below left) and finished at the FSU Falcon Center (below right).

This time of year affords sufficient daylight for us to avoid driving in the dark. The journey traversed what I felt might be an interesting ecological transect… one worthy of capturing with a Great Blue Heron blog post. Think about some of the factors:

  • Mid-May is a shoulder season of sorts — summer-like on this southern end and still spring on the other
  • Elevation ~570 feet along the Tennessee River near here
  • Elevation of 3,400 feet at highest point of journey — I-77 at Flat Top, West Virginia
  • Fairmont ~450 miles north of Madison

Please recognize that developing this post served as an ancillary outcome of our trip… not the primary purpose. Therefore, we captured most photographs with my iPhone camera at highway speed. As evidence, Judy’s reflected image appears in the side-view mirror in the Space Center photo, snapped as we headed east on I-565. See her again below capturing Monte Sano’s 1,600-foot ridge (really, the ridge is the profile expression of the Cumberland Plateau) rising just east of Huntsville. The Plateau and the Valley geology consists of horizontal sedimentary rock strata of sandstone and limestone.

Once I pop east of Huntsville I feel somehow less in the deep South, sensing from the dissected Cumberland Plateau a return to my Appalachian roots. No, same climate as Madison, yet a landscape within this deeply-dissected Plateau land that echoes the ridge and valley of my youth. Some15 miles east of Huntsville, the valleys are broad with sandy loam soil totally unlike the clayey red soils of Madison and the Tennessee River Valley. The Plateau, with its accordant summits borders every valley.

TVA’s Lake Guntersville (Tennessee River) reaches north across our Route 72 east-bound passage. The impoundment occupies the broad flat valley, once again framed by the Plateau. I continued driving even as I entertained a few fantasies of largemouth bass! What an enticing view to the south. This 11-day trip will include:

  • The FSU Commencement
  • Visiting our son and his family north of Pittsburgh
  • A couple days with Judy’s sister and other family members in Cumberland, Maryland
  • A side trip for me to Flushing, Ohio to explore a potential Land Legacy Story contract with owners of a 1,100-acre cattle operation
  • A memorial service and appreciation event at West Virginia University Medical Center for the families of persons who donated their bodies for medical use over the preceding year (Mom died April 17, 2017 and donated hers)
  • Arrival back home May 20

My brief fantasy side-trip led me to promise myself some fishing time in these game-fish-infested southern waters! What is it that the coffee mug concludes: “Even a bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work.” My mental interlude took me around the bend at the sight-line, sheltered in some cove far from traffic noise, my light spinning rod in-hand, and the promise of some bass and crappie action — Nature’s elixir working its therapeutic magic! Okay, with a snap of my fingers — 610 miles to go.

Entering Tennessee

That’s Lookout Mountain below looking east from the Interstate near Chattanooga, TN. The Cumberland Plateau stands at ~1,850 at this point on Lookout Mountain, some 1,000 feet above the valley. The predominantly deciduous forest cover very closely resembles the cover at Huntsville’s Monte Sano State Park. We’ve stayed at roughly the same elevation and have gone mostly due east. We’ve covered ~120 road miles — about 540 miles to go. In terms of climate zones, we have not left Madison!

Mid-way between Chattanooga and Knoxville, I spot a disturbing first along the route — dead ash trees along the highway. The  imported (an international shipment stow-away) emerald ash-borer is spreading rapidly in North America across the range of genus Fraxinus. It is decimating ash. We saw the ubiquitous mortality from this point north to our destination, and beyond to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland. Oh, the price we pay for our shrinking globe. We do business in a global economy; we and all Earth species must sustain within a global ecosystem. I find the ash decline and imminent peril particularly disturbing. I have been a big ash fan from my days conducting forest inventory on State Forests in western Maryland during undergraduate summers… to conducting forest fertilization on planted green ash stands for Union Camp Corporation in Virginia and North Carolina… through my PhD research on Pennsylvania and New York Allegheny Hardwood stands (white ash a major component). I have revered its preference for high quality sites, its fast growth, straight boles, strong wood, and deep green foliage. Nothing beats its easy response to a splitting maul, its non-sputtering flame and hi BTUs in a fireplace or stove, and the crack of a Louisville Slugger bat connecting with a fastball. As we’ve faced before with American Chestnut and American elm, how on Earth do we contend with vanishing ash!?

We encountered the dead ash for reasons other than crossing some ecological divide. Instead, we entered the geographic margin of spread from the borer’s Cleveland point of entry. Officials have already noted the green beetle’s presence in Alabama, though not yet widespread. Time will tell. We can hope for some climatic barrier… yet I fear the insect will continue its spread of infestation and death.

Crossing An Ecological Border

The next photo does indeed signal that we crossed an ecological boundary. North of Knoxville, mid-way to the Virginia line, we began seeing our first native white pine (Pinus strobus), evidencing that we had left the Southern Pine Region, where loblolly pine (also slash and longleaf pines) reigns supreme. White pine extends north into Canada. The white pine stands at the forest edge at about one-third of the distance from the photo’s left margin. White pine graced our New Hampshire property, with crowns emergent (reaching a shoulder above) from the main hardwood canopy. As I indicated, the Cumberland Plateau topography resonated with my central Appalachian homing instincts. Loblolly transitioning to white pine likewise brought me a step closer to my own head-water spawning stream.

About the same place, when open views presented to the east, we could see the Great Smokey Mountains, where Clingmans Dome in Tennessee lifts to 6,643 feet, just shy of North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell at 6,784 feet, the highest east of the Mississippi River. The Smokies are the heart of the ancient Appalachians, tortured, folded, faulted, and thrust vertically by tectonic plate collisions that culminated in construction of the supercontinent Pangea some 480 million years ago. Picture Himalaya-like, now long since scoured and weathered to their minimal (yet still impressive) remnant geography. This view doesn’t do them justice. It’s the best we could do without a 30-40-mile one-way side trip. I remind you, my intent with this post is to chronicle our ecological transect, in this case just hinting at what I still characterize as a magnificent old mountain chain, blessed with one of the world’s richest and most biologically diverse temperate forest ecosystems. Even as I fantasize about an occasional day fishing on Lake Guntersville, my bucket list includes spending several late spring to early summer weeks in the Smokies.

Notice that now the view below is to the left of our direction of travel. We’re in Virginia heading northeast on I-81 between Bristol and Wytheville. We’re in the region termed the Cumberland Mountains, like the Smokies, tectonically-tortured ancient remnants.

Unlike the Cumberland Plateau far behind us, the underlying rock strata here are anything but horizontal, tilted in this case (below right) a good 30 degrees up to the left; nearer to 45 degrees below left.

We passed a few road cuts with strata inclination nearly vertical.

Our final first day landmark took us from Virginia into West Virginia on I-77 northbound through the East River Mountain Tunnel. We spent the night not far to the north in Princeton, WV.

Day Two — The Final Stretch

Significantly, we soon reached the elevation apex of I-77 at Flat Top, WV — 3,400 feet. And Flat Top places us at approximately 300 miles north of our Madison home. Consider my speed-of-season advance rules of thumb. Spring speeds north at roughly 0ne week per hundred miles; spring climbs mountains at more or less 800-feet per week. So, how far behind was spring’s May 11, advance compared to Madison, Alabama? Okay, Flat Top is some 2,700 feet higher — that’s 3.375 weeks. And 300 miles north converts to three weeks. Total elevational and latitudinal delay is nearly six-and-one-half weeks, or 45 or so days, placing the predicted spring front date for Flat Top on May 11, equivalent to the last week in March for Madison. Below right shows oak just opening flower buds; the lower left photo shows early valley greening and near-dormant ridge tops.

The National Weather Service monthly temperature averages for the two locations test my rules of thumb. Madison, AL — average high and low temperatures for March are 64 and 42; for Flat Top, WV May comparable values are 66 and 48. Adjust the two averages for the late-in-March equivalent to Flat Top’s early-in-May and we have rough confirmation! Leonardo da Vinci observed some 500 years ago, “Nature never breaks her own laws.” Rules of thumb derive from Nature’s laws.


One reason I have The Smokies in spring on my bucket list relates to elevational time travel. Four thousand vertical feet enables sampling five weeks of spring ephemerals in a single day, with the help of a bit of automobile jockeying from valley to higher elevations!

Heading north from Beckley, WV on Route 19 we crossed the New River Gorge Bridge and stopped at the visitor’s center. The New River flows some 900-feet beneath the road surface. Once more, we are now in plateau topography, the strata mostly horizontal, the river having cut deeply through the uplifted highlands. My brother long ago rappelled several times from the bridge. He tells me that he first assisted rope management from river level, looking up and perceiving the span as a narrow two-lane roadway. When his turn came to drive topside, he looked in amazement at an interstate-class roadway. and gazed astonished at the tiny ribbon of water below. Perhaps one day I will understand the optical phenomenon that makes any height always seem greater from atop.

The gorge supports heavy forest cover. I snapped the photo below from an interpretive display in the visitors center. Nearly all of West Virginia saw the crosscut and axe, sometimes repeatedly, from the mid-1800s through early 20th Century. Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum, natural hardwood regeneration (seedlings and stump or root sprouts) quickly recaptured the cut-over sites.

Again, the landscape stands merely uplifted in planar fashion; no tortured strata. Mostly sandstone, shale, and limestone, and in this exposure a thin band of coal.

We arrived in Fairmont a little after noon, eager for the evening’s festivities.

Commencement Day

No longer speeding along at 70+ MPH, we snapped a typically foggy valley view from our Fairmont accommodations during our morning walk (below left). Once more, horizontal strata characterize these north-central West Virginia plateau hills (right).

And mid-afternoon between the two graduation ceremonies, I walked out on the deck at the President’s residence (Shaw House) to photograph (below left) the view east that I enjoyed most every morning over my six-month tenure. Below right one of those special dawn views!










What a wonderful 660-mile journey — so many dimensions! The trip spanned 7.5 weeks across the spring season. Having this blog post as one peripheral outcome forced me to look a little harder and think more deeply about the transect. I’m once more reminded of my five verbs applicable to Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading:

  1. Believe — I was certain that the trip would reveal lessons and truths
  2. Look — Too many people live and travel blindly, not deliberately conscious of anything beyond traffic and signposts, whether literal or metaphorically
  3. See — And even fewer people actually see past the distractions of life, work, and the near-meaningless digital world in which they struggle
  4. Feel — Believing, looking, and seeing with purpose and intensity inspires feeling, stimulates emotion, and infuses Nature’s elixir
  5. Act — My own mind surges, ideas surface, and action scenarios present themselves

Nature’s lessons are there for our discovery and implementation. I weaved some of my Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading theme into my commencement remarks. From this day forward I will travel life’s journey with a greater spirit of intentional observation, which accompanied this 660-mile transit.

I am blessed to have been invited back to Fairmont State University to offer words of celebration, encouragement, and challenge to the graduates and the campus community.

May your own life be Nature-Inspired, passion-fueled, purpose-driven, and results-oriented!


Note: I am available for Nature-Themed motivational/inspirational speaking and writing… for NGOs, businesses, landowners, agencies, and Nature-oriented enterprises. Contact me at:

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



Fairmont State University Commencement

Fairmont State University Commencement Remarks

May 12, 2018; S. Jones

Having served Fairmont State University as Interim President July-December 2017, I felt honored to present the University’s Commencement address May 12, 2018 at both the morning and afternoon ceremonies. That’s the FSU campus below right, an aerial view from my week-before-Christmas-fly-over with one of our flight instructor faculty; nearby Tygart River Falls in July at left. Normally I focus these blog posts on my Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading core message. This one strays topically a bit afield. Yet I include it because so many of the posts I drafted within the Nature-Inspired theme during my interim presidency drew from my six-month total immersion in this Central Appalachian Region, rich in Nature harking back to my youth.


I now offer my Commencement remarks, which I’ve converted to text from the cryptic notes I used at the lectern:

Good morning/afternoon!

I spent six wonderful and memorable months here at Fairmont State university (FSU), my home away from home July-December 2017. I’ve served at nine universities. This one is special, from its spectacular sunrises from the Shaw House deck to the heart of the Falcon spirit that defines us:

  • FSU is notably place-committed: to this community, north-central West Virginia, and the broader region
  • The University is powerfully purpose-driven, dedicated to serving Marion and adjoining counties, our students, and Falcon alumni everywhere
  • No institution is more passion-fueled than this one — FSU faculty and staff bring the unbridled passion of their commitment to you every day, apparent to me from the first time I walked onto campus
  • And every person here in the Feaster Center is results-oriented; today is just one facet of the results they and we seek

My six-month interim presidency changed me forever – I know that your time as a Falcon has done the same for you! Nature is Change, evidenced by the seasonal cycles that define a year, a career, and a lifetime. An FSU education prepared you graduates to recognize and anticipate change, and deal with it across the seasons that lie ahead. As a Nature enthusiast, I see and communicate deep lessons in the simple (yet miraculous) transition from summer to winter, especially in these central Appalachians. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven!



Sharing Three Memorable Speeches

Today is all about you and what you will take from FSU on life’s journey. My task this day is twofold. To give you some words of wisdom and spur you on your way. Rather than reinvent the wheel, allow me to borrow shamelessly from the three most memorable speeches I have heard across my own journey. Each offers immutable lessons for life and career that are as applicable today as when first presented.

Only one of the three is a Commencement address — Dr. Jim Goodnight’s 2003 North Carolina State University remarks. An accomplished business executive and former NC State faculty member, Dr. Goodnight offered three suggestions for the degree-recipients. First, to the extent possible, align your vocation with your avocational interests. That is, focus your career on what you love. Jim’s second suggestion surprised me initially. He said simply, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!” Upon reflection, how well-stated and on-target. Persistent, futile digging is epidemic, whether in Washington DC or the local city hall. Too many leaders keep digging! I found Jim’s third suggestion powerful yet exceedingly difficult: seek balance in faith, family, community, work, and other life-elements. I have found that pursuing balance is so easy to say and so elusive to achieve.

Dr. Goodnight’s insight proved apt, extraordinarily brief, and absurdly simple. His is the only commencement address I remember – ever! I may recall gems from others but I cannot recall attribution. Jim’s every remark is indelible! He took no longer to present his address than I consumed in summarizing it for you. Reflecting upon it led me to remember the best speaking advice I’ve ever heard, “If you don’t have much to say… don’t take so long to say it.” And it reminded me of the scariest words any speaker has ever uttered, “I will be brief.” Never believe it — it’s a warning that “I want you to believe I will be brief, but there is no way I will!”

Jim Valvano, 1983 NCAA men’s basketball championship coach at NC State University, presented the second memorable speech among the three. Facing a diagnosis of incurable terminal cancer, Jim took to the motivational and inspirational speaking circuit several years after the championship season. He offered three necessary daily elements for living life to the fullest. First he said, think deeply about something important to someone you care about. Second, find daily a reason to laugh heartily. And third, feel something to the point of tears each and every day. As with Dr. Goodnight’s remarks, coach Valvano’s advice stood as simple, succinct, and powerful, spoken from the heart, soul, and spirit… with passion and purpose. His message stands as relevant some thirty years later for you; for every one; for every day!

I go back more than half-a-century for the third memorable speech, President John F. Kennedy’s January 16, 1961 Inaugural Address. The young President said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” I submit that his powerful call to service stands as a fine point for a commencement address… even now; perhaps especially now. And service is a compelling component of my charge to you. Serve is one of four verbs lying ahead for you: Live; Learn; Lead; and Serve

I said three memorable speeches. I offer a fourth of sorts, unspoken yet a strongly communicated message from my Dad, deceased 23 years. One of my heroes, Dad led me to a life and career dedicated to Nature. A blue collar laborer and WWII combat veteran, Dad loved fishing, hiking, camping, picnicking, and other such pursuits. We often headed outdoors summer weekday evenings and most weekends. However, Sunday afternoons we observed Dad’s spirit dimming perceptibly. Mom explained that Dad began to despair from knowing that Monday morning he returned to a job he loathed — not loved. I vowed then to never take a job I didn’t love.

I’ve managed to live by that vow and code. I urge you to do the same. Align your vocation and your avocation!


Life Events Shape Us

I paused and began again by telling the graduates that life events shape us. Today is a new beginning (Commencement) for you. Six years ago (May 3, 2012), stands as a new beginning for Mrs. Jones and me. While we were enjoying a full-daylight evening stroll, a two-ton SUV plowed into us. During our recovery we realized that life is fleeting and fragile… and that there are no guarantees for tomorrow. The incident stood as a life-event for us. I think of three relevant quotes that help define the lessons and draw deep relevance from the incident.

First, Helen Keller observed, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.” Keller did not deem daring as foolhardy but instead as bold, aspirational, and determined. Second, Bernard Malamud, who authored The Natural, expressed through his lead character, “We have two lives to live; the one we learn with, and the life we live after that.” Mrs. Jones and I are living our second Life! And in a third relevant quote, author Author Napoleon Hill said, “Dreams and visions are the children of your soul.”

Each of you has dreams and visions — of career, life, and service. I urge you to take time to devote thought and energy to defining your dreams and visions. Once you can articulate those dreams and visions, embrace them; cherish them; bring life to them! Remember, those dreams and visions are the children of your soul — nourish them!

My own dreams are clearer now, six years into my second life, than ever before. My first component is to leave this world a better place for my having passed through it. I commit to giving full measure to living. I pledge to dedicate the full power and passion of my soul to realizing my vision. I wish the same for you – devote yourself to purpose fueled by passion.


I want to emphasize a strong personal focus for me. Louis Bromfield, a mid-Twentieth Century best selling author with some 30 best-sellers, including a half-dozen adapted to Hollywood movies, purchased what he termed an old, worn-out north-central Ohio farm in the mid-30s. He dedicated his life to rehabilitating Malabar Farm, and chronicled his mission in Pleasant Valley, a non-fiction book account of his efforts: “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.” That paragraph synthesizes my own life’s work and vision. May those words likewise, serve as metaphor for your life!


Concluding Reflections

I give you a final quote. Douglas Adams in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul speaks to the journey and outcome that many of us have and will recognize, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” Such is where life has guided and steered me.

May this Commencement begin your journey to where you need to be!

So, wherever life takes you:

  • Be true to your vision and dreams
  • Commit to place, wherever it happens to be
  • Dare to be bold!
  • Live with purpose
  • Let passion fuel all that you do
  • Enjoy life – don’t waste it!

Safe and pleasant travels – may you forever soar like a Falcon!


A Postscript: Although I could not match Jim Goodnight’s five-minute Commencement address, I do feel good to have kept my remarks to a dozen. Will anybody remember my speech in the same way I so vividly recall Jim’s? Likely not… yet I hope I at least stimulated a bit of retrospection among graduates, faculty, and guests. I also hope that the bit of Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading I infused found some traction.

That’s permanent FSU President Dr. Mirta Martin and me below left; Judy and me with Dr. Martin and husband John below right. A bit of Nature providing backdrop! May Nature Inspire all that you do.


Note: I am available for Nature-Themed motivational/inspirational speaking and writing… for NGOs, businesses, landowners, agencies, and Nature-oriented enterprises. Contact me at:

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

Little River Canyon

Saturday April 21, I made my first visit to Little River Canyon (LRC) near Fort Payne, AL and the Georgia border. I felt as though I already knew it well. Twenty-one years ago when serving as Alabama Cooperative Extension Director, I accepted a nicely framed 15-by-21-inch numbered print (75/190) of the Canyon for Advancing the Mosley Environmental Awards Program. Since then, the print has adorned my home office wall in North Carolina, Alaska, Ohio, New Hampshire, and now back in its home state.

What a thrill to spend the better part of a day in transit and at the Canyon!

Geologic Factors

Picture the Cumberland Plateau at some 1,300-feet elevation. (For those who hunger for far more technical geologic underpinnings, see the Little River Canyon website or references like Jim Lacefield’s Lost Worlds In Alabama Rocks.) Little River Canyon’s headwaters drain the relatively flat Plateau top from from north to south. In effect, a river located atop a mountain. As volume increases down stream, along with the power of its flow, the river begins cutting a channel, which enters its own canyon-creation at Little River Falls. Official Little River Volunteer Jim Harlow, whom I accompanied from Huntsville, oriented me to the Preserve at the Falls. Jim participated in my LearningQUEST Nature’s Wisdom course during the winter. I appreciate his kind invitation for the day at the Canyon.

Eventually cutting the Little River Canyon to 4-500-feet below the Plateau, the effect is quite spectacular, especially given that the river incises terrain that appears otherwise plain-like.













As I stood on the rim rock at various locations, I marveled over the tremendous quantity of rock long-since weathered, eroded, and transported from here (the entire massive void of the canyon was once rock) down the Alabama River system and emptied into the Gulf at Mobile Bay. There, over the vast sweep of time, deposited sediments, thick with millions of years of annual deposition, are weighting the crust, subsiding at a pace in balance with deposition. Ironically, those sediments could very well be the embryonic sandstone of a future plateau that some eons hence may be carved by a stream into a canyon. Those subsequent sandstone formations might contain relics of our own fossil record. The geologic cycle repeats itself. I’ve often noted that the summit of Mt. Everest, at nearly six miles high, is marine limestone! Today’s mountains will yield to the forces of water, ice, gravity, and time. Today’s sediments will cycle to tomorrow’s mountains. There is geologic wisdom in the old saw, “What goes around comes around”!

Grace Creek, a Little River Canyon tributary, drains inward, cascading over the rim rock into the chasm at Grace’s High Falls. Ample spring rains blessed our visit with plenty of water to furnish glories of both sight and sound.

And Floral Glories

Jim’s Volunteer duties from 1-4:00PM gave me time only to explore the Preserve from the top, driving from place to place and enjoying a few trails. I will go back when I can devote more time to traversing the Canyon itself. This trip, as so many other encounters in life, served as a teaser… a compelling introduction. As I’ve said often in these blog posts, spring is my time to focus on flowering ephemerals.

I’ve encountered bluets (below left) in flower for at least the past month. Here they are still in profusion. I may not see another until next spring, and feel blessed to have found thick colonies at the Preserve. I saw my first ever yellow star-grass (below right; Hypoxis hirsuta) — just two plants in flower caught my eye.

Common wood sorrel (below left) greeted me across my Plateau wanderings. Yellow wood sorrel appeared frequently but mostly as scattered individuals. Catesby’s trillium (below right; Trillium catesbaei), a drooping flower with re-curved petals and sepals, made a single appearance. This individual is my first ever of this species. Gorgeous!

I’ve always rated wild azaleas high on my own ‘Wow’ scale. Among the first I’ve seen this spring, the one below shouted to me as I walked a trail where the predominately Virginia pine overstory is failing. The proximate cause I am told is the severe drought of summer 2016. The ultimate cause is attributable to the species’ principal ecological role as an early successional forest species. Its time has come — a time to every purpose under heaven. I’ll devote a future post to the Preserve’s fading Virginia pine stands.

Part of the thrill of spring wildflower botanizing for me is seeing species for the first time, then seeking and verifying identity. I’ve recently subscribed to several regional Facebook sites for fellow wildflower enthusiasts. They have kindly assisted in identifying ones that leave me puzzled. The lance-leaf coreopsis (below left; Coreopsis lanceolota) fits that category. As did the lyre-leaf sage (below right; Salvia lyrata). One of my new-found Facebook flora friends alerted me to a very handy wildflower app — I now have it on my iPhone and I am eager to try it.

Phlox blessed the rim rock access road shoulder at least every couple hundred feet. Not rare… yet it makes an exquisite statement.

Although I did not venture to the canyon floor, I tallied 25 species in flower. Had I trekked into the depths, I believe another ten would have made an appearance. Next spring I will plan a longer day and deeper hike.

Some Little River Canyon Preserve Oddities

During my early forestry years traipsing the woods of the southeastern US with Union Camp Corporation (UCC), if only I had carried a handy digital camera. Oh, but that was during a past geologic era! Armed now with an iPhone and its decent camera, I can capture and share images of what I consider forest and landscape oddities. Mushroom Rock is among those already part of the LRC lore and magic. The rim road actual splits to pass… one lane on each side. Clearly, the sandstone atop the mushroom is tougher than the weaker layers weathered below it. I will never understand how a so-called intelligent human being can deface such wonders with graffiti. Same sentiment for those who visit outdoors and leave behind memorials of their stop to include butts, candy wrappers, beer cans, and chip bags. I suppose that hundreds of millions years hence, such evidence will present strange imprints in sedimentary rocks not yet formed and far from uplifted.

The nearby formations offer fun shelters, escapes, and routes for youngsters of all ages. Although I am beyond the prompted-to-climb age and agility threshold, I still enjoy walking among these remnants. Mentally I am transformed to a kid when Nature presents such architectural gifts. An apt quote:

In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous. Aristotle

Combine the mineral with the biota — the intersection furnishes visual magic. A gentle kiss! This hickory several decades ago girthed (a verb I just coined involving relentlessly expanding diameter!) into an immovable object. What’s a tree to do? Callous-over and make do — adapt. I lot like what we as resilient individuals must do in living and learning.

The meeting of rock and wood is not unusual. The kiss mechanism has proven evolutionary useful. The affected tree taps open space above the rock or ledge. Rainwater drains from the rock to within reach of the tree’s extensive root system. The tree produces plenty of seed and extends the lineage forward. What more could a tree wish to secure?

Final Reflections

Now semi-retired, I am discovering a new pace. Really, perhaps better stated, I am adjusting to a new pace. Thirteen years as a university president (four different institutions) totally consumed me. I am not complaining — I loved being purpose-driven, passion-fueled, and results-oriented. I relished the often-blistering velocity of demands and action. Walks in the woods came infrequently and the duration far too short. To what am I slowly adjusting? I now have the luxury of slowing to a level of full absorption. Appreciating the gentle hickory/sandstone smooch. Contemplating the significance of our human relationship to Mother Earth. Learning from Nature’s 3.5-billion-year-tested-ways. Observing, translating, and communicating those lessons. Writing to spread the gospel of informed and responsible Earth Stewardship. Luxuriating in Nature!

So, what are some take-home messages from my Little River Canyon far-too-short introductory sojourn? Here is a sampling of my reflections:

  • Are we humans destined to be a footnote in Earth’s future geologic record?
  • Nothing in Nature is new — the Cumberland Plateau sandstone derived from sediments eroded eons prior from mountains long since washed to the sea.
  • Time means nothing to a rock.
  • Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe are within reach every day… every place… to every person.
  • Adaptation to adversity is Nature’s (and humanity’s) key to success.
  • Aldo Leopold once observed: “Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?” Are we denying Nature’s wisdom — blind to it?
  • What can be more important for me than what I am now doing? Isn’t that a question we all should answer?

My next visit will be deeper, longer, and far more contemplative.


Life is Good! May Nature Inspire all that you do.

One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things. Henry Miller