The Fire Tower at Monte Sano

Human history and Natural history are inseparable. We humans are not interlopers on this third rock from the sun. We are not invaders. We are residents… native to Earth. We are here because this is home — because this is the place that spawned us. There is not humanity and Nature. There is simply Nature… and we humans are integral to it. I do not intend for this post to probe the depths of Humanity in Nature. Instead, I chose this esoteric point of entry to set the stage for reflecting on my April 20, 2018 hike at nearby Monte Sano State Park. Not my first Monte Sano sojourn, but my first on these particular trails. All of these trails wend well within the humanity/wildness interface zone. European settlement and influence have marked this not-so-back-country for two centuries.

The State Park and adjoining Northern Alabama Land Trust trail system are testament to those who recognized our interdependence with Nature and took measures to protect and preserve wildness within reach of the Huntsville community. In his 1948 Foreword to A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold observed, “There are those who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” I offer my compliments and appreciation to those who cared (and care) enough to conserve and tend wildness on Monte Sano. Again, we are one with Nature and what better way to remind us than hiking a wild area rich with human history. And do it on a perfect spring morning!

The Modern Human Footprint on Monte Sano

We know that Native Americans lived in this region for twelve millennia. They left a far lighter touch on wildness than European settlement has over two short centuries of occupation. No historic markers designate their dwellings at Monte Sano. Nearly two hundred years ago, Col. Robert Fearn (below left) built a one-and-one-half-story summer home atop Monte Sano at 1,600 feet. Fire destroyed the structure 55 years later. James O’Shaughnessy (below right) built a two-story Victorian residence nearby in 1890. Among other endeavors, he co-owned the Monte Sano Hotel, also nearby atop the plateau.

Two homes and associated out-buildings and a full-service hotel. Permanent man-made features on the plateau landscape, right? Not hardly — Nature’s eraser assures that little is permanent. The entire area we hiked is closed forest, appearing to the uninitiated as forest primeval. Sure, we saw a couple stone gate posts, a remnant brick cistern liner, and abandoned roads, long-since part of the forest floor. The maturing forest signaled subtle successional changes to me, evidencing that some acreage had been cleared. The heritage sign below stands at what had been a fish pond and then a lily lake at the hotel. The forest, as it has with the abandoned road beds, is reclaiming the pond. Organic debris is transforming the open water to deep, soggy muck. Trees and shrubs are finding purchase. Next step — a vernal pool, then a wet depression. This sign and others memorialize the valiant efforts to domesticate a mountain-top.

The Monte Sano fire tower extends 100-feet above its 1,670 feet base elevation. The sign speaks to its history, function, and fate. Fire detection, space age communication, and now historic artifact and curiosity. As a professional forester, I’ve often heard the question upon meeting people, “Are you a forest ranger? You know, a guy who sits in a fire tower?” I don’t know how many times I patiently tried to explain that such was not my professional role. Sometimes I simply replied, “Yes, and what a great life it is… except in thunderstorms!”

I enjoy learning more about the region’s human/wild interface. Nature is a single entity to which we are as integral as other living elements.

A Brief Floral Experience

Most of this trek kept us atop the plateau, neither gaining nor losing elevation. Still we tallied 20 species in flower. Had we dropped below the plateau (rim rock and drop below) we would have encountered others.

Spiderwort is among my spring favorites. We saw mostly the blue one, along with an occasional white version ( a double below left), even seeing one of each in a single camera frame (below right). The two are variations of the same species.

I encountered a first for me. As near as I can tell, below is a potato dandelion (Krigia dandelion). A lovely flower, especially on an otherwise barren forest floor. The strong sunlight reaching it will soon yield to the rapidly filling canopy. Trees will intercept and harvest the sun’s May rays 60-80-feet above our soon-to-be-dormant Krigia.

Wood betony or forest lousewort (Pendicularis canadensis) presented another first. Many would consider lousewort a weed in their home garden. Here on the mid-April plateau top I viewed it as a harbinger of a new season of growth and vibrancy. The forest canopy is flexing for another several months of reclaiming its exclusive hold on permanent residency on Monte Sano.

I accept a few hours of mid-April woods-hiking as a gift. Spring progresses so quickly; summer approaches at breakneck speed. As of the date I am posting this, the average daily high here in northern Alabama is 79 degrees. We reach peak average daily high mid-July at 91 degrees. We won’t drop to a 79-degree average high until the first week of October. Summers hold sway far longer than where we’ve lived up North!

Reflections and Observations

I write and post these essays for several reasons:

  1. Writing demands deep thinking and necessitates reflective looking and truly seeing
  2. I pay much more attention when I know I will memorialize a hike in writing
  3. Recording these experiences within the context of Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading forces me to test often my basic proposition: Every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in Nature or is powerfully inspired by Nature.
  4. I want to spread the gospel of informed and responsible Earth Stewardship

Here are some lessons and critical observations from this Monte Sano Fire Tower Trail spring excursion:

  1. Nature encompasses humans
  2. There is no human and Nature divide
  3. The demarcation between wild and domestic (not wild) is subjective, physical, temporal, and gray
  4. Leonardo da Vinci noted quite simply and elegantly: “Nature never breaks her own laws.” One of Nature’s preeminent truths is that nothing is permanent, whether a spring ephemeral, our own lives, or a hotel and spa atop a plateau overlooking the Tennessee River Valley
  5. Nothing can withstand the force and power of Nature’s agents (biotic, chemical, and physical) and time. Consider that the Appalachians once stood at elevations rivaling today’s Himalayan Mountains
  6. There is beauty, magic, wonder, and awe in the smallest of things — potato dandelion, wood betony (forest lousewort), or white spiderwort

I urge readers to awaken to what is within reach of where you live. Take time to visit. Hike and Look. Look and See. See and Feel. And Feel and Act — to make some small corner of the world better through wisdom, knowledge, and hard work. And realize that Nature’s laws apply to living, learning, serving, and leading. To vocation and avocation. To enterprises of all sorts… from family to church to community to business.

May Nature Inspire and Inform your Life.


Land Trust Fanning and Sugar Tree Trails

Eleven of us hiked April 9, 2018 from the Fanning Trail head at the Nazarene Church, connected to the Sugar Tree Trail across the highway at Blevins Gap, and dropped to the lower end of Sugar Tree to the two vehicles three of our colleagues had parked that morning. We climbed the Fanning to about 1,300-feet at a brisk pace — this LearningQUEST Monday morning crew truly hikes. And I mean HIKES! Camera in-hand and wildflower journal always at the ready, I bring up the rear. It’s not that this former marathon runner can’t keep up; it’s just that I want to tally species in flower as I go and take advantage of every Kodak-moment along the way. I hope they will continue to indulge me. There they are (photo below right) in the normal position — ahead of me!

The hike mostly kept us on the ridge’s west flank, traversing some character-rich terrain. Boulders and ledges made for a circuitous route during our early ascent. As I had seen repeatedly over the past two weeks, purple phacelia is a common resident of boulder-top gardens (below right). We will likely lose this wonderful spring flowering gift soon… as the season progresses. As the two photos below depict, main canopy foliage is becoming more apparent. Phacelia, along with all the other species I have been tallying, are after all ephemerals. Their window of fully sunlit forest floor is closing. To every thing there is a season… and a time to every purpose under Heaven. Like the wisdom from Ecclesiastes (and subsequently lyrics used by the Byrds), many lessons from the great works of science, religion, folklore, and Native oral tales are taken from Nature.

Bruce Martin, our capable hike leader, naturalist, historian, and bearer of mid-hike cookies, possesses and shares wisdom along the way. The sun’s back-lighting provided an ethereal dimension to this stop. Bruce’s sermon on the Mount? We appreciate his dedication and inspiration.

We crossed the highway, entering the Blevins Gap trail system. A nice sign. I wonder low long before vandals inflict a toll? My compliments to the volunteers who faithfully make good things happen. My pox on those who feel compelled to render harm to the good works of those who care and act responsibly.

Several paths diverged on the Blevins Preserve, and we chose the Sugar Tree Trail. Not because it was grassy and wanted wear, but because our two return-to-the-Nazarene-Church vehicles were parked at the base. Sugar Tree gradually descended an old rough-worn road, which according to Bruce followed a portion of the Trail of Tears, referencing a sad chapter of American history. I apply the term road quite liberally; certainly not by today’s standards. Yet we did walk past a many-decades-abandoned auto carcass (an early 60s model sedan) and a bit further along, the rusted hulk of an long-abandoned farm implement. I purposely avoided snapping photographs of these scars and visual atrocities. Yes, I know, they are part of the story. However, I was not there to show elements of the glass half empty. I visit Nature to fill my own vessel, and to translate the journey to educate and inspire others to enjoy Nature… and perhaps embrace and practice an Earth Stewardship ethic.

Allow me a side note. This Sugar Tree Trail sign adorns an ash tree (white ash, I believe). Just as introduced fungal diseases decimated American chestnut and American elm during the 20th century, the emerald ash borer, a metallic green beetle entering the US in 2002 (first noticed near Detroit), is racing across the country. Skeletal dead ash are all that remain throughout Ohio and other Midwest states. The beetle adults nibble foliage and cause little harm. The larvae feed on inner bark, destroying the tree’s conductive tissue, and rapidly proving fatal. The beetle is present in Alabama.


This Time of Spring Glory

So, with the specter of emerald ash borer and reflections about trail-side junked autos, sign-vandals, and the Trail of Tears, allow me to focus on the brighter side — the day’s flower tally:

  1. Dogwood (understory tree)
  2. Redbud (understory tree)
  3. Paw paw (understory tree)
  4. Golden ragwort
  5. Wild pink (pinked)
  6. Wood sorrel
  7. Yellow sorrel
  8. Purple violet
  9. Common clover
  10. Wood phlox
  11. Sweet Betsy trillium
  12. Cumberland mountain spurge
  13. Purple phacelia
  14. Rue anemone
  15. Shooting star
  16. False garlic
  17. Purple spiderwort
  18. Virginia spring beauty
  19. Wild comfrey
  20. Wild geranium
  21. Green violet (Hybanthus concolor)
  22. Rose vervain (Verbena canadensis)
  23. Large flowered bellwort
  24. Least hop trefoil (Trifolium dubium; alien)

Two dozen is a respectable tally. Wild comfrey plants appeared trail-side often along our 4.5-mile hike. This is the only one (below left) I spotted in-flower. Not at all showy, yet still worthy of a pause, some appreciation, and a photo… followed by once more scrambling to catch my compatriots. I had seen the wonderful flower (below right) on two prior hikes; in both cases, I saw just a single plant. I struggled to identify it. I found this one along Sugar Tree as I trailed the group. I snapped this image, and later showed it to Bruce. Bruce said, “It may be a verbena.” Sure enough, when I consulted my reference books at home, I verified it as rose vervain (Verbena canadensis). Mystery solved — thanks to our fearless hike-leader!

I nearly missed this next one. Nestled trail-side and displaying tiny yellow blossoms and miniature foliage, this leaf hop trefoil was the only one I saw. It’s an alien, introduced from who-knows-where, that adds micro-beauty for those willing to look closely.


Catching My Eye

Variety spices every woods walk. Although our entire trek kept us in continuous forest cover, there was nothing uniform in species composition, stand density, site quality, topography, and my impressions stimulated along the way. Were I mapping the forest in the manner I did during my early Union Camp days as a working circle forester in Virginia (early 1970s), I would have kept meticulous notes. Compass in hand, map on aluminum clipboard, and pacing carefully, I noted all facets of site and stand. I could not afford that luxury April 9. It was all I could do to take an occasional photo, make a wildflower tally, and scurry to catch up with the others. Much of our Sugar Tree Trail descent fell along convex slopes with poor site quality. Relatively short trees, and low stand density. We did traverse a bench with concave shape, and likely deeper, more moist, and richer quality soils. The trees reached for the sky, standing tall and straight, with some stems at greater than two-foot diameter. The red oak below is nearly 30-inches at breast height. Same for the dead one standing nearby. Death by perhaps a lightning strike? These are dynamic forests. This stand is (I am guessing) 60-80 years old. Again, were I performing a true stand/forest evaluation, I would have cored a few trees, counted rings, and evaluated growth. I still have my increment borer. However, I am reluctant to core trees without landowner permission. And I would have fallen hopelessly behind my fellow hikers were I to core, ring-count, and make notes. Still, I miss practicing stand evaluation, which is part and parcel of what I do when developing Land Legacy Stories, one of the menu items available through Great Blue Heron, LLC.

Nothing lives forever. Witness the standing dead oak above. These north Alabama forests are in constant flux. A rough rule of thumb for naturally regenerated hardwood stands — approximately two percent of stems drop out (die) annually. Nowhere along our trek did we not see standing as well as dead and down woody debris. Conditions ranged from a recent blow-down area with large individuals toppled, root-mats lifted to 6-10-feet, to another area along the Sugar Tree where black locust, a pioneer tree species, had by and large fallen from the canopy. The species invades abandoned pasture aggressively, thrives through 20-50 years, and then succumbs, with other more longer-lived species like oak and hickory replacing it.

What Creatures Await Those Who Dare Enter These Woods?!

Oddities enrich my forest wanderings. Imagine stumbling across this visage in late evening light, having lost the trail and worrying about a night alone! Early European settlers arriving on the New England coast spoke of dark deep woods, foul and repugnant, harboring savage Natives and wild beasts. Nice to see that we have a few such wild beasts right here in northern Alabama — let your imagination run amok!

Squaw root is an oak parasite, living in the soil and drawing sustenance from host oaks. The scaly protuberances below will bear flowers later in the spring. I don’t recall previously seeing so many clumping at the base of such a large and seeming vigorous oak. I know too little about the impact that this parasite has on its host. I suspect that the relationship is more a nuisance than a deadly imposition. This particular oak seems anything but distressed.

So, what lessons and observations did I take from this mid-spring hike? Here is a bulleted list, full but not exhaustive:

  • Wild here in northern Alabama is within easy reach
  • Every parcel of land tells a story, rich in natural and human history
  • Beauty, magic, wonder, and awe await even the mildly interested trekker
  • Nothing in Nature and Life is static
  • All living things are interconnected
  • Man is not separate from Nature — we are one with Nature
  • I have managed over the course of a career to follow the advice I will give May 12, 2018, in my Commencement address at WV’s Fairmont State University: “To the extent you are able, align vocation and avocation.”
  • Never view the glass as half-empty
  • We are blessed with One Earth — we are duty-bound to recognize and embrace our individual and collective obligation to practice informed and responsible Earth Stewardship

I remind you of the five essential verbs I urge readers to employ:

  1. Believe — that Nature offers infinite wisdom and power, ubiquitous lessons for living, learning, serving, and leading
  2. Look — with eyes open and free from digital and mundane distractions
  3. See — with a mind eager to accept the lessons Nature offers
  4. Feel — with accepting mind, body, heart, soul, and spirit Nature’s power and wisdom
  5. Act — with those emotions and empathy directed to make a difference for those who follow

Live a Life passion-fueled, purpose-driven, and results-oriented!

May Nature Inspire all that you do!

Monte Sano State Park North Plat Loop Trail

Thursday March 22 we made our first ever visit to Monte Sano State Park, on the plateau just east of Huntsville, Alabama. It won’t be our last. We circuited the North Plateau Trail, a roughly 1.5 mile counter-clockwise loop (yes, we could just as easily have gone clockwise). We began at the overlook on the east rim, standing at approximately 1,600 feet elevation. When we drive east from Huntsville’s Tennessee River Valley (where we live), we feel as though we’ve returned to our central Appalachian roots. Granted, we both grew up in the Ridge and Valley Province, yet this plateau topography resonates, appeals, and soothes. We left our Cumberland, Maryland home territory 47 years ago. Across our 13 interstate moves and new anchorages, we have consistently marveled at the feeling enveloping us each and every time we returned to that home terrain. Something about it — topography, forests, land use patterns, the feel and smell of familiarity — brought deep nostalgia, and still does. We felt a bit of that homing sense at Monte Sano. I suppose we share some element of what draws a spawning salmon back to the headwaters of birth.

The Forest

We encountered this two-foot diameter red oak along the north rim a couple hundred yards before we entered a blow-down area. Where I’m leaning, the forest is composed of a typical upland mixture of oak, hickory, maple, and other hardwood species. The overstory is dense. Summer shade discourages most understory plants. Behind me — not a single pine. The same holds for the deciduous-clad hill behind me at the overlook. Again, I felt like we had been transported to our native Maryland Appalachians. I saw no evidence of forest harvesting within this current stand — no stumps. Yet I am certain that this is at least second-growth. The original (pre-European) forest was likely cleared well over 100 years ago, and re-cut for fuel-wood several times since. I’m estimating that the current forest is 60-90 years old.

A couple hundred yards beyond that fine red oak, we entered a significant blow-down strip trending west to east below the plateau rim. And just missing the camping area on the flat above the trail. I guessed that the storm struck 2-3 years prior. Crews had cleared trunks and debris from the trail. Most twigs and the smallest of stems had not yet dropped from the fallen crowns; bark still clung to the fallen boles. Had greater time elapsed, Nature would have made more progress in her inevitable progress toward decay and return to the soil. Most main canopy trees had either uprooted to the east or their tops had broken off mid-bole in that direction. I saw no evidence of twisted and tortured breakage; all seemed to have succumbed to linear, straight-line winds. Although the forest disturbance stretched at least a quarter mile, I assumed thunderstorm down-draft rather than tornado. A few days later I hiked the adjoining (to the west) North Alabama Landtrust trails, encountering the same storm path. Our knowledgeable hiking leader told me the storm had struck November 2015. That some suspected an F-0 or F-1 tornado but that it had not been confirmed. After two subsequent growing seasons, the understory, now in nearly full sun, is responding with hardwood sprouts and seedlings, along with herbaceous plants. Nature abhors a vacuum, possessing millions of years DNA-based experience in handling forest disturbance, whether wind or fire.

Interestingly, there are those who will say the storm destroyed the forest. Devastated perhaps from our recreational enjoyment or forest products perspective, yet far from destroyed. The soil is intact, albeit a bit adjusted with the wind-thrown stumps. The forest is already well on its way to recovery and full site occupation. Come back in fifty years, when only a trained eye will see any evidence of disturbance, written in the fabric of the new stand.

Spring Wildflowers

Because we stayed pretty much on the plateau top and rim, we traversed a single ecotype, and limited the diversity of spring ephemerals. We tallied just 12 in flower:

  1. Dandelion
  2. Purple violet
  3. Bluet
  4. Henbit
  5. Common chickweed
  6. Rue anemone
  7. Cutleaf toothwort
  8. Star (giant) chickweed (left below)
  9. White violet
  10. Virginia spring beauty
  11. Early saxifrage
  12. Virginia pussytoes (right below)

We viewed this hike as an orientation to what Nature offered for excursions in our local area. Had we been seeking a higher tally we would have explored a more diverse habitat. We know the drill and found satisfaction and afternoon fulfillment in an even dozen. My official journal also noted red bud and service berry, both small subordinate canopy trees.














Final Observations and Reflections

Most of our North Plat Trail hike traversed the relatively flat plateau top. The even-aged mixed hardwood forest dominated. If variety is the spice of life, we enjoyed a spice-less afternoon. Yet, spice-less or not, we relished our explorations. We will revisit from time to time. The variety that we consumed in large doses that afternoon came in form of a spice I’ll refer to as Central Appalachian Nostalgia (CAN). To confirm that CAN is available within 30 minutes of our Madison, Alabama home is priceless. We can feel its power with a short drive. We view it as salve… an inexpensive elixir for a form of home-sickness that will never leave us. A homing tonic. A scratch for a permanent itch.

The old saw pronounces that home is where the heart is. Certainly, our hearts are here where we have retired. Yet even the healthiest heart needs care, attention, exercise. Visiting Monte Sano and trekking the North Plat Trail provided some heart medication. Nature can serve up doses of good health — treatment for the mind, body, soul, spirit, and, yes, the heart. Best-selling author Richard Louv calls it Vitamin N, the title of his third book.

I say repeatedly that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. A simple 1.5-mile hiking circuit can be restorative, renewing, medicinal, and inspiring. Judy and I take comfort in knowing that Vitamin N and a full dose of CAN are within easy reach.

Are you finding ample measure of what is within your easy reach? I rejoice that Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe are there for those willing to look, see, experience, and feel. I urge you to seek it… and feel its power and wisdom.


Newsom Sink Spring Wildflower Jubilee

I hiked with a small group of Nature enthusiasts April 2, 2018 (Barbara Roberts, Lisa Hopkins, John and Barbara Kammerud, and Jim Kirkwood). We parked along a winding road in Morgan County, Union Grove, Alabama perhaps six miles south of the Tennessee River, and onto the plateau. We had ascended to 1,200 feet, then began our descent ~250 feet to the trail head. We entered the forest, trending gently downhill to the north. Scattered conglomerate boulders and remnant limestone ledges stacked and jumbled to either side of us as we worked our way into the canyon. We soon stepped into a broad sylvan cathedral… an exquisite cove site with yellow poplar, back cherry, sweet gum, red oak, and associated species. Individuals stood tall (some more than 100 feet) and straight. A luxuriant green herbaceous community carpeted the cathedral floor, the entire cove a verdant concave site of moist and fertile richness. This is as good as it gets in the upland forest world!

We found the hush and sanctity so spectacular (spiritual) that we spoke in somewhat hushed tones.We imagined returning mid-May when deep shade darkens the cove, and the current forest floor species have completed their annual life cycle. They are, after all, spring ephemerals that share the site with the overstory trees, yet harvest their own early and mid-spring sunshine before the trees leaf out and grab the lion’s share beginning at the close of April. Are these two sets of plants (herbs and trees) competing? They are certainly sharing rooting medium, yet not going head to head for moisture, nutrients, space, and aeration at the same periods of the growing season. I term their relationship as commensalism.

From a draft chapter of a book I am writing, commensalism “is the relationship that exists among organisms residing on the same land area and requiring the same resources from the environment. For example, the mixed forests that dominate the eastern US comprise multiple species per acre, each calling upon that place (in forestry, we term the place a site) to furnish the same six factors essential for flourishing: light, heat, water, carbon dioxide, nutrients, and oxygen. The tallgrass prairie communities likewise consist of multiple herbs and forbs thriving commensally on the same land. The teeming Serengeti grazing herds are yet another example in Nature. When I visit nearby Joe Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge during peak winter waterfowl residency, I see vast fields and backwater assemblages of sandhill cranes, snow and Canada Geese, many duck species, and a few whooping cranes, collectively sustaining as a commensal community. One might conclude that these complex natural communities function as a single organism, one where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Picture tons per acre of fall foliage returning nutrients and organic matter to the soil, recycling and retaining the site’s productivity. Now imagine the tons per acre of annual organic matter turned over by the spring ephemerals. Leonardo da Vinci observed some 500 years ago, “In her (nature’s) inventions nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous.” This amazing community is no accident. Instead, the relationships, interactions, and interdependencies have evolved commensally over time… tested, refined, and honed. Nothing in this magical cove is superfluous. Da Vinci also noted, “Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature.” The cove is one such “invention.” Can you possibly picture the outcome were a committee of Congress asked to develop a landscape “more beautiful, more simple or more direct” than this common cove near Union Grove, Alabama. Mark Twain once commented, “Thank God we don’t get all the government we pay for.” I say, “Thank God for the gift of this pale blue orb and its three billion years of Life.” We occupy a living canvas painted and perfected by Nature. Can we enjoy it without ruining it? We must. There is no alternative other than informed and responsible Earth stewardship.

Newsom Sink

As we descended, I saw evidence of surface water having flowed to the north, most likely during heavy rains, yet nothing in way of a permanent or even seasonal channel. As we moved along, I observed that the cove ahead of us sloped upward away from us. My aha moment — this is the sink… Newsom Sink! Surface (and any subsurface) water goes subterranean at this point, exiting the cove by other than an above-ground stream. I don’t have a lot of field experience in such karst topography. I am much more familiar with following a valley and anticipating an outlet. Here the outlet is the equivalent of a drain-hole. I expected a obvious outlet in the rocks where the runoff would drain. Not so. Instead, the sink appeared to be a collapse in the cove soil. Not just a shallow topsoil depression. The collapse here showed a nearly vertical wall of fertile soil 15-20 feet thick. No wonder the trees stood fat and tall!

We wondered where water entering this sink found outlet. Once we returned to our vehicles we drove two miles (and several hundred feet elevation lower) to Newsom Spring, where water boils up from a cave entrance, and continues its gravity-fed journey to the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Some will evaporate there and feed the southerly breezes that will send it back as rainfall that will once again moisten the rich cove ecosystem.

Spring Wildflower Bonanza!

Finding 41 species in flower at a single point in time and place set a personal best for me! Never have I seen such richness and variety. Making it all the more impressive, all of this bounty and beauty occupied no more than a couple hundred acres! Here is what I tallied (Note: first 41 at the Newsom Sink cove; three more at Newsom Spring):

  1. Wood vetch
  2. Sweet Betsy trillium
  3. Purple phlox
  4. Wild geranium (mostly pink; one a rare white)
  5. Beaked corn salad (Valerianella; four-square)
  6. Purple violet
  7. Mayapple
  8. Dandelion
  9. Dogwood
  10. Black cherry
  11. Virginia spring beauty
  12. Rue anemone
  13. False rue anemone
  14. Long-spurred violet
  15. Redbud
  16. White baneberry (doll’s eye)
  17. Toadflax
  18. Purple phacelia
  19. Cumberland mountain spurge
  20. Cutleaf toothwort
  21. Large flowered bellwort
  22. White trillium (not sure which one)
  23. Pennywort
  24. Twisted trillium
  25. Star chickweed
  26. Yellow violet
  27. White violet
  28. Foamflower
  29. Blue cohosh
  30. Common chickweed
  31. Purple larkspur
  32. Sweet Cicely
  33. Violet wood sorrel (Oxalis)
  34. Golden ragwort
  35. Buttercup
  36. Red buckeye
  37. Dwarf crested iris
  38. Yellow trout lily
  39. Henbit
  40. Field pansy
  41. Tansy ragwort
  42. Fire pink (at Newsom Spring)
  43. Columbine (at Newsom Spring)
  44. False garlic (at Newsom Spring)

We found only an occasional dwarf crested iris, resplendent in its beauty and simplicity.

I may have been the only one of us to spot the wood vetch that grew several hundred feet from where we parked. I trekked there around the road bend while the others prepared to enter the trail head.

This square foot or so of verdant forest floor offered five species in flower: white and twisted trillium, foamflower, white violet, and rue anemone. Bloodroot leaves are also present, perhaps a week or two past their pure white flowers.

I show this Cumberland mountain spurge not because of any particular beauty (it’s a rather drab yellow-green), but because it carries the name of my Maryland hometown… and because it’s the first time I’ve encountered it.

Cove Oddities

I watch for the unusual, even as I tally spring’s ephemeral bouquets. Here we made note of a funky sugar maple with decorative, contorted bark. I wondered — micro-organism-triggered deformity, or some kind of genetic disfigurement? If the latter, this could yield a new ornamental variety via cuttings and vegetative propagation. At any rate, worthy of a photograph both with and without John standing nearby for scale.

John and I, lagging behind the others after stopping at the sugar maple, discovered and photographed another odd specimen, this one a boxelder snag that had measured ~15-18 inches DBH (diameter breast height, a standard forestry measurement). Similar to the sugar maple bark oddity, this boxelder’s bark and bole express a strange pattern and abnormal appearance. Boxelder and sugar maple are of the same Acer genus — again, does this suggest a disease (micro-organism) factor common to both species? The ten-foot-height break point seems to have occurred at a swollen place with a twisted grain. The upper stem and crown appear to have wrenched apart through some concentrated physical action. It may be the largest boxelder I have ever seen in a forest setting. This species is just not well-engineered for large girth and steely strength. Although I did not photograph the the crown, it simply shattered when it struck the ground. We puzzled over how it withstood the forces of wind, gravity, and physics as long as it had. Perhaps its sheltered cove bottom site, rich growing medium, and the protection of larger more resilient forest trees around it gave it life far beyond its normal years?

Final Reflections

I am a sucker for Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. Whether an uncannily rich and fertile cove site, the karst topography, incredible wildflower diversity, or the odd and peculiar maple and boxelder, I succumb to Nature’s spell. Adding to the enjoyment, I hiked with a group who shared my passion and enthusiasm for this special place. A special place I was visiting for the first time.

How many of my fellow citizens know and appreciate that there are treasures like Newsom Sink within reach? How many of the homes we drove past have occupants who drive by the trail head every day without clue (or interest) as to what lies just a few hundred yards beyond where we parked? How many would care even if they knew? Part of the Newsom Sink glory is that it is one of many such gems. We are blessed that such places exist, and doubly-privileged that many are protected from development.

We spent perhaps three hours in the cove. I could have stayed an entire day. What spell might these woods have cast if I had carried a sleeping bag and taken refuge for the night? What night voices would have called? Frogs, toads, owls? What else? And what lessons might I have drawn from deeper immersion? What stories are told in the landscape itself? We hiked along old vehicular trails. What land use actions are written across the century-and-a-half of European settlement? How large were the original old growth trees that the cove supported? What significance did the Newsom Sink have for Native Americans? Surely the cove and its richness offered something meaningful. If nothing else, a botanical medicine cabinet rich with natural healing and prevention variety?

I like relaxing with a good book. Newsom Sink itself is a book unwritten. I saw chapter after chapter emerge within its acreage and across the time it reflects. I am grateful that Barbara Roberts and the group included me. I am eager to learn what other of Nature’s delights await me as I get to know northern Alabama.

How might I condense the Newsom Sink hike into a single photo? Allow me two. Perhaps simply the one-two punch of the dwarf crested iris and the twisted trillium:





Who could ask for anything more!? Continue to enjoy Nature’s inspiration… and tap the power and wisdom she offers.

Spring’s Richness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Reflections

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

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

Judy and I are grateful for our visit and tour.


Finding a Place

My February 22, 2018 Great Blue Heron post reports on our February 11, hike at Konza Prairie near Manhattan, KS ( Among other sights of the day, I reflected on a prairie crab apple anchored happily (my view) on a limestone ledge:

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

Lessons from Nature — Universal Laws Apply

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

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

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

May Nature inspire all that lies ahead for you.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Heading south on Kansas Route 177, Saturday February 10, 2018, we approached Council Grove (38 miles south of Manhattan). The cut-metal Conestoga wagon, oxen team, and rider on horseback greeted us atop a rise on the east side of the roadway. Late that afternoon, having looped south to Cassoday, another 40 miles or so, we cut northeast to Admire on I-335, and then back west to Council Grove, completing a broad sweep through the Flint Hills and prairie cover. As we once again approached Council Grove, we saw a similar cut-metal sculpture of plains Indians. A delightful day of a couple hundred miles of tallgrass prairie, with open horizons, sweeping hillsides, and wind-bent vegetation.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve’s ~11,000 acres border Route 177 (west side) about a dozen miles south of Council Grove. Those ~17 square miles, while impressive, pale in comparison to the 400,000 square miles that greeted European settlers, extending from Canada into northern Texas. A vast and vibrant grazing- and fire-dependent ecosystem that sustained Native Americans for 12 millennia. One of the working properties acquired to create the Preserve had been owned as Spring Hill Ranch by Stephen Jones, a cattleman from Tennessee. Perhaps a bit ironic that the owner who built the ranch house depicted on the sign below shared by name. However, that irony is weakened by my bearing a name that is far too common!

The tawny prairie reached horizon to horizon. This view below had not seen fire in at least a year — perhaps later this spring managers will set controlled fires. When managing southern forest land in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, I spent many hours prescribed burning… for site preparation (prior to planting pine seedlings) and for understory vegetation management. Most of the time, I supervised ground crews igniting with drip torches. During winter burning in established plantations (to control competing vegetation) we employed aerial ignition by helicopter. I recall the day in Alabama when we burned 4,300 acres, hop-scotching from one tract to the next, as ground crews had already lit backing fires at down-wind stand borders. We then dropped fire in strips perpendicular to the wind, with lines close enough to prevent fire dynamics from igniting live crowns. I offer that personal prescribed burning perspective as the basis for wishing to see prairie prescribed fire in action. Without fire and grazing, the prairie becomes a natural history footnote.

The road below, acting as firebreak, bisects the un-burned prairie to the left from the fall-burn-darkened grassland across the road. The adjacent photo evidences the fall burning to the horizon. Allow me to describe the conditions that Saturday afternoon as I hiked the prairie and snapped these photographs. Try to imagine the north wind buffeting me from 45 degrees to the right, with the ambient temperature 10-12 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind chill 5-10 degrees below zero! Although not reaching my weather threshold for what I refer to in my two books as pleasurable terror, I did weight the degree-of-difficulty experience higher than it might have been! Judy had returned to the visitor’s center after a half-mile, the wind too harsh. I soldiered on, determined not to be out-done by a little winter jab in the face. The photo with the road lies within Windmill Pasture, fenced to enclose the Preserve’s 83 buffalo, restricted to the Pasture’s 1.7 square miles. Yes, that’s buffalo dung on the road.

I found reward for braving the cold just beyond the road-photo’s line of sight. Cresting the ridge, I saw bison grazing serenely, paying no heed to the wind chill. I wanted to get closer, but the map cautioned hikers to stay at least 125 yards distant. I may have erred on the longer side. I saw little advantage in being both cold and trampled! And besides, my iPhone battery, cold and drained, no longer operated the camera after I took this last image of the buffalo. Thrilled that I had seen a tiny remnant of the herds that once roamed these Flint Hills, I headed back to the Center.

We made our way back to the car, warmed the engine, and began charging the battery while I placed the phone under my thigh and on the heated seat. Before departing, Judy captured this image of my thoroughly reddened face — a temporary badge of courage. Judy used a less flattering term than courage.

Some of my most memorable Nature ventures have involved conditions less than balmy and springlike. I am a consummate Nature enthusiast, and weather groupie — again, the degree-of-difficulty deepens the memory. Both Nature Based Leadership and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading include tales of personal ventures in Nature’s pleasurable terror. I think of the old adage of “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” which applied perfectly to my hike into Windmill Pasture.

Perhaps that is the principal lesson for this blog post — nothing comes without cost, effort, and purpose. I would have felt cheated had I not ventured more deeply. The buffalo filled my heart, soul, and spirit with magic, wonder, awe, and beauty — a small taste of what used to be. And, I felt gratitude that others felt and acted upon the dream of preserving some of this incredible ecosystem for posterity.

Konza Prairie Nature Trail

Tallgrass prairie once covered a third of the continental US — 170 million acres, reduced now by 96 percent. Most of the remaining large-tract acreage lies in Kansas’s Flint Hills. Konza Prairie Biological Station covers a little less than 14 square miles. We hiked there Sunday February 11, 2018. After Saturday’s below zero windchill at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Sunday’s sunny and far less windy upper 20s to low 30s felt balmy.

Look to my The Nature of Exploiting — Making the Most of the Hand We’re Dealt blog post for additional reflections on the Konza hike, based on a unique sentry prairie crab apple we spotted along a limestone ledge:

I’ll keep this blog post more general, extolling the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe of a dormant season three-mile hike through an ecotype I had previously encountered only via photos and videos. I can now check that box, yet I must return when the landscape is in full growing season splendor! I had traveled to the Flint Hills to deliver two addresses to the 11th annual meeting of Kansas Natural Resources Professionals. Those professional interactions and an added two-day weekend sojourn into the prairie fueled my passion for Nature and her lessons to even higher levels.

Air travel took us from Huntsville through Houston to Kansas City. Travel to and from Houston furnished bookend magic. Northbound from Houston, sitting at a left-side window, I photographed the setting sun:

Returning to Houston early morning five days later, sitting once again at a left-side window, I photographed the rising sun:

Uncanny that the images are so nearly identical! If this were one of those paired images that challenge us to find five differences, I would fail. As I offer final edits to this post, I felt compelled to check my iPhone to ensure that I had not somehow inserted the same photo twice. No, the first shows Wednesday evening; the second Monday morning. Again, bookend magic! So, Nature bears gifts of all manner. Judy and I enjoyed both shows. We may have been the only ones on either flight to inhale Nature’s free light show!

Saturday as we left Manhattan southbound on Route 177, we stopped at the hilltop pull-over for Konza. Below zero wind chill and clouds greeted our brief exit from the warm car:

Sunday’s visit to Konza’s interior trails warmed our hands, faces, and hearts. We embraced Sunday’s balmy beauty:

As we parked, nine white-tail deer grazed in nearby meadows. As we completed our circuit traversing the prairie highlands, we heard lots of turkey-talk in the gallery forest (trees lining a creek in a prairie) ahead of us. Two distinct gobblers sounded above the clatter. As we turned along a bluff, we could at last peer into the bottom-land, counting at least 20 turkeys scratching and foraging for acorns in the litter. We stayed as invisible as possible, moving along without disturbing them. I did not want to risk spooking them — thus no photos. Just as we had seen Saturday at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, we saw northern harriers hunting low over the Konza Prairie, perhaps two to seven feet above the grass, weaving against the wind searching for small mammals.

When we return on a future trip during the growing season, I want to find a ledge, sit in patient embrace, and watch these beautiful predators seek nourishment. We’ve all heard the old wisdom… that where we stand depends upon where we sit. To me, the harriers express nobility, strength, power, awe, and absolute beauty. The small mammals of the prairie see otherwise: the shadow of death; savage talons; constant danger; fear; terror. Yet such is the way of Nature.

A few hundred feet before we entered the gallery, an old bur oak carcass stood duty trail-side. Its tremendous crown, still impressive several years after death, must have witnessed at least a couple centuries of prairie seasons. It will stand decades more, until the forces of decay, wind, gravity, insects, and other agents reduce it into the soil, on which its original acorn found anchorage and drew sustenance. I am made small by both its majesty and its mass. As Nature so often generates within me, I felt staggering humility even as I am lifted by glorious inspiration.

Eastern red-cedar is Kansas’ only native evergreen tree. I have lived in seven Eastern USA states and Ohio, all where the species is native. Across its eastern range, cedar grows in columnar form, often 2-4 times taller than wide. What a surprise, then, for me to find red-cedar in these Kansas prairies to be wider than tall, a form we saw throughout the Flint Hills:

I have not taken time to dig into the cause of this regional phenotype. I’ll venture a guess. The persistent open prairie winds advantage a wider base, keeping center of gravity low, and vulnerability to wind-breakage reduced. I’ll delay a verifiable explanation for another day.

We’ve lived in seven of the nation’s eleven most heavily forested states. The forests of our resident familiarity are fully-stocked, closed-canopied, and of deeply shaded forest floor. As I prepared for my presentations, I learned that Kansas has 5.2 million acres of forests. Only upon visiting, talking with many conference participants, and reading in greater depth about the Kansas forest, did I appreciate that this state’s forest acreage includes wind-breaks and the above-described gallery forests. In no way does that revelation diminish my appreciation for the prairie land nor for the exhilarating landscape and ecosystem of the Flint Hills. Here’s the creek and its associated gallery forest.

Nature’s magic, beauty, awe, and wonder are always within reach. Our three-mile hike rewarded us at every turn. We know to Believe in the magic within each of Nature’s special places. Because we believe it is there, we find it. We have conditioned ourselves to Look, and we know only that by looking, will we See. And we know that when we see, we will Feel Nature’s wisdom and power. And only when we feel, will we be compelled to Act… to embrace our obligation to steward this One Earth… to change some small corner of the world for the better through knowledge, wisdom, and hard work.

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Non-Mobile Opportunist

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is GOOD!

Spring’s Mid-February Harbingers

I write these words and reflections on a damp Saturday afternoon (February 17, 2018). Yesterday’s dawn temperature, a balmy 65 degrees, yielded to showery and drizzly upper-40s by noon, courtesy of a cold frontal passage. This morning the front backed our way with more light rain and drizzle, dragged northward by a strengthening low pressure system tracking eastward through Tennessee and Kentucky. Yet another cool front will follow tonight. We are in the transition season — a tug-of-war between winter and spring, a competition that spring will ultimately win.

Over the past week, up to two-dozen hooded mergansers have returned to Big Blue Lake, on schedule with what we observed last February. They’ll depart before March exits. Robins have found dawn voice. Killdeer have joined the robins, and continue to call day-long as they fly over the water and from shore to shore. We’ve seen two pairs of bluebirds at our feeders. And finally, the seminal spring bellwether, the voice of spring peepers, has sounded.

Spring travels northward at approximately 100 miles per week; and it ascends vertically at some 800 feet per week. I noticed our native red maple flowers opening (giving the entire tree a reddish cast) just two days ago. I took all of the photos in this post within the past hour.

I suppose that last week red maple had opened flowers in the Birmingham vicinity. Next week we could see the same evidence near Nashville, Tennessee.

Lawns are sprouting wild onions, shooting slender, tubular sprouts above the still quite-dormant Bermuda grass.

I’ve seen lyre-leaved rock cress’ bashful, pale white flowers and delicate, deeply-lobed basal greens (below) in disturbed areas along with whitlow-grass and chickweed, likewise with non-showy tiny white blooms. These are the early spring vanguard; spring’s full frontal assault will follow in two-to-four weeks.

Ornamental flowering plants won’t be long — daffodils are poking leaves and swelling buds through mulch. Our Rose Creek Abelia are sporting new leaves.

Pete Seeger penned the lyrics to Turn! Turn! Turn!, adopting them from Ecclesiastes:

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

And so it is with our seasonal ebbs and flows, whether in Alabama’s Tennessee River Valley, along the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska, or near the Ashuelot River in southwestern New Hampshire, all places, among others, where we have lived. Likewise, we have metaphorical seasons of our lives, romances, friendships, and enterprises. Nature prompts us to observe and learn from the patterns, purpose, and signals.

Learn so that you might harness Nature’s wisdom and power. Recall, too, what Leonardo da Vinci observed half-a-millennium ago:

“Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.” The seasons of all things abide by lessons of meaning, merit, and purpose… as should your life, vocation, and avocation.