Beaverdam Swamp at Wheeler NWR — Dormant Season Beauty

One arm of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge extends north from the Tennessee River to I-565, just three miles from our daughter Katy’s home. January 31, Judy and I retrieved  local grandsons Jack and Sam from their respective schools to hike the two-mile round trip at Beaverdam Swamp, returning them to Katy’s as dusk settled. Temperature nearly 60, we enjoyed a spring-like walk in the deeply dormant hardwood bottom-land. The trail-head is within 300 feet of the Interstate. Thick forest soon muted the traffic cacophony as we headed south at 90 degrees to the highway.

Fittingly, Jack shared with us that day’s fourth grade lessons, which focused on Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, and Rachel Carson. A perfect alignment with our venture into this small appendage to the Refuge’s 35,000 acres. The trail begins in a mature upland forest, heavy to oak and peppered with a few large loblolly pines. We graded ever-so-slowly into true bottom-land. Our gravel surface yielded to boardwalk as we entered the persistently wet tupelo swamp:

These are rich sites, with deep, fertile soils, periodically refreshed by frequent overflow of the nearby stream and the Tennessee River. Many main canopy trees from trail-head to the creek-side terminus reach 100-plus feet. On the uplands (I use the term generously; the higher ground may be only ten feet elevation above swamp level), some oaks meet the description of ‘mighty.’ Large diameter; towering boles; wide-spreading crowns. The tupelo likewise presented impressive dimensions (I must confess, I snapped this bright-sunshine photo along the same path a couple weeks prior):

Many tupelo evidenced their advanced age via hollow trunks, tops dropped, and visible fungal fruiting bodies:

I find special beauty in the winter season hardwood forests. The crown geometry expresses the ongoing reach for light. The intricate patterns are species-determined, yet each design is driven by common purpose — capturing sunlight in service to the leafy factories. The Adaptive Geometry of Trees (Henry S, Horn, 1971) is an exquisite study of the species-dictated branching patterns and designs. Summer’s foliage masks the intriguing crown structure. As I’ve often penned, we need not search far in Nature to detect the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe that lie hidden within.

The sun kissed the horizon as we found rest at the far terminus, creek-side:

While there, we appreciated that the sun still illuminated the crowns above us:

Please take note of how different the two photos appear. Judy and the boys seem to sit in rather bleak semi-light, while the sky above retains its blue and the branches bask in the day’s final rays.

I suppose this, too, offers a lesson worthy of record. Nature’s faces are many. We can choose to see only the approaching darkness… or we can rejoice in the majesty of the moment. Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago observed, “Nature is full of infinite causes that have never occurred in experience.” He is suggesting that she offers a face for every occasion, and reminds us that over the vast sweep of time, Nature has faced all manner of situations and has the ‘experience’ to handle more than we might imagine.

I have also pointed out often that we need not visit Yellowstone or Denali National Park to experience Nature’s inspiration or feel the deep humility that she can place in our hearts. We started our hike pounded by Interstate noise. We quickly left the debilitating crescendo behind to find an oasis of peace, tranquility, and cathedral essence. I wonder how many of those drivers hurtling east and west realized what was so near at hand. The answer, I admit, is a near-zero. They are blind… oblivious to the wondrous Nature that lies within reach.

They do not know or believe that they could discover treasure so close to home. Nor do they Look or See. I shudder to think how many were also still connected to the deadly force of digital distraction. So sad. Yet I also remind myself of Aldo Leopold’s wisdom, “Conservation of all wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish, one must see and fondle. And when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.” Still, I find little solace that so few cherish this Wheeler treasure.

I pray that Sam and Jack will carry an embrace of Nature throughout their lives… that the seed we are planting will eventually bear fruit. We want to make sure that they never suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder. Many have asked me, “Why did you move to northern Alabama?” A photo is worth a thousand words of explanation!

My life is, and will always be, Nature-Inspired!

Frozen Wheeler Wildlife Refuge

We visited Wheeler again January 7. Real winter had reached into the deep south, holding grip long enough to freeze Big Blue Lake. I think had I been a bit more adventuresome, the ice may have supported my weight:

I have written and reflected often of nearby (20-25 miles WSW of where I live) Joe Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. More than one reader has inquired, “Where is Wheeler?” I can show better than explain: https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_4/NWRS/Zone_3/Wheeler_Complex/Wheeler/Wheeler%20Brochure%20(wlrgen.).pdf .

I had anticipated finding slack water at Wheeler frozen, and wondered whether the adjoining fields would harbor peak-level sand hill cranes just the same. Sure enough, open water proved to be fully ice-covered. Nary a duck, contrasted to many thousands just two weeks prior. Where were they? We observed a few flights of hundreds nearer the distant tree line, perhaps a larger channel of the Tennessee River offered open water beyond the trees. The cranes did not disappoint. Refuge personnel as we entered the visitor’s center reported 30,000 cranes on the property at that very moment. Due north of the two-story observation building, sand hills clogged the field (right). Same to the northwest, as one lone adventurer crossed the ice stilt-legged and quite carefully (left).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I’ve mentioned previously in these posts, Nature plays within the limits of normal. Although the recent cold has extended more deeply and longer than average, it nevertheless is within the bounds of normal. The following day, warm air surged northward bringing 0.90 inches of rain and temperatures approaching 55 degrees. I write these words Sunday, January 14, when we’re back in the upper twenties for highs two days running.  Friday we reached 70. Winter does not hold firm here. Instead, it now and again crests south of us, then quickly retreats with southern breezes. Tomorrow will surpass 45; Tuesday we expect 1-2 inches of snow. The cranes have faith (and millennia of experience) comforting them that this is a good place to overwinter, despite the few winter advances.

From the observation deck, we could see four whooping cranes, less than clearly distinct in the distant center below. What a story of success in saving ourselves from ushering yet another magnificent avian friend to extinction. I think of the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon, and the Ivory-billed woodpecker… and weep. Thank God we can still see whoopers in the wild!

We also saw a few dozen snow geese near the observation building. Yet the sand hills stood and moved about in overwhelming masses. Their croaking dominated the airwaves — conversations, chatter, and arguments here and there. Even in flight, they announce their comings and goings — a music that both excites and soothes.

I think of the 1996 movie Fly Away Home, when the young girl leads the orphaned Canada geese south in her ultra-light aircraft. Cinematography places the viewer with the geese during their sojourn. Ah, what must it be like to migrate with the sand hills! Or at least fly over Wheeler for a couple hours with them. I know that I will not. Yet my soul accompanies them. I stand, as I did taking the two in-flight photos above, and cast my gaze with them, pivoting as they swing past effortlessly, chattering all the way. Theirs is a voice of promise, hope, joy, and aspiration. As so often is the case with Nature, I feel deep humility… and unfathomable inspiration. We have watched other thousands of sand hills, from western USA flocks, as they stopped off twice annually at Creamer’s Field near Fairbanks, AK, at 64.8 degrees north, just a few hundred miles from their Arctic breeding grounds. I felt the same magic and wonder.

Wheeler is special for all manner of its 35,000 acres (>50 square miles). I never tire, winter or summer, of the cypress swamp near the visitor’s center. January 6 gave me a view I had not previously enjoyed — ice and cypress knees:

The buttressed, fluted lower trunk projects a stronger-seeming image in ice and cold:

Where is the greater beauty — the cypress or the sand hill crane? May I inquire of you, which among your children is your favorite? The package of beauty, magic, wonder, and awe appears where we seek it. I am blessed with seeing it most everywhere I look.

I believe in my heart of hearts that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Because I believe, my awareness of the lessons and my search for them will find reward. What do you see in and sense from this field of magic below? I hear echoes from eons; I see hope for the future; I feel Nature’s seasons throbbing; I inhale the sweet fragrance of promise and inspiration. I believe these are symbols of an Earth-of-Life, spurring and challenging us to steward our isolated home, alone and fragile in the vast darkness of space. I see obligation — environmental, social, moral, and spiritual. I see a higher power; I pray for a higher power.

Importantly, I accept that we humans, all 7.5 billion of us, are not the measure of all things. What are 30,000 cranes to 7.5 billion of us? In no small way, they are every thing!

 

 

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

Consider this essay in measures of Nature-derived inspiration. View this GBH Blog Post as one of exquisite timing. This year marks the centennial of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects more than 1,025 species. The January 2018 National Geographic features Why Birds Matter. Lead article author Jonathan Franzen begins, “It’s not just what they do for the environment–it’s what they do for our souls.” He adds, “In 2018 we’ll explore the wonder of birds, and why we really can’t live without them.” These sentiments parallel my own, yet mine extend beyond our avian neighbors and friends to Nature and life on Earth, as well as the beauty and splendor of Earth itself.

My Recent Migratory Journey

December 22 and 23, I migrated south from my Fairmont State University Interim Presidency (https://www.fairmontstate.edu/), thus sharing something in common with the 20,000 or so sand hill cranes wintering at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. We visited Christmas week with grandsons Jack and Sam, our daughter Katy’s sons:

The waterfowl had logged a few more miles than I. My road distance amounted to ~640 road miles from Fairmont, WV to Madison, AL; 450-500 air miles, I suppose. The cranes migrated well over 2,000 direct miles from the Canadian Arctic! And it was vocation, and not winter food supply and more tolerable weather, that spurred my travels. Theirs was a life or death journey. Mine a return-to-semi-retirement-sojourn. Neither theirs nor mine distilled to liking one place better than the other. The cranes would have frozen had they not left the bitter, unforgiving high latitude winter. Judy and I chose to reside in the Tennessee Valley post-permanent-employment. Our daughter and her two sons are here. We know the state and region well, having resided in Alabama (near Montgomery and in Auburn) twice before. We feel great comfort and satisfaction here on the shores of Big Blue Lake. I doubt the cranes know comfort and satisfaction; more likely, it is survival they seek, and to store consumed-energy sufficient to head north once again by mid- to late-February.

After a full-year in-place (July 2016 through June 2017), I couldn’t resist the six-month opportunity to serve Fairmont State University (https://www.fairmontstate.edu/) as Interim President. I relished the half-year of deep professional satisfaction, reward, and fulfillment. Like the cranes, I brought echoes of my season-away back to northern Alabama. In fact, I carry the echoes and reverberations from 66 prior annual seasons. I suppose the cranes, who have the navigational agility to re-discover a favorite Tennessee River sandbar from thousands of miles away, carry the echo of countless generations past that have made the same journey. I saw Wheeler this time with fresher eyes, and renewed perspective. I felt intense gratitude for my safe return and delight in my re-ignited inspiration at once again seeing these magnificent creatures (the cranes, and the grandsons!). The boys, too, are on a journey… one that will extend far beyond the few more crane cycles I will observe and enjoy. May the Nature seed we’re planting echo within them for decades to come.

Nature’s Lesson

What is Nature’s lesson that I draw from yet again experiencing the cranes at Wheeler? I suppose its facets are several. A sharp reminder that life (as well as vocation) is a journey — across miles and time. A journey of cycles and circuits and switchbacks… and way stations and highs and lows. Another element of the lesson is that life unfolds, surges, slows, and follows signals, breezes, and gales we seldom anticipate and sometimes do not detect. Once again, Nature instructs that unless we look for magic, beauty, awe, and wonder we will never see nor recognize it. And unless we see it deeply, we will never feel Nature’s Power and Wisdom. And unless we feel it, we risk missing the journey altogether, wandering rudderless and blindly from one day to another. Had I sought another out-of-state longer-term presidency, who knows what I might have foregone:

And, one need not be living at distance to miss the annual show. Sadly, how many people living in this Huntsville Metropolitan Statistical Area have no idea that tens of thousands of feathered migrants settle seasonally just a few miles down the Tennessee River? I embrace and savor Nature and life. I write these words Saturday afternoon, January 6. It’s been well below freezing for more than a week. Tomorrow when we plan a return to Wheeler (watch for another post), I anticipate ice covering most of the slack-water. How will that change the Refuge and the birds? I’ll be sure to let you know.

The cranes stir deep emotion for me. I remain eternally grateful for those who established the National Wildlife Refuge System. By an Executive Order of March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt  established Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, the nation’s first. Dare to imagine the stark reality of North America had we failed to preserve these continent-wide corridors and stop-overs. What price does the US pay to manage and preserve these national treasures? What unfathomable costs would we bear without them? How can we place value on a dram of Inspiration; a cubit of Knowledge; an ounce of Wisdom; a milliliter of Hope; a thimble of Faith?!

Emily Dickinson viewed birds as literal and symbolic hope (“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers):

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Author Christopher Cokinos borrowed his book title from Dickinson’s 1862 metaphorical poem to tell the sobering tale of six now extinct bird species in Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. My hope is that we learn before it is too late. Wheeler is a symbol of what difference we can make when we look, see, feel, and act.

I want to tell the Land Legacy Story for Wheeler’s 35,000 acres. An ambitious project, yes. A tale worthy of passing along to future generations? Absolutely! I am attempting to make inroads, and now that I am back in northern Alabama, I will see what I can do.

Franzen closes his article with words matching the depth of Dickinson’s poetry, “The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value… their indifference to us ought to serve as a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things. The stories we tell about the past and imagine for the future are mental constructions that birds can do without.”

Great Blue Heron accepts and champions that we humans are certainly not “the measure of all things.” I’ve held for years that our guiding tenets for living, learning, serving, and leading should include Nature’s wisdom, power, and force in evoking: Gratitude; Inspiration; and Humility. Unforgivable and unconscionable arrogance describes those who are unwilling to see our true place in Nature’s World. We are a mere frame in the cosmic eternity. A cog in the wheel of time.

Great Blue Heron, via writing, speaking, and chronicling Forest- and Wild-land Legacy Stories, urges recognition and respect for our place in the web of life and living.

Visit Amazon to purchase one or both of my books — they might just inspire all that lies ahead for you in this world rich with Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe!

 

Post-Script: we ventured to Wheeler Sunday January 7. Sure enough, slack-water fully ice-covered. I can’t wait to share my observations and reflections with you! Here’s a teaser photo:

 

 

 

How Did We Stand the Continuous Darkness?

We spent four years (2004-2008) in Fairbanks, Alaska, at nearly 65 degrees north latitude. This time of year, people often ask, “How did you stand the continuous darkness?” I patiently try to explain that because Fairbanks is south of the Arctic Circle, even on the winter solstice, the sun still rises, albeit just 1.5 degrees above the horizon at solar noon.

Now I can refer them to a University of Alaska Fairbanks (where I served four years as Chancellor) time lapse video of the 2017solstice 24-hour sun cycle: http://akclimate.org/…/webcam-timelapse/2017_12_21-TLaps.gif

Note the central Alaska Range some 70 miles due south. We found deep winter in central interior Alaska spell-binding, with beauty, magic, wonder, and awe around every corner.

We’ve made 13 interstate moves over our 45 years together. We decided long ago to bloom where we’re planted. And, that has made all the difference. My hope is that you are doing same.

But Baby It’s Cold Outside!

Here at 34.7 degrees north latitude (contrast that to Fairbanks, AK at 64.8), we expect some relative warmth this time of year. Average daily high for early January is 48. We enjoyed one day since the last few days of December that made it all the way to 35! Average daily low is 30; most of these past seven-plus days have fallen to high single digits and teens! Big Blue Lake is ice-covered… and has been for a week. Were I a bit more adventurous (and still near my marathon-running-days weight), I believe I could walk across it.

Although my local friends would think me near-crazy, I welcome the spell of deep winter. It legitimizes seasonal dormancy in these parts. Nature prepares for the extremes… the outliers. When we lived near Montgomery, AL back in the early 80s, our landscape beds showcased scores of ornamental azaleas. An Arctic air penetration brought the temperature to negative two over the Christmas break while we were with family in Maryland. We returned to find the bark and cambium split on every plant — burst and deceased. Native azaleas survived the extreme low. Nature had prepared those native species and varieties to the wild swings within the parameters of normal. That Arctic air-mass, as well as this one, fall within the range of normal. Below average — certainly. Yet within the rather wide limits of long-term natural.

Let Nature’s plant kingdom enjoy a break. A rest from the pressures of making a living via photosynthesis. In fact, the break extends from early October through most of March. Our northern Alabama red maple begins flowering early in that spring equinox month. Most forest species extend leaf dormancy into late March and early April. That’s nearly half-a-year of forced rest, even here in a part of the country our northern friends consider The South — a place to escape winter.

Even as Nature prepares for the extremes, we humans tend toward remembering the severe conditions, and recalling them as typical. Here’s an example. We arrived in Fairbanks June 2004. By early October, summer had gone, leaf color began turning aspens and poplar gold as August transitioned to September; deciduous trees had shed all leaves by September’s third week. We had 2-3 snows of 1-2 inches that fell, accumulated, and then melted. I watched for the climatological summary for September. With the summary in mind, I asked many long-term Fairbanks residents, most of them affiliated with the university, how the just-completed month compared to “the way they used to be.” Without exception, respondents talked about how Septembers used to be much colder, with a winter-long snow pack already in place by month’s end. Interestingly, September 2004 was the third coldest December on record! We all remember our parents telling us that they walked uphill to and from school in waste-deep snow.

So, what are the lessons we can draw from this cold spell? If you are a duck or a goose, prepare for some hard landings (yes, those are geese on the ice):

Otherwise, be aware of the nature and extent of normal (not just average) ebbs and flows for life, living, and enterprise. Remain aware that Nature prepares for the extremes. Even for those of us who choose to live in high risk areas, on average (over the vast majority of days), the hurricane does not make landfall near us; the fire does not consume our surrounding shrub and forest cover (and our home); the flood does not inundate us; the mudslide does not sweep our home down the hillside; the earthquake does not liquefy our firm under-footing. Yet the risks are quantifiable. While not average occurrences, they do fall within the long-term normal. Know what is normal and prepare for it… or, if too much to bear, avoid it.

Nature prepares. She knows that these cypress will from time-to-time see real winter settle on the Tennessee River flats here at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. My guess is that in their own way, the trees, too, welcome the dormant season. They are re-loading, ready to launch into full production once Arctic threats are at bay.

A Sharpened Great Blue Heron Focus

My own dormant season began when I headed south from my Fairmont State University Presidency (https://www.fairmontstate.edu/) just before Christmas. I view these Blessed subsequent two-weeks as a form of rest and reloading. Professionally, I have begun thinking in earnest about how to better focus my work with Great Blue Heron, LLC. Here is where I will concentrate:

  1. Promoting my books (and continuing to write; two new ones in process)
  2. Speaking — along the Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading theme of my books. Purpose: to inspire, educate, and enable audiences to harness Nature’s Wisdom and Power in service to cause.
  3. Land Legacy Stories — contracting with individuals, organizations, agencies, and companies who own wild-land (forested and not) to tel the Story of the property. Both the Human and Human Nature dimensions of the Land Legacy.

Although perhaps separate from GBH, I will consider other higher education consulting and interim executive positions — all of which I will approach from the Ecosystems Basis I employed successfully as FSU Interim President.

I will devote future Blog Posts to more clearly defining and expanding upon this New Year’s resolution to sharpen GBH in greater service to tomorrow.

 

Returning from a Six-Month Absence

Happy New Year!

I left Big Blue Lake end of June, 2017 for my six-month Interim Presidency at Fairmont State University. We returned mid-day December 23. I squeezed a lot out of that half-year. Yet I must admit, I cannot ignore the trade-offs… the costs of a six-month full immersion out of state. Judy (my spouse of 45.5 years) joined me a week per month, too infrequently for me not to feel generally as though I was living alone. Also, I made it back to Alabama only once during the term, making our daughter and grand sons Jack (10) and Sam (4) seem remote. We kept up through phone and Face-time, yet it’s not the same.

Was great to reconnect at Big Blue Lake upon return! As I appreciated this special place and reunited with family, I thought of Wendell Berry’s “VII,” his poem reminding us that the day-to-day small things aggregate to life, pleasure, and reward:

“Again I resume the long

lesson:  how small a thing

can be pleasing, how little

in this hard world it takes

to satisfy the mind

and bring it to its rest.”

Christmas Eve stayed cloudy most of the day as a cold front slowly slipped south. Thick low clouds parted at sunset, rewarding us with sparkling clear skies above as the cloud deck slipped away.

Again, Nature serves dollops of magic to those willing to look, see, and feel. What did seeing this wonder require of me? Sensing the light changing outside my window… and wandering to the patio with camera at the ready. The view is to the south, clouds racing from the northwest, heralding the first really cold spell of the young winter. The mix and richness of colors and textures constitute the scene, yet the details of season, wind direction, and frontal passage add meaning and content not discernible to the unknowing and disinterested. I observe people clinging to their digital devices, and feel sorrow for what they are missing.

When I hit the shutter for this frame, I saw only the magnificent sky. Then my eye saw Big Blue standing at water’s edge near the willow clump just right of center. Hunched to buffer the now chilly breeze, he did not rise.

I brought him closer via the zoom. This was my first close-up of our resident great blue heron since my return the day prior. I viewed his presence as a gift, an acknowledgment that the simple things matter. Berry’s “VII” said it beautifully:

“What more did I

think I wanted?  Here is

what has always been.

Here is what will always be.”

I seek Nature’s gifts relentlessly. She rewards selflessly… and often. She asks only that I be alert, and not demanding on a Grand Tetons or Alaska Range scale. Life presents itself in bite-size morsels. Enjoyment, appreciation, and fulfillment need not await the once-in-a-lifetime vacation adventure.

Christmas brought the anticipated pleasure of celebrating the ultimate Gift of a Life that forever changed the world to those of us who embrace Christianity. May each of you have found some similar Spiritual awakening… your own belief in a higher power — a spiritual purpose and calling.

Jack’s new fishing rod and reel connected the day after — a 1.5 pound large-mouth bass right at our shore. We immediately released it, knowing that the frogs, smaller fish, and other critters will soon nurture his growth to tougher future angling battles and perhaps a fry-pan.

That day ended with yet another gift, this one at sunset, welcoming a night that fell into the lower twenties. Balmy by our Fairbanks, Alaska winter standards, yet seasonably cold for northern Alabama.

Again, just four days back at Big Blue Lake and life is rich, full, and good. All without any digital immersion beyond a few emails and texts from friends and family.

I can’t resist the shutter when Nature paints the evening sky.

The same holds for Nature’s wake-up call, this one greeting December 29, a full-week returned to Big Blue Lake.

Are you on alert for Nature’s richness?

Are you looking, seeing, feeling, and acting? I’m writing these words Friday evening, the 29th. I just glanced out my office window to the north, discovering a glow reflected in windows across the street. I rushed to the patio, camera in hand, curious to see whether the day would end with the west ignited in farewell:

Sure enough, another blessing, both without and with Sam and Jack in silhouette! As I’ve said too many times to count, every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is compellingly inspired by Nature. This Blog Post focuses on Nature’s incessant inspiration. Yet perhaps her most poignant lesson expressed powerfully in these photographs and reflections is simple and direct. Berry nailed it:

“Again I resume the long

lesson:  how small a thing

can be pleasing, how little

in this hard world it takes

to satisfy the mind

and bring it to its rest.”

Dewitt Jones, decades-long National Geographic photographer extraordinaire, observed in The Nature of Leadership (Covey, Marshall, and Jones), “Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from nature is gratitude. If we could publish it in our lives everyday, the way nature publishes beauty in every sunrise and every sunset, how different might the world be?”

Great Blue Heron can help you find Nature’s simple power and wisdom to guide your life and enterprise. And how we might inculcate a measure of gratitude for the world around us.

 

Preservation and Change

Return Visit to Cathedral State Park

My first two undergraduate forestry summers I performed continuous forest inventory on Savage River State Forest (then 52,000 acres) in Western Maryland’s Garrett County. I stayed weeknights in a cabin at New Germany State Park. The entire experience served in retrospect as a gift from God — Divine Professional Providence! Preston County WV lay just to Garrett’s west, still in the Allegany Plateau high country from 2,500 to >3,500 feet. Just over the WV line, WV’s Cathedral State Park preserved and protected an ancient hemlock stand that had escaped turn-of-the-20th-Century logging. I visited and hiked the preserve a dozen times over those invigorating formative summers.

Precious Recollections

I recall a closed canopy of massive trees, a mixed stand of hemlock, black cherry, oak, and others. An understory dark with deep shade. Vibrant and healthy trees showing vitality despite standing for perhaps 300 years. I’ve carried the indelible memory with me for the 45 years since.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nature’s Sobering Reality

December 17, 2017, a week from my final day at Fairmont State University, I re-visited Cathedral State Park. The four-plus decades have not been kind, and I don’t mean just to my knees. The once regal, magnificent old-growth forest is entering its period of senescence.

Age and gravity always prevail. We can cherish these ancient stands, yet we cannot forever delay the ultimate ravages of time. The agents of agony and demise range from individual lightning strikes to uprooting to mid-trunk shattering to thinning and fading foliage.

Death by Static Electricity

 

Blow-Down

 

Topped-Out

 

Crown Vigor fading

 

Some old soldiers stand dead, attributable cause uncertain.

 

Patches lay jack-strawed.

 

Only a few stand remnants still hold deep shade.

I’m told that Super Storm Sandy dumped a couple feet of wind-driven wet snow at this elevation, doing great harm, snapping many stems and wreaking havoc within the crowns. Sandy served as the proximate cause – the catastrophic straw-breaking-the-camel’s-back. Yet the ultimate agent acted over an extended period of change. Nature knows time… and anticipates inexorable stresses, shifts, patterns, and eventual mortality. Light now reaching the forest floor is triggering forest renewal at Cathedral. When the last of the giants submits to the forces of Nature, the next stand will be adolescent, a rich admixture of hemlock and hardwoods.

 

Nature knows how to perpetuate forest cover, albeit the next iteration may (No, will!) differ in species composition, structure, and old growth trajectory. Three hundred fifty years hence, the new forest may look little like today’s aging stand. Nature’s top seldom re-spins in like manner. Perturbations will not pattern-repeat over neat 350-year cycles. What if the next super storm strikes the new stand at age 50? Followed two springs hence when a wild, dry, spring front pushes winds reaching 50 miles per hour… and some camper fails to tend a cook-fire? The crazy fury will convert the fallen, tinder-like debris of the downed forest to ash and bare ground. What then? Forget about hemlock. Look instead for oak root-sprouts and light-seeded, wind-dispersed species like aspen, and seedlings from acorn-snacks cached by rodents or birds in soil. Nature’s team is proven and reliable. The busy squirrel buries the acorn for retrieval, unaware that she will not (cannot) find them all, and that one of them may be part of Nature’s design to perpetuate the oak. And she knows not that her habit of caching tasty acorns furthers her own species, assuring that future oaks will feed her descendants time and again.

Every Forest Tells a Tale

Her act of placing the acorn is random. Chaos rules Nature… I suppose chaos rules most everything. Nature’s preparation is hard-wired, DNA-ingrained-preparation spanning a few million years of adaptation. Our enterprises and lives are far less experienced. Nature urges anticipation; we too often operate without it. We also are blind to what is likely, much less to what is possible. Nature will occupy this land, originally protected and preserved for the sake of a wondrously beautiful old-growth hemlock forest. Visitors many generations hence may see rotting hulks of long-dead forest giants. Interpretive signage may tell the tale. Old photographs may chronicle the story of the magical forest. Several individuals may persevere another hundred years.

Many of you own forest land. I recall from my faculty days at Penn State that one in ten Pennsylvania families owns forested property. Your forest acreage, whether in New Hampshire, Alabama, or Kansas, has its own story, written on the land and still retained within the family’s written and oral history. Contact me if you’d like to have your own Forest Land Legacy Story told and interpreted for prosperity (http://stevejonesgbh.com/legacy-stories/). Every stand expresses sentiment and symbolizes special meaning and memory.

For example, at Cathedral, I found and photographed one giant that spoke to me of life and living. It reached for the light with a rough ladder… a Stairway to Heaven. A symbol for both our need to reach beyond our own grasp, and to reach for something larger than our meager selves:

As I’ve observed time and again, every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature.

Revisiting Cathedral State Park still generates a deep sense of humility and full inspiration. Although fading, the forest still touches my core. I absorbed those few hours via my five portals — heart, mind, body, soul, and spirit. Even a snow-covered foot-bridge over a late fall flowing stream evokes wonder, awe, and appreciation:

 

I also felt a sharp melancholy. A realization that nothing stays the same. That time marches onward, and we are taken along for a ride, powered by forces beyond our control. We can only do what we can within its current, making some small differences as we may. Making the most of the voyage, and always conscious of our responsibility to steward the land and leave it better for those who follow.

 

 

 

Fairmont State University – An Aerial Perspective

I’m a spatial (not at all special) guy. Over my field forester days and subsequent positions, I’ve enjoyed many hours airborne, face pressed to the windows. Whether on commercial airline ascent or descent (not much to see from 30,000-foot cruising altitudes), or evaluating land exchanges via chopper, I interpret the landscape much more clearly than from ground level. While on a site/stand-scale nothing beats boots on the ground, the 1,000 to 1,500-foot vantage point opens the land (and my eyes) to an ecosystem scale.

I had been wanting to view FSU and our community by air since accepting this interim appointment. December 15, the agents of aircraft, pilot, earth, and sky aligned… just a week from my final day on campus. Joel Kirk, one of our FSU pilot flight instructors (and retired Marine flight instructor), took me up late morning. We didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver under a scuzzy 1,500-foot ceiling. I did not complain! Finally, I could see the world unfold beyond the Interstate, which in this view lies a mile or so to the left.

Imagine the river as a route of exploration and commerce, predating European settlement by millennia. Its valley as a path of least resistance for roadways and rail-beds. Water and gravity over the long course of time shaped the local topography. These hills are water-carved from nearly pancake geology. Road cuts reveal flat strata, one layer neatly lying above the next. Coal mines beneath these hills follow rich seams horizontally. Yet another of Nature’s revelations, the coal and natural gas tell the story of layering of a different sort. Deep (and deeper-still) time transformed Pennsylvanian/Permian forests/swamps/bogs to these fossil fuels that power our industrial society. Amazing what a mere 250-300 million years can accomplish! That’s some 110 billion sunrises. Here in north-central WV, many people have died harvesting that ancient plant-stored sunshine.

The River has for eons transported eroded sediment from the west side of the Appalachians, first northward, delivering it to the Ohio, then southwestward into the Mississippi, and then to the Gulf of Mexico. For all but the past 15+ thousand years, the rivers had no names, yet their power, majesty, and beauty predated homo sapiens’ labeling them. The Monongahela carried its load easily long before Asians crossed the Bering Land Bridge and made their way east and south across the Rockies, Great Plains, and Lake country to these West Virginia hills. The Mississippi Delta bears witness. Deposits reach depths of 100,000 feet, over three times the height of Everest, deep enough to subside Earth’s crust, taking New Orleans each year a little further below sea level. The Big Easy owes a bit of its flood prone situation to West Virginia sand and silt! Time and Nature could not possibly care less about a city sinking into the sea. We humans place our fair cities in harm’s way and then spend billions in a feeble attempt to protect them. Katrina cared little about over-topping a few levees.

Likewise, deluges in early April 1852 paid little attention to Fairmont occupying the river’s flood plain. From Wikipedia: “Heavy rains the day before caused the Mon and West Fork Rivers to rise at a rate of 5 feet per hour until Tuesday afternoon, when the water reached 43 feet above its normal level. The greatest damage was sustained on the West Fork, where over 40 houses and buildings were swept away and floated past Fairmont.” What difference does flushing a few houses down to Pittsburgh make to a river intent on carving the Appalachian Plateau?

 

A New View of Campus

My November 21, 2017 Blog-Post presented a second-hand aerial view of FSU. Science and Technology Dean Don Trisel had sent his drone camera aloft:

A much appreciated perspective, teasing my desire for a first-hand aerial view. A few weeks later, beyond late fall residual color to an early winter, snow-dusted view from nearly 1,000 feet higher, I scratched that itch:

Shaw House, my six-month President’s residence, sits within the rough semi-circle of pine and hemlock (see the evergreens above) mid-campus, oriented at nearly 180 degrees in the summer drone photo below:

A lovely 125-acre campus developing, educating, and inspiring some 4,000 future citizens and leaders who will lead us into the future. Appropriately, from this perspective, the university sits within a larger landscape… a setting stretching into the distance, both physically and metaphorically. I like to think that during my tenure as an FSU Falcon, I have encouraged and enabled our faculty, staff, alumni, students, and our broader community to lift and extend our vision. Our reach is without limit. My aerial exploration revealed that with a bit of lift, we can see what is normally invisible. FSU’s family, with my continuous prodding, is now seeing the invisible. And seeing the invisible, we are now reaching for what had been impossible. In fact, an institution that had slid into satisfaction with an Earth-bound trajectory, we are collectively soaring… as all good Falcons should! I am glad that my actual flight came near the end of this six-month journey. I think you may be able to read the look of joy and fulfillment I feel completing my Falcon flight, both actual and symbolic (that’s Joel beside me):

My Dad loved Nature and airplanes. All that I have tended and nurtured in my life sprouted from seeds he planted in my heart, soul, and psyche. I read John Gillespie Magee Jr’s High Flight at Dad’s memorial service nearly a quarter century ago:

High Flight
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds … and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of … wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

I feel the same tumbling mirth from my six-month FSU flight. I have, in fact, trod with silent, lifting mind. Magee paints my soaring heart so beautifully. A bit corny perhaps, yet I do feel that via this gift of an Interim Presidency, I have put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Nature’s Inspiration at Scale

I often think back to my first close-up view of Mount Denali. I had hiked up Mount Quigley one late August morning, providing a clear, cloud-free view of Denali’s north face from just 20 miles. Because the big one rises from 2,000 feet above sea level on its north side, it ascended within my field of view 18,000 feet vertical, all of it visible in one magnificent image. I could imagine nothing more grand. Everest reaches 11,000 feet higher, yet no where does it show an 18,000 vertical face. Even as I contemplate such grandeur, I recall someone saying decades ago that were Earth the size of a ping-pong ball, it would actually be smoother than the little plastic sphere. Scale determines so much. Close to my temporary WV home, Dolly Sods provides some great panoramas (this view and the Feature Image of this post):

Beautiful in that larger view, the Sods generate yet another scale of special beauty and perspective up close:

Slice the scene even more narrowly, and a hidden world emerges. We found this unidentified fungal fruiting body trail-side on a fallen birch, still at Dolly Sods.

Beauty, magic, awe, and wonder await the discerning hiker… the hiker who looks and sees. Perhaps decades ago, I remember a Nature documentary that began at day-to-day human scale and successively led the viewer outward into space one order of magnitude distance at a time. Out through the solar system, into the Milky Way, and then beyond into deep space, and other galaxies. I felt smaller and even more insignificant with each ten-fold leap.

The television program then reversed from human scale, by orders of magnitude smaller. Into the soil litter, soil micro-organisms, and by scale eventually into atomic and sub-atomic. Once again, scale makes all the difference. We can observe the forest at the price of missing the trees; and the trees at the cost of missing component life (and death). Yet another unidentified fungus infects this standing dead hickory about eight inches in diameter:

A living tree stands by the strength of its cellulose; a fungus stands by the sustenance it draws from the cellulose, digesting it one cell wall at a time. Each one of those minute fungal fruiting bodies will eject thousands, if not millions, of spores. Wind-borne (or maybe insect-disseminated) spores may have the good fortune of happening upon a recently dead, not yet colonized, host species. That tiny, invisible spore operates at a smaller scale. Each division has a division, and subsequently smaller world. A dead beech sapling also hosts micro-organisms, both fungal fruiting bodies and lichen mats.

As does a prostrate white pine:

Life is rich at multiple scales, each providing a glimpse into smaller and smaller domains, down to to the molecular. Though life does not extend outward larger and larger without end, the non-living world certainly reaches far beyond. At the risk of repeating one comparative example I’ve used from the lectern and in other postings, a photon would travel seven times around Earth in one second. That same photon at the speed of light would reach the center of our Milky Way galaxy, with its several hundred billion stars, only after 25,000 years. And our Milky way, this unimaginably large star cluster, is only one of some two trillion such galaxies. Too immense to grasp? You bet! So let’s return to our human scale world.

I found this multi-storied, yellow poplar apartment complex at Valley Falls State Park during the summer. Excavated by pileated woodpeckers in search of insect protein, these cavities now house all manner of life: insect, small mammals, snails, fungus, and who knows what else. All elements are intimately inter-related, from the cosmic to the sub-atomic.

What a blessed, miraculously interdependent world — physical and organic. The yellow poplar apartment complex will one day succumb to the forces of life, death, and gravity. This 30-inch-plus diameter, deceased maple is decaying toward the horizontal, even as a beech sapling stands ready to absorb and prosper from nutrients long-since sequestered as the maple flourished:

Leaves from a still-living red maple bring early fall color to this mossy seep among the rhododendrons atop Dolly Sods.

Not far from the boggy forest interior, the west-rim panorama opens to a larger scale. All we do and see in life and nature present at scale.

Too few people notice the dimensions that add vibrancy to life, living, and enterprise. There are those who can’t see the forest for the trees. Sadly, there are those, too, who see neither the forest or the trees. I look hard, seeking to see in multiple dimensions, yet I fear I am missing far too much. Better to be the miserable wretch who sees nothing beyond the digital… unaware of the rich palette unseen? No, I much prefer seeing a bit of something, rather than all of nothing.

Opening Our Eyes

Today (12/10), I drove Judy to the Pittsburgh airport, some 90 miles north, and returned to Fairmont. A quarter inch of snow dusted the ground last night, adding a hint of deeper, impending winter to the now dormant landscape. I thought, how gloomy, yet quickly dismissed that too-easy trap of negativity. Instead, I relished that my view at 70 mph now opened into the roadside forests. No longer simply a wall of green, the denuded trees and shrubs permitted deep looks at the forest floor and countless stems and trunks. Three full dimensions where during the growing season only two appeared to us.

It’s so easy to be blind to the world around us. Great Blue Heron borrows nature’s lessons, and instructs how to learn and apply them. Nature’s Wisdom and Power enrich my life. Great Blue Heron can help you harness Nature’s Power and Wisdom… in service to your life and enterprise. I am grateful for far more than most people dare to dream.

Life is rich and good. Nature informs, enriches, and inspires!

 

 

Sowing Seeds for Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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