Southeast Drought Relief

A moisture-rich SSW feed from the Gulf of Mexico and an embedded disturbance delivered 1.2 inches from late morning through early afternoon today. Tropical showers with rumbles of thunder entertained us from time to time. Our lake is now at full pool, a good three to four feet higher than the disturbingly low level that persisted during the late summer through mid-November, when dormant season rains began in earnest.

Since those first welcome soaking rains, I’ve measured 20.9 inches, a bit above the long term average of ~18 inches for the period. Our northern Alabama relief has come with only one or two episodes of what I’ll refer to as excess rainfall. That is, rainfall rates and amounts sufficient to trigger flash flood statements and actual damage, albeit limited. In contrast, California’s drought-busting storms have triggered extensive flooding. We have been blessed with relief generally without negative consequence. I am pleased to see area streams at seasonal flow, ground water recharging, and the stage set for the growing season ahead. Nature’s abundance lifts my spirits and improves my outlook.

An Interesting Forecast

We’ve returned to the southeast, so we know to anticipate active spring cold fronts, frequently accompanied by serious storms. As I draft this blog, late afternoon on the final day of February, the National Weather Service forecast diagnostics include some provocative language:

  • “a potent full latitude trough shifts east from the Southern Plains to the eastern half of the country”
  • “will become more important by early Wednesday [tomorrow] morning through Wednesday afternoon”
  • continuing “strong warm air advection”
  • toward morning a “strong low level jet developing ahead of the trough”
  • “surface-based deep convection to develop”
  • “discrete cells will move within a conditionally unstable environment and develop from upstream pre-frontal convective outflow boundaries,” with some of “these discrete cells to exhibit rotating updrafts”
  • “point toward damaging winds up to 70 miles per hour and large hail”
  • “tornadoes may also occur”

Although I do not fully comprehend all of the NWS lingo, I am a lay student of meteorology and can appreciate that these parameters set the stage for some rough weather. I will stay tuned and remain attentive as the situation develops tomorrow. Nature fascinates me. We live on a planet with a dynamic atmosphere, its Troposphere churning and stirring constantly. We are entering a season typified by battling air masses here in the Southeast. Summer will win the war, yet fierce battles will be staged as winter thrusts its cold air south time and again between now and early May. Tomorrow will not be the last time battle lines are drawn across northern Alabama. I will enjoy watching the drama unfold, ever-conscious that there can be real casualties. Ever-aware of the need to seek shelter if necessary.

Nature frequently humbles and inspires. Nature is an exquisite teacher. A day does not go by that I do not learn yet a little more by observing her patterns and processes. Potentially severe and damaging conditions and circumstances buffet our lives and enterprises occasionally. We deal with and react to them effectively only when we understand, and especially when we anticipate and prepare in advance.

Great Blue Heron urges individuals and enterprises to learn from Nature even as she Inspires all that we do.

Seasonal Ebbs and Flows

February 15, we returned to nearby Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Some three weeks had passed since our last trip. From mid-December through late January, visits rewarded us with thousands of sandhill cranes — feeding, dancing, cavorting, rattling, and bugling across the flats near the observation center. The center’s external microphones captured their cacophonous joy; speakers brought their celebrations indoors. What better place for the cranes to vacation than along a Tennessee River Valley refuge at 34.7 degrees North Latitude, while winter blasted their far northern breeding grounds!

We particularly enjoyed their comings and goings, streaming in continuously during the morning in ragged flights ranging from the occasional single to crowds of fifty-plus. Always approaching at 100-300 feet, swinging around to face the wind, and sailing with wings spread, sometimes with strong breezes, seeming stationary to the ground, slowly descending, with landing gears at the ready. An amazing display as they adjusted wing flaps and landed flawlessly upright. Discussion among those arriving and their cohorts on the ground rising to crescendo with each incoming group.

Because night predators would have easy access to cranes standing on upland fields, an hour or so before winter sunset brought high-level activity to the feeding grounds. Over the course of an incredible half-hour, first one and then many groups lifted with great ceremony, wheeling hither and yon, gathering, forming once again into loose formation, yakking incessantly, and generally heading east not far above tree top level. Many groups circled; some headed immediately east; and others flew east, returned, and then eventually flew east to the shallow, flooded flats where they found overnight safety. A daily social activity that expressed joy and love of life.

Were the sandhills the only Wheeler peak season feature, that would have been reward enough. Add in five to a high of 13 whooping cranes that we spotted, and explode the thrill and pleasure. Thank God we have tracked progress in saving this magnificent animal from the brink. Twice this season we marveled at a pair and their single immature offspring, still staying close to mom and dad.

Again, peak season covered the open water with many thousands of ducks of various species. One day in January, excitement spread among the loyal birders when we identified a pair of Asian widgeons, right there off the observation center, my first. Another day, the ducks lifted almost in unison, filling the sky, just as someone pointed out a red-tailed hawk cruising past. Last year we watched a red-tail feeding on fresh duck, ripping it apart from a perch on a strategically placed utility pole with platform.

Every time I experienced Wheeler during peak season, my heart raced; my soul and spirit lifted and soared. We knew the peak season would begin to ebb as spring neared. As we drove to Wheeler this week, red maple showed nearly full flower. A violet nodded at us along the trail. We also heard several weak peeper trills. As we neared the observation center, no sandhill rattles greeted us. We saw no birds through the winter-bare hardwoods. Entering the center, we noticed water and fields generally absent birds. Along the northern shore we counted a dozen or so sandhiils. A few mallards on the water, and scores of Canada geese feeding on fresh grass sprouts. Still mid-morning, we watched a few flights of sandhills wheel in from the east, swing south and land to the north, joining the cranes already gathered there. A local birder with strong spotting scope counted 231 cranes assembled by the time we departed.

Still enough to inspire awe and wonder, yet far short of the ten thousand that would be within sight during peak. I wondered, where are they? Winter is not yet in rapid retreat north of us. A red maple in flower here may suggest that the sugar maple sap is beginning to flow in southern Michigan, but reliable spring warmth trails far behind the first sap boiling. Perhaps the cranes are still nearby and were elsewhere on the refuge. I don’t think so; I’m told by those who have marked the ebbs and flows over decades that the fields are often thinly stocked by mid-February. I am delighted that we are now located permanently (no, nothing is permanent; yet we will be here until our days end), within 25 miles of this magical place, and we can chronicle the annual bird-doings ourselves.

All things in life and in the seasons of our enterprises experience patterns, cycles, and shifts. Most of those we can anticipate, predict, and monitor. We can modify our behavior and responses accordingly. I truly feel sorry for those fellow citizens of the Huntsville area who do not know the magic of Wheeler. Last evening, returning home from my wife’s doctor’s appointment, approaching my turn-off, I saw a young woman driver racing past me. I glanced over to see her holding a cigarette in her left hand and focusing on the hand-held device in her right. I am certain she does not know Nature. She can’t even see the life on the road she is dangerously traversing. She is blind to the life-dimension that restores and renews me. I pray that she kills no one, including herself.

I see such ignorance and ambivalence to what truly matters, and I want to do even more to awaken us — as individuals and as a society. Metaphorically, we are blind, deaf, and dumb (forgive me if I dare to say, recklessly stupid!). So many are simply not looking. So few are actually seeing. Almost none are feeling. And rare is the person who is seeing and feeling enough to act on behalf of our future.

As I repeat and pound in my essays, blogs, books, speaking, and consulting, my ultimate intent through Great Blue Heron is to enhance lives and enterprise success, even as I sow the seeds for responsible Earth stewardship. Every trip I make to Wheeler, whether during peak or off-season, fuels my mission and strengthens my resolve. Still my heart races and my soul soars.

The Simple Things Become Our Ultimate Pleasure

This past Sunday, my nine-year-old grandson (Jack) and I visited a nearby nature preserve, our first visit to this location. Most of us conjure an image of raw, unblemished wilderness with the term “preserve.” Not so this Harvest Square Nature Preserve, an approximately 70-acre parcel donated by the developer of an adjacent commercial property. The Preserve includes two lakes totaling 17 acres. The lakes are borrow pits that furnished fill for the commercial construction. The term borrow is a bit of a misnomer – the developer removed the fill permanently. The action does not constitute borrowing.

Yet I digress. Man-made as they are, the lakes are rapidly naturalizing. As we exited the car, a great blue heron rose from the larger lake’s shore and flew into the mature trees southeast of the lake. We noticed that a small creek east of the lake had recently over-flowed its west bank into the lake. Evidenced suggested that such an overflow occurrence is not rare near the active beaver dam along the creek. Small wonder the trail we traversed is named Beaver Dam Trail! Thus, critters and flora of all stripes routinely exchange between lake and stream. Cattail rushes line the east and north lake shore where the trail led us. Other wetland-related vegetation, from grasses to blackberries to young ash and willow provide human-impenetrable cover 10-15 feet tall. Small birds flitted among the late winter seed-sources. We watched a pair of mallards foraging along the west shore. We saw beaver-gnawed sapling stumps along the north shore. I could go on and on about the magic, awe, and wonder inspired and enabled by the simple act of excavating fill for a shopping center, and then having the foresight and land ethic to create a grandfather and grandson-friendly preserve. How simple… how exquisite!

Inspirational contemporary poet Kathy Parenteau authored Oh Mighty Oak:

Stand tall oh mighty oak, for all the world to see,
your strength and undying beauty forever amazes me.

Parenteau speaks through pleasant verse of storm clouds, winds “high and restless,” suffering loss of a limb or two, yet growing stronger for the pain and strain. She suggests of the oak that “we could learn so much from you.” She prays for the same perseverance and the strength to face each day with hope whether the skies are blue or storm-darkened. Parenteau concludes that each day is a gift and every moment is to be treasured. “It’s the simple things we take for granted that become our ultimate pleasure.”

Yes, we can draw ultimate pleasure from the simplest of nature’s blessings. Whether fortuitously or deliberately, the developer left a stand of upland hardwoods bordering a cultivated field (33 acres still farmed under the donation agreement). The relict stand includes a few of its own mighty oaks, long-term witnesses to all that has touched this 70-acre parcel over more than a century. Grandson Jack and I covered the entire preserve. We enjoyed every moment, including accumulating loads of clayey mud as we traversed the open field (covered in last summer’s corn stubble and now sprouting winter rye), searching for arrow heads and finding none. Jack and I could not have better spent several hours. I cherished our time appreciating nature’s healing power as it transforms a borrow pit to magic, and exploring the diverse habitat encompassing just 70 acres. We both found inspiration from our venture.

Parenteau described her own inspiration: “I wrote this poem many years ago when I was grieving my grandfather’s death. He was a published poet and the light of my life. I saw him as that oak tree. He was always so strong and his faith never wavered. He taught me so much about life and love and family, but most of all about Christian faith. He will be forever missed but someday I will meet him in heaven and until then this will always be my tribute to Caleb Fowler, the greatest man I ever knew.” I pray that Jack will carry his memories of me and our shared ventures forward as life unfolds for him.

I urge you to find pleasure in simple things. Nature’s simple things are rich with beauty, awe, magic, and wonder. Watch for them in your life and work. Share them with the people you cherish. You will live on only through the seeds you sow.


Recognizing and Understanding Our Filters

Our Alabama home sits in a development on a four-acre lake/pond. I say lake/pond because were we in Minnesota (Land of Ten Thousand Lakes) or Alaska (its number is two million!), ours would unquestionably be a pond. Quite frankly, I prefer the image, character, and significance that the term lake conveys. The Infoplease web site offers this: “Both are small bodies of water, either natural or man-made, that are completely surrounded by land. The primary difference between the two is their size. Simply put, lakes are larger and ponds are smaller. However, there is no standardization of lake sizes.” Okay, that does it — if I call ours a lake, it’s a lake, period!

Consider that a sidebar. I’m delving into something of greater philosophical merit. Something that amounts to a nature-derived lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading. Simply, what we see depends on which filters we choose to employ. Years ago, as a young forester and nature enthusiast/purist, I am sure I would have looked at our so-called lake with disdain. A four-acre farm pond, its surrounding cotton, soybean, and corn fields now having sprouted homes on three-quarter-acre lots. A development blanketed with manicured Bermuda grass and no mature vegetation, the last of the two shore-side lots with homes now fully-structured and finishing being completed inside. Were the young idealist Steve visiting a water-front resident, he would have seen only the houses, and a pond absent nature. He would have wondered why anyone would want to live in such a domesticated setting. He would have found disgust in the sterility. He would have felt an absence of nature, an affront to his sense of the natural condition as sacrosanct. He would have seen the pond as merely a catchment basin for run-off from the high density of neighborhood impermeable surfaces: roof tops, driveways, streets, and likely compacted lawns.

My how we change — or should I say, “My how life changes us!” I’ve matured (some would say aged). The late Pope John XXIII’s motto is so apt: “See everything; overlook a great deal; correct a little.” Pope John also observed, “Men are like wine — some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.” I like to think that with respect to how I view a lake such as this, and so much of life, I have improved with age. I will elaborate.

Judy and I spend a lot of time on our patio. We are covered by a roof and open on three sides. We’ll tolerate most types of weather. We are higher than all of the surrounding land within our 270-degree field of view… to the east, south, and west. I see everything from our perch fifty feet above the water:

  • Sunrises; sunsets; changing skies; summer’s cumulus; winter’s stratus; starry nights
  • Rain approaching, falling, and departing
  • Night-time lightning flashing
  • Birds at the feeder; on the water; flying and feeding elsewhere nearby
  • Big Blue, our resident great blue heron, stalking and feeding
  • Wind patterns and reflections on the water
  • Vegetation bending and bowing in the breeze
  • Critters disturbing the water’s surface
  • Planes approaching over us inbound to the Huntsville Airport a dozen miles south; and with a northerly breeze, departing over us on their way northbound
  • Yes, I even see the houses and some of the neighbors coming and going, yet mostly, that is what I overlook.

I am convinced that Pope John did not limit his seeing to sight alone. When I urge my clients and others to look and see, I speak of seeing via all senses of experience: touch, smell, hear, and even taste. What else do we see from our patio?

  • Bird voices: killdeer, geese, ducks, kingfishers, night hawks, mourning doves, and even our heron croaking to a landing
  • Peepers and frogs
  • Warm breezes; chilling wind
  • Moisture at the dawn and dusk of day
  • Mists
  • The warming comfort of en evening wine or Scotch
  • A neighbor’s grill aroma
  • An occasional barking dog; nighttime coyotes in the distance
  • Distant traffic and sirens
  • Rain — from gentle dripping, to pounding downpours
  • Geese landing or taking flight in loud disturbance of the water
  • Voices
  • Children’s laughter
  • Summer lawn mowers; the fragrance of cut grass

The list goes on. I could choose to be disturbed by the man-made distractions, yet that is mostly what I elect to screen and overlook. Life is far too short to embrace irritation rather than accept the pleasant. I can partition our lake environment to a degree where it becomes my own Golden Pond, or Walden.

A related old idiom, not dissimilar to Pope John’s, cautions against not seeing the forest for the trees. I encourage my clients and readers to see the forest and the trees. A tree does not stand alone and isolated within the forest. The forest comprises a community of trees, other flora, and diverse fauna, from soil micro-organisms to the largest mammals and the tallest trees. Likewise, no enterprise or individuals stands alone. We are interconnected and interdependent. Great Blue Heron brings that knowledge and wisdom to everyone we touch, reminding all that we are part of a complex ecosystem.

Even our lake is not an isolated former farm pond. This evening as I appreciated (no, relished!) a late January sunset exhaust the day, I watched geese wheel in from their day’s marauding of nearly spent fields and other water bodies. Some groups landed on our lake; others chose alternative destinations and flew past. We observed flocks of ducks look down, and then reconsider; where they alighted we know not, nor could we speculate as to why they alighted elsewhere. Our lake is a node on the web of life that ebbs and flows around us. The same is true of our individual lives and the enterprises we lead.

I choose to see elements of current value to me during this period of my semi-retirement. I cherish this lake; it enriches my life. I devote far less attention to those facets that do not elevate and inspire. Interestingly, as I meet neighbors who occupy the lake-shore residences, I am dismayed by various reactions to what I see as a nearly sacred gem. I’ve heard some express deep concern that the lake attracts snakes, terrible and despicable denizens of this bit of nature. To them, all snakes near this body of water are moccasins, hell-bent on placing the residents in an early grave. Others tell us of their frustration that bullfrogs keep them awake at night. I can imagine no finer chorus! I am astounded that others do not share my enthusiasm for nature’s magic. I paid a little extra for this lakeside, ringside seat; every day, my investment returns tenfold! Pity those who see or discern no such dividend. Perhaps they view the houses and overlook the lake. What a shame. Small wonder we as a society do not share a compulsion to care for our common home. Pity those who do not embrace an Earth stewardship ethic.

Great Blue Heron, LLC urges every individual and all enterprises to see the invisible; so that together we might do the impossible. My life here in northern Alabama orbits this small lake, the node of a delicate and complex ecosystem. If only others understood and appreciated how life and living for all of us rest upon knowing our place, and accepting a set of obligations and responsibilities… from our hone-place to our home-planet. The future depends upon us — all 7.5 billion of us — knowing our place and accepting our obligation.

Where do you fit? How can you assist in assuring a brighter tomorrow — for you; for your enterprise; for society; for our one Earth?