Cheaha State Park — A 1,200-foot Vertical Ecological Transect

We visited Cheaha State Park October 17-19, issuing two Great Blue Heron blog posts prior to this one: first my broad impressions then my musings on the Cheaha sky and clouds. I will focus now on an ecological transect as I hiked October 19, from Cheaha Lake (visible on the valley floor in the photo below) to the summit, passing up through the Rock Garden (the overlook location for the same photo) then on to the summit.

I learned long ago that a top-down-view always amplifies the elevation perspective. That is, looking down at Lake Cheaha seemed far higher than the lakeside view (below left) toward the ridges. The relatively flat terrain around the lake belied the steep topography awaiting me. Nature is like the layers of an onion. Peace and serenity greeted me when Judy dropped me at the lake. Who could ask for a more perfect 60-degree morning start? An RV campground and primitive camping are near the lake, yet I saw just one other person. The lower right photo shows a CCC-constructed building used now as a bathhouse.














The relatively flat and fertile bottom-lands were soon to transition to, as the sign warns, a very steep one-mile ascent. I did not have the luxury of past land-use maps or a naturalist accompanying me. Nor did I take the time to scour the land to thoroughly read the signs of past-use. I presume that some portion of the valley saw tillage and certainly served as pasture. It’s hard to believe that over some 200-years of European settlement so many of these seeming remote nooks and crannies in the Appalachians (from here to Pennsylvania, New York, and into New England) saw intrepid pioneers scraping a living and sustenance from the land. However, even the boldest among them would not have attempted to plow or graze much beyond the trail head sign!

Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac), “The only conclusion I have ever reached is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.” He mentioned the three species of pine native to Wisconsin, where he lived and wrote his signature book. I am teaching a Huntsville LearningQUEST (“informal education for adults of all ages”) course on A Sand County Almanac. I reflected on how many species of pine are native to The Heart of Dixie. As I write, I will try to name them, and then I will check my references to confirm, add, or subtract. I pledge to honestly assess my performance. Here goes: loblolly (Pinus taeda), slash (P. elliottii), longleaf (P. palustris), Virginia (P. virginiana), shortleaf (P. echinata), sand (P. clausa), spruce (P. glabra), and pond (P. serotina) pines. Before I verify, I want also to mention table mountain pine. I will not — I think it does not range naturally this far south. I’ve researched. I’ll begin with table mountain pine (Pinus pungens). From the US Forest Service: “its range extends from central Pennsylvania, southwest to eastern West Virginia and southward into North Carolina, Tennessee, and the extreme northeast corner of Georgia.” So, count me lucky on not including it as native to Alabama. All eight of the ones I listed are, in fact, native to Alabama. However, I am embarrassed at having missed the one that I did — eastern white pine (P. strobus), which is native to just five Alabama counties.

My lake to summit transect passed under four pine species: loblolly, Virginia, shortleaf, and a few longleaf around the lake and on the lower slope (below left). My forester friends up-north (and I don’t mean the Tennessee Valley region) have never encountered this signature species of the deep south. I hold its long needles, erect posture, and huge cones in high esteem. Its coarse broom-tipped upper branches stand out nicely against the early autumn blue. Its dropped needles accent the pine litter moss below right. Beauty and magic from tree crown to forest floor!

It’s perhaps inconceivable to readers that I could cherish both sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) and Longleaf pine. On one hand, longleaf pine’s indomitable negative geotropism (geotropism from my online default dictionary: “the growth of the parts of plants with respect to the force of gravity. The upward growth of plant shoots is an instance of negative geotropism; the downward growth of roots is positive geotropism.” The longleaf pine does not know from vertical! Ramrod straight, refusing to twist or bend to seek or secure more sunlight. Sourwood seems oblivious to Nature’s insistence that the law of gravity is universal. Instead, sourwood shuns even the theory of gravity, disdaining any thought of verticality. Still on the lower slope, I wanted to embrace this individual sourwood revolutionary (below), rejecting and rebelling against the predominant rule of law. Even I could have climbed this nearly horizontal arboreum. Odd that its Latin species name should suggest something more intent upon reaching into the canopy.

Why do I relish sourwood? First, I grew up well within its northernmost range in the central Appalachians. I liked its deeply-fissured bark, its fragrant spring flowers (makes great honey!), and its curvaceous form from which a two-by-four will never be sawn. I liked it, too, because once I departed for my bachelors degree in upstate New York, none of my fellow students knew my southern friend. Years later when I served for nine years on the Penn State forestry faculty, I often answered queries asking me to identify understory species I did not recognize with, “It’s a sourwood,” knowing full well that we were out of its range. So now back within its range, I enjoy encountering sourwood frequently. This specimen grows trail side on the lower slope.

It’s adjacent to a 30-inch diameter chestnut oak (Quercus prinus), a massive specimen on a site richer than the shallow upper slopes where we most often find this species. See the sourwood escaping horizontally beyond the oak. The oak crown is fully dominant (lower right)… and has been for many decades. Perhaps reason enough for the gravity-defying sourwood to retreat at little more than 20 degrees above horizontal.

As I began ascending toward the very steep intermediate slope, the boulder-strewn dry stream-bed (below left) drew my attention. The trail paralleled the drainage-way, which obviously carries considerable and forceful flow on occasion. Appalachian-wide, these old mountains are products of erosion. They have long since lost their rugged, towering heights. From my ultimate (translates to lazy and convenient for the purpose of these blog posts) source of internet research, “Cheaha Mountain is part of the Talladega Mountains, a final southern segment of the Blue Ridge Mountains, unlike other elevations of the Appalachians in north Alabama, which are part of the Cumberland Plateau. The mountain is the highest point in the eastern portion of the Sun Belt (east of the Mississippi River, south of Interstate 20, and north of the Gulf of Mexico). Geologically it is composed of weakly metamorphosed sandstones and conglomerates of the Cheaha quartzite, of Silurian/Devonian age, and stands high topographically due to the erosional resistance of these rocks.” A bit further along, I found a trickle of water riding the exposed bedrock (below right).

I’ll venture an untested (by me) hypothesis: I’ll call it Steve’s 99:1 rule of landscape-scale erosion. Simply, 99 percent of erosional impact results from one percent of the storms. And among those impactful storms, think about the relative magnitude and erosional consequence of a hundred-year-storm. Or even more powerful, a thousand-year deluge. Water’s force operates logarithmically. Epic storms carved these valleys. I would like to return when this now-dry channel carries enough volume to tumble a few stones, yet I believe my chances are slim. Such first-order streams are not perennial. From the Geologic Society of America, “A first-order stream is the smallest of the world’s streams and consists of small tributaries. These are the streams that flow into and “feed” larger streams but do not normally have any water flowing into them. In addition, first and second order streams generally form on steep slopes and flow quickly until they slow down and meet the next order waterway.”

Of interest, the Mississippi River is a tenth order stream; the Amazon is twelfth order. The Geologic Society adds, “First through third order streams are also called headwater streams and constitute any waterways in the upper reaches of the watershed. It is estimated that over 80 percent of the world’s waterways are these first through third order or headwater streams.” Somewhat of a footnote, I successfully navigated an upper level undergraduate watershed management course and a graduate hydrology offering, both with three weekly lectures and weekly three-hour labs. I recall a weekend field trip in the graduate course to Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (with its calibrated watersheds) in New Hampshire. Since then and perhaps prior to this formal education validation, I have been fascinated by weather and stream/watershed behavior. Four and one-half decades since that field trip, I am still captivated by watershed hydrology when hiking an Alabama mountain trail at Cheaha State Park.

I soon climbed above drainage ways meriting a stream order rating. Rainwater from here and points above does little more than percolate into the thin soil and find its way among the rocks to the defined channels below. I turned my focus back to plants. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) seems quite content throughout its range finding purchase on shallow rocky soils. This specimen fits my image of its stereotypical site. Notice the mossy cushion at its base, the moss luxuriating from the incremental moisture (and accompanying nutrients) delivered via rainwater stem flow from the laurel. The same benefit accrues to the moss at the Virginia pine base (below right; beyond and to the right of the laurel). I see a few chestnut oak leaves under the laurel, yet another affirmation of thin rocky upper slope position.

Steep stony rubble (moss and lichen adorned), upper slope position, lots of direct sunlight on the forest floor, an aspect facing southwest, and sparsely-stocked forest of small diameter in aggregate signal poor site quality. What I encountered differed little from what I expected.

Likewise, I would not have expected healthy, vigorous individuals. I wondered how the hollow white oak (below left) stood as long as it apparently had, with only a thin band of intact wood ringing its base. It had only recently (within months) fallen across the trail. The Cytospora canker on the Virginia pine (below right) results from a fungal infection. Such target cankers weaken the stem and interfere with translocation. Yet, and I think such is the case with this individual, such fungi can co-exist with the host tree for decades. Perhaps the longevity in this case is owing to the poor site and the tree’s slow growth.

Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac; November) spoke reverently of the tree disease/animal (from bees to birds to mammals) interdependency on his Wisconsin woodlot: “Soon after I bought the woods a decade ago, I realized that I had bought almost as many tree diseases as I had trees. My woodlot is riddled with all the ailments wood is heir to. I began to wish that Noah, when he loaded up the Ark, had left the tree diseases behind. But it soon became clear that these same diseases made my woodlot a mighty fortress, unequaled in the whole county.” He then devoted five pages to the nature of such ecosystem interplay.

The mountain sheds boulders on its higher, steeper reaches. What are the mechanics of these relics from above? Have they rolled and slid downward from The Rock Garden ledges above? I think not. From my experience elsewhere, I’m led to believe these sometime house-sized remnants of the most resistant strata have actually weathered from vertically above, the softer stone weathered from beneath them. That is, these rocks have not slipped from current uphill positions, sliding down and outward, but instead have their origin directly above… an above that no longer exists. Regardless of their origin, they provided steps and handholds for my old-guy ascent, somehow steeper than these photos suggest. The Virginia pine with blue trail blaze (below left) must have had the good fortune of sinking roots deep into fertile soil nestled among the piled boulders. The tree has no equal nearby. The good tree-fortune of chance, fortuity, and serendipity.






I suppose the same luck of the draw applies to this blazed red oak. An acorn just happened to find security, purchase, and sustenance lodged in the right boulder-pile fissure. To my knowledge trees have no intention and are absent a strategic plan. Instead, by evolutionary design, they produce enough acorns to advantage the chance (perhaps likelihood) that some such fortuitous site lies within reach of gravity, squirrel caching, or bluejay drop. And now, in duty to the species, this oak is producing acorns to secure the future of the line… and to do its part to biologically, chemically, and physically sustain this old mountain ecosystem. Meantime, in a tiny increment of the tree’s life, I hiked upward past it, pausing only to snap its photo and then lean against it to catch my breath. It served me well… without intent.

And ever upward into an area where serendipity furnished few high quality micro-sites. Still a forest, this stand is hard-scrabble. No sylvan-cove cathedral here. The bent and shattered Virginia pine (at lower left in the photo) evidences the ravages of a 2014 ice storm at this elevation. And I scrambled onward.

Suddenly a view from immediately below of The Rock Garden. Picture these nearly horizontal strata reaching out over Cheaha Lake. Time and the inexorable forces of Nature have weathered and transported many cubic miles of weakly metamorphosed sandstones and conglomerates to the Gulf of Mexico. I had taken the photo of the valley and lake at the beginning of this blog post the afternoon prior from atop this ledge.

I found something special and moving in the dark silhouette of the rock backlit by the wispy cirrus.

And I add this photo to demonstrate how tenaciously Virginia pine find purchase on the very ledge. Is the view wasted on them? Or do they simply appreciate the abundant, unimpeded access to the sunlight that fuels them? They have no need to strive vertically among competitors to secure full sun.

I insert that first photo. My reward for having traipsed ever-upward.


Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my two books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Here are succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Individuals, enterprises, and society broadly must awaken to our obligation to wisely steward our environment – from within our local community to globally. The State Park speaks lucidly to this cause.
  • Don’t be blind to what lies in front of you. “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” (Jonathon Swift) I saw what I could on this Friday morning ecological transect. Yet I only scratched the surface of the stories unread and untold.
  • Nature can serve as an essential life focus. Such is my own pursuit… my own life-chord. The snippets I read along a two-hour transect are essential notes in my chord.
  • Nature provides multiple attractions for enhancing life’s journey. Why else would I be planning four GBH Blog Posts from a simple two-night/three-day immersion at Cheaha State Park?!
  • Every life… every enterprise is interdependent with all else. While my perspective on every tree, rock, and dry stream bed may be mine alone, this one (among a thousand such transects just here on Cheaha) and I are part of something much larger and grander.
  • Effective and fulfilling living, learning, serving, and leading require full doses of humility and inspiration. I could not view the sourwood/longleaf pine posture and form contrast and not feel humility or a deep sense of inspiration.

I have said often that Alabamans are blessed with Nature’s richness, including our 22 State Parks encompassing 47,000 acres from the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee Valley. I intend to continue my 22-stop journey… and share my travels, reflections, observations, and lessons from Nature with you.


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

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

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


Postscript Cheaha Photo from the Official State Park Archives

Picnic pavilion at Cheaha Lake, near the trail head where I began my ascent.





Cheaha State Park — Mid-October Sky and Clouds

October 17-19, 2018 brought me to Alabama’s highest point, to 2,407′ Mt. Cheaha crowning Cheaha State Park. I wrote last week about some of my general observations at Cheaha. I admit to having a low threshold for declaring Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. Even a broken mid-October altostratus deck, sunset-viewed to the northwest from Bald Rock, stirred feelings of deep appreciation. Not spectacular… yet soothing, assuring, and promising a clear and cool autumn day tomorrow.

By morning two days hence, the fall high pressure center had drifted east of us, pivoting the chilly northwesterly breeze to southeast. I took both photos below from the west-facing restaurant deck. The strong SE breeze lifting some 1,500 feet from the valley floor had capped Cheaha with stratus, placing us in cloud-shadow. The lower left view to the SSW shows cloud streamers descending and evaporating, revealing clear skies above the valley beyond. The lower right view to the WNW shows more descending streamers and the sunlit valley floor. Even a mountain of Cheaha’s relatively small stature generates micro-climate phenomena that are fascinating and quite predictable. I could have sipped coffee and watched the streamers race downhill and westward for hours. However, even if I had chosen to sit tight, the sun-warmed morning air would have soon taken the lifting condensation level higher than Cheaha’s summit.


Here’s the deck-view to the west 35 minutes earlier… before the sun had fully illuminated the valley floor and brought deep blue to the western sky. The streamers then were more pronounced and descended further into the valley. Nothing in Nature (or in our lives and enterprises) is static. Change rules the day (and night) and we must learn to anticipate and adapt.

Mid-afternoon on the 18th I hiked the quarter mile from the old CCC reservoir to Rock Garden, overlooking Cheaha Lake to the southwest. I would ascend the rough trail from the lake to Cheaha’s summit the next morning. Watch for my Blog Post soon reflecting upon the ascent and Nature’s treats along the way. This shot shows the deep blue and thin cirrus typical of the season’s first intrusion of cool high pressure from the north.

Clouds can mesmerize me. This burst of wispy cirrus blossoming from the trees greeted me as I ascended Friday late morning from the continuous forest canopy into the scattered trees tucked within the massive stones and ledges of Rock Garden. An ice crystal bouquet at >20,000 feet… temperature at least 20-degrees below zero from my 60-degree point of observation! Even without the exquisite beauty, the magic of physics excites wonder. Once again, I feel humility and inspiration knowing that relative to these grand scales and epic contrasts I am nothing. Compared to a single cirrus burst, what am I? Yet a simple moment in the life of one cloud formation among ten million worldwide at this instant elevates my heart rate, and yields deep gratitude that I am privileged to witness this gift. A gift that is there for me not because I am anything special, but because I believe that if I look, I will see. And when I see, I will feel its power. And when I feel, I will continue my mission (to act) to remind all that we Earth residents carry the burden of informed and responsible Earth Stewardship. My five essential verbs: believe; look; see; feel; act.

How different (and lesser) would this Rock Garden silhouette be without its blue and cirrus backdrop? Again, we are blessed by Nature’s infinite art forms… renewed and rearranged every minute of every day.

Where would an October Cheaha cloud and sky tour be without a couple photos from atop the tower? A late Thursday afternoon view to the west (lower left) and to the southeast (lower right). All peace and tranquility, soft and gentle. Above 1,500-feet, the Park lost thousands of Virginia pine trees during a January 2014 ice storm. Guy wires thick with ice, a crystal wonderland, and the rifle crack clamor of trees snapping in the frozen wind, the tower deck would have been a frightful perch. Again, nothing in Nature is static. We prefer our first visit to have been this quiet time.

We returned to our restaurant deck a bit later to enjoy dinner as we watched the sun dip below the horizon. The views below are to the SSW (lower left) and directly to the setting sun (lower right).

A perfect backdrop for our first visit to the highest point in Alabama.

Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my two books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Here are succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Individuals, enterprises, and society broadly must awaken to our obligation to wisely steward our environment – from within our local community to globally. The State Park speaks lucidly to this cause.
  • Don’t be blind to what lies in front of you. “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” (Jonathon Swift) So many people neither see nor appreciate sky and clouds.
  • Nature can serve as an essential life focus. Such is my own pursuit… my own life-chord. Sky and clouds are essential notes in my chord.
  • Nature provides multiple attractions for enhancing life’s journey. Why else would I be planning four GBH Blog Posts from a simple two-night/three-day immersion at Cheaha State Park?!
  • Every life… every enterprise is interdependent with all else. While my perspective on every cloud may be mine alone, the cloud and I are part of something much larger and grander.
  • Effective and fulfilling living, learning, serving, and leading require full doses of humility and inspiration. I could not view the cirrus burst without feeling humility and a deep sense of inspiration.

I have said often that Alabamans are blessed with Nature’s richness, including our 22 State Parks encompassing 47,000 acres from the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee Valley. I intend to continue my 22-stop journey… and share my travels, reflections, observations, and lessons from Nature with you.


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

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

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

Postscript Cheaha Photos from the Official State Park Archives

View of the restaurant perched on the ridge… a cloudless winter’s day.

Another winter day, less benign, with clouds from a cold front retreating to the ESE.

And a Final Photo from a Day of Pleasurable Terror on New Hampshire’s Highest Mountain

I reflect briefly on another state’s highest peak — New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. Clear sky and ground blizzard; temperature at summit negative 20 and wind above 100MPH! We’re at 5,300-feet, preparing to re-board the Mount Washington Observatory’s Arctic-Cat and return to the base. That’s me second from the rear.

(Photo by Meteorologist Ryan Knapp, Mount Washington Observatory staff.)

Cheaha State Park — A Broad Look

We’ve lived in Alabaman three times: Prattville 1981-84, with Union Camp Corporation (UCC); Auburn 1996-2001, with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Auburn and Alabama A&M universities); Madison 2016-present, semi-retired. I served as Alabama Land Manager for UCC, managerially responsible for the company’s 500 square miles of forests across 32 central and south-central counties. As Director, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, I directed Cooperative Extension statewide, with offices and staff in all 67 counties. I recall being in the vicinity of Cheaha several times, yet never took the time to visit the state’s highest point. Semi-retirement provides far greater flexibility for purposeful side trips. Such side trips are now the primary destination and focus.

How surprising that this is my first visit to Cheaha. I’ve been to the highest points in NH, VT, NY, OH, MD, PA, NJ, WV, VA, TN, NC, and perhaps one or two others. Why not the single state where I’ve lived three times? Okay, now I’ve summited.

We arrived on-site Wednesday afternoon, October 17, 2018. The Civilian Conservation Corps built much of the Cheaha State Park infrastructure more than 80 years ago. The tower itself would be worth visiting architecturally even if it did not afford a 360-degree, 62-stair view of the surrounding forests of the Park and the Talladega National Forest’s 392,000 acres.

Our UCC company forestland occupied coastal plain and piedmont physiographic provinces. My experience then did not encompass the southern Appalachian image afforded this view of Mt. Cheaha from a public-road overlook several miles from the Park. These old Appalachians change little in appearance from here to New England except for scale (to Mt Mitchell’s 6,683-feet) and the forests (along with some high elevation scrub and tundra) that vary with elevation and latitude.

The Bald Rock Boardwalk extends 0.3 miles along a NNE-trending ridge to a 2,300-feet overlook at (you guessed it!) Bald Rock. The wheelchair-accessible boardwalk also offers several opportunities for hikers to descend to the rocks and trails alongside. Lower right is the sunset cloud deck to the WNW our first evening, October 17.

Our second evening view to the NNE in mostly clear skies and full sun. Anniston, Alabama lies behind my right shoulder some 1,600-feet below us at the valley floor adjacent to I-59. The daylight view evidences little but unbroken forest; after dark, Anniston, Oxford, and other communities show as a ribbon of lights along the Interstate.

Here’s the Thursday afternoon southwest view from the Rock Garden (2,050-feet) to Cheaha Lake at 1,250-feet. I hiked Friday morning from the Lake trailhead to the summit, nearly 1,200-feet. I know what you’re thinking — no big deal. During my days as a distance runner, I could have sure-footedly made short shrift of the challenge. I now see the effort and accomplishment worthy of a separate Great Blue Heron Blog Post. Watch for it. I’ll chronicle Nature along the way, from gentle beginnings and fertile toe-slope at the Lake through the steep upper trail where trees struggle to thrive on the thin soils and rocky terrain.

The CCC Stone Tower is magnificent. The CCC quarried the stone nearby. Wikipedia describes the Cheaha geology as “weakly metamorphosed sandstones and conglomerates of the Cheaha quartzite of Silurian/Devonian age… high topographically due to the erosional resistance of these rocks.” What good fortune that young Great Depression-era craftsmen performed their works of service (and architectural genius) that have stood the test of time.

My compliments to the visionaries who incorporated an observation deck for 360-degree appreciation. The second evening, witness the low-angled setting sun hitting our lower left side.

The CCC applied their masonry skills to build a reservoir that once impounded water to gravity-feed serve as the supply for the entire Park development.






We stayed two nights at the Bald Rock Lodge, bearing witness yet again to the CCC intrepid CCC workers.

How fitting that the Park serves as a monument to those young men who helped bring our country back from economic collapse, and then (many of them) rushing off with the onset of WWII to save our country (and the world) from the twin terrors of The Third Reich and Imperialist Japan. So nice that the Park formally pays tribute to the CCC (and the Boy Scouts).

The Park successfully and artfully integrates human and natural history into its displays and stories.

In the spirit of Bigfoot, the Park urges visitors to “Leave No Trace.” Bigfoot, like Smokey Bear, is a useful messenger for responsible Earth Stewardship.

We enjoyed Thursday dinner at the Park restaurant as the sun dipped beneath the horizon. We plan to enjoy many more sunsets and dawns at Alabama’s wonderful State Parks. This marks the fifth we have visited since semi-retiring to the Heart of Dixie. I plan to publish at least one GBH Blog Post on each Park. I plan perhaps three more from this one visit to Cheaha: Lake Cheaha to Summit Transect; Special Trees and Plants Encountered; Cheaha’s October Sky and Clouds.

Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my two books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Here are succinct lessons I can easily draw from this Blog Post:

  • Individuals, enterprises, and society broadly must awaken to our obligation to wisely steward our environment – from within our local community to globally. The State Park speaks lucidly to this cause.
  • We operate most effectively and live with greater reward when we accept that we are part of something larger and more permanent. Standing on the observation deck or at Bald Rock reminds us that we are but a nodule of something far larger and infinitely greater.
  • We can all change a small corner of this Earth for the better by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work. The CCC walked that talk more indelibly than anything I might accomplish through my meager words.
  • Nature can serve as an essential life focus. Such is my own pursuit… my own life-chord.
  • Nature provides multiple attractions for enhancing life’s journey. Why else would I be planning four GBH Blog Posts from a simple two-night/three-day immersion at Cheaha State Park?!
  • Test your limits; be bold; ignite and employ your passion. In no small way, I am daring to test my limits in drafting these Blog Posts (passion-fueled, purpose-driven, results-oriented) in an attempt to spread the gospel and practice of Earth Stewardship.

I have said often that Alabamans are blessed with Nature’s richness, including our 22 State Parks encompassing 47,000 acres from the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee Valley. I intend to continue my 22-stop journey… and share my travels, reflections, observations, and lessons from Nature with you.


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

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

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

Postscript Cheaha Photos from the Official State Park Archives

Quite simply, no words required — just quiet contemplation!


Sunshine Magic — An Alabama State Park Edition

I issued the core of this Great Blue Heron Blog Post September 25, 2018. Its text, photos, reflections, and ruminations are applicable to each and every one of our 22 Alabama State Parks and their aggregate 74 square miles of beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. So, permit me to present the original Sunshine Magic Blog Post here, and then offer an Addendum with similarly themed photos from four of our northern Alabama State Parks beneath the original.

The Core Sunshine Magic Post

August 29, Judy and I walked pre-dawn in our neighborhood. Why so early? We prefer 71 degrees over the upper 80s and lower 90s that the sun will deliver by mid-morning. We always head to the patio after our morning wanderings. Nothing beats watching and hearing dawn swell and seeing sunrise. We witnessed a special treat.

Sunshine Magic

The photo view is to the west. Notice three prominent features. The one-day-beyond-full moon in the upper left. The Earth’s shadow clearly retreating several degrees above the horizon. And the magnificent rays appearing to radiate from that same horizon. Not so. These are anticrepuscular rays, converging at the antisolar point 180 degrees opposite from the rising, but still below-the-horizon sun in the east. Crepuscular rays are simply the sunbeams we see emanating from the horizon at dawn and sunrise, or shining through breaks in the clouds any time of day. The solar point (the origin) is the sun. The antisolar point at any time of day is easy to spot. It’s always in the center of the shadow of your head. In the photos above and below, the sun is still below the horizon… thus no shadow of your head!

Below are crepuscular rays, beaming from the below-the-horizon morning sun over the Student Center last summer at Fairmont State University.

Isn’t it striking that both crepuscular and anticrepuscular rays appear identical? That is, with one exception. The rising sun rays photo does not include Earth’s retreating shadow on the horizon. All sun rays play visual games. The crepuscular and anticrepuscular rays neither diverge or converge. They are parallel, simply appearing to be otherwise based upon our respective distance from them. We are much nearer those passing overhead and can actually discern their broad parallel bands. And like standing on two distinctly parallel railroad tracks, they fade to a vanishing point at distance in either direction (either the solar or antisolar point).

Mid-September I asked 4.5-year-old-grandson Sam to kneel at the center of an incomplete fairy ring (see the semi-circle of white mushrooms). Little did I know that I was capturing the antisolar point just inside the magical fairy ring! Take a moment to search the internet for fairy ring images — some wonderful examples will pop-up.

Much in Nature inspires awe and seems magical and wondrous. However, so many of our historical figures of special intellect are taken more by what they don’t know or can’t imagine than by the depth of their knowledge and understanding. I recently found this Sir Isaac Newton image and quote — the “great ocean of truth” surely does “lay all undiscovered” before us!

Funny thing that the older I get… the less perfect and complete my knowledge of Nature, the focus of my undergraduate and doctoral degrees, and of my life’s pursuit and passion. Consider the irony. I recognize more and more how less and less I know of what is knowable. Each day I’m reminded of the great ocean of truth that lay all undiscovered before me. And that is not all bad. The generated strong sense of humility does inspire me to learn more; to look deeper; to question with greater intensity; to appreciate all that I do see and know; to reach beyond my grasp.

Mixed Messages

I now seek nuance, correspondence, and lessons in that ocean around me. I search for serious revelation, even as I look for the lighter side. For example, many of us have beseeched from time to time when we face dilemmas, “Lord, please give me a sign. Show me the way.” The signs are there before our eyes. A person seeking such guidance can interpret the sky-message below as a cross bestowing blessings on a decision… or as an ‘X’ signaling, “No, don’t do it!”

I recount in the final chapter of Nature Based Leadership (my first book; available at: such competing meanings that I drew from an appearance by a peregrine falcon on a seventeenth-floor hotel window ledge in January 2016, as I awaited a job interview. The omen I discovered could be interpreted as liberally as the cross or ‘X’ above! The job did not pan out, yet I found unlimited satisfaction in ruminating on the message and thoroughly enjoying the up close and personal falcon visit.

I accidentally captured the sun-streaks creating a sacred aura for the bench and rock ledge below on March 15, 2018. Here is a relevant GBH Blog Post from that visit to Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve:

“Once Faye had left us, I rode in the back of the ATV, snapping an occasional photo between jostles and bounces. This photo revealed what I did not see. I simply intended to capture the nice bench placed at a ledge overhang along the trail. Instead, the sun’s rays gave this image a sacred appearance, leading me to dub this as The Altar. The entire Preserve expressed an ethereal character. I felt the spiritual in multiple places that day. Too, I sensed in Jim and Faye a connection to the land of a sacred nature. They do obviously love the land and draw as much from it as they give to it. I’m reminded of Aldo Leopold’s remark about caring for the land: We can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in. I feel certain that Jim and Faye are guided by understanding and love for the Preserve, which is itself in whole an altar of sorts.”

The mixed message? A spiritual sign… or, bad photography! I’ll accept it as Divine Providence, yet I recognize unintentional good fortune from photographic practice ineptitude when I see it! In any case, I’m grateful for the result.

The Play of Light

Twilight at 32,000 feet northbound from a port-side window seat makes for great light play. Six and one-half miles below us darkness with emerging stars prevails. Likewise, at this altitude the dark sky above signs a final farewell to the sun’s closing sliver of day. This was mid-February somewhere over Missouri. The ground-level temperature would have been mid-twenties. Outside the window this thin air would have been some 80 degrees less hospitable.

Weather performs light-play as well. From my back patio late December 2017. A long day of cold-frontal rain came to a clearing-sky close. The front sagging beyond us to the east and south, its trailing stratus already dark beneath the sun’s last reach still kissing cirrus far above. I could not resist capturing the drama and beauty. I admit that I felt a bit of remorse that here in the south such systems do not leave a foot of fresh powder to reflect and enhance the light-play. However, I did not fell compelled to shovel 1.35 inches of rain!

Shortly after my heart pumps its last beat, I expect my ashes to be spread on Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virinia’s Highland. Yes, I know that it’s illegal. But what do I care — try cuffing a tin of ashes! I revisited this spiritual place early September 2017 during my Fairmont State University tenure. Here at ~4,000-feet, the low broken clouds raced across the plateau. Sunbeams splayed this holy place. I felt renewal, peace, and acceptance. I take comfort knowing that one day my earthly remains will cycle through the magic of this special place.

Here is one of the stock images from my Great Blue Heron website. I think of it as a portal to eternity. I imagine strolling such a pathway on my final trek. I want to do my own small part to ensure that such pathways remain for my grandchildren and theirs… thousands of generations removed. The light-play along this tree-lined portal is both literal and metaphorical. The sun’s light… and, the light of wisdom, knowledge, responsibility, and stewardship action. We must keep the light of tomorrow burning intensely.

Perhaps nothing is more heavenly than a vertical view into this cypress forest canopy. Every stem reaching skyward, branches up-stretched. Again, metaphorically, I think of us as Earth residents and stewards reaching beyond our frail planet to secure a future that we are collectively placing at peril. Like the cypress, we must reach high to secure our future footing. aside from its symbology, the photo expresses so eloquently the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe of a northern Alabama Cypress swamp on a late winter afternoon.

Reflections and Ruminations

I have distilled ten distinct lessons for leading, serving, learning, and living from Nature Based Leadership, my first book. Among those ten, these five hold special relevance to this Blog Post:

  1. Individuals, enterprises, and society broadly must awaken to our obligation to wisely steward our environment from within our local community to globally.
  2. We operate most effectively and live with greater reward when we accept that we are part of something larger and more permanent.
  3. Nature demonstrate that nothing is without meaning and purpose; if only we operated in similar fashion.
  4. We can all change a small corner of this Earth for the better by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.
  5. Learn from Nature each day… and apply her lessons time and time again.

Look for Nature’s Inspiration in life’s simple moments — every minute of every day… where you live.

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

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The Alabama State Park Addendum

Eventually I will have visited all 22 State Parks. At the moment I can draw relevant text and photos from only four.

DeSoto — Here’s dawn at DeSoto — how’s that for Sunshine Magic!

Whether illuminating the DeSoto morning clouds or back-lighting an oak trail sentry, the sun supplies magic at every turn.

Joe Wheeler — Some photos need little explanation. This massive trail-side white oak is basking in the sunlight that has fueled its growth for well over one hundred years.

Who is not moved and spurred by a sun-dappled trail!

Lake Guntersville — The early morning sun is beginning to burn its way through the valley fog below the Lodge patio. And the image is burned and lodged in my vault of pleasant Alabama State Parks memories.

Normally it is impending darkness that accents the spookiness of woods creatures like this one! This big fellow is braving the bright sunlight to attend his duties at trail’s edge.

Monte Sano — The Japanese Garden portal provides a view into the sun-kissed collections, walkways, and special features.

And speaking of sun-kissed, this full-fruit spice bush, also trail-side, greets every visitor with the fruits (visual and actual) of its growing season labor.

Our Parks are special places filled with Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. Visit and enjoy!




Biking Local Greenways — An Eclectic Nature View at 14 MPH

Mid-Summer Floral Offerings

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Other Offerings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reflections and Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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A Cycle of Death and Renewal at DeSoto State Park

See my August 1, 2018 post for a look at “What Lies Hidden Within” from a July 19 hike at DeSoto. I focused on non-flowering plants, and the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe that to many visitors lie hidden within plain sight. View this post as Part-II of that July 19 visit, with a focus other than non-flowering plants.

Nature’s Cycle of Death and Renewal

Most hikers see the forest and perhaps the trees. Few pay much attention to the non-flowering plants. I saw the forest, the trees, the non-flowering plants, and an abundance of evidence telling me that nothing in Nature is static. I walked the Boardwalk Trail back to Azalea Cascade twice that day, the first in pre-4:00AM total darkness, flashlight in-hand. I came to a place where recent railing and deck repairs brought me to a halt. My light revealed a massive white oak blow-down, having fallen from uphill, obliterating the boardwalk, but quickly and masterfully repaired. A full canopy of now dry and brown leaves suggested that the tree had toppled within the past 30 days. The stump diameter looked to be about three feet. The up-turned root mass and soil stood at six-feet, exaggerated in the darkness. I snapped the photos below during my afternoon return stroll, looking uphill at the root-mass.

Lower left below looks into the downed crown, beyond the boardwalk, and includes some of the smaller trees the oak brought down with it. At lower right, I am looking back at the main boardwalk from where I had taken the lower left photo. The oak just missed this side-spur that leads out to a gazebo. What a frighteningly close view that would have been during the big wind, which park personnel revealed to me had accompanied an afternoon thunderstorm two weeks prior. Weather and climate patterns can be global, yet impacts can vary over a matter of feet. Picture the storm damage that leaves one house intact and its neighbor destroyed. A boardwalk is nothing to a multi-ton, 100-foot oak. So much in Nature is random and chaotic. A three-degree shift in angle of fall would have crushed 70-feet of spur boardwalk and the gazebo.

Nature will fill the gap left by the mighty oak. Neighbors will extend branches and foliage into the opening. Individuals in the intermediate canopy will reach vertically for the light above. The forest floor’s vegetative carpeting will respond to the new light. The opening will be evident to only the most astute and aware observer ten years hence. Nature abhors a vacuum. A summer thunderstorm with damaging winds is nothing to a forest. The forest is a living system designed to respond to blow-down and fill resultant vacuums… at any point in time, and over the long reach of centuries and beyond.

Not all wind bursts uproot living trees. The 15-inch diameter Virginia pine (below left) broke with a wrenching twist three feet from its base. I’m estimating 12-24-months ago, given the progress since of canopy breakdown (lower right). The standing pines are fading, with crowns thinning (again, below right). The residual stand is doing what Virginia pine is designed to do — fill an ecological gap (an abandoned pasture, or the aftermath of severe disturbance like fire or area-wide blowdown), and then 50-90 years hence pass the torch through succession to mixed hardwood. This Virginia pine stand is passing the baton, slowly and inexorably.

The two-weeks-ago storm tore the top from another oak, blocking a trail and making the punch-list of necessary trail work. Perhaps no one knows Nature’s dynamism better than trail maintenance crews! Again, nothing in Nature is static.

Gradual Change and Subtle Processes

Not all trees die from a catastrophic uprooting or trunk-snapping. Many die standing, victims to insect, disease, competition, or wind or ice taking out the crown. Again, nothing in Nature is static. The 18-inch-diameter oak (lower left) is decaying in-place. Fungi, insects, small mammals, and birds are feasting on the cellulose… or on critters consuming the cellulose. A vertical smorgasbord! Eventually (and always) gravity will pull it ground-ward, where the decay pace will accelerate with the gift of more reliable moisture and ground-dwelling consumers. The horizontal, former 24-inch trunk (lower right) is heading toward humus. Roots are likely already exploiting the richly decaying ground-contact decay zone on the log’s underside. In the blink of a forest’s eye, molecules from the decaying log will find themselves once more 50-feet up in the canopy of an oak now still in acorn stage.

Perhaps a squirrel recently cached that acorn in the loose soil and organic matter along the old trunk. It could be a banner acorn year and she may not find this particular hidden morsel. It may germinate next spring, and eventually survive deer browsing and ultimately reach into the main canopy… and someday feel the fury of a summer thunderstorm, yield to the tempest, crash to the ground, decay, and serve as as a hiding place for yet another acorn. Nature never stands still. And time is nothing to a succession of forests, century after century. The story of death and renewal is there for those willing to read Nature’s language.

Again, over the long reach of centuries, even the forest soil turns and churns. The Boardwalk oak blowdown brought up many cubic feet of Nature’s precious rooting medium, much as a farmer may turn his field. Nature’s process mixes soil from 2-4 feet deep with rich surface soil. Even the upturned soil mound tells a tale. The star of the tale is a super-power we’ll call Raindrop. The exposed soil has little protection from the force of rain falling through and from the canopy. Small rocks serve as shields, standing on pedestals below. Vertical columns support each shield, and even they will weaken and yield. The mound will soften and become a shallow hummock covered by forest litter, mosses and lichens, and understory plants. Many of our Alabama forests evidence centuries of windthrow with signature “pit and mound” topography. Watch for it. If not apparent, the site likely supported agriculture at some point, smoothing away the former forest blowdown evidence. The resultant agricultural abandonment opened succession’s door to forest again occupying the land. Static does not exist in Nature, which loathes a vacuum.

I’ve observed repeatedly in these posts that time means nothing to Nature — it is only we humans who pay attention to time’s relentless passage. It is only we who are conscious of our race into tomorrow at 60-seconds per minute. My long-time good friend and mentor, retired NC State Forestry Professor Bob Kellison, sent me a note in response to last week’s post wherein I mentioned finding lots of persimmons on the ground at Lake Guntersville State Park. Bob and I share kindred appreciation for both Nature and subtle, country humor. Here is what he sent me: An old mountaineer was holding a pig in his arms while it was feeding on persimmons from a low-hanging branch. A passerby remarked to the mountaineer that it would take a long time to fatten the hog on persimmons in such manner. The mountaineer’s response was “Aw, time don’t mean nothin’ to a pig.” Bob has planted a seed — I will strive to insert a little more levity into future posts.

Reflections and Lessons

I’ve often observed that some people walk through the woods, intent on transiting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B,’ focused on miles logged, and destinations. I’ve been guilty as well. However, I have come to accept that I most enjoy walking within the forest. Some folks live for overlooks — scenic views. Granted, I relish such vistas as well. Yet if an overlook were my sole focus, there is way too much that I would, in fact, overlook. Regrettably, we are a society dedicated to overlooking the obvious, the wondrous, and the inspirational. Doesn’t that apply too often as well to life in general? We tend to walk through life, rather than journeying within life. Are we conscious of life cycles… of process and flow? Do we simply transit from one static moment to the next, without appreciating the flow?

Do we read the story? The tale of passage… of integration over time? Do we understand and learn from what the journey reveals? Do we realize that absolutely nothing is permanent — in our lives or in Nature? The cycles of life, decline, and renewal apply to Nature, business, economies, societies, and to humanity as a whole. There are no guarantees, but only that change and progression are inevitable. We serve ourselves best when we understand the cycles, anticipate change, and do all in our power to influence and deal with the flows and processes.

How does humanity fit in Earth’s cycles of death and renewal. Are we doing all we can to assure that humanity is more than a footnote in time? Humanity serves itself best when we understand the cycles, anticipate change, and do all in our power to influence and deal with the flows and processes. Humanity’s fate is in our hands. I want my hikes and these Great Blue Heron blog posts to serve as reminders that we are blessed with Nature and Earth’s abundant beauty, magic, wonder, and awe.

We as individuals and in our aggregate humanity must view our place locally, where we live, work, and play, and ultimately, globally. I can influence only locally… through my writing and speaking, one individual at a time. My role is to inspire and persuade all who will read and hear. My intent is to use the local as a means of lifting others to appreciate the global context… and our imperative to steward our One Earth.

And so I will focus on where my wanderings take me. This essay took me back to DeSoto State Park. Through these words and photos I am planting my acorn of inspiration and reflection. May the acorn germinate, find traction, and grow to be The Mighty Oak of your understanding and commitment. Our Alabama State Park System is invaluable salve for my soul and fodder for these clarion calls for action.

Our Alabama State Park system is a necklace of 22 pearls; 48,000 acres of natural treasure. One of my bucket list items is to visit all 22; hike their trails; chronicle the visits; and tell their land legacy stories. And use them to educate, develop, and inspire future generations of aware Nature enthusiasts. May your own vision be realized through Nature’s lessons and inspiration.

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

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Official Alabama State Parks photo of DeSoto Falls


A Final Lesson for the Day: Time don’t mean nothin’ to a pig!

DeSoto State Park — Seeing What Lies Hidden Within

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

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

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

A Different Perspective

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

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

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

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

Night Lights and a Summer Chorus

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

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

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

A New Day Dawning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Reflections and Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May Nature Inspire all that you do!


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

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June 22, 2018 Squall on Big Blue Lake

I am a hopeless weather junkie — addicted for life! I’ve included essays recounting personal episodes with Nature’s pleasurable terror in both Nature Based Leadership and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. A meteorologist friend in New Hampshire declared us weather perverts — we both thrill at weather that is harsh and threatening. For example, we believe that nothing beats a strong winter Nor’easter. The more snow and wind the merrier.

One of my most memorable life-days was the Storm of The Century, The Blizzard of 1993, when we lived in State College, Pennsylvania. March 13 brought 28 inches of new snow and winds gusting to 65 miles per hour, along with thunder and lightning. I stayed nose-pressed-to-the-windows for hours, venturing out once in a while to shovel and soak up the storm via all five portals: body, heart, mind, soul, and spirit. A sensory feast beyond compare!

The second of many special memorable moments came during a winter summit attempt on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in February 2015. We made it to 5,300-feet before nearly hurricane force winds, temperatures well below zero, and ten-foot drifts forced us to abort. The permanently-staffed station at the summit observatory (6,288-feet) registered winds in excess of 100 with ambient air temperature at 20 below. And we were guests of the Observatory ascending in an Arctic Cat!

My life is rich with tales of pleasurable terror. This past Friday in an air mass of deep tropical moisture from the Gulf, several thundershowers passed during the day. This one strengthened rapidly as it approached and built over us. Later I watched it blossom on radar, hitting us with intense rain and strong wind. It peaked impressively during this 22-second video recording on my iPhone.

I will never tire of Nature’s Pleasurable Terror, although this one came close to a threshold of concern. Great entertainment!


May Nature inspire all that you do! Her beauty, magic, wonder, and awe are available for those who seek Nature’s dividends.

Thunderstorms in such air masses are Nature’s venting mechanisms, release valves for the tremendous energy generated by summer’s southern sun and a moisture-rich unstable atmosphere. We all have our own coping and venting mechanisms. I bike, lift weights (yeah, at age 67 they are light weights!), hike, and stay busily engaged in living. I did same during my four university presidencies. We all need to let off steam under conditions that, to the extent possible, we control.

Nature copes quite well normally, releasing pressures and seeking balance harmlessly and routinely. But not always. Once in a while she throws a hand-grenade — Mount Saint Helens; the Alaska Good Friday Earthquake; the Storm of the Century; Sandy; Katrina; and other epic events. Last Friday’s squall amounted to a minor venting, reaching near-damaging wind yet bringing down only a few twigs and leaves.

We deal commonly with minor venting in our life and enterprise. Like Friday’s storm, most such minor life perturbations are predictable and somewhat routine. It’s only when the wind rises that coping exceeds a threshold, requiring cleanup, rebuilding, and recovery.

Nature teaches that venting is a fact of life; that preparation and anticipation are essential; and that sometimes we are dealt more than we can easily handle.

I thought as I watched the squall, what if I had heard the terrible fright train roar of an approaching tornado? Pleasurable terror would have shifted to the cold fear of absolute TERROR. Even then, because we built in a region where tornadoes are not rare, we have a tornado shelter. We would have taken shelter, and prayed for escape.

Fortunately, this cell did not spin-off that kind of savage beast, nor did it warrant even a severe thunderstorm warning. As a result, I consign it to my personal memory bank of notable pleasant weather memories. Life, living, and all things natural align along a continuum… from soft and benign to wildly catastrophic. Blessedly, the frequency curve peaks at soft and benign. The savage extremes are as rare today as they’ve been over the course of human history. There are, and always have been, Storms of the Century. Our Earth and its processes are dynamic and occasionally turbulent. We hear far more about the extremes today for at least these reasons:

  • We understand, measure, monitor, and video record orders of magnitude more closely than ever.
  • We now number eight billion humans, subjecting more and more of us to harm’s way.
  • We occupy coastal zones, riverine systems, tectonically active regions, and other areas subject to Nature’s ravage more than ever.

Lessons from Nature’s Fury

We live in Nature’s cross-hairs, too often ignoring the risks we impose. We tempt fate by failing to recognize the peril we self-select. Will we ever learn? Can we become informed, responsible stewards of this One Earth? We have just this one chance to get it right. So far as we know, we are alone in the vast darkness of space. No one will be coming to rescue us from ourselves.

A wee thundershower, a welcome deep-south summer diversion, serves as a vivid reminder of Nature’s ways. Ways that are both wondrous and terrifying; relentless and inescapable; gentle and all-powerful. Ways that are generally predictable; rules that are constant and immutable. Laws that we cannot breech but at our peril.

Do your part to understand our place in the world… our role in assuring humanity’s future. We face a potential tsunami of unintended consequences. On so many human/environment fronts, we are pushing past a threshold of soft and benign venting.

On a lighter note, learn first to enjoy Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe — whether in form of a brief summer tempest… or the rainbow that follows.

No-Nature Vigilante on Big Blue Lake

I write often of our idyllic life on Big Blue Lake. My bubble of peace and tranquility burst recently.

Occasionally life events remind me that not all people share my love for Nature.  June 6, 2018 brought such an event — a rude and real wake-up call that even here on Big Blue Lake (BBL) we do not all subscribe to Steve’s gospel of Nature appreciation. Not everyone shares my belief that here on BBL we’re blessed with peace, beauty, and tranquility (photo looking south from Legendwood Drive):

June 6, 2018, I witnessed an act of violence here on the northernmost of our development’s three ponds. I’ll term the perpetrator No-Nature Vigilante (NNV). Wearing a hospital breathing filter, broad-brimmed hat, eye protection, jacket, and rubber boots, NNV committed the act in broad daylight, brazenly spraying some type of chemical herbicide on the willow and cattails bordering the shoreline along the north and west sides of the pond’s neck that reaches up to Legendwood Drive.

NNV refused to stop when challenged by the homeowner along whose property NNV was spraying. NNV expressed anger, referred to us as “you bastards,” threatened to have a spouse “come over here and shoot you,” refused to identify the chemical in use (I requested to see the label), and indicated that this is common property and “I can do as I wish.” NNV protested that the chemical is “non-toxic” and “safe.” I wondered why the protective gear. When we began snapping a few photos, NNV paused briefly and encouraged us defiantly to take a photo, saying, “Here, I’ll smile for you.”

I saw an angry, violent, seemingly irrational act of aggression toward pond-shore vegetation and full ambivalence to the feelings and genuine concerns of neighbors. NNV implied that our Home Owners Association (HOA) had failed to act and that led NNV to this harsh individual action. In fact, the HOA had hired a contractor who early this spring cut and removed all pond-shore woody vegetation to ground-level, a willow treatment recommended by an aquatic resources specialist from Auburn University Cooperative Extension.

NNV’s wild and irresponsible act evidenced a sad ignorance of Nature. I took the photo above early the next morning… before much foliar effect was visible. Before the violence evidenced injury and degradation. Before the insult and savage attack painted a raw wound on our cherished pond. Here are photos from early morning June 12, six days after the spraying:

An Affront to Sensibility and Decency

We bought a pond-side lot because of our appreciation for Nature. We enjoy the tranquility and revel in the bountiful birds, fish, frogs, turtles, and other critters drawn to the ponds. Obviously NNV doesn’t share our enthusiasm for these blessings.

Aldo Leopold’s 1949 A Sand County Almanac and Sketches from Here and There is an environmental classic. The 1989 edition carries a foreword by Robert Finch:

The “Sketches” are a record not only of loss but of doubt, of disillusionment with both public sensibility and official policy. In a meaner nature such criticism might have become mere self-righteous condemnation. But Leopold’s instinct was always to educate rather than condemn. Though there are genuine bitterness and pain in these essays, he (Leopold) remained convinced that most environmental mistakes are due, not to some inherent baseness in human nature, but to ignorance. He understood that his own ability to perceive and understand how nature works was the result of a long period of education and self-education.

Was NNV driven by anger and resentment? I believe so. Did NNV commit such a vile act due to some baseness of human nature? Unfortunately, I believe so. Did ignorance drive the action? Yes, gross, almost incomprehensible ignorance. Do I believe that education may be a route of solution? I fear not; I sensed only a self-righteous disregard of anything beyond a mind absolutely made and certain. Regardless of motive and sentiment (malice or not), we residents are left with a pond-side scar… an affront to our sensibilities. Browned and desiccated foliage. An insult to pond aesthetics.

I sent a letter to our Home Owners Association June 11, excerpted here:

Now, to whom does it fall to remove the vegetative skeletons? What damage might have been done to the water; to birds, frogs, turtles, and fish? I doubt that the chemical employed was approved for direct application to water, even if NNV had been authorized by our HOA to spray. I am sure that given the evidence of foliar damage and the location of the plants, NNV sprayed chemical on the water. Should not the HOA report the facts of this disturbing environmental assault to the appropriate regulatory agency?

We are a community of friends and neighbors. We rely upon the HOA to address matters that impact the collective. This act of unauthorized violence flies in the face of a community of concerned and allied citizens. I am deeply offended and terribly disappointed by NNV’s actions and attitude. I ask that our HOA investigate and take appropriate action to treat the scar and assure that such vigilantism is not repeated.

I will close by simply pondering why one so hostile to the environment would choose to live so miserably along the shore of a pond where I daily see and feel magic, wonder, beauty, and awe.

Sincerely and appreciatively,

I am saddened, angered, frustrated, and dismayed. This episode lies outside my zone of acceptance and understanding, yet I must accept that one of my neighbors would commit this atrocity. I know, nobody died; I did not take NNV’s threat of “shooting” seriously. I am hardened to the verbal assault and name-calling. Long ago, Mom told me more than once, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you.” Yet I am deeply offended and set aback by NNV’s insult to Nature along BBL. The act violated all that I believe and embrace about Earth stewardship. And with respect to community-living… and respectful civil engagement.

A bright side? Perhaps a teachable moment for me and my cause. A stark reminder that even Leopold’s instinct was always to educate rather than condemn. A wake-up call that much work is yet to be done… beginning right here in my immediate neighborhood. Another positive outcome — an anecdote fresh, apropos, and compelling. Fodder for this Blog Post. A catalyst for action and corroboration that my work is necessary… my cause is worthy.

I hold confidently to my assertion that Nature inspires and informs every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading. NNV certainly did not believe such to be true — in fact, NNV never considered anything remotely relevant to Nature-Inspired Living and Learning. NNV neither looked for or saw the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe afforded to us residents along Big Blue Lake. Instead, NNV looked at the pond-side willow sprouts and cattails with loathing and disgust. NNV acted with repulsion toward the very elements that attracted many of us to live with Nature on BBL rather than in conflict with it.

May Nature continue to bless and inspire all that you do. Let’s strive always to educate rather than condemn.

June 14 Post Script

June 13, 2018, crews removed the sprayed willow, leaving the deadened cattails. Mercifully, some of the cattails stayed sheltered from the mad herbicide sprayer. We have an HOA meeting June 19 — I hope we discuss the implications of NNV’s actions.


Little River Canyon

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

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

Geologic Factors

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

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













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

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

And Floral Glories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Little River Canyon Preserve Oddities

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

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

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

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

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

Final Reflections

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

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

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

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


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

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