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


The Fire Tower at Monte Sano

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

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

The Modern Human Footprint on Monte Sano

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

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

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

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

A Brief Floral Experience

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections and Observations

I write and post these essays for several reasons:

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

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

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

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

May Nature Inspire and Inform your Life.


Land Trust Fanning and Sugar Tree Trails

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

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

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

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

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

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


This Time of Spring Glory

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

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

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

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


Catching My Eye

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

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

What Creatures Await Those Who Dare Enter These Woods?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May Nature Inspire all that you do!

Announcing the Birth!

I devote most of these Great Blue Heron blog posts this time of year to experiences in the woods and reflections regarding spring wildflowers. This one is avian-oriented. Its been a banner week for our feathered friends right here on Big Blue Lake… and nearby.

Killdeer Success

Last year our killdeer tenets did not nest until late May, and fledged four offspring in June. Read about last season in my 2017 blog post of July 5 ( Last year’s nest sat in a four-foot-diameter bed (home to a small lace-leaf Japanese maple) no more than a dozen feet from our back patio. An otherwise mid-lawn nest location that we could not help but disturb with mowing and other activities. We agitated the parents incessantly, especially given their early summer occupation.

This year, the parents (we assume the same pair) started a family early the second week of March. March 13 we counted a fourth killdeer egg, and immediately they began serious egg-setting. During the four days prior, they mostly neglected the one, two, and then three eggs (left photo below). I suppose with the fourth, completing the clutch, the time had come to begin incubation to assure that all four hatched concurrently. They chose a much better location this year, well into the major back bed that covers 2-3,000 square feet, at the base of our river birch. We seldom disturbed them (broken wing diversion act below right).

The reference books say incubation extends 24-28 days. April 7, day 26, all four hatched over the course of the day. A cold front had passed during the night. The April 7 high temperature came at 2:00 AM. Wind, occasional drizzle, and thick clouds dominated, with temperature falling into the upper 30s by mid-afternoon. A parent huddled over the nest all day, wings extended over the hatchlings. We watched as first one, and then others would pop out, briefly explore, and hustle back under her wings. The day set a record cold high temperature. The non-setting adult stayed close, ready to lure me away if I dared approach. We observed shift changes, with one parent relieving the other. The photos below are poor, evidencing the low light, my hesitancy to intrude, and the tiny size of these guys. The left photo shows two on the nest (about 6-8 inches to the lower left of the birch stem) and one wandering to the left margin.  Two nestlings are visible in the photo (below right). I felt guilty forcing the adult to rush away.

The literature indicated that the family would soon depart, with both parents tending the brood as the little ones gathered food on their own. An attending parent snuggled all night, and was tight on the nest at the next day’s dawn. The morning temperature tied a record low of 27 degrees. Fortunately, the sun rose with purpose. Soon the nest saw full sunlight, with resultant warmth. No longer needing protection, the little ones sprang into action, exploring the bed and keeping both parents occupied.

The group began departing within an hour. The large bed is bordered lake-side by a four-foot wall to the downhill. The adults had to carefully usher the brood to the point where the wall met the grade-line. An adult stands on the flagstone pathway (below left). One of the young is along the wall top-stone at the right margin of the same photo. The four-foot drop to the shore at that location did not offer suitable access. The adult eventually turned the youngsters to the no-drop alternative. The second photo (below right) shows a little guy standing on the flagstone with another faintly visible to the right of the cast iron shepherd’s crook base.

By noon, both adults managed to escort the youngsters to the lake shore. An adult below is staying close to a young one about a foot to the adult’s left. Please keep in mind that I am using an iPhone at full magnification, again trying to avoid intruding into the parenting mission underway. So, we celebrate a successful launch! We kept them in sight for an hour or so. We haven’t seen them since. We wish them well. Our references say that in these southern climes, killdeer often produce two broods. Last year’s late May venture may have been the season’s second. Because we were involved in major landscaping early last spring, our back yard would not have been available for a March/April clutch. We’ll keep our eyes open for additional nesting mid-May, after this first group has fledged.

Another Family in Progress

A month ago I watched a goose begin establishing a nest at the border of our lot and our neighbor’s to the east. Momma is in full setting mode. I cannot get an egg count. When she leaves the nest, I have seen only the down she has placed over the eggs. I had hoped to examine more closely but both parents rush over immediately. This may be the same pair whose eggs attracted a predator last year (see my June 6, 2017 post: We’ve seen the large snapping turtle off-shore several times this spring. Will this year see a repeat tragedy or a successful hatch?

The male visits us frequently, gathering sunflower seeds beneath the feeders and seeking handouts from us when we are relaxing on the patio.

We find life on Big Blue Lake rewarding. Over the past few weeks we have recorded:

  • Mallards
  • Mergansers
  • Great blue heron
  • Canada geese
  • Killdeer
  • Swallows
  • Mockingbirds
  • Robins
  • Red-wing blackbirds
  • Gold finches
  • Bluebirds
  • A sharp-shinned hawk
  • House finches

April 13, I watched in wonder as a sharp-shinned hawk pursued a red-wing blackbird. The pursuit began near our feeders, looped wildly over the water three or four circuits, and the two eventually streaked to the north at the west side of our lot. I way-too-slowly rounded the house, seeing nothing. Only once did the hawk come close to grabbing its prey, above the water as the blackbird dived toward the surface. The hawk, faster at that maneuver, came within inches before the blackbird lifted laterally. I must admit to being a less-than impartial aerial-action-observer — I wanted to witness my first capture and kill. Again, choosing sides, I have concluded that we have plenty of red-wing blackbirds, and we find the males a bit too bullying at the feeders. Two or three times over our first two years here I’ve found feather debris along our back bed wall, the most recent clearly from a mourning dove. The action is occasionally fast and furious along Big Blue Lake!

A Last Minute Action Addition

Nearly ready to say that this draft is final, I stepped onto the patio late afternoon Monday, April 16, and noticed a female mallard swimming shore-side with a blurry ball following her. I ran for my binoculars. With magnification, I saw 6-8 (could even be more) tiny ducklings, clustered at mom’s tail, too far away and the ducklings too small for a clear count. I guessed that at most they are 2-3 days beyond hatching. April 21, 2017 we made a firm count of 13 tiny mallards with what I presume are the same parents. Life is Good on Big Blue Lake!

As I have said many times, although homes border the entire shore, I narrow my attention to the lake and its life, bounty, action, and beauty. I know the houses are there but I refuse to focus on them. What I see, in fact, is my daily bread.

And a Post Script

Our daughter called the morning of April 17, asking how to find the nearby heron rookery I had visited April 13. She wanted to drive a mini-bus-load of her THRIVE assisted living residents to show them. Judy and I volunteered to meet her and lead the vehicle to the parking area near the rookery:





We watched the rookery action a while before we began noticing that most nests had young visible. One to three heads and shoulders… an occasional small wing spread. Nest chatter filled the air. Not a quiet moment. Adults came and went at intervals. As I spoke with the residents after we returned to the mini-bus, they expressed deep appreciation and absolute joy. Katy asked me as we descended the stairs, “If I can arrange another group for this Friday, can you meet me again?” Several of the group piped up enthusiastically, “I’m coming, too!”

Katy telephoned after we departed to tell us that her eight residents loved the experience. One lady commented to her, “I am 84 years old and I have never seen anything like this.” Judy and I drove the ten or so miles home with a warm feeling of satisfaction. Nature is a powerful contagion and a timeless elixir. What a thrill to share Vitamin N!

I submit that we can find what we seek. Nature is ubiquitous, even in the predominately urban setting where we reside. I intend to relish Nature’s gifts. I have always been a glass-is-half-full guy, and I will never divert from that life philosophy.

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May Nature continue to Inspire you!

Monte Sano State Park North Plat Loop Trail

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

The Forest

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

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

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

Spring Wildflowers

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

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

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














Final Observations and Reflections

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

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

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

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