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 (http://stevejonesgbh.com/2017/07/05/four-new-killdeer-residents-deep-lessons-partnership-nature/). 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: http://stevejonesgbh.com/2017/06/06/natures-triumph-tragedy-big-blue-lake-april-21-2017/). 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.

 

Northern Alabama Landtrust Hike

On Monday March 26, 2018, I joined a LearningQUEST hikers group (seven of us) at the Landtrust Hikers Lot on Bankhead. We hiked the Bluffline and Wagon Trails to the Waterline Trail and then returned on the Tollgate Trail. A wonderful 4-5-mile circuit with six new friends: Bruce Martin; Sue Campbell; Bob Schorr; Ronda Tenney; Barbara Staggs; Kathleen Haase. Our tour touched upon both human and natural history, the two being interwoven. Here my compatriots stand at the rail above the old Heritage (three caves) limestone quarry.

I will keep this post somewhat abbreviated, highlighting some of the natural peculiarities we encountered and commenting on the deep human signature on the landscape. The red oak below neatly lifted a rock slab when wind snapped the tree at the base. A curiosity as much as anything, this is just one example of how nature can stimulate thought and fancy. How long until decay weakens the rock/trunk union enough for gravity to return the rock to a soil-contact resting place? Funny how the tree “ate” the rock as its girth expanded laterally. Had the tree not been blown over, would it have eventually consumed the entire slab?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The squaw root below is the surface manifestation (the vegetative scaly-leafed structure) of an oak root parasitic plant. It will develop its reproductive, non-showy flower spike at the terminus. Again, a curiosity worthy of inspection and study… and a great photo subject. Nature never fails to astound and stimulate. There is wonder, awe, beauty, and magic in the woods of northern Alabama, whether a mighty oak, or the parasitic plant finding purchase and nourishment on its roots.

And what prehistoric beast do we have below?! A persimmon tree about eight inches in diameter with its deeply-fissured, dark grey to near-black, blocky bark. Not beauty on a Grand Canyon or Rocky Mountain scale, yet still meriting appreciation and enjoyment. I can’t get enough of what Nature offers to an observant spring hiker.

I added a new spring flower to my inventory: purple phacelia, this one clinging (and flourishing) to the vertical face of a limestone ledge. We totaled 20 species over our three-hour trek. Nothing unusual greeted us, yet each one offered beauty and reward. Likewise, each occupies a small window of time during this season prior to canopy leaf-out and forest floor shading.

The eastern red cedar below toppled during this past winter, along with the bush honeysuckle (an aggressive invasive exotic shrub) sharing the very thin layer of soil on the limestone rock surface. We wondered how the cedar found nurture and anchorage to last as long as it did. Not surprising to see that it had yielded to the combined forces of wind and gravity.

Human Disturbance — The Human Nature Element

Even as Nature’s signature marks the property, this land bears the scars and evidence of human habitation, use, and manipulation over the past 150 years. Granted, Native Americans lived here for the preceding 10-12,000 years, yet left little direct and lasting evidence. Theirs was a gentler touch. As we crossed this west flank of the plateau, I observed that surface drainage has shifted over time, perhaps owing to human-disturbance. Here is a well-defined stream channel and plunge basin we crossed. Without a scale reference (I should have placed one of my colleagues on the ledge), take my word that the vertical drop from ledge to basin is about 15 feet. Yet now, even with a wet spring, this channel carries no water. The active stream is not far away.

Here is another form of human touch. Bush honeysuckle (see my list of non-flattering adjectives above) has captured the understory. What has it replaced? Some spring ephemerals? Blueberry? Laurel? Other plants I find personally preferable? This foreign occupation warrants much discussion and thought. What recourse do we have? Should the Landtrust be more active in controlling it, or at least in limiting its spread?

Here is the old Heritage, Three-Cave Quarry, a source of stone for the gravel (milled on-site) that first paved many of Huntsville’s early dirt streets and byways. Again, the photo provides little sense of scale except for the paved sidewalk at the bottom. I estimate that we stood nearly 100 feet above the floor. The access road exits to the photo’s bottom right. My fellow hikers indicated that the three caves (mines) extend hundreds of feet into the formation. The abandoned quarry serves seasonally as an acoustically wonderful amphitheater for concerts. I lamely suggested that it must be perfect for rock concerts! Interesting that a former industrial site now serves a public purpose as a Landtrust recreational preserve. I have said many times that we humans do not stand separate from Nature — we are one with Nature. And I hold squarely to my belief that every parcel of wildland carries a two-dimensional tale: one Nature’s Story and the other the interdependent Human Nature Legacy. The tales are intertwined… inseparable.

When the Monte Sano community atop the plateau took shape in the twentieth century, residents and community developers saw need for fresh water, not sufficiently available by well source. So, why not pump it up this west flank from ample aquifers below. We thus walked the old Waterline Trail (below). This is rough rocky terrain. An impossible place to lay a pipeline underground. So, the chosen solution (economic and physical) involved delineating the route and laying the pipe above ground, and then piling rock and limited soil above it. Thus, a mounded pipeline route that now provides a walking/hiking path.

And, how do you get the water several hundred feet vertical? You build a pump house, find the right pump engine, and send the water up to Monte Sano. Here is the pump house stone foundation, the timbers long since decayed or burned; the actual pump sold when operations ceased.

The story of land use and development is written on the landscape. I am grateful that Bruce Martin knows the history. I will seek further lessons of the human history, even as I dig deeper into understanding the human influence on the natural history.

Final Reflections

Although I took no photo, we crossed an abandoned rail line ROW on our hike. Early in our wandering we crossed an extensive midden, a long ago trash dumping site, the ground covered in broken glass and other human-originated debris. Man’s signature is etched indelibly across this preserve. All of this offers lessons that we must learn. Our touch is not and has not been light. A century ago, we took little note. Land and wildness were inexhaustible. Today, we number 7.5 billion people, who on average consume more per capita as standard of living rises, and occupy more and more of our Earth’s surface. We can no longer afford to not take note. We must teach the lessons to every person who hikes these trails, making sure humanity is aware of our obligation to be informed and responsible Earth stewards.

Every step on every trail offers a teachable moment. I repeat often in these blog posts that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is compellingly inspired by Nature. Are we paying attention? Will we pass the test? Am I doing all I can to spread the gospel of Earth stewardship? Are you?

 

Cane Creek Canyon Preserve

Beware the Ides of March — good advice perhaps for Caesar, but the warning did not apply to Judy and me. We drove 75 miles west to Cane Creek Canyon Preserve, arriving at Jim and Faye Lacefield’s Preserve entry home at 10:00 AM, right on schedule. Our day had dawned at 25 degrees, and already under brilliantly blue skies had climbed into the upper 40s. Two months earlier we had scheduled what proved to be a perfect weather day. Jim had hoped to catch the spring wildflower season at early peak. The day did not disappoint; we recorded 23 different species in flower!

Most of the road trip found us south of and parallel to the Tennessee River, the first 20-plus miles west of I-65 mostly industrial and agricultural flood plain and terrace. Relatively flat the full distance, we turned south about ten miles from the Preserve, immediately ascending 200-300 feet onto the plateau through which Cane Creek has carved its canyon at the Preserve. Here we stand at nearly 800 feet elevation, some 300 feet above the creek behind us to the north.

The Preserve encompasses some 800 acres, including most of what lies within view. Jim and Faye have acquired the acreage in several parcels over three decades. The Nature Conservancy now holds the property in permanent conservation easement. The Friends of Cane Creek Canyon Preserve assist Jim and Faye in their remarkable stewardship of this treasure. Eighteen miles of marked and maintained hiking trails. Great maps. Tree identification tags. The whole package made all the more impressive by Jim and Faye. We had not met them except by email, yet we left late afternoon feeling as though we had know them for years. Because the Preserve attracted many visitors that day, Faye departed our tour after an hour or so to attend to their many guests and the sign-in/registration booth at the trail head. Jim stayed with us some six hours. He drove us over many miles of trail courtesy of his brother Joe’s ATV. The two Lacefield ATVs were shop-bound for spring reconditioning.

Jim and Faye are retired school teachers. Enthusiastically fit, unabashedly passionate about Nature and the Preserve, and knowledgeable beyond compare. Having spent much time with him on-site, I describe Jim as a Nature Renaissance Man. He authored Lost Worlds in Alabama Rocks: A Guide to the State’s Ancient Life and Landscapes (Alabama Museum of Natural History, 2013).

Jim knows more than geology and geomorphology. His knowledge extends deeply across spring ephemerals, woody shrubs, and trees — common and Latin names all! He referred with similar familiarity to every butterfly we saw. Even with a PhD in forestry, I view Jim with absolute inspiration and humility. He and Faye are one with the land they know and love. I cannot do justice to the extent of my awe for Jim, Faye, and the Preserve in this single blog post. I will note that they epitomize Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. They are exemplars. I left that afternoon feeling great admiration for their selfless stewardship of 1.25 square miles.

Rather than attempt to capture the full Cane Creek Canyon tale in this single post, I will give you a broad overview, first impressions, and initial reflections today, based upon this inaugural tour. I’ll include some lessons from Nature that I draw from what I hope is the first of many visits. Within the next week or two, I’ll develop two additional posts. I’ll review and highlight some of the flowers we spotted and photographed in a post I’ll call Spring’s Richness. Then I’ll reflect upon how we saw so much magic in life’s miraculous ken for finding anchorage and sustenance in some unlikely places (boulder tops, rock faces, and elsewhere) in Finding a Place. I may go to a third sequel, exploring whether there are elements of the Cane Creek Canyon Legacy Story not yet told.

Not at all ironically, we found lots of cane along Cane Creek. Judy is holding onto one. In several places the cane grew in thickets, some exceeding ten feet vertical.

 

Cane Creek Canyon Overview, First Impressions, and Initial Reflections

I’m drafting these words Sunday, three days after our visit. Seeing the photographs accents the memories, yet does not do justice to actually being there. These tough sandstone outcrops send small streams and rivulets down-slope in steps and spills, adding excitement and beauty. I wanted to lean more into the photo (below left); uneasiness with heights dissuaded me. I suppose I could have gone horizontal and slithered to the edge, but I didn’t want to show our hosts the chicken side of my psyche — after all, I had met them just 60 minutes prior! This is the first of many spring falls we encountered. The Friends of Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Friends-of-Cane-Creek-Canyon-Nature-Preserve-126802417335447/) has lots of photos and videos that capture the real essence of the Preserve’s vibrant stream and waterfall environment. Judy, Faye, and Jim are standing in the second photo about where I snapped the first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sure you have observed that the view from atop a rise (this drop is 30-40 feet or so) always seems higher than standing at the bottom looking up. The applicable lesson from Nature? Perspective matters — where you stand (on any topic or issue) depends upon where you sit. There is no inherent danger in looking up at the ledge. I felt real and palpable risk in leaning forward to take the photo where the stream passed over the edge. Even as I so conclude, I’m reminded that the view from on top is generally superior. That lesson? Exertion yields return.

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.

 

Life and beauty are where you seek it in early spring. Our humid temperate climate encourages moss, in this case along the upland brook not far below the falls in the earlier photo. As spring advances and multiple shades of green overwhelm the landscape, the moss will not draw our attention so well. In mid March, it speaks loudly and convincingly, commanding its audience. We will watch for its more subtle expressions as summer approaches.

 

The Boulder Garden, a tumbled collection of sandstone blocks broken from ledge-rock outcrops above, warranted close-up inspection. Each block is a table-top garden, lush with herbaceous and woody plants. We’ll look more closely in a subsequent blog post. Had even the Master Gardeners among us been assigned a bare 8 by 12 by 12 foot block of sandstone and instructed to create a rock-top garden, we would most assuredly have failed. Yet Nature has succeeded on her own. Jim describes this sandstone as a sponge, porous enough to hold moisture available to the individual plants perched there. No, this is not beauty on the Grand Canyon scale, yet it is, just the same, marvel-quality and worthy of appreciation, contemplation, and embrace.

University of the South biologist David George Haskell visited a square meter (his mandala) of old growth Tennessee upland forest floor nearly every day over the course of a calendar year, monitoring the ebb and flow of daily and seasonal life. From his journal, he authored The Forest Unseen. He asked, “Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water? I have tried to find an answer to this question, or the start of an answer.” I suggest that the Boulder Garden begs a similar question, “Can the whole of Cane Creek Canyon Preserve be seen through a small contemplative window of sandstone boulders carpeted with the lush growth of spring greenery and flowering splendor?” I suppose that the Boulder Garden provides an answer of sorts, but instead of providing the answer, I think it composes one chapter in a book of such contemplative windows.

The oak and rock union below is another chapter. Imagine the acorn cached by a squirrel just below the outcrop. The acorn sprouts. The seedling develops to sapling and extends vertically, finding ample room 8-10 inches from the rock’s reach. All is well until the oak’s girth pushes it into the sandstone. The tree has already found great anchorage, a moist and fertile soil medium, and a place of dominance in the sunlight-rich canopy above. What’s a healthy oak to do? Okay, oak trees have accommodated such interference in prior successful generations; its DNA is prepared. It is equipped genetically to form callous tissue to grow around the ledge (or any such interference), strengthen what would otherwise become a point of weakness, and continue to optimize its unfortunate position where tree meets immovable obstacle. Evolution instructs the tree to thrive at least long enough to produce progeny that can pass life along to a next generation. Isn’t that what oak tree life is all about? The poet Longfellow once remarked, “The purpose of that apple tree is to grow a little new wood each year.” So it is for the oak… and to assure that successor oaks carry its genetic signature forward.

Nature’s lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading? Adapt to the circumstances. Persevere. Recognize that not all of the life and enterprise cards dealt are kings and aces. Employ the tools given us by Nature and nurture. Make the most of it! As I have observed in other Great Blue Heron website posts, I firmly believe that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is compellingly inspired by Nature. Because I believe and I am willing to look, I can see the lessons. I assume they are there, and I find them. How many visitors note this unusual union without understanding what lessons it evidences?

Not far from there, also near the plateau top, this contorted chestnut oak likewise invites the camera shutter. What is its story? I can’t say for sure. I offer one scenario. Picture the pole-sized younger version standing mostly alone perhaps at the edge of a coarse pasture, where the slope steepens abruptly toward the camera. An ice storm heavily drapes it, permanently bending but not breaking the top and upper branches. Those branches continue to function, leafing out, and advantaging the sunlight still within reach. The now more or less horizontal crown branches thicken, support multiple vertical shoots, and perpetuate the now T-topped forest denizen. Meantime, the then-abandoned rough pasture converts to the mixed pine and hardwood forest that extends uphill from the contorted one, clearly a younger age class.

 

A major ice storm can leave an indelible signature. So can a sapsucker foraging for insects on a white oak trunk. Bird peck results. The small woodpeckers continue to work these horizontal lines year after year. I include this photo as just another chapter in the life of the forest, a living community rich with inter-dependencies and intricate beauty. I now offer a confession. I am referring to this tree as a white oak (I also lean toward sweetgum). However, I did not confirm identification in my notes, nor in my memory. I admit that I could be wrong!

 

Throughout the Preserve, I noted 2-4-inch diameter stumps within a foot of the forest floor. Faye had told me that Jim has been dutifully sculpting the forest by shaping the understory, removing individuals he thought should go. This wonderfully descriptive sign informs visitors of the purpose. Again, my compliments to Jim and Faye for so effectively telling the story and educating the visitors.

As I reflect on our wonderful visit to Cane Creek Canyon, I recall an apt Wendell Berry quote: “Outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread.” The miraculous features at Cane Creek Canyon are indeed not extraordinary, but are the common mode. Nature, in its many variants, is my daily bread. I am certain the same is true for Jim and Faye. I am grateful that Nature enthusiasts like the Lacefields have taken giant steps to make this small corner of the world better through wisdom, knowledge, and hard work. They are Earth Stewardship warriors.

Again, I am both humbled and inspired by the Preserve and its intrepid magicians who have dedicated their lives to its care and conservation. May they and the Preserve continue to delight and inform visitors in perpetuity!

 

Spring’s Richness and Finding a Place

Watch for at least two more posts from our Cane Creek Canyon Preserve visit. In Spring’s Richness we’ll address the nearly two dozen species of blooming plants that greeted us. Finding a Place will explore Nature’s way of furnishing anchorage and sustenance in the most unlikely of places… right there at Cane Creek Canyon.

 

 

 

Both essays will be rich with Nature’s lessons for living, learning, serving, an leading.

A Northern Alabama Update — Nature-Inspired

Spring is now at full throttle, yet keep in mind that the progress is not laminar. Spring leaps and pauses; surges and retreats. We touched upper 70s to near 80 in late February. This morning (Thursday, March 8), we walked the neighborhood at dawn with a breezy 28 degrees. Birds a little more subdued than on the warmer mornings. The National Weather Service has issued another freeze warning for tonight. A wet southwesterly flow returns for this coming weekend (1-2 inches forecast), followed by another frosty morning or two next week. Such is spring at full throttle in northern Alabama.

We returned to Alabama March 5, after a long weekend in Pittsburgh. An inch of snow fell our first night there, the same storm that dumped some 39 inches on a Catskill town within 40 miles of Albany. Brisk winds kept us chilled the entire time in Pittsburgh. However, spring is rushing northward… at its normal pace of roughly 100 miles per week. Red maple flower buds already showing a bit of red near the Steel City. Daffodil leaves are poking through bedding mulch. We saw a flowering crocus here and there. Bradford pear buds are swelling, soon to burst.

Our very cold Alabama January produced only 1.75″ of rain. February conditions shifted remarkably. I measured 11.59.” Big Blue Lake remained at brimful.

Area creeks and rivers carried a full load most of the month. Our return flight from Pittsburgh revealed lots of wet fields and flooded bottom-land. I snapped the photo below before we headed north. Even then, we saw plenty of water.

February 12 upon returning from Kansas, we counted 25 hooded mergansers on Big Blue Lake, bobbing and diving repeatedly. Last year we saw only as many as five. We reached a peak of 34 February 26. I counted 25 early afternoon today. They seem to feed constantly. What are these 2-3-dozen fish eaters finding to keep so many of them here? Do their numbers relate to the bass, bluegill, and carp stocked in mid-June? The bass are apparently thriving, which leads me to wonder how the mergansers are feeding so voraciously? This large-mouth bass that I caught (and released) March 6, weighed at least 1.5 pounds. It competes, I presume, for some of the same critters the mergansers eat.

So, I’ve categorized this post under “Steve’s Big Blue Blog.” Where is Big Blue in this essay? Strangely absent. Why? This January brought some real winter cold; Big Blue Lake froze substantially twice. How did that alter Big Blue’s life and habits? We saw him only twice in January. At the end of the third week of February, crews cut the shrub willow along the shore for all of Big Blue Lake, yet that does not explain Big Blue’s scarcity leading to that date. Granted, Big Blue frequented water’s edge at one of the willow clumps along our shore.

Are the bass eating yearling tadpoles and small fish, such as the gold fish that appeared in large numbers our first year and that we saw Big Blue catching, flipping, and swallowing? Are the large merganser numbers affecting feed-stock for Big Blue? I am concerned about our resident great blue heron. I will continue to observe… and keep you posted.

We have seen hawks (red-tail and rough-legged) often. January we found dove feathers and blood in our back bed, clear evidence of a successful hawk capture. February 26, late-morning we came across this fine specimen in a street-side sweetgum tree, 20 feet above us. The sun gave us trouble in getting a good photo image and in discerning whether the bird is a red-tail or rough-legged. Like so many ‘wild’ creatures, the resident raptors have adapted to suburban life.

Likewise, just the evening before (2/25), Judy and I enjoyed the warmer air on our patio. Dusk brought the spooky sound of coyotes yipping and howling in the open land beyond the street south of the lake, within a quarter mile. Again, our non-human area residents adapt quite well. I am grateful that we still have enough local “wildness” to keep me enthralled and inspired. Nature is where we seek it, whether a short drive away to Wheeler’s Beaverdam Swamp Trail (the photo of Judy standing on the boardwalk with the creek high and muddy), or right here in Legendwood (our development).

As we left the tupelo swamp that day at Beaverdam, we spotted our first trillium of the season, a least (also known as dwarf) trillium (Trillium pusillum). Once we saw one, our eyes imprinted with the image, and we noticed an entire colony of 25-30 individuals. Again, Nature, with its beauty, awe, magic, and wonder, is where we seek it.

I add this final paragraph Saturday March 10. Yesterday evening I attempted to check for freeze damage on our hydrangea, near our river birch. Before I could get close enough, a killdeer went into the noisy, broken-wing routine at the birch, where we had seen a pair within the past week frequenting, and actually saw them in the act of coitus. I checked again this morning at first light. No bird nearby. I found the nest, and lo and behold, two eggs! A killdeer soon returned and began tending the eggs. ALERT — I just went out to snap a photo and three eggs! A bit later, as I filled our feeders, momma displayed nicely for me. I checked last year’s notes on our resident pair, whose nest first appeared May 21, and eventually fledged four hatchlings. Could that have been last year’s second brood, thus explaining this year’s two-month head start?

Isn’t Nature grand! May all that you do be Nature-Inspired.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LearningQuest and Thrive Lectures Update

I’ve completed two Wednesdays of my six-week series at both LearningQUEST, an informal, membership-based continuing education program for “adults of all ages” here in Huntsville, Alabama. My topic is Nature’s Wisdom — Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. Approximately 40 members signed up for the series. Attendance has average 25-30.

Most, like me, are retired or semi-retired. All live in the Tennessee River region of north-central Alabama. All of us share a deep passion for Nature. Participants engage eagerly and actively in discussions. The hour flies past. I’m learning a great deal. I especially draw benefit from gauging reactions to my rather novel philosophy regarding our human relationship to Nature. And to my firm belief that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either indelibly written in, or is compellingly inspired by Nature.

At the 11th Annual Kansas Natural Resources Conference in early February, I relished and drew comfort from how natural resources professionals resonated with the message. This amazing group of northern Alabama natural resources lay people buoy my hope that this message has clarity and can be embraced by the general citizenry. I am eager to continue exploring the topic with them. Here are the early gatherers preparing for this past Wednesday’s discussion:

I meet with them at 9:30 AM; I hold forth with the second group at 12:30 PM the same day at THRIVE Assisted Living southeast of Huntsville. Nearly a generation older, the THRIVE residents embrace me as Dad to their beloved events and activities coordinator (daughter Katy), and as an invited and welcome speaker. I entered this venue with a high level of anxiety, unsure of what to expect from a disparate gathering that included some who reside in the THRIVE memory care unit. Could I hold their interest, stimulate their thinking, and inspire them with my tales and lessons from Nature?

The first week, I began with the same set of notes I followed that morning at LearningQUEST, but soon abandoned the structure and relative rigidity. The morning attendees allowed and encouraged me to choose the path and direct the conversation. At THRIVE, I quickly adopted an approach that sensed the flow and direction of their interest, and I then followed the current. We exchanged stories, embraced shared memories and values, and skipped among the avenues that wove among my core messages, yet did not stay captive to my intended outcome.

The second week, I came prepared with relevant readings from Robert Service’s Yukon adventures — entertaining, poignant, and germane to my Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading topic. One of the women, a noted orchid grower here in Huntsville, brought along an exquisite photograph of one of her award-winning specimens. Sadly, she left her orchid collection behind upon entering residential care, yet she expressed joy that she will soon have an orchid or two at THRIVE.

Katy tells me that each day after the Wednesday session, the residents inquire when I’ll return. If the weather permits, next week we will spend a little time on the patio, inhaling fresh air and talking about the forest that stands just 100 feet away. One resident in particular requested that we focus on Alabama Nature. She somehow is concerned that my bias is somewhere other than here in the South. I will bring along some readings and references that extol the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe of Alabama’s natural world.

I asked Katy the evening after this second session how it went. She replied that they loved it. I no longer feel trepidation about continuing the series. Like the slender willow, I chose to bow with the breeze, conforming to its demand, bending and yielding. Rigidity serves little purpose in living, learning, serving and leading. The tree that does not bend… breaks. Nature’s ways inform and inspire.

Back to LearningQUEST. I spoke with them about the first-day challenge I faced at THRIVE. They understood and now seem eager to learn more about my meetings there. All of us at LearningQUEST are within sight of the THRIVE residents’ stage of life. I quoted Leonardo da Vinci who said, “Nature never breaks her own laws.” My point was that all of us are aging; there is no Curious Case of Benjamin Button in Nature. We share a bit of anxiety about what comes next. The THRIVE interactions provide a kind of preview. Next week I will share my experience from THRIVE week two.

As we finished the second session, one questions addressed the extent to which fear (“I am afraid of the woods — the unknowns; getting lost; snakes; etc.”) plays a role in our ability to learn from Nature. Week three we will explore that idea. I responded without elaboration off the cuff, saying something like, “Unless we have been lost, how will we ever know and appreciate being found? If we have never been disoriented, how can we embrace the joy of knowing where we are?” I will introduce, with subsequent thought my concept of pleasurable terror, a theme I have employed as a vehicle for enhanced learning and inspiration in both my books.

I have also committed to probe with them the question of what is wild and where do we find it… how do we know it?

I am enjoying both lecture series, each one special and jointly complementary. I am learning. I am lifted. And I’m generating a lot of fuel for future writing and speaking.

May Nature Inspire all that you do!