Beaverdam Swamp at Wheeler NWR — Nature versus Boardwalk

I wrote recently that Judy and I took grandsons Jack and Sam to the nearby Beaverdam Swamp trail at Joe Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge January 31. See my Dormant Season Beauty blog post. We four enjoyed ourselves walking, talking, and observing.

Beyond what I previously reported, we all found fascination in the battle underway between the wooden boardwalk and the forces of Nature. We appreciated Nature’s artwork on a section of handrail:

Lichens and mosses have colonized the wood rails, ensuring that moisture holds steady and decay progresses, and even accelerates. These lovely organisms are feasting — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The cycles of life and death are ongoing. The decking likewise feels the ravage of a suite of demanding primary and secondary feeders. The action means little to the wood. It has already served its biological life functions… supporting its tree of origin and when still cambial, translocating vital water and dissolved nutrients and sugars vertically to and from the roots and leaves. Wood, and perhaps all living organisms, live and die, cycling and recycling the stuff of living from one life form to another. We pass judgement on the agents of decay only when we are asked to maintain the boardwalk:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We visited the trail last winter, when we were forced to climb around and through a tree that had splintered a ten-foot segment of boardwalk. Small wonder — the boardwalk winds through an old growth forest that is, like most living communities, a dynamic ecosystem. Here’s a 30-inch diameter denizen that will eventually yield to gravity, taking yet another boardwalk segment with it:

Decay weakens wood even without the force of a falling giant. Slipping past strength thresholds results in an accidentally well-placed pedestrian footfall snapping a board:

 

Note the recently replaced board adjacent to the broken member. The battle continues. Given time and deferred maintenance, Nature will prevail… always! Inexorably, the forces of time and decomposers will reduce all organisms to their simplest components — the cycle is complete, honed by 3.5 billion years of life on the mote-of-dust-Eden we call Earth. The community of organisms in a single board enriches a small corner of the world in ways that we humans can only aspire to match:

We see only a board decaying, bit by bit, cell by cell, the debris falling to the leaf-littered forest floor. Yet countless organisms are performing their designed life-functions as part of Nature’s grand scheme. Leonardo da Vinci observed 500 years ago, “There is no result in nature without a cause.”

I suggest that we humans should ask ourselves, “What is our cause?” Individually and societally. Explore the question deeply when you next find a contemplative moment in Nature. Do you have a cause more noble than recycling the stuff of life? What have you done recently to change some small corner of the Earth for the better?

I ask myself the same questions often. I hope to help others seek the answers via my writing, speaking, and counseling. Unless we individually, and in aggregate, seek and find the answers, we risk our species’ place in Earth’s future, relegating us perhaps to rare occurrences in Earth’s fossil record eons hence. And, that would indeed be sad and tragic:

Never forget Nature’s Wisdom and Power and her lessons for living, learning, serving, and leading. And always remember that this Earth is a gift for which we share an obligation to appreciate and steward. Don’t let your grand-kids down… or theirs.

 

Kansas Annual Natural Resource Conference

My keynote address to the annual meting (Conservation Delivery in Changing Times) of Kansas Natural Resource Professionals focused on Applying Nature’s Wisdom and Inspiration to Conservation Delivery. Three hundred seventy-five registrants set a new attendance record for the annual gathering, this the 11th. What a great concept in drawing together professionals dealing with forests, range-land, fisheries, wildlife, and related fields.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wasn’t sure what to expect in way of reaction to my message. This was my first venture into the heartland with my Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading sermon. The first time testing the message with diverse natural resources managers in a part of the country far removed from my eastern US (and Alaska) former fields of practice. Really, my first test since adopting this deep message of Earth Stewardship, rooted in science, yet driven by my growing emphasis on heart, spirit, and soul. I outlined many of the basic elements I’ve brought forward in these Great Blue Heron blog posts.

I told the audience my purposes during that afternoon session. First, reuniting with my dear friend and colleague over the past 30 years, Larry Biles (left), Kansas State Forester, who arranged for the invitation to deliver the keynote. Such a great privilege and joy to see Larry (and wife Sarah) again.

I admitted that another aim for me was meeting the attendees and talking with as many as possible. How better could I learn than by hearing from those who are steeped in the practice of Kansas natural resources management! I shared another shamelessly selfish objective: gauging their reaction to some of my ideas and reflections on Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. A parallel objective — spreading the gospel of applying Nature’s wisdom and inspiration to living, learning, serving, and leading.

And I made clear that I hoped to stimulate them to contemplate:

  • The privilege we have of working in our allied fields
  • The beauty, magic, wonder, and awe of Nature
  • Our obligation as natural resource managers to sow the seeds of Earth Stewardship

I closed my keynote with some final thoughts about their role as natural resource professionals:

  • Theirs is a noble calling
  • One with high purpose
  • Urging them to adopt a goal to unveil and interpret the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe that lies hidden within Nature at all levels, whether Denali National Park, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Konza Prairie, or a Manhattan, KS city park
  • Their service is a privilege… a gift
  • And what they do carries a professional obligation to steward and sow the seeds of a land/Earth ethic

I challenged them to Rise to the Challenge… and leave a legacy

My Concurrent Session:

Harnessing Nature’s Wisdom and Inspiration through the Power of Stories

Some 50 participants attended my second-day concurrent session. This amounted to the first time I introduced my idea of Wild-Land Legacy Stories to any contingent of natural resource professionals, much less this wide range of folks from watershed to forest to wildlife to range to fisheries.

Rather than lay out the details here, I’ll hold the summary and discussion for a future blog post. Watch for it!

Also, soon I will post photos and text from my day-after-the-conference visit to Konza Prairie and Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, my first full-blown immersion into this incredibly beautiful ecosystem and community that once dominated our nation’s heartland.

Remember: every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in… or is powerfully inspired by… NATURE!

 

Frozen Wheeler Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

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

My Recent Migratory Journey

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

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

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

Nature’s Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

But Baby It’s Cold Outside!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sharpened Great Blue Heron Focus

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

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

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

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

 

Returning from a Six-Month Absence

Happy New Year!

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

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

“Again I resume the long

lesson:  how small a thing

can be pleasing, how little

in this hard world it takes

to satisfy the mind

and bring it to its rest.”

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

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

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

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

“What more did I

think I wanted?  Here is

what has always been.

Here is what will always be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you on alert for Nature’s richness?

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

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

“Again I resume the long

lesson:  how small a thing

can be pleasing, how little

in this hard world it takes

to satisfy the mind

and bring it to its rest.”

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

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

 

Preservation and Change

Return Visit to Cathedral State Park

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

Precious Recollections

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nature’s Sobering Reality

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

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

Death by Static Electricity

 

Blow-Down

 

Topped-Out

 

Crown Vigor fading

 

Some old soldiers stand dead, attributable cause uncertain.

 

Patches lay jack-strawed.

 

Only a few stand remnants still hold deep shade.

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

 

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

Every Forest Tells a Tale

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

The Cycle Completes a Turn

I’m just a week out from my departure from north-central West Virginia and Fairmont State University, returning to north Alabama. I’ve experienced a seasonal cycle from early summer to now near the winter solstice:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve also progressed from anticipating the start of the fall semester to soon closing the campus for Holiday break:

 

 

 

Life, living, learning, and leading distill to seasons. Childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, kids, career, grand-kids, retirement, slowing down. Sunrise to  sunset. Summer to winter; start to finish. I’ve relished this FSU journey of discovery.

I’ll be reflecting more as I settle back into semi-retirement. I’m excited to sip morning coffee and evening adult beverages once again from our patio on Big Blue Lake. To breathe a little more deeply once more after the intensity of this Interim Presidency. These few months may rank among the most fulfilling and satisfying of my career. Again, allow me some time to reflect… and write more about the meaning and significance from my time in Almost Heaven.

Nature’s Inspiration at Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

As does a prostrate white pine:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening Our Eyes

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

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

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

 

 

A Near-Final Week at Fairmont State University

I write these words December 3, mostly intended for my December 10, column for the Times West Virginian. For this Great Blue Heron Blog Post, I’ve added a twist and turn here and there to bring it back to my Nature-Inspired Leading and Learning theme. The Feature Photo has me standing just this week at the Crepe Myrtle in front of FSU’s iconic Falcon Center, where we hosted the robotics competition I mention in the text below.

We just returned to Shaw House from the Annual Service of Lessons and Carols, the Fairmont State University Chorus (featuring the First Presbyterian Church Cambridge Hand-bell Choir and Children’s Choir). This wonderful Holiday Festival epitomizes the spirit of FSU/Community reciprocity… the spirit I refer to as Town/Gown. The Spirit (the Holy version) also entered the afternoon concert – the Presbyterian Church is a heavenly venue!

Town/Gown may actually serve to name the local ecosystem where Fairmont State University resides. The paragraphs below speak in no small way to our relationships with other organisms residing along side us.

This entire past week offered a full menu of semester wrap-up activities, Holiday celebrations, and other events signaling my waning Interim Presidency. Judy and I over-ate Thanksgiving with our son and his family north of Pittsburgh. Our visits with them will be less frequent once we leave Fairmont. We enjoyed Sunday afternoon and Monday morning at Stonewall Jackson Resort. A symbol of north-central WV that we will carry with us. We considered it just one more slice of Almost Heaven!

Monday evening, we enjoyed sharing dinner and dessert with our Fighting Falcons Volleyball team and coaches at Shaw House. Our treat to these wonderful student athletes who graciously made us feel throughout the fall that we belonged to their family. Competitors, scholars, leaders, and citizens extraordinaire! So many people thank us for inviting them to our home. Not so, Shaw is their home. We are simply privileged to live here… and to share it with this great university community.

Judy prohibited my Tuesday evening return to Shaw until after the HOPE event – ladies only — a fund-raiser for our local battered-women shelter. Yet another great use of an FSU venue for supporting a pressing community cause. I did reap some reward by returning before catering had carted off the goodies to the Falcon Center. Ah, another FSU benefit I will miss. Aladdin does a fantastic job feeding campus and community – another invaluable FSU partner.

Wednesday, I enjoyed delivering an open lecture at West Virginia University, just 20 miles North of us. A thirty-year friend is Dean of the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design. You may have guessed my topic: The Nature of West Virginia Life! We enjoyed a standing room crowd. I spread the gospel of Fairmont and sang the praises of FSU.

Thursday evening, we once again hosted a community dinner at Shaw – Leadership Marion County. Nearly fifty attendees: LMC Board, participants (and guests), and some FSU folks. I can assure you that Marion County’s future is in good hands. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the food, beverages, and fellowship. How do I know? We had a hard time getting them to leave! A great bunch and a wonderful tribute to the value of investing in our community’s future.

Yet another example Saturday and Sunday of what an engaged FSU brings to our fair community, we hosted the WV State Robotics Championship. Well over 500 participants, chaperones, and family members. Saturday’s competitors were kindergarten through middle school; Sunday’s at the high school level. Many of these out of town guests spent money in town – food, lodging, etc. We hope many of the young people elect to return for subsequent competitions and eventually enroll as Falcons.

Also Saturday, Judy and I hosted another 120 of our best friends at Shaw for refreshments to recognize completing seniors and their families. We do this now in lieu of a fall graduation. We love hearing the amazing stories of family engagement to enable their offspring’s progress and degree fulfillment. Lots of laughter and tears of joy! Nothing satisfies me more than seeing success manifest as celebration.

Oh yeah, we also welcomed good crowds to the Feaster Center for both men’s and women’s Fighting Falcon basketball Saturday afternoon. Once again, a Town/Gown occasion.

I could not have better designed a week that represents this incredible FSU/Fairmont community joint venture. We are in this together. As I’ve noted before, we are jointly blessed, as James Norton so eloquently expressed in his November 30, Times West-Virginian Letter (An FSU gift to Fairmont is appreciated). He spoke of Fairmont without FSU: “How deadly would that be!” He mentioned his “moment of reconsideration and Thanksgiving, one that visualized professors, students, and other staff, and all the blessings their pursuits in science, art, literature and philosophy bring because FSU is here.”

Every ecosystem has its keystone species — there is no debate that FSU is this community’s keystone… its anchor… its distinguishing feature. FSU’s roots sink deeply into the fertile community soil here along the Monongahela River. We draw sustenance and nurture from the richness of our Marion County environment. FSU can be the mighty oak. FSU and Fairmont – mutual reciprocity; shared dreams; and absolute interdependence. I urge you to reach high together. Your future is bright.