January 19, 2023, I awoke early to enjoy dawn on the lake, then hike the Cabins Loop Trail at Oak Mountain State Park, an 11,360-acre wildland gem near Birmingham, Alabama. This short trail runs through diverse habitat along the south shore and peninsula of Tranquility Lake. I introduce the trail and some fascinating natural features through these observations, photographs, and reflections.
Loop Trail from Cabins
Because I had only minimum time before heading to a breakfast session of the Alabama State Parks Foundation Board, the trail suited me perfectly. An alert Nature enthusiast can see, feel, and absorb a lot of beauty, magic, wonder, and awe in just a mile of trail-trekking. So much lies hidden in plain sight…awaiting discovery!
I spent four years (1975-78) conducting tree nutrition and forest fertilization research across the southeastern US (VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, and AL), where my forest products industry employer owned and intensively managed two million acres of forestland. I learned to recognize soil features (texture, color, drainage, depth, etc.) that revealed fertility and quality. Not far into the loop, I hiked through a ridge-crest (convex slope), barren, infertile forest with a shaly trail surface, a telltale sign of poor soil wherever I’ve wandered in the southeast.
Most shale-derived soils in these southern Appalachians are nutrient poor, excessively-drained, and erodible. This ridge-spine dipping to the lake supported a stand of upland hardwoods, poorly-stocked (low stand density), short, and with low biomass per acre. During my research field days my tool kit included a sharp-shooter spade, allowing me to dig deeper (literally and intellectually) into the forest soil-site quality dimension than I could assess from shale exposed along a forest trail!
I soon escaped from my forest-soil-scientist-nostalgia, focusing instead on the magic of the morning’s saunter. The ever-accompanying Tranquility Lake prompted reflections…the forest on her surface as well as thoughts deep in my head, heart, and soul. I’m reminded, as I often am, of a relevant John Muir quote:
This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.
I take great comfort and find inspired joy knowing that this delicious time of day is racing away westward (at this latitude) at roughly 800 miles an hour, at the same time departing…and promising to return 24 hours later! Ah, who can long concentrate on a little trail-shale when the poetry of Nature reveals herself?!
Our southern winter’s stark beauty is a constant and welcome companion. This same view in July may reveal a peek of lake through the leaves. During the dormant season, the view is unobstructed. Even the distant sky appears through the hilltop canopy beyond the lake. I love our winter-naked hardwood forests! Sure, I will embrace spring in her splendor, yet eventually I will embrace October’s cooling days and November’s shedding leaves. The cycle remains unbroken.
Reflections on a Beaver Colony
A bit further, the trail passed through an area frequented by beavers. They’ve kept the predominantly sweetgum saplings and brush neatly cropped. Sweetgum bark and leaves are apparently tasty and nutritious, and the species conveniently resprouts, assuring a continuing food source. Note that sunlight adequate to support grasses reaches the forest floor. Beaver are exceptionally talented engineers, even as, in this case, modifying their habitat to suit their needs.
A recently chewed sweetgum sapling stump alongside a sprout cluster (below left) evidences the gardening skills the beavers employ. Below right is a prior year’s chew, in this case showing the sprouts regrown after last year’s harvest.
Beavers are not limited to direct harvest of saplings to collect food and modify habitat. The adroit engineers had in prior years attempted to kill or down this two-foot-diameter oak. Downing it (a formidable task) would have brought a veritable treasure of twig cambium and leaves to the family.More importantly, simply killing this main canopy occupant would open a wide hole for sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor, encouraging an explosion…an irruption…of edible woody trees and brush. I’m ceaselessly amazed by the wonders inherent in Nature, “learned” through the intricate process of natural succession. Perhaps some curious beaver girdled a large oak creating a prolific abundance of yummy seedlings. She may or may not have correlated cause and effect, but she did, as a result, produce more progeny that she otherwise would have. In technical terms, she and her tribe showed greater fecundity. Without diving more deeply into the realm of learned and inherited behaviors, suffice it to say that evolution favors the strong, creative, and fecund.
Some Unanticipated Wonders
Another mature tree within the colony’s range, now deceased, caught my attention, draped with resurrection fern. I appreciated its cloaked silhouette. Time will soon draw the tree to the ground. Already, all of its fine twigs and branches have sloughed earthward. I give the remaining coarse structure no more than 2-3 years erect.
Just as the beavers encouraged new life through their harvests, this smooth alder was already demonstrating an act of seasonal renewal. These are male flowers (catkins) fully emerged from a native shrub species that grows along streams or lakeside.
Lichen artistry decorated this sugar maple trunk. Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum. Thank God for helping me see beauty in a life form content to flourish on a vertical bark surface.
Tree Form Oddities and Curiosities
I entered the forest without any alert that hazards awaited. However, I soon discovered that all was not safe, serene, and mellow. There are oak trees capable of devouring metal signs on the loose! This hapless sign lost its way, relaxed its danger-awareness, and fell prey to a large-mouthed red oak.
Viral, bacterial, or fungal infection spurred this large circumferential burl on a beech tree. Generally, such burls are non-fatal, akin to a benign tumor. The agent triggers the tree to produce tissue growth, often gorgeously textured and coveted by ornamental bowl-turners.
Lightning hits often here in the Southeast. Sometimes it kills tree; other times it scars them. This maple survived, but bears the scar of a blast decades ago that nearly blew it to pieces. It appears to be structurally on its last legs.
Unsurpassed Beauty of Forest, Water, and Sky — A Visual Morning Symphony
I don’t see the need to add a lot of narrative to the following five photographs. A picture speaks a thousand word, saying all that I feel is necessary. The sun officially rose at Oak Mountain January 19 at 6:50 AM. I snapped these photos just 20 minutes later. The sun had not lifted high enough to cast its rays on Lake Tranquility or its surrounding hills and forests.
I seldom enter Nature without appreciating the total package of land, life, terrain, and the firmament above…the combination both inspiring and exhilarating!
Sunrise has touched the puffy morning cumulus, even as it has warmed my heart, soul, mind, body, and spirit.
Nature’s revelations are available whether we spend a day or squeeze an hour stroll into a busy morning. I encourage you to invest whatever time is available wherever you happen to be. The rewards from an abbreviated woodland trek can return dividends beyond your imagination, especially when dawn and dusk enters the equation.
I’ll close with another Muir quote:
All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love. So universally true is this, the spot where we chance to be always seems the best.
Henry David Thoreau added his own wisdom in advice to those who enter the forest:
It’s not what you look at that matters; it is what you see!
Alabama State Parks Foundation
Thoughts and Reflections
I offer these observations:
- All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go…the spot where we chance to be always seems the best.
- The rewards from an abbreviated woodland trek can return dividends beyond your imagination, especially when dawn and dusk enter the equation.
- I seldom enter Nature without appreciating the total package of land, life, terrain, and the firmament above.
Inhale and absorb Nature’s elixir. May Nature Inspire, Inform, and Reward you!
Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2023 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”
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And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at email@example.com
Reminder of my Personal and Professional Purpose, Passion, and Cause
If only more of us viewed our precious environment through the filters I employ. If only my mission and vision could be multiplied untold orders of magnitude:
Mission: Employ writing and speaking to educate, inspire, and enable readers and listeners to understand, appreciate, and enjoy Nature… and accept and practice Earth Stewardship.
- People of all ages will pay greater attention to and engage more regularly with Nature… and will accept and practice informed and responsible Earth Stewardship.
- They will see their relationship to our natural world with new eyes… and will understand more clearly their Earth home.
Tagline/Motto: Steve (Great Blue Heron) encourages and seeks a better tomorrow through Nature-Inspired Living!
Steve’s Three Books
I wrote my books Nature Based Leadership (2016), Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017), and Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits: Stories of Passion for Place and Everyday Nature (2019; co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Wilhoit) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature.
I began writing books and Posts for several reasons:
- I love hiking and exploring in Nature
- I see images I want to (and do) capture with my trusty iPhone camera
- I enjoy explaining those images — an educator at heart
- I don’t play golf!
- I actually do love writing — it’s the hobby I never needed when my career consumed me
- Judy suggested my writing is in large measure my legacy to our two kids, our five grand kids, and all the unborn generations beyond
- And finally, perhaps my books and Blogs could reach beyond family and touch a few other lives… sow some seeds for the future
All three of my books (Nature Based Leadership; Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading; Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits) present compilations of personal experiences expressing my (and co-author Dr. Wilhoit for Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits) deep passion for Nature. All three books offer observations and reflections on my relationship to the natural world… and the broader implications for society. Order any and all from your local indie bookstore, or find them on IndieBound or other online sources such as Amazon and LifeRich.