Miscellaneous Observations from a Mid-February Hike on the Cumberland Plateau Near Huntsville, Alabama
February 11, 2023, I co-led some 20 Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) hikers on the Certain Trail at the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Blevins Gap Nature Preserve. The west flank of the Cumberland Plateau abuts Huntsville, Alabama, rising from the 800-foot city-occupied valley floor to 1600 feet at Monte Sano State Park just north of Blevins Gap. The Plateau, a physiographic region of generally flat sandstone and limestone sedimentary layers uniformly uplifted and now deeply eroded to what appears to be mountainous terrain, stretches far to the east into north Georgia. From Plateau overlooks at the Park and along Certain Trail, other ridge lines to the east are at the same elevation as the respective view-point. Such successive plateau summits describe an accordance of summits. The distant ridges (plateau tops) constitute the same sedimentary rock layer as where the viewer stands. The former continuing plateau from point to point has long since eroded over eons.
We gathered at the 1200-foot elevation trailhead for a group photo before ascending to the ridge at 1500 feet and heading south along the crest.
We anticipated cloudy skies with rain forecast to intrude by mid-afternoon, when we planned to have finished. Always keeping an eye to the heavens, not wary of impending foul weather but keeping alert for photo-worthy firmament, I spotted some unusual cumulus reaching into the overarching altostratus. Perhaps the odd clouds portended the coming torrents that were to drop 1.83-inches the coming evening and night.
Only some light rain fell as we returned to the parking lot.
Ascending Certain Trail
Limestone ledges provided a little variety as we climbed through the northeast facing slope. The direction a slope faces is termed the aspect, thus we ascended a northeast aspect. Here in north Alabama, as well as where I conducted my doctoral field research on soil/site productivity in northwest Pennsylvania and southwest New York, aspect is critically important in determining the quality or richness of a forest site. Aspects of north through east are the most productive. In contrast, south and west facing slopes are least productive. Differences are attributable to solar incidence, heat, and soil moisture…all interrelated. The net result of this discussion of aspect is that we ascended through a relatively vigorous stand of mixed hardwood.
Trees reached 90+ feet, some standing above 100 feet.
Ascending Certain Trail, we occasionally paused to rest or examine some facet of Nature.
We passed a large windthrown chestnut oak, whose roots had clung steadfastly to the soil when toppled. The resultant immense soil mound tells me that the tree was then very much alive. Trees that are standing dead do not bring up a soil mound when they fall. This tree is decaying. Already all but its larger branches are gone, incorporated into the soil. Its roots, too, have decayed into the mounded soil. In time, the trunk, too, will decay into duff and become one with the soil. At that point, the pit (where the roots and soil pulled from the ground) and mound (the soil pile) will remain, distinguishable as the very familiar hummock and hollow micro-topographic feature across our north Alabama forests.
Within 150 vertical feet of the ridgetop we encountered a spring emerging from the rocks, its slippery mud slowing our advance. Surfacing for only 30-40 feet of trail, the spring sank back below the surface.
We seniors marched steadily through the now upland forest. The fallen chestnut oak we earlier encountered was not the only stem succumbing to wind or mortality. The ground in this view is littered with dead and down woody debris. A dead hardwood separates the second and third hikers from the rear. Once again, I remind readers that life and death dance continuously in our north Alabama forests. The carbon cycle is never-ending.
I neglected to capture a photo from the east-facing powerline overlook. I am forced instead to insert this view to the south, parallel to the ridge, that I snapped January 2021 when I hiked the same route. The February 11, 2023 view would have shown a more leaden sky as the system reached northward.
A few hundred feet beyond the transmission line, we turned around, choosing the parallel West Bluff Trail, which hugs the west rim of the narrow plateau summit. I recorded this 2:49 video at the turnaround.
From the west side of the power line overlook, the views below are to the WSW and W, respectively. Unlike the eastward view, the Cumberland Plateau does not extend westward ridge after ridge.
Rising from Huntsville into this western flank of the Cumberland Plateau reminds me of the central Appalachians where I grew up, departing for college and professional pursuits. My home town lay at the western extent of the Ridge and Valley Province of the ancient Appalachians and, somewhat ironically, at the east flank of the Allegheny Highlands, yet another eroded plateau.
Reveling in What Lay Hidden in Plain Sight
The summit at Blevins Gap, as well as summits across the Cumberland Plateau, consists of a very resistant sandstone cap. While we admired the limestone ledges as we ascended, sandstone lies exposed along the ridge. Lichens don’t seem to differentiate, finding purchase and sustenance on the barren surface of either.
The sandstone derived plateau top soils are less fertile than the slopes we climbed. Trees are shorter on top owing to a combination of exposure to wind, less fertile parent material, seasonal moisture deficits (no moisture draining down from land upslope), and a constant wind that redeposits leaf litter from west to east with the prevailing breezes.
Always enchanted by tree form oddities and curiosities, I photographed the unusual face on the hickory below left. An old branch stub is now growing layer after layer of woody tissue to callous over and partition the old wound and the decay fungus working within. The decay extends all the way to the ground (below right).
I often imagine a bit of fantasy when wandering our forests. I identified (I’m sure no one else paid notice or engaged in the same level of amusement) what I termed an oak tree portal, a two-inch diameter opening where a long ago branch died, decayed, and left an opening into what I thought might be another world…a kingdom of elves, fairies, and ogres residing in a separate dimension of time and space. Why else would a two-inch portal five feet above the ground, on the western flank of the Cumberland Plateau, be shrouded in moss and lichen?
Some would insist that this is an Indian marker tree, shaped by Native American scouts, pointing the way to some special landmark. However, Native Americans have not inhabited our region for 150 years. This stem is likely far less than 80-90 years old. As I’ve described in other Posts, a branch or top from a nearby tree bent and broke a small sapling long ago. The sapling sent a shoot upward from 18 inches beyond the gloved hand. Surely, this is a tree form curiosity, but not an Indian marker tree.
Another curiosity caught my eye. Many of the larger trees gave the impression of having had the leaves raked from around them. I don’t recall having seen this phenomenon before. We were standing at the west bluff, where the prevailing westerly winds lift up the west slope and across the ridge. I deduced that the explanation for the leaf-bare areas around the tree bases is the Venturi Effect. The Venturi effect is named after its discoverer, the 18th-century Italian physicist Giovanni Battista Venturi. In inviscid fluid dynamics, an incompressible fluid’s velocity must increase as it passes through a constriction in accord with the principle of mass continuity. (Wikipedia)
The wind (moving air…an incompressible fluid) must accelerate as it passes a constriction (the tree). The accelerated wind is strong enough (literally a natural leaf blower) to clear the fallen leaves.
I felt disappointment that I had fallen behind the other hikers and could not make the observation to the crew I was supposed to be co-leading. I suppose that’s the price I pay for photographing curiosities and recording videos.
Even a two-hour woods-stroll can reveal Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, awe, and inspiration.
Thoughts and Reflections
I offer these observations:
- The young of all ages can enhance any forest venture with a dose of imagination and fancy.
- With eyes wide open, Nature enthusiasts can enjoy secrets hidden in plain sight.
- May Nature always Inspire, Inform, and Reward you!
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.