Joe Wheeler State Park

I’ve issued previous Great Blue Heron Blog Posts sited within Alabama’s Monte Sano State Park, which sits on the Cumberland Plateau just to the east of Huntsville. A few weeks ago we visited Lake Guntersville State Park accompanied by our daughter and her family. We didn’t venture deeply enough into the wild to generate a posting essay. Another time!

June 19, I made my first trip to Joe Wheeler State Park (JWSP) downriver (Tennessee River) 35 miles to the west. Monte Sano, Guntersville, and Wheeler are three of Alabama’s 22 State Parks. What incredible gifts to the 4-5 million cumulative daily visitors over the course of a year!

Observations from a Three-Mile Hike

Park Superintendent Chad Davis, North Region Operations and Maintenance Supervisor Tim Haney, and Alabama State Parks Foundation President Dan Hendricks hosted my visit. I appreciate their Park tour and a thorough orientation to the state’s Park System. Alabama is blessed to have this treasure. I commit to learning more about our Parks; I’ve added visiting all 22 Parks to my bucket list. In aggregate, 48,154 acres of State Parks! That’s 75 square miles. And you can visit them from the Gulf to the Tennessee River. Watch for more Blog Posts as I begin my quest! I’m planning to see DeSoto State Park mid-July.

After enjoying lunch at the JWSP Lodge with my hosts, I explored the three-mile trail loop that begins near the Lodge. A hot day with a nice breeze. Lots of deep forest and pleasant surroundings as the trail weaved mostly along the bluff overlooking the Lake. I’ll make observations and offer reflections around the themes of forests and trees; special features; and natural oddities.

Forests and Trees

The forester in me hungers to know more about the Park’s land use history. Prior clearing? Past agriculture? Ownership patterns and acquisitions? The age of these particular stands? I saw a mature mixed species forest perhaps at least a century old. I characterize it as “old growth.” Very large diameter main canopy occupants and considerable dead and down woody debris. Because I am fascinated by the character of individual trees, I will walk through a series of photos depicting the species diversity and accenting the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe of a tree identification element that seldom gets a lot of attention — tree bark. I’m focusing on species I did not include in my June 20, 2018 Bark Portfolio Blog Post:

I’ll begin with honey locust, Gleditsia triacanthos. Note the stout, branched thorns along the main stem and the feathery compound leaves. I’ve always found the thorns a curiosity, likely a defense measure to discourage bark-nibbling foragers and dissuade leaf-eating aerial herbivores from climbing into the canopy.

Very common along the Tennessee River, American hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) has an expressive gray bark — dark woody/corky knobs and ridges. Much more friendly to tree-climbing mammals than honey locust! Look for a couple unusual specimens in the Natural Oddities section.

I never tire of finding sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a wonderfully sap-scented tree just as common near my original western Maryland home as here in northern Alabama. The Joe Wheeler trail presented some of the largest sassafras I’ve encountered, ranging from large main canopy occupants to intermediate and lower levels. The seedlings and saplings are quite tolerant of full shade, surviving for decades awaiting potential release. The bark is distinctive for its interlocking deep vertical furrows. Although the leaves and twigs are nicely scented, pull a seedling and scrape the root collar stem with a knife or fingernail to enjoy the most aromatic fragrance. Smells just like a rich root-beer to me!




I found this paired hackberry and sassafras along the trail. Could two trees be more dissimilar in bark? Nature sure knows how to mix it up. Both are deciduous, broad-leafed trees; eight feet from core to core; sharing substrate and competing for main canopy light; benefiting jointly from common mycorhizal fungi; next door neighbors for life. Yet bark, leaves, wood, flowers, seed, and crown structure differ remarkably. To what competitive advantage do we attribute the differences; by what evolutionary track?

Hornbeam (Ostrya Virginian) thrives in the lower canopy, occasionally reaching intermediate levels. I entered my forestry career knowing this tree (with its very strong and exceptionally hard wood) as ironwood. The close-up photo below shows the thinly stripped bark on a five-inch diameter stem.Were I not the photographer, I might view this image as a much larger shagbark hickory. So, size does matter!

This next image is a three-foot-diameter white oak (Quercus alba). It takes its common name from its whitish, slightly furrowed, scaly bark. The massive tree in the Special Features section below is another white oak. What distinguishes white and red oak? Most red oaks have smoother bark; white usually and flaky. White oak leaves are generally round-lobed; red oak sharped-lobed. Wood is the foolproof diagnostic. Examine the wood end-cut. Red oak pores (xylem tubes) are open; white oak pores are clogged with tyloses. Hence, barrels and casks from white oak; a red oak wooden vessel leaks.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) bark appears irresistible to pocket knives — woodland graffiti. The natural-setting version of a subway wall. Beech bark is grey and smooth whether in southern Ontario or here in the Tennessee Valley.

Chinese parasol tree (Firmiana simplex), an escaped ornamental characterized as an aggressive, invasive weed in the southern US, is a species I did not recognize. I found many individuals along the trail… occupying lower and mid-level canopy positions, and appearing quite vibrant. This is a new one for me.

My Peterson’s Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs of Central and Eastern North America lists 30 oak species. I need to improve my field identification skills. I believe the one on the left below is northern red oak (Quercus rubra). On the right (once again conditioned with “I believe”) is black oak (Quercus velutina).


I snapped this yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera — I love its lyrical name) because it’s young enough to just be expressing its mature bark and already adorned with sapsucker bird-peck. I like its look!

Mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa), like many of the species at JWSP, occupies our eastern forests from Alabama to New Hampshire. Shallow, grey, interlocking vertical furrows characterize mockernut hickory’s bark. Often coexisting, mockernut and shagbark hickories are easy to distinguish by bark alone.

Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) appeared across my three-mile trek, occupying the main canopy. I included this photo for two reasons. First, loblolly is our state’s most widespread evergreen. Second, the poison ivy vine clinging to the pine’s bark provides a nice visual segue to this next section on Special Features!


Special Features

The trail passes by two Alabama Champion Trees, a bonus benefit for me. I admit to having no prior knowledge of September elm (Ulmus serotina).

And the State Champion chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), within the white oak group.

This is the classic old growth white oak specimen along the trail. How can we not be inspired by the giants in our mixed hardwood forests. Yes, I’ve seen Yosemite’s Sequoia, coastal Redwoods, and Pacific rain-forest Douglas fir. Certainly special to visit, yet I remain transfixed by our eastern forests in their mixed-stand splendor, made all the more special by their proximity (no west coast flights required!) and the reality that most are second-growth forests.

Not all of the stands through which the trail winds exhibit old growth character. Nor does it have the frequently steep stony surface that dominates Monte Sano State Park. The JWSP trails are gentler, stirring thoughts of poetry, harmony, and serenity. In itself a special feature.

The far end of the trail enters a disc golf course, a rather sneaky way (I applaud it!) to tempt otherwise mown-grass adventurers into the wild. The lower left photo once again captures the trail’s serene ambience. Please know that I encountered not a single flying saucer!

And what could be more special than the occasional bluff-side view of Lake Wheeler, close enough to hear the waves slapping the shore below?

I saw at least a dozen deer, this one grazing along the trail mostly tolerant of my passing. She hurried off, somewhat ambivalently, as I resumed walking. Yet another special feature. Special… but not rising to the level of an oddity.


Natural Oddities

I once had direct responsibility for furnishing raw hardwood sawlogs to the Union Camp Corporation sawmill in Waverly, Virginia. In those days what drew my attention involved desired species of large diameter… bole straight and logs defect-free. I still appreciate commercial value and a veneer quality butt log. However, it’s often the defects now that pique my aesthetic interest. This hefty white oak has a prominent seam, likely scar tissue from a long-ago lightning strike to the crown that spiraled down the bole stripping bark en route to its forest floor grounding. The air surrounding a bolt can reach 55,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the sun’s surface. Strong enough to strip bark yet often not fatal to the tree. On another occasion, I recall seeing a two-foot diameter white ash in northwestern Pennsylvania shattered into multiple linear fragments, some thrown a hundred feet or more and standing vertically like chucked spears. This old soldier carries the lightning wound like a campaign ribbon.

Carrying the military metaphor a bit further, this 30-inch mockernut hickory bears a horizontal periscope at about 30-feet above the ground. Did I actually see the eye pivot my way as I stood taking photos? What magic has the old hickory witnessed over the decades? The periscope is obviously a branch stub that the tree chose (well maybe not consciously) to callous-over with active cambium and bark, like a blunt-end leg amputated above the knee. An oddity and curiosity — like visiting one of the once-common Ripley’s Believe It Or Not attractions along 1970’s highways. Nature offers a wide selection of the unusual.

Who among us students of Nature’s bark collection would not be captivated by the variety of southern barks? How about the diversity even within a single species? A single species along a three-mail hike!? I offered you a typical hackberry bark photo earlier. A sapsucker artist helped modify the tree below left. Not so much corky ridges — more like corky pits. And the moss-modified deep corky ridges below right lead me to wonder how I ever came to know bark. Just when I think it simple, Nature reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci’s observation: “There is no result in nature without a cause; understand the cause and you will have no need of the experiment.” As my life extends, I hunger more than ever to discern the cause. Nature knows — I seek to discover.


I doubt whether had I taken this same hike 30 years ago I would have noticed half of what caught my attention earlier in June. I’ve learned that wonder and amazement in Nature are always within reach. Find it in the trees and the forest; don’t allow one to blind you from the other. Some people (far too many) see neither the forest nor the trees. I see and celebrate both. You can, too.

I am only now learning to ask the right questions. I will never know all the answers… yet I do know that all the answers lie within Nature. Leonardo da Vince also said, “Nature is full of infinite causes that have never occurred in experience.” Infinite is a daunting quest. I shall be content to follow these pursuits through to my final hike. I find solace in Believing in Nature’s majesty; Looking beyond the superficial; Seeing what others might not even imagine; Feeling the pure power and emotion of discovery; and Acting in some small way to help others appreciate the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe of Nature.

A society can be judged by its willingness (eagerness) and determination to sustain its wild side. To treasure our natural  libraries and museums of Nature-based questions and answers. Alabama’s State Parks, State Forests, National Forests, and National Parks evidence that humanity is alive and well here in Sweet Home Alabama.

I am excited to pursue my Alabama State Parks bucket list check-off.


Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2018 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Late June Derecho — Nature’s Fury

I remind you that I am a weather addict, hooked on its captivating nuances, predictable (and not so predictable) patterns, and heart-stopping power and beauty. I witnessed one of Nature’s most powerful land-based weather phenomena last week — a derecho.

Accuweather’s online definition:

Derechos are often referred to as inland hurricanes due to the hurricane-like conditions, in terms of ferocious wind and torrential rain, which are spawned by this weather phenomenon.

This term refers to a dangerous type of thunderstorm complex that travels along a path of at least 240 miles, according to the Storm Prediction Center. These violent severe thunderstorm clusters produce widespread and long-lived, straight-line wind damage.

June 28, 2018 late morning I watched high clouds begin to sag from the north. I checked the radar to see a thickening line of thunderstorms building and dropping from northeastern Tennessee. The high clouds proved to be the anvil ahead of the derecho. Our local forecast soon included a severe thunderstorm watch, followed by a warning. The derecho approached at 30+ miles per hour. Its gust front and preceding shelf cloud brought 12:30 PM near-darkness to us. This photo captures the turbulent underside of that front, extending for tens of miles, racing south well ahead of the rain shield. This view is nearly vertical from my Madison, Alabama driveway. By now the wind howled and thunder boomed less than five miles away.

I raced to our south-facing lawn looking over Big Blue Lake. A fearsome image. I thought the four horsemen of the apocalypse might appear at any moment. Or Willie Nelson’s Ghost Riders in the Sky! Are the Hounds of Hell baying within that violent firmament!












The menacing roiling, massive underside hinted at Armageddon. I admit to some level of deep apprehension and fear. As a student of Nature and weather, I knew and appreciated with certainty what I was witnessing yet something hard-wired within me evoked an involuntary fear/flight reaction, one that may have served a survival purpose. As the lightning grew closer I retreated indoors to window-watch. As the rain hit and continued I snapped a photo to the south, the ugly prefatory sky, strong winds, and initial deluge long since given way to a moderate rain.

I measured 1.3 inches of welcome rain, bringing the June total to 5.15 Inches.

The derecho reached the Gulf coast by evening, far exceeding the Storm Prediction Center’s minimum path of 240 miles for derecho designation. The next morning, 65,000 Alabamians remained without power. I saw a few small branches and a handful of downed trees as I drove into town. By and large we escaped the full fury in this vicinity.


I characterize this derecho as still another episode of Pleasurable Terror for me. We inhabit a dynamic planet… whether a north-Alabama derecho or Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. That dynamism over the vast sweep of time has shaped the Earth and its living systems that sustain us. This is our Garden of Eden. The turbulent, occasionally menacing, and sometimes devastating forces at play are part of the bargain in living on Planet Earth. In fact, such is the case for every life and enterprise within this wonderful experiment we call humanity. Into each life a little rain must fall.

Our burden is to understand these forces of Nature and human nature. We are best served when we know what we face and deal with circumstances accordingly. Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading demands that we pay attention and learn from Nature’s Lessons.

Clouds portending fury certainly do not capture my sole (or soul) attention. Two evenings before the derecho, a thunderstorm dying to the WSW caught my eye (lower left). The next morning, a delightfully pleasant sunrise sky suggested that all would be well for the day ahead (lower right).

May Nature Inspire all that you do!


Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2018 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

Bark Portfolio — Beauty and Mystery

A Poem as Lovely as a Tree?

I’ve found fascination, entertainment, inspiration, wonderment, and joy in trees since toddler-hood! Poet Joyce Kilmer’s Trees captures my lifelong sentiment:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

As a kind-of-writer, I’ve thought about communicating my addiction to Nature via the language of poetry. I have yet to take that bold leap. I suppose I am so taken with Nature’s magic, wonder, beauty, and awe, that I fear doing injustice to the real thing in a futile attempt at verse and meter. I’ll stick to prose for now.

I took freshman dendrology (the study of trees) 48 years ago. We learned to identify scores of central Appalachian tree species by leaf, twig, bud, bark, and flower. That course and thousands of forest practice hours since in our eastern forests enabled me to identify many species without so much as a glance into the canopy. I’ve learned that I can do it far more easily than I can explain. Like differentiating among our human friends and acquaintances, bark-based tree identification rests upon recognizing and mentally cataloging features of distinction.

Annie Dillard spoke indirectly to the art and science bases of such tasks:

[T]he notion of the infinite variety of detail and the multiplicity of forms is a pleasing one; in the complexity are the fringes of beauty, and in variety are generosity and exuberance.

Visiting a Forest Museum

These days on a woods walk, I see the beauty, generosity, and exuberance more clearly and appreciatively than ever. Tree identification no longer seems a sordid mechanical exercise. Instead, I peruse the forest and its trees in like fashion to visiting a museum and seeing works of art. Since returning from West Virginia late December, I have enjoyed perhaps a dozen hikes with two different groups. One group tours at museum pace; the other at what I’ll call point-to-point pace. The first walks appreciatively within the forest; the second scoots through the forest. June 8, 2018, I hiked through the forest at Monte Sano State Park, covering some 7.7 miles. I attempted to combine hiking through and within the forest. The result — peristalsis — I frequently halted to examine, appreciate, and photograph museum pieces, and then raced ahead to catch the group of through-walkers. Know that racing ahead at age 67 isn’t what it used to be! In this particular museum tour, I focused mostly on one type of exhibit — tree bark.

Shagbark hickory — such a work of art! I wanted to inhale its magic; imagine its mysteries; ponder its design. No way… I had to catch the group. Why did I focus for that day’s hike on tree bark? The Friday hike a week earlier, I walked within another Monte Sano forest with a museum-paced group, our hike abbreviated by an approaching thundershower. That hike piqued my current interest in tree bark. I decided to devote the next hike to viewing the bark displays. I offer an introduction to the study of native north Alabama tree bark with the photos below. Consider this museum-highlights Blog Post as a teaser… a beginning for future examinations.

I wonder whether our US southeastern region has a corollary to Michael Wojtech’s Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast. Bark is a wonderful compendium of photographs and descriptions. I view it as a catalog of New England’s tree bark museum pieces. Dr. Tom Wessels, a forest ecologist and one of my world-class faculty members when I served as President, Antioch University New England, penned Bark‘s foreword. No wonder I respected and admired now-emeritus professor Wessels so much. We are kindred souls. He sees the forest as the work of art that it is:

The bark of trees has been relegated to the background for too long. With this guide, Michael Wojtech has prepared a forested pageant for our eyes. I encourage anyone who picks up this book to become acquainted with our sylvan neighbors, as I did more than 50 years ago, by the wonderful ways in which they cloak their strong frames.

I’ve not discovered a similar references for our southern forest museum.

I now offer a forested pageant sampler from my recent Monte Sano State Park peristalsis. I present this exhibit registry in no particular order. The inventory is not even fully inclusive of the species we encountered. Again, I did not have the luxury of time and pace to capture images of all species we saw. Perhaps I can begin to compile a more complete directory. In each case below I will identify the tree species (in some cases, species group) in text above the photo(s).

The sugar maple below left bears the trail identification marker for my own future reference. The larger twin sugar maples (below right) conveniently show verifying leaves from epicormic shoots. Note the sapsucker bird-peck on the larger stem just above the fork. Ah, each photo will tempt me with side-track observations. One I can’t resist — the “fork” is likely a union where two competing stump or roots sprouts conjoined as they expanded into one another.

Red Oak is a species grouping. Both photos below show a red oak. As we walked through the forest, I did not take time to assign species. That will await my next hike within the forest!














Eastern Red Cedar is a common pioneer species that invades abandoned pasture, road-sides, and other severely disturbed areas. An evergreen, red cedar has distinctive bark, seldom mistaken in aggregate characteristics for any other species. My experience throughout the eastern US is that most everybody recognizes and can name cedar.

Buckeye (Ohio?) appeared occasionally along the lower slopes and richer sites across the distance. Once more, a distinctive bark… with broad plates and a gray hue.

White Oak is another species grouping. I am reasonably sure that this is Quercus alba. Vertically oriented shallow peeling bark, a light gray color.

White Ash constituted perhaps five percent of the stems along our trek. Vertically patterned interlocking furrows, deepening with age and girth. One of my favorite species, ash is under distribution-wide threat from the emerald ash borer, already devastating the species south to mid-Tennessee.

Black Locust, another pioneer species, is dropping from the forests we transected. I found far more dead stems than living. I would have predicted same. They just can’t live as long as the oaks and other mature forest associates. Somewhat similar to ash in bark orientation, the locust has a coarser pattern and deeper furrows.

Paw Paw is an intermediate canopy dweller, occupying a vertical position beneath the main canopy. I find the bark non-descriptive. Without seeing the leaves, I would have lumped it into “other.” I have not spent enough time around it to recognize it.

Chestnut Oak is another of the white oak group. I describe its bark as alligator hide, coarse and deeply furrowed. We found it most commonly on upper slopes and poorer sites.

Black Cherry distinguishes itself with dark, finely plated flakes, aligned neither vertically or horizontally. The species holds a special place in my heart — Prunus serotina dominated the Allegheny Hardwood forests (NW PA and SW NY) where I conducted my doctoral research. It’s good to see it here in the South.

Sweetgum is, from my limited observation, the most widely distributed hardwood species across Alabama… a companion to loblolly pine from Tennessee to the Gulf. Vertically oriented shallow plates.

I often tell people tongue in cheek that Dogwood is identifiable by its bark. I’m having fun with words, but I am also speaking truthfully. Dogwood’s blocky, dark bark is unique… and instantly distinguishable. Add in a handful of sprout leaves and we have an indisputable i.d.

Persimmon bark resembles dogwood’s, only on steroids. Dark and deeply blocky. Persimmon does reach into the lower main canopy; dogwood is relegated to the lower tier.

Loblolly Pine is our chief Southern Pine. I admit to relying upon a peek to the canopy needles to confidently differentiate among our native pines.

During the hike I rush-snapped this photo of an unusual bark. Already falling behind from several successive stops, I needed to once again close the gap with my fellow hikers. I presumed I would see another of what I am now referring to as a mystery species. I did not! I’m leading toward a hickory, but without any confidence. Note the mid-photo horizontal bird-peck.

We ended the hike back atop the Cumberland Plateau. A fitting end with a great view… our first since emerging from the continuous closed canopy we entered at the parking lot trail head.


Branching Habits — Yet Another Forest Museum Exhibit Category

Bark employs exquisite photos of tree bark by species and stage of maturation — sapling through old growth. I found a related volume during my exhaustive doctoral literature search, The Adaptive Geometry of Trees (Henry S. Horn, 1971). Horn employed meticulous and detailed line drawings of branching form, offering explanations for the adaptive competitive advantages linking form and function:

Botanists seldom give much thought to the shapes of whole plants, perhaps because the growth habit of most higher plants is a repeatedly branched system of units of variable number. It is the form of the units (leaves, flowers, roots) that provides most of the material used by descriptive botanists. The parts, however, are linked to make a more or less integrated whole, a light-trapping, gas exchanging, water-conducting wick extended between the water and nutrients of the soil and the sunlit desiccating environment of the air. The form of this whole may be expected to matter very much, and if adaptively critical elements in form can be isolated and measured we may expect to have a tool of great value for comparing species and understanding the working of plant communities. [This book] is almost wholly an analysis of the effects of leaf arrangements on the trapping of light.

I think we can accept that branching form is a mechanism for seeking and securing competitive advantage. But what about bark pattern, color, coarseness, and other elements of form contributes some advantage? I have no idea, nor will I speculate with this Blog Post. Does anyone care beyond the squirrel, bird, lizard, snake, raccoon, vine, resurrection fern, or other aerial tree-dwellers?

I’ll do a little more homework before I revisit this subject in some future Blog Post.

Novel Forest Museum Art

I seek Nature’s forest oddities, reserved for display in museum nooks and crannies… seldom advertised… always surprising, captivating, and rewarding. Like trees, vine species evidence distinctive bark. I needed more time to fully appreciate these specialty collections. This five-inch-diameter grapevine is about as large as I have encountered.

Poison ivy’s bark carries a shaggy mane, distinguishing it from other forest vines. Like the grapevine above, this is a particularly large poison ivy stem.

I had once again already fallen behind when I found this museum piece: “Spider in Twisted Vines.” A genuine work of art!

Once again, as I hurried through the woods I glanced to my left to see ET peering at me from a shagbark hickory. I considered offering him my digital device to Phone Home!

Ah, if only I could have lingered more along the way!

Reflections and Lessons

I’ll repeat from above:

I think we can accept that branching form is a mechanism for seeking and securing competitive advantage. But what about bark pattern, color, coarseness, and other elements of form contributes some advantage? I have no idea, nor will I speculate with this Blog Post. Does anyone care beyond the squirrel, bird, lizard, snake, raccoon, vine, resurrection fern, or other aerial tree-dwellers?

I’ll do a little more homework before I revisit this subject in some future Blog Post.

The same questions and mysteries apply as well to other tree features, including: wood; leaves; roots; buds and twigs; chemical by-products; flower and fruit; insects and diseases; animal inhabitants. I recall an old Pennsylvania Dutch idiom, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” Such was the case with me on this too-quick journey through the forest.

I believe I know now more than I ever have, yet I now realize how little I do know. A Bob Seger tune includes these lyrics: “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” Sometimes, he suggests, things are simpler when less complicated and unburdened with wisdom, knowledge, and experience. Yet those very contemplations and musings enrich my visits to the local forest museum. Each hike within the woods offers yet another forested pageant for my eyes. I’m grateful for all that I’ve learned and know, for every iota of knowledge and wisdom serves as a lens for deeper appreciation for and celebration of Nature.

Once again, it is Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe that inspire my life and add value to every day. As I so often urge… learn, practice, and hone all five verbs critical to deeply appreciating life: Believe; Look; See; Feel; and Act. Become an informed and dedicated Earth steward. Commit yourself to making tomorrow better and brighter.

Embrace Nature-Inspired Living, Learning, Serving, and Leading!


I’ve said, “Believing is Seeing.” Well even I have my limits!


Six-Hundred-Sixty Mile Transect

We departed our Madison, Alabama home mid-morning, Thursday May 10, destination Fairmont, West Virginia, 660 road miles to the northeast. We stayed overnight in Princeton, WV about 200 miles from Fairmont, where we needed to be early afternoon for events in advance of Saturday’s Commencement ceremonies and my two addresses. We began our journey from near Huntsville’s Space and Rocket Center (below left) and finished at the FSU Falcon Center (below right).

This time of year affords sufficient daylight for us to avoid driving in the dark. The journey traversed what I felt might be an interesting ecological transect… one worthy of capturing with a Great Blue Heron blog post. Think about some of the factors:

  • Mid-May is a shoulder season of sorts — summer-like on this southern end and still spring on the other
  • Elevation ~570 feet along the Tennessee River near here
  • Elevation of 3,400 feet at highest point of journey — I-77 at Flat Top, West Virginia
  • Fairmont ~450 miles north of Madison

Please recognize that developing this post served as an ancillary outcome of our trip… not the primary purpose. Therefore, we captured most photographs with my iPhone camera at highway speed. As evidence, Judy’s reflected image appears in the side-view mirror in the Space Center photo, snapped as we headed east on I-565. See her again below capturing Monte Sano’s 1,600-foot ridge (really, the ridge is the profile expression of the Cumberland Plateau) rising just east of Huntsville. The Plateau and the Valley geology consists of horizontal sedimentary rock strata of sandstone and limestone.

Once I pop east of Huntsville I feel somehow less in the deep South, sensing from the dissected Cumberland Plateau a return to my Appalachian roots. No, same climate as Madison, yet a landscape within this deeply-dissected Plateau land that echoes the ridge and valley of my youth. Some15 miles east of Huntsville, the valleys are broad with sandy loam soil totally unlike the clayey red soils of Madison and the Tennessee River Valley. The Plateau, with its accordant summits borders every valley.

TVA’s Lake Guntersville (Tennessee River) reaches north across our Route 72 east-bound passage. The impoundment occupies the broad flat valley, once again framed by the Plateau. I continued driving even as I entertained a few fantasies of largemouth bass! What an enticing view to the south. This 11-day trip will include:

  • The FSU Commencement
  • Visiting our son and his family north of Pittsburgh
  • A couple days with Judy’s sister and other family members in Cumberland, Maryland
  • A side trip for me to Flushing, Ohio to explore a potential Land Legacy Story contract with owners of a 1,100-acre cattle operation
  • A memorial service and appreciation event at West Virginia University Medical Center for the families of persons who donated their bodies for medical use over the preceding year (Mom died April 17, 2017 and donated hers)
  • Arrival back home May 20

My brief fantasy side-trip led me to promise myself some fishing time in these game-fish-infested southern waters! What is it that the coffee mug concludes: “Even a bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work.” My mental interlude took me around the bend at the sight-line, sheltered in some cove far from traffic noise, my light spinning rod in-hand, and the promise of some bass and crappie action — Nature’s elixir working its therapeutic magic! Okay, with a snap of my fingers — 610 miles to go.

Entering Tennessee

That’s Lookout Mountain below looking east from the Interstate near Chattanooga, TN. The Cumberland Plateau stands at ~1,850 at this point on Lookout Mountain, some 1,000 feet above the valley. The predominantly deciduous forest cover very closely resembles the cover at Huntsville’s Monte Sano State Park. We’ve stayed at roughly the same elevation and have gone mostly due east. We’ve covered ~120 road miles — about 540 miles to go. In terms of climate zones, we have not left Madison!

Mid-way between Chattanooga and Knoxville, I spot a disturbing first along the route — dead ash trees along the highway. The  imported (an international shipment stow-away) emerald ash-borer is spreading rapidly in North America across the range of genus Fraxinus. It is decimating ash. We saw the ubiquitous mortality from this point north to our destination, and beyond to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland. Oh, the price we pay for our shrinking globe. We do business in a global economy; we and all Earth species must sustain within a global ecosystem. I find the ash decline and imminent peril particularly disturbing. I have been a big ash fan from my days conducting forest inventory on State Forests in western Maryland during undergraduate summers… to conducting forest fertilization on planted green ash stands for Union Camp Corporation in Virginia and North Carolina… through my PhD research on Pennsylvania and New York Allegheny Hardwood stands (white ash a major component). I have revered its preference for high quality sites, its fast growth, straight boles, strong wood, and deep green foliage. Nothing beats its easy response to a splitting maul, its non-sputtering flame and hi BTUs in a fireplace or stove, and the crack of a Louisville Slugger bat connecting with a fastball. As we’ve faced before with American Chestnut and American elm, how on Earth do we contend with vanishing ash!?

We encountered the dead ash for reasons other than crossing some ecological divide. Instead, we entered the geographic margin of spread from the borer’s Cleveland point of entry. Officials have already noted the green beetle’s presence in Alabama, though not yet widespread. Time will tell. We can hope for some climatic barrier… yet I fear the insect will continue its spread of infestation and death.

Crossing An Ecological Border

The next photo does indeed signal that we crossed an ecological boundary. North of Knoxville, mid-way to the Virginia line, we began seeing our first native white pine (Pinus strobus), evidencing that we had left the Southern Pine Region, where loblolly pine (also slash and longleaf pines) reigns supreme. White pine extends north into Canada. The white pine stands at the forest edge at about one-third of the distance from the photo’s left margin. White pine graced our New Hampshire property, with crowns emergent (reaching a shoulder above) from the main hardwood canopy. As I indicated, the Cumberland Plateau topography resonated with my central Appalachian homing instincts. Loblolly transitioning to white pine likewise brought me a step closer to my own head-water spawning stream.

About the same place, when open views presented to the east, we could see the Great Smokey Mountains, where Clingmans Dome in Tennessee lifts to 6,643 feet, just shy of North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell at 6,784 feet, the highest east of the Mississippi River. The Smokies are the heart of the ancient Appalachians, tortured, folded, faulted, and thrust vertically by tectonic plate collisions that culminated in construction of the supercontinent Pangea some 480 million years ago. Picture Himalaya-like, now long since scoured and weathered to their minimal (yet still impressive) remnant geography. This view doesn’t do them justice. It’s the best we could do without a 30-40-mile one-way side trip. I remind you, my intent with this post is to chronicle our ecological transect, in this case just hinting at what I still characterize as a magnificent old mountain chain, blessed with one of the world’s richest and most biologically diverse temperate forest ecosystems. Even as I fantasize about an occasional day fishing on Lake Guntersville, my bucket list includes spending several late spring to early summer weeks in the Smokies.

Notice that now the view below is to the left of our direction of travel. We’re in Virginia heading northeast on I-81 between Bristol and Wytheville. We’re in the region termed the Cumberland Mountains, like the Smokies, tectonically-tortured ancient remnants.

Unlike the Cumberland Plateau far behind us, the underlying rock strata here are anything but horizontal, tilted in this case (below right) a good 30 degrees up to the left; nearer to 45 degrees below left.

We passed a few road cuts with strata inclination nearly vertical.

Our final first day landmark took us from Virginia into West Virginia on I-77 northbound through the East River Mountain Tunnel. We spent the night not far to the north in Princeton, WV.

Day Two — The Final Stretch

Significantly, we soon reached the elevation apex of I-77 at Flat Top, WV — 3,400 feet. And Flat Top places us at approximately 300 miles north of our Madison home. Consider my speed-of-season advance rules of thumb. Spring speeds north at roughly 0ne week per hundred miles; spring climbs mountains at more or less 800-feet per week. So, how far behind was spring’s May 11, advance compared to Madison, Alabama? Okay, Flat Top is some 2,700 feet higher — that’s 3.375 weeks. And 300 miles north converts to three weeks. Total elevational and latitudinal delay is nearly six-and-one-half weeks, or 45 or so days, placing the predicted spring front date for Flat Top on May 11, equivalent to the last week in March for Madison. Below right shows oak just opening flower buds; the lower left photo shows early valley greening and near-dormant ridge tops.

The National Weather Service monthly temperature averages for the two locations test my rules of thumb. Madison, AL — average high and low temperatures for March are 64 and 42; for Flat Top, WV May comparable values are 66 and 48. Adjust the two averages for the late-in-March equivalent to Flat Top’s early-in-May and we have rough confirmation! Leonardo da Vinci observed some 500 years ago, “Nature never breaks her own laws.” Rules of thumb derive from Nature’s laws.


One reason I have The Smokies in spring on my bucket list relates to elevational time travel. Four thousand vertical feet enables sampling five weeks of spring ephemerals in a single day, with the help of a bit of automobile jockeying from valley to higher elevations!

Heading north from Beckley, WV on Route 19 we crossed the New River Gorge Bridge and stopped at the visitor’s center. The New River flows some 900-feet beneath the road surface. Once more, we are now in plateau topography, the strata mostly horizontal, the river having cut deeply through the uplifted highlands. My brother long ago rappelled several times from the bridge. He tells me that he first assisted rope management from river level, looking up and perceiving the span as a narrow two-lane roadway. When his turn came to drive topside, he looked in amazement at an interstate-class roadway. and gazed astonished at the tiny ribbon of water below. Perhaps one day I will understand the optical phenomenon that makes any height always seem greater from atop.

The gorge supports heavy forest cover. I snapped the photo below from an interpretive display in the visitors center. Nearly all of West Virginia saw the crosscut and axe, sometimes repeatedly, from the mid-1800s through early 20th Century. Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum, natural hardwood regeneration (seedlings and stump or root sprouts) quickly recaptured the cut-over sites.

Again, the landscape stands merely uplifted in planar fashion; no tortured strata. Mostly sandstone, shale, and limestone, and in this exposure a thin band of coal.

We arrived in Fairmont a little after noon, eager for the evening’s festivities.

Commencement Day

No longer speeding along at 70+ MPH, we snapped a typically foggy valley view from our Fairmont accommodations during our morning walk (below left). Once more, horizontal strata characterize these north-central West Virginia plateau hills (right).

And mid-afternoon between the two graduation ceremonies, I walked out on the deck at the President’s residence (Shaw House) to photograph (below left) the view east that I enjoyed most every morning over my six-month tenure. Below right one of those special dawn views!










What a wonderful 660-mile journey — so many dimensions! The trip spanned 7.5 weeks across the spring season. Having this blog post as one peripheral outcome forced me to look a little harder and think more deeply about the transect. I’m once more reminded of my five verbs applicable to Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading:

  1. Believe — I was certain that the trip would reveal lessons and truths
  2. Look — Too many people live and travel blindly, not deliberately conscious of anything beyond traffic and signposts, whether literal or metaphorically
  3. See — And even fewer people actually see past the distractions of life, work, and the near-meaningless digital world in which they struggle
  4. Feel — Believing, looking, and seeing with purpose and intensity inspires feeling, stimulates emotion, and infuses Nature’s elixir
  5. Act — My own mind surges, ideas surface, and action scenarios present themselves

Nature’s lessons are there for our discovery and implementation. I weaved some of my Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading theme into my commencement remarks. From this day forward I will travel life’s journey with a greater spirit of intentional observation, which accompanied this 660-mile transit.

I am blessed to have been invited back to Fairmont State University to offer words of celebration, encouragement, and challenge to the graduates and the campus community.

May your own life be Nature-Inspired, passion-fueled, purpose-driven, and results-oriented!


Note: I am available for Nature-Themed motivational/inspirational speaking and writing… for NGOs, businesses, landowners, agencies, and Nature-oriented enterprises. Contact me at:

My Premise and Core Belief: Every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature!



Fairmont State University Commencement

Fairmont State University Commencement Remarks

May 12, 2018; S. Jones

Having served Fairmont State University as Interim President July-December 2017, I felt honored to present the University’s Commencement address May 12, 2018 at both the morning and afternoon ceremonies. That’s the FSU campus below right, an aerial view from my week-before-Christmas-fly-over with one of our flight instructor faculty; nearby Tygart River Falls in July at left. Normally I focus these blog posts on my Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading core message. This one strays topically a bit afield. Yet I include it because so many of the posts I drafted within the Nature-Inspired theme during my interim presidency drew from my six-month total immersion in this Central Appalachian Region, rich in Nature harking back to my youth.


I now offer my Commencement remarks, which I’ve converted to text from the cryptic notes I used at the lectern:

Good morning/afternoon!

I spent six wonderful and memorable months here at Fairmont State university (FSU), my home away from home July-December 2017. I’ve served at nine universities. This one is special, from its spectacular sunrises from the Shaw House deck to the heart of the Falcon spirit that defines us:

  • FSU is notably place-committed: to this community, north-central West Virginia, and the broader region
  • The University is powerfully purpose-driven, dedicated to serving Marion and adjoining counties, our students, and Falcon alumni everywhere
  • No institution is more passion-fueled than this one — FSU faculty and staff bring the unbridled passion of their commitment to you every day, apparent to me from the first time I walked onto campus
  • And every person here in the Feaster Center is results-oriented; today is just one facet of the results they and we seek

My six-month interim presidency changed me forever – I know that your time as a Falcon has done the same for you! Nature is Change, evidenced by the seasonal cycles that define a year, a career, and a lifetime. An FSU education prepared you graduates to recognize and anticipate change, and deal with it across the seasons that lie ahead. As a Nature enthusiast, I see and communicate deep lessons in the simple (yet miraculous) transition from summer to winter, especially in these central Appalachians. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven!



Sharing Three Memorable Speeches

Today is all about you and what you will take from FSU on life’s journey. My task this day is twofold. To give you some words of wisdom and spur you on your way. Rather than reinvent the wheel, allow me to borrow shamelessly from the three most memorable speeches I have heard across my own journey. Each offers immutable lessons for life and career that are as applicable today as when first presented.

Only one of the three is a Commencement address — Dr. Jim Goodnight’s 2003 North Carolina State University remarks. An accomplished business executive and former NC State faculty member, Dr. Goodnight offered three suggestions for the degree-recipients. First, to the extent possible, align your vocation with your avocational interests. That is, focus your career on what you love. Jim’s second suggestion surprised me initially. He said simply, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!” Upon reflection, how well-stated and on-target. Persistent, futile digging is epidemic, whether in Washington DC or the local city hall. Too many leaders keep digging! I found Jim’s third suggestion powerful yet exceedingly difficult: seek balance in faith, family, community, work, and other life-elements. I have found that pursuing balance is so easy to say and so elusive to achieve.

Dr. Goodnight’s insight proved apt, extraordinarily brief, and absurdly simple. His is the only commencement address I remember – ever! I may recall gems from others but I cannot recall attribution. Jim’s every remark is indelible! He took no longer to present his address than I consumed in summarizing it for you. Reflecting upon it led me to remember the best speaking advice I’ve ever heard, “If you don’t have much to say… don’t take so long to say it.” And it reminded me of the scariest words any speaker has ever uttered, “I will be brief.” Never believe it — it’s a warning that “I want you to believe I will be brief, but there is no way I will!”

Jim Valvano, 1983 NCAA men’s basketball championship coach at NC State University, presented the second memorable speech among the three. Facing a diagnosis of incurable terminal cancer, Jim took to the motivational and inspirational speaking circuit several years after the championship season. He offered three necessary daily elements for living life to the fullest. First he said, think deeply about something important to someone you care about. Second, find daily a reason to laugh heartily. And third, feel something to the point of tears each and every day. As with Dr. Goodnight’s remarks, coach Valvano’s advice stood as simple, succinct, and powerful, spoken from the heart, soul, and spirit… with passion and purpose. His message stands as relevant some thirty years later for you; for every one; for every day!

I go back more than half-a-century for the third memorable speech, President John F. Kennedy’s January 16, 1961 Inaugural Address. The young President said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” I submit that his powerful call to service stands as a fine point for a commencement address… even now; perhaps especially now. And service is a compelling component of my charge to you. Serve is one of four verbs lying ahead for you: Live; Learn; Lead; and Serve

I said three memorable speeches. I offer a fourth of sorts, unspoken yet a strongly communicated message from my Dad, deceased 23 years. One of my heroes, Dad led me to a life and career dedicated to Nature. A blue collar laborer and WWII combat veteran, Dad loved fishing, hiking, camping, picnicking, and other such pursuits. We often headed outdoors summer weekday evenings and most weekends. However, Sunday afternoons we observed Dad’s spirit dimming perceptibly. Mom explained that Dad began to despair from knowing that Monday morning he returned to a job he loathed — not loved. I vowed then to never take a job I didn’t love.

I’ve managed to live by that vow and code. I urge you to do the same. Align your vocation and your avocation!


Life Events Shape Us

I paused and began again by telling the graduates that life events shape us. Today is a new beginning (Commencement) for you. Six years ago (May 3, 2012), stands as a new beginning for Mrs. Jones and me. While we were enjoying a full-daylight evening stroll, a two-ton SUV plowed into us. During our recovery we realized that life is fleeting and fragile… and that there are no guarantees for tomorrow. The incident stood as a life-event for us. I think of three relevant quotes that help define the lessons and draw deep relevance from the incident.

First, Helen Keller observed, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.” Keller did not deem daring as foolhardy but instead as bold, aspirational, and determined. Second, Bernard Malamud, who authored The Natural, expressed through his lead character, “We have two lives to live; the one we learn with, and the life we live after that.” Mrs. Jones and I are living our second Life! And in a third relevant quote, author Author Napoleon Hill said, “Dreams and visions are the children of your soul.”

Each of you has dreams and visions — of career, life, and service. I urge you to take time to devote thought and energy to defining your dreams and visions. Once you can articulate those dreams and visions, embrace them; cherish them; bring life to them! Remember, those dreams and visions are the children of your soul — nourish them!

My own dreams are clearer now, six years into my second life, than ever before. My first component is to leave this world a better place for my having passed through it. I commit to giving full measure to living. I pledge to dedicate the full power and passion of my soul to realizing my vision. I wish the same for you – devote yourself to purpose fueled by passion.


I want to emphasize a strong personal focus for me. Louis Bromfield, a mid-Twentieth Century best selling author with some 30 best-sellers, including a half-dozen adapted to Hollywood movies, purchased what he termed an old, worn-out north-central Ohio farm in the mid-30s. He dedicated his life to rehabilitating Malabar Farm, and chronicled his mission in Pleasant Valley, a non-fiction book account of his efforts: “The adventure at Malabar is by no means finished… The land came to us out of eternity and when the youngest of us associated with it dies, it will still be here. The best we can hope to do is to leave the mark of our fleeting existence upon it, to die knowing that we have changed a small corner of this Earth for the better by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.” That paragraph synthesizes my own life’s work and vision. May those words likewise, serve as metaphor for your life!


Concluding Reflections

I give you a final quote. Douglas Adams in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul speaks to the journey and outcome that many of us have and will recognize, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” Such is where life has guided and steered me.

May this Commencement begin your journey to where you need to be!

So, wherever life takes you:

  • Be true to your vision and dreams
  • Commit to place, wherever it happens to be
  • Dare to be bold!
  • Live with purpose
  • Let passion fuel all that you do
  • Enjoy life – don’t waste it!

Safe and pleasant travels – may you forever soar like a Falcon!


A Postscript: Although I could not match Jim Goodnight’s five-minute Commencement address, I do feel good to have kept my remarks to a dozen. Will anybody remember my speech in the same way I so vividly recall Jim’s? Likely not… yet I hope I at least stimulated a bit of retrospection among graduates, faculty, and guests. I also hope that the bit of Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading I infused found some traction.

That’s permanent FSU President Dr. Mirta Martin and me below left; Judy and me with Dr. Martin and husband John below right. A bit of Nature providing backdrop! May Nature Inspire all that you do.


Note: I am available for Nature-Themed motivational/inspirational speaking and writing… for NGOs, businesses, landowners, agencies, and Nature-oriented enterprises. Contact me at:

My Premise and Core Belief: Every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature!

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!

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.


Newsom Sink Spring Wildflower Jubilee

I hiked with a small group of Nature enthusiasts April 2, 2018 (Barbara Roberts, Lisa Hopkins, John and Barbara Kammerud, and Jim Kirkwood). We parked along a winding road in Morgan County, Union Grove, Alabama perhaps six miles south of the Tennessee River, and onto the plateau. We had ascended to 1,200 feet, then began our descent ~250 feet to the trail head. We entered the forest, trending gently downhill to the north. Scattered conglomerate boulders and remnant limestone ledges stacked and jumbled to either side of us as we worked our way into the canyon. We soon stepped into a broad sylvan cathedral… an exquisite cove site with yellow poplar, back cherry, sweet gum, red oak, and associated species. Individuals stood tall (some more than 100 feet) and straight. A luxuriant green herbaceous community carpeted the cathedral floor, the entire cove a verdant concave site of moist and fertile richness. This is as good as it gets in the upland forest world!

We found the hush and sanctity so spectacular (spiritual) that we spoke in somewhat hushed tones.We imagined returning mid-May when deep shade darkens the cove, and the current forest floor species have completed their annual life cycle. They are, after all, spring ephemerals that share the site with the overstory trees, yet harvest their own early and mid-spring sunshine before the trees leaf out and grab the lion’s share beginning at the close of April. Are these two sets of plants (herbs and trees) competing? They are certainly sharing rooting medium, yet not going head to head for moisture, nutrients, space, and aeration at the same periods of the growing season. I term their relationship as commensalism.

From a draft chapter of a book I am writing, commensalism “is the relationship that exists among organisms residing on the same land area and requiring the same resources from the environment. For example, the mixed forests that dominate the eastern US comprise multiple species per acre, each calling upon that place (in forestry, we term the place a site) to furnish the same six factors essential for flourishing: light, heat, water, carbon dioxide, nutrients, and oxygen. The tallgrass prairie communities likewise consist of multiple herbs and forbs thriving commensally on the same land. The teeming Serengeti grazing herds are yet another example in Nature. When I visit nearby Joe Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge during peak winter waterfowl residency, I see vast fields and backwater assemblages of sandhill cranes, snow and Canada Geese, many duck species, and a few whooping cranes, collectively sustaining as a commensal community. One might conclude that these complex natural communities function as a single organism, one where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Picture tons per acre of fall foliage returning nutrients and organic matter to the soil, recycling and retaining the site’s productivity. Now imagine the tons per acre of annual organic matter turned over by the spring ephemerals. Leonardo da Vinci observed some 500 years ago, “In her (nature’s) inventions nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous.” This amazing community is no accident. Instead, the relationships, interactions, and interdependencies have evolved commensally over time… tested, refined, and honed. Nothing in this magical cove is superfluous. Da Vinci also noted, “Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature.” The cove is one such “invention.” Can you possibly picture the outcome were a committee of Congress asked to develop a landscape “more beautiful, more simple or more direct” than this common cove near Union Grove, Alabama. Mark Twain once commented, “Thank God we don’t get all the government we pay for.” I say, “Thank God for the gift of this pale blue orb and its three billion years of Life.” We occupy a living canvas painted and perfected by Nature. Can we enjoy it without ruining it? We must. There is no alternative other than informed and responsible Earth stewardship.

Newsom Sink

As we descended, I saw evidence of surface water having flowed to the north, most likely during heavy rains, yet nothing in way of a permanent or even seasonal channel. As we moved along, I observed that the cove ahead of us sloped upward away from us. My aha moment — this is the sink… Newsom Sink! Surface (and any subsurface) water goes subterranean at this point, exiting the cove by other than an above-ground stream. I don’t have a lot of field experience in such karst topography. I am much more familiar with following a valley and anticipating an outlet. Here the outlet is the equivalent of a drain-hole. I expected a obvious outlet in the rocks where the runoff would drain. Not so. Instead, the sink appeared to be a collapse in the cove soil. Not just a shallow topsoil depression. The collapse here showed a nearly vertical wall of fertile soil 15-20 feet thick. No wonder the trees stood fat and tall!

We wondered where water entering this sink found outlet. Once we returned to our vehicles we drove two miles (and several hundred feet elevation lower) to Newsom Spring, where water boils up from a cave entrance, and continues its gravity-fed journey to the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Some will evaporate there and feed the southerly breezes that will send it back as rainfall that will once again moisten the rich cove ecosystem.

Spring Wildflower Bonanza!

Finding 41 species in flower at a single point in time and place set a personal best for me! Never have I seen such richness and variety. Making it all the more impressive, all of this bounty and beauty occupied no more than a couple hundred acres! Here is what I tallied (Note: first 41 at the Newsom Sink cove; three more at Newsom Spring):

  1. Wood vetch
  2. Sweet Betsy trillium
  3. Purple phlox
  4. Wild geranium (mostly pink; one a rare white)
  5. Beaked corn salad (Valerianella; four-square)
  6. Purple violet
  7. Mayapple
  8. Dandelion
  9. Dogwood
  10. Black cherry
  11. Virginia spring beauty
  12. Rue anemone
  13. False rue anemone
  14. Long-spurred violet
  15. Redbud
  16. White baneberry (doll’s eye)
  17. Toadflax
  18. Purple phacelia
  19. Cumberland mountain spurge
  20. Cutleaf toothwort
  21. Large flowered bellwort
  22. White trillium (not sure which one)
  23. Pennywort
  24. Twisted trillium
  25. Star chickweed
  26. Yellow violet
  27. White violet
  28. Foamflower
  29. Blue cohosh
  30. Common chickweed
  31. Purple larkspur
  32. Sweet Cicely
  33. Violet wood sorrel (Oxalis)
  34. Golden ragwort
  35. Buttercup
  36. Red buckeye
  37. Dwarf crested iris
  38. Yellow trout lily
  39. Henbit
  40. Field pansy
  41. Tansy ragwort
  42. Fire pink (at Newsom Spring)
  43. Columbine (at Newsom Spring)
  44. False garlic (at Newsom Spring)

We found only an occasional dwarf crested iris, resplendent in its beauty and simplicity.

I may have been the only one of us to spot the wood vetch that grew several hundred feet from where we parked. I trekked there around the road bend while the others prepared to enter the trail head.

This square foot or so of verdant forest floor offered five species in flower: white and twisted trillium, foamflower, white violet, and rue anemone. Bloodroot leaves are also present, perhaps a week or two past their pure white flowers.

I show this Cumberland mountain spurge not because of any particular beauty (it’s a rather drab yellow-green), but because it carries the name of my Maryland hometown… and because it’s the first time I’ve encountered it.

Cove Oddities

I watch for the unusual, even as I tally spring’s ephemeral bouquets. Here we made note of a funky sugar maple with decorative, contorted bark. I wondered — micro-organism-triggered deformity, or some kind of genetic disfigurement? If the latter, this could yield a new ornamental variety via cuttings and vegetative propagation. At any rate, worthy of a photograph both with and without John standing nearby for scale.

John and I, lagging behind the others after stopping at the sugar maple, discovered and photographed another odd specimen, this one a boxelder snag that had measured ~15-18 inches DBH (diameter breast height, a standard forestry measurement). Similar to the sugar maple bark oddity, this boxelder’s bark and bole express a strange pattern and abnormal appearance. Boxelder and sugar maple are of the same Acer genus — again, does this suggest a disease (micro-organism) factor common to both species? The ten-foot-height break point seems to have occurred at a swollen place with a twisted grain. The upper stem and crown appear to have wrenched apart through some concentrated physical action. It may be the largest boxelder I have ever seen in a forest setting. This species is just not well-engineered for large girth and steely strength. Although I did not photograph the the crown, it simply shattered when it struck the ground. We puzzled over how it withstood the forces of wind, gravity, and physics as long as it had. Perhaps its sheltered cove bottom site, rich growing medium, and the protection of larger more resilient forest trees around it gave it life far beyond its normal years?

Final Reflections

I am a sucker for Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. Whether an uncannily rich and fertile cove site, the karst topography, incredible wildflower diversity, or the odd and peculiar maple and boxelder, I succumb to Nature’s spell. Adding to the enjoyment, I hiked with a group who shared my passion and enthusiasm for this special place. A special place I was visiting for the first time.

How many of my fellow citizens know and appreciate that there are treasures like Newsom Sink within reach? How many of the homes we drove past have occupants who drive by the trail head every day without clue (or interest) as to what lies just a few hundred yards beyond where we parked? How many would care even if they knew? Part of the Newsom Sink glory is that it is one of many such gems. We are blessed that such places exist, and doubly-privileged that many are protected from development.

We spent perhaps three hours in the cove. I could have stayed an entire day. What spell might these woods have cast if I had carried a sleeping bag and taken refuge for the night? What night voices would have called? Frogs, toads, owls? What else? And what lessons might I have drawn from deeper immersion? What stories are told in the landscape itself? We hiked along old vehicular trails. What land use actions are written across the century-and-a-half of European settlement? How large were the original old growth trees that the cove supported? What significance did the Newsom Sink have for Native Americans? Surely the cove and its richness offered something meaningful. If nothing else, a botanical medicine cabinet rich with natural healing and prevention variety?

I like relaxing with a good book. Newsom Sink itself is a book unwritten. I saw chapter after chapter emerge within its acreage and across the time it reflects. I am grateful that Barbara Roberts and the group included me. I am eager to learn what other of Nature’s delights await me as I get to know northern Alabama.

How might I condense the Newsom Sink hike into a single photo? Allow me two. Perhaps simply the one-two punch of the dwarf crested iris and the twisted trillium:





Who could ask for anything more!? Continue to enjoy Nature’s inspiration… and tap the power and wisdom she offers.