Spring’s Richness

Judy and I visited Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve March 15 — see my March 20, 2018 post for a more general narrative about the Preserve and my impressions. See also my March 26 post for the wonderful examples of life Finding a Place on some seemingly precarious and marginal positions across the 1.25 square miles of the Preserve.

Please view this post as less a philosophical and science-based reflection on lessons for living, learning, serving, and leading, and more as a celebration of spring’s beauty and bounty at forest understory scale. Seldom (no, never) in this part of the south does snow carpet the forest floor beyond a coating to a few inches occasionally during the depths of our abbreviated winter. By the end of April, most forest canopy species are already deeply shading the forest floor. The weeks and months between a waning winter and forest leaf-out translates to an opportunity window for spring ephemerals to grow, flower, produce seed, and fall into senescence — i.e. complete their annual life cycle — before the canopy blocks life’s essential sunlight. We timed our Cane Creek Canyon pilgrimage to hit the peak ephemerals window. Our timing rewarded us with 23 species in flower.

I have been a spring wildflower enthusiast since taking a Systematic Botany course in spring 1971. We journeyed into the field for the lab section whenever weather permitted, and sometimes when it didn’t! We covered diverse habitats, raced up, down, and across hill, valley, and dale, traversing field, forest, meadow, and stream-side. We kept detailed journals and sketched our findings. I still have my weather-beaten field guides and plant keys. I’ve carried one pocket-sized six-ring notebook with me at Cane Creek. Its first-page entry is dated May 17, 1989. The place: Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Education Center. Judy and I tallied 27 species that long-ago day. Hard to believe that nearly 30 years have raced past since then. The joy of discovery and counting is still strong. We’ve grown more appreciative, even if a little slower covering the distance.

So, 29 years later, allow me to take you along for a quick March 15, 2018 inventory of flowers tallied, from first to last in order of seeing them at Cane Creek:

  1. Virginia spring beauty
  2. Trailing arbutus
  3. Red buckeye
  4. Bluet (Quaker ladies)
  5. Purple violet
  6. Plantain-leaf pussytoes
  7. Service berry
  8. Bird’s foot violet
  9. Blue woodland phlox
  10. Early saxifrage
  11. Rue anemone
  12. Beaked trout lily (yellow fawn lily)
  13. Spice bush
  14. Sharp-lobed hepatica
  15. violet wood sorrel
  16. Twisted trillium
  17. Sweet Betsy trillium
  18. Bloodroot
  19. Wood vetch
  20. Hairy phlox
  21. False garlic
  22. Yellow trout lily
  23. Fire pink

One of my all-time favorites greeted us at number 11: Rue anemone, abundant from southern Ontario south to Georgia and Alabama. Its pure-white petals shout from the dormant winter forest floor, sounding a clarion call for the coming season of renewal, life, and warmth. This individual is expressing its joy from a sandstone micro-ledge at the foot of a block in the named ‘Boulder Garden.’

A rich floral arrangement presents atop the same boulder. Yellow trout lily and twisted trillium dominate. Nature has a way of dolling out luxuriant beauty. That morning our Madison, Alabama temperature bottomed at 25 degrees. These spring ephemerals can handle it. They know the drill.

We have here the Hanging Gardens of Cane Creek Canyon’s Boulder Garden. A wonderful oak leaf hydrangea anchors at lower left on yet another boulder. Early saxifrage bedecks a thin ledge about five feet above the ground, conveniently at eye- and camera-level. Several trout lily flowers peek over the edge above the saxifrage. What florist could do better? Nature exploits every advantage… not for us, but for sustaining the species, capitalizing the niche… of time and place. We enjoy her offerings, and relish her boundless beauty and vitality.

A closer look at the hanging early saxifrage. Nature abhors each and every vacuum. A precarious foothold becomes a ledge of luxury.

I recall seeing bird’s foot violet for the first time in Cumberland, Maryland’s Constitution Park on one of those Systematic Botany field excursions nearly a half-century ago. Its aptly-named bird’s foot foliage and bi-color flower are unmatched in the early spring palette. The photo at left below (yeah, the one with my thumb!) I took in western Maryland’s Allegheny Mountains last April. The Maryland photo depicts the flower and foliage more clearly than the photo I snapped at Cane Creek.

This red buckeye is tantalizingly close to opening its flowers. Close enough that I counted it! Will you grant me the latitude to claim 23?

Here’s a close-up of the beaked trout lily. Note that its flower is looking up at the sun. The yellow trout lily (yeah, they are both yellow), in the second photo above, hangs its head as though shy and embarrassed. Both have the same dappled foliage, earning another common name, yellow fawn lily.

I have seen elsewhere rich forested floodplains carpeted with blue woodland phlox. Cane Creek’s population, at least where we traversed, is more scattered, yet there is distinct beauty in even a single stem with a cluster of soft blue.

Virginia spring beauty is another common early ephemeral that I’ve tallied from New Hampshire to Ohio to Alabama.

Our final tally of the day took the prize for its aesthetic elegance. Fire pink seemed quite red. This is the only one in full flower we encountered. Interestingly, and disturbingly, the Lacefields told us of coming across trail-side patches of other showy species where visitors had picked bouquets and then tossed them aside. Reminds me of Aldo Leopold’s statement that “Conservation of all wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle. And when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.” Such is one goal of Cane Creek Canyon Preserve. To inform and educate visitors to the sanctity of Nature. To the imperative to see, appreciate, understand, and cherish. To the imperative to leave behind only footprints; to take with us only what we brought. To respect and enjoy.

Concluding Reflections

Although we timed our visit to hit the early spring peak wildflower window, I long to visit more frequently over this extended spring season. Once a week sees change at a scale suitable for awe and inspiration. So much happens so quickly to the knowledgeable, discerning visitor. There is magic at our fingertips, and lessons aplenty.

Once again, I applaud Jim and Faye Lacefield, as well as the Friends of Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve. All are stewards extraordinaire — land steward exemplars.

Judy and I are grateful for our visit and tour.

 

Finding a Place

My February 22, 2018 Great Blue Heron post reports on our February 11, hike at Konza Prairie near Manhattan, KS (http://stevejonesgbh.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1752&action=edit). Among other sights of the day, I reflected on a prairie crab apple anchored happily (my view) on a limestone ledge:

I ruminated at depth on the conditions, advantages, and pitfalls associated with its perch, concluding that Nature has enabled life’s many variants to exploit resources across a wide range. Our March 15 hike and tour at Cane Creek Canyon Preserve demonstrated the same lesson in multiple variations. Our northern Alabama climate is a bit more forgiving than the drier Kansas Flint Hills. See my March 20, 2018 post for a more general narrative about the Preserve and my impressions. Today’s follow-up post focuses on Nature’s uncanny, yet millions-of-years-tested, propensity for Finding a Place. For flourishing wherever the ingredients for life are available, whether or not the place appears at my first estimation worthy.

Our first example is a now deceased Eastern red cedar, perched at the canyon rim on a sandstone ledge. This individual survived, and appears to have thrived, on its precarious anchorage for decades. Roots marginally “sunk” in the thin soil atop the rock, holding gamely on the face, able to access substrate only on the uphill side. All is not negative. The seedling cedar faced little competition for light. Its ledge position afforded a 20-30-foot vertical advantage over trees starting at ground level beneath the ledge. Ample moisture, enriched with nutrients percolating from the soil upslope nourished our pioneer cedar. I’m surmising, too, that when our cedar gained a foothold, the soil uphill supported a coarse and unimproved pasture that gradually succeeded to the forest now occupying the site. The cedar actually enjoyed a set of favorable circumstances. It likely produced seed for other cedar trees growing in the neighborhood of the now-dead sentinel. A good life for our subject cedar? What is a good life to a cedar? Adding a little new wood each year and producing seed sufficient to pass genes into the future will suffice, I believe. My sense is that this one met those criteria before entering the great cedar afterlife! Incidentally, that’s not a memorial bouquet attached about five feet up the bare bole. It’s last year’s seed-head from a native oak-leaf hydrangea leaning across it. How fitting and perfectly placed!

This beech (below left) holds tightly to sandstone detritus beneath a similar rim ledge. The cavity visible under its base suggests that the original seedling found anchorage on a decaying tree stump, sinking roots that reached around the stump into the soil among the rocks. The old stump fully decayed, leaving our beech elevated above where the stump once stood. Perhaps a chipmunk shelter alternative to scurrying among the ledge-rock fissures. Like the prairie crab apple, this beech seems to perch on stone, yet I am sure that its roots reach deeply into the debris of the long-crumbling sandstone ledge. Again, our moist temperate climate furnishes ample moisture during all seasons of most years. Note the abundant moss on exposed rock. Life is good in the canyon!

Like the now deceased cedar, the thriving white oak (below right) has a commanding rim-rock view, similarly perched at the edge. Once again, its roots reach into fissures and tap soil uphill, even as the shallow bedrock uphill channels moisture to the oak. See the thick moss on exposed rock. Life is good on the canyon rim!

So, we found forest trees finding a place throughout the canyon. For every tree oddly positioned, we found scores of woody shrubs similarly challenging our perception of a favorable place to grow and prosper.

Judy and I fell hopelessly in love with oak leaf hydrangea, one of those woody perennial shrubs, when we lived in Auburn, AL 1996-2001, when I served as Alabama Cooperative Extension Director, overseeing the operation across the state’s 67 counties. We established oak leaf hydrangea plantings in our Auburn landscape beds, and subsequently in Cary, NC, Urbana, OH, and West Chesterfield, NH. When at Auburn, I hiked the Bankhead National Forest Sipsey Wilderness, marveling at the dense understory stands of oak leaf. How nice to see it among the principal understory tenants at Cane Creek Canyon. Clearly a site opportunist, the species clings tenaciously to the sandstone faces and boulders, thriving wherever it finds purchase. As Jim Lacefield reminded me several times, this sandstone is porous, holding water like a sponge and making it available to plants. Note also the lichens and mosses that coat even the vertical exposed rock faces. Nature truly does abhor a vacuum.

 

 

 

Oak leaf hydrangea examples of finding a place met us at every turn. They also appeared on other than exposed rock — it’s just that the hangers-on beckoned my camera lens.

We did not limit our pondering and amazement to trees and shrubs. After all, we timed our visit with the Lacefields to hit the early peak of spring wildflowers. Although we did not anticipate finding vernal richness on exposed rock tops, faces, and fissures, we found such glories in abundance. I will say much more about the the 23 species of wildflowers we identified in a subsequent Great Blue Heron blog post. For now I offer one of my all time favorites, rue anemone, which grows ubiquitously from Alabama to southern Ontario. Here it is in its pure white splendor in two terrarium-like settings. First, peeking from a horizontal fissure on the lichen-covered face of a sandstone boulder. Below right it is flourishing on a moss draped rock lip of another boulder. Like so many of our spring ephemerals, rue anemone completes it annual life cycle in the forest understory before tree leaf-out and its associated deep shading.

Speaking of terrariums, the Canyon’s designated Boulder Gardens epitomize my finding a place theme. Nature exploits purchase where we observers may not expect it. Her lesson is quite simple. Life flourishes where it can; where the ingredients present opportunity. The barren sandstone boulder offered little initially beyond porous rock, oriented horizontally, in a humid temperate climate. Horizontal is crucial. Lichen and moss, the photos evidence, can grow on vertical surfaces. What horizontal assures is that organic litter from trees collects on the table-top. Dead and decaying moss and lichens accumulate, along with tree-origin litter and any other plant taking root atop the rock. Add mineral debris from the biological, chemical, and physical weathering of the rock surface. Horizontal keeps the products of all this action in-place. In aggregate, soil-forming processes eventually provide a medium for the rocky-top Boulder Gardens. How long did it take? I won’t hazard a guess. Yet I will simply ask, “What is time to a sandstone boulder?” In a very real sense, the plateau itself is little more than a soil-covered boulder top. Nature works magic… wonder and awe there for those who choose to discern it. The ingredients for a life well-lived are not in short supply.

The exposed ledge in the photo below, directly above the feeder stream, has little opportunity to build soil and support plant life beyond the moss carpeting it in green. Why little opportunity? Spring freshets and summer deluges even in this head-water drainage scour the rock of any organic or mineral material that accumulates between those run-off episodes.

Lessons from Nature — Universal Laws Apply

“Nature never breaks her own laws” (Leonard da Vinci some 500 years ago). I may not rise to the level of forensic naturalist (my term), yet I strive to understand the evidence she presents. My absolute favorite graduate course during my doctoral journey involved a kind of forensic sleuthing: Geomorphology, the study of the form of the Earth. Dr. Ernie Muller, a noted Syracuse University scientist (now deceased) who taught the course, viewed the form of the Earth more as poet and philosopher than cold, objective scientist. He employed passion to explain and inspire. He led us on field trips near Syracuse. We examined local relief and landform, and he asked us a simple question: “Why?” Each field visit required an essay describing what we had seen, and explaining “why.” What are/were the geology and geomorphic processes creating today’s expression of landscape form and function. He liked my essay on Green Lakes State Park enough to share it with the Park for use in interpretive literature.

Ernie lives on in what he inspired in me. I can only hope and pray that I have similarly touched others along my pathways since. I employ my Ernie Muller-enabled lens when I write these Great Blue Heron website posts. I do not intend for these to be scholarly mini-treatises, complete with citations and references. I write them, instead, to inspire appreciation and understanding of Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe… to encourage readers and fellow Nature enthusiasts to grasp Nature’s lessons for living, learning, serving, and leading. And to plant seeds for informed and responsible Earth stewardship. I see this particular essay as a catalyst for each of us to Find Our Place… in the web of our own life. A Place where, like Louis Bromfield in Pleasant Valley,  “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.”

Nature has infinite Places. The number of Places available for life, living, and thriving on just the 1.25 square miles at Cane Creek Canyon Preserve approaches incalculable… unknowable. What about in your life and enterprise. What can you learn from Nature? Are you advantaging the essential elements of Place where you have rooted or might yet root? Life flourishes where it can; where the ingredients present opportunity. Are you exploiting the opportunity afforded you… gifted to you?

May Nature inspire all that lies ahead for you.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Konza Prairie Nature Trail

Tallgrass prairie once covered a third of the continental US — 170 million acres, reduced now by 96 percent. Most of the remaining large-tract acreage lies in Kansas’s Flint Hills. Konza Prairie Biological Station covers a little less than 14 square miles. We hiked there Sunday February 11, 2018. After Saturday’s below zero windchill at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Sunday’s sunny and far less windy upper 20s to low 30s felt balmy.

Look to my The Nature of Exploiting — Making the Most of the Hand We’re Dealt blog post for additional reflections on the Konza hike, based on a unique sentry prairie crab apple we spotted along a limestone ledge:

I’ll keep this blog post more general, extolling the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe of a dormant season three-mile hike through an ecotype I had previously encountered only via photos and videos. I can now check that box, yet I must return when the landscape is in full growing season splendor! I had traveled to the Flint Hills to deliver two addresses to the 11th annual meeting of Kansas Natural Resources Professionals. Those professional interactions and an added two-day weekend sojourn into the prairie fueled my passion for Nature and her lessons to even higher levels.

Air travel took us from Huntsville through Houston to Kansas City. Travel to and from Houston furnished bookend magic. Northbound from Houston, sitting at a left-side window, I photographed the setting sun:

Returning to Houston early morning five days later, sitting once again at a left-side window, I photographed the rising sun:

Uncanny that the images are so nearly identical! If this were one of those paired images that challenge us to find five differences, I would fail. As I offer final edits to this post, I felt compelled to check my iPhone to ensure that I had not somehow inserted the same photo twice. No, the first shows Wednesday evening; the second Monday morning. Again, bookend magic! So, Nature bears gifts of all manner. Judy and I enjoyed both shows. We may have been the only ones on either flight to inhale Nature’s free light show!

Saturday as we left Manhattan southbound on Route 177, we stopped at the hilltop pull-over for Konza. Below zero wind chill and clouds greeted our brief exit from the warm car:

Sunday’s visit to Konza’s interior trails warmed our hands, faces, and hearts. We embraced Sunday’s balmy beauty:

As we parked, nine white-tail deer grazed in nearby meadows. As we completed our circuit traversing the prairie highlands, we heard lots of turkey-talk in the gallery forest (trees lining a creek in a prairie) ahead of us. Two distinct gobblers sounded above the clatter. As we turned along a bluff, we could at last peer into the bottom-land, counting at least 20 turkeys scratching and foraging for acorns in the litter. We stayed as invisible as possible, moving along without disturbing them. I did not want to risk spooking them — thus no photos. Just as we had seen Saturday at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, we saw northern harriers hunting low over the Konza Prairie, perhaps two to seven feet above the grass, weaving against the wind searching for small mammals.

When we return on a future trip during the growing season, I want to find a ledge, sit in patient embrace, and watch these beautiful predators seek nourishment. We’ve all heard the old wisdom… that where we stand depends upon where we sit. To me, the harriers express nobility, strength, power, awe, and absolute beauty. The small mammals of the prairie see otherwise: the shadow of death; savage talons; constant danger; fear; terror. Yet such is the way of Nature.

A few hundred feet before we entered the gallery, an old bur oak carcass stood duty trail-side. Its tremendous crown, still impressive several years after death, must have witnessed at least a couple centuries of prairie seasons. It will stand decades more, until the forces of decay, wind, gravity, insects, and other agents reduce it into the soil, on which its original acorn found anchorage and drew sustenance. I am made small by both its majesty and its mass. As Nature so often generates within me, I felt staggering humility even as I am lifted by glorious inspiration.

Eastern red-cedar is Kansas’ only native evergreen tree. I have lived in seven Eastern USA states and Ohio, all where the species is native. Across its eastern range, cedar grows in columnar form, often 2-4 times taller than wide. What a surprise, then, for me to find red-cedar in these Kansas prairies to be wider than tall, a form we saw throughout the Flint Hills:

I have not taken time to dig into the cause of this regional phenotype. I’ll venture a guess. The persistent open prairie winds advantage a wider base, keeping center of gravity low, and vulnerability to wind-breakage reduced. I’ll delay a verifiable explanation for another day.

We’ve lived in seven of the nation’s eleven most heavily forested states. The forests of our resident familiarity are fully-stocked, closed-canopied, and of deeply shaded forest floor. As I prepared for my presentations, I learned that Kansas has 5.2 million acres of forests. Only upon visiting, talking with many conference participants, and reading in greater depth about the Kansas forest, did I appreciate that this state’s forest acreage includes wind-breaks and the above-described gallery forests. In no way does that revelation diminish my appreciation for the prairie land nor for the exhilarating landscape and ecosystem of the Flint Hills. Here’s the creek and its associated gallery forest.

Nature’s magic, beauty, awe, and wonder are always within reach. Our three-mile hike rewarded us at every turn. We know to Believe in the magic within each of Nature’s special places. Because we believe it is there, we find it. We have conditioned ourselves to Look, and we know only that by looking, will we See. And we know that when we see, we will Feel Nature’s wisdom and power. And only when we feel, will we be compelled to Act… to embrace our obligation to steward this One Earth… to change some small corner of the world for the better through knowledge, wisdom, and hard work.

The Nature of Exploiting… Making the Best of the Hand We’re Dealt!

We’ve heard many times the old adage that we must play the hand we’re dealt. Because we’ve made 13 interstate moves over our married years, we’re often asked, “Which place did you like best?” We have a stock answer, one we earnestly believe and have little trouble answering: “We have always preferred the place where we happened to be.” Granted, each location is one we chose to accept and embrace as career progressed. Here’s a quick chronology with mileposts of our journey:

  • Cumberland, MD
  • Syracuse, NY
  • Franklin, VA (then Sedley, VA — an intrastate move)
  • Savannah, GA
  • Prattville, AL
  • Manlius, NY
  • State College, PA
  • Auburn, AL
  • Cary, NC
  • Fairbanks, AK (we maintained a condo in Wexford, PA near our son Matt and his family)
  • Urbana, OH
  • West Chesterfield, NH
  • Madison, AL
  • Fairmont, WV (six-month temporary)
  • Madison, AL (not counting as another because we never permanently left)

Again, we selected each location; we chose to bloom where we were planted. We considered ourselves place-committed. In contrast, we’ve met too many people who strike us as place-bound. Who lament the rain; the snow; the heat; the cold; the wind; the remoteness; the crowding; the shopping; you name it. I suppose that we are half-full people; our glass is never half-empty. I could look out over Big Blue Lake and see only the houses. Instead, I prefer focusing on the water, its diverse fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds:

I know that my own career-nomadic life in early 21st Century America is fortunate… blessed with choices. Few global citizens can choose. At least not so easily as we. February 10 and 11, we toured the Flint Hills in Kansas. A cut-metal hilltop sculpture welcomed us to Council Grove, depicting 19th Century settlers making a far more arduous relocation along the Santa Fe Trail:

And perhaps many of these same families had already crossed the Atlantic from their European homes. Prior nomads had likewise seasonally crossed these tallgrass prairies in search of sustenance, temporary quarters, and life energy:

 

A Non-Mobile Opportunist

Now, imagine that some small ground-burrowing mammal had enjoyed the bitter fruit of a prairie crab apple, and scarified the hard seed coat through its digestive system. Then standing alert on a limestone outcrop, the ground squirrel deposited the seed and its fecal accompaniment serendipitously at a fissure atop the ledge. The seed might have managed much better in a more fertile setting, yet the small crack provided protection from crows that may have pounced had it been exposed. The seed germinated, having been dealt what I gauged (upon my initial assessment) to be a pretty lousy hand. Yet, Nature has been dealing poor hands to many generations of prairie crab apples. A seed lucky enough to secure purchase on deep and fertile soil in the open would simply not have survived the first fire (a prairie certainty) to sweep across the prairie. Far better to root on the rock:

A bird couldn’t reach the seed; fires burned less intensely across the spartan ledge-rock prairie vegetation. I’m guessing (yes, I admit it’s a wild guess) this specimen has seen a century or more of tallgrass seasons. It’s made the most of what I call at least a questionable hand, if not outright lousy. This tree couldn’t relocate, but it did manage the next best thing. It sent out a scouting party — roots that dipped into the crevasse, and reached deeper soil.

Root exploitation and now brute force (widening the fissure) serve the tree beautifully! The fibrous, moisture- and nutrient-gathering fine roots reach into moist and reasonably fertile soil beneath and below the rock. The best of all worlds, I suppose.

 

A quick geology side-trip. An interpretive sign diagrams the pancake strata of limestone, chert/flint, and shale that underlie and shape these Flint Hills. Limestone strata are the most resistant. Hence limestone ledges run their contour where they intersect the side slopes (see the cross section upper right).

Other crab apples make a living along the outcrop ledge, but none thrive like this individual. As I write these words, I’m shifting my assessment. No lousy hand for this crab. This perspective just struck me with yet another trump card dealt this fateful seed. As I’ve already noted:

  • Seed dropped with a dose of natural fertilizer
  • Into a fissure sufficient to protect it from avian marauders
  • With enough substrate to germinate
  • And send roots down to underlying soil
  • Elevated above the reach of periodic grass fires

Add a new one — out of easy reach of whitetail deer. We saw nine the Sunday morning we hiked the Konza Prairie Trail, just eight miles from Manhattan, KS, home of Kansas State University. This view west along the ledge shows both the density of woody vegetation and the superior, deer-resistant position of our hero.

Had the small mammal deposited our crab apple seed here (the open prairie photo below), multiple natural forces would have doomed it. Such is one reason why crab apples produce far more than the one seed it takes to grow one new offspring. Even if the seed on this upland prairie had germinated, it would not have reached an age/size to flower and bear fruit. Counter to my lousy-hand original assessment, our heroine may continue bearing fruit for decades to come. She (crab apples bear perfect flowers — male and female on every tree) has all that a prairie crab apple might wish to have. Although her height is suppressed by the rather harsh exposure, the tree does not need to reach far for full sunlight. Nothing nearby is competing for the solar gift. And another favorable attribute — this stretch of ledge faces south, well below the concordant prairie hill summit elevation, a lee position sheltered from howling northerly and westerly winds. What more than a long life, a great view, firm anchorage, ample nutrition and moisture, and protection from adversity could any of us hope to secure?!

So, what is Nature’s lesson. First, as in life and enterprise, what seems apparent upon first glance isn’t necessarily so. Even as a student of applied ecology, I leaped to seeing this rock-bound crab apple as having been given a raw deal. But not so fast — he’s living the good life! I began this blog post in my head even as we stood by this rock-top sentry, thinking it a lesson for persevering under adversity. Yet here in the comfort of my office, examining the photos, and reflecting on this individual, I have switched gears.

I see two levels of beauty, magic, wonder, and awe in this resolute prairie crab apple. The first dimension is purely aesthetic — a full-crowned tree/shrub standing astride a rock. The second level is hidden within the secret of its success. Think about the remarkable alignment of favorable site factors that enable this tree to stand as a symbol for the exquisite opportunism hard-wired in Nature.

Do you know what remarkable potential lies hidden within you and your enterprise? Do you focus on what at first glance seems a lousy hand? Or do you consider what might be… and strive to secure firm footing, satisfaction, and a long, productive, and vibrant life? Are you choosing to bloom where you’re planted? Nature is an opportunist — are you?

I even choose my attitude — life is too fleeting, fragile, and short not to choose upbeat! Although I certainly have always taken what I do seriously, I refuse to take myself with other than a sense of joy and lightness. As we approached trail’s end, we passed the shell of a long-dead snag. We chose to be framed on the Konza Prairie Trail!

Life is GOOD!

Spring’s Mid-February Harbingers

I write these words and reflections on a damp Saturday afternoon (February 17, 2018). Yesterday’s dawn temperature, a balmy 65 degrees, yielded to showery and drizzly upper-40s by noon, courtesy of a cold frontal passage. This morning the front backed our way with more light rain and drizzle, dragged northward by a strengthening low pressure system tracking eastward through Tennessee and Kentucky. Yet another cool front will follow tonight. We are in the transition season — a tug-of-war between winter and spring, a competition that spring will ultimately win.

Over the past week, up to two-dozen hooded mergansers have returned to Big Blue Lake, on schedule with what we observed last February. They’ll depart before March exits. Robins have found dawn voice. Killdeer have joined the robins, and continue to call day-long as they fly over the water and from shore to shore. We’ve seen two pairs of bluebirds at our feeders. And finally, the seminal spring bellwether, the voice of spring peepers, has sounded.

Spring travels northward at approximately 100 miles per week; and it ascends vertically at some 800 feet per week. I noticed our native red maple flowers opening (giving the entire tree a reddish cast) just two days ago. I took all of the photos in this post within the past hour.

I suppose that last week red maple had opened flowers in the Birmingham vicinity. Next week we could see the same evidence near Nashville, Tennessee.

Lawns are sprouting wild onions, shooting slender, tubular sprouts above the still quite-dormant Bermuda grass.

I’ve seen lyre-leaved rock cress’ bashful, pale white flowers and delicate, deeply-lobed basal greens (below) in disturbed areas along with whitlow-grass and chickweed, likewise with non-showy tiny white blooms. These are the early spring vanguard; spring’s full frontal assault will follow in two-to-four weeks.

Ornamental flowering plants won’t be long — daffodils are poking leaves and swelling buds through mulch. Our Rose Creek Abelia are sporting new leaves.

Pete Seeger penned the lyrics to Turn! Turn! Turn!, adopting them from Ecclesiastes:

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

And so it is with our seasonal ebbs and flows, whether in Alabama’s Tennessee River Valley, along the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska, or near the Ashuelot River in southwestern New Hampshire, all places, among others, where we have lived. Likewise, we have metaphorical seasons of our lives, romances, friendships, and enterprises. Nature prompts us to observe and learn from the patterns, purpose, and signals.

Learn so that you might harness Nature’s wisdom and power. Recall, too, what Leonardo da Vinci observed half-a-millennium ago:

“Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.” The seasons of all things abide by lessons of meaning, merit, and purpose… as should your life, vocation, and avocation.

Beaverdam Swamp at Wheeler NWR — Nature versus Boardwalk

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kansas Annual Natural Resource Conference

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Concurrent Session:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beaverdam Swamp at Wheeler NWR — Dormant Season Beauty

One arm of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge extends north from the Tennessee River to I-565, just three miles from our daughter Katy’s home. January 31, Judy and I retrieved  local grandsons Jack and Sam from their respective schools to hike the two-mile round trip at Beaverdam Swamp, returning them to Katy’s as dusk settled. Temperature nearly 60, we enjoyed a spring-like walk in the deeply dormant hardwood bottom-land. The trail-head is within 300 feet of the Interstate. Thick forest soon muted the traffic cacophony as we headed south at 90 degrees to the highway.

Fittingly, Jack shared with us that day’s fourth grade lessons, which focused on Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, and Rachel Carson. A perfect alignment with our venture into this small appendage to the Refuge’s 35,000 acres. The trail begins in a mature upland forest, heavy to oak and peppered with a few large loblolly pines. We graded ever-so-slowly into true bottom-land. Our gravel surface yielded to boardwalk as we entered the persistently wet tupelo swamp:

These are rich sites, with deep, fertile soils, periodically refreshed by frequent overflow of the nearby stream and the Tennessee River. Many main canopy trees from trail-head to the creek-side terminus reach 100-plus feet. On the uplands (I use the term generously; the higher ground may be only ten feet elevation above swamp level), some oaks meet the description of ‘mighty.’ Large diameter; towering boles; wide-spreading crowns. The tupelo likewise presented impressive dimensions (I must confess, I snapped this bright-sunshine photo along the same path a couple weeks prior):

Many tupelo evidenced their advanced age via hollow trunks, tops dropped, and visible fungal fruiting bodies:

I find special beauty in the winter season hardwood forests. The crown geometry expresses the ongoing reach for light. The intricate patterns are species-determined, yet each design is driven by common purpose — capturing sunlight in service to the leafy factories. The Adaptive Geometry of Trees (Henry S, Horn, 1971) is an exquisite study of the species-dictated branching patterns and designs. Summer’s foliage masks the intriguing crown structure. As I’ve often penned, we need not search far in Nature to detect the beauty, magic, wonder, and awe that lie hidden within.

The sun kissed the horizon as we found rest at the far terminus, creek-side:

While there, we appreciated that the sun still illuminated the crowns above us:

Please take note of how different the two photos appear. Judy and the boys seem to sit in rather bleak semi-light, while the sky above retains its blue and the branches bask in the day’s final rays.

I suppose this, too, offers a lesson worthy of record. Nature’s faces are many. We can choose to see only the approaching darkness… or we can rejoice in the majesty of the moment. Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago observed, “Nature is full of infinite causes that have never occurred in experience.” He is suggesting that she offers a face for every occasion, and reminds us that over the vast sweep of time, Nature has faced all manner of situations and has the ‘experience’ to handle more than we might imagine.

I have also pointed out often that we need not visit Yellowstone or Denali National Park to experience Nature’s inspiration or feel the deep humility that she can place in our hearts. We started our hike pounded by Interstate noise. We quickly left the debilitating crescendo behind to find an oasis of peace, tranquility, and cathedral essence. I wonder how many of those drivers hurtling east and west realized what was so near at hand. The answer, I admit, is a near-zero. They are blind… oblivious to the wondrous Nature that lies within reach.

They do not know or believe that they could discover treasure so close to home. Nor do they Look or See. I shudder to think how many were also still connected to the deadly force of digital distraction. So sad. Yet I also remind myself of Aldo Leopold’s wisdom, “Conservation of all wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish, one must see and fondle. And when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.” Still, I find little solace that so few cherish this Wheeler treasure.

I pray that Sam and Jack will carry an embrace of Nature throughout their lives… that the seed we are planting will eventually bear fruit. We want to make sure that they never suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder. Many have asked me, “Why did you move to northern Alabama?” A photo is worth a thousand words of explanation!

My life is, and will always be, Nature-Inspired!

Frozen Wheeler Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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