Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Walk In Snowy Woods

We have different thoughts in snow.
It's a peaceful time, somehow, and we have peace thoughts.
It's also a contemplative time. Relax, have insights, make plans.

Yesterday, December 10th 2016, we had worked to improve the ecosystem's health. During the night, bonfire coals slowly burned down. Today they are still hot.
Yesterday's bonfire consumed scores of invasive pole trees.
Now the light-loving "swamp white oaks" along this stream will be able to reproduce.
Now blue-spotted salamanders, woodcocks, and white-footed mice
will have more plants (and prey) to eat.
Coyote tracks are everywhere. The woods seem chill and empty, but the coyote tracks say different. They eat the white-footed mice, squirrels, and rabbits - so much more common now that the oak woodland is recovering from the excess shade.
How do we know this is a coyote track? Three clues are decisive. Deer tracks would show
two hoof prints. These, even in the fluffy snow, show the five pads and a couple of claw prints. How do we know it's not a pet dog? Because there are no human tracks yet, and at Somme
dogs always come with their people. 

At least two coyotes had been most everywhere we walked. Their tracks told many stories. Very often (as shown below) their separate trails came together and the second coyote walked exactly in the footprints of the first, for a while.

Here the tracks cross the cold remains of a burn pile from last year.
It takes a few years before the burn scar vanishes into the ecosystem.
But what is that streak of pastel color we notice?
Urine and blood, apparently. Is the coyote sick? 
Loving the ecosystem has its challenges. We can't deny, we love the trees, we love the birds and rabbits in their clever hides. We love the coyotes. But if we love the coyotes, do we root for them to kill the rabbits and voles? It doesn't make emotional sense to hope the rabbits get away and hope the coyotes catch them. Do we want to bring sick wild animals to vets to cure diseases and wounds? We want to learn to love nature for nature. So, we love the rabbit, but we also appreciate the fact that the coyote eats some of them.

Many parts of Somme Woods have large numbers of downed logs. The coyotes like to use our trails, but their tracks often detour over to logs to check for hiding food. (We also found old brush piles, that some people would say should have been burned long ago, and other people would say should be retained for wildlife. But we saw no tracks around any of them, not rabbit, not mouse, not coyote.)

We found what looked like skunk or opossum tracks and followed them as they disappeared briefly under logs and into holes in old tree trunk. When we finally found the animal, it was indeed a possum. Whatever will it find to prey on in all this snow?

This cutie-pie "played possum" while Eriko Kojima slowly moved in to take this photo
 from about a foot away. Seems like a miracle that it can survive Illinois winters.
We quickly and quietly moved away to let it be. 

This downed and sectioned snag is a casualty of November's prescribed fire. It had been in flames, and the burn crew cut it down to put it out. (A standing burning snag is nearly impossible to extinguish.) Letting it burn would have been best, ecologically, but the spectacle was visible from a busy road, and complaints would have been a major headache. Old dead trees are good habitat and good for the woods. We try to protect them by raking around them before burns.

Downed trees catch fire also, under some conditions. Too many of them make the burns difficult; putting them out wastes time; there are too few people to get as much burning done as is good for nature. Public education should make some of these problems easier over time.

Linda Masters stopped by the Big Tree. This bur oak is probably well over 300 years old. Compared to this tree, the United States of America is a youngster. This fall, the trunk had a big "chicken of the woods" mushroom growing out of it (surviving now as a pale blob in the middle of the trunk, about a foot over Linda's head). The oak won't live forever. No young bur oaks are anywhere near by. It's been too dark for this species - the most light-lovingest tree of them all - to have had a single successful seedling in this part of the woods for (human) generations. We resolve to help it out.

Shrubs are crucial 
to many types of birds 
and other wildlife. 
Many shrub species 
being lost from most woods. 
We recently 
have increased efforts 
to plant, cage, and pamper 
wild plum, hazel nut, 
black haw, nine bark, 
and others - 
as we have helped out 
many animal 
and other plant species 
that are now back 
and holding their own 
at Somme.

To our surprise, Travis Kaleo added wahoo shrubs to our Somme Woods plant inventory. Eriko marked these with ribbons so we could find them in the winter, to cut excessive shade away for the next growing season, to cage some from the deer if necessary, and to protect them from future fires until they have recovered a healthy population.

Snow time.
A good time for stewards of nature.
Like all times.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Ecological Peace Prize

Who makes peace with nature?
What would it mean?

Is the deerslayer a murderer or a pacifist?
When someone else has killed every
wolf and bear and lion …
when as the poet says,
the mountain is afraid of its deer …
does the deerslayer deserve her prize?

What trees do they cut?
New forests mown down to their nubs …
does she deserve her prize as well?

Sprayers of poison, pullers of defenseless weeds,
strikers of the match that kindles the fires
that blacken all they catch … are they noble?

For tallgrass nature
with one one-hundredth of one percent left on planet Earth,
is it not time to sign the treaty?

Who makes peace with nature?

Whatever will it mean?

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Fall In The Tallgrass

Now comes the most engaging season in the tallgrass wilderness.
It's a time of flowers, seeds - and falling back in grass and looking at the sky.
Then we brandish saws to slay the brush and transform it into bonfires
that sometimes cook our food.
It's a rich, easy, splendid time to be in nature.
Few bugs, little heat and humidity, deep colors, the threat of impending winter.
Hurry! Come out and join us!
We love fall for all these reasons. And there are better reasons too. 
Some of our most beautiful flowers bloom in early fall.
We're enriched by them. But we are drawn to seeds. We need plant embryos 

to restore health to more nature.
Plums and grapes once attracted the eyes of foxes, bears, and people. They still attract our eyes. 
Not enough animals these days move plum pits where they're needed. 
So we do. And plums multiply. 
Sometimes kids join in. They are natural in nature. This photo, if I remember right, 
shows prairie pioneers whose recent backgrounds are in Asia, Africa, and South America. 
It makes no difference. Nature beckons every kid - as well as the kid in us. 
A handful of woodland puccoon seeds means "instant rare plant - restored" to an area that needs it. Our lives deserve more that makes us feel this good.  
A prairie dock leaf frames stems of Indian grass, smooth blue aster,
and purple prairie clover bearing seeds. We take in all - but go for the seeds. 

As we harvest, we connect with pasts - from hunter-gatherers to pioneer farmers.
We feel by turns empowered, meditative, companionable, alone in deep nature. 
Then comes seed prep. To prepare these treasures for planting is a kind of agricultural foreplay.
It is magic. The seeds delight our eyes and fingers, complete time capsules of next year's life. 
For many, the onset of brush bashing is a time of celebration. Buckthorn is an enemy easily understood, and readily defeated by mighty stewards.
The threat is obvious here. Bright fall colors mark the oaks, elms, and hickories. Buckthorn stays green and usurps the entire understory so little else can grow. A bully, it must go. 
We celebrate work with food. Life is good. In many senses. 
All of us prepare for winter in our own ways. 
This garter snake will now go underground to an "hibernaculum" with others of its kind.
This hazelnut bush turns colors as it prepares for winter by sending most of the energy and nutrients of its leaves down into its roots, to wait for spring. It also inspires to protect it from the deer, and from fire, until ready to stand on its own. We stewards have work to do. 

Modern seeds prepare for winter by inspiring us to transport them
to future habitats. Then they'll lie in wet ground going through age-old changes,
waiting for the light and warmth of a new year. 
In fall, much rots. Decomposition and renewal sweep away the past, 
providing opportunities for the future. 
This is true for people and nature. 
In late November and early December come the fires.
They are another form of decomposition and renewal. We need and rejoice in them too. 
All through September through December, we rejoice in our prairies and woodlands. The Somme team's schedule is at Or find a group near you in your local park or preserve.

Photo credits 
Well, gosh, I don't even know who took them all. The splendid fringed gentian was almost certainly taken by the great (and recently married) Lisa Culp Musgrave. Most of the others are probably mine, although I notice that I'm in at least one, so I didn't take that. If you see a photo of yours here, please tell me so I can give you credit.

Most of these photos are from Somme. The grass-sprawled boys as well as the line of seeders are from the Orland Grassland. The fat snake is from Deer Grove East. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Secret Life of a Shape-Shifting Weed (Solidago nemoralis)

I wondered why I had a peculiar love for
this humble plant. Sometimes, when we feel
emotions, it takes time to figure out why.

If you’re working to save ecosystems – 
sometimes a seemingly insignificant plant or animal pops out of the background and begs for attention. Maybe some important secrets are lurking in that overlooked species.

A little elf-capped cutie 
(gray goldenrod - Solidago nemoralis
did that for me recently. It was behaving
strangely.  I had been slow to notice.

I’m the steward of Somme Prairie Grove. 
What stewards think can change the ecosystem. 
A steward learning something new
 – and acting on it –
can make the difference between life or death
for hundreds of species of now-rare
animals and plants.

Stewards in training, Andrew, Josh, and Stephanie are thinking about gray goldenrod with me.
(Note the "insignificant" little yellow flower-heads, scattered in the grass behind them.)
It takes a village (of thinkers) to manage a delicate ecosystem as well as it deserves.
More about what these stewards are thinking comes later in this post. 
What was it – about this shrimpy goldenrod??? Yes, it is perky and has an adorable little "elf cap" top. But there's got to be more to love than that.

It's a little tyke. Not even coming up to your knee.
So what's so great about it?
Gray goldenrod glows with health toward the end of the year, when many species are looking moth-eaten and faded. As with the gentians and asters, its blooms mean cooler weather – the flowery grand finale of the growing season. But I don't fall in love with all asters and goldenrods.

Walking through Somme Prairie Grove last week, I decided rashly to drop the "more important" work I was doing and think about this plant.

Is this species increasing or decreasing under our restoration efforts? If so, is that good, or bad, or what? Is it a weed and thus will decrease if we're doing the right stuff? Many field guides call it "old-field goldenrod" and list its habitat as beat-up sterile pastures. It’s largely absent from many older “restored” prairies.

But its habitat in the recovering grassland at Somme Prairie Grove includes many of the very "best" spots.

A quick check revealed my new love to be flourishing in a few small areas - but completely gone from most areas where it had been common decades ago. Some spots where it has disappeared are grasslands where we have worked the hardest - and seemed to be among our best. Is something going wrong that we haven't recognized?

Gray goldenrod was common here, as our records show. Now it's entirely gone
from this and some other plots, where we've especially focused "restoration" efforts.  
We had seeded very heavily in some of the areas where the gray goldenrod was once common. In the case of the area shown above, we now have dense dropseed grass and purple prairie clover blooming in August - but little blooming in September. Dropseed and prairie clover are much rarer plants and are thought to be associated with higher quality habitats, so perhaps the loss of the "weedy" gray goldenrod shouldn't bother us?

Very high quality grasslands are diverse and flowery all season long. That's the "pink of their cheeks." Bright color all season long indicates health. Most of the animals and plants of conservation concern depend on a habitat of high diversity, not just a few rare dominant species. Is it possible that a few highly competitive rare species are, over time, increasing and wiping out the diversity we're trying to restore?

But in other areas, where we'd seeded with a lighter hand (see photo below), we not only have lots of gray gold, but also increasing numbers of such rare and fine species as prairie gentian, cream indigo, alumroot, and scarlet painted cup.

Here gray goldenrod grows with purple prairie clover, dropseed grass,
 lead plant, and other diverse, quality species.  
But when I looked more carefully, I seemed to see something troubling in the highly diverse areas where the gray goldenrod still grew. Here we had thinly broadcast seed of the rarer species most typical of high quality grasslands. Most of the dropseed plants were still young and small. But where they were dense, the gray goldenrod (and perhaps much other diversity) was gone. Not good.

This photo, in one of the highly diverse areas, is troubling. The middle of the photo is dense dropseed grass
(with fine leaves that look a bit like seaweed or unruly hair). Around the edges of this dense grass are hundreds of gray goldenrods. But the dropseed, which seems to eliminate the gray gold and much else where it's dense, will be dropping large amounts of its own seed, all around, year after year. Are the days of diversity numbered here?
Is our gray goldenrod a "mine canary?" Does its loss represent an easy-to-see trend that we need to better understand? In fact, could that explain my strong feelings for our dwindling numbers of little elf caps?

One way to test that hunch was to compare
what I was seeing here with one of the region's finest prairies, Somme Prairie Nature Preserve, less than a mile to the west.

So, as I often do, I made the pilgrimage
to quality - to see what it might tell me.
I have too much data in my head. I really couldn't remember whether gray goldenrod was in the Grade A areas.

I wondered. Were the books right about this species being most typical of old fields? Or does it have a "split personality" which allows it to thrive in old fields with rank weeds and - unlike all those weeds - also thrive in the highest quality prairie? As I approached the Grade A area, I felt the chill of suspense!

Yes! In the very high quality prairie, I saw gray goldenrod by the thousands.

I was thrilled to see the little darling thriving by the thousands among the rarest prairie plants. It can compete with weeds, and it can compete with the best of the best. But the message for our restoration work was clear. It can't compete in some areas that we thought were great. Gray goldenrod is a part of our "mentor" prairie, and its loss at some of "the best" areas at Somme Prairie Grove should lead us to ask questions, form hypotheses, and test them out. 

That afternoon I hiked the preserve with some people who are working to develop their expertise as stewards. We discussed many species and issues during that 2-hour session. At one stop, where for some reason I was inspired to take the photo below, we discussed gray gold.  

Remember Andrew, Josh, and Stephanie? I emailed to ask them what they remembered of our discussion at that place. Here's some of what they wrote back (slightly edited, so it might read as a dialog):

Andrew Van Gorp: You spoke about how most people in the field consider Gray Goldenrod to be a "somewhat weedy" native plant. Originally, it was all over the Somme Prairie Grove, but as the restoration progressed you began to notice that the Gray Goldenrod dwindled and only stayed around in areas where high quality plants were growing. 

Josh Coles: You went to Somme Prairie to test your hypothesis and found the gray goldenrod in all the greatest places. Someone asked about the Indian grass around us - and if it was a problem. You pointed out that in the gray goldenrod areas the Indian grass is thin, seems to be in check, and we can see right through it to the ground. Thus seedlings have a chance to thrive. 

Stephanie Place: We were standing near a little hillside that was notable for having less-dense tall grasses.  The ground was quite visible, and a healthy diversity of native plants was able to grow amongst it. This was in comparison to the areas of exceedingly dense and uniform Indian Grass that we'd just passed through. So you were talking about using the presence of the Gray Goldenrod as a cue to plant more conservative seed in that spot.

Andrew Van Gorp: We know for sure that some management techniques make large lasting differences - like culling over-populated deer or controlled burns. But we need to study interactions and phenomena to develop more advanced techniques, if we are to keep nature healthy. It may take a long time.

Yes, I pretty much agree. That's a good summary.

As the responsibilities and pleasures of being a steward pass from one generation to the next, we will continue to learn newer and better approaches. If we can recognize "symptoms" (like the presence of gray goldenrod) and match them with treatments (like investing conservative seed where they grow), then maybe we gradually improve at restoring health to small ecosystems (like Somme Prairie Grove) and, in time, to planet Earth, so we can maintain it as happily livable for us and our ecosystem friends.
pretty much

PS:  More detail on some of these issues is at:

PPS:  If you want to be sure whether you seeing gray goldenrod or some look-alike, the best character is the leaf shape. (Some truly weedy, unhelpful goldenrods may also be short and have the "elf-cap" look.) Gray goldenrod leaves are widest toward the end. They have kind of a fatter end. Subtle? To train your eye, see the photo below.

Tall Goldenrod                                                                              Gray Goldenrod
kind of a weed                                                                                  shape-shifter
widest in middle                                                                      widest toward the end

PPPS: I wonder if one of the experiments we should be doing with the restoration of degraded remnants is to seed initially with some of the less dominant conservatives ... and hold off until later with the dropseed, lead-plant, New Jersey tea, and other potentially over-dominant species. Hmmmm. I suppose that would mean coming up with a list of what those favored species are.