The Cusp of Fall

Though I work in the outdoors at all times of the year, autumn is my favorite season; summer is my least.  After a week of mornings with doors open and air conditioning off, I believe we are at the turning of the temperature tide. Although the heat index briefly rallied a final time, the sun is in full retreat southward.

That’s not to say that summer is altogether evil!  As a season, it has much to offer.  But, having lived most of my adult life in the outdoor sauna that is southern Georgia, northern Florida, and Louisiana, I can be forgiven for thinking that one of autumn’s virtues is in succeeding summer, just as spring’s chief fault is in giving way to it.

I post this on the Autumnal Equinox, the official start of fall.  Having now gained elevation and latitude since the last time I discussed this date, I am pleased to be in a place where “First Day of Autumn” may mean something more than just a promise on a calendar.

In a week or two, leaves will begin to turn.  The air will grow crisp.  Old bucks will overindulge on hormones, losing their wits and their guile.  Some creatures will go to earth, others will take to the sky.  And I will quietly immerse myself in the season, and hope to use well the restless energy that always rises as the leaves fall.

When autumn came, he knew that part at least of his heart would think more kindly of journeying, as it always did at that season. – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Box Turtles: Shy Ambassadors

Eastern box turtles.

I’ve seen several of these unobtrusive critters in the past month, so I ought to spend a moment talking about them.  We’ve had quite a bit of rain here lately, and turtles move more after rain. 

Box turtles are easily identified by their high, domed carapace (top shell). The plastron (bottom shell) has a unique feature: a hinge.  When threatened, all terrestrial turtles can pull their limbs and head in to gain protection from their shells. But box turtles go a step further by raising the hinged portion of the plastron, completely enclosing the head and front legs.

The box turtle looks and acts like a land-dwelling tortoise but is more closely related to pond turtles. You might see them in puddles or shallow creeks on occasion, but box turtles aren’t swimmers and can drown if they go in over their heads.  

Box turtles are omnivores, eating grass, mushrooms, berries, earthworms, insects, slugs, and suchlike.  Immature turtles tend to be more carnivorous, as young creatures often are – it’s the best way to get the protein they need to grow.

It’s possible to tell the sex of a box turtle with some basic observation. The male generally sports a brighter coloration than the female, although there is enough individual variation to make this method of sex determination unreliable.  Male eyes tend to be red, while those of a female are brown; again, there is variation. 


A more reliable method is to look at the back of the shell.  The female’s shell is more domed and higher than the male’s.  This may require looking at a few shells to get the hang of it, but it is an accurate method. Finally, if you have the turtle in hand, you will see the plastron of the male is somewhat concave, rather than flat as with the female. 

Box turtles can breed anytime from late spring through early autumn. While there is courtship, they don’t bond, separating after mating. Most nests are produced in early summer.  A surprising fact is that females can store sperm for several years, waiting for favorable conditions before developing eggs.  When they are ready, the females dig shallow nests in the soil, deposit 1-8 eggs, and cover the nests in soil or leaves. They may lay more than one clutch in a season. Similar to other reptile species, temperature of the eggs determines the sex of the offspring.  After two to three months, the eggs hatch and the hatchlings, perhaps an inch or two long, make their way into the world.

That brings me to the little tyke I saw last week.  I noticed what looked like a dirt clod wobbling past my wheelbarrow.  It was too small to close its shell (which was too thin to give much protection anyway); for the first few years, not being seen it its best defense.   After inspecting it for a few minutes, I removed the wee thing from the wide open clay yard to the safety of the leaf mould just off in the woods. 

Will it make it through the winter?  Between predators, fire ants, and inclement weather, the first year’s odds are stacked against a young box turtle.  If it reaches maturity (5-10 years), the turtle is likely to keep going for decades with few worries outside human-related mortality.  I’ve seen turtles killed by plows, dogs, and cars; on hot summer days, it’s possible for a turtle to cook to death trying to cross an asphalt road.  But if it avoids the hazards and finds enough slugs and bugs, perhaps our paths will cross in a decade as it searches for a like-minded turtle to tryst with.

If you wander the hardwood forests, you may come across an empty box turtle carapace.  Perhaps, like this example, your shell is shedding its keratin and leaving only bone. Did the turtle leave its shell to grow a bigger one, like a snake shedding its skin? I’m afraid not. Look inside; you will see the structure of the backbone along the inside of the dome. 

The bones extending from this structure are the modified ribcage, fused together into a protective dome.  A turtle can no more leave its shell behind than you can pull loose from your skeleton! 

For budding naturalists, box turtles are excellent creatures to experience up close. Spiders and snakes can be off-putting; birds, rabbits, and deer only allow a distant viewing.  Even water turtles will slide off their logs when approached.  But a box turtle is pretty mellow.  It will sit, wary but confident of its defenses, while you observe.  I met an environmental educator this week who said she likes to show kids the box turtle because it is the animal they are most likely to encounter in their backyards.  “To these kids,” she said, “box turtles are nature.”

Preaching to Deniers

Back in college, I had a friend that would believe pretty much anything nature-related I told him. I was the biologist-in-training, after all (I didn’t abuse that trust.  Honest).  When he asked if male white-tailed deer grew a new tine on their antlers every year, I explained how the bone of antlers is covered in fine fur and vascularized, growing from nubbins to full size in the space of half a year.  At that point, the soft tissue dries and is rubbed off, leaving the hard bone.  The antlers don’t grow any more, but stay on the deer’s head until well into winter, when they fall off.  Then the cycle starts anew, and the buck, now a year older, may well grow a larger set of antlers.

Fast forward a decade or so.  I was a biologist at some expo or another; the table was decked with bones, tortoise shells, snake skins, and other bits of natural detritus with which to engage the public in conversations about how cool nature is. A woman came by, looking with mild distaste at my display.  At last, she pointed at the shed antler I’d picked up in the woods.  “Did you kill that deer?” she demanded.  I launched into my spiel on the antler growth cycle with the enthusiasm of a young professional naturalist.  I ended my micro lecture with a verbal coda indicating how interesting I found the whole process.

“Uh-huh.”  Not the reaction I was expecting.  She clearly didn’t buy a word that I said, because I was certainly lying to cover up evidence of my Bambicide.  Nonplused, I showed her the burr, running my finger over the rough transitional surface where the antler detached from the pedicle on the buck’s head; it was obviously not sawn off a dead deer.  Still didn’t matter.  I felt the weight of her judging gaze as she proceeded to visit another table featuring less unsavory characters than government biologists like me.

Earlier this week, I was talking with someone about one aspect of my job: advocating for certain suites of native plant species, a process that often involves removing non-natives as well as native species of a different seral community.  I went on to say that forest thinning and regular regimes of prescribed burning are standard management tools in the southeastern US. Foresters and wildlife biologists are trying to create openings in forests to bring back endangered animals, but ironically those plans are halted by lawsuits from well-intentioned “nature lovers” who think all forests should be climax forests, and that any tree cutting was only for the profit of the timber industry.

My correspondent suggested, “Maybe the scientists could do some educational outreach and turn the nature lovers into volunteers. When folks understand the science, they become great advocates.”

Oh, one would believe so.  And don’t think we don’t do outreach.  Here’s a secret about biologists: we are often very knowledgeable introverts.  One of the things that draws us to a career in the outdoors is limited contact with people.  Further, a biologist often knows that a casual question from a visitor at a booth will have an answer that encompasses an hour’s lecture of foundational background, examples, and counter-examples.  They must mentally distill this into a 20-second soundbite that still sounds convincing to the layman. 

And even if we were all ecological advocates with the eloquence of Carl Sagan, delivery of the message is only half the battle.  The receiver still must accept it, and there are several barriers to overcome.

Let’s start with the power of emotion.  Emotion is immediate and viscerally satisfying, while one must be patient and discerning with facts.  I can point to a browse line and explain why humans must cull a deer herd, but weighed against a photo of a hunter-killed deer I may well lose the argument.  My coworkers can list the plant and animal species endemic to a longleaf savanna ecosystem, but can that compete with the image of the charred, barren forest floor that is periodically  necessary to preserve those species?

The next hurdle is the cognitive bias. Certain members of the public dismiss our voices, particularly in the last couple of decades.  Is it because they’ve been lied to by dishonest authorities? Because they’ve been trained by fringe news sources to assume anyone coming out of a university has a hidden agenda?  We can’t be certain of the reason, but the result – skepticism veering into denial – is evident.

Finally, there is the willingness to change.  This seems to be the highest hurdle.  The ability to change one’s opinion when presented with new facts seems as rare and as valuable as any superpower.  The shed-denier at the beginning of this essay is but one of many I’ve encountered in person or via social media. “I’m entitled to my opinion” is acceptable in matters of personal taste, but too many in today’s society take it to mean, “My ignorance is as valid as your specialized knowledge.”

If you are reading this, likely you are part of the choir I’m preaching to; you’re nodding because you’ve probably had run-ins with the arrogantly ignorant folks who believe their emotional opinion overrules your fact-based assertion. But if I am fortunate enough to capture a pair of fresh eyes linked to an open mind, please believe that I am not getting paid under the table by Big Timber.  My interest in nature began with reading about dinosaurs as a toddler and has never waned.  If I tell you something about the natural world, it’s what I believe to be true.

I have been around long enough to know there are no simple solutions.  Improving habitat for one species may be detrimental for another. One of the more difficult parts of a biologist’s job is to condense this knowledge into an elevator pitch that will enlighten someone who may be happier in the dark.

The Dance of Lights

Is a picture worth a thousand words? 

Depends on the picture, and the quality of the words. 

I lack the picture, and am not confident that the words will be adequate.  Nevertheless, here goes.

My wife and I took a weekend getaway in the northeast corner of Georgia, nestled in a small rental in a cove framed on three sides by green-mantled mountains.  The little cabin shared a fenced-in field with a barn and a couple acres of unmowed grass. Beyond the fence were other fields and other houses, some abandoned but most with more permanent residents than the sort our getaway hosted.  It was a pleasure to hear chickens rather than sirens, and to let the dogs out into the yard without a leash, confident that the rabbits and whistlepigs (as my wife’s people called groundhogs) had the sense to clear out before the hounds noticed them.

The sun had dipped below the nearest hills when we sat on the patio and ruminated in the still, cooling air.  Turns out, we were waiting for a spectacle we weren’t even expecting. 

We spotted the first flash a few minutes after sundown – a silent greenish spark, twenty yards distant among the branches of a black walnut.   It was followed a minute or so later by another brief glow farther down the treeline.  I enjoy seeing lightning bugs on summer evenings, and noted these as a part of the background, along with distant treefrogs and the occasional flash of heat lightning. 

Why is it easy to dismiss such a natural wonder?  A beetle that mixes biochemicals to create visible light with almost no heat?  A beetle that uses this visible signal to alert potential mates?  A beetle which flashes its bioluminescent lantern in a particular pattern to distinguish itself from the dozens of other firefly species in Georgia? A beetle whose numbers, like those of many insects, have dwindled in recent decades?  Watching a biochemical flare popping over every five or ten seconds was notable back home, but it wouldn’t hold my attention long.

Yet fifteen minutes later, I noticed that these fireflies were uncommonly active.  As the treetop silhouettes faded against the dimming sky, the light show ramped up, drawing us into the field for a clearer look.  By full-dark, I could look in any direction and see ten to twenty flashes per second. In the trees and above the tall grass, a multitude greenish sparks floated in the darkness.

My wife was awed; she said she had not seen such an intense display since her childhood in western North Carolina, before developers transformed the fields and orchards.  We watched the green sparks, like embers from a faerie fire, appear and vanish the blink of an eye. From beside our heads to two hundred yards away, they flared silently.

For the next night – our final night at the cabin – we determined to make best use of the only cameras we had: our phones.  But despite fiddling with the exposures on photos and video, the devices let us down.  They just weren’t sensitive enough to register the brief pinpoints flaring in the otherwise complete darkness. Out of many attempts, the best I scored was one photo with a few blurred green spots.  There was also a video of the female lightning bug that I plucked from the grass at my feet.  It crawled across my arm to the top of my head, strobing like it was overcaffeinated, before dropping back on the ground.  But without a good way to visually document the spectacle, we were left no option but to capture the moment as we do so many of life’s stolen moments: with the mind’s eye.

After a long while bearing witness to the dance of lights, the promise of an early morning made us to reluctantly retreat indoors.  I wonder if anyone in that little valley was appreciating the natural spectacle.  How often did those spending nights at the cabin turn off the television long enough to notice the show outside their window? 

Looking back, I can confirm that my words were inadequate.  But perhaps they will be enough to encourage you to seek out this natural light show in your own forest, field, or back yard.

Additional Resources:

A firefly fact sheet (pdf) from the Georgia Extension Service. Conservation and research information.

Pitcher Plant Bog

It’s morning in late April, and spring is in full swing in the southwestern corner of Georgia. The air is warm without being oppressive, but summer is too impatient a season for that state to last long. 

You stand in a broad, open woodland of longleaf and slash pines; a little crowded to be a proper savanna, but open enough to allow a rich mix of groundcover species. This land was clearcut in the 1940s, but unlike most of the land around it, it wasn’t converted to agriculture.  In fact, roughly a square mile (barely a postage stamp on the greater landscape) around this spot is protected as a state wildlife management area.  This is fortunate, for you get to see a remnant of this vanishing ecosystem in a more or less functional state.

When nature-watching, careful attentiveness to your surroundings is key.  A quick sweep of this woodland, and the casual observer sees a broad expanse of grasses broken here and there by clumps of shrubs.  But standing within that groundcover forces a change of perspective. One reason, of course, is that some of the more mobile denizens of the forest don’t appreciate being stepped on and will tell you so, painfully.  Others, more vulnerable, are unable to defend against a boot but still worthy of recognition and protection.  

Without close attention, you would have missed the fingernail-sized puff of pink on the ground between the deerberry and the wiregrass clump.  The sensitive brier has bipinnately compound leaves snap shut and droop suddenly when touched.  Perhaps this serves to startle herbivores or shake off leaf-munching insects, but also entertains a youth with woodwise curiosity. 

The flowers rising between grass clumps host wild bees and bright butterflies as they make the rounds; less noticeable are the beetles, flies and wasps that also sip the nectar in exchange for pollen transport.

Toothache grass

The change in elevation is too slight for a Piedmont hill-dweller to notice, but a close eye on the vegetation reveals it.  Wiregrass gives way to dropseed and toothache grass, and then to rushes.  In a matter of inches of height, the upland has become bog, and a new suite of plants surrounds you.

Looking down, you spot tiny reddish spots the size of a quarter, obscured by pine needles.  These are sundews, which catch and digest insects on their sticky rosette leaves.  Your new vantage point as you squat down to observe these tiny herbaceous carnivores allows you to notice the glistening sand. You didn’t realize how wet the soil was, but now you see your last footprint is filling with water.  There is no water’s edge here, just a gradual gradient that dips and rises between “dry” land and standing water.  A fallen pine provides a precarious walkway for a few yards, yet you will get wet feet soon enough. 


Off to your left, you see what you came for: a cluster of meter-long yellow pitcher plants (aka Trumpets).  Like sundews, pitcher plants are carnivorous, digesting insects to supplement their nutritional needs on poor, wet soils.  Attracted by the scent of nectar,  bugs alight within the leaf tube, where the waxy surface and downward-facing hairs slide the victim deeper in.  Eventually, the insect falls into a pool of digestive fluid, where it drowns and dissolves.  You also see the less lethal flowers among the pitchers; they too lure pollinators in, but allows them to escape after being dusted with pollen.

Your old-timer guide tells you he remembers, back in the 80’s, driving down the interstate and seeing fields of pitcher plant trumpets for mile upon unbroken mile.  But agriculture, industrial logging, and other development made the land inhospitable for these persnickety plants.  These bogs feature shallow, consistent, year-round water supply, and even a tire rut (or repeated human traffic) can alter the hydrology enough to make a spot unsuitable.  This particular woodland is protected from development and burned periodically to keep it open. 

Management burn. Photo by Joe Burnam, Ga DNR

Managers ran a prescribed fire through this bog last June, and already some bays, gallberry, and other shrubs are making their presence known.  A few years without fire would change the plant makeup of this woodland and threaten pitcher plants, sundews, sunny bells, and most of the plant and animal diversity you find here today. 

Your guide says it’s time to head out.  Carefully picking your way to “higher” ground, you find a footpath and say good day to the pitcher plant bog.  As you reach the dirt road you drove in on, you see the highway.  Cars pass by, driven by people with no interest in places like a pitcher plant bog.  It’s sad because they can’t appreciate the intricate, rich, and delicate web of life that still exists.  But perhaps it is also fortunate, because places like these tend to suffer when they receive too much human attention.

Additional Resources:

Longleaf Pine Ecosystem from Wikipedia

Perched and Pondering

Many hikers are on a mission.  I know I often am.  You have to have a determined focus to reach the set goal when your legs suggest now would be a great time to take a long break.  But when you reach that summit, stand by that waterfall, get your selfie by that marker – then what?  When time allows, I like to spend some time just soaking up the scenery, both distant and at my feet. 

Such is the case at the end of February, as I climb the short trail past the stone fire tower and out to the overlook on Fort Mountain.  It is one of the sentinels of the Blue Ridge Mountains, glaring westward at the low wavelike mountain ridges breaking across the wide valley.

The Fort Mountain overlook is a series of stone outcropping on which the parks department built wooden platforms for people to stand and appreciate the view from some 1800 feet above the valley floor.  Near the platform is a boulder resembling a rough chair.  I fancy it to be my bardic throne, to perch on and ponder whenever I find myself in that corner of the state.  I, who fidgets after ten minutes in front of the television, find new reserves of patience in this place amid the stones lichens and briers at the edge of air. 

When the wind stills a moment, I hear the soft rush of water hundreds of feet below.  I enjoy the novelty of watching a buzzard soaring beneath me.  And shadows lengthen. 

There were reminders of humanity, of course.  The steady roar of the distant interstate and nearer highway carries on the wind.  Much closer visitors to the mountain cough and sneeze, and occasionally thump past on the boardwalk between stairs and platform.  But they sweep the vista with their eyes, and after five minutes they take their selfies and return the way they came.  The disturbances come less often as the evening progresses and dinnertime nears.

To the northeast, Grassy Mountain spreads low and wide with hollows upon hollows and fractalling folds in the mantle of trees. I am content to watch the shadows form in those folds, like the substance of the incipient evening growing in the crevices where the waning sun can no longer reach.

Time passes and the tide of shadow washes across the valley, not as a line on the shore, but in fits and starts.  I watch a level field as the light fades all at once, then follow forest-shaped shadows creeping in a jagged line up a hillside clearing.  At length, the sun retreats from my chair and the woods behind me, while still lighting the shoulders and summit of Grassy Mountain.  

The final moments of daylight are muted as the sun falls behind a hazy cloud cover.  Only the very top of Grassy Mountain shows the faintest traces of sunset’s glow.  After a good two hours, the curtain has gone down on this act; I will navigate the rocky trail before the light fails and the stars begin their dance.

Only a few moments are necessary to “claim” a view. But I’ve climbed this trail many times and  seen this mountain in various moods over the last three decades.  There is much more to see if I devoted my time to it. But if I don’t get up this way for a few years, I can be reasonably sure that the trail, the boulder, and the view will still be waiting should I have an hour or two to spare.

The next time you visit some landmark, set aside time to actually be there, to let it sink into your senses and leave a proper impression.  If you don’t get to know the spirit of a place, can you really say you’ve been there?

Bog Oak

I’m contemplating doing some carving on bog oak.  Have you heard of it?  “Bog Oak” is a bit of a misnomer; it is likely to be oak, but could be another species such as pine or yew.  What is for sure is that it’s old, as in hundreds to several thousands of years old.

How can wood be that old?  Whether it’s a punky log in the woods or a plank that can no longer bear your weight, wood rots.  Fungi break down the structure of the wood cells to utilize the stored nutrients within.  Insects speed the process by boring through dead wood on a macro scale.  But these processes require two things: moisture and oxygen.  Take away one of these and the wood resists decay.  Wooden structures in arid or semi-arid locations can remain for hundreds of years, while those in temperate conditions collapse and crumble in a generation or so.

How can wood survive in very wet conditions?  Through a combination of factors.  The tannins in oak inhibit decay to begin with; the waterlogged wood, covered over time with earth, receives very little exposure to oxygen.  The boggy soil is generally acidic as well.  These factors all work together to inhibit fungal action (Incidentally, these same conditions are responsible for the preservation of “bog bodies”).

With time, the tannins in the wood react with iron salts and other minerals dissolved in the acidic soil and water, darkening and hardening the wood. The high mineral content makes bog oak difficult to carve; it dulls tools like no other wood I’ve worked.  The mineralization also makes the wood more resistant to burning, making bog oak an attractive material for tobacco pipes.  Bog oak is known as morta in the pipe industry.

Excavating the wood is a tricky process; most times, the wood already began to decay before being submerged or buried.  The salvageable bog wood must be stabilized and dried carefully before being milled.  As a result, bog oak is a very expensive lumber, and is most often used for small decorative objects such as pens, knife handles, or pendants (it was in demand during Victorian times for black mourning jewelry). 

Bog oak is most commonly found in Great Britain, Northern and Eastern Europe, and Russia. My source for bog oak is in Ukraine.  I won’t be ordering more wood from them for a while, because I expect they have other things to occupy them at the moment.

Duck Feet

There are many stories that can be told about Dr. Ernie Provost.  He was a legend when I took his Vertebrate Natural History1 class.  “He’s forgotten more than most people ever know” was commonly used to describe him.  His own turns of phrase could be more colorful; for example, he would describe  any task or obstacle that promised to require a significant fee in blood, sweat, and/or tears as “a ring-tailed bitch-kitty.”  It was an epithet often used for his exams, and his courses in general. 

“Uncle Ernie” had a blue million2 stories attached to his name: some dealing with combat on volcanic sands, others with tracking down rattlesnakes in coastal scrubland. But if there is one Uncle Ernie story that has achieved contemporary folklore status among wildlife and ecology professionals, it probably involves duck feet.

Provost taught Ornithology at one time. He taught Ornithology students, as he did in Natural History, that while birds were all related, each species was unique.  Much about a given bird can be gleaned by its morphology, from the shape of a bill to the structure of its feet.  A mallard foot is different from a grebe foot, a barred owl flight feather is different from a redtail hawk flight feather, and a finch bill likewise differs from that of a whippoorwill. Therefore, he required that students study, not just the whole individual, but the feathers, feet, wings, and tails to learn how to identify species by a piecemeal approach. 

Fast forward to the Practicum – the exam of concepts and identification using actual specimens.  Among the assortment of bones and wings was a series of study skins, with paper bags covering all except the feet. To pass the test, the students needed to identify the critter based only on what could be seen. 

It was clear that one student hadn’t studied enough.  He might have recognized whole specimens, he might even have differentiated known ducks by their wings.  But the minutia of webbing and talons was beyond him.  The professor, sitting behind a desk at the front of class, couldn’t help but notice the increasing agitation on that side of the room. 

Finally, the frustrated young man stalked up to the desk, threw his paper down, and stomped towards the door.  Provost glanced at the page with its conspicuous blank spots, and called after the fellow.

“At least give me your name so I can mark that you were here!”

The dude turned around and held up one leg towards the professor. Hiking up his pants leg to expose his boot, he replied, “You tell me, you son of a bitch!”

That story was first told to me, with some embellishment, by Dick Payne, a professor at ABAC and acolyte of Provost’s; his version involved the wrapped bird specimens being thrown across the room to make identification that much harder.  Other versions of the story, mostly attributed to a nameless professor, have cropped up since then.  The story has become part of the mythology of college wildlife classrooms.  When I pressed “Uncle Ernie” for the truth of the matter, he gave me the unadorned account which I have related to you.

1 “Life history strategies of vertebrates with emphasis on ecology, behavior, taxonomy, and systematics.” Part lecture, part lab.

2“a blue million” was another term Provost frequently used; means “an awful lot”

A Tale of Tourist Attractions

What do a mound, an arch, and a bottle of catsup have in common?

When my family drove to Ohio to visit some dear old friends,  I convinced wife and son to detour through western Illinois.  You see, I had recently learned of Cahokia, and was bent on visiting.  Cahokia is the site of the largest known urban settlement of the Mississippian culture.  The population exploded in the mid-11th century; between its ritual center and outlying settlements, estimates put the local populace at nearly 40,000 during the 13th century.  If accurate, that would make the greater Cahokia landscape the largest urban population in North America until the late 18th century!  At its center was a platform mound rising 100 feet and covering 14 acres, formed by earth and sod carried one basket at a time.  Over a hundred smaller mounds rose across the local area.  Archeological finds point to Cahokia as a major center of trade, and likely a social and religious center as well, with complex social structures.

Given the dense population, it is easy to assume that supplying food and firewood, and disposing of waste, would have been increasingly difficult.  It is likely that poor nutrition and polluted water lead to rampant disease and short lifespans.  This further suggests that regular immigration was necessary to maintain the population level, though such inflows couldn’t last (the city was abandoned in the 14th century).  It is not too much to assume that traders, emissaries, pilgrims and perhaps simple tourists came to witness the center of Mississippian culture.  And here I was, a tourist of echoes, visiting the ruins whose builders and rulers have long since vanished, unable to our modern homage. I wonder how they would process the fact that people in a land they couldn’t conceive of would deem the ruins of their city of worldwide cultural significance (UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only 1,154 worldwide).

The visit was all that we had expected. The interpretive displays in the museum were excellent, and my boy was at the point where he would actually read and appreciate the panels of text accompanying the artifacts and reconstructions.  We climbed the great mound and explored the nearby reconstructed timber circle (“Cahokia Woodhenge”) in the warm sunshine. I could have spent a leisurely day there.  Instead, we hopped in the car before noon and headed west across the Mississippi River and a more modern place of tourist pilgrimage.

St. Louis’ Gateway Arch is considerably younger than the mounds we recently quitted, being built in the 1960s. It is also far taller (over 600 feet).  The arch segments are triangular in cross section, constructed of carbon steel covered by stainless steel.  It is an engineering marvel.

It was also expensive and crowded.  We stood in a long line in the warming late-May sunshine, before descending into the cool darkness of the visitor center.  This was followed by a two hour wait for our turn to actually enter the arch, during which we ate overpriced snacks, wandered through the museum, and sat listlessly against a wall.  I imagine boredom and expensive rations were experiences we shared in common with ancient Mississippian tourists.  But we thought, if nothing else, the boy could say he’d been to the top of the world’s tallest arch.

A little more walking, another 15-minute stand-around, and then we crammed into small tram capsules that slowly raised us several hundred feet in the arch.  Then we walked the last bit to the apex, where we vied with the crowd to look through the windows.  Thankfully, the wind wasn’t rocking the top!  It was certainly a view, with the city laid out on one side and the river and ancient floodplains stretched out on the other. After a couple of minutes, the height-shy young’un was ready to vacate.  And so this family of introverts headed groundward within ten minutes of our arrival, and left the crowd behind with all speed.

We were tired, but there was one stop to go.  It was admittedly the silliest coup to count, but we were a little punchy by this point. 

You see, when we checked in at our motel in Collinsville, the desk clerk asked what our plans were.  When we spoke of the UNESCO World Heritage Site four miles down the road, she confessed she wasn’t familiar with Cahokia Mounds.  However, she said we “absolutely have to see the Giant Catsup Bottle!” and gave explicit directions to said marvel.

Yes, friends, she was referring to the Brooks Catsup Bottle water tower, a bit of novelty architecture from 1949 that is, indeed, shaped like a bottle of catsup.  The faux condiment container supplied water to the Brooks catsup plant. The tower needed significant restoration by the 1990s, and those needs were met by volunteer fundraising, to the tune of $80,000.  It isn’t on UNESCO’s radar, but it does hold a coveted slot on the National Register of Historic Places.

So, as no doubt many pilgrims of roadside attractions have before us, Mom and Dad took Junior to gaze upon a slice of novel Americana.   I remarked that I was now ready to go see the world’s largest ball of twine and maybe get our dinner from a hotdog-shaped restaurant, before turning in at a motor lodge shaped like a tipi.  Or, to make a Lord of the Rings reference, “I just came back from the ruins of Amon Sul, but please, I’d love to go see the largest pumpkin in the Shire.”

To summarize: Spent the morning in a world-famous archeological site that even locals haven’t heard of. Spent the afternoon standing in lines with crowds to do “the done thing” and count coup.  Finished up with roadside kitsch. Clearly, the mounds ruled the day.

Yet, they were all tourist attractions.  The city of St. Louis is proud of the stainless steel arch.  The town of Collinsville is proud of their water tower.  And the enigmatic people of 900 years ago were likely quite proud of the great ritual mound at the center of their own metropolis.


Have you ever heard of a Madstone? It’s a bit of old deer lore I was reminded of recently. 

Madstones, also called bezoars, beazlestones, or enteroliths, form in much the same way as pearls in shellfish (due to their rarity, some deer experts consider them even more valuable).  A foreign body, such as a coin, hairball, or even a clump of dirt, remains in the stomach rather than passing through the intestines.  Over time, mineral salts (particularly phosphates) and food particles coat the object.

Madstone from my Dad’s collection

Bezoars come in several different types.  The madstone-type is usually smooth and rounded like a river pebble.  Hairballs coated with minerals are called trichobezoars, and may be either soft and stringy or hard and urchin-like.  Balls of plant fibers form phytobezoars, and may be either smooth or knotty and rough.  A combination of hair and plant fiber may form phytotrichobezoars, which are often soft and velvety.  Size-wise, bezoars can run from smaller than a pea to nearly twenty pounds.  Bezoars are often found in the stomachs or throats of horses, occasionally found in ruminants such as deer, cattle, or goats, and rarely seen in cats, dogs, and even humans.  They don’t present a danger to the animals unless the bezoar blocks the intestine.

Magical power has long been ascribed to these stones.  During the Middle Ages, for example, bezoars were thought to cure epilepsy in children, break fevers, prevent plague, cure rabies, and neutralize any poison from snakebite to arsenic (the word bezoar is derived from the Persian word padzahr, which means “expelling poison”).  Even in modern times, some people collect the stones for their reputed curative powers or for just plain good luck.

Beazlestones are also found in deerhunter’s lore.  Some local traditions say that white or piebald deer carry the stones in their throats, others say that any deer can have them.  According to the folktales, a wounded deer coughs up its madstone, bringing good fortune to the hunter that finds the pebble.  More likely, the stone is found in the rumen when the deer being dressed. In these times when most deer go through a commercial processor, I expect many madstones are never recovered. 

Finding a madstone is a bit of luck in itself. Whether or not they bring good luck is a question I leave to you.