Ah, Autumn in south Georgia. It’s taking its own sweet time, hitting the snooze button more than once. The high here didn’t reliably drop below the 80s until after mid-October. Something vaguely resembling a chill is in the air, but the trees seem disinclined to respond. Driving through several counties today, I noted a distinct lack of organization in the forest. Some leaves were changing halfheartedly; this oak was green save for a brilliant cluster on the end of a branch, while that yellow sweetgum was surrounded by more-or-less green cousins. An occasional splash of red marked a sassafras that was tired of waiting. Some don’t even try, like that persimmon that quietly darkens until it withers. Other trees brighten only a few days before fading brown. By and large, though, the hardwoods were as green as the pines. Things will change in the next couple of weeks, but this isn’t the deep north woods…
Update: what a difference a week makes. Still patchy, but more of the trees are hopping on the bandwagon. According to the prediction maps, we are in the peak time for fall color here. Temperatures are moderating, so that’s the important thing.
In the way-down end of Alabama sits the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center, a 5300- acre property dedicated to research and education about the ecology of lower coastal plain landscapes. The workshop I attended last spring was worth an educational blog report in itself, but it wasn’t the group classes or field trips that garnered the strongest memories of that place.
Each evening after supper, the participants were at leisure to walk around the property or make the twenty-minute drive into the nearest town. One of the staff told me about a spring off one of the back trails, so, with hiking stick in hand. I strolled past the sinkhole lake and into the woods to find it. The young planted pines gave way to lush hardwood canopies, and I heard the chuckling of running water. Beside the trail, weathered stairs descended 20 or so feet to the stream. In a land of blackwater rivers, I was surprised to find the clear, bluish water streaming out of the wall of a greenery. The interpretive sign at the top of the stairs stated that this spring and its smaller neighbor produce 15,000 gallons per minute of 67 degree F water, running some 350 feet before disappearing back into the ground. It was clear, tinted blue, and wonderful to visit.
I couldn’t resist; in short order the boots came off and I stepped into the cool stream a hundred feet or so downstream from where the water rose. My feet glowed pale blue beneath the surface, and my first step disturbed the detritus of waterlogged bark and leaves at the base of the stairs. I felt them roll over my feet, and then noticed a rhythmic poking against my ankle on the leeward side. Lifting back out and letting the surface smooth, I noticed four or five fish darting around. By the interpretive sign, I guessed they were Dixie chub. I listened to the rushing of water beyond the downstream bend, felt the flow across my calves, and breathed A few minutes later, I was back on land, donning my boots as another workshop attendee came down the stairs. He looked appreciatively but briefly over the spring, then headed on. I meandered up the path toward the spring, stopping to measure the water’s depth at a narrow point (the part I could reach was probably above 4 feet on my staff). I was surprised to see a mountain laurel flowering, a mere fifty miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The sign uphill warned against tearing up the banks looking for sharks teeth; there was plenty of evidence that the sign went unheeded. For one who is content to bask in the atmosphere of the cove, it saddened me that others would damage it for trinkets – but we all are guilty of this, either directly or at a remove.
At the spring, I succumbed to temptation and waded in to the shallower pool. I meant to only wade a little way, but the spring me to get just a little closer…just a little closer… until I was thigh-deep and balanced on rocks within arm’s length from the fern-covered cliff wall. At my feet, I could make out deep blue gaps where the springwater rushed out. The siren song of the narrow cavern beckoned me to take the plunge and float in the upwelling. Instead, I stood there and quietly tried to absorb the moment, watching the water roil, the sand swirl.
Scattered lightning bugs flashed in the failing light as I headed up the bank and back to the dirt road. There was no sound of humanity until I was nearly to the paved road, when I heard the distant moan of a train.
Yes, I’m one of the multitude, one of the Pilgrims of the Occultation.
I mean, I’ve seen photos and videos. I know the mechanics of it. But I decided that I would regret it if I didn’t make an effort to see it.
Total eclipse of the sun.
I experienced a partial eclipse, back in the 80s. We schoolkids watched the dappling on the ground assume crescent shapes, saw the air grow dim but the shadows stay sharp. Now, in 2017, we’d get the chance to see all but 3% of the sun obscured by the moon – directly, thanks to the safety glasses we now have available – by just stepping outside. But here was a chance to see the full monty, close enough to drive to. Even better, I could make a memory with my son: an adventure to see a rare celestial event.
So I spent some of my leave time, and cashed in a chunk of my wife’s goodwill. The young’un got permission to skip some classes. Avoiding the reportedly snarled interstates, we headed towards the line on the map which marked the center of totality. Along the way, we passed small congregations gathered at crossroads, pecan groves, and church parking lots, armed with tents, coolers, grills and the occasional telescope. We were a bit north of Saluda, SC, when the moon began easing across the solar disk, so we turned off on a side road, then again on a dirt road, parking at a woods road across from a pasture. Out came the eclipse glasses, first thing; after confirming that the event was definitely underway, we broke for lunch. That’s the thing about partial eclipses. Direct observation requires special equipment, and the event occurs at a snail’s pace. For the next hour, we watched the landscape and donned our cardboard glasses every ten or so minutes. Yes, the sky got darker, but not as much as you might expect given the waning sliver of sun. The August breeze took on a hint of late September. Off in the distance, chainsaws continued their droning, for “working can til can’t” doesn’t take eclipses into account.
The many puffy clouds that dogged us all the way north pulled back like a curtain in the final minutes leading up to totality. We both stood and watched as the sun vanished by increments. The last ragged sliver vanished, and the glasses came off.
A partial eclipse is an interesting phenomenon. A total eclipse is something altogether different. I knew it was coming and what it would look like, but like so many things, being there and merely seeing a photo are very different things. It was more than a pale circle, it was a striking ring of white fire set in a black sky. It was beautiful, it was riveting, and without the benefit of knowledge it would be utterly terrifying. I can see how the event would have been a frightful portent in ancient times. On this day, it elicited an exclamation of wonder from the jaded teen – certainly a favorable omen!
Totality was one of those hanging moments: at two-and-a-half minutes, a brief midpoint of the event; yet within the darkness everything holds its breath in an otherworldly pause (now that I think about it, it was reminiscent of Frodo putting on the ring and seeing the Eye staring back at him…).
And then the liminal moment ended. The process reversed, as the crack in the sky expanded, the air brightened, and my awareness returned. For, I realized, in the darkness all my senses narrowed to the view of the corona. I had planned to listen for songbirds ceasing their calls, or for night insects taking up theirs. Did the loggers put down their tools as the sky went black? Were the clouds on the horizon still lit? I couldn’t tell you. I have a memory of the cool air, but apart from a bit of conversation there was nothing but the blackened sun and the camera I used to record it.
Now that the key minutes of the two-plus hour event were done… I must confess, we didn’t hang around. After five minutes of appreciating the waxing crescent, I asked how long he wanted to stay. He replied “as long as you want to,” which I took to mean “take your time, but I’m good.” So, we packed up in the still-filtered light, and joined the long southward caravan of folks who came for the totality.
In the week since the eclipse, it hasn’t completely left my thoughts; I am curious how, or if, the event eventually settles into my consciousness; with it be a check on a bucket list, or will it be one of those memories I carry after many others have fallen to obscurity? I know people who scoff at all the fuss about the eclipse. One older gentleman watched the proceedings on TV, and found it to be faddish and silly. I’ll admit that, had I been immersed in the party atmosphere of many of the televised gatherings, I’d be tempted to agree. But I took a road less traveled, and stood with my son, alone and quiet and open to the world. At that place and in that brief, stretched moment, the sun and moon performed their glorious pas de deux for us alone.
Next month’s solar eclipse put me in mind of another gem the sun has in her celestial bag of tricks. An emerald, actually – a phenomenon called “the green flash.”
One afternoon, many moons ago, I was walking to my dorm when I spied another student just sitting on a bench and staring across the quad (remember, this was before cell phones and the web). A freshman and an introvert, I nevertheless was determined to practice this “talking to strangers” thing, so I sat down beside her and initiated a conversation. She told me, matter-of-factly, that sometimes when the sun sinks into the ocean, it flashes green. Huh. Clearly, I thought to myself, this girl was trying to get rid of me with absurd non sequitur factoids. Nonplussed, I politely left her to her green sun fantasy.
Perhaps a year or so later, I came across a reference in some periodical to the sun flashing green. My memory reconnected to that afternoon and the girl I totally failed to get on with. Perhaps, I thought, this trick of the light was a real thing after all. As I recall, the essay featured a brief description of the sun turning green as it sank into the sea, yet gave nothing in the way of an explanation – much like one’s musings might be interrupted by a shooting star, and marking it as noteworthy without feeling obligated to explain the phenomenon. Nowadays, of course, I would have found the nearest screen and performed the instant research we take for granted. Googling “green flash” earns you a list links of technical explanations on extreme refraction of sunlight, plus photos and even videos. But back in the day, the information superhighway resembled a double-rutted prairie track. So, the thought slipped to the back of my mind before I could pester a librarian.
Flash forward about a decade, to when my girlfriend and I embarked on a driving tour of Ireland. After some visiting and touristing in the east, we struck out across the island to reach the western shore. We explored the grey rocky expanse known as the Burren, but my goal for the evening was to photograph the sunset from atop the Cliffs of Moher. You know the place, by sight if not by name. The Dread Pirate Roberts (or at least his stunt double) pursued Fezzik the Giant up that wall of stone in The Princess Bride. Though it hadn’t registered at the time, we were nearly at the summer solstice, meaning the sun took its own sweet time in going to bed. Sunsets are beautiful by themselves, but I remembered the story of the green flash and figured if it could be seen then I was in the best place to do so. After an hour or so of exploration at the hard edge of the island, we staked out a place at the high point of the cliffs. Before us was open, empty air; seven hundred feet of stacked layers of shales, mudstones, and sandstones served both to keep our feet dry and our blood pumping faster than normal. Behind us, the grey stone of O’Brien’s Tower tinted red in the evening light. We were joined by a handful of others to watched the sun’s departure. At a quarter til ten, I set my tripod and began clicking away my carefully rationed (non-digital ) shots as the sun set the sea on fire; I had budgeted three rolls of film per day, and was down to my last dozen exposures. At ten o’clock, the disk flattened against the horizon. As beautiful as the scene was, I wondered if the legendary phenomenon would show itself. And would I be able to capture it?
The sun was low enough and muted enough that I braved looking through the eyepiece and the polarized filter at the orb.
*Click* A moment of darkness as red sunlight exposed the film. Then the sun was back, narrower than ever.
*Click* Black, then back.
And a green glow washed across the sliver of sun. I sucked in the cool sea air in wonder. As my finger stabbed down on the button, the sun reverted to red, then melted away into the ocean.
I saw it. I missed the photographic trophy, but I beheld the phenomenon. After a pause, I joined in as the small audience quietly applauded the spectacle.
A few years ago, my family went on a school-sponsored trip to New York. It was a canned
trip, with a local guide taking us to see things tourists like to say they’ve seen. The timing was off, though. When the ferry landed on Liberty Island, the guide told us to be back there in 20 minutes. Just long enough to say you’ve seen the statue, but not long enough to reach the statue, explore the island, or talk with the staff who wandered around in period outfits looking for interested tourists to expound to about the Statue’s history.
There were several days of this sort of thing. Our group glossed over historical sights, while giving considerable blocks of time for shopping experiences. I remember my wife almost sobbing as we passed the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on our way to spend hours at Time Square.
On the final day came the highlight for me: the American Museum of Natural History. The labyrinthine buildings and grounds take up four city blocks, with the oldest structure opening in the late 1870s. Once we were let in and given tickets, we took in a show under the planetarium dome before winding downstairs to admire the Williamite Meteor. After that, we went through a couple of the nearer rooms before realizing that time was ticking away. Narrowing our sights, we headed to the Pacific Northwest Indian room; my wife had read some of the works of those who had added to that collection. Then we searched around and eventually found the one thing I really, really wanted to see – the Hall of Human Origins. There I could gaze on many of the displays that one sees in paleoanthropology texts, and I took copious photos of the bones, tools, and works of art.
I have to say, the museum was oddly laid out. Figuring out how to get from points A to B was daunting, as several places were only accessible through a particular room, and we wasted a good deal of time getting to certain exhibits.
While we were sitting down and trying to get our bearing with the map, a family from the school group came by. They said they saw the dinosaurs, then went out to get some ice cream and hang out at the dog park; they were just wandering back in. I didn’t know what to say. I have come to the realization that these folks not only don’t come to a museum to learn, they probably don’t know how to learn. They’ve heard of dinosaurs, so they go see them and say, “Wow, they’re big… so, what do you want to do now?” My wife and I knew enough history and natural history to not only want to see what we’ve read about, but rather be ready to expand what we know. My son wasn’t as well-read, but he’s the sort who will study an exhibit, read the interpretive text, and glean what there is to glean.
After a quick lunch, we gave a few minutes to the eastern woodland and plains Indians – which should have gotten an hour – and wove our way through prehistoric mammals and then one of the halls on dinosaurs. If I was ten, I would have spent the whole trip in those halls. As it was, I was practically photographing at a walk. And then our time was up, so we met back at the bus and headed to the airport.
Unfortunately, we are trained to skim. Our eyes focus on movement and flash. We experience exhibits at a walk. Our eyes register the views, categorize them as “interesting,” “not interesting,” or “something I’ve seen before — must be important,” and then move on. When the museum opened in the 19th century, I expect exhibits weren’t good for much beyond that. In the 21st century, museum exhibits provide context, explanations, and interpretation. They invite the patrons to do more than gawk–they invite them to learn. Yet so few do.
When you go someplace new or interesting, be there. Give it your attention. Research beforehand, if you can. If not, stop by the visitors’ center, or at the very least, read the signage! Don’t sleepwalk through an experience. Be aware. Don’t rush. Always be learning.
Georgia forests, located in the heart of the nation’s “wood basket,” cover some 24.8 million acres…Forests now cover 67 percent of the land area statewide.
In a land where cities continue to grow towards each other, maintaining – increasing, even – the amount of forest is a positive sign, right?
How do you define a forest? Most of us will agree that trees are a necessary component. But are they the only necessary component?
I see too many pine plantations that are little more than wood fiber croplands; it is a crop that grows over decades rather than months. In such situations, timber managers make no provisions for anything except maximizing wood fiber. Often, they will do their best to eradicate anything in the field that isn’t planted pine. After using chemicals, followed by bedding or scalping the soil with tractors, they plant seedlings so close together that in less than a decade the pine tops touch; this closure of the tree canopy makes it difficult for anything to grow beneath the pines. Green needles above, and a brown needle carpet below – all available resources go to the crop.
Am I saying this is wrong? No; if your top priority is to grow pines, then this is an efficient way to do it, so long as disease and beetles are kept at bay. But I don’t really think of a crop field of trees as a true pine forest. I’ve seen living pine forests, their boughs swaying in the breeze, with scores of plant species carpeting the ground beneath. Yes, and the air filled with bird song, the rustle of squirrels and rabbits, the crash of running deer. As an example, look at the photo to the right: I couldn’t count the number of different species shown in this understory, but I know I liked what I saw. Broomsedge, ragweed, partridge pea, goldenrod, wiregrass – all these and more provide seeds for birds, nesting cover, flowers for pollinators, and fuel for the fires that keep the habitat open and vibrant. The pines in this stand weren’t slacking, either. The well-thinned pines in open stands will be healthier, more resistant to insect infestation, and will increase diameter faster than more crowded stands.
Some who own their tree farms live far away from them. Others are listening to the timber buyer’s top offer. They have no use for bird song, and gain no pleasure in the land apart from a balance sheet rich in digits. But for the bird watcher, the hunter, and the curious naturalist, decades of enjoyment in their woodland is more than worth the price of a reduced payout. Proper management of a forest results in a living community of flora and fauna, peace and recreation for landowners – and yes, a source of income.
This title for this essay was inspired by an infamous phrase quoted by war correspondent Peter Arnett. Bến Tre City had been heavily bombed and shelled in an effort to drive out the occupying Viet Cong, and an unnamed officer remarked that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
How is that relevant? Every year, smoke rises from forests in the coastal plain. Some folks might be appalled to see forest managers with drip torches, running strings of fire through their woods. It looks like a case of destroying the woods, but we really are trying to save it.
In south Georgia we have the remnants of an ecosystem maintained through natural and man-caused fire (The former by lightning, the latter by Native Americans and later by the settlers who supplanted them). The longleaf pine, one of our more fire-tolerant trees, thrives in a community which is not only well-adapted to frequent fire, but encourages its spread. Depending on where the particular habitat is, there may scores of plant species mixed together: bunch grasses, legumes, wildflowers and other forbs– including many not found anywhere else. The fauna of these communities are equally rich and varied, and include a number of grassland birds such as bobwhite quail, meadowlarks, field sparrows, and indigo buntings. Some threatened and endangered plants and animals are only found in this ecosystem.
What brings these species together to form a community? In the highly competitive natural world, resilience to fire gives these species an edge over others. Vegetation that can survive periodic burning enjoys the benefits of abundant sunlight and less competition; highly flammable parts such as dried grass and pine needles actually promote a fire’s spread. The insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals present here have evolved to exploit the local vegetation’s bounty of seeds, fruit, and accompanying insects; those animals who aren’t fleet enough to escape the flames will utilize burrows or make their own (literally hundreds of species of invertebrates, reptiles, mammals and even birds will find shelter in gopher tortoise burrows).
Now, you’ve probably seen the western fires, with roiling smoke and flames tearing through the treetops. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Generally speaking, we see low-intensity fires in frequently-burned longleaf forests – flames rising to three or four feet high. The grasses, fallen pine needles and other detritus act as fuel to carry fire across the landscape, killing hardwood seedlings and any other plants that aren’t adapted to fire (and occasionally some that are – survival of the fittest and all that). Continue reading “Destroying the Woods to Save Them”
Autumn is my favorite season, but I’ve come to appreciate spring. From my office – an old house turned into a biologist’s workspace – I can step out and feel the breeze which rustles the boughs of red cedars, holly, dogwood and pine. The wildlife management area that I work from was originally put together by a wealthy individual as a bobwhite quail preserve. Right around the living quarters of the place, it looks positively park-like. Or rather, the front is park-like, with dogwoods, oaks, stately pines and various shrubs on a close-mown lawn. On the back side, one finds tall pines, waving brown broomsedge, and a profusion of forbs and grasses – very natural for the area. Quite a contrast, between manicured nature and its freer aspect!
The tame side is managed with a riding mower; when ice or wind scatters limbs across the lawn or pavement, a front-loader comes around to collect them and neaten up the place. Here one finds close-cropped grass and what forbs that manage to raise their flowers no more than a couple of inches (bluets being a common one).
The wild side is managed less intensively, yet (to me) more agreeably. Every other March, a low fire licks across the pine needles, fallen limbs and broomsedge. Within a few weeks, green colors the blackened ground, and by Fall the golden grasses wave in the wind again. I can kneel and with outstretched hands touch a dozen different species coexisting in the noonday sun. And it is here and not the lawn where I hear bobwhites and see the leavings of rabbits and other critters.
I have friends who are fastidious when it comes to well-manicured, carpet-like lawns. For some, the yard-carpet is a point of pride, while others mow only because of neighborhood peer pressure. Some people water, fertilize, and herbicide their yards in exacting regimens in much the same way as a chef mixes his artisan masterpiece, all to reach the ultimate goal: a short, thick carpet comprised of a single species of grass and nothing else. I never bought into the yard-as-hobby. I have several grasses and a score of different forbs within my bawn. For the most part, survival in that unwatered sand earns a spot, although mowing is deemed necessary to discourage venomous intruders.
I grant that there are times and places when it is in our interest to lay a heavy hand on the land. But the artificiality of close-cropped turf and sharp-cornered hedges pleases me not half so much as the rustle of rabbits and fox squirrels hidden behind a broomsedge curtain.
“At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, quickly followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected doing it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it.” ― Cheryl Strayed
Call me Dustin Autry. I am a naturalist both in the professional (a wildlife biologist by training) and philosophical (a spirituality devoid of supernaturalism) senses of the term.
There are many who love nature in the abstract, but lack the access to experience or the knowledge base to fully appreciate the natural world. I hope my thoughts and experiences will inspire you to delve further into the world around us.
My current stomping ground is the upper coastal plain of Georgia, but the whole world is fair game for my lens. Let me know what you think.
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