Finally, Rain!

On Sunday, August 1, 2016, the preacher preached: “Do not complain!” Although recalling numerous complaints made by the Old Testament prophets, and in the New Testament more than a few by the apostles, as well as by Jesus himself, I did not argue with a “man of the cloth.” Therefore, this little essay/story is not one of complaint, but of observation.

I do not recall a spring through early summer drought equal to that of 2016. According to the meteorologists, it is not uncommon for a strong El Nino to be followed by a strong La Nina. This one has been one to tell stories about.

From early May through July less than two inches of rain fell on my little farm. The official weather station for Oconee County, South Carolina, located about three air-miles east of me, recorded five inches, the discrepancy a result of the “widely scattered showers” distribution. But even that was only 43% of the 30-year average. At the weather station March had only 29% of the normal rainfall. April had 1.5 times the normal precipitation, but May dropped to 59%, June to 20%, and July to 51% of normal expectancy.

Mean high temperatures fueled the developing drought. In the abnormally dry March, the mean high was 8 degrees above normal. Even the abnormally wet April had a mean high 3 degrees above normal. By July the normal mean high of 90 degrees was exceeded by 7 degrees.

The high temperatures reinforced by the almost daily light to moderate winds sucked the land dry of its life-giving moisture. As revealed by two graves that I had to prepare for beloved trail horses in June and July, the soil was as desiccated at six feet as it was at six inches. By mid-July, the meteorologists officially designated a portion of northeastern Georgia and bordering counties in South Carolina as in “severe drought.” It was not news to those of us who live close to the land.

Not only could plants not grow, it was a total mystery as to how they could even stay alive – many didn’t. In the agricultural venue, grain and forage crops and pasture grasses grew slowly if at all. April put a good finishing touch on fescue hay, but the onset of the drought in May simply prevented coastal Bermuda grass hay production. The first cutting of Bermuda grass for square bales should have been made in late May or by mid-June, but there was nothing to harvest even by the end of July. Pastures dried up until the cattle farmers, as well as recreational horsemen, were feeding hay. Short stalks and small ears characterized the corn crop. Soybeans were off to a slow start, if starting at all.

In the orchards, the farmers reported that while the peach crop would be substantially reduced, the individual peaches would be sweeter. My sampling of the crop caused me to be in general agreement.

Honey production was another matter. When I had a 100% over-winter hive survival, the first such success in at least eight years, I was set for a high production season. Nature paid no attention to my expectations. April, the month of normally heavy production from the nectar of tulip poplar flowers, was a bust due to abnormally high amounts of rainfall. The bees could not work in the rain, and when the rain stopped it had washed the nectar from the flowers.

There was the usual lull between the poplar bloom and that of sourwood. The sourwood bloom began in early June. The rains had long been over. If any sourwood honey was made, it was not detectable. (Sourwood honey is easy to detect by its lack of color.)

The bees were moved to an area of 15 to 20 acres of sunflower in early July. Two years ago, my bees had made a great deal of exceptionally high quality honey from these same fields. The bloom was beautiful, but not a drop of honey was made.

At that point I began to wonder if moisture stress in the soil was so great that neither sourwood in the forest nor sunflower in a field could extract enough water to produce nectar in the flowers. I discussed that possibility with a friend who was also a forest physiologist. He corroborated the theory as a possibility and explained some of the technical aspects. Perhaps I will live to test the theory in future years when we get normal rainfall.

In the forest, the El Nino rains followed by a very warm March lead to a dogwood bloom that was at least two weeks early and one of the best in recent years. Wildflowers that typically bloom in Mid-April were blooming early in the month. All signs seemed to point to a beautiful spring. But by early May and full leaf-out by the trees, the weather was turning hot and dry. Low relative humidity exacerbated the rapid loss of soil moisture through evaporation and transpiration by plant foliage. The crescendo of wildflowers that normally burst forth to grace the forest trails in May and early June did not develop. Sightings of butterflies on the wild landscape were uncommon to rare. Even the swallowtailed tigers, a hardy and abundant tribe, were notable when seen. I did not see a single zebra, my favorite. To see butterflies, one needed to visit a flower garden, preferably one that was being irrigated. If you were going to find wildflowers in significant numbers in the forest, you had to find a spring seep or a bog near a stream.

Among the forest trees and shrubs, the very shallow rooted dogwood was wilting by June. Leaves hung limp and began to curl. Soon foliage turned brown on the outer portions of the limbs of most trees. Some trees, particularly those already greatly debilitated by anthracnose, turned completely brown never again to grace the spring forest with their virginal white flowers. Anthracnose has been decimating the dogwood of the southern Upper Piedmont and Blue Ridge for many years. Aided by the severe drought of 2016, it has made a great leap in its deadly progress towards causing total loss of the species.

The oak species that fall into the category labeled by taxonomists as the red oak group are all shallow rooted. In addition they are all prone to root rot which becomes extensive as the trees reach an advanced age and size. When they reach a large size, the loss of a mechanically stabilizing root system makes these trees highly susceptible to wind-throw. Under drought stress, they cannot get enough water, thus this year numerous specimens are standing with all of their foliage dead, awaiting the rains and winds of winter to turn them stark and bare. In years to come they will lie prone on the forest floor.

Tulip poplar was another notable story. This tree has a taproot that descends deeply into the ground. It should be able to defend itself against the ravages of drought better than many other species. Yet it seems to be quite sensitive. Poplar is among the first to don itself in green in early spring and put forth its beautiful and astonishingly complex flowers in April. It is also the first to signal the coming fall with leaves turning yellow in September. This year, the poplars had an abundance of yellow leaves in July, undoubtedly a result of moisture stress.

Wild black cherry, itself bearing many yellow leaves in mid-summer 2016, was empathetic with the plight of the tulip poplar. One afternoon in early July, a moderate wind arose associated with a nearby shower from which we received no rain. I looked across the front yard to see black cherry leaves falling in numbers characteristic of late October.

Hickories seem to have an interesting mechanism for self-preservation during major droughts. When the stress reaches a certain level, they begin to cast their nut crop. Nut production requires a substantial investment in water, energy and nutrients. By getting rid of its current crop liability, the tree can invest these same resources in preserving itself and providing for nut production in future years. The ground around the hickories along the edge of my yard and near my barn became littered with immature hickory nuts all of which had been split open by hopeful, but likely disappointed, squirrels.

One wild creature that seems to have benefited from the drought was the wild turkey. Dry springs typically favor turkey reproduction as eggs, hatchlings and young poults are less likely to get chilled by spring rains. I saw more turkey broods this year than in a long time. They foraged for insects frequently in my lower pasture lots. Given the scarcity of green plants for insects to feed on, I was surprised that there were enough to attract the turkeys.

Other wild animals seemed to be generally okay in spite of the drought, although numbers of songbirds in my yard seemed to be down. Squirrels remained abundant.

Some good news, although the forest floor had been like a tinder box, there were no forest fires of significant size in our severe drought area this year.

Finally, the rains began! By late July, some portions of the South Carolina geographical area called the Upstate began receiving significant amounts of rain. Showers were scattered, often dropping one to two inches in one locale while another only a mile or two away received only sprinkles, if anything at all. By the first week of August, the showers were more numerous and more closely spaced. The meteorologists explained that a strong low pressure system stationary over the Florida Panhandle was driving in our direction moisture from both the Gulf and the Atlantic. Helping with the process was a strong high pressure system to our northeast that was blocking the counterclockwise winds of the low and concentrating rainfall over us.

I never did get the single storm amounts of one to two inches that fell only a few miles away. But I got a total of a couple of inches of soft, slow falling rain, almost every drop of which was captured by my soils. These clay soils can dry and harden to the consistency of concrete. Rain, preferably in small drops slowly applied, is needed to soften the surface and expand the pore space to allow the penetration and percolation of the life-giving water. That happened.

Within a few days the miraculous resilience of nature was witnessed once again. Although the blisters of drought had left numerous scars on the soil surface, the lawn and pasture grasses were being renewed looking healthy and reaching out to garner the summer sun. My horses, who had been on grain and hay rations comparable to those of winter, were relishing fresh, green forage.

The spring and early summer flowers that did not appear in their normal time will not grace the wild landscape of 2016. Those plants that did not survive will not be brought back to life. Some, like the lightly to moderately anthracnose-infected dogwood, will survive for a while longer, although weaker, their lives shortened.

There is still time to grow and harvest substantial amounts of coastal Bermuda hay in which will be stored the energy and nutrients to be fed to livestock in the coming late fall and winter months. Joe Pye Weed, a favorite of butterflies in late summer, will bloom although in smaller than usual numbers. If it keeps on raining, the fall crescendo of wildflowers will form a garland on the landscape by the end of the month.

“Reverend, this is not a story of complaint, but of observation, perhaps even resurrection.

Dr. Gene Wood

Former professor, Dept. of Natural Resources, Clemson University

A Must Own…

2016-08-22_12h19_20In just the past few decades, South Carolina has emerged as one of the most exciting archaeological research sites on the continent. Literally.

ARCHAEOLOGY IN SOUTH CAROLINA: Exploring the Hidden Heritage of the Palmetto State, edited by Adam King, contains an overview of the fascinating archaeological research currently ongoing in the Palmetto State and features essays by twenty scholars studying South Carolina’s past through archaeological research. The scholarly contributions are enhanced by more than one hundred black-and-white and thirty-eight color images of some of the most important and interesting sites and artifacts found in the state.

South Carolina has an extraordinarily rich history encompassing some of the first human habitations of North America as well as the lives of people at the dawn of the modern era. King begins the anthology with the basic hows and whys of archaeology and introduces readers to the current issues influencing the field of research. The contributors are all recognized experts from universities, state agencies, and private consulting firms, reflecting the diversity of people and institutions that engage in archaeology.

The volume begins with investigations of some of the earliest Paleo-Indian and Native American cultures that thrived in South Carolina, including work at the Topper Site along the Savannah River. Other essays explore the creation of early communities at the Stallings Island site, the emergence of large and complex Native American polities before the coming of Europeans, the impact of the coming of European settlers on Native American groups along the Savannah River, and the archaeology of the Yamasee, a people whose history is tightly bound to the emerging European society.

The focus then shifts to Euro-Americans with an examination of a long-term project seeking to understand George Galphin’s trading post established on the Savannah River in the eighteenth century.

The volume concludes with the recollections of a life spent in the field by South Carolina’s preeminent historical archaeologist Stanley South, now retired from the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina. March 2015, 304 pages, 38 color and 103 b&w illustrations

Your Field Journal

It’s been almost a decade since I bought my field journal. When I saw it in a gift shop I knew I had to have it – the Col. Littleton No. 9 Journal, crafted out of thick leather and brass. It looked like something that Hemmingway might have opened under the glow of an oil lamp to record some electrifying showdown involving a flurry of dust, a custom English side-by-side rifle, and a pissed-off cape buffalo. When I told mom what I paid for the No. 9 she wryly (in that harmless, endearing way only a mom can) replied “Hunter, I doubt you have anything that important to say”.
Mom was more or less right. No doubt, the Nobel Prize Committee would not find my entries fit for personal use in a public bathroom. Nevertheless, over the years I have accumulated a priceless pile of journal refills, filled cover to cover, each one stained with the sweat and dirt of a thousand wild moments.

Fortunately for most of us, neither a literary propensity nor grammatical precision is requisite to keeping a field journal. In fact laboriously technical composition in a field journal only tells first-hand that the author wasn’t paying attention to the field. Formalism is tacky in a field journal, so if that’s your thing, keep a diary. Meanwhile two deer just slipped right past you.

It is the informality and imperfections that make your entries yours and over time are the underpinning for thier intrinsic value. Your handwriting, if you record events in real time, can add more to your record than words ever could: cold stiff hands, hands rattling with adrenaline, smeared ink from sweaty palms. The the last word in nostalgia is thumbing through old entries and finding the stiff penmanship of nearly frost bitten fingers; or the salient details of a hunt, written with shaking hands and blood on the page as standing proof of meat on the ground; or a poorly rendered sketch of a blackburnian warbler that lit on a branch and blew your mind.

A record might even be expressed by some piece of musty wildness pressed between the pages. Naturalist Joe Hutto would smear deer flies and yellow flies on the pages of his field journal as he followed his flock of wild turkeys through the Florida hammock. The more smears from the respective species of fly, the worse that species was on that particular day. It saved him time, he explained. I doubt that, but I like the idea. I started doing the same thing, and when I run across an old entry with 10 or 12 mosquitoes smeared into the margin, the memory of an early-season deer hunt among black water and cypress trees comes rushing back with more momentum than words alone can summon.

In time, your field journal takes on a life of its own. Your entries accumulate to something more than the sum of scarcely legible notes on dirty paper. A distinctive character emerges from your scribblings, with feathers from dead turkeys and autumn leaves pressed between the pages. Finally, the entries become a deeply personal anthology of wild strivings and a tangible collection of moments that define your passion and nourish your love of wild things.

Aldo Leopold

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Aldo Leopold: the father of wildlife management.

The progress of conservation in the US is paved by sportsmen, naturalists, philosophers, scientists, authors, activists and more. Despite their various, and sometimes clashing philosophies, their efforts added up to acre upon acre of preserved wilderness, and an ever growing awareness of our dependence on ecological integrity.

Even with so many players, it is doubtful that any single name is as revered among conservationists from all walks of life as the name Aldo Leopold.

Leopold began his career as a forester with the US Forest Service. By the end of his career, would produce hundreds of publications, launch conservation organizations, found the field (indeed, even the notion) of wildlife management , and hold the first such professorship at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

However, Aldo Leopold’s most influential contribution would emerge from the pages of an unassuming book of essays publishedASCA posthumously. Through A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold would would awaken the minds and touch the hearts of readers for generations, and leave us with a work that would be deemed the cornerstone of the North American environmental movement.

Leopold was just the person to author such a book. He was the erudite professor lecturing with the brilliant prose of a poet. In ASCA, Leopold teaches us how to read and understand the land, and we learn that even the subtlest natural event may offer intuitive deduction and intriguing questions as we learn to see and wonder. To Leopold, “Every farm woodlot is a textbook on animal ecology; woodsmanship is the translation of the book.”

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Leopold inspects one of his white pines.

Part I of ASCA is  a charming and thought-provoking trek through fields and forests, with Aldo as our guide. In January, we follow skunk tracks in the thawing snow, see what saplings the rabbits have girdled and draw  thought-provoking deductions from hawks and meadow mice.  In April, we watch the mating ritual of the woodcock’s Sky Dance. In June, we follow Leopold on a fishing trip on The Alder Fork, and sense that the value of the experience is in the pursuit. In October, we follow along with Aldo and his dog Gus through the Smokey Gold tamaracks of Adams County in pursuit of ruffed grouse. In November we take to the woods with Axe in Hand where we really begin to understand how the mind of a conservationist works. In December, we smile at Leopold’s enthusiasm for tracking chickadees.

In the sections following the Almanac , Leopold’s prose becomes slightly more poignant as he wrestles head-on with some heavier issues such as predator control, the cultural value of wilderness, the role of science in conservation, and more.

Finally, in what is likely his most famous work, Leopold pulls it all together in brilliant fashion with the book’s capstone essay called The Land Ethic – a beautifully written exposition on the relationship between land and people.

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With his longbow in hand, Aldo Leopold scans for deer from a high bluff in northern New Mexico.

That land is a community”, Leopold explains in the Forward to ASCA, “is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.” It is those three concepts that Leopold so eloquently weaves together throughout his monumental book.

In the end, we have an inspiring glimpse into the mind of one of history’s greatest conservationists. Most of all, however, Aldo Leopold left us with a piece of work that lays out the value of nature and a resounding call to preserve it, both for its own sake, and for ours.

For more on Aldo Leopold and his conservation legacy, or to purchase a copy of A Sand County Almanac, visit aldoleopold.org

Hunter S. Bridges

 

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