Field Notes Friday 0034: The Appearance of Destruction

Shocking as scenes after a fire may be, some fires are “good” (meaning they’re an essential part of some ecosystems). In a controlled burn, one of many goals is to burn often enough that raging, far-ranging fires aren’t a possibility in the future.

I imagine in the past, the swath of land a herd of thousands of bison had tread and munched might serve as a natural fire break – not enough fuel for the fire to continue. (I don’t have a source on that; just imagining.) In modern controlled/prescribed burns, at least the ones I’ve participated in, mow lines, water sprayers, and backfires do the job.

Here’s a before and after shot:

IMG_5122-0

It looks shocking. Like the land is devastated.

But it’s not. The fire burned through quickly and made way for native prairie species while making it harder for invasive woody species to encroach.

I hope to return and show a different “after” photo: one that’s full of the green and gold and reds of life, sprung anew from the ashes.

I’m posting this as part of my pledge that I will make it easier for myself to participate in Field Notes Friday. I’m taking my own advice: keep it simple! Just a photo and some thoughts are plenty.

Here’s a link to the photo and thoughts I shared on Facebook. I hope you’ll join me there as well as on WordPress (…and iNaturalist… And Instagram…)

Advertisements

Field Notes Friday 0027: Today I Felt a Prairie Fire

Is this what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands? Today I felt the heat of a prairie fire as I volunteered for a planned burn. It reminded me of the first prairie fire I ever witnessed, and an essay I wrote afterward in utter awe of the power. I’m taking liberties with my self-imposed 500-words-or-under rule to share this with you. The original publication was here in February 2011 (I was a guest blogger). There are great pictures at that link, and the other entries are well worth a read, especially for naturalists and prairie ecologists. The photos below are from Thursday, September 4, 2014.Today I Felt a Prairie Fire
Today I participated in a prairie burn at LLELA (the 2,000 acre wildlife preserve where I work). I now have a profound respect for the settlers who moved to the prairies and fought wildfires with their bare hands, with shirts and rags. They fought to help neighbors and themselves, to save houses, fields, and families.

I also gained a profound respect for fire fighters. Even several feet away from a blaze of waist-high plants engulfed in powerful, vibrant orange, I felt the skin on my upper arms burning and wondered if I’d walk away with blisters. How do fire fighters do it? How did settlers do it?

After work today I became aware of the bustling activity of a few LLELA employees and volunteers. The winds were right, the time was short, the plans were laid – it was time for a burn! Steady, slow winds and other factors expedient for a burn coalesce rarely, so when the time is right, action must always be swift (even though plans are made well in advance).

I was honored to be invited to watch my first ever prairie burn; I didn’t know I’d get to participate! I showed up to observe the pros at work, but instead was told to park my car nearby with the keys still in the ignition (so someone could start the car fast and get away if needed – yikes!). I was handed a big yellow bag full of water to wear on my back, and its accompanying hose and sprayer to douse unruly flames, and took turns with my boss Lisa using what looked like a mud flap from an 18-wheeler attached to a broom handle to slap little flames (or sometimes big flames) that strayed from their allotted zones.

Prairie Fire
It was serious work! My eyes would sting when the smoke thickened, my arms were burning, hot ash sometimes landed on my bare skin, my upper back muscles were sore, and the only shade available was from the smoke itself, and only when it became so thick and brown it blotted out the sun! In those eerie times, the glow around me would look alternately green, magenta, and even purple.

As I watched Lisa deftly handle the tools of the trade (the flapper, the hose, the igniter), and heard her conversing with Ken and Richard via radio, I realized how important communication is in such a situation. Teamwork is as essential as any of the other tools. A fire may be planned, but it is a raw, powerful, raging form of energy, and I kept thinking of the word force; it is a compelling, unavoidable, unrelenting Force of Nature which, once unleashed, is hard to contain.

And containing it was the art. The tools were never idle; used against a huge blaze, they may seem paltry, but they were deftly and strategically wielded. We were creating a fire break, an area that would be burned ahead of time so that the major fire would blaze toward it, get to the edge of it, run out of fuel, and subsequently die.

Our purpose was clear, but the method was subject to the caprices of weather. Our supposedly steady forecasted wind proved as fickle as a politician, and constantly shifted positions. Little flames seemed to be constantly testing their bounds, and when we turned our backs, they’d have created messes as toddlers with a new babysitter do.

And a new babysitter is exactly what I felt like! Experience is a grand teacher, and it was obvious that I had none. Lisa could see signs of fire where I saw only grass; she could see flames where I saw only wisps of smoke. When I first started helping, the scene would look placid right up until the point that there were multiple small fires out of my control. Gradually I became more aware of the patterns of the fire, and of the goal behind the smaller actions involved in keeping the fire in line.

Prairie Fire
At one point I saw flames brightly and colorfully reflected in big drops of water Lisa had just sprayed on the grass. So I knew that grass was wet and had no need of my attention, so I turned to other fires to swat. The next time I looked at the same area, it had become a bustling city of little flames, sprouted there as if by magic, or mischief! Vigilance is a must.

Little flames could also crouch unseen, hiding under small thickets of green grasses and plants. They seemed to watch with bright eyes until I turned away, then they’d suddenly burst forth and consume the towering goldenrod above them, as well as the shorter stems that had covered them. I could understand how ancient people might have attributed animate characteristics to fire.

The movement! The colors! The sound! The smell! The smell of a prairie fire is as homey to me as a campfire. Nothing was as unsettling, though, as the sound it made. Different plants burned with different sounds, but when many plants were burning inside of a wall of angry red and orange, the sound became cracking, popping, and a faint thrumming roar. I think it would have given me goosebumps if I hadn’t been so hot. If I heard that sound anywhere but in a controlled burn, my blood would to turn to ice in my veins. That’s the sound of death rushing straight at you.

And the animals noticed, too. We were only burning about 20 acres, so I’d guess that most of the animals we’d consider cuddly and cute were able to get away before they were in real danger. But the grasshoppers were caught by surprise. Some of them didn’t seem to be able to figure out which way to hop. Are they geriatric at the end of their season?

I had only a little time to contemplate the fate of some roasted grasshoppers, and wonder at the other animals who were (hopefully) making their escape. (In particular, I asked Lisa about snakes, her area of expertise. Could they slither fast enough?) But as I drove home, the implications of the power of fire wielded by human hands settled on me like heavy ashen dust.

Is this, then, what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands?

We decide when to burn; we decide when to plant. We decide what to kill; we decide what to preserve. We decide what to contain; we decide what to eradicate. Fire is the most blatant display of such powers I’ve ever seen. The scorched land we’d created with the use of fire recalled scenes or war, or descriptions of a hellish wasteland, a true gehenna. What will spring from these ashes, though, is a healthier prairie, covering the scars of fire with breathtaking greens, golds, reds, blues, browns, and purples in less than a year.

Fire kills, and fire brings life. It’s a heady experience to control a power like that, even just to see it. Maybe control is too strong a word; perhaps manipulate is better. Manipulate – is the root word related to hands? That would be appropriate. With our own hands, and our own brains, we choose how and when to use a power like fire.

Prairie Fire Preparation

Some tools of the trade: an igniter (the silver can) and water tank with pressure hose (the white container on the ATV)

Fighting that fire (for that was my role, though others had different roles) was tough and rewarding. Though I’m inspired by the prairie settlers’ tenacity, bravery, and toughness, I can see that they were fighting a perpetual battle against a force of nature. Prairies and fires are as inextricable as forests and leaves.

Restoration ecologists know this about North American prairies: you can’t have a thriving prairie ecosystem without bison… and fire. Fire, as destructive as it seems to humans, is necessary for the renewal of the prairies, and the removal of trees. Prairie Fire

Trees, yes – those symbols of restoration. “Plant a tree!” we’re told. But trees are the enemies of some ecosystems. Trees and grasses are ancient enemies; where one thrives, the other rarely survives. So, fire it must be to keep the prairies alive. Fire, bison, and now humans, for so much of the prairie is incarcerated behind concrete bars and barriers that we are the new bison; we are the new force of nature, and in our hands is the power to protect or destroy.

After the prairie fire

Part of the fire team reflects after the burn is over. Note the charred area behind us.

Field Notes Friday 0021: Homo sapiens var. photographensis

I’m studying Homo sapiens var. photographensis. How does this subspecies take such excellent photographs? Let’s observe this one in particular.

Homo sapiens var. photographensis

He crouches. He stands. He reflects. He shades his eyes. He adjusts his tripod. No good; he shakes his head and moves to another location. He leans in. He zooms in. He seems to freeze for several moments. The breeze blows. He waits.

Suddenly, his finger deftly presses a button. Click!

He repeats this process. Several times.

Inexplicably (to the uninitiated photographer), he goes to his car to get another lens. He returns and continues to repeat the previous process, relocating, moving, pausing. He seems to ponder something unseen to this observer.

Homo sapiens var. photographensis

His clothes and hat show he is prepared for long hours outdoors. His conversation is full of species names and descriptions, which can also be heard when conversing with H. sapiens var. entomologista, botanista, forestris and others… but conversation with individuals of the subspecies photographensis often reflect a depth of observation not found among the impatient or collectors. He can describe butterfly dances, bird parades, and other secret behind-the-scenes shows of nature.

I’ve been observing this individual for almost 30 minutes now, and the blazing sun, high humidity, and 80 degree temperature seems not to have an effect. Truly, this is a hardy variety of Homo sapiens.

(With apologies to the highly esteemed photographer in these photographs. These are my actual field notes from Tuesday.)

Homo sapiens var. photographensis

 

Field Notes Friday 0020: Star Milkvine (Matelea biflora)

DISCOVERED: starfish alien flower life form!

I ecstatically soaked up information and enthusiasm at the 5th Annual the State of the Prairie Conference. I’m beyond glad that the Coastal Prairie Partnership decided to host the conference in Fort Worth, the Prairie Queen City of Texas. I might never have heard of the conference otherwise, and would be truly impoverished if I never met this group of knowledgeable, engaged, and proactive biologists, conservationists, land owners, and practitioners.

One of many great features of the conference was the field trips. My chosen trip was to the McFarland and Hilmont ranches. Jason Singhurst of Texas Parks and Wildlife and Dana Wilson were along, and their wealth of plant knowledge was as useful as it was stunning. I saw and touched plants I’ve never even heard of before. One of them was Matelea biflora, a vine I’ve never seen. LOOK at this thing!

Matelea Biflora

Notice the hairyness. Also, did you see the reason it’s called biflora (two flower)? There’s a green bud in the frame. These plants usually have two flowers together – no more, no less. (I’ve heard Star Milkvine is also called two-flower milkvine. Have you heard something like “two-flower milk weed vine” as its common name? I couldn’t find any references to that name online, but I only made a cursory search.)

Out of context, this plant may seem weird, or perhaps even wonderful, but it’s as disjunct as a factoid on a cereal box.

Only when you climb a hilltop in a generational ranch which is ecologically managed, and see this plant in its full range of life stages, scattered amongst other glorious flowers and inconspicuous green life, and take in the air and clouds and breadth of view – and realize you’re standing in a precious ecosystem that we have the power to save or wipe out – do you realize any plant’s significance. Star Milkvine is a harbinger of habitat, an ecological beacon. Whether it’s on the Floristic Quality Index or not, this plant is associated with good prairie, and if you live in the DFW metroplex (or any other urban area in the central US which is bursting at the seams) you understand how vanishingly rare that is.

McFarland Ranch

Star Milkvine in context at the McFarland Ranch

I’m proud to have ‘discovered’ this weird life form and to have documented it. I’ve been re-introduced to iNaturalist.org by Michael Fox, and I think I’ve finally got the impetus to fully participate, so I’ll be uploading my finds from this conference to iNaturalist soon. I’ll also be sharing more photos via my Facebook and Tumblr page, so stay tuned.

Thank you for participating in Field Notes Friday by reading my observations and and by sharing yours. We make a difference in others’ lives when we share our field notes; we’re educating and enchanting our friends and the public with the otherwise unnoticed life all around them.

The Richness of Listening

There’s more depth to our outdoor experiences when we take the time to listen. This hazy previous knowledge suddenly crystallized into understanding as I was participating in a bird banding research project this week. This is an excerpt from my field journal about the experience.

The richness of listening

Ken heard a call and almost instantaneously identified it and its location. He suddenly had an even deeper knowledge of The Bowl [an area of the prairie we were in]. He knew there was a Ladderback woodpecker in the trees. Maybe 2, calling to each other. In short order (when we were done banding) he had located a nest. Now there’s a game cam there, hoping to catch evidence of activity.

So  I realize: knowing nature by SOUND makes an experience so much richer. Birds. Frogs. Even some trees can be identified by their sounds in the wind.

Jim said he couldn’t hear the calls I asked him to identify. Rock & roll music & heavy machinery were the culprits, he said. I joked that it feels like by the time I can identify birds by sound, I’ll be so old I can’t hear them. But Jim said women seem to hang on to their hearing in that range longer. We’ll see. I know I protect my hearing with earplugs more often than anyone I know – although more people are admitting to bringing earplugs to movies lately.

So I want a way to study bird calls. I can A) attend more birding walks. B) Hang out with birders more. C) Design my own course: Pick key species in the area & season, look at their photos, & play their calls from my Audubon app. Repeatedly.

I consider myself a fast learner when it comes to music tunes, but those are created by humans & I can generally repeat them, practice them. I can’t whistle and haven’t found a way to faithfully imitate or recollect bird songs in a meaningful way, and I can’t rely on devices yet to listen & identify. This is hard work!

How and when do you like to listen? How do you remember calls? I’m all ears.

Field Notes Friday 0008: Cycles of Life

This week I’ve been powerfully reminded: I’m constantly participating in a cycle of creation and regeneration. But wait! It’s not as new-age as it sounds. I actually got to participate in the very tangible life cycle of a particular plant in the last three months.

In December I helped with a prairie plant rescue, and described my interaction with Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium), a relatively unknown but interesting native plant. But there was another plant that was also a focus of the plant rescue: Penstemon cobaea, aka Foxglove (and a few other names).

We sifted through fields of gold looking for tall, stately, dark strangers (can you see them?): Penstemon cobaea

Here’s Penstemon, ready for harvest ~ Penstemon cobaea

And here’s the gold. Penstemon cobaea seeds. Penstemon cobaea seeds

And for those who follow me on Twitter, you may already know that I attended a Friends of LLELA meeting and won, as a door prize, a two year old Penstemon grown by the same folks who arranged the prairie plant rescue! Penstemon cobaea

Now these pictures may seem humble enough (though I find winter plant forms fascinating, as David Gaylord Chizum of the Native Plant Society also does – he published “Winter’s Botanical Strip Show” the very day after I went on the winter plant rescue!).

If you find the above photos underwhelming, you’re not alone. My Google searches returned not one photo of Penstemon in winter. Not one! I was shocked; the internet seems to have everything else. But perhaps Penstemon doesn’t attract enough attention in the winter, or its winter habit is known by plant lovers yet eclipsed in their minds by its Spring form. Just take a look at this absolutely glorious representation of what’s in store in my Penstemon’s life (from Dallas Trinity Trails’ blog):

Yes, it’s gorgeous. I’m excited to see it. But all stages in a life cycle have their own beauty, winter included. So… I haven’t yet participated in the full Penstemon cobaea cycle. But soon. And I predict it will feel very, very rewarding indeed.

Find out what Field Notes Friday is all about and how you can be part of the movement: #FieldNotesFriday.

Field Notes Friday 0006: Rattlesnake Master and New Eyes

DSCN6190

Trying something different today – posting a picture I took in the field. This was from a December seed-collecting trip in one of the remnant prairies in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

This is a Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium). I like its stark contrast with the azure sky, and the obviously wintry trees in the background.

Things I noticed about RSM (as I abbreviated it in my notes):

  • This plant is well armed against herbivory!
  • Echinacea & RSM seedheads “look like sisters”
  • The stalk is so stiff that when I removed seedheads, the recoil spread a few seeds. That reassurds me that I wasn’t removing the whole population.
  • Other species close by (associates): Echinacea, azure sage, little blue stem, Dewberry, wild rose
  • Gathering is very good work for learning a species.

Things I’ve learned:

  • It’s an erygnium! Like “Eryngo”, that gorgeous purple “thistle” in the carrot family
  • Huge range in the US: Mentally draw a big rough trapezoid from Florida Westward to Texas, North to Minnesota and East to Ohio

After I found my first patch of Rattlesnake Master by blundering onto it, and removed every seed head I could find, I realized I was clueless to where I should go next. So I stood in place and looked down. What species were at my feet? Then I looked farther away. What species were clumped beyond this patch that weren’t represented here underfoot? How did the other patches of vegetation look: color & texture? How did this one compare? My impressions that other patches were warm maroon brown, and [the one I was in was] ‘spikey’ with hackberries. (There were other clues, like Dewberry thickness and proximity to motts vs open prairie.) So using my new ‘vision,’ I picked out a similar spot about 1/8 mile away. I walked there and was elated as if finding an old friend when I went right to more Rattlesnake master: There ARE patterns to be discerned.