About Me

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I am a mother, a teacher, and a nature lover. I grew up on a mountain we called Owls' Knob in the Ozarks of Arkansas. The first seven years of my life were spent living in a log cabin, far from a store or streetlight, without electricity or running water and after twenty years of travel, I returned to the abondoned homestead. Now I live on a hill by a small lake and work at a public garden. These are stories about nature written from a women deeply influenced by place.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Proud Fox Scat

While driving down Happy Hollow road near the south east end of Fayetteville the other morning, a red fox ran into my lane. I slowed and it stopped in front of my car with a slightly resentful look in its eyes. The fox seemed to be fearless as it trotted down the center lane slowly. I crept behind it in my car. The fox stopped after about a hundred yards and looked back at my car, as if it were trying to say, "Why are you following me?" Then it walked into the opposite lane, hiked up its tail, and took a shit, all the while glaring at my car.  Then the proud fox scraped its hind claws against the cement, trying to flick some dirt on its scat, as it walked away. With its nose in the air, it sauntered off the street and into a neighbor's yard, I thought about how strange the encounter seemed. Our relationship with nature has changed and its relationship with us is not the same. In so many ways it is all very strange. I honestly hope this fox does not pick a fight with a car that is in more of a hurry than I, because it would surely be a loosing fight.

A red fox preparing to take a shit in the street while glaring at me!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Flowers are Blooming

Flowers are blooming all over the Ozarks.

Red buds
 On the trees...
Sassafras Flower
 Among the stones and ledges...
 On the forest floor...
Hepatica and Spring Beauties
 Along moist creeks...
 Or marshy bogs...
Jacob's Ladder
 And dry mountain tops.
Cleft Phlox
 Some are delicate and unique...
Dutchman's Breeches
 While other's are common, yet beautiful...
Bird's Foot Violets
 And a few are found only in the Ozarks.
Ozark Wake Robin (an endemic trillium)
 So hurry... go outside!
But remember to stop
And smell the flowers!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Salamander Party

Dark-sided salamander (Eurycea longicauda melanpleura)

Lately I have been finding lots of salamanders at the Ozark Natural Science Center where I work out on the trail with children. It is amazing how few children have ever seen a salamander. Many of them ask me what a salamander IS when I tell them we are going to look for them. I try to explain that salamanders are amphibians but are shaped a bit like a lizard. Truly, they are nothing like lizards. Reptiles are fast on their feet and have the sharp eyes of a predator. The salamander has short stubby legs and it walks awkwardly, as if it is trying to swim or slither but its legs are in the way. In the water, salamander move with the grace and fluidity of a water snake, well really more like a leech. Though you make not think a leech can be graceful, when a large leech swims it looks like a rippling ribbon. Salamanders ripple similarly, like a silk rope.
I had heard that a group of children had spotted a group of cave salamanders near the mouth of Counterfeit Cave the day before. So I hiked with my group of a dozen fifth graders across the river and up the mountain at the Ozark Natural Science Center in search of the cave salamanders. When we arrive at the bluff shelter and began exploring the mouth of the shallow cave there, I told the children to look under rocks with me if they wanted to find salamanders. I did not know if we would find any but I had high hopes.
A dark-sided salamandert, missing much of its tail!
Before long a young girl squealed, "I found one!" I rushed over and was please to see a yellow and black salamander frozen on her palm. I snapped some pictures and looked it up in my favorite amphibian guide: Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri by Tom R. Johnson. When getting the book out I always have to explain to the children that animals don't pay attention to state lines and the land of Northern Arkansas is more like the mountains in southern Missouri than it is like the plains and swamps of southern Arkansas. With the book in hand I identified the salamander as a species of long-tailed salamanders, called the dark-sided salamander (Eurycea longicauda melanpleura). This tiny salamander's tail looked half as long as it should have been which is common because they distract predators by moving their tails. The missing tail can grow back so it is better to loose a tail than a head. These are lungless salamanders and absorb oxygen through their skin; therefore, we decided that the oils on our hands could cause the poor creature to no breathe properly. For the rest of the day we kept our hands off the amphibians.
A slimy salamander and a cave salamander (Eurycea lucifuga)
I had barely finished reading about the dark-sided salamander when a pair of boys managed to lift up a huge flat rock to discover two more salamanders: a bright orange cave salamander and a bluish-black slimy salamander. Though they wanted to touch them, these larger salamanders were much faster and I insisted we did not want to harm them. Like its smaller cousin, the cave salamander is also lungless and can be harmed by the oils on human hands. The slimy salamander (Plethodon albagula) is also lungless but it has an interesting defense, it excretes a whitish gluey substance when handled that its nearly impossible to wash off of hands and clothing.
While reading about these salamanders, a curious boy flipped over another rock a little further away from the mouth of the cave to discover a zig zag salamander. Both the slimy and the zig zag salamanders are in the Plethodon genus. All Plethodon salamanders lay eggs in underground caves or crevices where they protect their babies until they hatch out as tiny salamanders, skipping an aquatic tadpole stage! (Read more about Plethodon's here!)
I felt lucky to have seen so many salamanders in one day. But as we hiked back down the mountain I heard a girl say, "It is easy to find salamanders, you just have to look under rocks!"
I stopped walking and turned to the children for a final lesson.
"All these salamanders you saw today are in danger of becoming endangered. Amphibians, especially lung-less salamanders are very sensitive to pollution. They are the first to go when an environment is disturbed. All over salamander habitats are being destroyed by cities, buildings, roads and landscaping. All types of pollution is killing them too. Because they eat insects, and people use pesticides to kill insects, all types of pesticides can kill them too. Even the acidity from pine and cedar trees can make their aquatic home too acidic. Also, the fish people populate ponds with will eat amphibian eggs. Salamander populations are decreasing for many reasons. If we don't protect their habitat, they will not survive. They will become extinct."
Ozark Zig Zag Salamander (Plethodon angusticlavius)
We walked on in silence. I let it all sink in.
Then a boy asked me, "What would happen if we did not have nature."
"We could not exist," I answered solemnly.
"Because we ARE nature," another boy said.
I turned to him and smiled, "You are SO right!"

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Spring Buds

When the red buds bloom, it is a sign that spring is here for good. Their fushia flowers are unmistakable. However, during the same time, trees all across the Ozarks have buds of all kinds. Pollen pods and seeds appear on every limb tip, giving color and texture to the forest that has been barren for so long.

Red Bud Flowers

Buckeye Bud

Red Maple Seeds 

White Oak


Silver Maple Seeds

Once I began looking at the ends of every tree limb, I noticed seeds, pollen pods, and flowers that I had never taken the time to stop and inspect. Before the trees leaf out, the canopies take on color. This wash of misty colors becomes even more beautiful if you stop and examine the cause. Don't only stop to smell the flowers, but take some time to stop and look at all the other blooms on the limbs this season.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Criticism of the Lorax Movie

Every week I act out the Lorax for students at the Ozark Natural Science Center. So when I heard the movie, "The Lorax" was coming out, I was excited and worried. The movie of the Lorax was fun. I give it one thumb up! It was a good movie. Not the best, but I am hard to please. More people hearing the story of the Lorax is a good thing. The overall message is beneficial, delivered in  fun and cute way. That being said, I have three major problems with the movie:

1) The biggest problem is that the process was lost! The once-ler came and cut a few trees, a fast pace song played, and then the last tree was being cut down. Only then did the animals leave. Which does not show children that the animals NEED the forest to survive. It gave the impression that the forest was there for beauty and fun only. It was almost like the animals left because they were sad that the land was ugly, not that they were leaving (dying) because they had no food to eat, water to drink, or air to breathe. This was only intensified by the theme of selling air. This gave the message that there was no air because there were no trees and that was the only problem. But air is NOT the only reason we need trees. What about food! Water! Energy! By focusing on the air issue, it glassed over all the many reasons we need nature! Similarly, the process was lost on the other end as well. The boy planted a tree in the middle of town with a happy song and no struggle, and then the next moment the forests were returning. Of course, it would have been harder to show this process. But the process is so important and the movie skipped it all together.

2) Dr. Suess LOVED to rhyme! The movie purposely changed words and lines so that it would NOT rhyme. I did not expect the movie to rhyme the whole way through, but I wish they would have kept more of Dr. Suess language, lines, and rhymes!

3) I liked that the Lorax came back in the end. But when he returned he said to the once-ler "You did good!" I get that they were trying to show forgiveness but the once-ler did NOT "do good." He didn't "do" anything but tell the story (reluctantly) to a kid and give the kid a seed. They kid did everything. The once-ler did not deserve to be called "good." Some smaller remark of forgiveness would have be alright.

Again, I actually like the movie. It was fun and I think kids will enjoy it. There are a lot of stupid movies out there for kids. This is a great movie and I am glad children will be watching it!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ozark Zigzag

Along the trails, the Ozark Zigzag salamander has been spotted often in recent weeks under logs around the glade area at the Ozark Natural Science Center. This salamander is in the Plethodon family which is an amazing group of strange amphibians. They are lung-less salamanders that breath through their skin; therefore, they are very sensitive to pollution.  The Ozark Zigzag lays eggs in moist caverns or crevices deep in the earth. These eggs look like jelly marbles and are hung in a clear mucus-like sack suspended from the ceiling of their cavernous den. Parent salamanders stay with their eggs, watching over them until they are hatched.  When the offspring hatch they are not tadpoles like most amphibians; instead, they look like a smaller, baby version of their parents. Plethodons are unique among salamanders because their babies have no aquatic stage of life, defying the definition of amphibians!

Monday, March 5, 2012

How Do I Prune Neglected Peach and Pear Trees?

Peach Buds Blooming

Pear Tree in need of attention
Neglected Pear Tree
When we bought the house in Fayetteville, a selling point for me were the five neglected fruit trees out back. I suddenly owned five fruit trees, one pear, one cherry, and three peach trees. I didn't think about the fact that I knew nothing about caring for fruit trees.  I read that the cherry might be just fine with or without my care. Apparently cherries don't need a lot of pruning. So I have done nothing to that old tree.
Ozark pears trees are hearty and live a long time; however, this pear tree is a massive mess of branches all clustered together. All the branches shoot up, few branch out. I am not sure how to approach it. Should I cut most of these clustered branches? I don't want to cut too many. Please leave comments below if you have any ideas.
After a particularly harsh summer, with long droughts and high heat, the peach trees were near death. I gave them water to keep them alive in late summer. I also mulched the soil around them heavily in fall with good topsoil and leaves. I read a few different chapters from various books on pruning fruit trees. Basically, I take it that peaches need lots of pruning, don't live or produce fruit for long, and are not hearty. These poor trees might be a lost cause; nevertheless, I am giving it a shot.
Wire cutters for pruning
Peach Tree after pruning dead wood
Before spring began to make the peach buds blossom, I went out with a pair of dull pruning shears, a saw, and a pair a wire cutters. The wire cutters gave me the cleanest cut. I began by just cutting away the dead wood. The more I cut, the more I realized that just pruning the dead wood was going to cut the peach tree down to size. It seems like the peach tree pruned itself, killing off the wood that needed to go. But now that most of the branches are gone, the peach trees are not in the right shape. Still, if I cut more they won't have any branches left. I really don't know if the peach trees will survive. If they do, I doubt that they will produce fruit. Nevertheless, they are blooming and beautiful right now!

If anyone out there knows any tips about bringing back neglected fruit trees please leave a comment!