Archive for June, 2005

Sericea lespedeza

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

We chatted with the USDA man about many things during his visit on Monday. One of them was the encroachment of an invasive plant that he has been warning landowners about. The plant is sericea lespedeza, commonly known as Chinese lespedeza. Here is a picture of the nasty stuff.

This plant was introduced decades ago with the hope that it would provide many wildlife benefits, especially for Missouri quail, which are in decline right now. Only recently has it been learned that the seeds are not digested after they have passed through the quail’s gut.

Unfortunately, the plant is now spreading, and the USDA man spoke of entire farms over in Kansas that are covered with the lespedeza, making them impossible to sell! As we stood beside our trucks shortly before his departure, he peered around the relatively open area, looking for sericea lespedeza. And — dammit — he found some!

He pointed out a few isolated plants, and I promptly pulled them up. After imparting this important bit of knowledge, the USDA man left us.

Then, as I feared, everywhere I looked, I saw the damnable things! There were dozens growing around our shelter tarp (where we had retired for lunch, respite from the heat, and languid musing). I yanked these offenders out of the ground too. And now I’m on a mission. I can identify the plant by sight, and everywhere in the forest I’ll be looking for it. Fortunately, it doesn’t do well in shade, so I think I can focus my search-and-destroy missions to the open areas. I’m hoping I don’t find a lot of this, and I’m also hoping that my yanking solution will work. I generally manage to pull out the roots, so I hope that eradicates the individual plant. I expect this to be an on-going project at Roundrock, so maybe I’ll have further postings about it in the future. Wish me luck.

Fishy Mystery

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005

Since I’m still doing battle with that gubment software, trying to extract a map of Roundrock from it, I’m going to fall back to this post, even though it had nothing to do with yesterday’s visit to the woods.

Last August when our builder said he could come out and make repairs to the dam, he told us we would have to drain the remaining puddle of water out of the bottom so that he could get his heavy equipment down in the bowl. When we did, we found this:

These poor little fish were sucked out of our puddle lake and spewed across the pecan plantation.

Boy, did I feel bad about that! Of course, we never knew that we had fish in the lake. There were plenty of times when I remarked to L that a tadpole which had just darted out of my sight sure looked like a fish. Since we hadn’t stocked any fish in our lake, though, that couldn’t be. Yet when we opened the drain valve, we’d murdered thousands of them. I didn’t feel much like a wildlife steward then.

How did the fish get there? I have two possible explanations. One is that they came in on the feet of visiting water birds. More precisely, sticky fish eggs came in on the feet of the birds. I’ve heard accounts of this before. A duck or heron visits one body of water and picks up a few eggs accidentally. Then the bird visits our lake and the eggs come loose and thrive in the (mostly) predator-free water we have. Some species of minnows can bring out three and four generations during a typical Missouri summer. The fish in the photo are about an inch long, but several were twice that size, suggesting generational difference.

The second explanation involves the old cattle pond in our NW corner. We have pulled a few tiny sunfish from this pond, so we knew it has some kind of population despite the neglect it has received over the last few decades. It is possible that during one of the really big rainstorms, the pond overflowed and some little fish went over the spillway. This drains into one of the many ravines we have, and the path eventually leads to the lake. Thus the fish may have come down from our pond one very exciting day.

The USDA man had suggested a third possibility during his visit yesterday. He said that many people will “come across” a new lake or pond and feel it is their duty to begin stocking it (for their own personal use, apparently). It may be that one of my neighbors told a friend who knows a guy who’s related to another guy who may have mentioned to another guy that there was a pristine lake back up in the hills. By stocking it, they can hasten the day when they might fish it. All very benign and unspoken.

To punctuate this possibility, when we arrived at the lake yesterday, there were fresh tire marks in the grass on the top of the dam. Someone had visited very recently. I wonder now if I have more fish in the lake.


Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

Wonderful day at Roundrock. Let me tell you about it.

We stopped in town to meet with the USDA man at his (air conditioned) office, and the first thing he showed us was a nifty online site that allowed us to look at aerial photos of our woods. There are all sorts of ways you can filter data to get different views of the target. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work with Macs, but I’ll work on that and report later.)

The fellow was all spit and polish. Very by the book, but also very well informed. He talked about various techniques for curing leaky dams. Mostly it came down to lots of Bentonite, but he also cautioned that sometimes, well, there is no hope.

After our air-conditioned meeting, we headed out in the 90+ degree weather and drove to Roundrock. As I said before, we’ve gone several weeks without rain now, so we expected Lake Marguerite to be a bowl of dry mud. As we came down the hill through the trees, L peered through them and exclaimed that there was water down there! Astonishing. We had assured Mr. USDA that we would have very little water, and yet the lake was fuller today than when we had last visited — after a series of big rainstorms — two weeks before. The photo above shows what we found. (The photo is looking to the southwest. I am standing on the dam. That black thing on the far shore that is also reflected in the water is an old burned log, about five feet long. That should give you some scale.)

Mr. USDA was instantly impressed. We’d misled him (and ourselves), and what he found was far more than what he expected. He must see hundreds of lakes in a year, but he complimented us on the “really nice lake” we had. I was smiling, inside and out. As we stepped out onto the dam, three ducks rose from the water and flew into the trees in the west. Mr. USDA thought they looked like wood ducks, which is what I have been hoping to attract.

He examined the dam and the overflow devices. The primary overflow drain pleased him. It is a sort of cage near the top of the dam to allow water to exit without going over the dam. The emergency spillway, however, needs some work in his estimation. An afternoon with a small bulldozer should be able to fix it, though.

He said he thought the soil used for the dam was pretty good despite being gravely, and when we walked along the base of the dam, he said that he didn’t think the leaks were too bad. He’s concluded that the leaks are not coming from the dam itself but that the water is making its way under the dam. This gives us a better idea of where to apply the Bentonite. We’ll drop it in the water about 40 feet west of the top of the dam so it can fall to the lake bottom and begin creating a better seal there. All we need now is a boat. Hmmmm.

He stuck around for a couple of hours with us, answering questions and pointing out all sorts of interesting things. He showed us how to distinguish between grasses, rushes, forbs, and sedges (they really do have edges). He looked askance at our pecan plantation, fearing that the trees would not survive. (We found plenty that looked to be surviving nicely however!) And he doubted I would ever find an arrowhead at Roundrock. Yet he made plenty of suggestions for opening the forest and rejuvenating the native prairie grasses that are resting dormant in the ground, waiting for their chance. He frowned on my ambition to grow maples, but only because they are not native to the immediate area. He said that if I could manage to get them going, they would be good for the wild things. He encouraged us to call or write him anytime, and he said he would be happy to come back to the site whenever we asked him. Overall, his prognosis was very hopeful. He thought we could beat the leaks and then have a lake ready for stocking with fish.

Then he left.

And then we jumped in the lake!

How fine that was! The water was warm, all the way down to our toes. In fact, on the surface it was a little too warm, and if we kicked our feet, we could swirl up pleasingly cooler water from below. What a contrast to the conditions we’d meet only two weeks before! We stayed in the water for more than two hours, swimming, floating, and wading. We went from one end to the other and across to both sides. We watched the antics of a large turtle (perhaps a snapper?) on the other side of the lake. Every 20 minutes or so, it would surface for a while and splash around then disappear under the water. As we bobbed in the water, a deer came down for a drink at the other end of the lake. It wandered around the area a bit and very slowly disappeared into the brush. With great reluctance, we finally pulled ourselves out of the water. After two hours of swimming, however, we found we had to reacquaint ourselves with gravity and balancing. Eventually we mastered them both.

Before leaving, L encouraged me to take a picture of the lake since the water was so still. The photo above is the result. The sun was beginning to go down, which is why the light is bleaching the top right of the photo a bit. Nice reflections though.

There’s lots more to tell, and I’ll manage to do that in more posts.

Meanwhile, back in suburbia . . .

Monday, June 27th, 2005

L and I are probably out sweltering at Roundrock as you read this, so I’ve made this post early to make sure I have something to offer for Monday.

This seems to have been a favorable year for maple trees in suburban Kansas City. I must have about twenty maple seedlings poking up here and there in my yard at home. Fortunately, our landscaping maintenance work is more benign than vigorous, so the seedlings have not been chopped down or yanked up. And that leads to my plan.

I want to nurture these (I think they are mostly red maples, but there may be a silver or two among them) through the summer so that I can dig them up in the fall and replant them in favorable places at Roundrock.

I have mentioned before that we have not come across any maples in all of our ramblings around our forest. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, I want to increase the diversity of the woods as much as possible. Since these maples are presenting themselves so adorably in my small back yard, I think I ought to take advantage of the opportunity and use them in my big back yard.

I have tried this before, with universal failure. L and I received a gift of two red maples sired from trees at Walden Pond, but the implacable Ozark summer drought killed them. Past maples I’ve taken from my yard have been devoured by the deer, though one I planted this spring was thriving the last time I checked it. I built something of a brush pile over it to keep the deer away until it can get its roots established. I think then it can withstand browsing a little better. And this is why I am hopeful that my current maple ambition will have a chance to succeed.

There are other perils, of course. We will not be able to water these trees as much as they would receive in suburbia. They will have to take their chances. However, I can plant them on the north-facing slope, which tends to stay wetter, and I can put them near where I know water flows after rains so they will have that advantage as well. I’ll continue to try the brushpile defense. And I’ll see what happens. It’s part of the adventure, after all.

Still More Dam News

Sunday, June 26th, 2005

There are plenty of real-world reasons why the dam at Roundrock won’t hold water, but I suspect the actual reason is that the gods have it in for me.

You may recall me mentioning that L and I had taken a rock carving class at our local community college. My project was to make this birdbath:

While everyone else was chipping away at big chunks of limestone, I found this easy-to-work piece of sandstone in the pile. I was able to carve out the bowl in a short while using something like a circular saw. Then I used hand tools to work the surface to give it a more human touch. I was pleased with my work, and when we took it home, we placed it where it could be easily seen just outside the window of the breakfast nook.

But the gods were waiting.

Sandstone, it turns out, absorbs water! I proudly filled my birdbath and then watched over about 20 minutes as the water disappeared. So I refilled it. Then again. And so on.

Once I understood what was happening, I let it get dry then applied a spray sealer to the bowl. This actually worked . . . for a while. But I’ve found that I must repeat the application, and a friend suggested that I might try brushing on some more industrial-strength polyurethane. And maybe I will.

The parallels with Lake Marguerite at Roundrock are chilling, don’t you think? Perhaps it is that I am not entitled to have bodies of water in my life. I’m tempted to suggest the polyurethane solution to the USDA man when we see him tomorrow. I don’t know if he’ll go for it, but don’t be surprised if a picture appears here of a man carrying a bucket and a brush in a big muddy bowl of land in the Ozarks.

More Dam News

Sunday, June 26th, 2005

Tomorrow L and I will dash down to Roundrock to meet with a man from the USDA to discuss possible solutions to the dam leakage problem. We are in the midst of a dry period right now, so the lake will probably be low, allowing the government man the chance to prowl along the upstream side of the dam to see whatever it is he can see and discern from it. He may even take soil samples to see whatever that will tell him.

Among the possible solutions is an application of salt, which some have told me can emulsify the soil of the dam and help create a better seal. The more likely solution, though, will be to drain the remainder of the lake, take the heavy equipment down in there again, and mix in a lot more Bentonite. Then I suppose there will be some serious packing of the upstream side of the dam to compress it all well and squeeze my wallet a little more.

The USDA man has only a small window of time to give us. Thus after he is finished with us, L and I will poke about Roundrock and do what we can here and there. I plan to take plenty of pix to share on this blog.

What was I thinking?

Saturday, June 25th, 2005

In reflective moments, often when L and I are sitting in the comfy chairs under the shady tarp overlooking the empty lake, I sometimes wonder how I came to the land.

There is very little in my family background to suggest it. As far as I know, my grandfather was the only land baron in our gene pool, and his farm was a little more than a roadside acre in western Kentucky. He had acquired his farm in his semi-retirement and grew some vegetables, raised some chickens, and had a hive of bees, but he made no pretensions about being a Farmer. And that’s the only family influence I can find. When we told my parents that we had purchased some land in the Ozarks, they wondered how much trouble it was going be to clear the trees so we could begin farming it. Holding land in its natural state was not something they ever considered. (We did grow winter wheat briefly on the dam, but that was only to protect it against erosion until other grasses could take its place.)

I think I can tangibly point to my years in the Scouts for giving me a love of Missouri oak forests. Every summer we spent a week at camp in the Ozarks, and I can still picture the trails through the trees that I wandered. Plus, the old Scouting admonition to leave a campsite better than you found it seems to be at work in my approach to Roundrock. I want it to be a better place after my years of stewardship are ended. Beyond that, though, I think all of my influences came from books, and there are several that come to mind.

Foremost is Sue Hubbell’s A Country Year. I’ve read this many times, and if I had to recommend a single outdoorsy book to someone, this would be it. A rewarding read, I think it should be on everyone’s shelves. Hubbell is a careful observer, an excellent writer, and a wry wit. Each passage is a pleasure. The stumbling observations I attempt to make of the natural world are in imitation of what she achieves in this book. Sue Hubbell has written several natural history books, and I had the good fortune to visit her at her Ozark cabin many years ago. The cabin is now gone, and Hubbell has moved to Maine, but her influence remains.

Another writer who has helped evolve my conceit that I can be a steward of the forest is Donald Schueler. His book, A Handmade Wilderness speaks specifically about how he and his partner took some discarded land in Mississippi and transformed it over time to a place worthy of protection by the Nature Conservancy. The story of these two gay men, one black and one white, in rural Mississippi gets a bit histrionic at times, but it is fascinating nonetheless.

Two Kansas City-area writers also get credit for my mania. Cathy Johnson, a gifted writer and illustrator, has penned many natural history books, and I’ve read most of them, but the one most meaningful to me is A Naturalist’s Cabin. In it she gives an account of her own quest to find the perfect piece of wild land and then build her cabin retreat on it. When she draws her own blood whilst hammering a nail, her vivid comment that the drops are an appropriate baptism for her ambition stays with me. It is a shame that this book is out of print and hard to find.

Even closer to home, so to speak, is the Kansas City Star writer Charles Gusewelle. In his newspaper column he often writes of his country property, which happens to be on the other side of the very same county as Roundrock. But it’s the chapters in his book Far From Any Coast dealing with his cabin in the woods that first gave me the idea that I could do the same thing. He is a superb stylist and a practical, hands-on man who rides the waves of country property management with aplomb.

There are other influences, of course. Many I’ll probably never realize. John Graves’ book about his Texas ranch Hard scrabble reached me during my formative years. The natural history works of Michael Pollan are always interesting. I’ve just lately come to discover the works of Hal Borland, and, of course, there is no match for the finest book about observing nature: Watchers at the Pond, by Franklin Russell. (Sorry, no good link.)

Stepping stones

Friday, June 24th, 2005

stepping stones

This post is an anachronism. I wrote it on December 14, 2011, and backdated it here.


I’ve written of the ephemeral pond below the dam before. It is a pool of water that collects from the leak under the dam. The leaking water runs along the south side of the pecan plantation, and there really isn’t a good place for crossing it.

With the construction of the new spillway, a lot of bedrock has been exposed, and some of it has split free, giving me these nice stepping stones. Using a wheelbarrow and a lot of muscle, I managed to get the two rocks down the spillway and to the edge of the water. Then I tipped them onto the ice, which looked to be about three inches thick.

My hope is that once they settle to the bottom, their tops will still be above water and I can use them to get across the pond. If not, there are several more large slabs up the spillway that I can put to use. I may know as soon as this coming weekend (mid-December, 2011) since I hope to get out to the woods one last time this year (again, 2011).

Legalities and Technicalities

Friday, June 24th, 2005

When L and I were searching for a bit of wilderness to call our own, we looked for the most remote, nearly inaccessible patches of forest we could find. Fortunately, we had an agent who understood what we were after and was able to make two suggestions within the meteor impact site, one of which became our Roundrock. (Note: We did not know that this was a meteor impact site until many years later.)

Not only were we looking for solitude and land that would be least affected by the doings of those around us, but we had an eye on avoiding potential trespassers and general no-good-niks. One site the agent showed us would have involved replacing our muffler or rear bumper after each visit, and it was downhill from a number of other landowners who may or may not have shared our land ethic. It had the remote features we sought but not the control ones. The other piece of woods — which became Roundrock later that afternoon at a small diner in the county seat — was a bit easier to get to and had the advantage of being at nearly the top of its watershed.

But most appealing of all, it was about two miles off of the paved road, through a locked gate, and at the top of a hill with a pretty crumby road. When we visited the county courthouse with the thought of purchasing an aerial photo of the land, the man behind the counter gave a whoop and assured us we were “really back there!” (We didn’t get the photo. Since it is nearly all forested land, the photo offered no telling details. Plus it was 10 years old, and the developing process results in images that fade into faint purple smudges quickly. I suppose that induces you to get a new photo periodically, perhaps after a new one has been snapped.)

Our insurance man strongly recommended that we post our property in order to reduce our liability in case any no-good-niks did happen to use our forest and end up injuring themselves. I hate seeing such signs. They seem unwelcoming and jarring, but I understand the need for them. So L and I posted signs at the two entrances and at other likely spots along our borders. I have no illusions about the effectiveness of these signs. Slob hunters will give them no heed. Many locals consider untenanted land to be open for passing through and even some low impact use. This is part of the culture of the Ozarks, and it’s not an indication that the people are scofflaws. It’s simply part of a regional heritage that is slowly giving way. In fact, open range livestock laws were reversed only relatively recently in Missouri.

Nonetheless, in my experience my neighbors have been respectful, and if one or two have “snuck” on our land, it’s probably because I have mentioned once or twice that I don’t object. As long as they aren’t dumping leftover paint in the lake or leaving bags of trash in the trees, I don’t object to them visiting. I doubt that they stay long anyway since there is not much to see (except the empty lakebed. Grrrr!). The man who built our dam even asked permission to hunt the area later. That was considerate.

When we built the road that became the Greenway, we followed what appeared to be an old road cut in the ranching days. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the local horsey set had been using that old road to get from here to there. We even found a stray horseshoe once. When we put up the signs, the riders stopped using it immediately. The result is that the Greenway grows over instead of staying relatively open and clear. That’s a little sad. I wouldn’t mind horses and riders passing through. I wish I hadn’t made them feel unwelcome.

It’s not that we want to be hermits. The vibrant life we hope to create at Roundrock includes not only the wildlife but the talking mammals who we hope will visit and enjoy what is there to be shared. (Though we probably won’t require our guests to write hummingbird haikus.)

An old fence travels around two-thirds of the border of Roundrock. L and I pick a suitable day each winter to hike our border to ensure that the line is being respected. We have cut a passable path along the line, and the recently cut lower limbs on the trees let the neighbors know we are paying attention. All of this may seem a bit melodramatic, but the hard lesson learned by someone we happen to know in the next county over has also been instructive for us.

Dread Piracy

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

One winter day, L and I were hiking west in our central valley. There was snow on the hillsides around us but the temperatures were comparatively mild, maybe in the upper 30s. We had left the lake and were crunching through the dust and gravel of the dry creekbed coming down from the hills ahead. As we proceeded up the valley, we came to a small pool of water in the creekbed. It was snowmelt that had accumulated in a low spot of the creek. It was picturesque, but we had miles to go before we slept, so we didn’t linger.

Not too much farther up we had to cross to the other side of the creekbed because of the lay of the land. This was a bit of a problem, though, because the running water here was too deep to wade and too wide to leap. As we puzzled how we would get across this torrent, the thought suddenly came to me: Where was all this water going?

The creekbed we had just hiked up was bone dry! Yet here, farther upstream, the water was flowing vigorously. The gods have played a trick on me, you see. Roundrock is the site of subterranean stream piracy. Because of the geology in this part of the central valley, creek water can disappear in the gravel of the creekbed and flow underground. It may stay subterranean for miles, coming up as a spring somewhere or disappearing into the water table. Or it may resurface somewhere downstream and be a conventional creek again.

Either way, it is not flowing into our lake!

The snowmelt that day provided a relatively mild flow compared to the capacity of the creekbed. During heavy rainstorms, the amount of water coming down from the watershed can easily exceed the size of the piracy and thus pour lovingly into our lake. This is how Lake Marguerite gets filled once or twice a year. But all of that in-between rain that comes down the central valley — the rain that might help keep the lake fuller longer — apparently doesn’t ever reach the lake. I guess this can account in part for why our lake doesn’t appear fuller even when many nearby bodies of water do. Rats!

There is a good side to this. Possibly. Where there be piracy, there may be caves. We have not yet discovered any caves at Roundrock, but this spot has potential. There is a small seep coming out from under a rock near the pool of water we had come upon. It drips in all but the driest weather, and the crack in the ledge it comes from seems to go back a way. Beside it, covered by the tall grass of the ranching days, is what looks like a pile of rocks. This may be where part of the ledge collapsed, which would mean it was hollow underneath. Some winter day, when the temperatures are more friendly and the insects are all gone, I’m going to have at the pile with a shovel and pry bar. Then we’ll see!