Archive for July, 2005

Tree Canopy

Sunday, July 31st, 2005

On our last visit, L and I hiked about in our SE corner, a spot we don’t visit very often. As a consequence, there were plenty of new things to see there. Like this nice bit of natural history:

What you see here is nature at work. In the foreground is the fallen top of a once-mighty red oak tree. And you can see the trunk it once stood on rising in the center of the picture.

When we gave it a good looking over, we found that the tree had been hollow and likely served as a den or cavity nest for many years. Some time in the last winter or spring, a storm finally snapped off the top of this tree and sent it crashing to the forest floor. (L and I were once in the forest during a wind storm and heard a tree like this fall. Quite an eerie sound.) The fallen top may now serve as a den site for some ground-dwelling critters before it eventually returns to the soil it sprang from, and the standing snag may yet serve as a good cavity nest for several generations of birds.

In the mean time, the tree canopy has been opened, and plenty of sunlight will now reach the forest floor that had been shaded for decades. What plants, seeds, or roots have been lurking here, biding their time as they waited for the return of the sun, I’ll get the pleasure to discover in the years to come.

This is exactly why I go to the forest!

Unplanned Water

Saturday, July 30th, 2005

It seems that we have a third body of water at Roundrock. There is the old, stinky cattle pond. There is the evanescent lake. And there is this pretty little thing:

This is a low area below the dam, on the south side of the pecan plantation. In a past life it was the last bed of the dry creek that drained our Central Valley. After the dozer did all of the leveling work to create the pecan plantation, this low area was left so that it could drain off any “occasional” seepage from the dam. It has been a reliable body of water all spring and summer so far.

On our visit this week we found it full of frogs, and in past visits, of course, there were hundreds of tadpoles living in it. L and I saw a deer and her fawn drinking here once. And there are plenty of raccoon and opposum tracks in the mud ringing it.

As long as the lake has water in it — as long as the dam continues to leak — this pool will have water in it. I don’t really mind (aside from the leaky dam part) since this pool may be more accessible to the wild things given the close cover it has. And it’s pretty. You can’t really tell from this picture, but there are some stands of rushes growing at the far end. The slope of the hillside coming down to the water also gives it a nice look.

I’ve also seen this area completely dried up, though that is generally in winter. I’ve been tempted to dig it deeper to try to guarantee a standing pool, but I don’t think that would work. I don’t know how deep the gravel goes in our Central Valley, so I might merely be opening a new drain for the pool if I go any deeper with it. Also, I don’t think it is the holding capacity of the soil here that causes the pool to linger for as long as it does. I think, rather, it is the constant recharge of water from the lake above it that keeps it full.

Primary Overflow System

Friday, July 29th, 2005

Despite draining more than 100 acres of watershed, we have never had water go over the top of the dam at Lake Marguerite. There are two reasons for this. One is the emergency spillway, which directs high water around the side of the dam (sort of). The other is the primary overflow system. On our recent visit I finally managed to take some pictures of the inlet so you can get an idea of how it works.

This is a concrete drum that is about four feet in diameter. (There must be a standard dimension for these things, but I didn’t measure it.) It is set vertically in the ground near the top of the dam. (The top of the dam is only about a foot and a half higher than the top of the drum. The lake is behind me from the perspective of the photo. Had the water been higher, I would have been standing in it.) The top of the drum is set lower than the lip of the emergency spillway. Thus excess water will drain here first rather than over the earthen spillway. I’m sure you can see how, when the water rises to its lip, it pours into the drum. The bottom of the drum is sealed with concrete so it holds the water, and our builder left an impression of the sole of his boot in it. I like that personal touch.

Before taking the photo, L and I got busy with the grass whip and cleared away the scrub that was growing around it, as you can probably tell. We also cleared away the flotsam — mostly sticks — that had accumulated against the screen. The presence of the flotsam shows that this primary overflow system gets put to use, though L and I have never been present when the lake was so high that this happened. It would be cool to see though.

The water then accumulates in the drum until it reaches the black hole at the back. This is a twelve-inch, corrugated plastic pipe that exits the drum and slopes down just below the surface of the earth of the dam. At the base of the dam, near the pecan plantation, the black pipe reappears, as shown here:

Clearly the water comes out of here with a great deal of force, and poor Pablo has some work to do to correct the erosion that has resulted. L and I have filled that ditch with rocks, and as you can see, they’ve been pushed aside with no difficulty. This gouged out area is not in the dam itself but in the floor of the pecan plantation. It probably is not compromising the integrity of the dam, but the USDA man suggested we make a modification to move the erosion farther from the base of the dam. He recommended that we get another length of the black corrugated pipe and attach it to the outlet here. (There are supposed to be special gaskets for this joinery, and I hope they hold so the extension of the pipe doesn’t get blasted off.) Since all we have is free time and money to burn, we’ll get right on that. This is a job for the fall, after the first frost but before the ground freezes.

You will also notice (in the top photo) a white pipe emerging in the center of the drum. This is part of the drainage system. We have a drain valve that we can open to let water out of the lake on purpose. So far, we’ve had no reason to do this since retaining water has been our priority, but it will likely be a handy thing to have in the years ahead.

Imagine a gigantic letter “T” made out of white PVC pipe. If you invert the “T” the part you see in the drum is its base, which is now on top. (Does that make sense?) The horizontal part of the “T” goes from a drain set in the floor of the lake at its deepest spot to the valve and its outlet on the pecan side of the dam. Thus it passes under the dam. The drain is a 55-gallon plastic drum with about a zillion one inch diameter holes drilled in it. The PVC pipe enters the plastic drum at its base.

The builder told me when he first built a drain valve system in his own dam that he had his son open the valve to see how well it worked. The boy did this and then closed it. Yet the flow was so strong — the pressure was so great — that the valve and the end of the drain pipe were blown off and their entire lake drained away.

From that lesson he began adding the vertical part of the “T” to act as an expansion area to absorb the pressure from a sudden closing of the valve. Now, he tells me, when that same action is repeated, the pressure sends a geyser of water shooting out of the top of the pipe emerging from the drum. I’d like to see that sometime, but I’m afraid that it would blow the screen off of the top of the drum as well. It would then sink to the bottom of the lake, and I’d never see it again.

nor any drop to drink!

Thursday, July 28th, 2005

When L and I head out to the woods, we generally take along jugs of water to cache for later tree nurturing. Here is our most recent cargo:

We then put these on the ground beside the pecan and pine plantations. If the weather has been dry, we will use them to water the trees; if otherwise, we simply reserve them for later use. In fact, we’re pretty certain we have a half dozen of these lost somewhere in the tall grass beside the pine plantation.

We don’t drink from them, though. In their past lives, these jugs held milk, and though we probably gave them a cursory rinsing, it’s likely that enuf of the milk lingered to provide a perfect breeding medium for bacteria. Add to that weeks and even months sitting on the forest floor, and you have a potentially interesting combination. Intestinally interesting.

L and I bring along our own bottled water to drink, and this time of the year, we drink plenty.

We started this practice of bringing the jugs of water in the days before the lake was filled and we didn’t have a reliable supply of water. The pond was always there, but the approach to it can be muddy, buggy, and stinky, so we don’t consider that a useable water source. Jugs that have any structural integrity after their time in the weather come home with us to be used again. We can get three or four trips out of a jug before it goes in the recycling bin.

With the Three Bears home from college for the summer, we have been producing plenty of empty milk jugs, so this way everyone gets to play a part.

Note: Indian Head Penny not to scale!


Wednesday, July 27th, 2005

I love going out the Roundrock because I always find something new and interesting. Today’s visit heaped discoveries on L and me, and they’ll be fodder for a few posts to come, but I’ll start with this.

What is this thing?

I’ve mentioned before that the club members who used to hunt the land that became Roundrock were a scrupulous lot. I’ve never found so much as a single shell casing on the land in all my wanderings. Nor is there much evidence of the past cattle ranching days. Yet I am always on the look out for signs of past human activity, just so I can get a sense of place and history.

I found this wire arrangement on the ground in the forest, probably 100 feet in from our eastern boundary. Certainly out of the way for a wrangler to have dropped it. I have this vague notion that I’ve seen something like it in a barn in one of my past lives, but maybe not. It rests on the tailgate of my truck, so that should give some sense of scale. Any ideas?

L and I addressed all of the usual chores on our visit. We watered the pines and used the handy grass whip to tidy up around them. We watered the baby maple. Sadly, though it is alive, some insect is eating the leaves. Perhaps the presence of this insect is why there are no native maples at Roundrock. We also watered the pecans, but there’s more sad news there. Only about a third of them were in leaf. The rest were obviously kaput. Well, that was expected. I will likely order another 50 pecans for planting next spring, but some year I must stop the madness. (Dread Pirate Roberts has suggested I plant some pines in among the pecans since the pines wouldn’t mind the dry gravel below the dam. At least not as much. Maybe I will.)

We then took a hike in a little-visited portion of our land: the SE corner. Before we built the road, this was the most remote part of our forest. Even now, with the road, it’s still the farthest point and the least visited. But today’s visit made me wonder why we don’t wander up there more often. More on that in a later post.

After our hike we made our way back to the shelter and had lunch, with the requisite post-lunch stupor. Bliss!

Temperatures were moderating after the triple-digit heat of the last week, but it was still plenty warm enuf to have a long swim. However, once we’ve finished swimming (that is, once we’re more or less clean of bugs, dirt, and sweat) we don’t want to do any more chores. Thus before we jumped in the lake (down another couple feet since our last visit), we took on one more task, in the most foolhardy way we could think of.

The road on our land passes through forest in two places: from the entrance going north to Blackberry Corner and down the hill to the dam. Along these passages, there are a number of low branches that scrape the roof of the truck or swat at the driver or passenger who has inadvisedly left the window down. We thought we could remedy that problem.

Our solution was that L would drive the truck slowly, and I would stand in the bed with the lopers in hand, reaching high to slice off the offending branches as we encountered them. It’s probably not as crazy as leaning a very long ladder against a tree branch and then climbing it, but the fact that it involves stop-and-go motion and sharp tools does boost it’s stupidity factor.

It seemed like a good plan, but the standing part needed reworking. I nearly tumbled out of the bed a few times when we started and stopped, so we modified the plan a bit. I would sit on the cooler in the back of the truck as L drove along. Then I would slap the roof of the cab when I wanted her to stop. (Note: the bed of the truck should also be cleared of things like other sharp tools, folded tables, and round rocks.) This was a safer method, but the novelty soon wore off, and I don’t think we did all of the trimming we might have. So much for looking like a mighty lumberjack with the wind in my hair.

Then it was swimming time, and I think we may have stayed in the water longer than we ever have. Ah, bliss!

Holey (wholly) Roundrock

Tuesday, July 26th, 2005

On our last visit to Roundrock, when L and I had wandered for two hours in the forest, not realizing just how far we had hiked, we came across this round rock early in the journey:

I thought it was photo worthy. When I bent down to examine the opening, I saw a small spider hiding within. Otherwise I might have tried digging out the mud to see just how deep the hole went. Instead I left the spider and its hiding place intact.

About one third of the round rocks we find have some sort of hole in them. Most are not as pronounced as this one. Many have just small impressions, like navels on oranges, which is appropriate since many of the rocks are about orange size. I’m not sure if the navels are a consequence of their formation or if they are merely a coincidence. In addition to the naveled round rocks, we have found many that are deeply pitted, looking much like the surface of the moon. But most that we’ve stumbled across are unblemished and consistent in texture.

(You will also notice my enemy in the lower left quadrant of the photo. That’s sericea lespedeza, though I’m certain this particular plant is no longer in a growing state.)

As I said when I originally posted about that hike, we had traveled much farther than we realized, and the hike back to camp got to be a bit less of a lark. As we pushed mostly easterly through the dense trees and scrub, we then came across this round rock:

Had it not been so hot, and had I not been so thirsty, and had I not been so longing to fall into the comfy chair under the shady tarp, I might have laughed. The fact that we had hiked in a big circle meant that we were nearly back to where we wanted to be. But the fact that we had hiked in a big circle when we were hot and tired and lacerated by the low and implacable branches of the black jack oak trees in our path made me feel the gods were laughing at me.

But obviously we lived to tell the tale.

So here I offer an image of one of the finer of our round rocks:

Some have suggested that we sell the rocks on eBay, but when I look at a beauty like this one, I realize that, like Rexroth’s Daughter commented, I could never part with them.

More Scrapings

Monday, July 25th, 2005

L pointed out that I neglected to include a photo of the thumb scraper that she had found at Roundrock, so here it is:

This was one of those odd and interesting stones that we often come across in our ramblings that may end up in our pockets to be examined later. L can’t recall exactly where she picked up this treasure, though I suspect it would have been in the dry part of the lakebed.

Curiously, this may have been a tool used by a lefty. The smooth area where a thumb rests so nicely suggests the southpaw connection. Here is a picture of your’s truly giving it a fit:

Some online research I have done indicated that the two larger implements we have found may not be scrapers but gougers. Okay. I’ll take that. Thus, here is our collection to date:

On one post-rainy visit to Roundrock, I came across a small pile of chipped stone in an area of washed-over dirt. It may have been a knapping spot — this was in the valley — but when we returned on a later visit, I couldn’t find the chips again. It is ironic that two of my ambitions seem to be in conflict. I would love to find an arrowhead — an unmistakable bit of human-worked stone — and I would love to have a lake. The place where I seem most likely to find the former is in the place where I am trying to hard to establish the latter.

Thumb Scrapers

Sunday, July 24th, 2005

I’ve written before about my ambition to find an arrowhead at Roundrock. An arrowhead. A spear point. A bird point. An axe head. Last week, Pure Florida posted some pix of points he had found in his ground, and he wrote a very evocative bit of musing about the experience of finding them.

Here are some things we have found that an archeologist identified as thumb scrapers.

The two smaller ones we found in unlikely places. The one on the right I spotted in the early days of the pecan plantation, when the ground was freshly scraped by the dozer. How it escaped being crushed or broken, I don’t know. It’s very likely I did not find it in its original location since the dozer pushed the gravel back and forth across the acre that would become the pecan plantation.

The one on the left we found in the lakebed when it was in its dry phase. It should have suffered a similar fate that the first should have suffered. Yet it also was unscathed. Once again, it is not likely that it was in its original location, but neither could have been very far from home. This gives me reason to think that our Central Valley may have been a native campsite many years ago. A campsite I’ve flooded.

Note how nicely the scraper fits in my fingers. There is even a smoothed depression that accepts my thumb nicely.

Each of these has a nicely worked business end, and each is suited for a right-handed person, which I suppose is not surprising.

We did not find the largest scraper at Roundrock but at a bit of woods in the next county. The area where we found it is peppered with dozens of mounds that are human sized and all aligned east/west. Are they burial mounds or simply remnants of the root wads of fallen trees? L is inclinded to the latter, but I am a foolish romantic.

Bobwhite Quail

Saturday, July 23rd, 2005

I’ve mentioned several times that I am interested in nurturing Missouri’s bobwhite quail population, which is currently in severe decline. One way to do that is to get myself educated about them, so here I go.

Bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) are indigenous to the eastern and southern U.S. and the southern part of the Midwest, including all of the great state of Missouri. They get their name from their characteristic call, which really does sound like “bob white,” or sometimes “bob, bob white.” It’s a call that takes me back to my boyhood summers at my grandparents’ farm in Kentucky where it seems like the name was constantly being sung in the fields and forests. Oddly, I’ve heard the call occasionally in the backyard of my suburban Kansas City home, but I’ve always traced it to damned starlings, who aren’t at all reluctant to steal other birds’ lovely calls.

I can’t recall ever hearing “bob white” in all of our many hours spent at Roundrock, which is sad. We’ve never flushed a covey of quail in our ramblings, and only once did I see what might have been a quail flying away from the pond when we stomped out of the trees.

Yet Roundrock does have most of the qualities that would be suitable for quail habitat. We have blackberries. We have woody edge areas. We have brush piles. We have water. We have impassable thickets. We have nearby crop fields. And we have a surfeit of cedar trees, which are supposed to provide good winter roosting places for quail. The wildly overgrown pecan plantation seems to have all of the qualities of good quail habitat. I even take some small encouragement from the spread of the sericea lespedeza, which may not be nourishing to the quail, but the fact that I find it all over the place suggests they are eating it and then ranging widely to “spread” it.

The wonderful Missouri Department of Conservation provides “quail bundles” in the plants it sells each year, and I may avail myself of some of these to increase my active role.

Roundrock is large enuf and wild enuf to support two and maybe three coveys of quail, so now all I have to do is make sure I don’t screw things up. I guess I’ll become more tolerant of blackberries. And, okay, maybe I’ll leave a few cedar trees standing here and there.

Boundless Prairie

Friday, July 22nd, 2005

The great state of Missouri is an ecotone — a transition area between the trackless forests of the east and the boundless prairies of the midwest. In the days before European settlement, our part of west central Missouri was mostly prairie, with trees generally being found only in valleys. I’ve read accounts of pioneers being left speechless by the endless seas of grass they encountered when they’d pushed this far, and one character in Giants in the Earth was even driven mad by the vastness of it all. (Indeed, the word “prairie” is a remnant of the French heritage of the region. The British settlers did not have a word in their language to describe the ocean of grass.)

True prairie is now rare in Missouri. Remnants are found here and there, and they are being protected as state parks or by visionary private land holders, but once a plow has broken up the network of roots that distinguish true prairie, the natural uniqueness is gone. Forget what you’ve heard about cowboys and cavalry. It was the steel plow that won the west!

Well, I don’t think I’m mad, nor do I think I’m all that visionary (though maybe they are the same thing), but it seems that part of what I will try to do by going to my forest is turn some of it back into prairie.

When the USDA man strolled about Roundrock with L and me, he commented that Missouri now has more forest land than it did in pre-settlement times. I found this astonishing. With all of the urban and suburban development, I would have guessed that Missouri would have far less “natural” state to it now than before, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

The satellite photo I posted of Roundrock shows a mostly forested rectangle of land. However, when I used that same program to look at an image of Roundrock from only ten years prior, the same rectangle was much more open. The upstart trees were there, but they hadn’t filled out enuf to block the sunlight from reaching the ground. Thus, a little more than a decade ago, grasses were growing at Roundrock, though they were in their twilight then.

The USDA man assured me that the grasses are still there, waiting patiently as massive root systems for their chance in the sun again. He walked some of the forest with us and pointed to stray wisps of grass poking up from the leaf litter here and there. These were “flag leaves” he told us, sent up to get just enuf sunlight to feed the roots below. When the tree canopy is finally breached — generally because a storm has toppled an old oak — the grasses will re-emerge and flourish while they can.

The USDA man said we could encourage this growth by thinning our forest in selected areas. Thinning is good as a forestry practice since it encourages the trees left standing to grow straight and tall. Yet it will also give the native grasses an opportunity to come forth. The combination of the two — a grass-filled forest — is certainly pleasing to my eye. But it can be more than that. It can be ideal habitat for many of the wild things that make their homes at Roundrock. It is especially good for the quail, and my stewardship ambition includes playing my part in restoring Missouri quail populations.

Forest thinning is time consuming, but it’s not all that difficult. And it provides immediate gratification. You can see the effects of your efforts right away by longer lines of sight and easier wanderings through the woods. There is a triangle of forest to the northeast of the dam that we will start working on. I think it’s time to go sharpen my saws now.