Archive for August, 2005

Mammal Castle

Wednesday, August 31st, 2005

Here is a view of our tarp shelter at Roundrock. It’s not fancy, but it has been surprisingly durable through the years.

L and I have cherished many hours in the chairs under this tarp. It’s here we usually have our lunch, our snacks, our bottles of water, an occasional ceegar for Pablo, and long, lingering conversations about everything and nothing.

We’ve come to the shelter on winter days to find it sagging under the weight of snow atop it. We’ve sat under it, snug and dry, during heavy rain storms. We’ve hidden from the August sun here. And we’ve looked down from here onto Lake Marguerite to watch the sparkling water as many times as we can contrive.

Construction is simple. We ran a stout rope between the trees as high as we could reach to serve as the ridge line. I used taut line hitches at each end so we could tighten the rope periodically. Then we tied the four corners to various nearby trees to stretch the tarp. This took a little experimentation as we found just the right way to pull at the corners to prevent bowls from forming in the fabric.

Coincidentally, (and I hope it is only coincidence) several of the trees we’ve tied the tarp to have since died. The two closest in the photo are dead. And the two we’d tied to at the back not only died but uprooted under the tension from the tarp. So I sunk a few steel fence posts in their places, and they serve just fine.

The tarp itself is beginning to show its age. We can see pinpoints of light through it as we sit under it, but they do not leak water when it rains. Maybe there are a few more years in it yet.

It’s our plan to erect a small, one-room cabin where the shelter sits. We’ve already picked out the one we want.

There is a small concern in town that makes these to order and sets them up at their destination. The builder hires local Amish youth as his carpenters, and without exception, the area Amish are admired for their craft and thoroughness.

Should this dream ever come to pass, count on Roundrock Journal to document it for you.

Circle of Life

Tuesday, August 30th, 2005

I came upon these bones during a recent walk in the forest at Roundrock. I’m pretty certain these are from a former deer, and they are a matched set. I found them not very far apart on the leaf litter, and nearby was a thin leg bone.

But these jawbones could rest completely in the palm of my hand, and the leg bone was not much thicker than a pencil. This means that this deer was only a fawn when it died. It’s impossible to tell how the fawn met its end — whether by coyote or bobcat or perhaps by disease or some congenital problem. There is some gnawing on these bones, but that’s generally the result of small forest rodents finding mineral-rich bones and shaving a bit of them for the nutrients.

It’s hard not to feel a little bit sad to think about the fawn meeting a gruesome end or even a too-young end. But I’ll persuade myself that a den full of fuzzy bobcat kits managed several good meals from the kill, and now the forest mice can finish the clean-up work.

I’ve come across deer skeletons in the woods before, including one three-point buck with its antlers still attached. This was an uncommon find since all of the flesh had long since rotted away but the antlers — a favorite of mineral nutrient scavengers — were untouched all that time. The antlered skull I mounted on a tree, but the wind brought it down, and when I returned to it again, the scavengers had done their work. And that’s as it should be at Roundrock.

Fact and Fiction Forest Frolic

Monday, August 29th, 2005

I spend a lot of time wondering about things I find at Roundrock, which seems like a good use for the land. Sometimes I am tantalized by having some facts before me, and I create possible fictions to fill in the spaces between the facts. Take this old snag for example:

This is a relic from the pre-ranching days. It stands on the edge of the Mighty Pole Forest, up the slope not too far from the south end of the dam. Likely it was one of the dozens of trees killed by the long-ago, death-from-above application of herbicides from helicopters. The tree died where it stood, and remained standing. In the ensuing years, it lost its upper branches as they rotted and fell off. Then, clearly, a ground fire passed through. Yet when the fire reached this snag, it must have flared much higher. Note the scorched patches up the side of the snag where the flames reached. Why is it burned there, yet the surrounding wood appears untouched? Maybe the fallen limbs below the tree provided fuel for the fire. Maybe enuf rotting bark still clung to the tree to feed the flames. Maybe some vine covered the old snag and directed the flames. Perhaps the fire roared up the hollow trunk and found an outlet there. Or maybe there is some other explanation that was consumed by the flames.

This snag stands about 15 feet tall. This shot is looking to the west. You can see that the base is largely gone, but for some reason, the snag has remained standing despite the wind and weather that have taken down other large, dead trees at Roundrock. It could be that the carbonized places where the fire kissed the wood are now harder than they would have been had they not been burned. So the base might actually be stronger though it is slighter.

The critters at Roundrock can be selective about their den trees since we have so many old snags. (I’ve estimated we have about five per acre.) No critters have made a home in this snag, and perhaps some day I will visit it to find it has finally fallen to the forest floor where it can be a different kind of fuel as it returns to the soil.

I love all of this kind of speculation. It’s probably much more interesting than whatever the true tale would be.

Hornet Nest

Sunday, August 28th, 2005

It turns out that these hornets (Pugnacious bastardus) do not like people to part the shrubbery in order to take pictures of their home.

As I snapped this picture, I could hear the fury building inside the nest and I made my hasty retreat. Not hasty enuf, alas. One of them stung me on the back, just where I couldn’t reach. I swatted ferociously with my hat (yet another reason to wear one in the woods), and let loose a whoop, but by then the damage was done, and the sweat that soaked my shirt only made the sting worse.

These hornets have fallen in life. Literally. You can see that the branch where they had attached their nest has broken from the tree. I don’t think they liked the idea of their nest close to the ground like this. Perhaps that’s why they were so quick to take offense at my presence.

Yes, they play a part in the forest ecology. Yes, I am tolerant of living creatures. Yes, that whole circle of life thing.

But I was just taking a picture. Sheesh!

Fish Castles

Saturday, August 27th, 2005

Because this is the Ozarks, one of the things we have plenty of is rocks. And because the dam leaks, another thing we have plenty of is the opportunity to wander about the empty lakebed. When we do, we try to use the chance to build structures to nurture the fish we will some day have.

Any kind of structure in a lake is beneficial for fish. It gives the littles ones places to hide from predators, and it gives predators places to ambush little ones. (That whole circle of life thing.) There are also certain types of fish (flathead minnows) that prefer to lay their eggs on the undersides of submerged flat surfaces.

When the dam was being constructed, the builder piled all of the trees he had cleared from the Central Valley in the lakebed and burned them. A small part of this never burned, so we tied it down with nylon rope so that the snarl of branches and trunks could be fish structure.

The builder also pushed several very large limestone boulders into place along the northern shoreline. These are (or . . . will be) in about 5-10 feet of water, which is supposed to be ideal for fish structure. The boulder I carved our initials into is one of these beauties.

In addition to these, though, are the many structures L and I have constructed with the extra rocks that happen to be in the lakebed. When we have the chance, we stack rocks to create walls and chambers and piles. Presumably, the fish will find these and make use of them. (Knowing approximately where they are will also make me a better fisherman some day.)

Once I got the mania, I began to see everything as potential material for fish structure. Lawn furniture, cement blocks, PVC pipe, old tires, the old cars the old tires came from, and so on. L, who is much more level-headed and sensible, cautioned me about going overboard. Did I really want to fill our lake with trash? Would we begin to call it Lake Landfill?

Her wisdom eventually reached me, but not before I managed to get three old tires piled within casting distance of the shore. When the USDA man visited, he commented that old tires are now considered bad things to put in bodies of water because of their petroleum origins. I’m not sure if he meant that they have been found to leach toxins into the water or if he just implied the possibility of it. Either way, next chance I get, I will pull them out.

(This photo was taken with a convenience store disposable camera and then developed onto a CD. Sorry about the quality.)

Wild, Unknown Thing

Friday, August 26th, 2005

I’m not sure what this pretty little flowering plant is. My Peterson guide suggests it might be Wild Bergamot (monarda fistulosa), but the leaves don’t match the example in the book. The leaves are toothed, but they appear to be alternate rather than opposite on the stem.

This is a wild thing. It is not one that L and planted. I’m not sure where I was when I took the picture, but I suspect I was near the lake in the area that gets plenty of sun. It was a pleasant discovery where ever it was found.

I know where the flower below was found. I took this photo on the Wildflower Island, but I can’t find a match for it in my Peterson guide or my old copy of Missouri Wildflowers. Perhaps it is a sire of the canister of seeds we had heedlessly scattered on the island before our realization that we would cultivate only native plants at Roundrock.

Old Dead Trees

Thursday, August 25th, 2005

I noted in an earlier post that I’ve estimated we have about five old dead trees standing on each of the 80+ acres at Roundrock. This is only an estimate, based on casual ramblings through the forest, and not an actual survey, but I think it’s pretty reliable.

Here is a typical snag standing on the high, level ground near the entrance to Roundrock.

(I seem to have tilted the camera a bit when I took this NW-looking shot. The ground here is actually level. Sorry.)

These old snags are important for the wild things that live at Roundrock. They serve as dens for opposums, raccoons, and squirrells. Some birds will nest in cavities they find or construct in these dead trees. Insects slowly devour the wood. Birds perch on them. These snags are busy, useful places.

Back in the days before the four kids scattered to the four winds, we used to drag them with us on occasional trips to Roundrock. They would come along, reluctant but dutiful. Then they would have a wonderful time dashing about the forest. Building campfires. Cooking weenies and ‘smores. Sometimes I could even get them to do a little work.

On one Thanksgiving Day visit we were hiking the trail to the pond and we approached a snag similar to this one (only a bit smaller). #2 Son (who must have been 17 at the time) ran ahead of us and threw himself against the gray sentinel. To his surprise, it uprooted and fell with a crash to the ground. Then, as all of us watched, a tiny flying squirrel darted out of a hole in the fallen snag and dashed away. (Here is a great photo of a flying squirrel.)

#2 Son was much chagrined by his deed. He had pretty much destroyed the home of a little forest resident. And since this was Thanksgiving Day, winter would be arriving soon.

We never learned the fate of that little critter, but each time we hike the path to the pond, we can see the tree our son took down and remember another family adventure.


Wednesday, August 24th, 2005

These are the days of the doldrums for me.

The forest is hot and tired from the late summer heat. Most of the scrubby plants are looking weary and defeated — their leaves drooping, browned at the edges, eaten or blighted. We seldom see deer, though we could always count on startling a few when we arrived on spring visits. Turkeys are rarer too. Most of the forest birds are silent now. Only the woodpeckers and the crows are making calls. Even the horseflies seem too stupefied to do more than circle us.

The turkey vultures laze in the sky above. Maybe this is their season, when all of the effort of staying alive begins to wane in the other animals. Several mature trees that leafed out green in the spring have died on the south-facing slope.

My Roundrock spirit is similarly tired. As spring vigorously progressed, all of our efforts at clearing trails and keeping the road open showed how ephemeral our work is in the face of the natural order of things. The shelter tarp sags in the heat. The lake diminishes visibly between each visit. The trees we planted with such hope and enthusiasm have suffered and many have died. A hike of even the shortest distance through the trees gets reconsidered. Yet even the nature that defeated us in the spring is looking close to defeat itself at the end of the summer.

So now we are in the browning time, when the luxuriant growth we couldn’t keep in check before shows its own exhaustion. Many leaves will brown and drop before they have the chance to try on their fall colors.

But, of course, the wheel continues to turn. Milder weather will arrive eventually. Most of the forest will bounce back with its vivid displays. Late season flowers will come forth.

And not too long from now, winter will arrive. The forest will be stark and open — the only green being the cedar trees scattered here and there.

Our spirits will turn, too. What looked impossible or futile in the face of summer growth and summer drought will seem possible and worthwhile. Ideas will bloom in the winter. Plans will be laid. Ambitions will restore themselves. Work will be done because it makes us warm, not left undone because we are too warm. With nature at bay, we talking mammals will get the notion again that we can have some influence in the forest. And so it will continue.

Artifact (or wishful thinking)?

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005

What do you suppose this is?

Is it simply a curiously formed rock — a sort of anti-round rock?

Or could it be a native grinding bowl — a sort of natural mortar for grinding grain?

The “bowl” is certainly large enuf to accomodate the typical round rocks we have, which is to say that a grapefruit could easily rest in here with room to spare. The round rocks must have attracted the eyes of the Native Americans who passed this way, and I would guess they would have some actual uses for them besides decoration and conversation.

I first spotted this rock when L and I would hike the fence line in the days before the road. I thought I should move it to some “safer” spot so I could find it again. But I didn’t want to schlepp the thing at the time. And when I kept finding it on our walks, I assumed I wouldn’t lose it after all.

Now the road passes just feet from it, so I could easily stop the truck and lift it into the bed. Then I could haul it to some “safer” spot. But where? And why?

We’re always enroute somewhere when we pass this rock, so I haven’t given it the time and attention my imagination demands. It’s hard to tell from the photo whether there is any obvious grinding evidence in the bowl. And maybe that’s why I haven’t stopped to study it. I may learn that it isn’t what I wish it to be.


Monday, August 22nd, 2005

Because L has been in Kentucky for the last five days, #1 Son and I visited Roundrock today without her and managed to have a great time.

We only had a few things on our agenda since we had to be back to pick up L at the train station in the evening (more on that later). So we got to work.

It has always been my practice that we do the heavy work, especially chainsaw work, in the morning when we are still fresh, and before the heat and humidity fall upon us like lead weights. (In my opinion, it is better to leave a job undone than to wield a chainsaw when I am tired.) So after looking briefly at the further diminished Lake Marguerite (down a foot since our last visit), we performed a little surgery on the chainsaw.

It turns out you can put a chain on backwards! Once I switched it, #1 Son took the chainsaw over to the tree he had cut with the handsaw on the last visit and sliced right through the base that was left in about 15 seconds. (A four-inch diameter trunk.) We were back in business, so we hauled ourselves across the dam to perform surgery on some of the trees in the area just above the water where we want to restore to native grasses.

We (he) took down four trees, the largest of which is depicted in its reduced circumstances above. (It’s about a foot in diameter.) He then bucked the logs (yes, bucked. Look it up!) and we hauled the branches deeper into the forest (up hill the whole way).

If you look closely, you may be able to count the rings. He and I did our separate counts and came to the same number: 23. Coincidentally, the tree was the same age as the young man who brought it down. “Evolution favors the tool maker,” he said. He sliced off an inch-thick piece of the trunk to bring home and seal as a sort of memorial to his work of the day. (I don’t think he’ll take it to Africa with him though.)

Also on the agenda was a hike up the Central Valley. Because of all of the rain in the area lately, I had hopes of seeing some flowing water in the feeder ravines or central creekbed. We headed out mostly west from the shelter, keeping the mostly dry lakebed mostly on our left. But even with this effort, I managed to get a bit bewildered. I was intending to go to the third ravine over — the largest and the one most likely to be wet. Yet when we arrived there (thought we arrived there), it was much broader than I remembered.

It turns out, of course, that we had drifted south in our westward march and ended up at the upper end of the Central Valley itself. (This means I still have a ways to go in refining my mental map of Roundrock.) That wasn’t so bad since we were going to return by that route anyway. And all of it was dry, so there was nothing to see. Dagnabit!

Then it was lunch time and the requisite post-lunch stupor. As we sat there, I saw two ducks circle the lake a couple of times. But they must not have liked what they saw, or maybe they could see us in the trees, because they wheeled away and didn’t return while we were there.

Our only after-lunch chore was to take a census of the trees in the pecan plantation. L and I usually do this in September so that we know which ones are dead. In the spring when we replant, the pecans have not yet come out in leaf, so we have to rely on the late summer census to know which ones in the grid are keepers and which need to be yanked out. I figured that the kaput pecans would show themselves just as clearly in mid-August as in mid-September, so that was our task.

Of the 49 pecans, only 22 were clearly alive, but a half dozen of those were robustly alive, which is encouraging. The pattern repeats itself each year. The trees in the center of the acre — those in the rockiest, driest soil — are the dead ones. There were a few surprises, though. Some that I’ve always considered in good circumstances had given up. I blame that on insects or acts of the various dieties that disfavor Roundrock.

As I said in a previous post, we aren’t going to replant the pecans next spring. We’ll give it another try when we finally move to Roundrock and can bestow lots of daily love and water on the poor things. However, I still have those three pecans in the enriched soil in the pot on my suburban deck. I will probably plant those in the spots where I was surprised to find dead pecans today. The soil there is deep, and I think if they are going to make it, this will be where it will happen.

Then it was time to dash home. We had the two hour drive, and we had to unload and put away all of the gear, get showers, and do some laundry (L has been away for five days!) before it was time to leave for the train station. But Amtrak — bless their pointed little heads — had one of its usual malfunctions, and as I sit here typing, L is stuck on a motionless train somewhere outside of St. Louis. Whether they will return the train to St. Louis or limp to Kansas City, no one knows right now. She says she will call me when something has been decided. So I may be hanging around a railway station at midnight with the ragged people shortly.

UPDATE: L’s train arrived at midnight — only four hours late!

NOTE: There are two musical references in this post. Can you find them?