Archive for September, 2005

The Old Road

Friday, September 30th, 2005

Can you see an old road in this picture? It’s there, though with each passing year, the trace grows less defined, and probably less remembered by anyone who happened to have traveled it.

This road runs north/south along the western border of our woods. This view is looking south, so Roundrock is on the left and my neighbor’s land is on the right. The road itself is within the surveyed boundary of Roundrock. On a plat map the real estate agent gave me, this road is shown, but not in any realistic way. The road mostly disappears south of our woods, though on the map, this is where the road is shown most clearly. And the map doesn’t show the old road along the northern half of our property and beyond, but this is where the way is still most clearly defined.

When L and I first started coming to Roundrock, our thought was to walk this old road with a couple of saws and clear away the branches and stray baby trees to open the road and use it for getting the truck another quarter of a mile farther from where we usually parked. #1 Son and I gave that a try once, but the old road is much more overgrown than it seems from this photo.

When we finally hired a dozer man to build us a dam, and realized he would have to build a road to get to the dam site, I lead him along part of this road as the future path. He, of course, made short work of clearing the way, and he made the road much wider than what is shown here as well as gave it proper camber to shed water. The old road in the photo above would be a mud puddle in the wet weather. It never really would have worked for us.

Still, I’m glad I kept some of the old road untouched. I see it on each visit, and it causes me to reflect on who must have laid it out originally and for what purpose. Why was it cut through the trees rather than just to the west on what is now my neighbor’s land but which is open and grassy? Where does it lead? Where did it come from? Was this an old wagon trail or did it appear in the age of automobiles and trucks? Did the ranchers lead cattle along this road? Or was this the way to go to avoid the cattle? You can’t see it in this photo, but the remains of a barbed wire fence run along the road on the right side. That might have kept the cattle in the meadow to the west. Yet I’ve found two cattle skeletons among the trees at Roundrock — on the wrong side of this fence — so what do I make of that? Were they strays that wandered beyond the limits of the ranch and were forgotten?

There are small piles of large rocks at several points along this old road. They certainly appear not to be natural collections. Were these pulled from the roadway when it was being built? If so, why were they collected in common piles instead of just cast aside from where they were found? Were they collected in order to be built with? (We did use some of them for one of our fire rings, and they don’t seem especially suited for building.)

So many mysteries. It’s why I love Roundrock so much. Every time I see this road I get wistful. I think I’ll carry a saw with me next time I’m nearby and do a little work to keep the old road open.

Northern Fence Lizard

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

And here is a picture I took of a Northern Fence Lizard (sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinus) out at Roundrock. I was surprised I was able to get this close (no zoom lense) before it skedaddled into the leaves. These are also common lizards in our forest, and they seem to be a little less timid than the blue tailed skinks. The distinctive markings on the back note that this is a female.

She is sitting on a four by four piece of lumber that will someday contribute to a campfire, so you can get an idea of its length. I took this shot as we were packing to leave for the day. I’m not sure why, but I tend to see more skinks and lizards in the afternoon.

Roundish Rocks

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

This may be a risky post. By showing the picture above, I may be startling some into the realization that not all of the rocks at Roundrock are round rocks.

In fact, we have a good number of oddly shaped rocks that formed at the same time and in the same manner as our beloved round rocks. I found this beauty during my near-fatal solo march through the woods some weeks back. In my delirium, I was snapping pix of just about everything, as I found that evening when I downloaded my shots.

Most of our round rocks are spheres. Some have a small hole in their sides. Some have a nipple so that they approach teardrop shape. We’ve found two that L has dubbed “platypus skulls” (try to picture that!), and she set them on her island so that they are kissing. I should get a picture of those some time and post it.

The rock above is waiting for me to return to examine it more closely. The broken end exposing the cavity suggests that it might be hollow, which would make it different from nearly every other round rock we have found. The round rocks resulting from the meteor impact in the area are solid, with a bit of blue-green shale at the center. Though the comparison is not precise, you can think of the rocks forming the way a pearl forms around a bit of sand in the mineral rich innards of a clam. Or you can imagine them forming as hailstones do, though this got a reporter from the Discovery Channel in trouble when he reported on the newly discovered impact site. He said that the round rocks were raining down from the heavens as companions to the meteor. Ain’t the case.

But I digress.

Some day my feet will steer me back to this rock, and I’ll give it a look-see. Maybe I’ll have discovered a true geode, though it would be unique in the entire county if it were so. And if I don’t already have a backpack full of other rocks, I’ll bring this one to the shelter to add to our collection.

9.24.2005 2.0

Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

And so, on with the account.

L and I enjoyed our lunch, but I could see from where I was sitting that the three bags of Bentonite were still waiting for me in the lakebed. The hard part, pretty much, was behind us. I’d managed to stumble and stagger the 150 pounds of clay powder down the loose hillside and poise it for scattering. The next part would be easy in comparison.

And it was, except that the gods decided to miff me a bit by blowing the wind from east to west, which never happens in the Central Valley. Our plan was to stand on the west side of the puddle that Lake Marguerite had become and cast the powder as far into the water (to the east) as we could. “Let’s have some fun,” saith the gods.

The photo above shows you the results of our effort. I’m not sure if you can distinguish very well the white dusting on the ground and reaching into the water. The USDA man had said we could apply the Bentonite directly on the bare ground where it would wait for the next rain to help it swell and/or to wash it into the water where it would settle to the bottom. Since the wind wasn’t allowing much casting distance into the water, we settled for the land. The best comparison I can give you is that the Bentonite looks about like the salt on a big, soft pretzel. Our application on the ground would have made one very salty pretzel.

We tried to be thorough in our coverage, and so our effort took about an hour. In that time, the Bentonite that had been cast into the water (despite the puckish zephyrs from the east) was beginning to swell. I’ve been told that a single grain of Bentonite can swell to sixteen times its original size. The water-bound clay was on its way. The individual grains were growing in snowflake shapes. They were actually interesting to look at, though by the time I had the chance to examine them, they were growing together and losing their distinctness.

There was one more chore to be done while in the lakebed, but that will be the subject of another post.

After this, I was ready to pack up and go home, but L encouraged me to join her for a swim. Some of you may remember my post about swimming in a natural state, and I thought that this might be our last chance to swim for the season, so . . .

We changed into our swimming togs back at the truck and marched down, down, down to the water. I couldn’t find the thermocline, despite kicking my feet to bring up cold water, so I think the lake level was too low to have a temperature variant. One happy surprise was that our turtle friend made a couple of appearances. We feared that with the shinking lake level, it would move on, but I suppose transient water is a fact of life for turtles.

The fish were also growing, and they were snapping the water bugs off the surface of the water in an entertaining way. A turkey vulture circled far overhead. Birds chattered in the trees around us. Somewhere far off a dog was barking. The sun was sparkling on the water. We were floating.

And I thought, why not? It would be no trouble to slip out of my trunks and shirt and paddle about in the tea-colored water. My feet were brushing the bottom and my arms were out in front of me, my fingers dangling lazily in the water. And then . . .

POW!

Something bit my finger! It was likely a small fish. And it was really just a nibble. But, wow, was I startled. I began splashing about to scare away every little fishy within a hundred feet. It didn’t work. Something tasted my knee. Obviously, we were something new to these little fish, something to be nibbled.

Well, there was no way I was dropping my trunks after that!

And so that was probably my last chance to give ‘dipping a go for this year. Perhaps I won’t be as gun shy next summer.

9.24.2005

Monday, September 26th, 2005

On Saturday, L and I made the dash down to Roundrock, with a couple of stops along the way, intending to enjoy the one sunny day of the weekend. We left the house a little later than I prefer (damned snooze button) and stopped at the feed store in town to pick up three bags of Bentonite. This store is classic. It sells everything from grains and chains to fencing, clothing, and snacks. There were a half dozen old men in worn out chairs around a cold wood stove, talking away the morning. While there I asked the man behind the counter if anyone knew of a small boat — like a john boat — for sale. By serendipitous chance, the man behind me had one. He gave me directions to his remote cabin and welcomed me to go have an unaccompanied look. (We did, and though the price was right, it was much more boat than we would ever need. Plus it needed some loving.)

With those two stops out of the way, we were on to Roundrock. As has become our routine, we stopped first at the pine plantation to swing the grass whip a bit. So far we’re keeping the weedy growth under control, and any blackberries meet a swift and sharp finish wherever we find them. You may recall my post in which I showed a nice picture of the tickseed-sunflowers growing so happily at the back of the planting area. I noted how I didn’t have the heart to cut them down at the time. Well, on this day’s visit the flowers were all gone and they didn’t look as appealing. But they would have remained standing had I not noticed that there was a forgotten pine growing deep among them. Somehow we had overlooked this tree all summer. Despite being surrounded by and o’ertopped by the sunflowers, despite not receiving our loving waterings and kind words, it was growing nicely and had at least doubled in size. I got busy around it with the grass whip and cleared the area so I wouldn’t overlook it again. And what to my wondering eyes should appear but yet another overlooked pine deep amidst the sunflowers. Two pines I had missed, and two pines growing happily despite my neglect. (The pecans are not so forgiving, believe me!)

We whipped and watered for a while, but we could feel the heat and humidity beginning to pursue us, so we pushed on to the shelter and lake, where there was more to be done. Lake Marguerite had dropped a bit more since my last visit, but it still looked swimmable. If we can’t see the top of the drum that serves as the central drain, then we know the water is over our heads in the deepest area, and swimming looked promising.

The sides of the lakebed are steep and rocky, as I may have mentioned once before. When we head into the bottom, secure footing is more abstract than actual. Much more so when you have a 50 pound, big, bulky, badly balanced bag of Bentonite on your shoulder. Blame the heat, the humidity, the rugged conditions, and a bad breakfast — two blueberry muffins, which provide quick though not lasting energy — but this was miserable work. Actual distance was something like 1000 feet from the tailgate of my pickup to the waterless part of the lakebed where the spreading was to be done, but after throwing down the first bag (it didn’t burst open) I was seeing spots. Well, only two more bags to schlepp down there. Thanks to my superpowers, I managed to muscle the second bag to the right general area, and then I closed my eyes and listened to my pounding heart for a minute or two.

When I opened them, I saw L shuffling down the hillside, rolling the third bag ahead of her. Bless her heart! Unfortunately, since Roundrock is in the Ozarks, there happen to be plenty of sharp rocks hidden in the leaf litter, and L’s bag of Bentonite found one. But I was so pleased by her effort that I “dashed” up the hill to meet her and carry the last bag down the rest of the way on my shoulder. I may have sprinkled a bit of the good stuff on the way down, but I didn’t **expletive** care.

With the Bentonite in the general area where it was to be spread, we declared that the lunch bell had sounded. Thus up to the shelter and comfy chairs for lotsa iced tea and sandwiches. Then came torpor and recovery.

The afternoon included more work, but you’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s post to read about it. However, because you show such patience, let me hint that there may be some discussion of skinnydipping in the afternoon.

By the way, that’s goldenrod of some variety in the photo above. September seems to be the month of yellow in our forest.

Pecan Slaughter

Sunday, September 25th, 2005

Florida Cracker’s recent offer to share his mother’s pineapple nut home made ice cream recipe once my pecan trees start producing nuts jolted me into remembering a troubling bit of advice I received about a year ago.

L and I went on a Farm Tour in nearby rural Kansas. Local farmers, with an eye to increasing sales no doubt, organized a tour of their various boutique farms, complete with maps, activities, products to sell, and plenty of free advice. L especially enjoyed the alpaca farm, where she could pet the adorable South American ruminants, and where we managed to spend nearly a hundred dollars on socks. (They’re great socks!) Among the destinations I was eager to visit was a pecan farm. Being something of a pecan farmer myself — pause for laughter to subside — I wanted to see how it was done.

My, what a fine operation this man had. And boy, did he love to talk. Unfortunately, he wasn’t devoting his garrulousness to only me, but on with the story.

I described to him my plantation, and he remarked that in a couple years, it would be time to begin grafting my trees. Why, he’d sell me the grafts to use. I’d get nut production within five years rather than the 15 to 20 years it would take to get natural production. Tell me more, I said.

It works like this. I simply walk up to a healthy, if young, pecan tree, one I have been laboring over for nearly four years now to keep alive and thriving. Then I cut it off several inches up the trunk. I throw away the leafy top that I have been fondly watching appear each spring. I split the trunk (maybe a half inch in diameter) and graft on the new top he would sell me. And then I hope that the graft takes and the new, blended tree survives.

Well, this may be the kind of thing Wayne or Glenn could do, but AIN’T NO WAY PABLO’S GONNA CUT DOWN HIS PECANS!

The idea is that a cutting from a more mature tree will continue to think it is a more mature tree (despite being rooted to a young tree) and begin bringing out nuts on the mature tree’s timeline. All well and good, but AIN’T NO WAY . . .

If I had an entire plantation of 50 pecan trees thriving, I might take this risk on one or two to see if it worked. But with only 23 trees managing to hang on (according to my last census), I’m not going to do it.

Honestly, I don’t mind if it takes 20 years for the pecans to begin bringing forth nuts. I plan to be around that long. And I don’t even really want the nuts for myself. I planted these trees because the dam builder recommended them, and I always believed the critters would get to the nuts long before I could.

It still makes me shiver when I think about it.

Wild Oats

Saturday, September 24th, 2005

Here is an adorable native grass we have in some spaces at Roundrock. This goes by various names: river oats, sea oats, creek oats. And that tells you where you will likely find this bit of whimsey. The botanical name is chasmanthium latifolium. We have river oats in the bottom of the Central Valley, upstream from the lakebed, where the trees crowd in and provide the intermittent shade this plant favors.

The seed heads are flattened, which you can almost see in this photo, and they have been a subject for L’s sketching moments when we sit and try to be still for a while after lunch. In the fall the plants turn from bright green to a straw color that is muted and appealing (to my eye anyway). The seeds tend to stay on the plant all winter, and that suggests to me that they are not preferred by the browsing deer. Though it may also mean that they are so profuse that I can still find them despite the browsing.

When we first had the dam built, the dozer man recommended we cast wheat seeds on it since they would sprout on the first warm, wet, winter day and begin the erosion control on the exposed sides of the dam until the native grasses could move in. He had also recommended oats, which he said would take root quickly and do the same job as well as feed the deer. We did this, as much out of novelty as because of his assurances.

Later, when we came upon the river oats, far up the Central Valley from where we had sown our oats (so to speak), we marveled at how quickly our work had spread. And in such abundance. We imagined harvesting the seeds and making bread or breakfast cereal with them.

Only later did it occur to me that I had seen this plant, in this place, long before we had ever had the dam built. Thus they were wild oats, though not sown by us. Well, that made it even more special to me.

Weenie

Friday, September 23rd, 2005

I wish this shot had come out better, but this photo opportunity came near the end of Pablo’s nearly fatal walk on the recent solo visit. I’m a little surprised that the photo is this good since so much of the world wasn’t holding still at this point.

This plant is called Gray Dogwood (Conrus racemosa) and it is common enuf through most of Missouri. We have it in all of the likely spots at Roundrock — mostly in the ravines and central valleys — though a map provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation shows that it does not grow in my county. (Maybe I just hallucinated this plant being here, and this photo is just part of the hallucination.)

Anyway, the long, straight, narrow growing habit of this plant makes it perfect for weenie sticks. Weenies are, of course, another name for hot dogs, and the kids just had to have a weenie roast whenever we went out to the woods. I cut a batch of these the last time the whole gang was out to the woods so everyone had a personal weenie stick. We affixed special metal forks to the end of the sticks for applying the weenie, and the kids could hold them over the flames whilst keeping their exposed flesh several feet away. (The youngest in this pack — the twins — were 19 years old at the time.)

We later used the weenie sticks for toasting the marshmallows that went into the ‘smores that the kids also had to have. Sadly, I think the days of the family cookouts are gone. One child is a continent away. Another is two hemispheres away. The remaining two are involved with college and girlfriends. Sigh.

Anyway, I cut the weenie sticks two years ago, and they are still in good shape. I know that flowering dogwood is prized by wood carvers, so maybe gray dogwood also produces a durable bit of lumber. I get wistful when I see the stack of weenie sticks by the shelter tarp. Now that cooler weather is coming, L and I will probably have more campfires to cook our lunches, so we will press the sticks back into service.

Someday, when we’ve developed Roundrock a little more, I plan to have all of you out for a great weekend. We’ll have a weenie roast then!

Favorite Season

Thursday, September 22nd, 2005

Fall is our favorite season. Not just because the trees put on their colors, nor because we get to kick our way through the leaf litter on our hikes, nor because the winds bring tangy smells and raspy whispers through the forest, nor because the pestersome bugs are mostly gone, nor because it is cool enuf to have a camp fire, nor because the febrile fecundity of nature is finally checked. But having said all of that, I’m not sure I can put into words exactly why we favor fall as we do.

I suppose some of it has to do with childhood autumns. Celebrations like Halloween and Thanksgiving come in the fall, with their treats and foods and family visits. The anticipation of Xmas swelled in earnest then. L’s birthday is in the fall — a happy day for Pablo when she was born.

But the savor of fall, I think, has more to do with the reminder of how limited it all is. The high frolics of spring and summer are finished now. Fall is a gentle hand on the shoulder. Enjoy this time before the cold clamp of winter comes down. The transition will be measured and will bring its own compensations, but make no mistake, winter is on its way. And so we take extra effort to enjoy our hours in the woods. We linger in the comfy chairs soaking in the weak sunlight that comes our way. Our hikes are longer because we don’t have to contend with the heat. Plans for Roundrock begin to hatch because nature seems conquerable again. Chores are taken up willingly, in part because they keep us warm.

I don’t think L and I are quite into the autumn of our lives. Certainly there is no snow on the roof, so to speak. And I’m not sure how these things would be measured anyway. It is easy, perhaps too easy, to draw lessons about life from observations of the natural world. The old “sermons in stones” ethic of Emerson and Thoreau that it is now fashionable to disdain.

But we are natural beings. We are in it. We are of it. And eventually we will return to it. So now in the fall, more than ever, we realize this is the time to live it.

Blue-Tailed Skink

Wednesday, September 21st, 2005

Among the swiftest critters in the forest at Roundrock are the skinks, lizards that dart among the fallen leaves or disappear around the back of tree trunks. Like most of the wild things there, we get more evidence of them then actual observation. Skinks — and there are actually many varieties at Roundrock — are mostly sudden movement in the leaf litter as we walk past. We almost never see more than a dashing shape, sometimes with a blue tail trailing. With this current, frustrating experience, it amazes me to recall how we used to catch these skinks as children. We always released them, or they escaped our hands, but now the idea of catching one seems impossible (and not very stewardly). Thus it is a rare thing that Pablo could stretch his minimal photography skills and capture one — a real, live blue-tailed skink — in the wild.

These skinks (Eumeces fasciatus) are also known as five-line skinks and only have their vivid blue tails during their first year of life. Thus this one seems to be a youngster. Males can reproduce in their second year, and during the spring breeding season their heads turn orange. As you can see, I managed this difficult and unlikely photo only recently, before this skink had reached sufficient maturity to lose the blue and take on the orange. (Though it is possible that this one will never change color.)

Honest!

Update: Pablo is in La Jolla, California as this post appears.

Update: There have been a number of comments to this post asking for advice about how to care for a captured skink being kept as a pet. While I don’t advocate keeping any wild creature as a captive pet, skinks seem to be successfully kept. The Wikipedia page on blue-tailed skinks (scroll down) includes a good discussion of caring for pet skinks, so if you’ve come to this post looking for those kinds of answers, please click on the link and see what it says.

By the way, if you live in the great nation of Canada, capturing and keeping these skinks is against the law. They are considered an endangered species there and are protected.