Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Forest in Spring

I am Forest.
I am Life flowing in the River of Time
I cover the Rock, making it soft and green
I shelter the creatures who fly through my branches
Or make dens under my roots
I can die too easily.

In the early morning, as the sun peers over the bluffs, mist rises from the valley. Pink Redbuds paint the hillside, while Dogwood trees in full bloom look like white dots here and there in the distance. At least four different people from out of state asked what that "purple" tree was. The colors do tend to look different depending on the stage of the blossom. Early blossoms are a darker, more purple looking color, which lightens to pink as the blooms age and fall. They line the retaining wall along the parking lot at the lodge, and in the morning, a layer of pink "snow" coats the windows of your car.

The infant leaflets emerge in many shades of pale green, interspersed with the dark green of hemlock and pine. In the forest are saplings with few branches, and one large bud with leaves slowly unwrapping. What are those? One person thinks it is a Shagbark Hickory, but there are no full grown Shagbarks nearby. Among the dead leaves on the forest floor we find some large leaf Magnolias, which grow in the Appalachians. I vote for the Magnolias. Slender Pawpaw trees have blossoms hanging like umbrellas as they grow in small groves in the understory.
Boulders rolled from the cliff tops to the base ages ago, and small trees somehow found a foothold in the hard rock, until now each tree is large. Sometimes, the roots grow in odd shapes around the stone. Sometimes they manage to split the stone into smaller boulders, in which more trees can grow. Multitudes of mosses and ferns join the attack against the stones, turning the inorganic into a place where the organic can grow. In other places, the moss and ferns live in tree condos, hanging over a pleasant murmuring stream. The trees themselves seem to talk, whispering to each other in the breeze. See if you can hear them.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Natural Bridge

I am Rock.
I am an Island in the River of Time
I carry the history of earth
I watch changes through the ages,
I change slowly myself, unnoticed by the Present
I will be here when the Future turns old.

The Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky is now officially designated the Red River Gorge Geological Area and is a National Natural Landmark within the Daniel Boone National Forest. Natural Bridge is one of the most well-known and accessible of over 100 sandstone arches in the Gorge. Only Arches National Park in Utah has more arches than the Gorge. In addition to the arches, adventurous hikers find rock overhangs and shelters, caves, and gardens of boulders fallen from the cliffs above. Some of the boulders look honey combed, as if they were made by giant prehistoric rock bees. I wonder what the early explorers thought when these found these huge rocks. It must have been in winter, since they are fairly well covered by trees in the summer. I suppose these explorers climbed them for the same reason we do - to see what it looks like from the top. No one would have planned on taking a wagon across them for settling.

Given my geology training from the Falls of the Ohio, I am very interested in the formation of geologic wonders. The sandstone in these formations was laid down about 300 million years ago in the Pennsylvanian Era, by a river draining an area about the size of the Amazon basin today. As the silt and sand washed into the delta of the river, the layers which became sandstone built up. Some areas even have quartz pebbles embedded, which were picked up elsewhere and washed down. Did water make these bridges? No, only to the extent of seeping into cracks and expanding when frozen, thus causing boulders of softer layers to separate from the harder layers of sandstone on top.

The cliff side trails have no guardrails or other protection. From the top, one clearly sees the area is a plateau, and the valleys are all carved down from the once level top. One spot descended so steeply that I refused to go down and walked back the way we had come to avoid it. People fall and get hurt or killed every year. Even driving on the gravel road to reach the trailhead can produce acrophobia to anyone who looks out the car window. The Nada Tunnel, on the other hand, produces claustrophobia. This tunnel is 12 feet wide by 12 feet high, and runs about 900 unlit feet for one way traffic under a ridge. We had to wait some time while two other cars in the tunnel bluffed each other until one gave up and backed out.

Natural Bridge State Resort Park is one of the four oldest state parks in Kentucky. Although we visited many state parks in the early years of our marriage, Dick and I have not been back to Natural Bridge since BC, "before children" that is. I found the park to be little changed from what I remember in those days. The lodge is built into the hillside, halfway between the lake in the valley's bottom and the actual Arch above it. The dining room looks directly into the tree tops. From any point, you are standing on a cliff which hides the drop off to the next level down. You can really get away from it all, since cell phones don't work in these gorges.

Trails lead up to the Arch and other natural attractions from the lodge area. Trails always list their mileage, and look deceptively short. The main trail, for example, is only .75 miles long. "Easy enough," you say, and start up the path. Soon, however, puffing and panting, you realize that the altitude change must be much more than this by itself! Small roofed rest areas are strategically placed to prevent heart attacks. "Imagine what it must have been like," I gasped, "trying to climb this in long skirts and a corset!" One spot in particular should be marked "Wide Loads Prohibited" since even the skinny people have to turn sideways to ascend this natural crevice in the sandstone on the way to the top of the Bridge. We climbed to the top on Saturday morning, and I still wince when trying to cross my legs, since my thighs are incredibly sore two days later.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

I Am What I Am

I am Rock.
I am an Island in the River of Time
I carry the history of earth
I watch changes through the ages,
I change slowly myself, unnoticed by the Present
I will be here when the Future turns old.

I am Forest.
I am Life flowing in the River of Time
I cover the Rock, making it soft and green
I shelter the creatures who fly through my branches
Or make dens under my roots
I can die too easily.

I am Flower.
I am Beauty in the River of Time
I bring color for each season
I feed the soul of any who knows me
I live only a short while, and then my time is over
I give Joy to the Forest.

I am Bird.
I Sing from above in the River of Time
I fly swiftly, watching all in the Forest
I hide in the branches and leaves
I may leave the Forest in Fall, but return again each Spring
I make the Forest dance.

I am River.
I am Movement in the River of Time
I flow from the Rock, and wear it down
I give life to the Forest and Flower and Bird
I destroy and I build as I pass from mountain to sea
I change the face of the Earth.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Bird Whistler

Everyone around here agrees that Brainard Palmer-Ball is tops when it comes to birding. He works for the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, and made the initial study of the bird population at the Falls of the Ohio when it was declared a National Wildlife Conservation Area in 1981.

This week he took at least 25 of us on a bird walk at the Falls, memorable both for the birds we saw, and the sunshine that appeared for the first time in days. Caspian Terns joined the Ring Billed Gulls and some Herring Gulls. Peregrine Falcons are not his favorite birds. Since they moved into the area, the water fowl populations have changed greatly. He found a Falcon sitting on the dam drying off after a bath. If I had even seen it myself, I would have assumed it was just a piece of wood, balanced on the wall. He talked about bird migrations. You might see a bird here once on one day, and not again until the next year. They fly high on a nice day, or fly at night, navigating by the stars and magnetic fields. Brainard spotted what I thought to be a tangle of fishing line caught in a tree branch. He recognized it as an Oriole nest that was, indeed, made with fishing line. A Red Bellied Woodpecker worked on excavating her nest hole in a dead tree, ignoring us completely.
Then we walked up towards the woods, and "he whistled, and sang, till the green woods rang," and he called all the little birds down to visit. Brainard pished, and squeaked, and whistled like a Screech Owl. First a Carolina Wren dropped in to see what all the fuss was about. His own scolding calls then attracted groups of Ruby Crowned Kinglets, flitting from twig to twig, almost too fast to find in the binoculars. Bill of the Birds has great Kinglet pictures. (I'm jealous) A Blue Gray Gnatcatcher joined the party, while a softly ascending trill marked a Prairie Warbler who followed us around to check out the action. Chickadees always like to join in the fun, and they hung upside down from the branches, searching for bugs. Finally, someone spotted a Scarlet Tanager, enjoying the sunshine. That's when my camera battery died, and I have no photos of the Tanager. After I went back for the charged spare, I walked through the same woods, but found only the larger birds -- Robins, Cardinals, and a female Brown Headed Cowbird.

Maybe we could ask Brainard to come and teach Pishing 101 for the volunteers.

PS - A pair of Ospreys have been spotted building a nest in an electric tower by the hydro electric plant, easily visible from the George Rogers Clark Cabin. We are all concerned that someone in authority not decide to chase them away. In other years, I knew they had a nest, but could never find it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Bird Photographer's Lament
Or, To the Ones Who Got Away

Roufous hawk flies circles
Banks into the sun
White commas flash on wingtips
No pics, not even one.

Framed by leafless branches
Light shines through feathers bright
Kestral kites not moving
No pics, yes, that's right.

Breast scarlet, vermilion, crimson
Eye and wing jet black
Battery dies in camera
No pics, alas alack.

Prairie Warbler trilling softly
In canebrake beneath the tree
Soft streaks on yellow breast
No pics -- Hey, this one took, YIPPEE!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Spring Floods

Although my flooded basement is not fun (those soggy cardboard boxes are heavy!), the Falls of the Ohio are still interesting in the flood season. The river boat captains used to say that the Ohio was frozen 3 months a year, flooded 3 months a year, and dry the rest of the year. In the early years, river pilots would be glad to see this much water so they could float the boats stuck on the rocks for months. I hope our floods don't last 3 months this year!

The water completely covers all the fossil beds and walking trails along the river. Some trees host large logs wedged in their upper branches. Entire tree trunks bob gently in the eddies, while other large trees float downstream, carrying Ring Bill Gulls along for the ride. What is that squeaking sound? It's the sound of timbers rubbing against each other. The water lapping against the bank sounds like gentle ocean waves. The current in mid-river races downstream, plunging over the dam wall. The current in front of the bird deck flows upstream so slowly it hardly seems to move at all. A child's plastic slide takes all morning to move a few feet downstream in this eddy. Someone will spend hours with a chain saw cutting the logs into pieces to clear the paths. Logs not blocking a path or sidewalk will be left alone. The river will take care of them next year.

Several sorts of birds hop from log to log in the shallow backwaters. Pileated woodpeckers dart from one tree to the next over the water. A group of Mallards take a break from swimming and climb on a floating log to preen for a bit. It's not quite breeding season for a pair of Hooded Mergansers, and I had to check the field guide to discover they were actually Mergansers in eclipse plumage. Cormorants perch on a half-submerged snag to dry their feathers after diving for their fish breakfast. Some brown Swallows swoop by, the first since last summer . They seem too big for a Bank Swallows, and sometimes the Tree Swallow is brown. A beaver slides into the water from a tree crotch, and heads towards shore, while a ground hog strips the fresh leaves from a bush in the rocks. Until he moved, he looked like a rock himself. We are all serenaded by the Red Winged Blackbirds and Mockingbirds singing from the top of the trees not floating in the water.
Leaves and flowers are just beginning to bud. I don't usually think of trees as flowering plants, and never noticed the many variations in tree flowers before. Crab apples and red buds are easy to identify in bloom, but I am not sure of the species I saw blooming today. Look at the shapes! It's hard to appreciate these tiny flowers hanging 20-30 feet above your head. Trying to get close enough for a good photo, and to get my camera to focus on a small target is a challenge.

We had more visitors this morning than expected, given the high water and brisk temperatures. They were all astounded to see photos of the river in August, and I invited them to come back when they could really enjoy the fossil beds. In the meantime, we rummaged through my Box O' Rocks as a sample of what they might find come summer. Earth Day is the next festival at the Falls. Earth, Air, Fire and Water - the four elements. Who needs any more?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Why Volunteer?

Those who can, do. Those who can do more, volunteer. ~Author Unknown
Volunteering has become an important and regular part of life for my husband and me. He retired last year, and volunteers at several places relating to nature. I still have a full time day job and volunteer only on Saturdays. Why do people with busy lives, jobs, and families take time to volunteer?

The Nonprofit Kit for Dummies suggests some possible reasons:

  • Help the community and others. Helping others usually comes to mind first when people think of volunteers. But as you see when you read deeper in this list, their motives aren't always this simple.
  • Increase self-esteem. Volunteering makes people feel better about themselves. Giving a few hours a week, or even a month, to an organization creates good feelings.
  • Help out friends. Friends are often the first people we turn to when we need help. Volunteering also can create a great way to get together with friends on a regular basis.
  • Make new friends. Volunteering is usually a social activity. People use this opportunity to meet interesting people who share their interests and values.
  • Try out a job. People considering a job in the nonprofit sector often discover that volunteering is a good way to get a peek at what happens on the inside.
  • Polish their resumes. Adding volunteer experience to a resume shows a commitment to helping others or to working in a particular field.
  • Develop new skills. A volunteer job often gives people an opportunity to learn how to do something they didn't know how to do.
  • Enjoy something they love. Many volunteer jobs come with intrinsic benefits for their participants. Ushers at the symphony get to hear the music. Gardeners removing invasive plants from a native plant preserve get to spend a day in a beautiful natural setting.

Volunteers are individuals or groups who give their time, talent and abilities to a cause they believe in, without pay. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Several years ago, I saw an article in the Louisville Courier-Journal about a new program called Naturalists @ Heart, to train volunteers at the Falls of the Ohio State Park. I had never been to the Falls in 30+ years of living in Louisville, but this caught my attention. When I was a Girl Scout, I dreamed of becoming a park ranger someday. I loved doing all the nature related badges offered by the Scouts, but decided that the math required for a science degree was not my cup of tea. Jokingly, I told Dick that I always wanted to know everything and here was my big chance to fulfill my childhood dream of becoming an almost-park ranger! Since becoming a Naturalist @ Heart, I have attended classes and studied about geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, history, and archeology, as well as photography, and how to interpret for our visitors. Now that I'm a veteran volunteer, I even help our coordinator with some of the training classes for new volunteers.

All the listed reasons apply to some extent, but I volunteer primarily to learn and share that knowledge with others. When a young child looks through the spotting scope at the birds in the river, you can always tell if he really see the birds or not. It's great when the kid's response is "Awesome!" One four-year-old knew all the names of the fossils in my Box O' Rocks. Another boy from Milwaukee had his grandmother from Chicago drive him to Louisville just to see the Falls.

Where will the next generation of people who love nature come from if today's children aren't exposed to it now? You never know when some child will develop a love of nature from spending Saturday morning at the Falls of the Ohio that she may turn into a career working with the environment as an adult. Maybe the bit of encouragement and enthusiasm I can give them on Saturday morning will make the difference. The older generations come and tell the stories of how they came to the Falls as youngsters, before it became a park. Their tales add depth to what we only read in history books about this area. Families return fossil collections to be used in our programs on a regular basis, commenting how much their grandparents enjoyed collecting them.

I get philosophical while standing on the river bank, enjoying the sun and birds, thinking about life during the time between visitors. So much has happened along those shores. Even though the park is not large, it's different every time I go there. The river floods or dries up in the drought. The birds stop at our bit of wilderness in the middle of a city while migrating each year. You can pretend that you are a pioneer, surrounded by unsettled land, trying to survive after your flatboat sank. Traveling back in time on weekends at the Falls keeps you humble, whether you travel back 200 years or 300 million years. Look how the earth changes, yet it still survives no matter what disaster strikes. Oh bla di, Oh bla da, Life goes on, yeah, Life goes on. Mother Earth always finds a way, and time doesn't matter at all. It's hard to get philosophical working all the time. At the Falls contemplation just comes naturally.

I was named the Volunteer of the Year at the Falls, and it's nice to be appreciated. Thanks to all of you. But coming to the Falls of the Ohio pays me in satisfaction. Overall, I volunteer because it adds to the quality of my life. And it's just fun!