Creeping Autumn

Ah, Autumn in south Georgia.  It’s taking its own sweet time, hitting the snooze button more than once.  The high here didn’t reliably drop below the 80s until after mid-October.  Something vaguely resembling a chill is in the air, but the trees seem disinclined to respond.   Driving through several counties today, I noted a distinct lack of organization in the forest.  Some leaves were changing halfheartedly; this oak was  green save for a brilliant cluster on the end of a branch, while that yellow sweetgum was surrounded by  more-or-less green cousins.  An occasional splash of red marked a sassafras that was tired of waiting.  Some don’t even try, like that persimmon that quietly darkens until it withers.  Other trees brighten only a few days before fading brown.   By and large, though, the hardwoods were as green as the pines.  Things will change in the next couple of weeks, but this isn’t the deep north woods…weak fall

Update:  what a difference a week makes. Still patchy, but more of the trees are hopping on the bandwagon.  According to the prediction maps, we are in the peak time for fall color here.  Temperatures are moderating, so that’s the important thing.

fall color 2
November 4th
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Siren Spring

In the way-down end of Alabama sits the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center, a  5300- acre property dedicated to research and education about the ecology of lower coastal plain landscapes.  The workshop I attended last spring was worth an educational blog report in itself, but it wasn’t the group classes or field trips that garnered the strongest memories of that place.

Each evening after supper, the participants were at leisure to walk around the property or make the twenty-minute drive into the nearest town.  One of the staff told me about a spring off one of the back trails, so, with hiking stick in hand. I strolled past the sinkhole lake and into the woods to find it.  The young planted pines gave way to lush hardwood canopies, and I heard the chuckling of running water.  Beside the trail, weathered stairs descended 20 or so feet to the stream.  In a land of blackwater rivers, I was surprised to find the clear, bluish water streaming out of the wall of a greenery.  The interpretive sign at the top of the stairs stated that this spring and its smaller neighbor produce 15,000 gallons per minute of 67 degree F water, running some 350 feet before disappearing back into the ground.   It was clear, tinted blue, and wonderful to visit.

Spring

I couldn’t resist; in short order the boots came off and I stepped into the cool stream a hundred feet or so downstream from where the water rose.   My feet glowed pale blue beneath the surface, and my first step disturbed the detritus of waterlogged bark and leaves at the base of the stairs.  I felt them roll over my feet, and then noticed a rhythmic poking  against my ankle on the leeward side.  Lifting back out and letting the surface smooth, I noticed four or five fish darting around.  By the interpretive sign, I guessed they were Dixie chub. I listened to the rushing of water beyond the downstream bend, felt the flow across my calves, and breathed  A few minutes later, I was back on land, donning my boots as another workshop attendee came down the stairs.  He looked appreciatively but briefly over the spring, then headed on.  I meandered up the path toward the spring, stopping to measure the water’s depth at a narrow point (the part I could reach was probably above 4 feet on my staff).    I was surprised to see a mountain laurel flowering, a mere fifty miles from the Gulf of Mexico.    The sign uphill  warned against tearing up the banks looking for sharks teeth; there was plenty of evidence that the sign went unheeded.  For one who is content to bask in the atmosphere of the cove, it saddened me that others would damage it for trinkets – but we all are guilty of this, either directly or at a remove.

At the spring, I succumbed to temptation and waded in to the shallower pool.  I meant to only wade a little way, but the spring me to get just a little closer…just a little closer… until I was thigh-deep and  balanced on rocks within arm’s length from the fern-covered cliff wall.  At my feet, I could  make out deep blue gaps where the springwater rushed out.  The siren song of the narrow cavern  beckoned me to take the plunge and float in the upwelling.  Instead, I stood there and quietly tried to absorb the moment, watching the water roil, the sand swirl.

Spring mouth

Scattered lightning bugs flashed in the failing light as I headed up the bank and back to the dirt road. There was no sound of humanity until I was nearly to the paved road, when I heard the distant moan of a train.

The Forest and The Trees

While perusing the UGA Extension website,  I came across the following:

Georgia forests, located in the heart of the nation’s “wood basket,” cover some 24.8 million acres…Forests now cover 67 percent of the land area statewide. 

In a land where cities continue to grow towards each other, maintaining – increasing, even – the amount of forest is a positive sign, right?

How do you define a forest?  Most of us will agree that trees are a necessary component.  But are they the only necessary component?

EGC1

I see too many pine plantations that are little more than wood fiber croplands; it is a crop that grows over decades rather than months.  In such situations, timber managers make no provisions for anything except maximizing wood fiber.  Often, they will do their best to eradicate anything in the field that isn’t planted pine.  After using chemicals, followed by bedding or scalping the soil with tractors, they plant seedlings so close together that in less than a decade the pine tops touch; this closure of the tree canopy makes it difficult for anything to grow beneath the pines.  Green needles above, and a brown needle carpet below – all available resources go to the crop.

Am I saying this is wrong?  No; if your top priority is to growFBM_rich spp mix pines, then this is an efficient way to do it, so long as disease and beetles are kept at bay.  But I don’t really think of a crop field of trees as a true pine forest.  I’ve seen living pine forests, their boughs swaying in the breeze, with scores of plant species carpeting the ground beneath.  Yes, and the air filled with bird song, the rustle of squirrels and rabbits, the crash of running deer.  As an example, look at the photo to the right: I couldn’t count the number of different species shown in this understory, but I know I liked what I saw.  Broomsedge, ragweed, partridge pea, goldenrod, wiregrass – all these and more provide seeds for birds, nesting cover, flowers for pollinators, and fuel for the fires that keep the habitat open and vibrant.  The pines in this stand weren’t slacking, either.  The well-thinned pines in open stands will be healthier, more resistant to insect infestation, and will increase diameter faster than more crowded stands.

Some who own their tree farms live far away from them. Others are listening to the timber buyer’s top offer.  They have no use for bird song, and gain no pleasure in the land apart from a balance sheet rich in digits.  But for the bird watcher, the hunter, and the curious naturalist, decades of enjoyment in their woodland is more than worth the price of a reduced payout.  Proper management of a forest results in a living community of flora and fauna, peace and recreation for landowners – and yes, a source of income.

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For More Information:

Know Your Forest: Thinning

To Thin or Not To Thin

Thinning for Profit, Health, and Wildlife

Basal Area: A Measure Made for Management