The Devil’s Eyebrow

1.JPGWay up in northeast Benton County, between Beaver Lake and the Missouri border, stand a few thousand acres of rugged forest, exposed rock and spring-fed streams called the Devil’s Eyebrow Natural Area. It’s only an hour’s drive away, but I’d barely even heard of it before last week.

That changed while I worked on a story in today’s paper about how northwest Arkansas’ plan to preserve open and natural areas as it grows is showing results. As the last piece of that article, I needed some photos, which meant a couple hours of hiking and exploring a new, beautiful place. I mean, I’ll do it if I really have to, I guess.

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3.JPGMy generous companions were Jennifer and Isaac Ogle, who introduced me to the wonderful experience of hiking with people who can spot, name and enthusiastically describe almost every plant, animal and rock I’d want to photograph and learn about. Jennifer Ogle works as a land management specialist with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, one of a long list of groups that have helped manage or expand Devil’s Eyebrow and other lands around the state. She told me the area’s name comes from an old prediction that it would be easier to run a railroad on the devil’s own eyebrow than through these hills. I think the name kind of fits with the arching bluffs, too.

One more thing about it — I was a little worried the woods would be bone-dry after weeks of temperatures in the 90s and no rain, but fortunately at least two springs ran cool and clear and quick, supporting crawdads, fish and at least one small water snake.

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4.JPGThank you, Ogles, and thank you, Devil’s Eyebrow. I’ll have to go back sometime.

Dan

The forest floor

IMG_9563.JPGThe soccer field at my elementary school in Springfield, Missouri, was nothing but a patch of bare, reddish dirt, and it was my favorite part of the place. I liked soccer just fine, but the real reasons for my affection were the thousands of dime-sized rocks caked into its surface. Almost all of them were imprinted with fossils: tiny grid-like bryozoan colonies, striated mollusk shells, cylindrical crinoids the size of pencil erasers, all remnants of an ancient sea. I was 7 years old and could spend half an hour after school crouched over the gritty dirt excavating these treasures with my fingertips, saving the most striking ones for my collection.

That’s all to say keeping an eye out for the small and overlooked underfoot has been my jam for pretty much forever. How could I possibly resist the yellow slime mold above? I’d only seen these weird organisms in textbooks before this moment. It might look like a fungus, but it’s actually the result of countless microbes literally fusing together into one huge cell that can move around and even learn, at least in some senses of the word.

Other denizens of Devil’s Den State Park’s forest floor don’t have the same flair, but I still love them.

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IMG_0020.JPGThis unsettling phenomenon seems to be guttation, which is apparently just the excretion of excess water — one more thing I’d only seen in books before now.

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IMG_0025.JPGAfter almost four years photographing the woods around here, they’re still surprising me. Thanks for looking.

Early spring

_C1_0323.JPGThis is just wrong, y’all.

Trees and other plants from the South to the Great Lakes are coming to life several weeks early. Four days this month have reached record high temperatures, according to the National Weather Service, and we’ve gotten to 80 degrees twice. January had 11 days above 60, while the average is in the 40s. Now, there’s always been wacky weather, and climate scientists are always quick to point out that climate change doesn’t cause any single weather pattern, instead affecting the probability of certain events. But it’s hard not to wonder if the highest carbon dioxide levels in millions of years have something to do with all of this.

On top of that, these particular blossoms belong to a Bradford pear, an ornamental but invasive species that humans brought here from east Asia. Invasive species like these trees and honeysuckles crowd out native plants and steal away their light and nutrients, which can hurt local bugs, birds, mammals, soil, water and us, and they’re hard to get rid of.

Basically we’ve made a mess, even if it looks nice or feels great.

_C1_0222.JPGThat brings me to these rock piles along Lee Creek at Devil’s Den State Park. I know I’ve shown them here at least once before, and they’re a pretty and neat way for dozens or even hundreds of people to connect in the same space. It’s also something we shouldn’t be doing, come to find out. It’s bad for creek beds and the fish and amphibians and bugs living in and under them, and it’s something park rangers around the country are trying to stop.

Anyway, I don’t mean to be the buzzkill during some really fantastic weather. The point is we humans have a way of leaving our marks big and small. Keep an eye on them.

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Thanks for lookin’.

Dan