The Natural Bloomington Blog


When The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) marketing director told me the Fern Cliff Nature Preserve is his favorite, I knew I was in for a stirring photo hike. It helped that he confirmed a trail does indeed wind through the 150-acre Putnam County site. The Indiana Division of Nature Preserve's website says there isn't one. TNC's website says only that a trail exists.

While the Dedicated State Nature Preserve would have been more inspiring were I a botanist -- TNC calls it a "floral paradise" -- this sandstone marvel proved worthy of both its National Natural Landmark (NNL) status and the focus demanded by its rugged landscape. The terrain is treacherously precipitous. A trailside sign warns of "dangerous cliffs."  

Botanically speaking, Fern Cliff's sheer sandstone cliffs and moist, upland and lowland forests are literally dripping with ferns, mosses and liverworts unique to this part of the planet. Like that of the nearby Big Walnut Preserve, its NNL status means the preserve has "outstanding biological and geological resources."


With the caveat that nothing is official and details need to be worked out, I am officially working on two new book projects.

The first, a Northern Indiana companion to A Guide to Southern Indiana Natural Areas, is a "no-brainer," in the words of one key player. I began working on the other, a coffee table book on the Hoosier National Forest, as I was finishing the last one.

I'm in talks with IU Press on those two, as well as contributing to a third, which isn't my idea, so I'll not go into detail. But I'm excited to be involved in the preliminary discussions.


That the Big Walnut Creek Valley is a natural wonder is evidenced by the fact that the U.S. Park Service designated 502 acres of it a National Natural Landmark (NNL) nearly a half century ago. By its 1968 designation, that means Big Walnut contains "outstanding biological and geological resources."

"The site contains one of the few stands in Indiana where beech, sugar maple, and tulip poplar grow on alluvial Genesee soil and includes relict species of a postglacial forest that occupied the area 5,000 to 6,000 years ago," the Park Service says.

And the recognition doesn't end there. Last Wednesday, I hiked through two Dedicated State Nature Preserves -- Big Walnut/Tall Timbers Trail Unit and Hall Woods -- and alongside a bean field to find a third -- the Hemlock Ridge Nature Preserve -- too overgrown to negotiate. The three are located along a six-mile stretch of the Big Walnut on either side of Bainbridge, a one-light town west of Danville with a population smaller than its zip code, 736 and 765.


Every conversation I've had regarding Northern Indiana natural areas has pretty much followed the same script -- puzzled looks followed by confident conclusions that there are none. At least none that are worthy. Of course, those opinions are held by Southern Indiana nature lovers, who are anything but unbiased on the subject.

But just as I relearned from a trip with Gary Morrison to Fall Creek Gorge Preserve and Portland Arch Nature Preserve in June, there's more to the state north of I-70 than corn. I already knew that, as I've explored parks and preserves in the flatlands on numerous occasions through my film years. Turkey Run, Shades, Indiana Dunes Lakeshore, Chain o' Lakes, Pokagon immediately come to mind.

I'm not making any announcement here, but let's just say I've started looking north. And I've identified nearly 200,000 acres of protected land on 186 properties between I-70 and the Michigan state line.


We heard McCormick's Creek long before we reached the Statehouse Quarry, which sits creekside a quarter mile or so upstream from the White River West Fork. And I can't say I was thrilled when I found the creek a muddy, coffee-with-cream color. The water rushed, unlike I'd ever seen it, with a deafening roar. But the idea of roiling muck as the day's visual image didn't exactly delight.

For the most part, my instinctive reaction missed the mark by more than a quarter mile. I literally turned the mud to photo gold, as evidenced by the McCormick's Creek Photo Album I posted (and one from Cataract to come). The swirling water over the creek beds' glistening rocks slaked my thirst for abstract photographic expression, even if the sudsy accumulations at the fall bases were anything but refreshing.

McCormick's Creek State Park just east of Spencer is Indiana's oldest state park and turned 100 years old on July 4. The Statehouse Quarry, which commenced operation in 1878, is so named because it produced limestone used to build the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis.


In just four months, A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana is already more successful than the first book I wrote for IU Press, by orders of magnitude. But until Saturday, this second go-round hasn't felt too author-like. After I wrote Eternal Vigilance: Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana in 1996, for example, I did presentations and/or book signings at bookstores across the state, including Evansville, Bloomington, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.

On Saturday, that sense of detachment faded some. I had the honor of sharing a Dunn Meadow tent with a couple dozen other authors at IU Press's first Quarry Festival of Books. As A Guide to the Knobstone Trail  author Nathan D. Strange and I agreed, in this business you seldom, if ever, meet the people who are impacted by your work.

Usually with granddaughter Raina at my side, I signed books for enough of them that I lost count -- 12 to 15? -- and talked eye to eye with at least that many more, some of whom wrote down email addresses and URLs. One brought along a copy he received as a premium for a contribution to WTIU public television.


I spent most of my time adjusting to a new teaching environment this past week, and a short photo trip to Martin County wasn't too productive. It is late August, after all. Southern Indiana natural areas, like the Bluffs of Beaver Bend Nature Preserve we explored on Friday, are hot, muggy, buggy and overgrown. The upshot -- I didn't spend much time processing new photos this week.

Instead, I used what photog time I could steal from the transition to complete a seemingly endless process of reducing more than 3,200 nature images to a couple dozen of the best for my Gallery on our new site -- Indiana Nature Photography - Workshops and Tours. The gallery and site will be works in progress for a while, but go ahead take a look. Here's our mission statement:

"Indiana Nature Photography is an Indiana-based project dedicated to exposing and sharing the region’s extraordinary and unexpected natural beauty through digital photography. A collaborative effort between two of Indiana’s most committed and creative outdoor photographers – GaryMorrison and Steven Higgs – INP offers workshops, blogs and other educational opportunities with nature photographers and other kindred spirits."


Those familiar with this still-revolutionary phrase might be perplexed by the Porter reference to Henry David Thoreau's words that helped catalyze a fundamental change in Americans' relation with nature (not in Walden but in Walking, a.k.a., "The Wild," an Atlantic Monthly essay published in 1861 from a lecture Thoreau revised and delivered between 1851 and his death in 1862). "What I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. ... From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind."

For we old-time nature photogs, "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World" is the seminal book of our art form. In this monograph, published by Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower exactly 100 years after Walking, Eliot Porter -- the Ansel Adams of color nature photography -- infused Thoreau's passages with his photos. According to a 2002 Sierra Magazine piece, "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World  revolutionized photographic book publishing by setting new standards for design and printing and proving the commercial viability of fine art photography books."


Friday’s exploration of Indiana’s largest wildlife refuge illustrated once again the magnificent yet understated diversity of Southern Indiana’s landscape, culture and history – not to mention wilderness experience. Landscape photographer Gary Morrison and I spent a few steamy August hours watching a precautionary video, talking with property managers and naturalists, and photographing the Old Timbers Lake inside the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge just north of Madison.
The 50,000-acre Big Oaks is understated in that its roughly 78 square miles is till plain flatwoods, not the most majestic of landforms. Spanning portions of Jefferson, Ripley and Jennings Counties, the refuge lies in the state’s low-lying Muscatatuck Flats & Canyons Section and features little topography from one corner to the other. It’s the largest wildlife refuge and block of contiguous wild lands in the state and one of the 15 largest national wildlife refuges east of the Mississippi and north of Florida.
The Big Oaks history and experience, however, are anything but subtle.


I could have titled the multimedia slide show I posted on the Natural Bloomington YouTube Channel last week "Billions of Years in a Handful of Minutes," which is effectively what I attempt to do in it. In 6 minutes 31 seconds, I trace 500 billion years of Southern Indiana's natural history -- and illustrate it with five dozen contemporary digital images from my Guide to Southern Indiana Natural Areas journey.

The show is actually called "The Southern Indiana Landscape," because It's an adaptation of the guidebook's Part 2 -- of the same name -- which has three chapters: "Sculpted by Rock, Ice and Water," "Southern Indiana Physiography" and "The Natural Regions."

This first clip details the roles rock, ice and water have played in forming the wildly diverse landscape that is Southern Indiana. I have the audio narrative and about half the images placed for the physiography section. When all three are finished, the final product will be a 15-minute show that I will combine with a talk at IU's Wylie House Museum on Oct. 20.


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