The Natural Bloomington Blog


Mouth of the Blue RiverThe unnatural world kept me on the Mac and out of the field this past week, which is okay, since that's where photos from last week's excursion to the Ohio River are stored. I posted new photo albums from our explorations of O'Bannon Woods State Park, Harrison-Crawford State Forest and Post Oak-Cedar Nature Preserve,

Together, these three wild areas comprise 26,294 acres of the Shawnee Hills Natural Region's Escarpment Section, with characteristics largely defined by the Blue and the Ohio. The 24,000-acre Harrison-Crawford includes the 266-acre Post Oak-Cedar preserve. Except for its Ohio shoreline, the 2,294-acre O'Bannon Woods is surrounded by the state forest.

The Blue River -- a state-registered natural, scenic and recreational river -- is widely regarded as one of most beautiful and pristine in the state, if not the most. Its name comes from the aqua blue color it reflects in dry times, like late September. The Blue forms the western border of O'Bannon Woods, formerly the Wyandotte Woods State Recreation Area, and meets the Ohio on the park's southwest edge.


Falls of the Ohio State ParkEven with my newly inspired natural history perspective on Southern Indiana, it's still hard to grasp the fact that the Ohio River bluffs we hiked along on Saturday had their genesis some 350 million years ago, when the region was at the bottom of a shallow, equatorial sea.

That these massive, ragged, perpendicular cliffs were carved from limestone by nothing more than the movement of melting ice and running water, in less than a million years, is as overwhelming. The Ohio Valley began forming when the last glacier redirected Midwest drainage patterns from north to south roughly 700,000 years ago.

But those are the geological realities I contemplated hiking through the Mouth of the Blue River Nature Preserve at the O'Bannon Woods State Park -- where the state's most beautiful river meets its mightiest -- as well as three other Ohio Valley nature preserves in Harrison County -- Post Oak-Cedar, Hayswood and Mosquito Creek.


Steven Higgs, Dark Rain Thom, James Alexander ThomI am both thrilled and humbled to announce that Southern Indiana author and legend James Alexander Thom has agreed to write the foreword to my Guidebook to Southern Indiana Natural Areas. I've known Jim since I wrote about his Panther in the Sky book in my H-T days in 1989. He was one of my role models before I met him and remains so to this day.

Not only will it be an honor to share a book cover with Jim, but it raises the stakes a bit for me.

Speaking of the book, while late summer and early fall aren't the photo-liveliest of times, time is short, and I spent Saturday exploring three nature preserves in the Knobstone Escarpment, from New Albany to Henryville, with a stop in between at a 400-million-year-old fossil bed.


Clifty Falls State ParkTime and energy are at a premium these days, but in the past seven days I've walked as close as I could to the two rivers that most define the state of Indiana -- the Ohio and the Wabash -- walking and driving over landscapes that, in recent geologic time, have been 250 million to 400 million years in the making.
Last Sunday felt like a speed date with nature down in the Madison area, checking off of the to-shoot list the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, Clifty Falls State Park, Chelsea Flatwoods Nature Preserve, and Hardy Lake State Recreation Area, all in one day.  Not near enough time at any of them, but such are the creative-time constraints when school is in session.
At 50,000 acres, Big Oaks is the largest wildlife preserve in the state, some six times bigger than its U.S. Fish & Wildlife sister to the north and west, the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. And the biodiversity there ranks among the state's best. With more than 200 bird species, it's a National Audubon Society-designated Important Bird Area. Endangered Indiana bats hang with their young there in summer.


Cataract FallsThree weeks off the road, buried in books and websites about the rock, ice and water that molded the Southern Indiana landscape into its eclectic, physiographic mix of uplands, plateaus and bottoms, had me itching for a trip to the Ohio River on Saturday. On the itinerary: Falls of the Ohio and Clifty Falls State Parks, with a stop at the Big Oaks Wildlife Refuge on the return trip, time and energy permitting.

The weather, however, persuaded me to stay home and write some more about the rivers, forks, creeks and streams that carved hundreds of feet of half-billion-year-old bedrock into the canyons, valleys and hollers I write about today.  I also spent a couple hours talking archaeology, geology and a little anthropology with archaeologist/anthropologist Cheryl Munson.

More significantly, I confirmed Monroe County Naturalist Cathy Meyer as the special guest on our Oct. 17 ecotour to the Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area and Greene-Sullivan State Forest.


Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife AreaIt's not surprising that, for the first time in longer than I can recall, there isn't anything new in the Natueal Bloomington website offerings. Just about all my energy last week was devoted to my 241 new journalism protoges, which even required a couple mandatory night-time appearances.The Natural Bloomington project slipped off the to-do list.

We did, however, nail down some details for an Oct. 17 ecotour to the Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area and Greene-Sullivan State Forest, The trip will be organized through the Endwright Center and is open to anyone, regardless of age. Rural Transit will provide the buses. Garden Villa will provide the food. The ecological diversity and fall colors will be courtesy of Nature.

Other details are still being worked out. The wetlands and forests in that part of the state have unique stories, and we hope to have a naturalist or two along to help share them. I have been in contact with the property managers on Goose Pond on other matters and hope to have one of them join or at least meet with us when we get there.


Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife AreaThis missive marks the official end of summer here and the slipping of the Natural Bloomington/Guidebook projects down the priority list to No. 2. Last week was transition-to-professor-mode time, and for the first time since May, I didn't cross the city limits on anything other than family business. Next up today: emails welcoming students to the Fall 2014 sememster.

Staying home did allow me to work through the backlog of unedited photographs and post five new photo albums: Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area, Greene-Sullivan State Forest, John A. Hillenbrand Fish & Wildlife Area, Shakamak State Park, John Sunman's Woods and Whitewater State Park/Brookville Lake. (My eyes are burning!)

And I eclipsed the 47,000-word mark on a book planned for 50,000. I still have two sections to write, months of revisions and many road and trail miles ahead. But I started circulating copies to outside readers whose expertise on the sites and the natural science behind it all exceeds mine. Deep breath.


With summer travel freedom approaching an inexorable end, I literally traversed the state the past seven days, from the strip-mined Southwestern Lowlands just this side of Illinois to some of the state's highest elevations in the Switzerland Hills just this side of Ohio, with a glimpse of subterranean Indiana in between.

Last Sunday's excursion with my friend and adviser Amara was designed for a leisurely afternoon in Lawrence County, from which I have posted photo albums on the Jeremy Keith Oakley Nature Preserve and Buddha Karst Nature Preserve.

Oakley is another Sycamore Land Trust property, a 15-acre field, woods, and creek ravine that is a living memorial from Kathy Oakley to her son, Jeremy, to provide a place for people -- especially children -- to understand the fragility and value of nature “as a haven to all spirits (to) enrich the human soul.”


If it appears that I have had a bias toward the Sycamore Land Trust of late, it's not your imagination. In July, 12 of the 17 natural areas I hiked and photographed were owned by the Bloomington-based nonprofit—for many reasons.

For starters, there are a lot of them. I have been to 13 and still have a few on my list, from south of Lawrence to Vanderburgh counties. And including them as guidebook destinations barely scratches the list. All told, Sycamore oversees 82 properties and  conserves more than 8,000 acres of rare and unique landscapes from Stinesville to Evansville.

And I am biased. I wrote the 1990 Bloomington Herald-Times article announcing Sycamore's formation. I spent some evenings in the late '90s in the group's home on Bloomington's far east side solidifying my environmental vision through conversation with IU Professor Emeritus Lynton K. Caldwell, one of the 20th century's great environmental thinkers. He owned the property.



As an old law breaker from way back, I have to confess the "Private – No Trespassing" sign on the drive to The Cedars Preserve elevated my experience there to an unexpected level. I knew I was in the right place. But it felt like I was violating an oath, like my arrival might as easily be greeted by a shotgun as by a Sycamore Land Trust (SLT) sign.

Just an hour before, I had encountered a wary, silent neighbor at Wayne Woods, another SLT property a few miles north on Bloomington's southwest side. I parked on the shoulder and shot some quick pics along the 13-acre preserve's roadside edge and looked for the trail that was supposed to start near the northeast corner. Four shots in, I noticed the across-the-street neighbor watchfully standing at the end of his drive not more than 50 feet away.

A Monroe County native for sure, he didn't look at me until I approached him – said a car at the end of his drive made him want to see what was going on. We talked for a while, and he said he knew Wayne – a "good conservationist" – an IU professor who moved to Lincoln, Neb., for another position.


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