The Natural Bloomington Blog


In many ways, the Black Rock Barrens Nature Preserve was the most disappointing of the nine natural areas we explored during a three-day, two-night camping trip in the Wabash River Valley last week. The history-rich site of a 100-foot bluff of black rock bluff overlooking the Indiana state river southeast of Lafayette was easily the most anticipated of the journey, which began on the Lower Sugar Creek in Parke County and ended on the Tippecanoe River in Pulaski County.

My disillusion, however, was based on selfish expectations and not nature. In fact, the promontory used as a lookout by Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and his brother The Prophet in the early 1800s, was as magnificent as billed. Trees did obscure what in winter and early spring is a view unlike any other a hundred miles or more up or downriver – the primary source of my frustration. Multiple technology fumbles also contributed to my mood at Black Rock, learning experiences I’ve resolved for future trips.

Indeed, that brief stop did produce the first Wabash siting of the year, not to mention several of my favorite images from the week. And that’s saying something, considering we had near perfect weather, and I posted Photo Albums with more than 125 images, culled from three to four times that many originals.


Pitching my first tent in more than three decades will probably emerge over time as the most memorable experience from Summer 2017’s first overnight excursion last week. But there will be stiff competition from close encounters with two-, four-, and six-legged creatures; an old-growth forest too dense to penetrate; and a razor-wired prison.

The two-day journey featured three permanently protected natural areas – Ritchey Woods Nature Preserve in Fishers, Mounds State Park just outside Anderson, the Davis-Purdue Agricultural Center Forest just outside of nowhere – and the Wilbur Wright Fish & Wildlife Area just outside the New Castle Correctional Facility.

At Ritchey I was photobombed by a pair of pink shoes. At the rest, I did the photobombing. 


Last week’s exploration of the Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve was three years in the making. If fact, this National Natural Landmark (NNL) is the reason A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana’s subtitle includes the curiously un-round 119 Unique Places to Explore.

Designated an NNL because of its presettlement, old-growth forest, Shrader was planned as Southern Indiana natural area No. 120. But at the last-minute I discovered that, even though it’s located south of Interstate 70 just north of Connsersville, ecologically the preserve is in Indiana’s Central Till Plain Natural Region and was therefore out of the book's range.

Due to timing and weather, the delay continued for another costly two to three weeks this year. Costly because, by the time landscape photographer Gary Morrison and I ventured to Shrader-Weaver on Monday, the state-endangered nodding trillium were past prime photo time. Still, the journey was worth the wait.


A reliable tip about a patch of yellow lady slippers displaying their state watch-listed colors in the wooded shadows just off Tower Ridge Road stirred a quick, unexpected Tuesday afternoon excursion to the Charles C. Deam Wilderness. The timing and logistics couldn’t have been better.

Tuesday clearly had the week’s best weather potential. But there wasn’t anywhere I had the time and inspiration to explore – until Monroe County Naturalist Cathy Meyer messaged there were “nearly 100” of these radiant yellow beauties blooming just off this remote, backcountry road. Serious nature photographers don’t ignore a Cathy message that ends with “incredible!”

Besides, her message arrived at 2:02 p.m., two minutes after a planned meeting that kept me in town for the day had fallen off the log. And roadside meant a leisurely drive through the woods, not a strenuous trek through hills and hollers. Sunshine at 2:30 sealed the deal.


Two public presentations in six days made this school year’s final week a little more hectic than usual. But I got to spend time with old friends and meet and share my four-year-and-counting journey through the Indiana backcountry with some new ones.

From those events at The Venue and Green Drinks Bloomington, I posted the slideshow I presented called Intimate Sycamore Landscapes on the Natural Bloomington YouYube Channel. It’s a narrated, eight-minute peek at the 16 Sycamore Land Trust properties included in the Guide to Southern Indiana Natural Areas.

My students are making final tweaks to their final projects, and I’m effectively full time on the nature beat again. The first hint of sunshine this week, and I’m headed east to the Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve, with a stop at the Wilbur Wright Fish & Wildlife Area.


In a way, I feel a little like the Sycamore Land Trust’s distant-but-still-loving, journalistic godfather. I wasn’t in the room when Scott Russell Sanders, Tom Zeller and other Sassarfas Audubon Society activists conceived Southern Indiana’s premier land trust some 27 years ago. But I was the first person they called; I wrote the Herald-Times article in February 1991 that announced the birth to the world.

Sixteen years later, I penned a front-page story in The Bloomington Alternative about its adolescence titled “Preserving quality of place.” A decade after that, at adulthood, I profiled 16 Sycamore properties in my Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana. In between, before my first knee surgery, I served as a land steward on Sycamore’s Campbell Preserve in eastern Monroe County.

So, it seems natural that the largest public presentation I’ve made since I don’t know when – at this Wednesday’s monthly meeting of Green Drinks Bloomington – will be called “Intimate Sycamore Landscapes.” The public event runs from 5:30-7:30 at the Upland Brewery Banquet Facility in Bloomington.


In one sense, this Saturday’s Earth Day book signing at The Venue Fine Art & Gifts will be an authorial déjà vu. The last time I signed a book on April 22 was at Barnes & Noble in 1995, when my first book Eternal Vigilance: Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana was released.

Special guests this time will be my old friends and local wordsmiths extraordinaire Mike Leonard and James Alexander Thom. Twenty-one years ago, it was legendary forest activist Bob Klawitter, who was featured in the book for his efforts to protect the Hoosier National Forest and save Patoka Lake’s Tillery Hill – two historic, grassroots victories for Indiana’s environmental community.

Four days later I will be the featured speaker at the April gathering of Green Drinks Bloomington.

Leading up to these unusual public appearances, I’ve been – and will be – on my elbows, knees and butt, in the woods, with my macro lens getting intimate with early spring wildflowers. Just this past week I posted Photo Albums from the Hoosier’s Waldrip Ridge and The Cedars Preserve, a Sycamore Land Trust property deep in the southwest Monroe County backcountry.


Approaching the Burgoon Church Road sign last week for the several-hundred-and-fifteenth time, I vowed to follow through on the same number of historic commitments to see what lies at the end, besides the church. It’s the first road east after the 446 causeway, so I knew it led to the Charles C. Deam Wilderness and Monroe Lake shoreline. But I’d never made the turn. Until last Sunday.
A too-brief glance at the map gave rise to the notion that the road turned into a path beneath a wooded canopy into Hayes Hollow and the Saddle Creek, which I canoed and camped on with a buddy back in the 70s. Patton Cave, with its geode-laden walls, is located on the creek. I figured the paved road that disappeared on Google Maps into a mass of forest green was an old road bed.
A few steps into the forest confirmed most of my preconceptions. But the afternoon’s focus immediately shifted from the re-exploration of an old stomping ground to wildflowers. Near the crest of the steepest hill I can recall traversing without switchbacks, much of the old roadway was impossible to walk on without stepping on spring beauties or cutleaf toothworts.


I’d already fulfilled half my mission by the time I contemplated another 250-foot Hayes Trail ascent in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness last Monday afternoon.

Evidence that spring wildflower season had arrived in the Hoosier National Forest – a smattering of emergent cutleaf toothworts not far from the trailhead – had already been digitally captured. Deep in the valley, some delicate, youthful spring beauties – in full bloom – had presented themselves, in full sun.

Aside from wildflower hunting, Monday’s mission included much-needed exercise. That, plus a too-powerful-to-be-ignored intuition that a reward awaited atop the north-facing slope’s switchback trail, led me to the afternoon’s photo find – a sturdy bloodroot, once again in full bloom, basking in direct sun, at the base of a massive Hoosier hardwood.


Well, I don’t know if the spectacular wildflower display at Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve has begun this spring. Plans to head east toward this National Natural Landmark near Richmond were nixed by this past week’s cold snap. A virus in shooting partner Gary Morrison’s household likewise axed Plan B for a day at the Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area, but that’s another story.

That convergence of uncontrollable events essentially kept me on the keyboard this spring teaching break researching and writing up places like Shrader-Weaver, as well as identifying the 250 plant species I’ve listed so far – the unsexy part of guidebook writing. Goals were reached this break, suffice it to say on that.

Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve is a place I’ve never been but is anything but mundane. The National Park Service says 29 of its upland acres merit natural landmark status for their “outstanding pre-settlement beech-maple forest” with “unusually large trees, such as a 56-inch diameter burr oak and a 34-inch diameter black maple.”


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