The Natural State

Upon my late arrival across the Arkansas border, after driving a short 2-day drive from New Hampshire, I was swiftly confronted by high winds, heavy rain, tumultuous thunder, and threat of a tornado, (which I shortly learned was nothing out of the ordinary for the Natural State – lovely, isn’t it?). I remarked, “Thanks for the hearty greeting, Arkansas – glad to make your acquaintance, too”.
Within my first week, the clamorous episode I had experienced that night began to reflect my emotional state. I felt vivid strokes of enthusiasm followed by weighted anxiety reaching depths I had never wished to explore. In a land obscured by canopy, and my obliviousness of the world beyond my home town, it felt as if I uncovered my own “City of Z”. However, unlike the unfortunate assumed fate of Percy Fawcett, the ensuing days were brimming with the firm handshakes and animated faced of many, all willing to assist in my transition. Through what began to be a routine conversation of “what brings you down here?”, “New Hampshire? Oh, just right down the road, yeah?”, and “How do you like the humidity?” I shortly grew comfortable (as well as a fine layer of sweat), with the community I would be spending the following months with.
Given the arduous efforts to complete HR protocols, and other seemingly innumerable procedures to be recognized in the system, receive a government license, etc, I spent my first few weeks tagging along with various individuals to assist in conducting biological evaluations, surveys, and other projects in the district. This allowed me to receive an understanding for the local environments, ecosystems, and flora that are present. Not to mention an understanding just how very cold, and very dry Arkansas weather is…
A few projects that illustrated the successful restoration efforts the Forest Service has embarked on is the use of prescribed fires in disturbed, and previously unmanaged environments, fraught with ill-motivated invasive species. Interestingly, I learned of how some of the plots had formed into what they are today – agricultural lands abandoned after financial pressures of farmers reached too grand of a scale. These previously open, and breathable plains were subject to encroaching invasive species, sinking their roots in vulnerable, fertile soils, inviting others to join the party. The kinds who bring friends who trash the place, eating all of the provisions. However, through the application of fire and selective cuttings, even an untrained eye can recognize the significant improvements present. Native species are experiencing a triumphant return, as well as the soils, landscape, etc – the starkness creates such a contrast that burned, and unburned sites do not appear to belong to the same plot of land. Not even of the same region.
Additionally, among these native species are the lesser studied grasses. In efforts to enhance our knowledge of grasses, their diversity, as well as their minute taxonomy, our office, including others in the district, attended a course, which was wonderfully organized by my mentor, Jessica Hawkins. The photos attached to this post capture a glimpse of how the course was conducted, and what the attendees gained. Thoughtfully, notebooks were provided, which were filled with specimens located in the restoration fields. Notes were scratched, grasses were taped, heat was felt, but much needed knowledge was acquired. In total, 46 species were marked! (That was our location alone – just one restoration area). Now we are all equipped with a personalized grass ID field book, and they’re fantastic.
I must say, I never imagined the complexities noted, and exhibited by the locally present grasses. Often disregarded and viewed as a homogenous green mass we either walk through, or drive by daily, my newfound appreciation for grasses has bloomed. Mowing will now become a problem…
Needless to say, I am looking forward to the months to come, and what they include. I’m elated with the way this month has unfolded.

Corey Skeens

USFS Russellville, AR

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