• March 23 with John Pickering, Justin Hart, Doug Booher & Maarten and Colleen Van der Geissen – and the blue bells with a quadrillion.

Puzzling over ramps and quadrilliums in the moonshine


The revolving door of visiting scientists spun faster as the week went on.


Like one of those great blue herons that sometimes finds itself in the backyard lily pond, John Pickering landed Thursday night – and we wondered for a minute if the backyard was big enough. Pick is indeed a presence. The retired UGa professor is one of the early co-founders of the All Taxa Biological Inventory in the Great Smokies, and continues to reinvent (in every conversation!) the way we think about species inventories.


But Pick was conspicuously silent as he looked over the wildflower covered slopes at Paint Rock. You could tell this was a landscape big enough, dramatic enough, rich enough to accommodate his broad interests.


Was it Pick or Doug Booher, or maybe  Justin Hart or Jonathan Kleinman from the University of Alabama’s Forest Dynamics program, who first spotted the quadrillium among the wildflowers at Callaway Sinks? We weren’t sure whether this four-parted aberration of the three-leafed trillium was just a lucky find, or a sign of good luck. Hart and Kleinman were enthusiastic about the potential of the forest plot, and pledged to work to bring their university’s resources to the effort in whatever way they could (Greg Starr and Christy Staudhammer, on sabbatical in France, also hope to involve their labs at University of Alabama).


All day long, and deep into the night, Pick and Finch argued over the identity of plants. Maarten van der Giessen and Colleen Keleher, who’ve pioneered the propagation and introduction of a number of unusual Alabama native plants, joined in the debate. They had come in that afternoon, and watching them see the bluebells for the first time was almost as moving as watching the bluebells. As the group picked apart what they’d seen after dinner, all were aided by the glow of an unusually fine distillation of Alabama moon light. The most intriguing plant problem of all was the identity of the flowerless clumps of lily-like leaves they’d seen near one of the sinks. Lily of the valley, Pick insisted. Wood lily, Beth Finch said. Not likely on either count, said Bill Finch, though he conceded it did look a bit like Convallariaceae. Maarten just sipped and smiled.


But it’s always wise to remember that a plant has more than looks. Each has a distinct chemical profile, with flavonoids that can often be tasted and smelled. The hills of Paint Rock are increasingly rich with odors and flavors as the spring develops – the minty brightness of the extremely rare limerock woodmint, the lemony spice of spicebush. And as Al Schotz eventually reminded us, the pungent odor of the legendary mountain garlic, ramps. There would have been a quick resolution to the argument if they had just bent down and nibbled on the distinguished and utterly distinguishing flavor of those mysterious leaves: sweet, rich, peppery, garlicky, with a hint of musk.


Here’s one last sip for ramps, that rare delicacy of the Paint Rock mountains, and a poem from Pick to memorialize the day:


Unusual beauty  by John Pickering

Whether by the design
of a dyslexic dog
or the cruel dealings
of your developmental
mishandling of some new mutant means,
you, Quadrillium,
are a strange,
magnificent one.
You made it,
from the normal,
not a lucky Irish
four-leaf clover,
but a different
gentle giant
amongst your
Trillium clan,
a perfect
hopeful monster.
would wonder
at your form,
take pleasure,
grin with pride.

Four leaves,
four petals,
four sepals,
your new symmetry
displayed with glory.

But whatever for?

With whom will you mate?

Will you confuse the bees?

Will your plan
now be passed on
to a new genus,
or be scrambled back
into Trillium’s
conservative world,
or end in deathly solitude?

It’ll not be child’s play
to plug your square peg into a triangular world.

Win or lose,
without a goal,
without a thought,
at least the hard hand
of chance tried,
with some success,
to bring about
your three-plus-
one-more excess.

So wait hidden amongst
the profusion of beauty
in Calloway Sinks’
rich herbaceous layer,
entangled with
the tried and true.
Time will tell.
New forms will come,
others go.
As for yours,
we do not know.

A million years
from now,
things will be different,
as they’ll change
every tomorrow,
by small increments,
punctuated jokes,
and wicked asteroids.

We fear change,
try to keep
things the same,
expend much futility
on protecting
the status quo,
as we warm
and on we go.


Let’s embrace
our future
as it comes.

Unless time ends,
change is the norm.

Beauty remains.

• Paint Rock with Doug Booher and Tony Hiss – March 22

It apparently doesn’t take long to find something in Paint Rock that no one has ever seen or documented before.

Luben and Bill got lost in grant deadlines. Patty and Steve got lost in the great open spaces between Paint Rock and Los Angeles.


But Beth, writer Tony Hiss and ant specialist Doug Booher spent another day lost in the wildness of Paint Rock forests.


We all wish we could have been there with them.


The first warm shine of spring inspired the insects, and Doug found creatures neither he or others had anticipated, including two rove beetles from a mostly tropical (!) genus of beetles (Stilicopsis), One of those beetles appears to be new to science. Doug was also excited by the capture of a little known ant that few (including himself) have ever seen – the winter active ant Stenamma meridionale.


Ahem. That was day one for Doug.


He’s already planning his trip back, and plotting with Harvard University researcher and ant specialist David Lubertazzi about the best ways to explore the invertebrate life of a forest that every day reveals something new and unexpected. (Stefan, you hearing this?)


Tony Hiss digests this all in his patient, note-taking way, asking penetrating questions even flying down those gut-wrenching slopes (they make the Six Flags roller coaster look tame). We’re all writing the story of Paint Rock from different perspectives, but we all seem to have one word in common: Wow.


• March 21 – How to Formulate a Forest

Maybe the last time there was this much brainwork in North Alabama was when moonshiners and revenuers played their cat and mouse games in these steep coves.

Tony Hiss, the famous New York travel and conservation writer, started asking questions and taking notes as soon as he got off the plane in Huntsville. Back at the Finch cabin at Dutton, Patty Gowaty, the UCLA evolutionary biologist noted for her work on gender and sex in evolutionary processes, regaled and educated all afternoon with her stories of bluebirds and human social behavior. And that evening, in the flicker of the fire that was our only heat, UCLA distinguished prof Stephen Hubbell offered us a master class in his latest evolutionary theories, for which he was awarded the prestigious International Prize for Biology.


It was enough to sober a moonshiner.

It’s a lot to digest in one sitting, but Hubbell patiently outlined the mathematical evidence for biodiversity, plotted from tropical forest dynamics research centers around the globe. It’s a new way of understanding why tropical forests are so diverse, and offers dramatic new insight into the dynamics of common and rare species. It also may help us predict whether these species will survive or not. As Hubbell has noted, it’s a bit like the application of physics theory and mathematics to complex biological and ecosystem processes that are hard to document and describe.


The significance of those mathematical abstractions hit us in the face the next morning, when we first saw the bluebells and other wildflowers in bloom at Callaway Sinks, at the upper end of the Sharp Bingham preserve. Tony quit taking notes and stood spellbound. I think the only word that I heard leave his lips was “magical.”


Why the wildflowers and trees and shrubs –rare and common – are arranged so uniquely on the slopes of Paint Rock is a fitting challenge for all evolutionary theory. And that’s why Hubbell and team are here, to set up what is likely to become one of the world’s most important forest research plots.

• Paint Rock scientist tours – March 19, 2018

Follow the first big steps in the development of The Paint Rock Forest Research Center:

Two of the great minds of the Smithsonian’s international ForestGEO program, Stephen Hubbell (distinguished professor of evolutionary biology at UCLA) and Richard Condit (with the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago), bring their expertise to the Paint Rock forest this week.
And what an incredible field day Monday, as we deftly dodged the thunderstorms and tornadoes that swept through the area. The wildflowers in Paint Rock right now are amazing. It’s no exaggeration to say that there are miles of trout lilies covering the hills of Sharp Bingham preserve right now, with multiple species of trilliums blooming like weeds among Dutchman’s breeches, windflowers, Celandine poppies, jeffersonia, phacelia, weird long-spurred violets, doll’s eyes, foamflower (and what in the world were all those wildflowers we didn’t have time to stop and identify?).
But we weren’t there to catalog the wildflowers. Instead, we were all amazed once again to see the incredible diversity of trees and shrubs on this site, and the strange ways they are distributed on the high slopes of Paint Rock. We’d be walking through a few hundred feet of forest, surrounded by the persistent gold leaves of beech, and then, by some odd forest magic, we took another step and the beech leaves disappeared entirely, and an unusual forest of blue ash, magnolias, smoke trees or others appeared.
Steve, Rick, Luben Dimov and myself are amazed, perplexed and excited by the strange biological “zoning” of these Paint Rock forests. We believe that understanding the very patchy distribution of plants here can tell us a lot about the distribution of trees, shrubs and other plants throughout eastern North America — and may help us find a safe refuge for those species as climate changes again.