Posts Tagged ‘bison’

Canebrakes are Forlorn Landscapes

January 28, 2013

200 years ago, landscapes in southeastern North America looked nothing like they do now.  When William Bartram traveled through the piedmont region of the south (circa 1775), the path he followed mostly stayed on the high ground because impenetrable thickets of bamboo cane (Arundinerea gigantea) grew alongside creeks and river bottoms.  His party was always in sight of canebrakes as they traveled through the open woodlands on the high ground.  Canebrakes covered tracts that were hundreds of square miles in extent.  Today, canebrakes are nearly an extinct type of environment.


I looked for this photo on google images and couldn’t find it.  I did find it within a pdf document but I couldn’t link the photo directly. So I scanned it from the book Forgotten Grasslands of the South by Reed Noss.  Click to enlarge.  It’s of a man on a horseback dwarfed by a stand of 40 foot tall cane in 1906.  This was probably one of the last stands of a primeval canebrake.

Canebreaks 001

I found this stand of bamboo cane growing behind a Burger King in Madison, Georgia.  Cane is planted as an ornamental.  It’s probably not even American bamboo, but rather Asian bamboo.

Canebrakes are an ancient environment, dating back to at least the Miocene (25 million-5 million years BP).  It’s a species of grass.  Grasses began to become abundant during the Oligocene (33 million-25 million years BP).  Scientists unearthed ~5 million year old fossil bamboo from the Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee along with the bones of an extinct species of red panda (Pristinailurus bristoli) that fed upon it.  American bamboo likely shares an ancestry with Asian bamboo back when both continents were composed of a continous mosaic of tropical environments.  (  Scientists disagree over whether giant gane (Arundinerea gigantea) is the same species as switch cane  (A. tecta).  Some botanists argue a structure inside switch cane makes it a different species, but others don’t think the difference is significant enough.  In any case cane grew in dense stands on rich soils, either by itself in pure stands or with an occasional tree in a savannah-like landscape.  Cane is shade intolerant and today seems to be restricted to wooded swamp edges.

Canebrakes require a complicated combination of forcing events to exist.  Formerly, floods, flocks of passenger pigeons, windstorms, or ice storms destroyed great tracts of forest.  Passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) used to roost in flocks estimated to be in the billions.  Witnesses described their roosting areas as resembling tornado damage.  Great limbs and even whole trees broke in half under the weight of the birds, and the pigeon dung killed the trees via overfertilization.  (See also The New Madrid earthquakes in 1811 also caused the creation of large tracts of canebrakes.  Following these natural disturbances of the forest, a great amount of flammable dead wood covered the forest floor.  Lightning or human set fires burned through the woody refuse, creating vast sunny areas that allowed shade-intolerant bamboo cane to colonize large tracts of land.  Cane growing in small sunny patches within the forest could take advantage of these disturbances by spreading clonally from root rhizomes into the newly suitable habitat.  As long as fire occurred at least once a decade, canebrakes could be maintained indefinitely.  Dr. Noss suggests canebrakes were an alternate climax stage with bottomland forests near rivers and streams.  Without disturbances these areas succeeded to bottomland forests, but disturbances were so common that canebrakes may have covered an equal amount of territory.

Modern studies show that fire and windstorm double the growth of cane which can grow as fast as 20 feet annually.  Cane formerly reached heights of 40 feet, perhaps because they were enriched with pigeon dung.  Today, the tallest cane known grows in Louisiana and reaches just 30 feet in height.  It depends mostly on clonal growth and only flowers and produces seed once every 40-50 years.  It prefers rich river bottomland soils where it can become dominant.  Surprisingly, rich soils have less species diversity than poor soils.  On poor soils no one species can become dominant due to more difficult growing conditions.

Canebrakes were undoubtedly a widespread environment during the Pleistocene before man colonized North America.  There are many endemic species of animals that depend exclusively upon canebrake habitats, and it’s unlikely they evolved that dependence within the last 15,000 years.  However, canebrakes likely enjoyed a heyday during the 18th century when Native American populations collapsed.  Indians preferred to grow their crops on rich river bottomland soils and when they abandoned their fields cane rapidly colonized the land.

Modern anthropogenic changes in land use have nearly eliminated canebrakes.  Humans built levees and dams to prevent flooding.  People suppress fires.  People exterminated passenger pigeons.  These activities ended ancient patterns of disturbances that bamboo cane requires to form vast monotypical stands.  Moreover, cane grew on rich soils that farmers coveted for field crops, and the farmers let their livestock overgraze cane growing on any land left unplanted.  Today, river bottomlands left undeveloped are dominated by trees that shade out cane.  Canebrakes are a forlorn landscape and will be difficult to re-establish.

Canebrakes were a rich habitat utilized by many species of animals.  Cane is a high quality forage that formerly provided food for grazers such as mammoths, horses, and bison.  Bears and big cats liked to den inside the thickets where they could hide their cubs.  Swamp rabbits (Sylvilagus aquaticus) are also known as canecutters because they feed upon cane by gnawing through the stem to fell the tall grass so they can get at the leaves.  If it’s not extinct, Bachman’s warbler (Vermivora bachmanii) and Swainson’s warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii) depend upon canebrake habitat.  Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamteus), also known as canebrake rattlesnakes, hunt swamp rabbits in the thickets.  6 species of butterfly depend entirely upon bamboo cane as part of their life history.

Swamp rabbits are also called canecutters.  They’re much larger than cottontails.

Bachman’s warbler.  This bird is probably extinct.  They formerly summered in canebrakes.  They built their nests in the cane thickets and foraged for insects on the ground in the fallen cane leaves.  They wintered in Cuba.  They became extinct (probably) because canebrakes are gone.  None have been seen since 1988.

A man holding an eastern diamondback rattlesnake.  They are big serpents growing to 8 feet long and weighing 35 pounds.

Southern pearly eye (Enodia portlandia).  5 other species of butterfly depend upon canebrakes for at least part of their life cycle including Creole pearly eye (E. creota), southern swamp skipper (Poanes yehl), cobweb little skipper (Amblyscertes aesolypia), cane little skipper (A.reversa), and yellow little skipper (A. carolina).  These endemic species are evidence canebrakes predate anthropogenic influences on the environment.

Native Americans also used to rely on bamboo cane.  They used to mix mud with strips of cane to build houses, and they covered the floors inside with mats made of cane.  They made baskets and fish traps and coffins from cane.  Weapons fashioned out of bamboo cane included spears, knives, body armor, and blowguns.  Indians incorporated cane into the structures of their famous mounds.  Cane even provided food.  Bamboo shoots are a tasty vegetable, and the seeds could be ground into a flour that was reputed to be almost as good as wheat flour.


Ellsworth, J.W.; and B.C. McComb

“Potential Effects of Passenger Pigeon Flocks on the Structure and Composition of Presettlement Forests of Eastern North America”

Conservation Biology 17: 1548-1558 2003

Gagnon, P.R.; and W.J Platt

“Multiple disturbances accelerate clonal growth in potentially monodominant bamboo”

Ecology 89: 612-618 2008

Platt, W.J.; and C.J. Brantley

“Canebrakes: An Ecological and Historical Perspective”

Castanea 62: 8-21 1997


Vacation at Land Between the Lakes

June 22, 2012

This beautiful strip of land on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee was originally known as land between the rivers.  The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers flowed parallel to each other and often flooded the land in between.  The floods enriched the soil, creating fertile farmland, but they were disastrous to homesteads.  By the 1920’s a once-thriving iron smelting industry began disappearing because the trees being used to fire the blast furnaces had largely been felled.  During the Great Depression the people living here had depleted most of the natural resources, and floods were ruining their only other remaining source of income–agriculture.  The Federal government saved the region by creating the Tennessee Valley Authority.  The TVA dammed the 2 rivers, creating Kentucky Lake and Lake Barclay, and in the process provided many much needed construction jobs and a long term source of hydroelectric power and flood control. The Land Between the Lakes was protected and trees grew back.

Black walnut trees are once again common in the forests of Land Between the Lakes.  This surprised me.

Thanks to the public works projects of the 1930’s, thousands of hillbillies and rednecks were elevated above poverty.  Ironically, today this region is a stronghold of Ron Paul followers who believe in free market Laissez-Faire economics, lax regulations, and no taxes–a return to the policies that wrecked this region almost 100 years ago.  They reject the federal government, the entity that literally saved their lives then.  The stupidity and ignorance of Ron Paul supporters is astounding.  If these tea baggers think the government is so bad, why do they want to be in it?

Land Between the Lakes is the greatest natural area I’ve ever visited.  From my cursory 5 hour survey, I estimate the upland is covered in about 80% hardwoods, 15% meadow, and 5 % pine.

Much of 18th century North America from Ohio and Pennsylvania south to middle Georgia and Alabama looked like this.  Note the buffalo wallow.  There were buffalo wallows all along the road that went through the Elk and Bison Prairie within Land Between the Lakes.

Biologists use fire to establish these 18th century-like landscapes.  Imagine bigger trees and this is what much of the eastern half of the continent  looked like when the pioneers first crossed it.  Many Pleistocene landscapes probably looked much like this as well.

Dominant trees include white oak, post oak, southern red oak, black oak, shagbark hickory, pignut hickory, sycamore, black walnut, sugar maple, red maple, mimosa, and cottonwood.  Willow grows in the low areas.  There are some wetlands but most were inundated by the reservoirs.  I recognized 3 species of pine–shortleaf, white, and Virginia.  I notice on the range maps that this population of Virginia pine is a disjunct one.  Birch, juniper, and ash are also present.  I forgot to try and identify the kinds of grass that grows in the meadows here but purple coneflowers and various species of coreopsis were blooming in abundance.

Coreopsis is abundant in meadows this year everwhere from Augusta, Georgia to LBL.  Heavy spring rains made for a good wildflower year.

Most of the mature trees look to be about 80 years old, but I did see 1 exceptionally large white oak growing on land within “The Home Place,” a replica 1850 farm.  This oak may have been growing on private property, and landowners saved it from the shortsighted iron smelters who were cutting all the trees down from 1870-1925.

I estimate this white oak to have a diameter of almost 6 feet.  Primeval forests consisted of widely spaced trees such as this.  Imagine the photo of the bison wallow above juxtaposed with bigger trees like this one.  Many shagbark hickory sapling grow in the shade of this oak.  Several nice specimens of mature shagbark hickories grow nearby.

LBL is 250 square miles, and there probably are other trees surpassing this one in diameter.

I enjoyed LBL much more than my trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The latter is crowded and holds little wildlife accessible to the public.  We saw only a few people in LBL during mid-morning hours and maybe a few more in mid-afternoon.  Despite the heat wave, an unfortunate stroke of luck, we saw lots of wildlife.  At the Elk and Bison prairie we ran into a herd of bison and a flock of cattle egrets.  They hardly noticed us.  We also saw 2 small flocks of turkeys.

These bison must be used to cars.  They didn’t budge, though the nursing calves hid behind the cows.  Note the cattle egret, and the bison’s coat in the process of shedding. Bison wallows occur all along the road and flattened bison patties are visible.

Cattle egrets, an African species, naturally colonized North America within the last century.  Nobody knows exactly when or how.  Presumably, a few flew here.

This is a mounted elk at the visitor’s center.  Unfortunately, I must be destined to never see a wild elk.  The hot weather forced the elk to bed down in the shade where I couldn’t see them.

We saw several wild white-tailed deer in broad daylight, despite the heat, but they wouldn’t stay still for a photo.  They are in their beautiful red summer coats.  This is the time of year 18th century market hunters killed them for their hides.  A buck skin was worth a dollar then, hence the slang “buck” for dollar.  I suspect a person traveling through the length of LBL during dusk or dawn would see dozens of deer–LBL is just ideal habitat for them and so is the adjacent Fort Campell and Fort Donelson Battlefield Park.

In addition to turkeys and cattle egrets, I saw brown-headed cowbirds, bluebirds, purple martins, eastern kingbirds, black vultures, turkey vultures, an unidentified hawk, a great blue heron, cardinals, and crows.  The Woodland Nature Center is a little zoo within LBL for orphaned and injured animals.

Gray rat snake.

Timber rattler.  Accounts of early white explorers suggest rattlesnakes were abundant in pre-Colonial Kentucky.

LBL is 20 miles from any town that is big enough to have a decent hotel.  From Augusta, Georgia a traveler can choose from hotels in Clarkesville, or Paris, Tennessee.  (There are plenty of campgrounds within LBL, but I like to sleep behind locked doors where tv is available.)  We stayed at the Westgate Inn  in Clarkesville and enjoyed a spacious clean room, a reasonable rate, an indoor swimming pool, and a generous breakfast bar, plus we got to witness a loud dispute between a tattooed customer suffering from a severe case of PMS and the hotel management who with the help of the police were trying to evict her and her family.

Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse Restaurant

Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse Restaurant in Monteagle, Tennessee.  The food was so good we ate here for lunch on the way to LBL and on the way back to Augusta.  It’s like a museum inside.

The best and most interesting restaurant we encountered on our vacation was Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse in Monteagle, Tennessee which is halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga. The place has a Cracker Barrel type atmosphere, but it seems more like the original blueprint, whereas the famous chain is merely an inferior rip-off.  Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse resembles a museum.  It houses a player piano, taxodermic wonders, and antiques of all kinds.  Jim Nabors’ albums plaster the walls.  There’s a tribute room to a locally famous country music band I never heard of.  Old fashioned candies, Jim Oliver’s country smoked hams and bacon, cheeses, and genuine fried pies are for sale.  They serve smoked meats–pulled pork, brisket, turkey, and ribs.   On our first visit I had a smoked roast beef open-faced sandwich with mashed potatoes and covered with gravy.  Smoking roast beef made for a delicious and unique dish.  Jim Oliver makes at least 8 kinds of sauce to go with his dishes.  I used the Trail of Tears sauce, a sweet, hot, barbecue sauce.  My beef didn’t need it, but it added nice variety.  I would alternate one bite with just gravy and one with sauce.  On our return visit I tried fried frog legs–the most unusual item on the menu.  The frog legs were juicy but lean white meat.  There’s nothing objectionable to the taste when they’re fresh.  (Frog legs can taste like biology lab, if they’re not.) 

This restaurant deserves high praise for serving authentic fried pies.

Fried chocolate pie !!! Words can’t describe how good this is.

The fried pies sold in grocery stores are made with regular pie crust and taste like cardboard.  Real fried pies are made with fluffy biscuit dough and resemble doughnuts.  Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse offers apple-pecan, peach, coconut, chocolate, and blackberry.  I had the peach.  On request they serve it with homemade ice cream.  One of the waitresses told me the fried pies sell out everyday.

Mounted bobcat, ruffed grouse, and gray fox on top of an antique piano.  That’s a particularly large specimen of bobcat (and fox).  This bobcat’s hind leg is bigger than my pet cat’s entire body.

Mitt Romney’s Tour Bus

While traveling home on I-24 through Nashville, we drove alongside Mitt Romney’s tour bus by accident.  What a coincidence.

Couldn’t be.

Yep, it is.  If the American people are stupid enough to vote for a man who says “Corporations are people too, my friend,” than they deserve what they get.