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I am Sibylla Brown.  I was born in Germany in 1940.  In 1946 my father, a German Operation Overcast scientist, was brought to the U.S. My family followed him to the U.S. in 1947, settling in Cedar Rapids Iowa in 1950.  I married my husband, Bill in 1962.  Bill practiced dentistry in Des Moines for over 40 years. In 1993 we sold our house in Des Moines and moved to a 200 acre farm in Decatur County, Iowa.  Except for a small vineyard we had no plans to farm our land.  But we did want to take care of it, particularly the overgrown oak and hickory woodlands.  We began timber stand improvement in 1993.   When we learned our land was actually a rare oak savanna remnant we implemented prescribed fire.  These posts share how we restored the rare oak savanna on our 200 acres, what is happening in our lives, and what we are thinking.

Homeostasis

Over the past two months as I watched Bill recover from open heart surgery I observed that his healing was a process of returning the body to homeostasis, the stable condition in which the body is able to maintain health and functioning regardless of subtle changes in the environment.  The surgery had disrupted just not just the heart but the lungs, kidneys, and other organs.  His body had to learn again how to flush excess fluids from its system, to breath normally, to sleep through the night, and restore the normal heart rhythm. The last step was to regain the stamina to easily walk the trails up and down our steep hills.

Watching this progression from imbalance to equilibrium I realized that’s what our goal has been in restoring our land – to restore it to a condition of homeostasis.  But how do we know when that has been accomplished?  According to the Timberhill Savanna Assessment of Landscape Management  (Wilhelm and Rericha 2007, p. 12) “recovery …means that there is an observed burgeoning of native biodiversity in associations and assemblages that represent stable conditions”.

When I asked Dr. Wilhelm whether returning a remnant to homeostasis wasn’t the same   as the body healing he immediately pointed out that Bill still has all his parts, whereas even high quality remnants have lost some of the features essential to system health and integrity.  They will never regain their presettlement quality.  But how much can be restored? Can a remnant be restored to homeostasis? To the ability to heal itself and  adapt to minor disturbances?

Overgrown  savanna remnant south of Timber hill

Overgrown savanna remnant south of Timberhill

The quality of a remnant is crucial to its ability to recover.  “Remnant quality is derived from the extent to which the aboriginal context of the area sustains, which is a consequence of the integrity of the original hydrology, geologic substrate and soils, fullness of biodiversity, process regimes, appropriate human cultural choices, or fortuitous benign neglect.” (Wilhelm and Rericha 2007, p. 36)

I have often been told that Timberhill is unique, that Bill and I just happened to find the only high quality savanna remnant in Decatur County. But our 200 acres are only a fraction of the 20,000 acres of highly restorable Decatur County remnants.  The property south of Timberhill is an excellent example.  It is owned by out of state hunters who use it only during deer and turkey hunting season. The ridgetops have been plowed for food plots but the overgrown savanna and prairie openings have simply been neglected.  Here bunch sedges and other native plants still grow in the understory.  Were this site to be restored the remnant sedges would increase significantly.   As fungi, bacteria and other microbes decompose the sedge roots that die each year they release nutrients necessary to  create a stable humus that provides the foundation for restoration of the suppressed plant community.

Sedge growing in savanna remnant

Sedge and other native plants growing in this neglected remnant

The Southern Iowa Oak Savanna Alliance is supporting restoration of sites such as this.   Efforts to date have restored 2774 acres of savanna and prairie openings.  During the upcoming growing season I’m going to look at several Decatur County restorations.   Although each site is unique with its own assemblage of plants it will be interesting to observe the extent to which each is recovering.

Snow Trillium Walk

Trillium nivale, Snow trillium

Trillium nivale, Snow trillium

In the spring of 1956 Theodore Van Bruggen began field exploration and collecting for a floristic survey of south central Iowa.  With the exception of Decatur and parts of Polk and Jasper the nine counties in this area had received little botanical exploration in the past.  Using geologic, topographic and soil maps he identified over one hundred sites representative of the varied ecological habitats in this area. He also consulted with state conservation officers, county extension agents and soil conservation specialists.  The major part of his collecting was done during the growing season on 1957 while the author temporarily resided in Indianola, Iowa.  In the report the author listed the characteristic or common plants in each community. The information collected by Van Bruggen was compiled for his Ph.D dissertation submitted to the Department of Botany, University of Iowa in June 1958.

Community #5, “Dry wooded calcareous bluffs along Grand River, Decatur County” is a former quarry south of Decatur City.  Now known as the Bishop Timber this site has been undisturbed since Van Bruggen’s survey, and the distinctive plant community on this site still exists.  Of the many wildflowers that bloom among the limestone outcroppings on this bluff Trillium nivale, snow trillium, is the most significant.  Because of its very selective habitat snow trillium is becoming quite rare in Iowa.

The Southern Iowa Oak Savanna Alliance is sponsoring a field trip to this site on Saturday, April 5 at 10:00 AM. Gregg Pattison, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service private lands biologist will be on hand to discuss restoration plans for the site and opportunities for landowners to manage habitat on their properties. Additionally, Pauline Drobney, biologist with the USFWS, will be on hand to help identify native plants and give in depth details on plant histories and interactions in their native communities. Everyone is welcome - you need not be a SIOSA member.  

Directions to Bishop Timber: From Hwy. 2, east of I-35 in Decatur City, take Fourth Street south for 0.9 miles. Keeping right at the next intersection continue on Terre Haute Road for another 2.7 miles. On the right you will see an old cemetery, we will meet there. Contact Gregg Pattison at 641-784-5356 or Veronica Mecko (SIOSA) at admin@siosa.org with any questions.

 

The Kingdom of Fungi

The Kingdom Fungi

The first year Bill and I owned Timberhill mushrooms fruited abundantly throughout the oak and hickory woodlands that dominated our land.  But the only species I could identify were the springtime morels.  I was clueless how to go about identifying the summer and fall fruiting species. Finally, at the height of the summer mushroom season I collected every species I could find and spread them on newspapers on the dining table.   Then I compared them to the illustrations in mushroom field guides I had borrowed from the library.  But the picture keying was hopeless.  All I accomplished was to ruin the table.  One of mushrooms I had harvested deliquesed,  deteriorating into a thick, black liquid that soaked through the finish on the table.

Not to be deterred I joined the Prairie States Mushroom Club.  On club forays  I learned to identify the common genera.  In 1998 I took Dr. Lois Tiffany’s field mycology class at Iowa Lakeside Lab.  There I learned to use dichotomous keys and the microscope to identify the fungi collected on class field trips. I became adept at viewing and measuring spores and learned how to slice the thinnest possible gill tissue for microscopic study.   If the section was thin enough I could count the number of spores on the basidia or in the asci, and distinguish between interwoven, parallel and divergent tissue.

In fifteen years since I have identified hundreds of fungi that fruited here at Timberhill.  The more I learned the more cognizant I became of the huge gaps in my understanding of this complex group of organisms.  Although my library is filled with mushroom books that I have read I didn’t really understand a lot of what I read. Last month I purchased a copy of Dr. Jens H. Petersen’s wonderful book, The Kingdom of Fungi. I am finally beginning to fill those gaps. With an economy of words and 800 photographs, this book describes fungal morphology and the biology and ecology of fungi.  The photographs are simply amazing.  Who knew that dung fungi, rusts, and smuts could be so beautiful?

The incredible photographs picture all the processes that I hadn’t been able to envision. For example, I know that decomposer fungi secrete enzymes that break down lignin and cellulose in wood.  But I couldn’t picture the process in my mind.  On page195 is a photograph taken through an electron microscope of a growing hyphal tip showing the vacuoles that empty enzymes into the  surrounding substrate.  This photo is accompanied by a photo-diagram of the hypha with arrows to show the release of the enzymes from the tip and further along structure are green arrows that indicate where the nutrients that provide the fungus with nutrients and energy diffuse back into the hypha.

 

Boletus edulis ready to cook

Timberhill Boletus edulis ready to cook.

Boletus edulis, the king bolete, is a prized edible that fruits regularly here at Timberhill.  Bill and I are thrilled when we collect enough for the table.  There are many edulis-like North American boletes and several years ago an expert told me that the species I was collecting here probably wasn’t true Boletus edulis. I did some research and found a key to twelve North American B. edulis-like boletes.  However, none of the descriptions fit my collections.  On p.128 of Kingdom of Fungi Dr. Petersen writes that B. edulis ”species as interpreted by most mushroom collectors is actually a species group.  All members are edible and easily recognized by their white to yellow tube mouths that don’t change color when touched, their pale, netlike pattern at the top of the stem, and their mild nutty taste.”  I realized that this description was all I needed.  Bill and I will continue to eat all the specimens we find and leave the systemics to the professional mycologists.

 

Waking up is Hard to Do

 

Chris & Alex in Austiin, November 2013

Alex & Chris Brown  in Austin, November 2013

Bill and I have three sons, Chris, Alex, and Billy.  Chris practices law in Austin, Texas .  He also writes short fiction and criticism for various anthologies and online markets.  His work has been nominated for the Phillip K. Dick and World Fantasy awards.  Alex, who lives in Des Moines, is a painter.  He is represented by Feature Inc. gallery in New York and regularly shows his work at other galleries in Geneva, Brussels, and Tokyo.  In 2000 he was awarded the Rosenthal Foundation Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Alex also plays guitar in the New York hardcore punk band Gorilla Biscuits.  Billy, our youngest contracted viral encephalitis as an infant and is profoundly retarded as a result.  He lives in an assisted-care facility in Des Moines.

Chris and Alex were at my side when Bill had open heart surgery on January 22, 2014. After surgery Bill was moved to the intensive care unit.   One hour later we were allowed to see him.  The unconscious patient we saw in Bill’s bed was a stranger.  His face and lips were swollen. There were tubes everywhere:  in both arms, in his carotid artery, in his mouth for breathing, as well as  those draining his lungs and bladder.  It was a shock to see our usually healthy and active Bill in this condition.  We were anxious for him to regain consciousness.

Bill’s nurse told us that she would begin trying to wake him up in a few hours.  Her first attempt to awaken him was a disaster. He became terribly agitated, flailing his arms and legs, biting down on his breathing tube, when she tried to awaken him.  It took 6 people to get him under control and put him back to sleep.

The nurse explained that she had to remove the breathing tubes soon as Bill was conscious. She could only do that if he was calm enough to follow her breathing commands. Every few hours through the rest of the day and night the nurses tried again, but Bill continued to become agitated.  I tried talking to him. “The surgery went really well.  You’re okay.  You can wake up now,” I said while gently stroking his hand.  But he couldn’t hear me.

By the next morning, Bill’s second day in the ICU, the boys and I became worried.  This was so unlike Bill.   When he had knee replacement surgery four years ago he began to wake up from the anesthesia before he reached the recovery room.  But the combination of traumatic of open heart surgery, heavy anesthesia, and the drugs he was being administered were having a profound effect. Fear of the grim reaper probably also played a role. Bill’s cardiac surgeon told us that it could take 3-5 days for Bill to wake up.

That was when we took matters into our own hands.   After the nurse shut off the IV that was keeping Bill asleep, Alex held his feet, I held his left hand, while Chris took his right hand and began whispering in his ear. “Breathe.  Relax and breathe.”  When Bill became agitated again Chris told him, “No Dad.  Don’t do that.  Now relax and breathe.”  It took over thirty minutes but Chris finally talked Bill into waking up gently.

After the nurse pulled the breathing tube I could barely hear Bill whisper, “I can hear you.”   Then he opened his eyes, looked up at us, and with the trace of a smile he said, “I can see you.”

How to Mend a Broken Heart

Ten years ago my husband, Bill, was diagnosed with aortic valve stenosis (AVS), a narrowing of the aortic valve opening.  The aortic valve is located between the left ventricle and the aorta, the largest artery in the body.  Blood is pumped through this valve from the left ventricle to the aorta.  The most prevalent valvular heart disease in patients over 65, AVS is caused by age-related calcification of the valve leaves.  (Bill is 77.)  Affecting approximately 5 percent of people over 75, it is a common cardiac condition that can be cured by valve replacement surgery.

Patients with this disease may be asymptomatic for years after the diagnosis.  In Bill’s case his only problem was shortness of breath when walking up our steep hills. However, his doctor told him that more serious symptoms would appear eventually.  Then Bill would need open heart surgery. The symptoms we have been dreading for 10 years occurred last month.

On January 3, while walking through the kitchen, I saw Bill lying in the snow west of the house.  He had fainted while feeding the birds.  His doctor called the fainting spell syncope, a major sign of severe aortic stenosis.  He referred Bill to a cardiologist who did an echocardiogram to evaluate valve function.  The cardiac echo confirmed severe aortic valve disease; the valve was 90% narrowed.  The cardiologist told Bill he had to have valve replacement surgery within the next two weeks.  Bill’s response to that diagnosis was another syncope episode.

“You’re going to the hospital,” the doctor told Bill after reviving him.  ”You’re not going to drive, you’re going in an ambulance.”

That was on Monday, January 20.  At 7:00 AM Wednesday Bill had open heart valve replacement surgery.  There are several replacement valve choices:  mechanical, porcine, or bovine.  Bill’s surgeon recommended a Trifecta bovine tissue valve.  Trifecta valve leaflets are made from  bovine pericardial tissue obtained from government inspected abbatoirs.  They function just like the leaves of an intact valve.  Recently approved by the FDA, Trifecta valves last at least 25 years.

Bill, at home five days after surgery

Bill at home on January 28,  five days after open heart surgery

The surgery was very successful.  We brought Bill home from the hospital on Sunday, January 27 only four days after surgery.  “You make me look good,” the surgeon told him. (He is that good.) Bill is now making steady progress.  Although recovery will take three months, his doctor told him that in six months it will be like it never happened.   Except that Bill will no longer have a broken heart.