Ridgetop meadow before restoration
I’ll never forget the first time Bill and I saw Timberhill. We were crammed into the front seat of a pickup truck between Mike Whitfield and Pauline Warren. Bill and I had been looking for land in the country for over one year and had finally narrowed our search to Decatur County on the Iowa-Missouri border. Mike was showing us land he had for sale and Pauline was the realtor we had hired to negotiate for us. Mike had two tracts of land for sale: 160 acres along the Weldon River and 225 acres along Pony Farm Road to the north. After showing us the Weldon River bottom tract, he followed a trail uphill through second growth oak and hickory woodlands. At the top of the hill was a gate that opened into a ridgetop meadow.
As Mike followed the trail through the meadow Bill and I both sensed that there was something special about this place. Branches of wide crowned oak trees at the meadow’s edge grazed the tops of prairie grasses and wildflowers. Sheltering and private, this was completely unexpected. Bill and I knew immediately that this was the land we were looking for. We asked Mike if we were still on his land.
“No, this is Doyle’s,” he said. “He lives in that white house across the road. I always cut through here to get from my south farm to the north property.”
The trail followed the highest point on the ridge. Sloping gradually away from both sides of the trail, the ridge top meadow melded into the surrounding woodland. Bright sunlight highlighted the wildflowers and grasses and reflected off the surface of a small pond dug into the hillside below the trail. As we drove by, red-winged blackbirds nesting in cattails at the water’s edge scolded us for intruding into their territory. Bill and I were no longer interested in Mike’s land, and as soon as Mike dropped us off we went to Doyle’s house. Was he willing to sell his land that included the ridgetop meadow? Yes, he was. His father had tried to sell that land, but according to Doyle, “It wasn’t worth nothing. That white oak soil, you know, nothing will grow on it,” Three months later we closed and were owners of 120 acres in Decatur County.
But we had no idea how to manage our land. Never having owned land in the country we went about it the wrong way. We still had a city dwellers’ attitude – everything mowed, trimmed and weed-free. We began by clearing the ridgetop meadow. I hired two neighbors to pull the trees and scrub around the pond. Then we plowed the soil destroying any remnant native plants and grasses. We cut the hawthorn and shingle oak scrub in the rest of the meadow, stacked it into a brush pile and burned it. That sterilized the soil and destroyed more native plants and seeds. After we stopped stacking the brush, we mowed it thereby removing the structural complexity needed for bird habitat. In those early years we also used a lot of Round-Up on the woody invasives in the North and East Savanna. That killed not only the invasives but New Jersey tea as well. The only things we did right were timber stand improvement and implement prescribed fire.
After annual dormant season burns the meadow retains the structural complexity songbird habitat
In 1998 I decided that I should be seeding wildflowers from the savanna indicator lists. Thankfully, a wise expert put me on the right track. He told me that I should determine what I had instead: inventory the Timberhill plants and use the sampling and inventory data to calculate floristic quality. With that data as a baseline I could track changes over time and determine whether the floristic quality was increasing or decreasing . From then on Bill and I limited our restoration management to prescribed fire and thinning of the overstocked woodlands. That allowed the Genius loci, the special quality of Timberhill to reveal itself. Rather than fitting into the archetype of what a savanna should be and which plants should be found there, the land now has has a unique sense of place.