The Garden of Biodiversity’s Snake

Dawne Shand

I was driving on an unnamed dirt road that didn’t exist on my map, past scrub trees covering old strip mines, through a paper company forest in search of a glade where the soil was poisonous to trees. The e-mailed instructions said simply: look for the Alabama Nature Conservancy sign. Since I first came home two years earlier to my parents’ farm with an infant and an idea to write about the Cahaba River, I had visited several global hotspots of botanical and aquatic biodiversity in Alabama: the Cahaba River’s headwaters, its shoal beds in full bloom, its oxbow swamps, and a strange swath of Black Belt prairie that edged a fossil hunting ground for Cretaceous era ocean life. I needed to add the Ketona Dolomite Glades along the Little Cahaba to this list of curiosities because a small press had expressed interest in a book about the river’s natural history. But I had the low feeling that once I navigated the woods, the site—where the largest, single-day discovery in the twentieth century of new plants on the North American continent was made in 1992—would strike me as a clearing.

Leaving my parents’ house to make the forty-five-mile drive had not been easy, either. The Dora the Explorer balloon from Winn-Dixie was still caught in the highest limbs of a tall Durand oak covered in poison ivy. Grandmother and grandchild had returned from a grocery shopping trip (twenty miles round trip) with a truck full of treats—Cocoa Crisps, a quart of bubble juice, sacks of spiced pork rinds—when the balloon, the sort of thing I was always stingy about buying, got swept away by wind. The three-year-old told grandfather to get his ladder; he stared for a moment, said “Chief?” then laughed as he walked away, shaking his hand in the air. A meltdown loomed. I could feel it. The three-year-old, confused by the mixture of indulgence and strictness, was growing lonely on her grandparents’ isolated farm and my mother, exasperated, as she ran through her ample bag of tricks.

I thought of that Mylar balloon, flashing in the sunlight like a secret decoder, as I went seeking a firsthand look at glades that were bound to disappoint. Borrowing my mother’s SUV added an extra layer of mortification. “Put the gas on your daddy’s charge,” and “Be careful,” and “Ignore that check engine light.” My parents indulged me. Instead of balloons, they gave me bits of time and the vehicle to pursue an unfunded book project. But I suspected they, like my husband, snipped their suspicions to avoid my huff.

I had travelled over a thousand miles, from the New Hampshire border to rural, central Alabama, to stay here for the month of May, a time when the wildflowers of the Cahaba bloom. I was floundering over how to write about a river I could not travel. Its put-in points were few. Private property enclosed much of the 180-mile-long Cahaba River and its tributaries, making camping or rest stops an act of trespass. The river’s flow was molasses slow until rain caused flash floods, which were dangerous. As I could neither take with me nor leave behind a toddler, I had abandoned the idea of canoeing from point A to B for practical reasons. Even in a benign guidebook about canoeing in Alabama, the authors wrote, “We have never had an experience with irate landowners for using nearby property as a takeout or for floating past (as a matter of fact, everyone we have met in these journeys was quite happy to help us out), but that is not to say that there aren’t some who would just as soon take a shot at a passing canoe.”

I was dubious, too, that what needed to be said—that this natural beauty was the backdrop to the violent iconic moments of Alabama’s civil rights movement—would be published. Major magazines, newspapers, and literary journals had written polite notes, thanking me for letting them read a potentially important story, but demurring because it wasn’t quite right for their publication. The attention from a small press offered my last best hope for pulling a manuscript out of intense research and reporting. They wanted to highlight the state’s unknown biodiversity for conservation purposes, a deeply unpopular cause.

People from Alabama (including me) identified closely with place, loved the color of the soils so much that you’d think we were formed from it, but a countering streak ran through the state. Some people would rather axe a rare bird’s habitat and bulldoze a stream rather than be told by the government what to do with it. The glades, as well as the lower Cahaba, had survived reasonably well intact because so few people lived near them. The depopulation of the region meant the river, with its dangerous flood propensity, was forgotten territory.

The recognition of the Ketona Dolomite Glades as a previously undescribed biological community harboring six hundred rare, endemic, and thought-extinct plant types, came at the beginning of the twenty-first century through a scientific paper. The glade’s discovery in 1992 was an accident. In May of that year, the botanist James Allison left the put-in point called Bulldog’s Bend with another botanist and two friends to canoe the Little Cahaba River on a contract from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to find Arabis georgiana (Georgia rockcress), which was headed for listing as an endangered species. Having spotted this tall forbe with spike-like leaves and demure white flowers growing near the intersections of the river and its few bridges (i.e. public property), he decided that an expedition along the river might offer a better glimpse of the plant’s dispersal. If he failed, he reasoned, his entourage would at least have the pleasure of seeing Hymenocallis coronaria (rocky shoals lily), which covers the Cahaba so completely in May that the river resembles a floating garden. Allison’s group did find their rockcress. However, stopping along a steeply sloped rock face on the Little Cahaba, the botanists also found eight plants in this microhabitat they could not identify—a paintbrush that flowered yellow not red, a coreopsis with a dramatic lean, a fleabane with remarkably narrow radical leaves, an unknown herb with a rounded corm.

The plants existed in magnesium-rich soil over bedrock of “unusually pure dolomite of Upper Cambridge Age.” Allison identified forty sites, amid stands of longleaf pine, each separated by a slim .2 kilometers. He named them: Enchanted Glade, Alligator Glade, Goat Glade, Starblaze Glade, Desmond’s Glade, Highway 219 Glade, Westside East Glade. And he inventoried them. Seven years of field and herbaria studies proved the glade supported eight new taxa. The findings were made official in 2001 in the publication of Castanea: The Journal of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society.

This finding’s most prominent announcement came on the side of the U-Haul advertising campaign, “Ventures across America,” featuring unusual facts and mysteries for every state in the union. Adventure #113 featured the dramatic bloom of the glade’s pink gentian (Spigelia gentianoides) surrounded by several buds wrapped in flamingo-pink sepals. “Why do these mysterious rare plants grow only over this unique Cambrian rock?” the infographic asks. To the flower’s right, a partial answer on a background of midnight blue: the chemical signature for the bedrock, CaMG (Co3)2, above a graphic depicting the trigonal-rhombohedral system of the sedimentary carbonate rock. The truck-side graphic provided the glade’s best and most graphically interesting PR. Otherwise, this news was limited to an award-winning scientific paper, with significant portions written in Latin, and a few state specific outlets.

Chris Oberholster, head of Alabama’s Nature Conservancy, had arranged for me to join a field trip to the Ketona Dolomite Glades, which his agency (TNC) owned. We had spoken the prior winter about Alabama’s conservation issues. The glades’ discovery caused a glimmer of interest at the national level. Alabama’s rivers, however, were the pressing concern. The emerging data on aquatic biodiversity and its precipitous decline made the state’s waterways places to which the national organization paid attention. “Because we’re science-based,” he said, “it’s hard to ignore Alabama for long.” The World Wildlife Fund placed the southeastern streams and rivers in its top twenty-five most-endangered ecosystems in the world. Of these many rivers, the Cahaba was the least disturbed. Its tributary, the Little Cahaba, formed a reservoir for Birmingham’s drinking water.

Before extending my invite, Oberholster had asked formal permission of the ladies’ group, for whom TNC scheduled the showing of the glades. Given TNC owned it, this deference surprised me. I suspected that I was intruding somehow, which contributed to my reluctance about this journey.

With the vague driving instructions clutched between fingers and steering wheel, I glanced between a nice vista of forest and the rutted gravel path. I spotted the Nature Conservancy sign with much less angst than expected, parked, and gathered my notepad and camera. Oberholster caught my arrival to the parking lot before I noticed him walking to greet me.

As if apologizing, he began to explain their near-term goal was to fix up the road and signage. Then he introduced me as a writer to a group of two dozen conservation-minded ladies from Birmingham, all wearing wide-brimmed hats to ward off falling ticks from their silver hair. He was hatless, I noticed, despite his instructions included in the e-mail with the directions to wear protective gear.

The ladies gathered around him as he named (in a particularly lilting accent that mixed Afrikaner and Alabama) some vascular plants around us: the endemic gentian pink, a fragrant sumac, Barbara’s button, the only known instance of Maidenbush east of the Mississippi, white milkwort. We stood in an opening of textured grasses, jutting forbes with few showy blooms, and bare rock. Longleaf pines limned the glade. Conscious of being the invited guest, I stood on the group’s outskirts, looking around, marveling at the pattern-matching skill it took botanists to see this innocuous spot as a contribution to the world’s biological diversity stock. Perhaps I looked disappointed or aloof because the leader of the ladies’ group asked imperiously, “Are you looking at this?”

Surprised at being called out, I followed her finger. She was pointing to a single stem of a Lilliputian-sized wildflower, a stick of white tubular flowers barely higher than the grass. She had the air of someone who required cultivating.

“No,” I deadpanned.

A second passed and no one spoke. Then, she slapped her knee and laughed as if we’d been playing a version of rock, paper, scissors using instead humor, snobbery, and manners. Smiling, I walked over to her, laid my hand on her lower arm, and asked politely, please do tell me what I’m looking at. Spiranthes lucida. Shining lady’s tresses, a rarity in Alabama, she explained.

Oberholster seemed relieved to regain the reins of the talk. He fielded questions, admitting that he couldn’t identify all that grew in the glade. Nor was the collection of wildflowers the purpose of this outing. (Many forces drove this event: For a group that met monthly, an intriguing program. For the Nature Conservancy, the need to mobilize social influence and bring some political will to bear on the hot button questions of riparian zoning. And, they were following the success of the national organization’s initiative to bring artists to photograph and write about the places it owned.) He led the group toward the edge of the Little Cahaba, where a slab of exposed Ketona Dolomite created a miniature amphitheater for a freshwater ecologist standing in the water.

The Little Cahaba was roughly twenty-five feet wide and running shallow that day. The twentysomething ecologist began his talk by plunging a glass bowl behind a rock and conjuring up a long-eared sunfish. An aquarium colored fish. He held it above his head for us to see. Then, he began a rapid-fire explanation of why this group should be concerned.

“We’re the fifth most biodiverse state,” he said. “First in freshwater biological diversity. We’ve got more crayfish species than any other state. We’re also first in the number of species’ extinctions in the Lower 48, we’re second behind Hawaii.”

He used his bowl to fish again and brought up a black-tailed shiner. He pointed out its dotted tail that resembles for a predator a fish’s eye. Then he launched into the lesson on freshwater mussels.

“It’s hard to get people excited about them. They look like a rock and act like a rock.” The disappearance of endemic mussels and snails gave the state its number-one ranking for the highest number of extinctions on the North American continent. Little was known about these freshwater animals until underwater videos captured their exotic life cycles.

“Now, I heard a request for a sex-ed lesson,” the ecologist said, showing a real expertise in how to charm this crowd. He lowered his catch as he discussed the parasitic reproductive life cycle of mussels, which create glochidia, fertilized seedlings, which incubate on the gills of fish as they move upstream to spawn. He explained how the orange-nacre mucket produces two sacks of mussel larvae that wave on the ends of two translucent tethers. The movement of the two sacks replicates the mating routine of minnows dancing in the current. When a watchful bass attempts to devour the fake minnows, its bite ruptures the sack. The glochidia latch onto the fish’s gills and travel upstream, relying on their host in some unknown way as they develop into juvenile mussels and fall from the fish.

He then explained how Birmingham’s suburban construction boom interrupted this cycle. Bankside development allowed more dirt to wash into the river during rain storms. These arteries filled with red clay soil and turned the color of watery blood. The additional sediment in the water abraded the glochidia, so fewer mussels were being deposited upstream. Because mussels are the keystone species of the southeast’s rivers, their decline could have an outsized impact on the whole ecosystem. Fewer of these filter feeders meant that other aquatic species—particularly the 131 species of fish, including eighteen endemics—would struggle.

The Pleistocene-era glaciation never reached this corner of the continent, which allowed these rivers and streams another two million years to evolve species that only lived in Cahaba River Valley and the Ketona Dolomite Glades. Scientists speculate that the area may have been the continent’s refugium. As the glaciers retreated, perhaps a corridor opened, allowing this seedbed to repopulate sections of the newly-exposed continent.

“What are you writing about?” someone politely asked. She had joined me on the group’s perimeter as Oberholster had walked closer to the water’s edge to take questions.

Quietly, I explained I was trying to make sense of certain facts. This botanical wonder. This river as a hot spot of global biodiversity. The Cahaba as a meeting place for a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan, which called themselves “The Cahaba Group,” and planned the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church along its banks. She nodded tersely and returned her attention to a green breasted darter being held up for us to view. And there, in the garden, I relished her pique, my planting.

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