The Natural Bloomington Blog


After 30-plus years as a professional writer/photographer, I have a handle on what I’m capable of on deadline. And I have to confess, when I was approached by IU Press about a Northern Indiana guidebook last Labor Day, I never envisioned writing another 400-pager in less than a year. I wouldn’t have dared predict that two-thirds of it would be photographed and written in second draft in 10 months.

I guess I didn’t appreciate the impact that accrued efficiencies would have when writing a second book from the same template. I hit both of those milestones this past week – a 74,000-word first draft on 127 natural areas north of I-70, 78 of them explored to one level or another and expanded upon in the text. With the Index, Species List and Glossary also done, all that’s missing is the introduction and foreword.

Done also means processing more than 1,300 images captured at 28 natural areas during our recent three-day camping trip to Northeast Indiana – and posting 27 Photo Albums on the Natural Bloomington Nature Photography page. The Little Cedar Creek Nature Preserve north of Fort Wayne is closed while efforts to combat invasive species are ongoing.


I anticipated our arrival at the Dustin Nature Preserve as much as any of the 200-plus Indiana natural areas I’ve explored in the past four years. The Huntertown couple were pioneers in the environmental movement that swept Indiana and the nation in the 1960s and 70s. I profiled Tom in my 1996 book Eternal Vigilance: Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana and spent a weekend at their home north of Fort Wayne, photographing Tom and the Cedar Creek in the valley below.

The Dustins were founding members of ACRES Land Trust, the second-oldest nonprofit land conservation organization in Indiana. Their home is now the group’s headquarters and is surrounded by the Dustin and two other preserves. So parking outside the rustic, cedar-and-stone structure with its low, sloping roof brought back a torrent of memories. Jane died in 2003, Tom in 2004.

And, of the countless impressions I have from exploring nearly four dozen natural areas in Northeast Indiana during the month of June, the most vivid involve ACRES properties, which number 30 – to date.


The Spring Lake Woods and Bog Nature Preserve offered a peak into the Natural Bloomington future last week. A half dozen sites in the Central Till Plain Natural Region remain unexplored before the Northern Lakes Natural Region phase begins. But Spring Lake is the first of 37 natural lake areas on the itinerary.

The Spring Lake preserve protects a thousand shoreline feet on Lake Everett – Allen County’s only natural lake – and was one of the 16 natural areas I hiked and photographed for the Northern Indiana guidebook last week. The others followed the Wabash River and its watershed from Peru to Fort Wayne.

And while the range of images captured were as diverse as the places explored – a dozen Dedicated State Nature Preserves, three State Lakes, and two State Parks – this adventure stands out for the critters that presented themselves along the way.


In many ways, the Black Rock Barrens Nature Preserve was the most disappointing of the nine natural areas we explored during a three-day, two-night camping trip in the Wabash River Valley last week. The history-rich site of a 100-foot bluff of black rock bluff overlooking the Indiana state river southeast of Lafayette was easily the most anticipated of the journey, which began on the Lower Sugar Creek in Parke County and ended on the Tippecanoe River in Pulaski County.

My disillusion, however, was based on selfish expectations and not nature. In fact, the promontory used as a lookout by Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and his brother The Prophet in the early 1800s, was as magnificent as billed. Trees did obscure what in winter and early spring is a view unlike any other a hundred miles or more up or downriver – the primary source of my frustration. Multiple technology fumbles also contributed to my mood at Black Rock, learning experiences I’ve resolved for future trips.

Indeed, that brief stop did produce the first Wabash siting of the year, not to mention several of my favorite images from the week. And that’s saying something, considering we had near perfect weather, and I posted Photo Albums with more than 125 images, culled from three to four times that many originals.


Pitching my first tent in more than three decades will probably emerge over time as the most memorable experience from Summer 2017’s first overnight excursion last week. But there will be stiff competition from close encounters with two-, four-, and six-legged creatures; an old-growth forest too dense to penetrate; and a razor-wired prison.

The two-day journey featured three permanently protected natural areas – Ritchey Woods Nature Preserve in Fishers, Mounds State Park just outside Anderson, the Davis-Purdue Agricultural Center Forest just outside of nowhere – and the Wilbur Wright Fish & Wildlife Area just outside the New Castle Correctional Facility.

At Ritchey I was photobombed by a pair of pink shoes. At the rest, I did the photobombing. 


Last week’s exploration of the Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve was three years in the making. If fact, this National Natural Landmark (NNL) is the reason A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana’s subtitle includes the curiously un-round 119 Unique Places to Explore.

Designated an NNL because of its presettlement, old-growth forest, Shrader was planned as Southern Indiana natural area No. 120. But at the last-minute I discovered that, even though it’s located south of Interstate 70 just north of Connsersville, ecologically the preserve is in Indiana’s Central Till Plain Natural Region and was therefore out of the book's range.

Due to timing and weather, the delay continued for another costly two to three weeks this year. Costly because, by the time landscape photographer Gary Morrison and I ventured to Shrader-Weaver on Monday, the state-endangered nodding trillium were past prime photo time. Still, the journey was worth the wait.


A reliable tip about a patch of yellow lady slippers displaying their state watch-listed colors in the wooded shadows just off Tower Ridge Road stirred a quick, unexpected Tuesday afternoon excursion to the Charles C. Deam Wilderness. The timing and logistics couldn’t have been better.

Tuesday clearly had the week’s best weather potential. But there wasn’t anywhere I had the time and inspiration to explore – until Monroe County Naturalist Cathy Meyer messaged there were “nearly 100” of these radiant yellow beauties blooming just off this remote, backcountry road. Serious nature photographers don’t ignore a Cathy message that ends with “incredible!”

Besides, her message arrived at 2:02 p.m., two minutes after a planned meeting that kept me in town for the day had fallen off the log. And roadside meant a leisurely drive through the woods, not a strenuous trek through hills and hollers. Sunshine at 2:30 sealed the deal.


Two public presentations in six days made this school year’s final week a little more hectic than usual. But I got to spend time with old friends and meet and share my four-year-and-counting journey through the Indiana backcountry with some new ones.

From those events at The Venue and Green Drinks Bloomington, I posted the slideshow I presented called Intimate Sycamore Landscapes on the Natural Bloomington YouYube Channel. It’s a narrated, eight-minute peek at the 16 Sycamore Land Trust properties included in the Guide to Southern Indiana Natural Areas.

My students are making final tweaks to their final projects, and I’m effectively full time on the nature beat again. The first hint of sunshine this week, and I’m headed east to the Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve, with a stop at the Wilbur Wright Fish & Wildlife Area.


In a way, I feel a little like the Sycamore Land Trust’s distant-but-still-loving, journalistic godfather. I wasn’t in the room when Scott Russell Sanders, Tom Zeller and other Sassarfas Audubon Society activists conceived Southern Indiana’s premier land trust some 27 years ago. But I was the first person they called; I wrote the Herald-Times article in February 1991 that announced the birth to the world.

Sixteen years later, I penned a front-page story in The Bloomington Alternative about its adolescence titled “Preserving quality of place.” A decade after that, at adulthood, I profiled 16 Sycamore properties in my Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana. In between, before my first knee surgery, I served as a land steward on Sycamore’s Campbell Preserve in eastern Monroe County.

So, it seems natural that the largest public presentation I’ve made since I don’t know when – at this Wednesday’s monthly meeting of Green Drinks Bloomington – will be called “Intimate Sycamore Landscapes.” The public event runs from 5:30-7:30 at the Upland Brewery Banquet Facility in Bloomington.


In one sense, this Saturday’s Earth Day book signing at The Venue Fine Art & Gifts will be an authorial déjà vu. The last time I signed a book on April 22 was at Barnes & Noble in 1995, when my first book Eternal Vigilance: Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana was released.

Special guests this time will be my old friends and local wordsmiths extraordinaire Mike Leonard and James Alexander Thom. Twenty-one years ago, it was legendary forest activist Bob Klawitter, who was featured in the book for his efforts to protect the Hoosier National Forest and save Patoka Lake’s Tillery Hill – two historic, grassroots victories for Indiana’s environmental community.

Four days later I will be the featured speaker at the April gathering of Green Drinks Bloomington.

Leading up to these unusual public appearances, I’ve been – and will be – on my elbows, knees and butt, in the woods, with my macro lens getting intimate with early spring wildflowers. Just this past week I posted Photo Albums from the Hoosier’s Waldrip Ridge and The Cedars Preserve, a Sycamore Land Trust property deep in the southwest Monroe County backcountry.


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