The Natural Bloomington Blog


Spring Break is a time for travel in university towns like Bloomington, which for Natural Bloomington this past week meant a few drives down State Road 37 to diverse locales for the Hoosier National Forest book project.

The first, a scouting trip to three campgrounds near Tell City, produced what must be the last winter scenes of the year at the Indian Celina Recreation Area. The second, a return visit to Hemlock Cliffs, revealed the 75-foot Messmore Cliffs waterfall that rivals the 150-foot overflow for which the Special Place, in Forest Service parlance, is named. The third, an hour-long meeting with officials at the U.S. Forest Service office in Bedford, was helpful and insightful.

Along the way, I got a peak at the Guide to Natural Areas of Northern Indiana book cover.


Hemlock Cliffs

Hemlock Cliffs is arguably the most inspiring of the Hoosier National Forest’s self-declared Special Places. Encompassing a narrow, 150-foot-deep sandstone box canyon, this Crawford County natural sanctum supports towering hardwood trees and rare plants that thrive in its cool micro climes, including the namesake evergreen.

Wesley Chapel Gulf

A National Natural Landmark, Wesley Chapel Gulf offers a rare glimpse into the subterranean world of the Lost River Watershed in western Orange County. The 187-acre Special Place protects an exposed, peanut-shaped gulf created by the collapse of the limestone ceiling above an underground stream.


The development of ceramic pottery during the Early Woodland Period (1,000 to 200 BC) is a defining characteristic between Archaic and Woodland peoples. This technology spread from the Southeast United States to the Ohio River Valley around 600 BC and revolutionized cooking and storage.

Along the way, this evolutionary leap enhanced the region’s early occupants’ capacity to live more settled lives. Pottery vessels reduced the time needed for hunting and gathering. And their durable nature ensured predictable sources of food into the future. Additionally, cooking in them allowed more nutrients to be extracted from their plant and animal staples.

The Hoosier National Forest’s verdant uplands remained hunting grounds in Early Woodland Indiana, with rockshelter excavations indicating nuts, deer, turkey, turtles, and other animals were dietary mainstays. Continuing the Late Archaic practice, rockshelters were used as seasonal camps, serving base camps or villages in the larger river valleys. Some people were probably gardening in summers.


Our search for prehistoric life in the Hoosier National Forest began serendipitously on a sunny Feb. 12 morning in the U.S. Forest Service office in Bedford, where we inquired about archaeological sites near the Ohio River. The last stop there led to a wall-sized map of the Hoosier and a staffer providing detailed directions to that day’s destination—a wintry drive along King’s Ridge in southwest Lawrence County.

The Natural Bloomington to-do list has long included a formal sit down with Forest Service staff to discuss Rewilding Southern Indiana: The Hoosier National Forest book project. Among the topics would be a strategy for sensitive issues, such as at-risk plant and animal species and cultural sites. The to-meet list included Hoosier Archaeologist Angie Doyle.

Which is where serendipity made its appearance. As a staffer explained the Forest Service does not discuss archaeological sites, Angie walked by on the way to her car and a conference. We had a brief chat and agreed to meet soon.


Evidence of prehistoric plant and animal life in Southern Indiana dates back some 350 million years. During what geologists call the Devonian Period, the hunk of earth crust that today supports the Hoosier National Forest formed the floor beneath a vast, shallow, equatorial sea that teamed with plant and animal life.

Through the ages, as those aquatic creatures died and fell to the sea floor, their remains compressed, fossilized, and cemented into the bedrock that underlies the region today. More than six hundred fossil species and two hundred and fifty coral species from the Devonian have been identified at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, which lies some forty miles east of the Hoosier.

Life forms identified at this Ohio River site directly across from Louisville, one of the world’s largest Devonian fossil bed exposures, include sponges, brachiopods, mollusks, echinoderms, and fish. Two-thirds were described at the Falls for the first time.


A half billion years ago, the chunk of earth crust that now underlies the 202,000-acre Hoosier National Forest basked in the equatorial sun. During the Paleozoic Era, geologists say, the tectonic plate on which Southern Indiana rests—called the North American Plate—lolled about five hundred miles south of the equator, roughly where the Amazonian city of Manaus, Brazil, lies today.

Like the planet’s other twelve plates, the North American has since merged, diverged, and drifted for five hundred million years through a geologic process known as plate tectonics, momentarily settling some thirty-five-hundred miles to the north.

During the Paleozoic Era, which geologists say lasted from 570 million to 266 million years ago, the Hoosier’s rugged hill country occupied the floor of a shallow tropical sea that incessantly ebbed and flowed and changed depths. As time passed, sedimentary materials—which included skeletons, shells, bones, and other plant and animal remains—settled to the ocean floor and compressed and cemented into the bedrock that underlies Southern Indiana today.


The first three weeks of 2018 – especially the three days spent with zoom lenses and hand warmers in the Hoosier National Forest – have been tantamount to a homecoming, an icy outdoor celebration of sorts.

Since IU Press now has all the permissions needed to publish A Guide to Natural Areas of Northern Indiana, the guidebook is out of hand. Included were much-appreciated consents from ACRES Land Trust Executive Director Jason Kissel to publish the foreword he penned and from photographer friend Jaime Sweany to use her author photo on the jacket again.

Since New Year’s Day, the Natural Bloomington compass has reassumed its homier, southerly inclination, marked by subfreezing photo explorations of the Hoosier’s Elkinsville/Middle Fork Salt Creek area in southern Brown County, the Charles C. Deam Wilderness and McPike Pond areas in northeast Lawrence County and the Kings Ridge area in southwest Lawrence.


All that remains of Elkinsville is a pioneer cemetery and a roadside monument memorializing 18 families that lost their homes to Monroe Lake. Named after its inaugural resident William Elkins, who arrived about the time Indiana achieved statehood in 1816, their Southern Brown County community was submerged when the lake was created between 1962 and 1964.

Today, Elkinsville Road dead ends at Combs Road, which dead ends on a rusty iron bridge over the Middle Fork Salt Creek about 4.5 miles past Story at the foot of Browning Hill, one of the 928-foot peak’s multiple monikers. The roadside monument says of the town: “Bathed in the shadow of Browning Mountain, a wonder in itself.”

On the second day of 2018, the Elkinsville area smacked of the Antarctic, with white-tail deer and frigid photographers blithely tracking on the Middle Fork. Smooth and snow-covered, with stark, blue-black arboreal shadows, the creek could have been mistaken for a backwoods road disappearing into its Hoosier National Forest neighbor to the south.


It seems almost providential that work on the Guide to Natural Areas of Northern Indiana came to an end on New Year’s Eve 2017. That was the unofficial target deadline from Day 1, even if overly optimistic expectations did predominate until mid-December. Proofing an 85,000-word collection of details is not only demanding, it’s the project phase during which shit happens or, in this case, is discovered. Patience, not artificial deadlines, drives the process.

But barring a suggestion that the 125 natural areas and 145 images be pared down some – strong arguments both ways – the Northern Indiana manuscript is ready for submission to IU Press on Jan. 2, two days ahead of deadline. Now, the Natural Bloomington energy refocuses full-time in 2018 on the Hoosier National Forest.

And what an energy pulse it will be. It’s not hyperbolic in the least to say Rewilding Southern Indiana: The Hoosier National Forest is the fulfillment of a 40-year dream. As noted this time last year in a blog post about my old friend and National Geographic photographer Bill Thomas, the vision of a coffee table nature book appeared in 1978. Three of his grace the bookshelves.


It’s been two decades since my last hike up the Browning Hill in SoBro – Southern Brown County to non-natives. So, a trek to the top of the state’s 53rd highest point was long past due when I set the GPS on Saturday for what Google Maps calls “Browning Mountain: Indiana’s Stonehenge.”

And while the timing and conditions were near-perfect this time, they couldn’t have been more dissimilar from the last. The 1996 excursion to this Hoosier National Forest ridge top occurred in early spring. The creative medium was black-and-white film. And, let’s just say, love permeated the atmosphere alongside the peak’s spectacular and mysterious nature. The photographic mission then was more memorial than artistic.

This late-fall trip was all mission, marking a return to work on an upcoming coffee-table book called Rewilding Southern Indiana: The Hoosier National Forest. Not to mention a likewise overdue return to the trail. It’s been 2 1/2 months since an actual photo hike appeared in prose or picture on the Natural Bloomington website. The only love this time involved the work.


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