Thursday, April 3, 2014

Arizona Trip 2014

Hi, friends, we just got back from a vacation to Arizona--and you know what that means: vacation pictures! Yay!

First, a warning: these are MY pictures. Snapshots. Don't think for a second that Sue took any of them. She's a much better photographer than I am! Also, I didn't go around photojournalizing the entire trip. I just took pictures when I saw something I wanted to remember, and realized I had a camera with me.

One of the first things we do when we fly into Phoenix is visit the Desert Botanical Garden. Like public gardens everywhere, it not only offers a crash-refresher-course in the native flora and horticultural plants of the area, but also draws in lots of cool birds, insects, and other animals.

We saw lots of nifty birds: Lesser goldfinches, a roadrunner, Abert's towhees, cactus wrens, curve-billed thrashers (nesting and feeding fledglings), mourning and white-winged doves, phainopeplas, and a lovely pair of northern cardinals. Did you know that the southwestern race of cardinals is a distinct subspecies, ssp. superbus? Compared to the cardinals in the Midwest, the males are brighter red, have a longer and fuller-looking crest, and have less black encircling the bill.

Also at the DBG is a new Dale Chihuly art-glass installation. He's been making the rounds of major public botanical gardens (including our own Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis), creating impressive glass sculptures designed to harmonize with garden landscaping.

Here's one of the sculptures from a previous exhibition at the DBG, which the DBG purchased for permanent display:

And here's one of the newer sculptures--it reminds me of mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata):

And yet . . . although there were scads of people out viewing and photographing the glass art, I was still more enthused to see old friends from the "botany department," including blooming brittlebush (Encelia farinosa). Each plant becomes a small bush of wavy, grayish, hairy leaves. In spring, each bush becomes a huge bouquet of golden sunflower blossoms. They can cover entire hillsides, transforming volcanic black rock into a hill of glittering yellow.

Here's another flower that was blooming in abundance at the DBG. I'm not quite sure of the species, but it's some kind of "fairy duster," genus Calliandra. It's another small desert shrub (in the pea family, related to mimosa), and it's one of the many lovely plants you can have in your water-conserving, desert-landscaped yard. If you live there.

When in Arizona, we are always eager to get our fix of good (as in, awesomely good) Mexican food. High on our list is a place I've been in love with since about 1991, Los Dos Molinos. "Los Dos" is a mini-chain at this point, but we always like the one on South Central, which is festively cluttered with brightly painted objects and multicolored lights.

They offer New Mexican cuisine, in particular, and they claim they "don't know how" to make it "not hot." They're always winning awards, like "Best Margarita" and "Best Torch-Your-Mouth Mexican Food." Recently, the Phoenix New Times included eating at Los Dos Molinos in its "Phoenix Bucket List."

Naturally, each meal starts with green and red salsa.

We always try to decide which we "like best tonight." Sometimes it's the red; sometimes it's the green. The red. No, the green. Definitely the green. But wait a minute--let me drink some more of my margarita and try the red again . . .

Ahhh. Nothing in Missouri even touches this.

Although we stayed mostly in Phoenix, taking day trips from there, we did spend two nights in Sedona. On the way up, there's a lovely grassland mesa that you reach just after your car clambers up the mountainous switchbacks north of Black Canyon City. The sudden appearance of flat, grassy land decorated with prickly pears is breathtaking, after the rocky uphill section. This grassland is part of the Agua Fria National Monument, and we like to pull off at the "Sunset View" exit and park on the east side of the highway. There, we wander around and botanize.

Grasslands are rather difficult for people in our culture to appreciate. We're used to having our goodies delivered right to us, without having to make an effort. But the treasures of grasslands are not exactly "front and center." You have to slow the hell down. You have to wander. You have to kneel, to scrutinize.

The little plant below, for instance, was growing against the base of a rock. A relative of the weedy spurges that infest sidewalk cracks, it's a dainty, unusual wildflower in this desert grassland. It's called rattlesnake weed (named for an antique medicinal application), or white-margined spurge (Euphorbia albomarginata). It's pretty, don't you think?

Here's another pretty thing I saw there. I didn't go all out to ID it, but we can safely call it by the common name "silverpuffs." It's in the genus Microseris or Uropappus (lindleyi, I think; about all I remember is that it had hollow stems, and only basal leaves). It's one of many native aster-family plants that could be called "false dandelions."

Ohhhh there were so many pretty flowers out there in that grassland. Purple lupines, desert onion, blue dicks, borages, globemallows, mustards, daisies, plus a variety of bunch grasses and range grasses, shrubby oaks, and the ever-lovin' "wait-a-minute" bush, a shrubby acacia with curved thorns like kitten claws, which grabs hold of you and stops you right in your tracks.

Well, if that happens, it's time to stop and take a picture of something, probably.

Sedona, of course, has become a busy, bustling tourist city. They've installed roundabouts all over the main thoroughfares to keep the traffic flowing. To me, the spinning and constant movement adds to the dizzy, busy sense I get from the city nowadays. I'm glad I got to see Sedona when it was less built-up. And thankfully, we were glad to discover that it's not impossible to still find some places where you can be alone.

Our first night in town, we watched the sunset from a little pullout at the side of Dry Creek Road (that's the road that goes north toward Boynton Canyon, if you've ever been there). There's a place where the road reaches a high point, and the view is terrific. As we stood watching the glow, two more cars, and two pairs of people, arrived, and we all enjoyed the sunset together.

As an added bonus, the ground all over this area was covered with short little evening primroses. I don't know the species; there are something like 20 Oenothera species in Arizona. Like most of its kind, it was happily blooming away as dusk drew on.

You really shouldn't visit Sedona without doing some of the New Age stuff. Whether you "believe" it or not, go ahead and get a psychic reading, or an aura cleansing, or a "negative program removal." Buy a crystal or a pendulum, an amulet or prayer beads. Or join a UFO-watching expedition (they guarantee you will see UFOs). (I suppose what they don't tell you is that they specialize in un-identifying otherwise identifiable objects, but whatever.)

However, because I've done enough of that stuff to last me the rest of my life (I think), the farthest I went this trip was to buy a lovely, boring, space music CD to help me go to sleep nights when I'm too busy thinking. I also looked for my favorite brand of incense (didn't find it), and I looked at cards and art, books and candles, and gemstones and crystals. (But not to buy.)

And then we went to the Red Planet Diner, which is a rather tongue-in-cheek reflection of all the UFO stuff. The cafe started out as a new-built retro-diner, but now it's blended the old-fashioned cafe look with a UFO theme. It's all decorated with space/sci-fi stuff, the ceiling is painted with a huge flying saucer surrounded by stars, comets, and planets, and the menu features dishes like Solar Salad, Flash Gordon Chili, and Roswell Burger. Earlier, we had had Szechuan food for dinner, so we split an order of churros with coconut ice cream and had cups of coffee. And then we took pictures of the flying saucer in front of the restaurant.

The next day, we went hiking not at one of the famous psychic energy vortexes, but on some of the trails in the Coconino National Forest, just off of Jordan Road north of downtown. Below are some views from the trail--because any collection of photos of Sedona must include pictures of the red rocks.

Along the hike, we discovered some little desert puffball mushrooms! They were about the size of marbles and were dry and rather tough. Not papery, not leathery--almost like thin plastic. They were like tiny, thin-skinned Ping-Pong balls. One cluster, at least, I noted, was growing at the base of a ceanothus bush.

It was a good trail. It was sunny, the sky was blue, the birds were singing, and the ground was red. Red, red, red. My formerly white shoes are now official souvenirs of our Arizona trip!

The next day, we walked at Red Rock Crossing, which is one of the official psychic energy vortexes. It's also quite simply a gorgeous place--who wouldn't feel some special "energy" afoot? I won't bore you with all the lovely photos I might have taken. You can find them all over the place.

Instead, I want to show you a picture of what the New Age people have been up to there. Wow! They've been busy! There are a kazillion little rock cairns clustered at various places at Red Rock State Park. This, below, is one of the largest collections. I suppose someone officially pronounced that this very spot is the vortex. Or something. It was pretty interesting to be walking along, minding one's own business, and then suddenly see all this.

Still--you know me. Much more interesting, to me, was this grasshopper, which perfectly blended in with the miscellaneous grayish bits of tree bark, twigs, and other detritus against the red, red Sedona soil.

Of course I haven't told you about a lot of the good parts of our trip, simply because I didn't take pictures of everything (that's Sue's job). But this post is long enough, anyway. To close, I'll share with you our traditional last meal of all our trips to Arizona: The mesquite-grilled, quarter chicken dinner at El Pollo Supremo in Tempe. Oh, it's so good, so, so, good! It's a small, family-owned restaurant, with a limited menu, but what they do, they do with excellence.

Ahhh. El Pollo Supremo.

Don't be sad--we've promised not to wait so long to visit Arizona again.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Another Birthday for the Op Op!

Can you believe it? It seems like only yesterday, but I started the Opulent Opossum in March 2009—so the Op Op is five years old! Thanks, y’all, for sticking around! I sincerely appreciate you!

I started this blog amid some personal turmoil, but fortunately things have improved a great deal, which is one reason why my posts haven’t been as prolific as before. But I’ve really enjoyed doing this blog, and I’ve learned a lot.

Anyway—to celebrate this anniversary, I’ve prepared a little dessert, made with sweet potatoes. Yum!

Sweet potatoes seem kind of “possum-y,” don’t they. The sweet potato is a humble root vegetable that achieves enough sweetness to be worthy of a pie. Despite its southern twang, the sweet potato is capable of great elegance, when prepared with care. It can become a sweet or savory dish. It’s got a glorious orange color and a rich, complex flavor and is high in nutrients.

And sweet potatoes are possum-y for another reason: One associates sweet potatoes with possums, because they’re a traditional accompaniment to roast opossum . . . for people who eat opossums, anyway. I think it is perfectly all right if you don’t want to eat an opossum!

The recipe for my dessert today is from Manjula’s Kitchen; she calls it Sweet Potato Halwa (Eggless Pudding), and she posted the recipe, including a helpful how-to video, on December 24, 2012.

Yes, she posted it on Christmas Eve that year, and yes, it can be a fantastic addition to the holiday table, a tasty and interesting spin on the traditional pumpkin pie. Done up in a Jell-O mold, it’s also reminiscent of the traditional English plum pudding.

The cardamom in the recipe gives it a distinctly Indian flair, but you can fiddle with the spices to make it more like traditional American pumpkin or sweet potato pie (that is, use pumpkin pie spice, and/or use just cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg).

I’m not going to give the recipe here, since I encourage you to visit Manjula’s page so you can watch her video.

This is a vegetarian and gluten-free dessert, it’s incredibly easy to make, and it doesn’t require many ingredients: Sweet potatoes, butter, milk, sugar, and three ground spices: cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Plus whatever garnishes you choose.

Note: You can cook it longer to make it drier and more solid (as I have done here), or cook it less so that it is softer and creamier. When served soft and warm (highly recommended), it is great with ice cream or with a plain cookie or two. It’s a good cold-weather recipe.

I cooked it longer than usual because I wanted to mold it in one of my little vintage Jell-O molds. (The molds were given to me by Sue’s mom—thanks, Mrs. F!)

I think Julia Child would call something like this an “edifice”!

Manjula uses cashews, but I garnished it with crushed pistachios and some orange zest. As you can tell, I had fun with my little photo shoot!

Thanks, friends, for reading my blog! Here’s to Op Op Year 6!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Journeys Around the Sun: Leonard Hall

In my previous posts, I talked about natural history books that have an almanac structure: Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year, Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year, and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Today, I’m continuing in the same vein, with a book of special interest to Missourians. You probably haven’t heard of this author.

Leonard Hall’s A Journal of the Seasons on an Ozark Farm (1956; reprint, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980), like the other books, is arranged chronologically, with a handful of short essays for each month. Hall wrote a regular column about life on his “Possum Trot Farm” (south of Potosi, Missouri) for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Globe Democrat from 1946 to 1980.

Hall embraces the conservation ethic that Aldo Leopold so eloquently laid out, and his stories of life on a working Ozark cattle farm show a sustainable land ethic in practice. The changing seasons frame the story of a year’s worth of activities and observations, including migrating geese, cattle auctions, hunting and fishing, gardening, hiking, gathering elderberries, pawpaws, and hickory nuts, and butchering hogs.

If you’re not familiar with Leonard Hall, check out his books. I particularly recommend his Stars Upstream: Life Along an Ozark River, about the Current and Jack’s Fork rivers. It’s a classic every Missourian ought to read.

Since I was inspired to write about these books by my late-winter longing for spring, and being on constant watch for signs that springtime is coming, I’ll quote a few sections from Hall’s Journal of the Seasons on an Ozark Farm.

“This is a time of year we could do without. There are gloomy days when I have a profound sympathy for those furbearers which hibernate or for the birds that fly south in autumn. But then comes a snowy morning when the earth might have just been born and the chickadee sings as if it were summer, or a mild evening when the sunset paints the western sky in vivid colors and the young calves chase each other across the pasture with tails high in the air. Then I decide that one way or another, we’ll somehow ‘make it through to grass.’” (“January: The Sun Starts North,” p. 190.)

One of my favorite signs of spring is the sound of spring peepers, tiny peeping frogs that, in full chorus, sound to my ear like thousands of little jingle bells, though they symbolize anything but Christmastime. Here’s Hall’s description:

“When the worst blizzard of winter struck the western states this week, our thermometer at Possum Trot dropped sharply and a hard wind out of the northwest rattled the shutters, sifted in through the storm sash, and set the phone wires to singing. We hurried out in the morning to have a look at the baby calves, but found them galloping about the pasture with tails high in the air as if it were summer. Then on Sunday afternoon the wind dropped to a whisper and the mercury climbed into the fifties again. After supper, when I went to make sure the biddies were safely shut up in the hen house, I heard the first spring peepers singing, down in the pond in the woods.” (“February: Spring Edges Closer,” p. 205.)

And that’s how you always hear the first spring peepers of the season. It will be some supremely welcome warmish day, and you will be walking outside in a light jacket some evening after supper. And suddenly you hear them, jingling away, in some seemingly insignificant little pond in the woods.

Of course, there’s still an excellent chance it may snow and freeze again, but I agree with Hall: “There is something optimistic about the note of the first spring peepers that braces us against the occasional spell of cold weather which may still lie ahead” (p. 206).

Here’s to the birds who are remembering their songs
and the young birds who are tuning up for the first songs of their lives;
the geese honking, winging north on the heels
of warming weather,
and stopping overnight in marshes in gabbling flocks;
and tiny frogs awakening,
slipping out of cold mud,
and perching at the water’s edge
to peep their riot of love songs.

And here’s to the reawakening of the entire green world.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Journeys Around the Sun: Aldo Leopold

In my previous posts, I talked about natural history books that have an almanac structure: Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year, and Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year. Today, I’m continuing with another classic natural history author.

Today, it’s one of the most famous written celebrations of the annual cycle of nature, by that giant oak of the conservation movement, Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949). It’s not a day-by-day approach; its chronology is monthly. The location is Wisconsin, but the application is global.

If you haven’t read it yet, you can get it for just the cost of shipping; there are over 2 million copies in print; just do it. It is a great classic of natural history writing, full of heart and soul, unflinching truthfulness, a celebration of all that is wild. A bonus thrill is that (in the original edition) the illustrations are by Missouri’s own Charles W. Schwartz.

In keeping with the theme of longing for spring, I’m sharing a sample from this book, also about birds and the coming of springtime, from a section titled “The Geese Return”:

“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.

“A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed. But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.” (“March,” p. 18.)

“. . . When it has become warm enough to sit outdoors, we love to listen to the proceedings of the convention in the marsh. There are long periods of silence when one hears only the winnowing of snipe, the hoot of a distant owl, or the nasal clucking of some amorous coot. Then, of a sudden, a strident honk resounds, and in an instant pandemonium echoes. There is a beating of pinions on water, a rushing of dark prows propelled by churning paddles, and a general shouting by the onlookers of a vehement controversy. Finally some deep honker has his last word, and the noise subsides to that half-audible small-talk that seldom ceases among geese.” (Ibid., p. 22.)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Journeys Around the Sun: Hal Borland

In my previous post, I talked about a favorite “essay-a-day” natural history book, Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year. Today, I’m continuing on the topic of almanac-format nature books.

A similar book, in a similar vintage, is Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year (New York: Knopf, 1979).

Borland wrote a weekly natural history or “outdoors” editorial in the Sunday edition of the New York Times for 35 years. This book, which he was finishing when he died, is a collection of those brief editorials—so well written . . . so well written.

I’ve been dipping into this book especially, since he writes so eloquently of our desire in late winter to look for signs of impending spring. Wasps waking and flying groggily about on a prematurely warm day. The courtship of owls and squirrels. The lengthening days. Rising sap. The hope encapsulated in the buds of trees. And the first tentative, brief bird songs.

“There are things to be heard if one is at all attentive. At noontime on a sunny day the dooryard sparrows begin to test a few phrases of remembered song. The chickadees, which will lisp a greeting any winter day, now extend their songs, simple though they are. The nuthatches still say nothing but yank, but they say it more often and with a new intonation. From the woodland the male cardinal whistles as though he really means it.

“. . . Spring is not yet at hand, but there is change, and there are subtle stirrings here and there, if we forget the calendar and listen.” (“Subtle Signs of Spring,” February 15, pp. 46-47.)

He notes a softening of the blue jay’s raucous voice:

“But when February comes and daylight begins to linger, the jays begin to feel, perhaps down in their hollow bones, that life is good and soon will be even better. They whisper this, at first, to themselves. Then they say it aloud, but softly. It is a wholly new note, actually a two-note salute to the season. It is almost musical. It really is the blue jay’s prelude to a love song, a sentimental secret the secretive jay can no longer keep to himself.” (“The Secret,” February 8, p. 41.)

It’s not going to make spring come any sooner, but reading this helps me remember that I’m not alone in looking for “signs,” and that people have always yearned for spring this way.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Journeys Around the Sun: Edwin Way Teale

It’s still early enough in the year to be thinking of the passage of time, as I do at every new year—jeez, it’s hard to believe it’s the year 2014! I suppose part of my pondering might also have something to do with this year’s lengthy onslaught of snow and bitter cold—I can’t help looking for signs the spring is coming.

And it is. Even if we’re getting yet another dump of ice and snow this weekend!

My evidence? Well, haven’t you been hearing cardinals singing outside your windows in the mornings? I have. And it’s a damn good song they’re singing!

I’ve been dipping into some of my favorite books that celebrate the annual cycle. A recent comment on my blog suggested to me a book by the great natural history writer Donald Culross Peattie, An Almanac for Moderns. (Thanks, Tina, I’m going to check it out!) Peattie’s books describing America’s trees are exquisite blends of science, poetics, and philosophy. Peattie educated his reader while ensouling his subjects.

Of course, the famous quartet of books by Edwin Way Teale is a monument to the changing American seasons, and I’ve written about them before.

But Teale’s more compact, and personal celebration of the changing seasons is A Walk Through the Year (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978). In it, he writes a brief essay for each day of the year, describing some natural event that happened on his farm in Connecticut. He intended it as a companion to A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, which tells about the property he purchased later in life, Trail Wood, which he treasured as a natural area.

A Walk Through the Year is pure Teale. In it, one of his later books, he shares his reflections on his and his wife, Nelly’s observations of nature at Trail Wood. It’s a gentle and pleasant conversation, as if you and the aging Teales were chatting in their living room, sitting around their cozy fireplace on some evening after a blizzard. “Guess what we saw at one of our bird feeders yesterday!” And “I was walking on the lane to the road and saw a red fox—guess what it was doing!”

To show you why I’ve been dipping into this book, and to celebrate the springtime we’re all hungry for, here’s an excerpt from A Walk Through the Year. Because the Teales were nuts about birds, I’ve chosen one about birds—specifically, red-winged blackbirds:

February 28. This is the sound we longed for, dreamed about, looked forward to in the darkest days of winter. Rising and subsiding, becoming a storm of mingled voices, then ebbing away, it comes from the treetops along the brook. It is an excited sound, a festive, holiday sound. Like the torrents of spring, it is a rushing, liquid sound that here antedates the spring. It is the great chorus of the first of the homecoming flocks of the redwings.

“Bare only yesterday, the treetops along the brook today are clothed with blackbirds. A hundred and fifty or more swirled down to alight among the leafless branches before dawn today. All are males. The females will arrive later. We watch the birds, in the richness of their breeding plumage, flying from tree to tree, each alighting with its scarlet epaulets exposed. Their surging energy is contagious. We feel a sense of elation, a wave of optimism. The stolid endurance of the deepest winter drops away.

“We listen to the overlapping chorus of ‘okaleees’ or ‘bob-y-leees’ swell and fade and begin again. The interplay of sounds merges into a rolling, trilling clamor. Standing listening, we catch little dropped notes spilling through the chorus. The ‘okaleeeing’ is replaced by sharp metallic calls as all the birds take off in a cloud of black to sweep in curves, to turn and turn again, and then swirl down once more to the tops of the brookside trees.

“It is usually near the end of this shortest month of the year or in the earliest days of March that the redwings come back to Trail Wood. The intermingled tumult that comes down from the treetops seems compounded of relief at the end of a long journey, of ecstasy in reaching an age-old breeding ground, of health at a peak, and life lived intensely. We are swept along by the excitement pulsing through these hundred and more bodies. This wild musical clamor of the first of the returning redwings reechoes in our minds long after it is left behind. For the birds, the farflung journeys of migration now are a thing of the past. For us, the winter—all but a few short weeks—has run its course.”


And yes: While visiting my parents two weeks ago in Columbia, Sue and I heard our first raucous, cacophonous red-winged blackbird chorus of the spring, and we almost jumped for joy!

Is winter over? Of course not. Look at all this frickin’ ice!

But hey—keep your hopes up! The cardinals are singing, and the redwings have appeared.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Fossil Hunting! A New Adventure at the State Capitol

To paraphrase Lily Tomlin: This year, our winter has been perverse—it can get warmer, but it won’t. I’ve been looking for things to do—but as you know, I’m not keen on ice, and there’s still plenty of that around.

So we found something incredibly fun to do! But first, you should know a little about the state capitol.

When I was a kid, and my family was visiting Grandma S (who didn’t have a/c), on some hot summer days my brother and I would walk up to the capitol and enjoy its cool, dark, marble hallways. It was like spelunking! It was like a mini vacation!

I still find the capitol a good getaway. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful building. As a public building, it’s ours, and we can go in there. I like to take walks around its pleasantly landscaped grounds, and look north at the train tracks and the river. I like to go inside and visit the museum. I also like to admire the art.

But last weekend, Sue and I had a new kind of adventure at the state capitol!

The winter 2014 issue of Missouri Resources, the magazine of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, had a neat article in it about the fossils visible in the polished limestone walls and floors of the capitol building.

You need to check this out! The article is “Capitol Fossils,” by Patrick Mulvany. You can see the article online, or (even better, I think), looking ahead to more neat articles, you can also subscribe to the magazine. Subscriptions are free to any Missouri resident (super-cheap for anyone else); you only need to sign up for it, which you can do here.

Why are there fossils in the walls of our state capitol? Well, anyone who took Geology 1 with Prof. Houseknecht at Mizzou should know the answer: it’s because the “marble” isn’t true marble. It’s actually limestone that’s been polished.

Limestone’s a sedimentary rock, which, as we Missourians know, can be chock full of cool fossils. You just walk down a creek bed, picking up rocks, and you can see oodles of fossil echinoderms, mollusks, and other invertebrates. These include crinoids (our official “state fossil”), brachiopods, corals, bryozoans, snails, nautiloids, and more.

These are what’s left of the hard shells and other structural materials of saltwater animals that lived here 335 million years ago, when this area was covered by a sea (in the Mississippian Subperiod, if you want to get technical). Here is what you often find in an Ozark creek bed:

True marble (which isn’t found in Missouri) is a metamorphic rock created when limestone undergoes tremendous pressure and/or heating. Any fossils, impurities, or other interesting inclusions that were in the original limestone lose their shape and are reduced to mere swirly patterns in the marble.

The limestone used to build our capitol is named “Carthage marble” because in the commercial stone trade, this hard, dense, high-quality limestone that can take a decent polish without crumbling is called “marble.” Carthage is the town in southwest Missouri near where this limestone was quarried.

By the way, you can find polished limestone used as architectural marble all over the state. As Prof. Houseknecht pointed out to us, the bathroom stalls in UMC’s Memorial Union south wing are made of polished limestone; he asked us to “go” in there and notice the fossils!

The restrooms at the state capitol are included! You might end up taking extra time in a stall examining the nifty fossils in the partitions! Only ladies are allowed to see this cool nautiloid (or maybe it’s just a snail; but look at the chambers within the coils!):

(Yes, I did! I stood there in a bathroom stall and took a picture!)

Another nautiloid is visible to everyone and is mentioned in the magazine article. This specimen is nearly a foot long! The creature that lived in this conical or cylindrical shell (Gomphoceras sp.?) looked something like a squid, tentacles and all.

So, there are these cool fossils at the capitol that you will miss the first 150,000 times you visit. Naturally, the bigger attractions at the capitol are the majestic architecture of the building itself; the museums; the artwork; maybe even the lawmakers, lobbyists, and other governmental denizens.

But there are copies of a veritable treasure map at the welcome desk. With it, you can hunt all over the capitol for the nifty fossils featured in the magazine article. And, more fun yet, make your own discoveries!

It’s a good idea to bring a flashlight and a hand lens. You’ll look a little funny examining the walls so closely, but really, it’s good for the legislators to see that. It helps remind them that they and their pet bills are not the gravitational nucleus of the universe.

One more thing: I was especially eager to go on this treasure hunt because I wanted to see some examples of a type of bryozoan fossil called Archimedes (the genus is named for the screwlike form that commonly remains of the animal).

I’ve recently educated myself about Missouri’s current, living bryozoan species (read more about Missouri’s living bryozoans here), and now I’m wanting to find all kinds of examples of them—fossilized or living!

(Oh, I’ve got big plans for this summer’s explorations, born out of a long winter’s cabin fever! But more on that later!)