How natural are Ozark glades? They're common around Valley View and Victoria Glades, so at first glance they seem like a normal part of the landscape.

But with close observation, the natural scene does not seem quite so natural. People have cut some cedar out of the glades, most obviously at Valley View Glades. And the hardwoods surrounding the glades seem to grow larger the farther they are from the edges of the glades. Why wouldn't the glades eventually fill in with cedars, and then hardwoods encroach, until the glades are gone?

The official story is that glades are a historic part of the Ozark landscape. Before European settlement, Native Americans burned the landscape regularly, which opened up the forest, stimulated new plant growth, and attracted the deer, elk and buffalo which they hunted. And lightning-caused fires swept regularly through the Ozarks, which similar opened up the forest. It was only with the suppression of forest fires in the first half of the twentieth century that the forest filled in the glades. As a result, glades are now endangered ecosystems. The common recipe for restoration is fire, signs of which I did not see at either Victoria or Valley View Glades, and the cutting back of cedar, the signs of which are abundant.

If the glades were the result of Native American activity, or even better if they resulted from wildfire, then I suppose that "glade restoration" does seek after the restoration of the natural (at least according to the not entirely consistent logic that equates human activity of the Native American variety with "nature"). But I wonder if, in the case of Victoria and Valley View Glades, we aren't trying to maintain a state of affairs that owes something to more recent human causes.

Victoria and Valley View Glade are located in the longest settled part of Missouri. It was almost 300 years ago that the French started using Missouri's resources. Lead mining started in 1717. Was this land used intensively as a source of fuel, stripping away its timber, exposing its soil to erosion, and leaving the land incapable of regrowing a healthy forest?

Or consider that we live after a corn-fueled agricultural revolution. Because of mechanization and artificial fertilizers, corn is so cheap that it makes sense to fatten cattle on it, instead of letting them mature on pasture. Before the corn revolution and the consolidation of a national beef market, it would have made sense to raise cattle on land like Valley View and Victoria Glades. It wouldn't have been rich grazing, but would it have been good enough to generate a supplemental income? Are the glades a consequence of past overgrazing?

Much of this history is lost. All that's left are traces on the landscape, impossible to read, like a faint path fading into the brush.

The story of glades as a natural feature seems a bit too handy, something that land managers reach toward almost instinctively. For example, there was recent news that Washington University in St. Louis, which owns a couple of thousand of acres not too far from Valley View Glades, had started an experimental program of glade restoration. The news struck me as a bit odd, because I grew up hiking Beaumont Scout Reservation, which is right across the interstate from Washington University's land. I hiked there a lot as kid, and I don't recall ever seeing a single glade. And yet the landscape at the Scout Reservation is almost identical to the University's land. So I have to ask, is the University really "restoring" glades, or are they creating glades where none have existed for a long, long time? And existed even then only as the result of human use, whether of European or Native American origin?

The Ozarks tend to hide their history of use beneath thick layers of leaf litter and at times of even thicker patches of brush. It's hard to look past an impressive stand of white oak to see what might have been there eighty or a hundred years before. Old pasture, particularly old pasture that once must have been grazed hard, can look a lot like a glade, and at first glance there's not much obvious difference--other than location--between a glade choked with cedar and an old pasture in the same condition.