I climbed the switchback trail up to the ridge at Southwest Nature Preserve yesterday, and it felt a little different. The high temperature was still in the 90s and there were no clouds to deflect a little of the sun’s radiant warmth, but there was a barely perceptible difference. Through much of the summer, the humid air has wrapped us in a blanket of heat, but not so much today. The slight breeze that previously could not penetrate that sticky blanket was refreshing this time. I wondered if this was the first hint of autumn.
Autumn has a distinct personality. The sensory world of autumn is one of cool breezes, even a little chill, and in the fields there is the faint smell of ripening and even decay as leaves come to the end of their usefulness and fall from trees and shrubs. It’s a good sort of decay; it’s the soil-creating process, the vintage bouquet of oak and ash leaves, with notes of hackberry and possumhaw. I look forward to bright, cool days in woods and prairies and the chance to smell that legacy of what grew in the summer.
Where I live, autumn’s sensory world includes leaves turning color, gradually and in varying degrees. There are the brilliant colors of sumac (one species of which is “flameleaf sumac,” which gives a clue as to its contribution to autumn color) as well as the varied colors of poison ivy. The oak leaves sometimes become very colorful, but only sometimes. And then when the leaves have fallen, we get a look into woodlands where before there were curtains of green. On through the coming winter, sunny days flood the ground around the tree trunks with light.
The quality of that light is an important part of autumn’s personality. Our part of the earth is tilting away from the sun, and light reaches us from a slanting angle. In a trick of physics, it is more golden, with an end-of-the-day feel, a suggestion of sunset all day long. In a verse that introduces autumn in a forthcoming book, I said, “Things come to an end / Be still in the golden autumn light.” The sense of the year coming to an end suggests a time for contemplation, to “consider how to make a good end of the year / With affection and acceptance.”
Is it autumn yet? One way of defining the seasons says that autumn begins with the first of September. The other way, based on the position of the sun, says that autumn begins when the shortening days and lengthening nights are of equal lengths. The equinox, typically on September 23, marks the beginning of autumn.
That day is less than two weeks away. I look forward to that day and to every little sign that autumn is coming.
At the end of 2019, I wanted to write a book about practicing mindfulness in nature. I wanted to describe what it was like to let go of the background noise and pay attention fully to the present moment, while exploring the woods, the desert, and other places in Texas. I also wanted to include information about the place and its plants and animals, just enough to bring the stories to life.
Texas A&M University Press was on board with the idea, as was my best pal, photographer and partner in natural history exploration, Meghan Cassidy. We got started at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in January of 2020, and then the pandemic arrived. That slowed us but did not stop us last year, and this year we have done lots of traveling, masked and socially distanced as needed. Only a few more trips to go (but do we really want those trips to end?).
There have been lots of memorable experiences – alligators at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, listening in on the chatter of hundreds of sandhill cranes at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, and becoming lost in reflections in quiet water slipping through the forest in the Big Thicket.
The first part of the book will lay the groundwork. How does time spent in nature benefit us, physically and otherwise? What is mindfulness, really, and how does it work? What are all these places in Texas, from the High Plains to the Piney Woods? And how do you prepare for an outing like this?
The second part contains the photographs and stories from all over Texas. Meghan’s photos always bring home the landscapes as well as the close-up studies of little wonders. I always look forward to sitting down with her to go through photos (although it is hard to limit ourselves to just a few for each section). There are panoramic views of habitats, with subtle colors and textures. There are also macro shots with wonderful detail.
We hope you will watch for this book and read it when it comes out. With its detailed photos, the guidance for practicing mindfulness, and natural history of the places we visit, it will be unlike any of the other books on exploring Texas’ nature.
June 16, 2021
The day-long drive set the stage for our arrival in the Big Bend country. The land became flatter and more arid, and the stretches between towns lengthened. We began to see dust devils spinning across short distances among the mesquite and cactus. Somewhere south of Pecos, the shadowy line of the Davis Mountains gradually emerged from the haze. We were now far from the big cities, and we were leaving the desolate world of Permian Basin oil and gas extraction. Our travels from here would bring us into the Chihuahuan Desert, passing through mountain ranges and dropping down into desert basins.
Finally, south of Alpine, the two-lane road cut through a landscape with no town ahead for nearly a hundred miles. The sun was sinking toward distant mountains and buttes, and the road threaded through hills and rocky ridges that gradually flattened into huge expanses of gravelly desert dotted with creosote bush and yucca. Here was wildness and remoteness such as you rarely find in the United States, and opportunities to be unplugged from the modern world.
There was no way to fully prepare Barbara and her kids for this place and its disconnection from the rest of the world. There was no phone service and little traffic. For nearly a hundred miles there are no gas stations, no stores, no fast food. There are occasional small structures – a cabin or a trailer – scattered among the brush and cacti or nestled at the foot of a hill, and occasionally a car or a pickup truck passes you. Nothing else disturbs the sense of being completely alone from one horizon to the other.
We stopped to photograph the sunset, and the deepening orange behind the layered mountains and hills was beautiful. For me it was a welcome return to a place whose openness and enormous scale has always offered peace and endless fascination. The isolation was probably a plus for fifteen-year-old Dani, who is often seeks out quiet moments with a little distance from others. Nicholas, who just turned thirteen, is outwardly an easygoing guy with an infectious smile. Barbara is an artist and media designer whose attention was drawn to this beautiful sunset, while at the same time her attention is never far from Dani and Nicholas. We were all filled with anticipation of the wildlife we hoped to see and hear, and as long as Barbara could get a text to the kids’ dad, telling him that we were OK, she would be fine.
We stayed at Wild Horse Station, a collection of several cabins and mobile homes perched in different places on a hillside. I knew that cabin number one at the top of the ridge would be a good place to stay, but to get there we had to climb a rutted dirt road up the hill in the dark. There were sharp turns and a section where the path dropped off sharply to our right, but we made it.
It was dark, despite the light from this night’s nearly half moon. This part of Texas has traditionally had little light pollution and the dark skies make it a good place for the McDonald Observatory, in the Davis Mountains. With no blazing lights from cities and limited traffic, the nights are often clear and very dark. When there is no haze, the Milky Way stretches overhead just as it might have looked when it spanned some prehistoric landscape, and the sky seems like a limitless depth of black, with an infinity of stars. This was a moment to shake car-cramped muscles free and let go of thoughts and plans about tomorrow. It was a time for standing quietly under the night sky, surrounded on this hilltop by miles of desert, cool night air, and little else but a few friends and a welcoming shelter.
In mindfulness terms, it would seem to be easy to stop doing something on this night and in this place. How natural to just be still and notice the quiet, correct? But with darkness hiding much of what would catch the eye and hold our attention during the day, sometimes our internal thoughts, judgments and plans push the door open and insist on being heard. To practice mindfulness while the mind tries to smother our awareness under a thousand different things, we must observe ourselves having the thought, decide to let go of it rather than get caught up in it, and return our attention to that dark night in the desert as well as to our internal feelings and perceptions. It does take discipline to keep our attention in the present moment!
If we have enough of that discipline, what can result is a longer and deeper immersion in that night sky and the quiet desert around us. Any of us could stand there outside the cabin and notice the vast scale and the depth of the dark night, getting a short peek into that experience before the mind carried us off somewhere else. Mindful attention lets us live in those moments longer, continuing to be present for the full story of the stars, the sense of height on the hilltop, the soft breezes, the dimly seen desert plants around us, and much more.
We made this trip to introduce friends to the Big Bend region, to look for and photograph reptiles, and find some opportunities for mindfulness. More to come!
(I wrote this for The Post Oak, newsletter of the Arlington Conservation Council. It appeared in the June, 2021 issue.)
It is spring, and now we’ve had rain, and so the abundance of life is particularly evident. People are reporting wildlife sightings everywhere, including plenty of snake encounters posted to social media. Some reflect delight and appreciation, or even boasting about lucky finds in exactly the way a birder would report a new “lifer.” Others are nervous pleas to identify a photograph of a snake that is feared to be a threat to the lives of humans and pets.
Venomous snake bite is an uncommon event in the U.S., although it is a potentially very serious medical emergency when it does occur. Cases of venomous snake bite from ten states were reported to the North American Snakebite Registry for three years from 2013 through 2015 (Ruha, et al., 2017). Most of the 450 cases were from Arizona and Texas, and 19% of the bites resulted from intentional interactions (with captive snakes, showing off, attempting to kill the snake, etc.). Almost all the bites came from pit-vipers – rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. Only three coralsnake bites were reported. There were no deaths among these 450 cases.
The small field guide by Andy Price, Venomous Snakes of Texas (Price, 2009), includes a table showing annual deaths in Texas from 1997 to 2005. Most years there were no deaths from snakebite, and only five deaths were reported for those nine years. Deaths from venomous arthropods (spiders, wasps, etc.) far outnumbered those from snakebite. If you are interested in, or worried about, Texas’ venomous snakes, get this guide. Price discusses how venom works, what to do in case of snakebite, and he provides information about where each one is found, what its habits are, and what it looks like. Alternately, you can download my pdf guide to venomous snakes in north Texas.
Coralsnakes are often thought of as among our more deadly snakes, but a 2009 article in Toxicon reported the first U.S. death from coralsnake bite in over 40 years (Norris, et al., 2009) It is also instructive to note that this death occurred when some men who had been drinking discovered the snake, captured it, and then tried to kill it. The person who died used a broken beer bottle to try to stab the snake, was bitten, and then did not pursue treatment. Unfortunately, carelessness, attempts to kill the snake, and failure to seek treatment were pivotal factors in this man’s death.
The point of all this is to say that venomous snakebite – especially the risk of dying from one – is low among the risks we face in daily life. The majority of snakes in Texas are nonvenomous, and all of them (venomous and nonvenomous) want nothing to do with us. Great care must be taken when we encounter a venomous snake, and that is the subject of the rest of this article.
Someone whose position about snakes is generally “live and let live” may still believe that a snake near their house must be killed in order to prevent future encounters. It is hard to argue with someone who says “if I find a rattlesnake in my yard, I’m killing it.” Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt that argument, not because I value snakes over people, but because I think there’s a better solution. Let’s look at the points in my argument:
You may or may not be convinced, but I think the best strategy is to prevent snake encounters around the house and to safely frighten away any unwanted snakes that you find. There’s one additional thing: snake “repellents” are not going to help. Wishful thinking and good salesmanship sells a lot of bags of stuff based on ingredients similar to mothballs or some other chemical scent-based substance. One snake control company in Arizona posts photos of rattlesnakes they find resting on top of the stuff or sheltering behind a bag of it. That speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the product.
What about the naturalists and wildlife-watchers among us? What if we find a snake and want to watch it or photograph it – can that safely be done? The answer is “yes,” and it depends on our dispelling the myth that venomous snakes chase people. I don’t mean to insult anyone who came across a rattlesnake that crawled toward them in a way that looked like it was chasing them. That has happened to a friend, actually, but a lifetime of experience and study tells me that he was just in the way of a snake trying to escape to safety. I describe this encounter in Herping Texas (Smith & King, 2018) and I will briefly re-tell it here.
Steve and I found a massasauga rattlesnake one night years ago, and we crouched around the snake to admire it. The snake was still as a statue, probably confused by our lights and hoping we would pass on by. I wanted to see it in a different position and so I touched the snake with my snake hook. At that point, convinced that hiding had failed and it was now under attack, the little rattlesnake flew into action, coming straight at Steve. That caused Steve to fly into action as well, practically back-flipping out of the way. The snake kept on going, past us and into the roadside vegetation. That’s all it was – no attack, just a blind attempt to get away. However, when something like that happens, the natural assumption people make is that the snake was attacking or chasing.
With that in mind, let’s think about how you can safely observe a snake. When you first spot it, think about how close you are and what it is doing. If the snake is very close, check your footing and step away or to the side until you’re about ten feet away. If the snake is moving, don’t get in its way and remain still so that you can watch what it does. You may get a great opportunity to observe how the snake’s amazing body moves among rocks and branches, or see it swim (a beautiful display of graceful curves). From a safe distance, it doesn’t matter if you are able to identify it, because even if it is venomous it cannot hurt you from ten feet away. If the snake moves in your direction, just remember that this is just a navigation error on the snake’s part and move out of the way.
I do not mean to suggest to anyone that venomous snakes are no big deal. Just as these snakes are not “mean” or “bad,” they are also not “friendly” and they do not know if our intentions are benign. They are simply wildlife – fascinating, often beautiful, and potentially quite dangerous if we don’t keep our distance. What I have learned is to respect them without undue fear and to understand their habits well enough to watch them in the field without incident.
Norris, R.L., Pfalzgraf, R.R., & G. Laing. 2009. Death following coral snake bite in the United States – First documented case (with ELISA confirmation of envenomation) in over 40 years. Toxicon, 53, 693-697.
Price, A.H. 2009. Venomous Snakes of Texas: A Field Guide. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Ruha, A., Kleinschmidt, K.C., Greene, S., Spyres, M.B., Brent, J., Wax, P., Padilla-Jones, A., & S. Campleman. 2017. The Epidemiology, Clinical Course, and Management of Snakebites in the North American Snakebite Registry. Journal of Medical Toxicology, 13:309-320.
Smith, M.A. & C.R. King. 2018. Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles and Amphibians. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
We were driving west, toward a respite from the city, a quiet refuge out in the Rolling Plains. That part of Texas shows us how much beauty there is in openness and how much richness and life can be contained in a sparse landscape. Along with me were Meghan Cassidy, a wonderful naturalist, photographer, and book collaborator, and Carly Aulicky, a field biologist with an amazing understanding of birds and prairies, and with a quiet wisdom and humor that makes you want to sit and keep listening. If only for a few hours, we would wander among prickly poppies and horned lizards and watch Mississippi kites and roadrunners.
It had been seven years since Clint King and I visited the area between Lubbock and Abilene, finding a half-dozen Texas horned lizards along the red dirt roads that cut through the ranchland. There was no park or preserve to visit there, but we spent a very enjoyable afternoon driving and walking road rights-of-way. The big red harvester ants are still doing well in the area, and so the horned lizards have lots of food. We found big sphinx moths hovering like hummingbirds around beautiful white flowers, and greater roadrunners hunting along the roadside and either running off or jumping into low, short flight into a nearby thicket when we approached. At the end of the day we had surprised a pair of badgers, one of whom could not climb an embankment and was unable to dig quickly enough into the red dirt, and so he faced us menacingly until we drove off. Getting too close to a cornered badger would have been a really bad end to a wonderful day.
I told those stories as we headed northwest from Abilene past ranchland, a few small towns, and a huge array of solar collectors. That solar array is good news in a world desperately needing to break the addiction to fossil fuels. But it replaces many acres of prairie and Carly talked about the reflective surfaces leading some birds to crash into them. A small example of our imperfect solutions to problems that must be solved, as the clock keeps ticking. All those interrelated crises with climate, loss of biodiversity, the rigged competition between corporate profit and human well-being, and an increasingly crowded world where a mutating microorganism can easily spread into a pandemic. We are even losing our shared fragile agreement about the nature of truth and how we should find it. Much of the world seems to be flirting with the false solution of authoritarian government. In my seventy years, I do not remember a time when the world seemed in so much trouble from so many directions, with hope for the future so hard to come by. Some of us experience grief from the losses that we have already sustained, along with grief and stress as we anticipate future losses.
Grief is a universal part of life because we all experience losses of significant people, loss of our health or physical integrity, loss of jobs or important roles in our community, and loss of emotionally significant places. When we have attachments to particular places in nature, then the loss (even the anticipated loss) of such a place is termed “ecological grief.” When that loss feels like homesickness for a place, not because we are distant but because the place itself has been lost, the experience is called “solastalgia.” Additionally, the sense of helplessness and anxiety at the impending loss of nature is referred to as “eco-anxiety.” These concepts and experiences are being given serious scholarly study1 as well as exploration of their ethical and spiritual significance.2 Within the discussion is an acknowledgement that grief should lead to understanding of what the loss means to us, how our lives will now be different, and whether there is guilt or anger regarding how the loss occurred.
While Exxon was discovering the truth about climate change and concealing that truth from the public,3 when forests and prairies were cut down, and life on earth was being assaulted in many ways, what did we do? I ask myself questions like that more seriously and more often these days. Among the tasks of growing older is to reflect back on our lives and decide whether it was well spent. What kind of a life did we make out of the chances that were given us? Did we build a life with things to celebrate and with relatively few regrets, or do we desperately wish there was a chance to do it over? Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson described these as the fundamental issues of the final stage of our lives: ego integrity vs. despair.4 Part of the work of this stage of life, for many of us, is to decide if we made things better for those who came after, and to wonder whether it was enough.
Riding through the Rolling Plains with Meghan and Carly, talking about our love for nature and the challenges ahead of us, how could I think that my past actions were enough? Is this the world I want them – and many other young people – to inherit? I say to myself: “I have done what I could,” but I know that we must do more. The problems we face are embedded within large systems and widespread practices, and the isolated actions of one or a few of us are swallowed up and amount to nearly nothing. I could stop driving my car, and climate change would continue advancing. It takes a great many of us acting together to bring about meaningful change. Thus do we individually feel helpless, and thus do we continue sleepwalking through our days. And thus might we experience what Erikson termed despair.
We are not destined to sleepwalk through the destruction of nature. Our individual efforts can make a difference when they help shape and sustain little communities that value nature. Those little communities are the molecules that can link together and create change on a meaningful scale. Bringing someone along to experience a day on a river or in a woodland may be one of the most powerful ways to build those little networks and communities. And in the process, we experience joy when we share nature with another person.
Joy, connection, purpose, even transcendence can happen when you walk through a wild and diverse place like the ranchland we found on this trip. Those things are what hold a love of nature together, in a more visceral way than do ecosystem services like pollination or clean air. Those benefits are more abstract, and they operate in the background, mostly out of our awareness. A day spent in a fairly intact ecosystem fully engages your awareness, your body and spirit. As a result, you can fall in love with a place. As you spend more days in more places, you can come to love landscapes and ecosystems. And once you love them, grief becomes a possibility when they are threatened. It is analogous to love for a friend or family member – they complete you and enrich you beyond imagining, and you would grieve their loss.
We discussed these issues along with many less-serious things as we drove, and eventually we arrived at quiet farm roads through mostly flat plains. A huge variety of plants were blooming, visited by large numbers of insects. Roadsides were covered with daisies, white prickly poppy, peppergrasses, and many other flowers. Grasshoppers were abundant, including at least one rainbow grasshopper. Meghan found multiple species of velvet ant, which is really a wingless wasp. The common name for one of them, “cow-killer,” conveys something of the power of their sting. Around the fenceline there was low-growing Havard oak, and yuccas grew here and there.
It was quiet, and the absence of highway noise and planes flying overhead made it that much easier to be immersed in the experience. It also framed the natural sounds clearly (especially for those whose hearing is better than mine), and bird calls were beautiful and distinct. A nearby group of coyotes began to yip and howl before moving off. It is a strangely haunting and wonderful thing to listen to the song-dogs at sunset.
Mississippi kites appeared here and there, and Carly talked about these sleek raptors being pretty social, often roosting or hunting in small groups. I loved seeing scissortail flycatchers, and Carly spotted a male painted bunting. Many other birds, including nightjars and a red-tailed hawk, enriched our visit.
Along those red dirt roads we saw the occasional broad circle that signaled a harvester ant colony. A central opening was surrounded by a scattering of pebbles and material that the ants have excavated, and the ants were busily coming and going. If you watch their movements, you find little ant trails that the workers use like highways linking the colony to the areas where they forage for food. Along those ant highways you sometimes find the Texas horned lizard. We walked around the colonies and followed ant trails, and Meghan spotted a young horned lizard. It disappeared into the base of some vegetation and we were not able to find it. The lizard might have been tucked away in some refuge under the plants or may have sneaked away while we weren’t looking. Although Meghan only got a brief look, it was reassuring to know that the horned lizards are still there.
Darkness arrived, and we looked for reptiles and amphibians on the roads. Early on, there was a Woodhouse’s toad and then a Couch’s spadefoot (an odd sort of toad with vertically elliptical pupils and a hard spade-like structure on each back foot to facilitate digging). Then we came upon a sizable American bullfrog – you have to be impressed at the ability of a frog like this to make a living on the semi-arid plains with only a few scattered ponds to sustain you. As we made our way home there were Great Plains ratsnakes and a nice western diamond-backed rattlesnake who tolerated my using the snake hook to move him back onto the road so that we could get a good look. Meghan then used her hook to carry him to the other side of the road, where he had been heading. Throughout all that, he never even rattled.
The richness of life in this region is both invigorating and reassuring. There was so much to see and understand, and there seemed to be little chance that all that life would be cut short by a housing development. We hold out the hope that not much of it will be plowed and planted in row crops, although we did see some of that. Today was a beautiful gift, a chance to be in the present where ghosts of loss do not live. Tomorrow we can think about the future and think about what we can do, while at the same time carrying the hope of more days like today.
(A writing experiment, with country cemeteries, beautiful prairie, a copperhead, and distant storms. On this visit to the grasslands, I did not take a camera. I intended to experience it without trying to “capture” it in images, although I did have my phone so I suppose I did have a camera. I also did not take a field notebook, but today I wrote some notes. It seemed like the sort of thing that would have, once upon a time, been sent back home as a letter, and so I offer my notes as a sort of letter from the grasslands, with no photos to augment whatever mental images and stories the words might manage to convey.)
I traveled to Wise County to see how all the rain has affected the prairies at LBJ Grasslands, and I also hoped to sit in the quiet darkness and watch lightning from the line of storms coming in from Oklahoma. In between those things, perhaps I would see a few snakes or frogs crossing the roads after sunset.
On the initial drive through the oak woodlands and patches of prairie, I looped around Ball Knob, a little hilltop and ridge. Tucked away among the oaks, prairie grasses, and wildflowers is a quiet little cemetery, a resting place for people who lived there in the 1700s and later. It is a beautiful place, dotted with oaks and a couple of junipers, with some of the headstones weathered beyond reading. It is comforting to think that they have rested here for hundreds of years in the peace of the cycling seasons. Who knows what it might mean to those who have passed, but for those who remain it is a reassuring reminder of eternal rest. For those who are buried here, each spring sees the return of Texas paintbrush and purple coneflower and each autumn their graves are kissed with a scattering of golden and scarlet oak leaves. The place is circled with an unassuming chain link fence, and there is a small, modest pavilion for anyone who wants to sit for a while. There is a historical marker, but no signs and nothing to disturb the peace. It is perfect.
I drove on, past the historical site of the settlement of Audubon and past the pine grove with its campsites and little ponds. From that pine grove, the road drops down to a broad, mostly open prairie that I walk year after year, following trails across fields of prairie grass and flowers and through post oak and blackjack woodland. Today, after the extended rains that have fallen, the fields were green and dotted with flowers. Red-orange Texas paintbrush pushed up through the green, and meadow pink flowers were tucked away near the ground. Big flower heads of antelope horn milkweed dotted the meadows.
Butterflies and bumblebees visited these and other flowers. The first ones I saw were sulphur-yellow butterflies that fluttered near the ground, stopping at the yellow coreopsis and nervously moving on if I stepped closer. The buzz of the bees is very pleasant to me; I associate it with flowering and the expansion of life, and not at all with pain since these bees will gladly coexist and work around us if we just leave them alone. Everywhere the calls of northern cardinals and other birds made these meadows and woods all the more exquisite. To walk through the grasses and among the flowers, surrounded by bird song and the occasional bee, brings a peace and contentment that I find in few other places.
I wandered for some time, soaking it all in. White-tailed deer peeked at me attentively from below a rise, bolted back a short distance as I continued walking and looked back at me again. Crows scolded me from a nearby line of trees. On a milkweed plant, a monarch butterfly moved among the flowers, took off when I got too close, and then circled back to the plant. The air was laden with moisture and felt warm and close, and the sky was hazy with thin clouds. Cricket frogs began to call, a soft and distant ‘grick-grick-grick’ from a pond somewhere.
Eventually I returned to my car, just prior to sunset. I started to get in and was interrupted by the graceful and acrobatic flight of a couple of birds very close to where I was. They had narrow wings that suggested a swallow, made for maneuvering rather than soaring. The tail feathers were cut into a fork rather than a broad fan, but these birds were too big to be swallows. They swooped and climbed, then one would rapidly pivot, diving down to catch an insect and then pull up and shoot across the meadow, flying out of range only to re-emerge a few moments later. Others joined, until there were five or six birds, each one putting on an athletic show for the earthbound human below. My friend Carly identified these as nighthawks based on their size and the big white spot under each wing.
I drove the little back roads nearby, and at some point came upon a fairly large broad-banded copperhead. I always stop, both because they are beautiful and because they cruise very slowly across the road, very vulnerable to being run over. The glare of my flashlight showed the broad dark and light bands that give the snake its name, dark cinnamon alternating with sandy shade of tan. The finely-sculpted, wedge-shaped head had some of that cinnamon color in the back, divided from the lighter color of the face by a fine diagonal border. Like virtually all copperheads, this one held his head angled up, motionless for the moment, waiting to see what I would do. At such times they are balanced on the edge of a knife, between utter stillness (which would serve them well when camouflaged in dead leaves and grasses) and exploding into frantic attempts to escape. When I slid the snake hook under this one’s head and neck, he bunched up a little, maybe surprised and unsure what to do with this unexplained touching. He then decided it was time to leave, crawling quickly but not frantically off the road.
That was an exciting encounter, despite my having found and interacted with a great many copperheads. I drove down the road with the satisfaction of seeing this beautiful snake and moving it so that it would survive this night. A few miles further, and another snake came into view. This one was a plain-bellied watersnake, dark and sullen but nonvenomous. I took a couple of photos with my phone but did not pick it up. At my approach, the snake pulled itself into a protective coil and lashed out with a quick jab. Watersnakes have no venom but usually do not hesitate to bite if they feel threatened. They leave small scratches, briefly painful and perhaps startling enough to make a coyote, a raccoon, or a human let it go. I nudged him off the road with my shoe and wished him well.
Soon, lightning could be seen along the northern horizon. An oncoming storm front and barometric pressure drop often sets the stage for snake activity, and that was a plus. However, when the clouds get close enough to watch the flashes of light and hear rumbling in the distance, I’m ready to stop and enjoy the experience. Maybe it is a contradiction that I respond to distant storms as gentle and soothing while at the same time representing immense power. Which part appeals to me, or is it the idea of such a powerful thing being capable of soothing? In any case, the faraway thunder is a lullabye and the flashes of lightning no more threatening than the moon or a shooting star. I pulled off onto a Forest Service road and stopped the car so that I could stand in the quiet darkness and watch.
It was very dark behind the tree line and then a flash appeared from within the clouds and rolled from one to the next. Then it was dark again until nearby clouds were briefly lit by what seemed like an internal fire, outlining the clouds in front of it for an instant or two. It was completely quiet. Radar showed the front still had not crossed the Red River; it was too far distant for thunder to be audible. Earlier, the air had felt warm and saturated, but now some cooler breezes were stirring. I stood in the darkness for a while longer, watching the random flowering of distant lightning and enjoying the quiet.
Be well and happy. Visit the grasslands when you can.
May 23rd is World Turtle Day, an opportunity to celebrate those animals that found a good plan and stuck with it for over 200 million years. The earliest turtles developed a protective shell and then rearranged their bodies to be able to swim, walk, and even run while encased in that shell. It’s a remarkably effective evolutionary feat, which is why they kept that basic body plan for millenia. The DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club celebrated the day at the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA) hearing from box turtle researcher Sara van der Leek and her colleagues.
For me, there could hardly be a better choice, and I’ll freely admit my bias since these are my favorite turtles. They are beautiful, interesting, and everybody likes them. They also need help – wild populations of box turtles are in decline in lots of places in the U.S. Not many babies make it to adulthood, and then the adults are often run over on the highway or collected as pets. There are other threats, too, and so box turtles are in trouble.
As the LLELA folks described it, they started out with a small population of box turtles. In order for the turtles to find each other and breed, there must be reasonably high numbers of adults. If the numbers are too low, the population is sometimes described as “reproductively dead,” meaning that the long-lived adults are still seen at times but there are too few of them to produce enough babies for survival. To keep box turtles as a healthy part of LLELA’s wildlife, staff and volunteers worked along with Sara to do a couple of things. First, they attach a miniature radio transmitter to each box turtle above a certain size, so they can track the turtle down periodically and check on how it is doing and study its movements. Second, they raise and head-start baby box turtles that are released on the property when they grow to a certain size. If they were released as soon as they hatched, most of them would be eaten by predators, but if raised until their shells are harder and more protective, they have a better chance.
This all sounds like great fun, and when you hear Sara talk, you get the impression that it is very rewarding. However, it also involves pushing your way through the greenbrier and poison ivy and sometimes crawling through the woodland in search of a turtle’s radio signal. It’s a lot of work, and Sara and her team have earned our admiration and respect for the work that they do.
This relaxed and enjoyable conversation among Turtle & Tortoise Club members and LLELA folks happened as a result of planning and coordination by Barbara Dillard, who leads the club. Turtle people and “herp people” (those interested in reptiles and amphibians) used to form clubs and societies to share stories, organize activities, and provide information to each other. That has largely shifted from in-person groups to Internet social media, and the DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club made that shift, too. Barbara deserves credit for the fact that the club continues to function. The get-together on World Turtle Day was an opening invitation for turtle fans to be, at least sometimes, an in-person community. The pandemic made it too risky to be with each other face-to-face, but those risks are receding and now it’s time to remember how good it is to see and hear each other in real life. If we do it carefully, there is a lot to be gained. Being with each other, physically present, is the glue that holds human connections together. We have been a fragmented collection of individuals, holding some semblance of community together by staring at pixelated images and listening to computer audio. That’s how we got through the last fifteen months or so, but now if we can safely and carefully come together, we will be happier for it.
The meeting on the 23rd also shows how much the interests of turtle folks can include the science and natural history of wild turtles and the keeping (and sometimes breeding) of captive turtles. In the professional world, there is the study of turtle populations living in forests and savannas, prairies and wetlands, as well as zoo collections and conservation programs as well as the assurance colonies maintained by the Turtle Survival Alliance. In the hobbyist and amateur world there are days spent photographing wild turtles and posting observations on iNaturalist, and also people who keep red-footed tortoises in the back yard or mud turtles in indoor tanks. The discussion with LLELA folks helps keep the turtle hobby grounded in the fact that turtles are wild animals and that we all have a stake in the continued existence of healthy populations in wild places.
To help with that balance of interests, Meghan Cassidy worked with Barbara to create the DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club project on iNaturalist. “Projects” are collections of observations, either focusing on particular groups of species in certain geographic areas (like “Insects of Texas”) or the observations of an organization. This will be a great way for club members to share what they see in the wild with fellow members and with the scientific community.
One of the questions that came up was, “How can the average person help out with the box turtle work at LLELA?” It will not help (and oddly enough, would hurt) if we bring box turtles to LLELA and let them go. Volunteers can help out if they get the proper training from Sara. Mostly, we all need to remember that if we find a turtle somewhere, in most situations we should not pick it up and take it anywhere. When we see a native turtle, unless it is in a situation that is obviously not survivable, we should assume that it belongs where it is and knows where it is going. (It is good to help turtles when they are found crossing the road – more about that in another post.)
Thank you, Barbara and Meghan, and thanks Sara van der Leek, Hugh Franks (who raises the baby box turtles), and Scott Kiester with Friends of LLELA. Together, you made possible a beautiful World Turtle Day for a small, lucky group of people.
For some time I have been focused on travel and writing for the planned book on mindfulness in Texas nature. Part of those plans involved visiting the Big Thicket, and that was a highlight on my calendar. Meghan and I spent a weekend in late April wandering through some of the forests, wetlands, and pine savannas of that incredible place. I have visited the Thicket on and off for nearly twenty years, and each visit is a treasure.
On a map of southeast Texas, if you drew a triangle between Livingston, Jasper, and Beaumont you would capture much of the region traditionally known as the Big Thicket. Originally it was a big, wild place with old growth forest and a tangle of vines and understory plants that could be nearly inaccessible. There were also open savannas with ferns and pitcher plants growing in the spaces between pine trees, as well as ponds and sloughs. The settlers came, and later the timber industry cut down big swaths of forest. Then the discovery of large deposits of oil in 1901, with the Spindletop gusher near Beaumont, initiated the oil boom. The Big Thicket could easily have disappeared, but environmentalists and a few politicians fought to save as much of it as they could. The Big Thicket National Preserve was established in 1974 and in 1993 additional land was added to it. The “units” of the Preserve are scattered patches of forest, wetland, and other habitat with protected corridors along creeks, bayous, and the Neches River connecting many of the larger units.
We arrived following a big rainstorm, and treefrogs and a few other frog species were calling. It is otherworldly to stand in the darkness next to a thicket full of chorusing frogs, listening to a wall of amphibian voices competing to attract females. The first night was dominated by gray treefrogs with fluttering, fairly musical trills loudly filling the dripping woodlands and seeming to come from everywhere. It is nearly disorienting, but in a good way!
After about six hours’ sleep, we were ready to walk the Kirby Nature Trail. The trailhead is near the visitor’s center at the south end of the Turkey Creek Unit, an ecologically very diverse area between Kountze and Woodville. When I think of the American beech-southern magnolia-loblolly pine ecosystem that I associate with the Big Thicket, I picture this unit (although it contains multiple ecosystems, not just this one). We walked among tall trees and thick understory, with bird song echoing through the forest. Leaves were still wet with the previous night’s rain, making the woodland bright and fragrant.
I sat on a bench looking around at the trees, including the occasional fallen tree whose trunk can stretch for a considerable distance through the forest. I listened to the breezes in the crowns of those trees and the birds calling back and forth. Sometimes I could empty my head and focus mindfully on these experiences, noticing them almost as if for the first time, without commentary or comparison with other years. At other times I did reflect on the span of time during which I’ve been able to come here, and how fortunate we all are that this place persists over the decades and will not be cut and cleared for a store or to plant a monoculture of slash pine for harvesting.
Meghan and I also wandered along the trail, taking in everything around us from big trees to invertebrates like a fishing spider who remained motionless, tucked back into the bark, lichen, and tiny mosses growing on a tree trunk. It is best to go slow, give yourself plenty of time to discover these things by wandering a little and then stopping. I agree with Meghan’s assessment: it’s good to really see what’s in front of you, “and if it takes all day, it takes all day.”
We came to a bridge that crossed a slough, a sort of swampy little wetland flowing toward Village Creek. Sitting on the edge of the bridge, we could take photos from between the rails or just lean on them and imagine floating on this lazy stream through the forest. We spent a while lost in the sights and sounds of the slough. Much of the surface reflected the tree trunks and leaves like a mirror. I focused on an area of this reflection and was completely absorbed in how the occasional dropping of a leaf or small insect would set up ripples through the beautiful reflected image of the woodland. After a time, I decided to lie on the bridge between the water and the sky. Clouds passed overhead, and there was a sense of floating, a sort of suspension between the slow current of water below and a flowing stream of air above.
In the afternoon we visited the Hickory Creek Savannah Unit so that we could walk the Sundew Trail. This is a short trail through ecosystems such as the Pine Savannah Wetlands where scattered pine trees tower over several species of ferns as well as pale pitcher plants and sundews. In other areas, water seeps through thickets of azalea and other shrubs. The sundews are miniature ground-hugging plants with flat, reddish leaves covered in sticky hairs. When a small insect touches those hairs, each of which ends in a dab of glistening, dew-like goo, it is stuck and ultimately digested.
We walked along the boardwalk and stopped for a while in one of the more open areas to sit quietly and watch the floating, darting flight of dragonflies among the scattered pine trees. There was barely any noise from nearby roads, and so we enjoyed the quiet space within which bird song and breezes in pines sound so incredibly sweet.
At the end of the day we wanted to see what reptiles and amphibians might venture out. Right away we found a young ribbonsnake, a common and beautiful species. Despite the cool night and nearly full moon, it was going to be a good night.
Frogs were calling again as we made our way along the sandy and muddy back road, east of the Preserve. We could have mapped the wetlands in the dark just by noticing where we found big choruses of frogs. Some of them were dominated by gray treefrogs, but in other places the dominant voice was that of the green treefrog. While the former is a slightly flute-like trill, the latter is a sort of repeated quacking. It seemed to me that it resembled a big, intense gathering of space alien ducks whose quacking was a little too metallic and nasal to come from a real duck. Never mind all that, it was once again mesmerizing to stand in the dark and let all that amphibian energy surround you.
Roadside ditches were filled with water from the previous night’s rain, and in places the water contained juvenile bowfin from nearby flooded creeks. These little fishes may have been part of the reason that snakes were out hunting the ditches. We found a young broad-banded watersnake and a juvenile plain-bellied watersnake swimming in the narrow waterway at the edge of the road. Then Meghan found a baby cottonmouth, reddish and banded in its juvenile coloration. They are often confused with copperheads (to which they are related) because of those wavy bands. Meghan aptly described the young cottonmouth’s bands as looking more “pixelated” than those of the copperhead, and they are somewhat more ragged-looking.
The last snake of the evening was a beautiful DeKay’s brownsnake, paler than we usually see in north Texas. This one was another reminder of how the more common snakes, even those without bright patterns, can be interesting and attractive.
Next morning, we re-visited the road to release animals we had held overnight for photos. We did not see more herps on the road, but did get to see some of the wetlands where frog choruses had been focused.
Meghan Cassidy and I traveled to the upper Texas coast the weekend of March 6, working on the book project about mindfulness in nature in Texas. I am posting a few preview photos and a little description of what Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and Sea Rim State Park were like, here at the end of winter. Most of the photos here are mine (they won’t be in the book; I snap pictures but Meghan takes photographs on a whole other level!) and a few are Meghan’s.
It’s the end of winter if you count the seasons according to equinoxes and solstices. By that reckoning, we’re still in winter until March 20th, but that first weekend in March felt like the cusp of spring. The smallest wildflowers were beginning to bloom, and the sun was higher and stronger, to the delight of all the wildlife.
The bird population was busy and diverse. We saw White Ibis, American Coots, shovelers and other ducks and the occasional Pied-billed Grebe like the one below.
Anahuac is the first place where I saw American Alligators in large numbers, years ago on another early March weekend. They were out basking in the sun then and they were doing the same thing now, resting on the banks of waterways like inert statues. The alligators here seem to be accustomed to the many birders and naturalists who pass through without getting too close. Make no mistake, if disturbed they are capable of instantly plunging into the water to get away, or even charging a person if they harassed a ‘gator. And for short distances, they can move faster than we can.
We came to a place where over forty young alligators were basking, piled on top of each other in many cases. Some were adolescents and some appeared to be last season’s hatchlings, so they were not one nest of alligators. I have described for the book what happened when a little water snake came cruising by and decided, through the worst decision making ever, to swim over to the edge right where the greatest concentration of little alligators lay.
The boardwalk on the Shoveler Pond at Anahuac NWR is a wonderful place, extending over a marsh and ending with an observation deck. There was an amazing variety of bird life, including a Cinnamon Teal that swam near the deck for a while. Turtles were basking, Red-winged Blackbirds were busy among the reeds, and a couple of Mississippi Green Watersnakes basked very close to the boardwalk. Those were life-listers for me, as I’ve seen almost all of Texas’ watersnakes but not this one until now.
The Great Blue Herons were very common, and we spotted one that had just captured one of the local snakes. Meghan did get a couple of photos as it lifted off ponderously and flew away (that shot should be in the book). There were other larger birds such as an Osprey we saw in McFaddin NWR.
There was a mindful component to all of this, staying in the moment and fully attentive to the experience. In the car (on the Shoveler Pond Auto Loop, for example) we weren’t driving around with the radio on and chatting about various things. There were periods of silence along with times when one might get the other and say, “look at that!” We spent the time absorbed in the experience of the sunshine, bird calls, wildlife, and the various textures and colors of the water and vegetation.
One a drive near the beach, going to McFaddin NWR, Meghan spotted a juvenile Gulf Coast Ribbonsnake, and we were able to get some photos. Ribbonsnakes are always elegant and graceful, and I am a big fan of the brown and golden colors in the Gulf coast subspecies.
The beach at Sea Rim State Park, when sunset came on the first day, was memorable. The beach was nearly deserted, which is a gift in itself for someone who wants to experience the waves and sand in their full depth and breadth, without the cars, radio, and chatter. As the sun went down we saw a child far away, standing in the waves fishing. I began to think about the possibilities – what a child like that might carry with him or her from that day. A beautiful sky, the wild Gulf of Mexico, imagining some amazing creature that might appear at any moment on the fishing line. I hope that the adult who was there with the child provides many other days and nights when such magical experiences can occur.
We become complacent, sometimes, about living in comfort and security, but reminders of our fragility eventually come along. This time, February grabbed us by the throat, wrapping humans and wildlife alike in arctic cold. Wind and blowing snow sucked warmth from living bodies, until survival became a question not just for animals but sometimes for humans, too. The question for every living thing was this: Can I shake off the icy vampire pulling warmth out of me, or will this end my life? The birds around my back yard feeder have to confront this question every winter, at least during a cold front or two. We humans, surrounded by the built world of houses and heaters, usually do not even consider it.
There are states where winter routinely pushes temperatures down to zero degrees, but Texas is not one of them. As this year began, the weather system over the arctic did not play nice, and as a result the swirling bitterly cold air near the north pole wobbled badly and was pushed down into Texas where it should not go. After several days when the high temperatures mostly were in the 20s, Valentine’s Day brought snow in north Texas. The next day the temperatures stayed in the teens, and Monday night the low was variously reported as -2 degrees, zero, or perhaps one degree. If we ventured outside, frostbite could come in as little as fifteen minutes, we were told.
The more our world was swallowed up in bitter cold and blowing snow, the more urgently the birds mobbed the feeders. Northern Cardinals appeared, with flocks of Pine Siskins and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Along the ground and in low tree branches, they were joined by Dark-eyed Juncos, the “snow birds.” They breed in Alaska and Canada, but migrate southward in winter, and on Valentine’s Day they no doubt wondered if they had migrated far enough.
The wind blew both snow and birds, but the juncos flew where they would, regardless of the wind. The flight skills of Pine Siskins and warblers allowed them to find a spot on the feeder, correct for a quick change in the wind, and find a perch. Through the snowflakes I watched them reach into the feeder to get seed, look around in quick, vigilant movements as they processed and swallowed the grain, and go in for more. Bird faces are not good at conveying emotion; a rigid bill cannot convey a smile or a grimace, and their little dark eyes seemed expressionless as they fought to get enough food to sustain the little metabolic engines generating heat under those feathers. What was their state of mind? Did those quick movements reflect urgency and anxiety, or just a bird doing what its small body does to get by? A friend described what I was seeing this way: “They have to keep moving in this cold – constantly moving, because if they stop, they die.”
I stood in my kitchen, looking out at this and bringing the full force of my anthropomorphic imagination to what I was seeing. What would it be like to be that bird? The bitter cold would be miserable in a tiny body like that, and every decision carries the weight of life and death. One misstep would allow a predator to take you; failing to find enough food would sap your energy, bring hypothermia and then oblivion. What happens at night? What refuge is there for a fragile thing with feathers, other than the crook of a tree branch or a juniper’s evergreen bough to slow the wind? The depths of the dark night, when the deepest cold arrives and there is no acrobatic exertion to build heat and no food to fuel it, that seems like the most lonely and desperate time. Thank God for the shelter that I had, the light and heat from the gadgets of the built world that kept me from experiencing such a cruel night.
Was this hypocrisy? How many times have I complained about our over-involvement with our gadgets and our obsession with adding to the built world. If I get an afternoon on the prairie, I am in love with the grasses and do not want to return to the world of highways and towns. Spending the day in the mountains makes me long for a shack tucked away on a meadow on the lower slopes, to live among the trees and the quiet. Should this storm chase me back to my co-dependence with the heater and running water? The polar vortex was a reminder that I may love wild places but I am poorly adapted to live in them. On a bright spring day or a mild and contemplative autumn evening, I am in heaven. I can cope with summer heat for the most part, and given a good coat, winter days can be fine. Weeks like this one, though, with frostbite waiting outside the door, make me want a good shelter and a working heater.
The rest of Texas wanted a good shelter and a working heater, too. As the weekend progressed the announcements came that Texas’ electricity grid was becoming overwhelmed and rolling blackouts would begin. For most people, when the blackouts came, they stayed. Just as record low temperatures and the state’s first-ever wind chill warning were on the way, lights were going out in apartments and homes, and heaters went cold. Birds continued to fly from place to place, searching for berries, seeds, and bird feeders, while humans huddled together under blankets. The built world was failing us. Stories emerged of people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, running cars and camp stoves and anything that might generate some heat. A man who was dependent on bottled oxygen was found dead, forced outside to use a spare bottle in his truck. Some broke up furniture to burn, and even added their child’s wooden blocks to the flames.
The water stopped flowing at our house on Saturday, in time for us to get out and buy bottled water before freezing rain made travel too dangerous. The water came back on later that day, and we were fortunate that it stayed on, except for an interruption a few days later. Many people were unlucky. The parts of the built world having to do with water treatment and delivery froze and failed in many places, and so people went without water. And they went without power and heat. We have wrapped ourselves in mechanisms and gadgets that become our life support system. We expect running water, we expect to be protected from extremes of temperature, and the required gadgets run mostly in the background so that we do not think about them. When they fail, not just for one household but for whole communities and regions, it is a crisis.
I stood at our window and watched the birds, waiting for the power to fail. Mindfulness helped bring me back to this moment, in which I was there in a warm house looking at the outside world while drinking a cup of coffee. I tried to stay in the present and not overwhelm my awareness with the possibility that the house could become dark and freezing, with snow-packed streets trapping us. How would we fare? It seemed unlikely we would meet the cold with the same energy and resilience I witnessed in the Dark-eyed Juncos foraging in the snow. I opened the back door to toss another handful of peanuts out for the Blue Jays. It was the sort of cold we describe as “biting,” for the sharp, painful sensation it brings to our skin. I could stand out there dressed as I was, but for how long before I got that other kind of bite when skin and tissues start to freeze? Meanwhile, word had gotten around to the jays, and they arrived soon after the door was shut. One or two came to the Sweetgum tree, carefully assessing the situation and then flying down to pick up a peanut and even try for a second before figuring out that they were too big. Another perched on the deck and dropped down for his prize. As I peeked out the window, he cocked his head to look at me, took his peanut, and was gone. Did his feathers protect him from frostbite, and his activity keep the hypothermia away? A couple of days before, I worried about how the birds would survive the storm; now the birds seemed like role models for how to get through it.
When our son was able to get around on relatively level streets, we had him and some of his friends over to warm up, shower, and have something to eat and drink. It was like celebrating our getting this far through the storm, by offering comfort and playing some Uno or Scrabble. When we get through it, we get through it together. When I watched the birds outside, it was my inability to see this empathy and connection that cast the biggest shadow on what I saw. For us, in our human skin, the sense that others can feel what we are feeling and will stand with us to face whatever comes – that is as crucial as oxygen. Without it, we are lost and wandering in darkness. And so, on some level I could not put into words, my perception was that the snow birds were also lost.
That is the danger of anthropomorphizing, of assigning human qualities where they are unwarranted. When birds connect, it need not look like human connection, and so we may fail to recognize it. Ravens, crows, and others in the corvid clan (like our Blue Jays) have complicated social relationships and even recognize some familiar humans. Black vultures care for their young past the point where the youngster has fledged. Chickadees have a syntax to their calls that allows for basic communication among their flock. I am not suggesting that birds have social relationships with the same depth and complexity that we do. I expect that the birds at my feeder may have social relationships greater than I could discern, and also that those relationships would be different than those of humans. Birds have the brains that they are built to have; their brains do amazing things that our brains cannot, just as they cannot do some things that ours can.
By Thursday the 18th, the sun was out for a time and the afternoon high temperature reached the freezing mark. It felt like the storm was beginning to fade, but much damage had been done. A friend posted a photo of an Eastern Bluebird lying dead in the snow, its efforts to stay alive having failed. In our yard, White-winged Doves had gathered under one of the feeders to forage for any seed that had spilled from above. Sometimes they quietly hunkered down in the snow, keeping a low profile against the wind. And one of them stayed too long, not foraging and not reacting when other birds landed nearby. I don’t know how long the dove stayed motionless, waiting for the end, maybe trying to hold on, and then willing or not, surrendering its life.
I imagine that there are lonelier deaths. Other birds continued to come and go, including other White-winged Doves. I’d like to think that as the world dimmed, the dove noticed familiar faces, and even as the snow and ice drained the life from her body, she wondered if she was just resting among friends, preparing to fly one more time.