A Woods Full of Hackberry Emperors

Sounds strange, right? What exactly is running around trying to be ruler of the woods? Butterfly folks know that the hackberry emperor is a butterfly whose earth-toned wings are beautifully spotted, not bright and showy like monarchs or fritillaries, but really lovely nonetheless. They are called hackberry emperors because the hackberry tree is the host plant that feeds the caterpillars of this species.

A hackberry emperor

Anyway, today the woods were alive with butterflies, mostly hackberry emperors but also snouts and others. There were small yellow butterflies and little gray-white ones flying near the ground. It was one more sign of autumn, as butterfly activity ramps up.

This afternoon I was at Sheri Capehart Nature Preserve, the wonderful little remnant of Eastern Cross Timbers in Arlington and an oasis for butterflies and many other things. It has been a difficult year at the preserve, full of drought and record high temperatures. Then, briefly, there was drenching rain, and a return to drought.

The water level in the north pond was low today, lower than I have seen it in quite a while. I could see the bottom, or at least could see the ragged layer of reddish algae growing along the bottom. Above the water were dozens of dragonflies darting and dipping, floating on the air and perching on twigs and reeds. They brought to the pond what the butterflies brought to the woods: a sort of dancing, whirling energy.

A black saddlebags, a species of dragonfly (note the dark “saddlebag” patches on the wings)

There was one last bit of autumn, adding just a little more charm to this afternoon with the sun at a low angle and cool breezes moderating the warm sun. Maximilian sunflower, a native prairie plant that blooms at the end of summer through the fall, was blooming at the preserve. Those clusters of big yellow flowers are a beautiful sight every year.

Maximilian sunflower

A Morning at the Edge of Autumn

The change of seasons can be imperceptible when one day is mostly like the last one. Sometimes, though, there is a day that feels like change has come. September 11, this year, felt that way, and the LBJ National Grasslands was a great place to greet the new season. I drove toward Decatur in early morning, with the nearly full moon watching over me and the sun rising as an orange disk on the other side of the sky. But to the northwest, a blue-gray deck of clouds inched toward me. I reached the edge of the clouds at Decatur and left the moon and sun behind.

In a small pine grove east of Alvord, the pine trees swayed in a cool breeze. They made a beautiful sound like water rushing as each wave of air poured through the pine needles. My thermometer registered 66 degrees, and we stood under the trees with one of us commenting that she was glad to have a jacket. 

There was Dana, Erika, Carol, Carla, Kayla and me, most of them Master Naturalists and all of us naturalists in the sense of people who study the natural world and who return time and again to be lovingly, gratefully immersed in it. Kayla and I have started a community we refer to as the LBJ Grasslands Project in which we can be immersed in the grasslands, online and in small group visits there. The walk in the grasslands on September 11 was one of those visits.

A field with lots of croton

Under the deck of gray clouds we began walking across open prairie patches and through areas of oak and juniper woodland, looking at the green growth after the prescribed fires from some months ago. Very soon after the fire the new growth had appeared, but the grasslands then had to endure months of heat and drought. The recent rains triggered something like a second spring, with lots of new green vegetation and beautiful flowers. Some of the meadows were full of croton, also known as “dove weed” or “goat weed,” and those fields had the different texture and color of those grayish green leaves. Kayla examined branches for lichen and found several beautiful varieties. Then we looked up in a dead tree to see a young Mississippi kite perched there, watching us with little apparent concern. We took photos and wondered if that brown-streaked bird was really a kite. As we did so, I noticed that the clouds were beginning to break up and the sky beyond was a beautiful blue. 

A juvenile Mississippi kite

We came to a couple of small ponds within an area where the sandy soil was eroded and scooped out. One of the ponds had what was nearly an island, a steep mound on which several trees grew, including some persimmons. Most of the developing fruits were green, but I found a ripe one and ate part of it. The texture was a little like plum and the taste was vaguely peachy. What a wonderful place this was!

The boundary of this little place was a low eroded embankment where the woodland gave way to the basin that held the pond. My companions were scattered near the pond, sitting quietly to write something about what we were experiencing. A breeze came down and stirred a patch of ripples in the water. Above the embankment, some sumac was starting to turn red, and the oak trees moved with each current of air. Those trees sheltered so much life in feathers, scales, chitin and fur. Above the tree line, soft clouds drifted and the sky behind them was deep blue shading to pastel toward the horizon. In the distance, a group of crows fussed at something. 

This is the part I love the most – quiet, wordless moments just taking everything in or reflecting on where we had been. A member of our group wrote about the quiet, the rippling water and “sense of separation from today’s world.” This is a place of refuge from cities and never-sleeping machinery. This is a sanctuary in which we can be still, feel the sun’s warmth and the soft breezes, and listen to birds. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to sit among the bitterweed and sedges and talk with the cricket frogs.

A hatchling whiptail lizard, either a prairie racerunner or spotted whiptail

The time came to an end, however, and we started back. Somewhere we noticed some movement in the leaf litter and I was enthralled with a tiny striped lizard with the most beautiful blue-green tail. Stripes and blue tail send my mind immediately to the thought that it was a baby skink, but the details of body form and pattern made clear that this was a newly hatched whiptail lizard. A couple of us watched as this tiny reptile hunted invertebrates under the leaves, biting and shaking and then chasing the ant-sized insect again. I was grateful that he or she decided to ignore us and continue hunting as we watched. Just another moment of fascination and beauty within these woods and prairies. 

More summer-like days will come, but the sun is lower in the sky now and the heat of the day is nothing like July. There will be more walks as we slip into autumn. I look forward to joining friends for another day at the grasslands. 

Hairy ruellia, a kind of petunia, grew here and there in woodland openings
A false foxglove, as identified by iNaturalist

The Power of the Everyday World

I get up. The kitchen becomes light when I flip the switch. The day starts with some small reassurance of the world’s predictability.

The coffee beans grind with a satisfying aroma, and the coffee tastes good. Things work. Things are OK. 

The car starts. Another data point stacks up in favor of a beneficent world. 

Against these meager but welcome signs that the world makes sense, there is the news. I don’t want to watch the news, but I am drawn to watch it anyway, the way a traumatized child’s play is drawn toward re-enactment of the trauma. This “trauma play” can crowd out the child’s ordinary, creative, fun play, just as the televised discussion and reporting of bad news can crowd out time that might be better spent elsewhere. But we want to be able to predict what may happen, to know what’s coming. The obsession with knowing “what happened” is a way of trying to make sense of the world and what might happen next. 

Oh, good, the trash was picked up, and the recyclables, too. Things are working as they are supposed to.

I think about the health of the people I care about. If there is trouble, I can prepare myself for how to be supportive, and maybe predict how events might play out and what we could do in each situation. Our brains are wired to anticipate the future and try to prepare, in every area of our lives. 

Part of our brain can be something like a “situation room,” a place where the experts and leaders gather to try to work their way through a crisis. And if the situation room is always running hot, problems occur. After a while, someone yells, “Turn off the damn alarm,” as the jangling autonomic nervous system keeps us in a panic, but the bell keeps ringing. Everyone sits around the table, exhausted, reviewing the information for the fiftieth time. The more we ruminate, the more dysfunctional the situation room becomes. Exhausted, irritable people do not solve problems well. Neither do chronically stressed or traumatized brains.

I grew up in a world that seemed safer and more predictable. 

Stepping back from what I just wrote, it sounds ridiculous, impossible. When I grew up, White State Troopers were beating Black civil rights protesters nearly to death in Selma. Boys were being drafted to go die in the war in Vietnam. We had nuclear attack drills in school, practicing how we would get under our desks to survive hydrogen bombs that seemed likely to fall on us any day. The world would end. How could such a world ever seem safer and more predictable than it does today?

It seemed safer, but it was not. Why did it seem safer – why did the world make more sense in my childhood?

My parents could not take away the threat of nuclear war but they could help support an everyday world in which things happened sensibly, often with happiness and wonder. There was carefree backyard play. There was the sound of waves, the smell of the Gulf, and a young child’s fascination with lightning whelk seashells. And then there were lightning bugs on summer nights, dragonflies in a scrubby vacant lot, and camping in the mountains. The immediate, direct experiences of the day. Having parents to share those gifts and cushion the disappointments and challenges made the day-to-day world a place that seemed mostly safe and predictable. In the fourth grade, if the everyday world is in good shape then nuclear attack drills can be just something that you do, with little connection to the cataclysmic threat and the absurd idea of surviving underneath that desk.

In the everyday world, I watch clouds slide to the north, piling up to great heights with edges lit brilliant white by the sun. They cross the pale blue sky slowly and peacefully. This world, at this moment, is a good place.

Regardless of what the world presents us with, we want it to be sensible, predictable, and safe. Even thrill-seekers want that security after the thrill is over. After the free-fall, after the parachute opens, we want gravity to give us a landing we can walk away from, ready to do something else.

With pandemics, insurrections, and a climate spinning out of control, it is easy to doubt that we can walk away from our landing. Road-rage killings, people assaulting others on airplanes, neighbors stockpiling weapons of war. People gathering to scream utter nonsense opposing a vaccine that could save us. For many of us, the world appears to be less predictable, sensible and safe with each passing year. What do we do with that?

One way of coping with the world’s trouble is to purposefully set aside time for living in the present, the world that we are in contact with each day. We cannot let the world’s troubles make us numb to the little gifts of our everyday lives. Those are the moments in which we visit a friend, listen to a bird, or write a letter (or an email). They are moments of contact with what we see and hear around us, what we touch with our fingers. 

My grand-daughter’s beautiful smile draws me into more play. I think what a gift this is, something that makes the everyday world a good place to live.

I know that our everyday lives can be difficult at times. Things break down, a loved one gets sick, we have loss and sorrow at times. But in between those times are the moments when the world offers its most precious gifts of beauty, sustenance, love and joy. 

Living in the present is not shirking responsibility or escaping from the world. There are times when we do need to think about the bigger world and contribute what we can to try to bring about change. And when we have done what we can, then it is good to let all that go and spend time living in the everyday reality that we have been given. 

I sit and listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, completely absorbed in those four interwoven melodies.

(My life as a naturalist and conservationist is balanced by my career as a Psychological Associate. As I wrote a while back, “our lives” is as important a part of this blog as “in nature.” I know that my focus here is our lives in nature – the interrelated ways that humans and other species make their way through the days and years. I will try to stay focused, but sometimes an article will tilt toward the “‘our lives” part of the blog.)

To the Grasslands, With Gratitude

Yesterday, August 20th, several of us took a walk in “Unit 30” of the LBJ National Grasslands, and afterward I wrote this letter to the grasslands. Writing to the grasslands might seem odd. We often think of it as an inanimate “thing.” Why write words to something that has no comprehension? And yet, we speak or write to those with whom we have a relationship, and writing to the grasslands acknowledges that relationship. It affirms the feeling and connection that is present when I visit there.

The pine grove, a beautiful, non-native oddity within the grasslands

Dear Grasslands,

I came to see you today, a little unsure of what I would find. After a brutal summer of heat and drought, could your oaks and greenbriers still be green, and could most of the lives you support still fly, jump and swim in something like the abundance and beauty that I’ve seen in all the previous years that I have known you? All of that wonderful, amazing life, and the breezes that come to the ridges and hills, and the bright sparkling ripples on the winter ponds, those are your gifts. Like a generous friend, like a nurturing mother, you offer those gifts to anyone who comes to visit.

Several others came with me to get acquainted with you and experience some of those gifts. Gale, Cecily and Jim walked under those pine trees and investigated your ponds, reduced to smaller versions of themselves by summer’s drought but still home to so many frogs. As always, they break out of their camouflage and bounce frantically into the water when we come close, only occasionally giving us a glimpse of spotted skin, or pale green shading into a brighter color, or a mud-gray bumpy little cricket frog. These frogs were showing us that you were still full of life, and never more obviously than at your ponds.

Leopard frog
American bullfrogs

We followed one of the trails leading away from the ponds and into oaks, junipers, and pocket prairies. Jim found a small pouch of a bird nest hanging from the delicate ends of tree branches. We spent some time appreciating all the different materials that had been gathered and woven into this little cup. There were bits of leaf, lichen and grass creating a sturdy little shelter for a delicate egg and a tiny bird who embodied both engineering skill and attentive nurturing of new life.

Bird nest

The nest was, as I see you, a sort of fractal of who you are. Each part repeats the overall pattern of the whole grasslands. Here, you are warm feathered life with skill and determination to keep life going. There, you are cool aquatic life with jeweled eyes and an entrancing nighttime voice, re-creating life through egg, tadpole, and adult frog. Everywhere you look – and listen – there are individual lives doing fascinating and beautiful things to keep life going.

And we look at any part of you from another angle and we see the other part of life’s story. This time, it is life surrendered, either to feed another life or when an individual life runs its course. We discovered parts of a skeleton on the trail, including two nearly complete lower mandibles of some small mammal with the teeth of a predator. A part of you, living and hunting and contributing to new life for a time, and then feeding others after his or her own life ended.

Bones and teeth

All along the prairie openings, grasshoppers jumped out of the way. They were a welcome sight after the prolonged drought that might have reduced their numbers and left so many animals without food. And we saw tiger beetles foraging along the sandy trail. Evidently there were enough smaller insects to keep those fierce little predators fed, too.

A tiger beetle

It was a privilege to visit you today and experience these things. It is encouraging to find resilience in a time when some things are falling apart. We might lose faith in the old, familiar patterns of the world, the continuing gifts of the world, without coming here and finding your generosity and predictability. Thank you.

“Mindfulness and Other Ways to Be in Texas Nature”

I’d like to invite anyone who is interested in mindfulness in nature to join me this coming Monday, August 15 at 7pm, when I will be talking about the practice of mindfulness in nature, the benefits of time spent in nature as well as the benefits of mindfulness. I’ll include a bit about my upcoming book about mindfulness in various places across Texas, with some photos by Meghan Cassidy, the photographer for the book. Additionally, I’ll touch on Kayla West’s and my LBJ Grasslands Project, an effort to document the natural and human history of the LBJ National Grasslands and take people out to introduce them to this wonderful place.

Guests of the Master Naturalist chapter are welcome, meaning that you do not have to be a member to attend. Details on my Calendar page and below.

Register in advance for this meeting: https://agrilife.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJUvfuqvrz0pHdED-vcXGPtLx74CJLTUXtvz

“I Hope One Day They Will Be Protected”

Today I talked with a great group of kids at River Legacy Nature Center in Arlington. The twenty or so children were in a week-long “Hands-On Herpetology” class, having fun and learning about native reptiles and amphibians. I brought a few snakes and we talked about things like how they live as well as being safe when around them.

The trail approaching the River Legacy Living Science Center

One of the snakes I brought is a Texas garter snake. He has a dark background color and three light stripes, big inquisitive eyes and an active, athletic build. We talked about how snakes with stripes generally rely on speed – and a sort of optical illusion – to get away from predators. The thing is that when “Tex” or other striped snakes move, it’s hard to see their motion. If they had spots, it would be easy to see the spots move as the snake’s body slipped away. The stripes, however, seem to stay where they are, until the stripes converge on the narrowing tail and then the snake is gone. The predator may be left empty-handed.

There’s a tendency for people to think of garter snakes as common “garden snakes,” but in the case of Tex it just ain’t so. He’s a member of an uncommon subspecies of garter snake whose fate is not well understood. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department considers the Texas garter snake to be critically imperiled. It appears never to have been actually common, but there were places here and there (particularly within prairie habitat) in which they might be found at times. A recent study noted that despite trying to find these snakes in the field in 2013 and 2014, researchers were not able to find any. Tex is a long-term captive donated to me years ago by a landowner in Hill County so that more people might see and understand Texas garter snakes.

The Texas garter snake (“Tex”) – photo by Meghan Cassidy

My discussion about this was much more brief with the kids, but they got it that this is a snake that may be disappearing. When I mentioned that they are not legally protected, a girl commented, “I hope one day they will be protected.” Me too. I hope one day we will understand the reasons for the snake’s decline in more specific ways that allow us to protect it. And I hope we continue to have children who, when they learn about a species that is in trouble, want to protect it.

We talked about being safe when out in the field where there could be venomous snakes, and I showed the kids a prairie kingsnake and the young bullsnake that was a big hit with kids in Dallas earlier this week. The kids asked good questions and they already knew a number of things from their week at River Legacy. But nothing quite equalled that girl’s comment. It was an offhand remark that revealed her empathy or her capacity to care about a unique, lovely little member of the natural community. It made my day.

More Children in the Woods

Children should walk in the woods, often. They should be able to do so fearlessly, knowing how to explore safely, with wonder and confidence. That doesn’t happen enough for kids growing up in urban areas. Recently, I was asked to talk with a group of kids at TR Hoover Community Development Center in Dallas. Despite living near the Great Trinity Forest, I was told that a concern about the presence of snakes kept many of the kids from exploring the woods. Volunteers from Master Naturalist programs thought I could help the kids understand snakes in a more realistic way. I was eager to try to help with that.

There are lots of possible reasons that urban kids might not visit the woods. There can be the fear that dangers lurk in the woods. Some of that can be realistic, and some not so much. When I asked about their worries, one of the children mentioned wolves. I could reassure her that there would be no wolves, but some of the wildlife might potentially be dangerous. Surprise close encounters with feral hogs, for example, or a copperhead half-hidden in the leaves. Kids need to know about watching where you are going and knowing what to pay attention to.

A young copperhead

If they haven’t developed the skills that can make a walk in the woods full of delightful discoveries and minimal risk, it would not be surprising. In cities and suburbs, children play inside most of the time, and a lot of that time is spent in front of a screen of some kind. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reports that elementary school-aged kids spend four to six hours a day in front of games, TV, tablets and phones, and the number is even higher for high school kids.

In 2005, Richard Louv published his book Last Child in the Woods, introducing the term “nature-deficit disorder.” It wasn’t a formal disorder, just a convenient shorthand for the way children – and the rest of us – are becoming estranged from nature. In the years following the book’s publication, a lot has been done to try to address that widening gulf between children and nature. I hope to contribute as much as I can to bringing us back together.

I talked with the kids at TR Hoover about what makes a forest and that we need all the “ingredients” in order for it to be a real forest. I said that most of the snakes they would find would be harmless, but that they should not count on that. The rules I suggested that they follow were:

  • Your EYES go first before your hands or feet
  • Don’t touch or pick up an animal when you aren’t sure what it is – no guessing!
  • If you see a venomous snake – walk away

In other words, never put your hands or feet somewhere until you know what is there. And don’t be quick to touch (I worry that a child will become overconfident and assume that they know something is harmless when it is not). And last, when you see what may be a venomous snake in the wild, there’s no need for panic and certainly no need to kill it. Sometimes a person has a well-intentioned but mistaken belief that they will make nature safer for the next visitor by killing a snake. They endanger themselves when they come in close contact and make the snake panicked and defensive. Killing the snake only opens up a place for another snake to fill the gap left by the dead one.

The kids loved the young bull snake I brought with me. She is a gentle example of one of our biggest native Texas snakes, and most of the children wanted to touch her. I would have gladly allowed this except that having thirty kids touch you (and perhaps a few try to grab you) is pretty stressful for a snake. Toward the end, I brought out a Texas garter snake, a subspecies that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department considers endangered in our state. His three pretty stripes and graceful body charmed the kids and the adults in the room.

The young bullsnake

I hope these kids are more comfortable and more prepared to get out there and safely explore the woods. I loved their questions and their energy, and would love to see them out there walking on a trail and discovering all kinds of wonderful things in the woods.

Our Lives in Nature … and in Society

There are no trees, birds, or mysterious nighttime choruses of frog calls in this post. There are only thoughts about how crucial it is to preserve the “our lives” portion of this blog’s theme – “our lives in nature.” Our lives are embedded in nature, and they are also embedded in societies and cultures. Whatever threatens our lives also threatens our role in understanding, protecting, and being with nature. When groups of people threaten our health and well-being, our ability to fully function as individuals, and our very existence, we begin to break down. And then our relationships with other people and with nature suffer.

So much is happening right now that is frightening. So much that threatens us and those we love. Against a backdrop of insurrection, there are calls for people to be murdered just because they are gay or politically progressive. Much of our government consists of people who insist that anyone should be easily able to get (and carry) a weapon of war. When anyone can carry a weapon of war, some of them will bring war to our communities. Americans own 20 million AR15-style weapons and when one of those owners murders school children, the power and danger of that weapon of war holds law enforcement at bay. To whom will we turn for protection when those who should protect us are out-gunned?

And now a Supreme Court that many consider to be at the lowest point in its history has decided that states, not women, have control over women’s bodies when it comes to abortion. The most extreme of the justices has announced that the court should go after the rights to use contraceptives, to privacy between sexual partners, and the right of people to marry who they love, regardless of gender. Some rights, like privacy and making our own medical and personal decisions, are not spelled out in the Constitution but previous Supreme Court justices protected them. The idea was that these important rights are implied by other parts of the Constitution, and government cannot interfere in such matters without a compelling reason. People talk about this as “substantive due process,” and the majority of the current Supreme Court is not a fan of substantive due process.

What can be done to protect our lives in society and in nature? What can I do to protect my own ability to be a meaningful part of society and nature, and not succumb to apathy, rage, or despair? Those things harm us personally and can destroy our ability to bring about change. I need to stay engaged with people and issues and feel emotions without being overwhelmed by them.

The work toward a more just and inclusive society is never really done. Social and economic pressures constantly shift, there are setbacks, and new generations bring new ideas and different perspectives. It is easy to become apathetic, especially for people who are working extra hard just to keep a roof over their heads and take care of their kids. People get tired. We sometimes feel the need to disengage with these problems, let someone else deal with it. The other side, people who want to impose their vision of how society should work, want us to be apathetic. They also want us to question whether we’re being reasonable because that’s one route to apathy. They suggest that we should calm down, but they have no such doubts about their own reasonableness.

When I feel the tug of apathy and the urge to disengage, I’m going to:

  • Be understanding of my need for rest and diversions
  • Recall how hard others have worked for issues that are too important to set aside
  • If necessary, re-evaluate what I do and choose tasks and roles that are a good fit for me
  • Visit the people and places that rejuvenate me
  • Re-engage – soon!

We also must avoid rage. I’m not talking about anger which is a thoroughly appropriate response to what is happening. Anger is almost unavoidable if what is happening truly matters to us. However, if I am consumed by constant anger, my energy may be wasted in attacks on others or a kind of simmering, unthinking rage. We can use the energy of anger, but we need to figure out how to use it effectively. This means I want to:

  • Attack problems, bad ideas, stupid arguments, cruelty, authoritarian political campaigns and the like; attacking the people associated with those things won’t help
  • Remember that rage comes from fear and helplessness, so when anger becomes overwhelming I will examine its sources and try to address them

That first commitment is difficult. I can think of one ex-President and several people in Congress who, in my view, deserve whatever ad hominem attack might come their way. It would feel good, but it wouldn’t really help. When I do it, my sense of identity is fractured between “we win through the ability to hurt others” and “we win through our ideas and through nonviolent resistance.” It’s difficult because giving a boot to the backside sure would feel good.

Another challenge is avoiding despair, that awful hopelessness where nothing seems possible. Despair paralyzes us. It’s akin to that protective response in the autonomic nervous system that shuts us down when nothing more can be done. That can happen when fighting is useless and all that the nervous system can do to get us through it is to make us immobile and numb. And I think that despair is its close cousin, a sort of surrender that sets in when nothing seems to work. 

When we are at the point of despair, it is essential to swim back to the surface, to take care of ourselves for a little and get ready to try something else. Here’s what I hope I can do:

  • Connect with someone who understands – they could sit with me and listen, and I would not be as alone with the problem; the point is to not be isolated
  • Like in the case of apathy, visit people and places that rejuvenate me
  • Examine the situation and look for good news, even if it’s small and seems dwarfed by the size of the problem; remind myself that something is possible
  • Find ways to contribute, to do something because doing something feels like I have at least a little bit of control, a way of making a difference; fight the sense of helplessness
  • Establish a sense of safety – physical safety if need be, as well as psychological safety

That last one, about psychological safety, is a little tricky. If I’m going to take a stand about something, I can expect that some will disagree and disapprove. I have to figure out what is tolerable. Name-calling by strangers might be no big deal but death threats may not be something I can let roll off my back. I need to figure out what adds to my psychological safety and what erodes it past what I can tolerate. Each person’s tolerance for risk is different, and that’s ok. 

If you want to work towards a just and inclusive society, thank you and I wish you great good luck in navigating the challenges I’m thinking about in these pages. We need healthy systems in nature as well as healthy societies. Our lives in one area depend on what happens to us in the other.

The Road and the Refuge

The road meanders ahead, 
Slips easily through trees and dappled light. 
Twin tracks through soil and grass 
Disappear at the edge of sight. 

Today I followed some trails and roads at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I needed some time to sit at “my” bench, located in a little patch of live oak and bluestem savannah. Under a live oak, the bench faces a little patch of little bluestem and a nice community of other plants.

The first thing I noticed were a few scattered slightly purple-pink flowers on slender stalks; Texas skeleton plant, according to iNaturalist. Each of these flowers had several small beetles rummaging around within it. They appear to be a species of metallic wood-boring beetle (the larvae may be wood-boring but the adults seem to love flowers). This place is very familiar from my winter visits but it was delightful to find out how spring changes it. There were other plants – tall wooly whites with their clusters of flowers and a plant with clusters of long, oval leaves with red stems extending up into the central leaf vein.

I also found a new grasshopper, identified by iNaturalist as a post oak grasshopper (and there were certainly post oaks nearby). Green and black striped bodies with orange and yellow back legs – wow, what a beautiful insect!

Birds were calling all around. There were northern cardinals singing, “cheer! cheer! cheer!” and one that sounded like “cheater-cheater-cheater!” I liked the first version best.

This road might bring us 
To some new place full of mystery, 
Or perhaps to a familiar spot 
With bees and songbirds for company. 

I followed the trail to the edge of the marsh, past a twenty foot tall dead tree whose bark had the appearance of being twisted, as though earlier in its life something grabbed it and gradually twisted it as it grew. There was also a hole, very much suggesting a woodpecker’s cavity nest, but it was only about seven feet off the ground. At the water’s edge there were dragonflies and a handsome brown duskywing skipper to see.

There was another road to walk, the familiar old path down into the bottomlands. The giant cottonwoods and other trees were like the pillars of a giant cathedral, and the place was full of life. One of the things I noticed was a bowl-and-doily spider, a small woodland spider whose web looks like a bowl suspended over a flat, old-fashioned doily.

I’m glad for this place – these trees – and all the other living things here. Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge lives up to that part of its name, “refuge,” as we can escape deeply enough into the woods and prairies to reach a place of sanctuary and safety.

The road continues on and on 
To quiet places where, with feathers and trust, 
We soar above grief and fracture 
And continue the journey as we must. 

Experiencing Awe

Halfway up into the Chisos Mountains, we reached a spot where the view opened beautifully. From where we stood, framed by pinyon pines, the mountainside sloped downward, dotted with yellow flowers, green clumps of sotol and shrubs. On either side the mountains rose up above us. To our right were the smooth granite towers of Casa Grande Peak, and to the left was the way upward along the Lost Mine Trail. The view south showed a series of mountain ridges, overlapping each other as they receded into the hazy distance. I sat under a pinyon pine, in awe of what was around me.

The word “awe,” in the form of the adjective “awesome,” is overused today to express, usually in an offhanded way, that something is good. French fries that manage to be both hot and crispy are “awesome.” The sense of confronting something mysterious and powerful has been wrung out of it, so that it fails to convey any suggestion of the meaning of “awe.” As defined by Merriam-Webster, awe is

an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime

The word’s origins nearly a thousand years ago emphasize terror or fright along with great reverence. Perhaps these emotions come from the religious connotation of being helpless and vulnerable in the presence of a God who could turn a person into a pillar of salt. In a more general way, we can experience fear in the presence of something powerful that we do not understand. As our species came of age in prehistory, a thing that seemed overwhelming and beyond our understanding might inspire dread and terror. Perhaps our survival depended on those emotions and the caution or shelter-seeking that would follow. Maybe a residual hint of fear adds to the emotional power of awe.

Standing in the Chisos Mountains, I was not aware of any terror or dread. There certainly was wonder and reverence, a deep respect for this place and all that it contained. The mountains, the Mexican jays and butterflies, the century plants that send up tall stalks ending in bunches of yellow flowers, all these things inspired fascination and gratitude. I was thankful for the privilege of being a great many miles from places where the experience of awe is shriveled to the size of an order of French fries.

I think we need the experience of awe, of being in the presence of the sacred or sublime and feeling moved by participation in something grand and wonderful. That might happen if we are in the audience as an orchestra plays the Shostakovich tenth symphony. It could happen as a jazz group plays Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” so that musicians and audience together resonate with emotion. Or we could be standing on a mountain or in a prairie, shedding our self-awareness for a time and becoming absorbed in the life around us. The result might be shattering, in the case of the second movement of Shostakovich’s tenth symphony, described as a musical portrait of Stalin. Or, it could be transcendent and joyful, in the example of time spent in nature. In a variety of ways, we can join with something bigger than ourselves and sit with emotions and perceptions raw and real as we look out at the world from this different vantage point.

Where are the opportunities for awe in modern life, goaded by capitalism and breathless in the need for multitasking, relying on Facebook and French fries for moments of joy? Not only do the demands of modern life crowd out the space for reflection and wonder, the stresses and catastrophes of the last few years have pushed us to the limit. In the face of pandemic, isolation, mutual suspicion and insurrection, and now war in Europe, the desire to escape can be strong. Looking for that escape, some people put their shoulder to the wheel all the more, and some lose themselves in anesthetic good times. The rest of us – all of us – grow more numb from waves of trauma. When too much pain and stress come flooding in, the self-protective circuitry of our minds may keep us from being overwhelmed. One way to do that is to put up a firewall between us and our emotions, leaving us shut down and numb. If it is used very much, this shutting down is a very expensive strategy. In addition to protecting us from trauma, it also cuts us off from much of our emotional life, including those vulnerable experiences of joy and wonder.

What can we do to create space in which awe might come to us and find us open to the experience? We can look for – and plan for – times when we can slow down. I am thinking primarily of slowing our minds, taking things one thing at a time, having time to pay attention in a purposeful way. We could “slow down” while running or paddling a kayak, so long as we are not preoccupied, multitasking, and mentally running on autopilot. In order to be open to what is happening right now we have to be present, here and now. We cannot be somewhere else and fully experience our lives.

The trick is to slow down during the time that we have, not spend it in things that keep the mind revved up and distant, such as on smartphones or TV. Why do we constantly distract ourselves? Some of it is because we’ve trained our brains to expect constant stimulation and we are bored when it becomes quiet. Also, when our minds are quiet and receptive and worries or unpleasant thoughts come crowding in, we use distraction to keep them at arm’s length for a while. A capacity to be more quiet, present, and open might not come easy, but we can practice it and gradually find it easier to sit in stillness and be open to whatever we experience.