A Project for the Next Couple of Years

Great Egret (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Over the next couple of years I will be traveling once again to various places in Texas for a new writing project that will also include great photos from my friend Meghan Cassidy. I want to explore ways to connect with nature, what happens to us when that connection happens, and the range of beauty and diversity found in Texas nature.

Palo Duro Canyon (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

The importance of nature is a theme that caught hold of me early in life and I’m grateful that it will never let go. When I was in the 7th or 8th grade, I remember reading about a proposed dam that would have flooded portions of the Grand Canyon. I gave a class presentation about it, arguing that the Grand Canyon must be saved. I was a committed nature nerd, then and now.

Gray Treefrog (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Fast forward to the publication in 2018 of Clint King’s and my book, Herping Texas. Yes, we are both herp nerds with lots of stories of rattlesnakes, treefrogs and the like, but the message of the book is, “Look at the magnificent places that exist in Texas and the richness of plants and animals that can give so much pleasure if you get out there and walk among them.” Reptiles and amphibians are the sweet spot for us, but all if it is a breathtaking treasure, and more of it disappears every single day.

Bluestem and Blackjack Oak at Southwest Nature Preserve (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Now this year will see the publication of my book, The Wild Lives of Reptiles and Amphibians. As the title suggests, the point of the book is not that pet snakes are cool, but rather that wild populations of native herps are some of the most fascinating and beautiful things you can experience. And further, that the best way to experience them is where they live, in the wild. And not only that, the last chapter is a call for young people “to be a voice for the wild places in this country and the plants and animals that live in them.”

Rough Greensnake (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Ladybird Beetle (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

And now there is this new project in which I am teaming up with Meghan Cassidy, a photographer who can capture landscapes and wildlife in beautiful images. We will visit each of the state’s ecoregions, just as Clint and I did, but this time focusing on all kinds of plants and animals and how we can deepen our connection to those places. I will describe the use of mindfulness, nature journaling, and other ways to experience the prairies, deserts, mountains, woods and wetlands. We will include narratives and photos from each of the seasons – bare trees and golden prairies on sunny winter days, the return of spring with its flowers and frog calls, the hot desert summer and cool dark nights in the Big Bend, and the low-slanting sunlight and bright colors of autumn.

Prairie Dogs (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Meghan capturing a mushroom (photo by Michael Smith)

Time spent in nature is associated with a wide range of benefits to physical and mental health, and I will summarize some of the relevant research. I’ll talk to a few ecotherapists in Texas who are taking people into the wild and include some perspectives based on my own training and experience as a Psychological Associate. While there is no one way to spend time in nature, I will describe some ways that can increase a sense of connectedness and openness to the experience.

Spider – mother and child reunion (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
The ants’ challenge (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Meghan’s images will speak with their own language about the wonder and fascination to be found in nature. Whether bringing a bird up close with a telephoto lens, capturing a miniature world with macro photography, or laying out the details of a landscape, her photos beautifully illustrate what can be seen in the diverse ecoregions of Texas. Together, I think we will tell the story of Texas nature in a way that will stay in your imagination and, hopefully, inspire you to spend time in some beautiful place, quiet and fully present.

Smooth Softshell Turtle (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Osprey with lunch (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Sunset at LBJ National Grasslands (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Examining Mindfulness – Notes From One Study

This isn’t the usual sort of post for this blog. I’m looking through some of the literature about mindfulness, and I plan to post a few summaries of studies, at least for my own understanding of it. If you’d like to look at little more closely at mindfulness, please join me.

Shapiro, S.L., Carlson, L.E., Astin, J.A., & B. Freedman. 2006. Mechanisms of Mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(3), 373-386.

This article reviewed the mechanisms by which mindfulness might work and proposed a model of mindfulness. Much of the research on mindfulness evaluates the effectiveness of interventions such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and shows that it can effectively treat psychological as well as physical symptoms. To examine how mindfulness works, the authors break the practice down into three “building blocks” of mindfulness:

  • Intention – the issue here is “why are you practicing mindfulness?” It could be for such purposes as self-regulation (e.g. to relieve a physical symptom), self-exploration, or self-liberation
  • Attention – observing one’s own moment-to-moment internal and external experience. It does not involve interpretation, but simply paying attention to the present experience.
  • Attitude – the qualities that one brings with them to paying attention. For example, is it cold and clinical or is it a friendly and compassionate presence? When one pays attention to their experience in an open, curious, and kind way, the result may be a capacity to not constantly strive for one kind of experience or push another kind away. The desired outcome is an acceptance of what is.

The authors suggest that intentionally attending to experience with openness and without judgment leads to a shift in perspective that they term “reperceiving.” Instead of being immersed in our life story, we can stand back and witness it from a little distance. This perspective changes the experience and makes us less likely to react automatically. The authors draw a parallel between this and the development of an ability, as a child grows older, to take the perspective of another person. We are no longer caught up in a subjective or self-centered view of the other person and can more accurately understand the other person’s world. Reperceiving strengthens a sort of “observing self” who can observe conscious experience without being fused with it or defined by it.

Some additional mechanisms or processes are described as following from reperceiving. One is self-regulation. Intentional, nonjudgmental attention to our experience allows us to connect with what is happening without having to react and avoid. Automatic and maladaptive responses may drop away if we can experience anxiety or pain from a little distance, seeing it as a temporary thing that will pass.

Reperceiving can help us be more purposeful about choosing what really is important to us. While we might have adopted values based on what our culture or family provided, mindful observations make it easier to consider what is truly meaningful for us, choosing values reflectively rather than reflexively.

Greater cognitive and behavioral flexibility may follow from our ability to see our experience clearly and observe our internal commentary about it. Our thoughts may become less automatic and, more objectively observing our experience, we have more choice over how we think about and respond to our circumstances.

Finally, reperceiving may allow for us to tolerate greater exposure to emotions, thoughts, or sensations that previously were experienced as intolerable. If we can remain still, so to speak, in the face of such experiences, their power over us diminishes. The benefits of such exposure, in terms of decreased anxiety and avoidance, are well-documented in research.

Moonlight

Walking down a moonlit path in the forest, the trees on either side were dark sentinels, dimly seen but keenly felt. They held this place together with an underground network of roots, weaving the soil and rocks of the bottomland into one tapestry of living things. The last season’s leaves gave that fabric its pattern and colors, visible tonight only as shades of dark and light. On the path, in the moonlight, the leaves were edged in a faint silver-blue.

But above the trees, there was light. The moon looked on, her face a pale disc. In the surrounding blue-black sky, an uncounted field of stars shone in frozen pinpoints of light. At the edges of the sky, the trees reached up with bare branches, like river deltas dividing into ever-smaller paths, like the blood vessels of the earth reaching toward the stars.

That field of stars reminded me of a summer night in this very spot when fireflies blinked into existence in the dark forest, three and then twenty, and then more, swirling among the tree branches. It was as if the stars had come down from heaven to dance for a time here on earth, before returning to their cold stillness.

A low, hooting call brought me back to this night. Somewhere in the distance, a barred owl was signaling his presence. The deep quiet resumed for a time, but then, toward the river, there was a sound like the cracking of a big branch. Was it the weight of time, finally bringing part of a dead tree to the ground? A powerful animal, passing through a tangle of brittle branches? It stirred some unquiet thing within me.

Still, the luminous moon sailed in the sky. No sound disturbed her. No calamity could change her serene expression. Paradoxically, in her stillness it was as if she was speaking to me.

“Peace! Do not be troubled. Nothing happens here that is not part of life’s story. Tomorrow the forest will be here, strong and beautiful. Let your troubles go, and see the sunrise!”

Christmas Eve, at Home In the Woods

Everyone should have a home, a place where we feel like we belong. Ideally, home is a place where mostly good things happen over a long time, so that it feels comfortable and familiar. Americans move around a lot, so that long-term familiarity might not happen within the structure of one house. In my case, my family moved frequently until my middle teenage years, and after that there was college and other moves. But starting when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I visited the Greer Island Nature Center, which later expanded to become the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I have now been visiting that place for roughly 57 years, walking the trails alone or with friends and leading interpretive walks talking about reptiles and amphibians. I’ve had a lot of changes of houses, but a long and intimate familiarity with the oak woodlands, prairies, bottomland forest, marsh, and lake shore at the nature center. When I visit there, I’m where I belong. When it comes to people, I belong with my family; but if we’re talking about places, the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge is home.

Woodland near the marsh
Inland Sea Oats, within that woodland

I went home yesterday, for Christmas Eve. I took advantage of another unusually warm day with clear skies and bright sunshine. The high temperature near the nature center was 71ºF, not a record high but definitely warmer than usual. So I needed no jacket as I walked down the Wild Plum Trail to Forked Tail Creek Trail, starting in relatively open woodlands with oak, honey locust, and patches of grassland and gradually dropping as it wound its way toward the marsh.

Fork Tailed Creek

The trees got taller, and I walked over a wooden bridge crossing Fork Tailed Creek. A little further, and the trail suddenly opened onto a lovely savanna. Between the scattered trees were the dried and dormant leaves and stalks of prairie grasses, including the light rusty color of Little Bluestem. I stood for a while, taking in all the textures and colors, the pale rusty color of bluestem and the shades of straw where other grasses or plants were dominant. There were different textures: taller vertical brushstrokes, shorter grasses, curled leaves of the forbs mixed in among the grasses, and then there were the scattered trees with barren branches. Some branched out near the ground while a few sent straight, pale trunks upward before dividing to form a crown. So much detail to take in!

The trail led back through woodland and crossed a little patch with scattered Live Oaks among prairie grasses.  Under one of the Live Oaks was a wooden bench with a patch of bluestem in front of it. The perfect destination for this walk, a place to sit and take in the tall grasses in the foreground and, further back, the line of Post Oaks with their gnarled branches dividing into thinner, more intricate fingers reaching into the clear, blue sky. A couple of Turkey Vultures soared above me, riding the air currents gracefully and searching for a meal. Often one would pass by low enough for me to see its head turn from side to side, scanning the ground. Others sailed through the sky far above, wheeling and flying on broad, strong wings. The sunlight was warm in its low angle, casting shadows as if it were late afternoon. I could hear the breeze gently stirring the trees, and despite the background highway noise it really seemed quiet and peaceful. It was a great moment to stop doing. Not even writing or putting thoughts together, just being still and surrendering to this place. I put away my field notes and just sat there, letting the warm sunlight and the beautiful woods wash over me.

The bench

Of course, some thoughts continued to occur to me, and I tried to let them come and then pass by, returning my attention to the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of the place. Periodically I would get restless, as if ready to go on down the trail, but then I would settle again. I could have moved on, but was I done here? Was there something else I needed? Actually, no, it was just the habit that I think most of us have of keeping on the move, doing, thinking, talking, and so on. But what I really wanted was for these moments – this sunlight, these trees, the grass and the breeze – to continue. And so they did, for a while.

The view from the bench

Winter Solstice

Good morning Weathercock: make this day bright.

Put us in touch with your fair winds.

Sing to us softly, hum evening’s song.

Point the way to better days we can share with you.

-Jethro Tull, “Weathercock,” from Heavy Horses

The sun has set on the shortest day of the year; the sun is as far away from us as it will get. Although it is now winter, from here on out each day will have more daylight. The days will start getting longer, and perhaps the weathercock will point the way to better days.

It is now winter, by astronomical reckoning, although the climatologists count winter according to the three months with the coldest temperatures. By that reckoning, winter started on December 1.

It has felt more like winter today, but I wanted to take at least a short walk on this shortest day of the year, and so I was at Southwest Nature Preserve (my home away from home) at sunset. It was a moody, dark sunset with clouds obscuring the actual setting of the sun, but I have no complaints. Taking a walk at the pond and the woods is good regardless of weather, and that includes cool, cloudy, misty days like this one.

Reflections in the pond

Endings and Renewals in the Woods

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

– Bilbo Baggins
The road goes ever on and on

My favorite way to dodge weekend chores and recharge for the coming week is to wander around in the woods somewhere, often at Southwest Nature Preserve. And autumn is my favorite time to disappear into the woods, being swept off (as Bilbo would put it) to some place where leaves are falling, the sun sneaks in at low angles and feels warm, and the air might be just a little chill.

Today was a day like that. For a little over an hour I walked trails that circle around the preserve, considering how some things come to an end – or seem to do so – at this time of year. The oak leaves fall, grasses are dry and dormant, and the sun looks like it might be leaving us as it rises for shorter times each day and stays low in the sky. No wonder ancient people feared the loss of the sun and had such celebrations when it started a little higher arc across the sky and the days began to lengthen a little.

The giant “Caddo” oak has nearly lost its leaves

Autumn can seem like a time to slow down, to take stock of the year that is ending. The days are shorter, and many of the plants and some animals prepare for the long sleep through winter. Could it be that nature’s transition reminds us that all things end, that everything has its time and then passes into memory? Sometimes one of those memories seems near, like being brushed by the ghost of something that had its summer in full bloom and is now gone.

The sun warms a hillside with dormant Little Bluestem grass surrounded by oaks

What is happening on these hillsides of oak and Little Bluestem is not death, but dormancy and preparation for new life. Beneath the husks of grass stems, the rest of the plant is alive and waiting for spring. The bare trunks and branches of the trees are alive and have merely shed leaves that would not make it through winter. Those thin, broad leaves are great for exchanging gases and making food during the warm season, but they become damaged and would not do well in winter. As autumn arrives, the trees break down the green chlorophyll and reabsorb the nutrients in the leaves, and the yellow or red colors are what remains.

The green chlorophyll is nearly gone from these Post Oak leaves

I took a good look at some of those leaves today. Many were ragged and insect-chewed. But they have done their work well, and they end their time on this earth with a beautiful flourish. If I were a leaf, I would want my final days to shine like this.

Further around the preserve, I came to a spot where a small field of weedy flowers, perhaps Camphorweed, had finished the season, gone to seed, and what was left was dry and dead. The little globes that looked like seed heads were light-colored and scattered around like a field of fuzzy stars above the soil. Dried flowers and seeds often have detailed shapes and textures that reward a few minutes spent examining them closely.

In another place there was an intricate and lovely mosaic of leaves and the flattened and curving seed pods of Honey Locust. A few remained on the tree, dangling like purplish-brown ornaments, but most had fallen. The pulp of those seed pods is said to be edible (but if you try it, be sure that it is a Honey Locust, not the Black Locust, which is toxic).

Honey Locust seed pods among the oak leaves

On one tree, two sinuously-curving seed pods remained side-by-side. Their twisting forms were well-matched, like dancers, like smoke curling as it rises, or like the twin snakes of a caduceus, signifying that this is a healing place.

The afternoon sun behind the leaves made the woodland luminous

The preserve is not big in acreage, but it offers moments of loveliness and imagination on a grand scale. For those who really get to know it, each season brings new and wonderful experiences. Leaves fall and flowers die, but the woods and pockets of prairie are always alive and renewing themselves, which brings hope enough to see us through to spring.

A Walk in the November Woods

(I’m very fortunate to be able to use some photos by Meghan Cassidy in this post. The captions identify which ones are hers, but basically the way to tell is to look for the really good ones – they’re hers!)

A patch of prairie at the LBJ National Grasslands

On a visit to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands in Wise County, we walked a long trail through straw- and rust-colored grasses and through the stands of oak trees that are the signature of the Western Cross Timbers. Sunny days like this in autumn are perfect for walking in the woods and prairies. The slanting sunlight and the colors of grasses and leaves (even when they are mostly shades of straw and brown) result in the landscape having a kind of warm glow, which seems like a comfortable complement to cool or even cold temperatures.

It wasn’t cold, not even a little bit. The high temperatures reached the middle sixties out in the grasslands, and the bright sunshine felt wonderful as we hiked past post oaks and junipers. Juniper is no friend of the grasslands, because without a combination of grazing and periodic fire, these trees can spread and take over. Juniper is invasive, but here is the positive side: the junipers at LBJ Grasslands are beautiful trees and really come to the foreground in winter when they remain green amidst the bare branches of oaks. And the berries! Those little blue berries give a refreshing taste when you chew a couple of them – there is a little sweetness and that aromatic juniper flavor from camphor and other aromatic oils.

Juniper “berries”

The berries, we are told, are really modified seed cones and not true berries at all. Sort of a blue, tasty variation on the pine cone theme. But it’s only a little taste; much of what lies under that blue coating is a seed, so there is not much to eat. Some junipers produce berries while others produce pollen. In winter, some of those male junipers take on a golden cast from all the pollen just waiting to be lifted by the breeze and carried to the female plant.

Meghan Cassidy’s photo of the jumping spider

My companions made the walk that much more enjoyable. Meghan Cassidy and Paul Mendoza are good company and knowledgeable about the natural world, particularly insects and arachnids. And those little jointy-legged critters came out to greet them in numbers greater than we would have expected. They discovered a little jumping spider on the trail which Meghan took great pains to get lots of photos of. All of us enjoyed seeing harvester ants out, and we wondered about the ones emerging from holes without the bare circle that usually marks the entrance to a colony. Lots of harvestmen were on the move. These might look a little like spiders but are only cousins. Everyone is familiar with “daddy long-legs” – the little dot of a body surrounded by eight long, impossibly delicate legs. None of them can spin webs and none have a venomous bite.

Another of Meghan’s photos: this is one of the harvestmen we saw

Despite being mid-November, a couple of herps graced us with their presence. Cricket frogs were out at a pond and even in some small, scooped out pools where rainwater had collected. And along one trail, a young ribbonsnake slipped among the leaves, just long enough for me to see those beautiful stripes but not long enough to capture it for a closer look. Happy cricket frog hunting, my friend!

A cricket frog, hiding under the water (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Several times we heard a little commotion in the leaf litter and were able to see an armadillo digging for invertebrates. They stop and probe the leaves and soil, sometimes scratching a short, conical excavation into the soil as they look for insects, worms, and any other animal matter that they may expose. After a short, snuffling exploration of one spot, they move a short distance and try again. David Schmidly’s The Mammals of Texas (Revised Edition) reports that much of their diet is larval and adult scarab beetles, followed by termites and ants, and then caterpillars, earthworms, millipedes, and other invertebrates. A few reptiles and amphibians are taken occasionally, probably examples of small herps being in the wrong place at the wrong time. An armadillo snuffling through the leaf litter can’t be too particular about what they turn up.

Meghan’s photo of one of the armadillos

We enjoyed our opportunities for a little armadillo watching, and sometimes we were able to get quite close. They cannot see well, so if you are quiet and stay downwind so that they cannot detect you by smell, you might get very near to one. Once they do detect you, they may jump in surprise and then crash off through the underbrush, protected from thorns and branches by their bony armor.

We talked a good bit about Blackjack Oak and Post Oak and marveled at the variety of leaves that we saw. Some looked like hybrids and there were other oak species scattered here and there. I recalled that Blackjack acorns were said to be bitter, while those of the Post Oak were more tasty and sweet. We put this to the test, as Paul cracked a Post Oak acorn and Meghan trimmed the dark husk away. A little sample of the nut was delicious.

Near a limestone ridge at LBJ National Grasslands
A last blaze of grasses and oaks before sunset

At the end of the day, we visited a limestone ridge a few miles away but still within LBJ Grasslands. Instead of Little Bluestem, the grasses here were dominated by a shorter, uniformly straw-colored species surrounding the scattered oaks and junipers. Numerous Grooved Nipple Cacti were scattered on the ridge top, growing in small mounds in the thin soil barely covering the “walnut shell” limestone. Here, we sat and watched the sun set, looking out across an area of woodland and ranch land stretching into the distance. I sat on that limestone, a conglomerate of ancient oyster shells cemented together into gray slabs, and watched the sun make a nearby oak sapling glow red-orange and then darken as the sun was obscured by some bands of clouds. When the sun re-emerged, those beautiful oak leaves glowed brighter. Gradually nature turned down the lights, and those leaves dimmed to dull red. The horizon, however, was still a glowing ember, holding on for a time and painting the undersides of the clouds red and then pink, and then they all faded to blue-gray and closed a very beautiful day in the woods.

Sunset (photo by Meghan Cassidy)