The Texas Hill Country is a beautiful region, and Meghan Cassidy and I finally got around to visiting it in mid-October. In our work on a forthcoming book on mindfulness in Texas’ nature, we have been to a lot of places around the “edges” of Texas but not the central region, dominated by the massive uplift known as the Edwards Plateau. We were never going to leave it out, though, because that would mean missing out on lovely and important places.
The eastern part of that plateau has limestone ridges and canyons formed when water dissolved the rock and created caves and underground waters that emerge in springs and grottos. Such places may be ringed by maidenhair fern and lush vegetation, with crystal clear pools and streams flowing over stone. This is the Hill Country, with rocky hillsides covered with Ashe juniper, small prairies and pockets of grassland, and beautiful rivers.
Our friend Ruthann Panipinto nominated Pedernales Falls State Park as the right place to spend the limited time we had. I’ve known Ruthann for years as someone whose knowledge and interest has, like mine, expanded from herpetology into an even broader love of natural history. Her choice of Pedernales Falls was perfect.
Traveling to Pedernales Falls, one of the first questions that occurred to me was how Texans came to pronounce it as “Purdenales.” Spelling and ways of speaking are sometimes out of sync, and English-speakers don’t always have a good track record when dealing with some Spanish words. As it turns out, the Spanish word “pedernal” means “flint,” and the Pedernales River got its name from the flinty stone in its riverbed. Much of the Edwards Plateau rests on layers of limestone, some of which is Cretaceous (66-144 million years ago). Some of the rocks exposed by the Pedernales go back unimaginably earlier, to the Ordovician (438-505 million years ago)[i].
We arrived and walked down to an overlook from which we could see a beautiful river cascading over the top of a huge apron of gray rock into a pool, and then pouring over a small gap into lower pools. The water then worked its way through a line of boulders and on downstream. We followed a long series of stone stairs down to the river and sat down to watch and listen.
It was a surround-sound experience of flowing water. From a small tributary on one side was the sound of riffles, shallow water tumbling over small stones and gravel. Behind us was the upper falls, with the main part of the river sliding down a long expanse of stone. In the middle was the spot where the water pours several feet from one pool to the next, with a deep, thunderous sound reminding me of surf breaking at the seashore.
Above us there were long wisps of clouds as if the upper winds stretched water vapor across the sky in white calligraphy. The sun was warm and intense but the air was cool in just the way you would expect on a mid-October day. Texas earless lizards basked in the sunshine, taking notice if we got too close and scampering away to wave their tails in the air, exposing the black-and-white bars underneath.
It was fairly busy, but did not really feel crowded, as couples and families and even a geology class made their way down to the river to walk, sit, and sometimes wade. The voices of people were masked by the falls and (thankfully) no one brought a boom box. Visitors came and went, and there were times when you could look across a substantial area without seeing people. And in the next part of the visit, we had the river to ourselves.
Ruthann led us further downstream, over boulders and across gravel bars to a place where a huge cypress tree stands like a sentinel, roots wound around the rocks to create something like a tiny peninsula or island in the river. The almost-clear water passed over large rocks, heaved up in places and then falling into small troughs. It flowed among the boulders and between grassy banks and broke into noisy whitewater in shallower places.
Along the course of the river were more cypress trees, their feathery leaves beginning to show a bit of rusty yellow in the low afternoon sun. Autumn might be slow to take hold, but it was beginning.
[i] Spearing, D. 1991. Roadside Geology of Texas. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Co.
A few weeks ago, it was back to the Big Bend region with Meghan Cassidy for one of the last trips for the book on mindfulness in nature. I’ve made a number of trips there during the past twenty years, and my attachment to and fascination with that region keeps growing. I felt really fortunate to introduce Meghan to the Chihuahuan Desert and the mountains out there.
We stayed in a cabin at Wild Horse Station, just a little bit north of Study Butte near the Christmas Mountains. There are extruded columns of lava and thin soil where scattered desert plants grow. It is a strange and beautiful place, and that cabin on the hillside has a broad porch that looks out toward more hills and mountains to the west. This trip included some times for sitting on that porch, watching rainstorms or sunsets, and writing. I’m very grateful for that porch and for those moments.
In the early years, my visits to this region were very focused on finding snakes and other reptiles, although my companions and I always knew this was a place to be savored and soaked in. We rarely took much time to do it, and whatever we gained in total snakes seen, we lost in really getting to know the region. Each year has brought a broader interest in the ecoregion and a willingness to slow down and pay attention to more of it. This trip was a combination of mindful attention to the mountains and desert and some very fine observations of snakes.
Our arrival at the cabin was interesting. Darkness had just fallen when we walked across the porch to find the front door open and, inside the dark cabin, the television was on. We did the ‘police knock’ standing to the side of the open doorway, and when there was no response – human, javelina, or otherwise, we turned on the inside light and began to check the rooms. I glanced to the side to see Meghan holding a knife, and I knew I had a capable partner out here where there is little phone service and self-reliance is important. Everything was fine; I like to think that a coyote – not the human trafficker but Canis latrans, the trickster of Native American legends – had let himself in, watched a show, and left the place open for us.
In the morning there was coffee, the shadows of nearby mountains with rosy light growing overhead, and that wonderful porch overlooking it all. After a beautiful sunrise, we got ready and headed into Big Bend National Park.
We walked around on the hot, gravelly desert floor, around prickly pear, creosote bush, and other characteristic desert plants. Lechuguilla, an indicator plant of the Chihuahuan Desert, grew in patches of upright succulent leaves. Many had remnants of the tall stalk they send up in late summer with clusters of flowers. The leaves are often described as like an upside-down bunch of green bananas, partly because they often curve inward a little. However, no bananas ever dreamed of having two rows of sharp recurved hooks on leaves tapering to a hard, sharp spine that can even puncture a car tire!
We walked a small dry arroyo as a couple of big black birds flew past. We weren’t experienced enough to call them as Chihuahuan ravens, but from the overall size and chunkier neck, they seemed more likely to be ravens than crows. There were a few places in the arroyo where the sandy soil had piled up and grew a small garden of flowers. Those flowers attracted butterflies. Perhaps they would seem out of place in the desert, particularly if we made the mistake of thinking of the desert as barren. The desert is a harsh place, by our standards, and it requires adaptation to extremes of heat and limited rainfall – but it is full of life.
We came back to the cabin during the hottest part of the day, and the shade of the porch and the breeze at the top of our hill made the perfect place for reflecting on our morning and writing about the desert plants, butterflies, and the value of long vistas in which nature has free reign.
The clouds were building in the west, and under dark clouds were blurs of falling rain. The low rumble of thunder rolled in, and as the system marched toward us, bright lightning was visible as the power of the storm reached down to touch the earth. Announcing the storm’s arrival, the outflow winds were strong and I had to stop for a moment and think how many times this little cabin perched on the edge of the hill had withstood storms just like this. I needed that reassurance as raindrops began to slam into the porch and torrents of rain blew by outside our windows. This is how the monsoon season works in the Trans-Pecos: It’s hot and sunny, then clouds build into storms, the thunderstorms dump a lot of rain (and maybe hail) in a short time, and then they move on and it’s done.
When we walked out onto the porch, the cool air was laden with the smell of rain and creosote. The desert here is full of creosote bush, a shrub with very small green leaves with an aromatic resin and waxy coating that helps protect the plant from drying out. If you crush the leaves, the resin has the familiar, vaguely tar-like smell of treated railroad ties or telephone poles. After a heavy rain, the resin is released into the air and the aroma is strong, fresh and wonderful.
The next day, September 17, was our day to be in the Chisos Mountains. The Chisos is the only mountain range entirely contained within one national park. Driving up into “The Basin” within the mountains, the vegetation changes, reflecting slightly cooler temperatures and a little more rainfall. As you begin the climb into the mountains, you enter a woodland of small oak trees, junipers and pinyon pine. Tall slabs and columns of reddish igneous rock stretch toward the sky.
The previous day, driving around the Chisos Mountains Lodge, in The Basin, we had come across a sad, significant find. There was a small snake on the pavement that had been run over some time earlier that morning. There was a dark head with an interrupted white collar behind it, and the body of the snake was a pale tan. This was the first Trans-Pecos black-headed snake that I had come across, and it was a real shame that it was dead. It belongs to a group of snakes with enlarged rear teeth and a salivary toxin to help subdue its prey (but is harmless to humans), and it is the largest species within that genus, Tantilla. It’s still a small snake, often growing no longer than about a foot. It is listed by Texas as a threatened species, but neither that nor its presence in a national park had kept it from being run over.
Now it was time to climb the Lost Mine Trail up past the Casa Grande peak, to a point where the view opens to the south. The climb is fairly gentle, through mountain woodlands and small grassy openings dotted with beargrass, sotol, and Havard agave. This latter species, also known as “century plant,” sends up a fast-growing stalk at the end of its life with short branches bearing clusters of yellow flowers. The base of the plant is a rosette of thick, stiff, bluish leaves with sharp hooks along the leaf edges and a hard black spine at the leaf tip.
At this elevation it is cooler and there is greater rainfall. In the shade of the mountain there are ferns and beautiful flowers including mountain sage, the red starburst blooms of mountain catchfly, goldenrod, and penstemon. It is easy to stop along the way, on a bench or a boulder, and be still for a while, taking it all in.
This trail in these mountains means a great deal to me, and I’ve written before about what it is like to be here in its quiet and beauty. And when we reached the place where we could look far away to the south, I spent a while under a pinyon pine looking at what I think is one of the great places within Big Bend.
That night, our thoughts shifted away from the book and toward the variety of wonderful snakes that can be found in this area. We stayed along Highway 118 north of Study Butte up through the Christmas Mountains and along the desert flats. Our first snake was a black-tailed rattlesnake that, as I walked up to it, seemed to be ‘periscoping’ up to look around. It turned out to be blind in one eye, and was trying its best to figure out what was going on as we approached on its blind side. Like many black-tailed rattlesnakes, it was slow to get frightened or aroused, and it never rattled or threatened us in any way as we used snake hooks to move it away from the road so that it would not be run over.
We were on the lookout for Mojave rattlesnakes (Crotalus scutulatus). Meghan wanted to see up close the distinction between this species and the similar-looking western diamond-backed rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). The immediate visual differences have to do with the width of the black-and-white bands on the tail, the pattern on individual scales, the light diagonal marks on the face, and the size of the scales on top of the head. The rings on the tail of the western diamondback are of roughly equal width, while those of the Mojave emphasize white, with black rings spaced more widely. Both snakes have roughly diamond-shaped blotches down the back, but each scale on the Mojave rattlesnake tends to be mostly one color (resulting in a crisp pattern almost like a mosaic), whereas the colors may transition and almost smear on the diamondback’s scales. The two diagonal lines on the western diamondback’s face both end at the mouth. In contrast, the diagonal stripe behind the Mojave’s eye bends and continues back behind the jaw line. Finally, the scales on the top of the western diamondback’s head (between the eyes and toward the snout) are small. A Mojave rattlesnake has larger scales on top of the head.
The one Mojave rattlesnake that we found had been run over, unfortunately. We positioned the head and tail for photos to illustrate these differences. This is the snake that folks in the Big Bend may be most concerned about, because populations of this species in Texas and elsewhere have venom with high neurotoxic activity. A bite might produce less swelling and bruising but more systemic effects, including respiratory problems. My experience with living Mojave rattlesnakes is that their temperament varies and, like other rattlesnakes, they would prefer to be left alone and are not especially aggressive.
That sort of peaceable behavior was true for every living snake we found that night. Every live western diamondback or black-tail greeted us with inquisitive tongue-flicks or attempts to get away, but none attempted to bite. One snake rattled, but the rest did not even become nervous enough to do that. Meghan is good at using a hook to move a venomous snake, and we both do so gently and without presenting a threatening target to the snake, and this may have contributed to their laid-back behavior. However, Meghan was looking for more examples of hooking defensive (or even irate) rattlesnakes, and she wasn’t getting to see any of that. (She did, at least a little bit, the following evening near Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, where the diamondbacks quickly rattled even if they did not strike at us.)
It was getting late. As we drove back up the hillside to our cabin, there was one more black-tailed rattlesnake for us, a beautiful adult. We decided to ‘bucket’ her for good photos in the morning. Once again, this snake was simply curious about what we were doing, and tolerated Meghan’s hooking her and placing her in the snake bucket with little reaction.
(A couple of side-notes. First, the ‘snake bucket’ is a five-gallon bucket with a screw-on lid with air holes drilled in such a way that a venomous snake could not get close enough from the inside to get a fang through the hole. It is essentially snake-proof, so that we could sleep comfortably with a rattlesnake in the front room of the cabin. Second, part of being a safe, competent herper is constantly maintaining awareness of yourself and your surroundings when interacting with venomous snakes, even those who are being complete sweethearts. Neither Meghan nor I took these snakes’ temperaments for granted, because a moment’s slip-up with a “sweet” rattlesnake – especially in the isolation of the Big Bend at night – can be incredibly serious.)
The next morning, Meghan took a series of photographs of this black-tailed rattlesnake, and we released her. We were happy to have her as a neighbor during our stay!
The following night, we were able to see a couple of Trans-Pecos ratsnakes, a favorite for both of us. One had been hit, but the second was wonderfully alive and gentle as we got it off the road so that it would not be run over. These slender, harmless snakes are pale yellowish (almost like the inside of a banana, leading Meghan to playfully call it a ‘banana snake’) or straw color with black markings. Two lines down the neck separate into something like blotches connected across the back in an “H” shape. They are nocturnal wanderers with big eyes to gather as much light as possible.
The final day in the Big Bend included a drive down FM 2627 past Black Gap WMA to the La Linda international crossing into Mexico (the bridge is barricaded, though crossing the Rio Grande at that point looked like it would not be difficult). The landscape and nearby mountains were beautiful, but it was virtually all private property and so we could not walk around and explore.
Back within the park we walked part of the trail leading to Dog Canyon, in the Dead Horse Mountains, and also westward in some sparse grasslands looking toward the Rosillas Mountains. I wrote about this later, about the long shadows toward sunset and the sense of solitude and even isolation there, as the sun was setting.
At 3:30pm I was sitting in a chair in the shade, looking out at a field of little bluestem and Indiangrass waving in the gentle breeze. Scattered in with the grasses were a few violet spikes of dotted gayfeather, a smallish prairie plant whose flowers grow in clusters along upright stalks. A little further away were some little white puffs on thin, gangly stems, the flowers of false gaura. A couple of butterflies visited the area.
The sky was powder blue toward the horizon and a deeper shade of blue overhead, and cumulus clouds floated by. They were just big and dense enough to be flattened and gray along the bottom. Their puffy cauliflower tops were bright in afternoon sunshine that brought the temperature up to 90ºF on the shaded ground at the edge of a stand of post oak.
It was, for the most part, very quiet in this spot. There was the occasional passing airplane, but usually there was nothing to mask the sound of grasses moving in the breeze. It was wonderful to be out in a patch of prairie with no roads, no buildings visible, but what brought real solitude was the ability to hear breezes, birds and insects in a sound field with nothing else present. Real immersion in nature involves multiple sensory modalities, not just a pretty view.
I’m not the only one who needs occasional doses of solitude, or for whom absence of mechanical sound is important. In temperate rainforests and other remote places, Gordon Hempton has been championing – and recording – places where there is the least man-made noise and therefore the clearest experience of natural sounds1. Probably nowhere in North Texas is free of noise completely or for long, but this day in the LBJ National Grasslands was close enough.
From the west, a hazy line of clouds approached, darker near the northwest horizon and much higher than the clouds I had been watching. The breezes picked up a little and the sun was filtered through the clouds. There was the potential for rain and lightning, at least toward the north. I decided to shift to a nearby ridge where I could watch the storm come it. This had the additional advantage of getting up a steep caliche and gravel incline while it was dry.
I got to the ridge, and by this time the high cloud deck brought the temperature down, helped by a fairly steady breeze. I sat looking through the waving stems of big bluestem at a western horizon that was enveloped in rain. About three feet in front of me, a bumblebee was visiting the purple spikey flower heads of Leavenworth’s eryngo, that prickly plant that people often mistake for thistle. At this time of year the leaves and flowers are a beautiful purple color.
So I sat and watched the dark blue-gray bruise of a thunderstorm that spanned nearly half the horizon. There were places where the smudged gray of heavy rain connected cloud and ground. Distant thunder was somewhere between soothing and invigorating. As low rumbles, thunder’s effect on me is soothing, but now it was part of a nearby heavy storm with occasional bolts of lightning dropping from the sky. It was powerful and fascinating, and I was grateful to be able to sit and watch this storm system progress toward the north. The outer clouds streamed blue-gray across the sky, with a tinge of blue-green behind them. The clouds were like dark cream that someone started to stir, pulled across the bowl of the sky in long, thick streaks in front of the main part of the storm.
Suddenly, what was breeze became wind – steady and strong, cooler and smelling of rain. This was the outflow from the storm, putting me on notice that although the storm seemed mainly to be tracking north, it was also spreading out and coming to me. Blowing across the dry grasslands, the wind picked up a little stinging dust and carried cool little droplets from the rain. I stood for a little longer, wondering if I might see a curtain of rain march across the treeline toward this ridge. That didn’t happen, but the cool wind became laden with big, cold drops of rain as I walked back to the car at 6:00pm. According to the car’s thermometer, it was now a much cooler 67ºF.I was thankful for whatever rain fell on the grasslands where the end of summer has been very dry, and for the chance to experience the transition from sunny afternoon to revitalizing storm.
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.