Thankfulness on the Lost Mine Trail

A view from the Lost Mine Trail, in the Chisos Mountains

On June 19 of 2018, I hiked most of the way up the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains within Big Bend National Park, and lost myself for a while in the silence and beauty and peace of the place. I wrote the following:

In one of Beethoven’s final string quartets (Op. 132), he wrote a slow, hymn-like movement titled, “Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity,” expressing his gratitude as he recovered from a serious illness. (An absolutely mind-blowing deconstruction and analysis of what Beethoven does in this incredible movement can be seen and heard here.) It is a profound, beautiful hymn, not sweet or sentimental, but exactly as I imagine how his soul would express what it means to be alive, in the full realization of how easily life could be gone.

I am hearing the opening notes of that quartet movement now, sitting on a bench in the Chisos Mountains. I have not had a close brush with death such as Beethoven had, but I do have deep gratitude for experiences like today’s walk up the Lost Mine Trail. Here, there is a sense of connection and healing of things that are broken, in a sanctuary where troubles cannot reach. No gift could be more appreciated than this.

Within the mountain woodland

It is completely quiet except for occasional distant thunder, birdsong here and there, and the beginning sounds of insects here at the end of the day. I keep returning to this theme, how genuine quiet brings such tranquility. That is especially true here in the calm mountain woodland just before sunset. The hikers have gone. Even the knowledge that black bears live on these slopes does not cause concern, perhaps because it is one more indication of how raw and unspoiled this place is.

Here I am, after sixty-seven years still able to climb this trail – not that it is an especially difficult feat – and sit in the silence, watching the shadows lengthen and listening to the song of this earth, uninterrupted by noise. It is a rare privilege in a world that spins and spins, this opportunity to sit still.

Blue-green spikes of Havard agaves on the mountain slopes

A thunderhead builds, and I watch it expand and drift this way. The thunder is still distant, one of those sounds that can be so relaxing from afar. The long, slanting rays of the sun highlight the tops of piñon pine and Emory oak. A nearby solitary bird trills and occasionally chirps, as the clouds turn rose-colored and the last light glows on the mountaintops. Soon it will be dark, and I will have to go, but I will remember these moments of solitude in the Chisos Mountains.

The “Dunedain” of the Cross Timbers

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Once again this year I had the privilege of teaching herpetology to an incoming group of Master Naturalists. Today I led them on a short walk into the bottomland forest at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. Each year, I appreciate the Texas Master Naturalists even more; they are the “rangers” of the remaining wild lands and creatures of our state.

Flooded bottomlands in April of 2010

By “rangers,” I am drawing upon the stories within The Lord of the Rings, and referring to the Dunedain, the people who wandered the lands in the north of Middle Earth. The rangers knew those lands and protected them as best they could, just as the Master Naturalists learn about the land, animals, and the plants around us. Maybe you’ll forgive what could seem like an overly stretched analogy, but in a world increasingly separated from nature, we need to celebrate those who understand and are drawn to nature and who might help advocate for it. Who else studies the intricacies of natural history and spends time wandering in the forests and fields?

Becoming a Master Naturalist involves a series of classes and readings; you do not sign up, pay your money, and now you get the title just for joining the “club.” There are classes and field experiences, and after certification there are activities and ongoing training. Some of the people in the Master Naturalist program are quite expert in one or perhaps several areas of nature study.

A centipede, surprised under a fallen log

What did we do today? We walked down through the bottomlands, past huge cottonwoods and other trees and in areas that periodically flood. Fallen logs and branches shelter numerous herp species, along with lots of wolf spiders and other invertebrates.

Two amphibian species dominated our walk today: The Southern Leopard Frog and the Gulf Coast (or Coastal Plains) Toad. The ranges of three species of leopard frogs converge near here, and some hybridization occurs, but the ones we saw appeared to be Southern Leopard Frogs (Lithobathes sphenocephalus). They are medium-sized spotted frogs that can leap long distances. Today’s leopard frogs had continuous, unbroken sets of dorsolateral ridges, no spot on the snout, and the light line on the upper jaw was not particularly bold – and that set them apart as the Southern species.

Southern Leopard Frog

The other common amphibian was what I’ll just call the Gulf Coast Toad, since that’s what a number of sources continue to call it. Others refer to it as the “Coastal Plains” Toad, which is only one of many name changes. This toad’s scientific name has gone through considerable taxonomic chaos, seeming to land at the name Incilius nebulifer. It is a dark toad with a light stripe down the back and a light band on either side. The cranial crests – those bony ridges that the “true” toads have on the crown of the head – are dark and very obvious.

A Gulf Coast Toad … ok, if you insist – a Coastal Plains Toad

What about reptiles? There were a few, though no snakes today (a source of some disappointment to me). One really nice find was made by a very observant ranger who spotted the skeletal carapace (the bones of the upper shell) of a box turtle. To my eye this was pretty clearly the Three-toed Box Turtle species, not only from the shape of the shell but because a bottomland forest would much more likely have the Three-toed species than our other species, the Ornate Box Turtle. And because box turtles have become more scarce over the years, finding one here was exciting.

The skeletal shell of a box turtle

We also saw several young Little Brown Skinks – aka the “Ground Skink” (Scincella lateralis) in many field guides. The body length (not counting the tail) might be a little over two inches in a fully grown Little Brown Skink, but the ones we saw were smaller and younger.

A Little Brown Skink, with a little of its tail lost (before we found it)

They are brown or coppery-colored along the top, with a darker band along the side that fades toward the belly. Little Brown Skinks have small legs but move quickly, virtually “swimming” through the leaf litter to disappear under cover.

There was another lizard, for which I have no photo, but which I was excited to see. I had just talked with the group about the Prairie Racerunner, a beautiful lizard within the “whiptail” genus. Then, a small movement caught my eye along the edge of the trail and it was a little miniature striped lizard – a recently hatched baby with thin little light lines on a dark background and a tail that shaded from a sort of tan to a slightly bluish color (not typical of adults in our area). It was probably a Prairie Racerunner, but it’s not so easy to tell with a hatchling. The other related species is the Texas Spotted Whiptail, and those have spots between the stripes as adults and they do not have the lime green wash over the front of the body that the Prairie Racerunner has. Whichever species he “grows up” to be, I hope he does in fact grow up. I don’t see those lizards that much, and would love to see more.

Our short walk was over all too soon, and I hope these new Master Naturalists enjoyed seeing what we saw and will continue to get to know the Cross Timbers with the familiarity of one of Tolkien’s Dunedain. I’m encouraged by them, at a time when there’s not a lot of encouragement to go around. Congratulations to the group on becoming Master Naturalists … and rangers!