It was almost two weeks into autumn, and summer’s heat held on. On October 6th, when the high temperature in Arlington reached 97ºF, a cold front was scheduled to roll through late in the day. It would be an interesting time to be at the Southwest Nature Preserve. Would the change take the form of a whisper of cool air, or a line of storms? A good friend, Shelsea Sanchez, came with me to witness what might be the end of summer heat and drought. We got there a little after 5:00pm and stayed for a couple of hours.
The initial walk around the north pond felt like a late afternoon in summer. We passed a little Texas Spiny Lizard positioned on a tree trunk, stalking insects in the hot sunshine as if it was back in August. Actually, two months ago this very young lizard might not yet have hatched from the egg, but now he or she was feeding and growing as it if was endless summer.
We followed the path up the gentle climb on the back side of the preserve, to pay a visit to a Post Oak that will be proclaimed as a Texas “historic tree” later this month. It is estimated to be over two hundred years old, with huge twin trunks and massive limbs that stretch out over the surrounding vegetation. It is being called the “Caddo Oak,” recognizing that it would have been an adult tree when the people who lived on this land were Caddo hunters and farmers.
A good way to spend time in a place like this is to clear our minds of the mental traffic that pulls us to past worries or future plans, so that we can simply be open to the present experience. A good strategy for this is to notice our breathing, how the body expands and relaxes with each breath. From this focus on present experience, we can connect more deeply with our surroundings – in this case a massive old tree with deeply furrowed bark and a giant canopy of leaves. There is a lot to notice and appreciate when practicing mindfulness in nature, simply opening oneself to the present experience without judging it or being tugged away from the moment by the internal “chatter” that often captures our lives.
We stood for a while, taking in the tree, the sky, and all the surroundings. Later we talked about what we had noticed: Shelsea’s perception was that those big limbs would just go on reaching out to the woods and sky, ever wider. It impressed her as a “wise” tree, something that had lived a long time and experienced a great deal. The branching limbs of our oak trees often suggest to me a parallel with blood vessels, extending into the surrounding air, supporting life in the process.
Following the trail as it turned and skirted a yucca meadow with deep sand, beyond a thicket of sumac and past a big juniper, we talked about how trees are linked together below the soil. A fine network of fungal threads, called mycorrhizae, connects with the roots and helps provide water and minerals. In exchange, the fungus gets nutrients from plant roots. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, and it is thought that mycorrhizae make possible a sort of communication between trees. For example, a tree that is attacked by insects may respond by releasing volatile organic compounds, and the surrounding trees connected by the fungal network respond in a similar way.
We spent some time in stillness and quiet, looking to the west toward some oaks in the background, and a scrubby open area with prickly pear cactus and a thicket of greenbriar. The front was coming, and darker blue-gray clouds were massing, and the distant thunder was a welcome and soothing sound. A couple of doves flew overhead, as we continued to absorb what we were experiencing. Afterward, Shelsea commented about how a nearby greenbriar was overtaking and pressing a shrub closer to the ground. Greenbriar is a strong, tough vine that I’ve described as like botanical barbed-wire, and this particular one was attempting to climb a shrub that could not support the vine’s weight. However, the main thing that we had both noticed in the last few minutes was the occasional low rumble from the advancing clouds.
You hear distant thunder when it is quiet – when there are no airplanes, no car engines, no roar of freeway traffic, no loud humming air conditioners. At an urban preserve, some of those things are inescapable, but if those noises are muffled – or if you are in a wild natural place away from mechanized sounds – you can hear breezes, birds, insects, and distant thunder. Through most of our history as humans, those sounds have usually been audible to us. We could hear coyotes howling on a nearby ridge, or a chorus of frogs a quarter-mile away. In a quiet glade we could hear water moving in a creek, and bees buzzing in nearby flowers. The sigh of wind in tree leaves was familiar. It makes you wonder if the loss of all those “quiet sounds” leaves an important gap in our lives, and if constant mechanized sounds and the ever-present TV and video sounds might be a source of low-level stress for us. The answer is yes, it is a source of stress, based on studies showing poorer concentration, increased anxiety and depression, and disrupted sleep because of noise pollution. Even low-level noise tends to increase the body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and chronically elevated levels of cortisol interfere with the brain’s ability to focus and plan, as well as putting us at risk of digestive and cardiac problems, weight gain, headache, and other problems. And so I place a very high value on those experiences of quiet, when a bird’s song or a breeze stirring leaves in a tree can be heard.
Looking up the trail toward the west at 6:30pm, we saw a hawk rise above the tree line, soaring in the turbulent air below the oncoming clouds. A second hawk emerged near the first one. As they flew, the sun shone through a break in the clouds and highlighted the wings of these birds. Another couple of birds joined the group, which flew higher and stayed visible above the tree line. The aerial dance continued and rose higher, with other hawks coming into view. Shelsea and I needed a real birder with us; I did not see rusty reddish tail feathers that would have identified a bird as a Red-tailed Hawk, and so I was at a loss. I could tell that the underparts were light-colored, but my eyes and brain could not follow the movement well enough to remember their color patterns as they rode the fast-moving air currents.
As the number of hawks grew and they spiraled higher, Shelsea pulled out her phone and began recording video. I began doing the same thing, framing the swirling “kettle” of hawks. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reminds us that hawks sometimes gather in “kettles,” using rising air currents to gain altitude, especially when migrating. In his book, The Birds of Texas, John Tveten notes that in early fall, Broad-winged Hawks begin their migration south into tropical America, rising on air currents and forming large swirling flocks. I do not know if these were Broad-winged Hawks, but it seems quite plausible.
We stood for a moment, taking all this in. Life at the preserve was in sudden motion, as the cold front came through with distant thunder and the promise of rain, and this seemed to have spurred the soaring, wheeling kettle of birds to rise into the sky.
And then, raindrops began to fall. After the heat and drought, it was delightful, and we stood there enjoying the feel of a few cool drops of water on our skin. In our state of fascination with every detail of experience, I noticed that every drop created a little dimpled medallion of mud as it struck the fine red sand of the trail. If the rain continued, those little mud-craters would join and the preserve would get the water it needed. In the meantime, we walked through these sprinkles and enjoyed the feel of the rain.
We spent two hours there, but we had little awareness of the passage of time. It didn’t seem to go quickly or last a long time, because we tried to let go of the past and future so that we could fully experience the present. Although we didn’t pay attention to the passage of time, we had a great time!