Embracing the Cold, Looking for Solitude

Today was cold and cloudy. Not bitterly cold, but there was a sort of damp chill underneath the deck of gray clouds that made you pull your jacket close around you. I wanted to get out for a while to somewhere pretty close by and so I chose Oliver Nature Park in Mansfield. It is 80 acres situated alongside Walnut Creek a little distance upstream from Joe Pool Lake, much of it oak and juniper woodland, a little island of nature within the city of Mansfield. And Mansfield is just one of several varieties of sprawl; Arlington, Kennedale, Grand Prairie, and Cedar Hill, spreading southward from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. There are a few islands of nature embedded within those cities, all of them much needed and all of them too small.

From the observation platform

I climbed up the hill to an observation platform overlooking Walnut Creek, passing a jogger or two along the way. Once on the platform, you look down through oaks, cedar elm and other trees to the creek as it winds along past a few slabs of rock. It could be a good birding overlook or just a peaceful place to sit as if perched in the tree canopy, but it also places you within mostly unobstructed earshot of a nearby street. On that street, someone was doing their best to get noticed, loud and powerful. A motorcycle engine wound up higher and louder, speeding in one direction and then coming back. It was time to move on. 

I waited for a family to pass by before starting down the path, and was approached by a very nice woman who told me I looked like I might be a birder. I did my best to speculate about what kind of bird she may have seen, and told her about iNaturalist, which will be much more helpful than I was able to be. I was awfully glad she talked with me. Isn’t that the sort of community that I believe is ideal, people interacting face to face to share and learn about the natural world? But everywhere I turned, there were people. I stepped around a photographer taking a photo of a girl on the boardwalk, and hurried along to stay ahead of a group of people headed my way. Solitude was definitely escaping me today. 

Honey locust

Further along the boardwalk, there was the roar of a big plane on approach to DFW airport to our north. Right, I remembered, we are just about due south of the airport, on the southern approach to the runways. It’s just the way it is. There is no quiet place in the metroplex. But there were still treasures to see, like a big honey locust tree whose curled and twisted seed pods had mostly fallen. The trunk with those clusters of spikes, and dark reddish-brown spiral pods still clinging here and there, attracted me. And in places there were clusters of oak leaves turning beautiful bright red.

The farthest section of the park had the fewest visitors. Near a couple of bird blinds a group of sparrows was flitting from ground to low branches in a tangle of vines and understory. That woman who approached me earlier was right – today I was a birder. No self-respecting spiny lizard or ratsnake would be prowling around on this chilly 50-degree day, but crows had been calling to each other and now these little sparrows where challenging my naturalist skills. I got the best photo that I could of what turned out to be white-throated sparrows.

White-throated sparrow

This group appears to have behaved quite typically, foraging near the ground in a brushy area, with one positioned higher in a tree sounding the alarm as I walked up on them. They eat seeds as well as small fruits and insects. According to the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds site, white-throated sparrows are abundant but have declined over the past fifty years or so. 

My walk continued, among the many others using the park. At one point as I was engrossed with a group of doves in a nearby tree, about to take flight, I was startled by crunching on the trail and turned to see a jogger pass me. I had to hurry to stay ahead of a family group in which a child was repeatedly screaming (in annoyance rather than distress, apparently). The situation in the park today is one likely to trigger in me a good bit of cognitive dissonance. I write, give talks, and lead interpretive walks with the goal of sparking a love of the natural world. Most of these people were presumably there out of some sort of love of nature, not in my nerdy and introverted manner perhaps, but they wanted to get outside at a nature park on this cold autumn day. That ought to be worth celebrating.

A tributary stream within the woodland

We need more and bigger places. Urban preserves and parks are full, especially during this past year of pandemic, to the point where it can be hard to stay socially-distanced. People blaze networks of unauthorized trails, contributing to erosion and leaving hardly any refuge in which wildlife can feel safe. What if this park and other small urban preserves were at least twice as big? Visitors would not be bumping into each other and the birding and wildlife watching would surely be better. And for people like me, who want to get lost somewhere with no one else to be seen or heard, to experience solitude and quiet, it would be heaven.

Autumn at Eagle Mountain Park

Today I walked a rolling patch of Cross Timbers woodland at Eagle Mountain Park, to the Ridge Loop Trail. The numerous other walkers and joggers reminded me that this was no unusual accomplishment, but the 3.8 miles I walked and climbed today is a sort of extension of my cardiac rehabilitation. In fact, I went to rehab this morning, doing exercise that was much less demanding than the afternoon’s walk. A month ago I was grateful to take a short walk at Southwest Nature Preserve, so today is progress.

Some of my motivation was provided by my companions, Barbara and her kids, Dani and Nicky (see Orb Weavers and Quiet Conversation). When the two of them took a short cut up a steep hillside, I figured it was do-able and charged up after them. I needed to catch my breath at the top, but did OK. And they’re bright and curious, giving me a chance to pass along some of what I know about nature. Both found some red fruit on a prickly pear cactus and wanted to try eating them. Nicky managed to pick up one of these tunas, and I told him how I’ve wanted to skin one and eat it, but instead I always manage to get those glochids, the tiny spines, stuck in my skin and feel them for days afterward. Maybe I helped him avoid that experience.

Yucca and prickly pear in a prairie opening in the woods

We also compared notes about eating juniper berries, and then we discussed how the berries are really modified cones. Noticing that only some trees had berries, I said that these junipers exist separately as male trees (their pollen making them look like they’ve been dusted in gold this time of year) and female trees.

Trying not to subject them to too much natural history and just have fun, I still could not resist pointing out how the tiny tufted seeds on little bluestem grass shine in the sunlight. I have an unnatural attraction to native prairie grasses, even though I have only modest knowledge of them. Regardless, walking through a patch of these grasses is powerful medicine, and it’s medicine that I’m always eager to take.

We found mistletoe, and we did talk a little about how this plant is a parasite, although most of the trees we see do not appear to be harmed much unless the tree is covered with many of the plants. The woods were beautiful, with the signature post oak and blackjack, and at least one species of the red oak group. In some places, especially in spots with more limestone emerging from the soil, there were live oaks.


We reached a point where we emerged at the shore of Eagle Mountain Lake, and stood watching a few gulls flying and a group of American coots paddling on the lake surface. Nicky found a branch with a pretty fair resemblance to Gandalf’s staff in the Lord of the Rings movies, and he traced a number of runes into the trail surface. “Ash nazg gimbatul!” There’s much fun to be found on a walk like this.

The shore of Eagle Mountain Lake

It seems to me that the Cross Timbers is not usually a place with spectacular fall foliage on a grand scale. Most years, you appreciate the more subtle loveliness of the woods, and you find small patches of colorful leaves. That is what we found today. The woods were beautiful in shades of brown, rust, and straw, and in places the leaves were bright red and green.

I’m grateful to have been in the company of these socially-distanced friends today, and grateful to have been able to walk and climb through these woods. May everyone have a safe and healthy Thanksgiving tomorrow.