Quiet, and Then Storms at the Grasslands

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.

  1. Moore, K.D. 2008. Silence Like Scouring Sand. (online: https://orionmagazine.org/article/silence-like-scouring-sand/)

Is It Autumn Yet?

A patch of Maximilian sunflower is a reminder of summer

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.

The orange tones of poison ivy leaves

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.

Sunset at the preserve, with a crescent moon riding high

That day is less than two weeks away. I look forward to that day and to every little sign that autumn is coming.