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.