Hardly anything is finer than a green Forest Service gate opening onto trails that lead through the grasslands and oak woodlands of LBJ National Grasslands. Those meadows and woods change throughout the seasons, and each of those changes is beautiful. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be autumn (but ask me again in the spring). The low-angled sun highlights details of light and shadow, the colors of leaves and grasses are wonderful, and afternoons can be sun-warmed but cool at the same time.
Yesterday I opened one of those green gates that was new to me and walked a trail back through rust-colored little bluestem grasses and oaks with leaves now tinged with yellow and caramel, and a little red here and there. Much of it was familiar, like the way the sun makes little bluestem sparkle when it shines through the little tufted seeds tucked away along the stems. What made it wonderful was that it was more of the things that are always on the verge of being lost. Ranches are sold and turned into houses and lawns, and so a walk through a new patch of Cross Timbers felt reassuring.
Along with the taller prairie grasses were areas with lots of croton (“prairie tea” for some folks), western ragweed, and bitterweed. I love this last plant, whose yellow flowers bloom so late in the year. Clusters of yellow bitterweed blooms were visited by bees and butterflies. Grasshoppers jumped in front of every step I took, taking advantage of these last warm days to nibble at the remaining vegetation.
After about an hour, I went down the road to another of those green gates, this one opening onto a trail that Meghan Cassidy and I walked a year and one week ago. After crossing a nice patch of prairie that very gradually slopes down to a line of trees, the trail turns and traces its way through oaks, junipers, and prairie openings.
I stopped at the same post oak where we had stood and watched leaves drop, the air so quiet that I could sometimes hear a leaf bump into a branch on the way down. And then we would hear a wave of breeze approach through the treetops, stirring the top branches and releasing a few more leaves to pinwheel down to the growing carpet of leaves on the ground. Although not many leaves were falling from that tree yesterday, there was some of that sense of solitude and peace in the quiet of the woodlands.
Further down the deep sandy trail some of the same young oaks were turning, with leaves glowing scarlet when backlit by the sun. The woods were full of shade behind the trees which really had yet to lose many leaves. In other places the low mid-afternoon sun struck grasses and leaves with bright, warm light. The sunlight seemed that much brighter for the contrast with the shaded and darkened places deep among the trees.
I reached a place where the soil is cut by erosion and drops, exposing red and pale sandy soil in an irregular set of steps and furrows down to a small pond. Meghan and I sat here a year ago on a stretch of slightly damp sand tilting down to the water. I was entranced by a play of the light in which the late afternoon sun was reflected by ripples, sending squiggles of light up onto a shaded bank under a juniper. The very same thing was happening yesterday, with a tiny light show playing on the shaded bank of the pond. It was a very small thing, and also an example of something that seems important to me: Nature is so often a consistent, stable presence in a world that can seem chaotic. Places in nature can be anchors in our lives to which we can return over and over for reassurance that some good things persist in spite of all the changes around us.
On the way back there was movement in the leaf litter a small distance off the trail. It was a nine-banded armadillo, snuffling along the woodland floor, oblivious to the human standing nearby. Once again last autumn’s walk was being repeated, as we saw an armadillo on the return walk on that day, too. This one kept searching for insects and grubs to eat while I took a couple of photos. I shifted and made a little noise and the little armored one stood up to look around and sniff the air. I coughed, and he crashed off through the brush.
It was getting near sunset, and my walk was done. It is hard to put into words just what this time of year, this quality of light, this quiet woodland feels like to me. In the “Autumn” section of the book Meghan and I have been working on, I wrote this: Things come to an end / Be still in the golden autumn light / And consider how to make a good end of the year / With affection and acceptance. This season does feel like an ending of the year, and it seems like a good idea to spend some time being still and quietly reflecting on all that the year contained. This November walk at the LBJ National Grasslands had been perfect for that.