Crows and Compass Plants at Tandy Hills

On a bright February afternoon, Tandy Hills Natural Area was a great place to walk through the prairie. A couple of hours of mindful awareness of limestone ridges, junipers, crows and compass plants was just what I needed. I put my phone away and, when my mind strayed, I brought it back to this moment with these grasses and these junipers. The afternoon here was valuable; it deserved my full attention.

Really, any afternoon (and morning, too) deserves our full attention. That is one of the messages of the practice of mindfulness, a discipline that can help us go through our days awake to what is happening around us and within us. In contrast, if I walked through the prairie while looking at my phone or thinking about something coming up tomorrow, I would be on a sort of autopilot and would hardly notice what happened on my walk.

There was a lot to notice in the more than 200 acres of prairie and savannah in east Fort Worth. Wandering along the trail, I noticed a small bird nest in a young tree, only a couple of feet off the ground. Last year, a little bird chose this tangle of branches as the safest spot for her family. I thought of the amazing ability of that avian brain and nimble wings to coordinate a landing within those branches. Routinely coming and going from the nest would have required an Olympian athletic ability.

The shell of a Rabdotus snail

Sometimes my pace resembles what Suzanne Tuttle calls “walking at the speed of botany.” Being unhurried and shifting between the wide view of the landscape and the narrow view of small patches of ground, you find wonders hidden in plain view. For example, there were the small gleaming white shells tucked away in the thatch of last year’s grass. The land snail called Rabdotus generates a beautiful spiral shell, growing bigger as the curve expands below its conical tip. 

There are some spots within open patches of prairie where the sun exposure, drainage, and surrounding community of species is just right for the compass plant. Its name reflects the tendency for the leaves to grow facing north and south. Not that the plant cares much for cartography, but when the leaves grow in this way, they do not absorb so much of the sun’s heat in summer. And what leaves! Compass plant leaves are big and deeply cut into lobes, and the leaf is very stiff and sandpapery. Even in winter when the plant is dormant, the dead leaves persist on the ground as pale ghosts of their summer selves. They are brittle but still stiff and gritty.

One of last year’s compass plants

I walked the trails down to the boundary of the place, just south of I-30. At that point, the traffic noise is pretty distracting to me, and I am ready to head for quieter places. To the east is Broadcast Hill with more rolling prairie added to Tandy Hills in 2020, and beside it is a tall broadcast tower. Looking around, it is clear that this remnant prairie is an island of nature surrounded by the “built world” of freeways, technology, and houses. It is all the more a treasure because outside of its boundaries, all the grasslands, meadows full of flowers, and woodlands are gone. 

Tandy Hills without the “built world’

The challenge for me is to fully accept all the wonders together with the freeways, the 1500-plus species of plants growing on beautiful limestone ridges along with the views of houses and streets. My camera is a snitch that blurts out my denial of the full reality of the place. I focus on some grasslands with a stand of juniper in the background and I shift the camera so that the broadcast tower is not in the view. I frame a photo so that the buildings beyond the preserve are not visible. 

I will be better off when I can accept that Tandy Hills lives here, among the freeways and houses, a stubborn, wonderful survivor where children can learn about the beautiful spiral shells of land snails and the amazing leaves and beautiful white flowers of compass plants. Perhaps I will progress past the denial phase of my grief at the loss of so much that is wild and natural in Texas. 

Beyond the boundaries

Mindfulness will help with this because it depends on an attitude of acceptance. To practice mindfulness is to work on being open to what we experience, non-judgmentally. That does not mean that I should not work to support conservation of what is left, or to encourage rules that keep off-road vehicles from tearing up the place. However, on a walk like this one, this afternoon, the full appreciation of the place needs me to accept the sound of trucks and the view of the city just past the nearby hills.

Butterflies appear to accept Tandy Hills just as it is. As I looked over a patch of dormant prairie grasses, a small yellow butterfly bounced across the field. This little sulphur had survived the recent temperatures in the teens and emerged with boundless energy, flying among the little bluestem and Indiangrass and disappearing over the ridge.

Prickly pear in an array of soft colors

Somewhere along the way was a clump of prickly pear cactus, its pads weakly standing up to the winter and the lack of rainfall. But those pads were the loveliest shades of terra cotta and pale green shading into gold. Walking at the speed of botany brings so many beautiful things into view.

Eventually I sat on a bench on one side of a ridge and looked across junipers and oaks to a small tree or shrub around a hundred yards away. It had a smear of reddish color, perhaps leftover autumn leaves or a possumhaw with clusters of red berries. I wanted to focus my awareness on my breathing and on this one spot in the distance. Bringing attention to each breath is a way, in mindfulness practice, to let go of distractions and focus on moment-to-moment experience.

In my greater stillness and openness, I was more aware of the depth and distance to the next ridge and the green and reddish-gold junipers swaying in the breeze. The hills seemed a little quieter; cars were still moving and somewhere there was an airplane, but they seemed more in the background, more distant. 

A crow flew between the ridges on broad black wings, pulling up to rest on the branches of a skeletal oak tree. Then two more crows flew in from another direction, perching in nearby trees. After a minute of silence there were a couple of rounds of crow-talk, “caw-caw-caw-caw.” The afternoon deepened and the shadows grew longer as I listened to the comings and goings of crows. There was a sense of peace and belonging here with the crows and butterflies and everything else that lives at Tandy Hills. We are all fortunate to be able to spend some time in this patch of prairie.

An American crow

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