Fort Worth Nature Center, October 30

It was a sunny mild autumn day and impossible to stay inside, and so I climbed up to the ridge at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge to visit Lone Point Shelter. The narrow path hugs the ridge, and on the last part you climb a series of stone steps.

Lone Point, when built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, offered a wooden roof as shelter, but now all that remains is the rock framework. Still you can sit on the inside rock ledges like benches, perfect for having a snack or writing in a nature journal.

Historic photo, from a sign at FW Nature Center & Refuge

I sat on the rock bench at 2:22pm, and it was sunny with scattered puffy clouds and a slight cool breeze. It was 74 degrees (and 46% relative humidity, according to the thermometer/hygrometer that I carry with me). Back to the northwest and away from Lake Worth, the trail circles a beautiful savannah with live oak, cedar elm, and open areas with grasses, prickly pear cactus, and Arkansas yucca.

Butterflies were everywhere – small yellow ones flying along the ground, bigger ones with pale yellow or brilliant yellow-orange bouncing among the yucca and cacti, American snouts, a red admiral, a hackberry emperor, and a big swallowtail (probably a tiger swallowtail from my glimpse of the yellow and black pattern before it disappeared around a possumhaw bush.

An American snout (lower center), camouflaged among the fallen brown leaves
A clouded yellow butterfly caught in flight

I chewed a few juniper berries, which I think were not fully ripe but they did have a little of that wonderful aromatic taste. It was warm (79 degrees) but still very comfortable, and the sky was a clear and fairly deep blue. I walked back to the Lone Point structure thinking that today was really remarkable and feeling very grateful.

Here the savannah slopes down toward woodland
A common buckeye

I would gladly have stayed, watched the shadows lengthen and seen the sunset, but the refuge was going to close. I looked around and this beautiful place a little more, got a glimpse of Lake Worth below the ridge, and headed back down toward home.

Words and Experience

On my back fence a vine grows, with fairly large heart-shaped leaves, light green in the sunlight and a deeper shade in the shadows. The leaves are spaced alternately along the stems, and each one has a serrated edge or margin. A central vein grows to the tip of the leaf and smaller veins branch off and extend to the margins. The veins make a delicately embossed pattern on the plain green leaf. 

At least for today, I don’t care what the vine is called or to what category of plants it belongs. It is enough to see the green of the leaves and see the vein-embossed, saw-toothed little hearts that they make. If I knew the name, would I have walked over to look closely at the details? Maybe. But I might have thought, “Oh, that’s what it is,” and my curiosity could have ended with the name. I could have remembered that the leaves are alternate and have serrated edges and bypassed a few moments of beauty and symmetry.

After a lifetime of nature study, I’m not likely to swear off an interest in the names and classification of species. I’m just trying to guard against a preoccupation with names and concepts that can pull me away from directly experiencing the living thing itself. I’m trying to remember that the words are no substitute for seeing form and color, feeling texture and thickness, and smelling the sweet, musky, or other aromas of nature. The words and the experience are two different things, each of them valuable, and neither one a substitute for the other. 

I’m not one of those who dismiss “book-learning” in favor of real-world experience. I really value the verbal concepts we use to understand the world and I love books (and have even written a few). When it comes to the natural world, the people I know whose intellectual understanding is the most thorough are also people who have spent countless hours immersed in nature. They embody the idea that both intellect and experience are of great value.

What I really mean is that we should be able to fully experience nature, opening ourselves directly to it in its raw form before chopping it into fragments that fit within conceptual boxes and covering it with a verbal interface so that we can only contact it through concepts like “turtles of the family Emydidae” or “saprophyte.” In my own wandering outside, I don’t want trees, butterflies, wetlands and sunsets to be less vivid because they are filtered through my intellectual understanding of them.

A Woods Full of Hackberry Emperors

Sounds strange, right? What exactly is running around trying to be ruler of the woods? Butterfly folks know that the hackberry emperor is a butterfly whose earth-toned wings are beautifully spotted, not bright and showy like monarchs or fritillaries, but really lovely nonetheless. They are called hackberry emperors because the hackberry tree is the host plant that feeds the caterpillars of this species.

A hackberry emperor

Anyway, today the woods were alive with butterflies, mostly hackberry emperors but also snouts and others. There were small yellow butterflies and little gray-white ones flying near the ground. It was one more sign of autumn, as butterfly activity ramps up.

This afternoon I was at Sheri Capehart Nature Preserve, the wonderful little remnant of Eastern Cross Timbers in Arlington and an oasis for butterflies and many other things. It has been a difficult year at the preserve, full of drought and record high temperatures. Then, briefly, there was drenching rain, and a return to drought.

The water level in the north pond was low today, lower than I have seen it in quite a while. I could see the bottom, or at least could see the ragged layer of reddish algae growing along the bottom. Above the water were dozens of dragonflies darting and dipping, floating on the air and perching on twigs and reeds. They brought to the pond what the butterflies brought to the woods: a sort of dancing, whirling energy.

A black saddlebags, a species of dragonfly (note the dark “saddlebag” patches on the wings)

There was one last bit of autumn, adding just a little more charm to this afternoon with the sun at a low angle and cool breezes moderating the warm sun. Maximilian sunflower, a native prairie plant that blooms at the end of summer through the fall, was blooming at the preserve. Those clusters of big yellow flowers are a beautiful sight every year.

Maximilian sunflower