A Curmudgeon’s Day in the Grasslands

On November 29th the LBJ National Grasslands had such a fine day that I spent four or five hours there and could have stayed longer. I came away filled with sensory impressions and not a lot of observations of animals (there were some butterflies, a dragonfly, a few vultures, and humans – one with a dog and a gun). It was a mostly quiet day, filled with sunlight, color, the feel of damp sandy soil, and periods of solitude.

I got to the gate at unit 75 (above Cottonwood Lake) about 11:15am, and started down the trail to the northeast. It was sunny and bright, with temperatures already in the 70s. I was passed by a couple, he on his bicycle and she on her horse, who I would see multiple times. They said “hello” with cheerful smiles, and should have taken nothing away from my walk. And yet, solitude is what I was after, so I looked for spots a little off the trail.

A track took me away from the trail and through an ungated and unmarked opening in a fence and out into a long meadow. This seemed to be the separation from society that I was looking for, until the couple crossed in front of me down a small trail. Their momentary presence was no problem, and I got back to sitting and taking some notes. It was 75 degrees and 49% relative humidity in the shade, and it would warm a few more degrees as the day progressed.

I kept following the trail, now headed east through oaks and past small ponds with a few cottonwoods. Scattered yellow cottonwood leaves made a beautiful pathway flecked with gold. When the land rose into a big open prairie, I sought out an old bois d’arc tree and underneath I found clumps of old rose bushes and some green grass like that which might have grown in someone’s yard long ago. Although I didn’t see the remains of any structures, I expect this was once a homestead. Perhaps those rose bushes were planted in a spirit of optimism that did not survive the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

And then, the couple on the bicycle and horse rode by. Now, every place I went there was an anticipation of their coming and going. I began to feel truly like a curmudgeon. They had as much right to be there as I did, and they were doing nothing to disturb my day. Except for that anticipation that now sat alongside my sense of stillness and openness.

The quiet sound of breeze in the tree tops was joined by a constant mechanical drone. On my way in, I had passed someone mowing the road right of way with a heavy blade on an arm mounted to a tractor. He had now resumed, sounding like heavy road construction going on just over the rise. I walked out of unit 75 and headed north.

Up in unit 15 the “orange” trail snakes along near one of the camping areas and through several other units east of Alvord. I joined the trail at a spot beside Forest Service road 908 and walked westward through woods and little pocket prairies. Here, at 2:00pm, was all the quiet and solitude I could wish for (making allowances for the occasional airplane going to or from DFW). I stretched out on the cool, sandy ground, shaded the sun with my hat and just listened to the sounds of leaves and breeze.

Like most introverts, I have relationships with some people I could not do without, and casual friendships that are important to me. But social gatherings are not a natural habitat for me, and frequently I need to retreat somewhere in nature and spend quiet time. This warm autumn day was so needed, and now the curmudgeon’s heart beats with a little more peace and well-being.

What Part Do We Play in a Nature Journal?

In a talk about ways of being in nature, someone asked me if writing in a nature journal might make the experience too much about him. I hadn’t considered that question before and struggled to answer. On one level, the answer was clear to me: No, what he writes about the time he spent in nature would not be self-centered. But his question deserves more thought, as it helps clarify what a nature journal is for. It might help us decide whether and how to keep a journal. 

I had mentioned that I started out keeping field notes as I had been taught by biologists. County and state, date and time, species, age class, sex – a very terse style of recording data that might accompany a specimen as it was catalogued into a scientific collection. We, the observers, had no place in those notes beyond the listing of our names. Years later, looking back at such notes might give information about where and under what conditions I found a particular kind of lizard, but it would convey little or nothing about what it was like for us to walk across a rocky ridge in a particular place in Texas.

Journaling, as most of us understand it, involves a more personal account of time spent in some place. There are more incidental and subjective details of how the sunshine felt, or the yipping and howling of coyotes as the last of a sunset faded to darkness. Subjective impressions are welcome, perhaps exploring a sense of solitude and what it means for us.

In the talk I had also emphasized that journaling makes it more likely that we will recall our day in nature in more detail. As we write (or draw), we think about and visualize again what we saw. It’s the same sort of thing we would do if we wanted to commit something to memory. Bringing sounds and sensations back to awareness, telling ourselves the story of what we have just experienced, weaves together a pattern of brain activity that can become part of our long-term memory. Even if we never looked at the page again, chances are we would remember the day with greater richness.

So with that in mind, maybe the journal is, in part, something we do for ourselves right then, while we are still in the woods or on some rocky bluff. It’s not a way to look back years from now, but a way to process the experience for ourselves while it is in front of us. By “process” it, I mean to reflect on it, sort out what happened, and sift through its meanings. Even a short walk may bring up meanings for us to consider. Walking through a small preserve, I was struck by how the delicate curling tendrils of a greenbrier reminded me of some elvish scripts in Tolkien’s work. Another time in the same place, I thought about my dissatisfaction with the nearby highway noise and how it contrasted with a mindful acceptance of my walk just as it was. Such issues may be small, but sometimes they add worthwhile perspectives to our understanding of the world and how we live in it.

I said that in one respect, writing in a journal is something we do for ourselves, so we return to the issue of whether it would make the experience “all about me.” Would it? I don’t think so, if that means a self-centered focus with no room in the story for anything but us. I think the question I was asked was really about the opposite: whether, in an account of trees, grasses, insects and clouds, there is room for us. Do we belong in the story of our walk in the woods? 

When we go for a walk in the woods, what is created is a relationship between ourselves, the trees, the ground beneath us, birds and butterflies around us, and the whole community of life in that place. We are, for a while anyway, a member of that community. We may have little physical impact, but we are not a disembodied presence there. We leave the imprint of our feet, perhaps eat a few berries, and send a few animals into hiding or draw them out in curiosity. We exchange with the plants the gasses we each need for respiration. We receive experiences of beauty and wonder, water in which to wade or swim, paths to explore and places to rest. And this is just part of a wider relationship in which the earth nurtures us and we take care of the earth (or not).

What I’m saying is that we do belong in the story of our walk or our backpacking trip. We are at least temporary members of that community. We might seem like alien gawkers, we who live in the “built” world and arrive clothed in the products of that world. The longer we are estranged from nature, the more it might seem like we are visiting a foreign world, but in some sense what we are doing is coming home. So why wouldn’t we have a part in the story of that reunion? 

If we’re fortunate enough to watch a heron stalking a fish or a coachwhip snake effortlessly climb a tree, we would be eager to write about it in our journal. Why not write about our own behavior as we explore or wait patiently for something to emerge? Why not put down an account of how we felt about something, or how it reminded us of some other thing? This might initially make us self-conscious because it isn’t a familiar way of taking notes in the field, and maybe it would seem too self-focused. I think that including ourselves gives helpful context to what we are writing about and helps us reflect on and sort out our experience in a more complete way. It’s a way of telling the whole narrative of our day.

Giving Thanks for Nature Kids

“Nature kids” are those children and young people who appreciate nature and understand its magic. I enjoy writing “Letters to Nature Kids” and offering them to nature kids and their families, and to some adults who may enjoy them as well. This month I wanted to write about gratitude (it will soon be Thanksgiving, and it ought to be Thanksgiving every month). I hope you will download this free issue and share it with anyone who might want to read the letter and see some photos from the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge.

A Cold Walk for the Grasslands Project

On 11/11/22, four of us met at 9:00am in “Unit 30” of the LBJ National Grasslands. It was, ironically, a walk that had been rescheduled from November 4th because of bad weather. The past few days had been unseasonably warm and then, in the hours prior to the walk, the temperature crashed and it rained. I drove up from the metroplex through a light rain and cold wind, wondering if anyone would show up.

At LBJ National Grasslands

However, by the time I got through Decatur, the rain had ended and the clouds were thinner. Driving further north, I pulled off County Road 2560 and hung my thermometer from a nearby little plum tree, noting that the wind felt very cold. After a few minutes the temperature registered as 49 degrees, which is not exactly arctic. The relative humidity was 59% as a result of the morning’s rain.

The Facebook members of the LBJ Grasslands Project include people who are undaunted by an autumn cold front, and soon Debbie pulled in, followed by Sandy and Gary. Soon we were walking through the grasses and talking about little bluestem, Indiangrass, and how fire enables the prairie to survive.

It’s a fairly short walk down to the woodland with its oaks and junipers. We stopped just inside the trees and I recalled another quiet November day when I was here with Meghan, listening as waves of breeze moved through the woods. The movement dislodged a few leaves and we could hear them impact the branches, so deep was the quiet.

Some oak leaves were changing color, and it seems that along this trail it is smaller oaks, seedlings and saplings, that are most likely to turn. We followed the trail through yellow grasses, deep green junipers, and a few oaks with splashes of color.

A young blackjack oak with a lipstick smear of red

Further along, through the reddish sand and mud of the trail, we reached a spot where a short detour from the trail brought us to a little pond. Like the earlier place on the trail, this was a spot with memories attached to it. A couple of years ago I watched the late afternoon sun reflected off ripples in the pond, creating ribbons of light on the opposite bank in the dark shade of junipers and other trees. I wrote about those few minutes of small-scale wonder in the book on mindfulness in Texas nature that is now in the publication process.

The little pond, even smaller now due to the ongoing drought

Mindfulness is one of the things we touch on in walks for the LBJ Grasslands Project. People can visit the grasslands in a lot of ways including mindful attention and also a science-based intellectual analysis. My earliest visits were focused on finding and observing reptiles and amphibians, with thoughts and discussion with companions about where they might be, how species interact with each other, looking for characteristics that allow us to identify species and subspecies, and judgments about whether we were successful in the field. Birders, botanists, and other specialists can be caught up in much the same kinds of intellectual activities. A lot of good can come from such observing and questioning.

However, I found that it was important for me to set aside time to experience the grasslands directly, without filtering it through the lens of intellectual understanding or the success of my searching. I spent more time practicing mindfulness – being more quiet inside and out, not letting thoughts snag me away from what was happening right here and right now. Maintaining my attention on sights, sounds, and even smells and touch would make a walk more vivid and detailed.

In LBJ Grasslands Project walks, we make time for several ways to experience the prairies and woods, including some discussion and nature interpretation, and some time for mindfulness (especially when participants say they would like to spend some time on mindfulness practice). And we encourage participants to express themselves about what they have experienced. Nature journaling is an opportunity to reflect on our time in nature, often making that time more meaningful and consolidating memories. Sometimes people write a letter to the grasslands, and that often brings out expressions of gratitude and a sense of relationship to the place.

Junipers surrounding a little oak

Today’s walk was cold, yes, but also beautiful. When the grasses and trees are wet from rain or fog, their colors are often deepened. It was quiet and we seemed to have the place to ourselves (not that it is ever crowded), bundled up and delighted with the world around us.