A Winter Afternoon in Gray and Stillness

In the grasslands today, there was the stillness of a year that has ended and has not yet drawn the first breath of a new year. If the winter solstice ended nature’s year, then we are about a week into what will become a new year. But today was still, as if there was no forward movement of time.

The sky was uniformly gray, muting the warm browns and straw colors of grasses and leaves. I sat on a camp chair on a trail in unit 29, in northern Wise County. At the height of the chair, I looked through the thin stalks of little bluestem, needles stuck in the mounds of thin, curled leaves like small fountains of grass pouring from the ground. Beyond the little bluestem were blackjack and post oak, either bare branches or still holding some dry, brown leaves.

I walked past a blackjack oak that held onto some leaves. A small breeze made them flutter and they produced a dry rattle – like a wind chime made of stiff leaves that could not ring but only make a thin clattering. And the sound was very low, one of those sensations that highlighted the overall quiet of the place. And that is one of my favorite experiences, out in nature with nothing to mask and overwhelm the natural sounds such as these leaves were making.

The occasional crow called out, and then for a while there seemed to be no sound. But after a while, a group of blue jays began calling back and forth, perhaps taunting or daring or otherwise saying something in no uncertain terms. And then the quiet returned.

The day seemed to be saying, “Pause and rest. Let stillness and quiet, the distant conversations of birds, and the occasional rustle of leaves – let those replenish you.”

In nearby unit 28, I stopped in a woodland opening amid lots of chickadee calls. One flew to an oak sapling about 20 feet in front of me. I love seeing and hearing chickadees. Today their little community was very fussy.

I sat for a while, but I was torn between wanting to explore (this being my first time in this unit) and wanting to soak up more stillness. Exploring won; there is a strong tug to see what’s around the next corner or over the next rise. Then I could settle in, sit and be still.

The air had hung in there at 66 degrees for some time, but as I thought about how different this day felt from those sunny winter days I’ve experienced, the temperature began to drop. It was not just the gray clouds making this day feel damp and wintery (even if not cold). I glanced down to see the thermometer showing 63 degrees, and a few fine raindrops fell on me.

A few more words and I was done. “Against the winter-gray sky, the bare oak limbs are stark. Even a little grim. The temperature falls and the rain begins.”

The Curmudgeon Returns

The story of this day has a connection to the story of climate change and the pandemics of Covid 19 and of violence. This was an afternoon of sanctuary that felt like freedom, and it was a paradoxical gift from our out-of-whack climate.

Yesterday’s high temperature for the Dallas-Fort Worth area, according to the National Weather Service, was 81F. With the usual caveat that it is hard to know if an individual weather event was caused by climate change, we all know (or should know) that our fossil fuels are harming the climate and bringing crazy weather. Occasionally that crazy weather is absolutely delightful for us humans, like the warm sunny day yesterday, December 5th.

At around 4:00pm I was back at the LBJ National Grasslands in Unit 76 (near Alvord, TX). Under a sprawling mesquite tree, it was 79F under a sunny blue sky. A nearly full moon was rising above a line of oak trees in soft colors of caramel, orange, and yellow-green. I sat in my t-shirt, listening for crows to exchange greetings and thinking how fortunate I was to be there.

Weird to love weather that is a consequence of something monstrous. Warm, sunny weather in late autumn and in winter is among my favorite things. The light is beautiful and in the woods and prairies the range of colors is subtle, lovely and inviting. The smell of leaves returning to soil is like the fermenting of nature’s wine, recycling the year that is ending and preparing for new life. There can be an emotional tone of quiet reflection with a little nostalgia in the peaceful woods. For me, a bright sun and warmth brings all of this out even more strongly. Even a day that is an aberration, with temperatures outside what is normal, can feel this way.

Where is my guilt for loving a gift from climate change? Nowhere. I would gladly give up very warm winter days in return for a climate more like the one I grew up with, if I had that control. I do what I can for a healthy climate and then I enjoy beautiful days, even the weird ones.

The best way to experience a day like this is away from the mechanical grinding and whining from leaf blowers, air conditioners, highways, the constant soundtrack of the world we have built. It becomes a background noise that we pay little attention to and may forget about, but our auditory nerves and our brains are in constant reverberation with it. Go to some place where you are free of it, where it is quiet and the sounds that emerge are birds, water, and breeze, and see if the world doesn’t seem less chaotic and more sensible.

I stood just inside a woodland of oaks and junipers, watching a few stray leaves fall. A wave of breeze whispered and the trees replied “shhh,” while more leaves floated down like snow.

The LBJ National Grasslands can also be a place for solitude. On this day, a group of three people on horseback passed me on the trail, but these were the only people I saw in nearly four hours. Perhaps it’s not that I’m a grumpy old man, a would-be hermit. I’ve shared walks out there with people who have a similar style of walking slowly, noticing things, being attentive to the nature around us, and those are great walks. But there is also great value in just being by yourself.

It’s hard not to see that people are growing more out-of-whack just like the climate, with increasing extremes that do a great deal of harm. I don’t think the pandemic caused it, but it certainly gave a considerable boost to the troubles that are all around us. News reports say that children are in a mental health crisis. The news also tells of a pandemic of violence toward women. Anyone who is a little different (people of color, gay, immigrant, Jewish) is at greater risk. Whatever was going on before, the pandemic pushed us into greater isolation, more job loss, fears of getting sick and dying, and lots of toxic thinking about what and who was causing all this pain.

In the midst of all this, an afternoon in the company of crows and cricket frogs, blackjack oaks and bluestem grasses is an ideal sanctuary. I like it that the origin of that word refers to a holy or sacred and protected space. I remain engaged in the world of people, but for a time I rest in a place that feels like a refuge.

One of the small ponds feels very sheltered, and as you climb down through some erosion there is a gently sloping, sandy bank. I stayed at that pond for a while, sitting and then lying on this bank with my attention captured by little things. A tiny bee mimic fly landed inches from my face where I could see its thin yellow and black banded abdomen. A honeybee buzzed around as if looking for something inches above the sand and finally flew off. A few feet away, a cricket frog took a small hop but was in no hurry. A small snout butterfly swept in, landing on the sand. Intermittently it shifted position until it had turned itself around 360 degrees, and then it flew away. I was happy with these small and interesting companions.

Late in the day, I walked in Unit 76 where there are big open areas of grassland and a few more mesquite trees in higher, well-drained places. The sun was getting lower and the shadows longer. I sat under a mesquite looking across a patch of prairie at a line of oak trees lit by the setting sun. The rest of the landscape was darkening, and the world was still. A nearly full moon was rising in the east, and I watched it climb in the sky framed by mesquite leaves.