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.

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

A Morning at the Edge of Autumn

The change of seasons can be imperceptible when one day is mostly like the last one. Sometimes, though, there is a day that feels like change has come. September 11, this year, felt that way, and the LBJ National Grasslands was a great place to greet the new season. I drove toward Decatur in early morning, with the nearly full moon watching over me and the sun rising as an orange disk on the other side of the sky. But to the northwest, a blue-gray deck of clouds inched toward me. I reached the edge of the clouds at Decatur and left the moon and sun behind.

In a small pine grove east of Alvord, the pine trees swayed in a cool breeze. They made a beautiful sound like water rushing as each wave of air poured through the pine needles. My thermometer registered 66 degrees, and we stood under the trees with one of us commenting that she was glad to have a jacket. 

There was Dana, Erika, Carol, Carla, Kayla and me, most of them Master Naturalists and all of us naturalists in the sense of people who study the natural world and who return time and again to be lovingly, gratefully immersed in it. Kayla and I have started a community we refer to as the LBJ Grasslands Project in which we can be immersed in the grasslands, online and in small group visits there. The walk in the grasslands on September 11 was one of those visits.

A field with lots of croton

Under the deck of gray clouds we began walking across open prairie patches and through areas of oak and juniper woodland, looking at the green growth after the prescribed fires from some months ago. Very soon after the fire the new growth had appeared, but the grasslands then had to endure months of heat and drought. The recent rains triggered something like a second spring, with lots of new green vegetation and beautiful flowers. Some of the meadows were full of croton, also known as “dove weed” or “goat weed,” and those fields had the different texture and color of those grayish green leaves. Kayla examined branches for lichen and found several beautiful varieties. Then we looked up in a dead tree to see a young Mississippi kite perched there, watching us with little apparent concern. We took photos and wondered if that brown-streaked bird was really a kite. As we did so, I noticed that the clouds were beginning to break up and the sky beyond was a beautiful blue. 

A juvenile Mississippi kite

We came to a couple of small ponds within an area where the sandy soil was eroded and scooped out. One of the ponds had what was nearly an island, a steep mound on which several trees grew, including some persimmons. Most of the developing fruits were green, but I found a ripe one and ate part of it. The texture was a little like plum and the taste was vaguely peachy. What a wonderful place this was!

The boundary of this little place was a low eroded embankment where the woodland gave way to the basin that held the pond. My companions were scattered near the pond, sitting quietly to write something about what we were experiencing. A breeze came down and stirred a patch of ripples in the water. Above the embankment, some sumac was starting to turn red, and the oak trees moved with each current of air. Those trees sheltered so much life in feathers, scales, chitin and fur. Above the tree line, soft clouds drifted and the sky behind them was deep blue shading to pastel toward the horizon. In the distance, a group of crows fussed at something. 

This is the part I love the most – quiet, wordless moments just taking everything in or reflecting on where we had been. A member of our group wrote about the quiet, the rippling water and “sense of separation from today’s world.” This is a place of refuge from cities and never-sleeping machinery. This is a sanctuary in which we can be still, feel the sun’s warmth and the soft breezes, and listen to birds. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to sit among the bitterweed and sedges and talk with the cricket frogs.

A hatchling whiptail lizard, either a prairie racerunner or spotted whiptail

The time came to an end, however, and we started back. Somewhere we noticed some movement in the leaf litter and I was enthralled with a tiny striped lizard with the most beautiful blue-green tail. Stripes and blue tail send my mind immediately to the thought that it was a baby skink, but the details of body form and pattern made clear that this was a newly hatched whiptail lizard. A couple of us watched as this tiny reptile hunted invertebrates under the leaves, biting and shaking and then chasing the ant-sized insect again. I was grateful that he or she decided to ignore us and continue hunting as we watched. Just another moment of fascination and beauty within these woods and prairies. 

More summer-like days will come, but the sun is lower in the sky now and the heat of the day is nothing like July. There will be more walks as we slip into autumn. I look forward to joining friends for another day at the grasslands. 

Hairy ruellia, a kind of petunia, grew here and there in woodland openings
A false foxglove, as identified by iNaturalist

The Power of the Everyday World

I get up. The kitchen becomes light when I flip the switch. The day starts with some small reassurance of the world’s predictability.

The coffee beans grind with a satisfying aroma, and the coffee tastes good. Things work. Things are OK. 

The car starts. Another data point stacks up in favor of a beneficent world. 

Against these meager but welcome signs that the world makes sense, there is the news. I don’t want to watch the news, but I am drawn to watch it anyway, the way a traumatized child’s play is drawn toward re-enactment of the trauma. This “trauma play” can crowd out the child’s ordinary, creative, fun play, just as the televised discussion and reporting of bad news can crowd out time that might be better spent elsewhere. But we want to be able to predict what may happen, to know what’s coming. The obsession with knowing “what happened” is a way of trying to make sense of the world and what might happen next. 

Oh, good, the trash was picked up, and the recyclables, too. Things are working as they are supposed to.

I think about the health of the people I care about. If there is trouble, I can prepare myself for how to be supportive, and maybe predict how events might play out and what we could do in each situation. Our brains are wired to anticipate the future and try to prepare, in every area of our lives. 

Part of our brain can be something like a “situation room,” a place where the experts and leaders gather to try to work their way through a crisis. And if the situation room is always running hot, problems occur. After a while, someone yells, “Turn off the damn alarm,” as the jangling autonomic nervous system keeps us in a panic, but the bell keeps ringing. Everyone sits around the table, exhausted, reviewing the information for the fiftieth time. The more we ruminate, the more dysfunctional the situation room becomes. Exhausted, irritable people do not solve problems well. Neither do chronically stressed or traumatized brains.

I grew up in a world that seemed safer and more predictable. 

Stepping back from what I just wrote, it sounds ridiculous, impossible. When I grew up, White State Troopers were beating Black civil rights protesters nearly to death in Selma. Boys were being drafted to go die in the war in Vietnam. We had nuclear attack drills in school, practicing how we would get under our desks to survive hydrogen bombs that seemed likely to fall on us any day. The world would end. How could such a world ever seem safer and more predictable than it does today?

It seemed safer, but it was not. Why did it seem safer – why did the world make more sense in my childhood?

My parents could not take away the threat of nuclear war but they could help support an everyday world in which things happened sensibly, often with happiness and wonder. There was carefree backyard play. There was the sound of waves, the smell of the Gulf, and a young child’s fascination with lightning whelk seashells. And then there were lightning bugs on summer nights, dragonflies in a scrubby vacant lot, and camping in the mountains. The immediate, direct experiences of the day. Having parents to share those gifts and cushion the disappointments and challenges made the day-to-day world a place that seemed mostly safe and predictable. In the fourth grade, if the everyday world is in good shape then nuclear attack drills can be just something that you do, with little connection to the cataclysmic threat and the absurd idea of surviving underneath that desk.

In the everyday world, I watch clouds slide to the north, piling up to great heights with edges lit brilliant white by the sun. They cross the pale blue sky slowly and peacefully. This world, at this moment, is a good place.

Regardless of what the world presents us with, we want it to be sensible, predictable, and safe. Even thrill-seekers want that security after the thrill is over. After the free-fall, after the parachute opens, we want gravity to give us a landing we can walk away from, ready to do something else.

With pandemics, insurrections, and a climate spinning out of control, it is easy to doubt that we can walk away from our landing. Road-rage killings, people assaulting others on airplanes, neighbors stockpiling weapons of war. People gathering to scream utter nonsense opposing a vaccine that could save us. For many of us, the world appears to be less predictable, sensible and safe with each passing year. What do we do with that?

One way of coping with the world’s trouble is to purposefully set aside time for living in the present, the world that we are in contact with each day. We cannot let the world’s troubles make us numb to the little gifts of our everyday lives. Those are the moments in which we visit a friend, listen to a bird, or write a letter (or an email). They are moments of contact with what we see and hear around us, what we touch with our fingers. 

My grand-daughter’s beautiful smile draws me into more play. I think what a gift this is, something that makes the everyday world a good place to live.

I know that our everyday lives can be difficult at times. Things break down, a loved one gets sick, we have loss and sorrow at times. But in between those times are the moments when the world offers its most precious gifts of beauty, sustenance, love and joy. 

Living in the present is not shirking responsibility or escaping from the world. There are times when we do need to think about the bigger world and contribute what we can to try to bring about change. And when we have done what we can, then it is good to let all that go and spend time living in the everyday reality that we have been given. 

I sit and listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, completely absorbed in those four interwoven melodies.


(My life as a naturalist and conservationist is balanced by my career as a Psychological Associate. As I wrote a while back, “our lives” is as important a part of this blog as “in nature.” I know that my focus here is our lives in nature – the interrelated ways that humans and other species make their way through the days and years. I will try to stay focused, but sometimes an article will tilt toward the “‘our lives” part of the blog.)

To the Grasslands, With Gratitude

Yesterday, August 20th, several of us took a walk in “Unit 30” of the LBJ National Grasslands, and afterward I wrote this letter to the grasslands. Writing to the grasslands might seem odd. We often think of it as an inanimate “thing.” Why write words to something that has no comprehension? And yet, we speak or write to those with whom we have a relationship, and writing to the grasslands acknowledges that relationship. It affirms the feeling and connection that is present when I visit there.

The pine grove, a beautiful, non-native oddity within the grasslands

Dear Grasslands,

I came to see you today, a little unsure of what I would find. After a brutal summer of heat and drought, could your oaks and greenbriers still be green, and could most of the lives you support still fly, jump and swim in something like the abundance and beauty that I’ve seen in all the previous years that I have known you? All of that wonderful, amazing life, and the breezes that come to the ridges and hills, and the bright sparkling ripples on the winter ponds, those are your gifts. Like a generous friend, like a nurturing mother, you offer those gifts to anyone who comes to visit.

Several others came with me to get acquainted with you and experience some of those gifts. Gale, Cecily and Jim walked under those pine trees and investigated your ponds, reduced to smaller versions of themselves by summer’s drought but still home to so many frogs. As always, they break out of their camouflage and bounce frantically into the water when we come close, only occasionally giving us a glimpse of spotted skin, or pale green shading into a brighter color, or a mud-gray bumpy little cricket frog. These frogs were showing us that you were still full of life, and never more obviously than at your ponds.

Leopard frog
American bullfrogs

We followed one of the trails leading away from the ponds and into oaks, junipers, and pocket prairies. Jim found a small pouch of a bird nest hanging from the delicate ends of tree branches. We spent some time appreciating all the different materials that had been gathered and woven into this little cup. There were bits of leaf, lichen and grass creating a sturdy little shelter for a delicate egg and a tiny bird who embodied both engineering skill and attentive nurturing of new life.

Bird nest

The nest was, as I see you, a sort of fractal of who you are. Each part repeats the overall pattern of the whole grasslands. Here, you are warm feathered life with skill and determination to keep life going. There, you are cool aquatic life with jeweled eyes and an entrancing nighttime voice, re-creating life through egg, tadpole, and adult frog. Everywhere you look – and listen – there are individual lives doing fascinating and beautiful things to keep life going.

And we look at any part of you from another angle and we see the other part of life’s story. This time, it is life surrendered, either to feed another life or when an individual life runs its course. We discovered parts of a skeleton on the trail, including two nearly complete lower mandibles of some small mammal with the teeth of a predator. A part of you, living and hunting and contributing to new life for a time, and then feeding others after his or her own life ended.

Bones and teeth

All along the prairie openings, grasshoppers jumped out of the way. They were a welcome sight after the prolonged drought that might have reduced their numbers and left so many animals without food. And we saw tiger beetles foraging along the sandy trail. Evidently there were enough smaller insects to keep those fierce little predators fed, too.

A tiger beetle

It was a privilege to visit you today and experience these things. It is encouraging to find resilience in a time when some things are falling apart. We might lose faith in the old, familiar patterns of the world, the continuing gifts of the world, without coming here and finding your generosity and predictability. Thank you.