How nature supports, informs, and inspires our lives
Author: Michael Smith
From the age of 11 (in 1962), I grew up mostly in north Texas. I’ve been interested in herpetology for all those years, writing, giving talks, and serving as a past-president of and editor for the DFW Herpetological Society. I wrote an article on venomous snakes published in Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, and co-authored (with Clint King) the book, “Herping Texas.” A second book on the natural history of reptiles and amphibians is in the editorial process at Texas A&M University Press.
Additionally, I have been licensed in Texas as a Psychological Associate since 1985 and have worked largely with children and families. My background and training are in the areas of applied behavior analysis and infant mental health, and I worked in an early childhood intervention program for many years. In that position, I worked with the child and family together, addressing a wide variety of issues including maltreatment and trauma as well as developmental disabilities such as autism. In recent years I have worked in a pediatric hospital, administering neuropsychological tests.
After the long reprieve from Texas heat, with the rains of spring and early summer, we’re back to a more typical August. With temperatures climbing and the sun beating down, I decided it was time to take a walk at Southwest Nature Preserve. I was there from about 1:45-3:15pm.
Cricket frogs and turtles were busy at the North Pond, and dragonflies busily and silently did their dance, swooping and hovering. The Common Whitetail more than justified its name as the commonest of the dragonflies I saw.
I watched all this for a while, but the sun was merciless and I wanted a shadier place to roost. Up the red sandy trail and under some oaks, I turned to see a Texas Spiny Lizard on a Post Oak trunk, her body making an arc as she hung upside-down there, head pulled up to look at me and tail drooping a little away from the tree trunk. Like all such lizards who survive to adulthood, she was wary, and disappeared around the trunk as I moved in to ask for a photo.
Texas Spiny Lizards have had a heck of a year, with rain and runaway plant growth supporting a bumper crop of bugs. I hope they persist (as they always do, in some numbers) during the dry periods that may come. I never get tired of seeing these cute little reptiles that sometimes tolerate you coming close but always at some point scamper away, up and around the trunk, too fast for your eyes to follow.
I followed the trail at the back of the preserve and climbed up to the ridge where there could be more breeze. Around the little loop trail at the crown of the preserve, there is an old concrete pad left over from when it was a working farm, and I sat there for a while, enjoying the quiet. There is almost always some airplane noise, but the spot is on the other side of the ridge from most traffic and so you can escape much of the mechanized soundtrack of modern life, for a little bit.
Sumac is common in places at the preserve, and their seed heads can be a bright, velvety red before drying and darkening into the color of dried blood. Rob Denkhaus tells me I could make a tea out of it, and I’d like to find some growing somewhere that I could harvest a seed head or two and try it!
On the walk back to the trailhead, I saw one more of a kind of butterfly that seemed familiar – was it a Hackberry Butterfly like one I’d seen on a previous walk? I got a photo, and it appears that I was right. (Thanks, iNaturalist!)
At the end, Weather Underground was reporting that the temperature in Arlington was 101ºF, with a heat index making feel like 117ºF. So it got pretty hot today, though the lizards and insects didn’t seem to care. It’s a little more troublesome for those of us whose bodies only operate in a narrow range around 98.6ºF, but a little shade and a little breeze got me through.
Florence Williams’ book, The Nature Fix (Norton, 2017) summarizes some of what we know about how time in nature affects our well-being. It’s a “popular” book, but that’s not to say it is short on substance. Among the endorsements inside the cover is one from famed biologist Edward O. Wilson, whose work includes the biophilia hypothesis which says that evolution has “wired” us to be drawn to nature and all its plants and animals.
Williams is a journalist, and what she writes in this book is woven into a series of interviews, walks, and back country expeditions with experts in the field. It’s the story of her active, “hands-on” research on the subject, and so it is an engaging read. It also lays out some of the evidence and a few of the theories about how nature might decrease our stress hormones, lower our blood pressure, and have other benefits to our well-being. My notes here are part of my effort to understand this better; it seems intuitive to me that being in nature has benefits to our bodies and souls, but I want to look at the science behind it. So here are a few notes from the first section of her book.
In Japan, forest therapy (sometimes referred to as “Forest Bathing”) or “Shinrin yoku” is quite popular. It is based on Shinto and Buddhist practice and seeks to let nature into your body through all five senses. It is also linked to E.O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia, that we have an innate emotional affiliation with other living organisms. In forest therapy, people spend time in forests and become immersed in the sights, sounds, smells, and other experiences there.
If this sounds a little sketchy, consider the results found by Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physical anthropologist in Tokyo. He found that leisurely forest walks decreased cortisol, compared to urban walks. (Cortisol is a stress hormone, and with chronic stress cortisol creates problems, from dysregulated blood sugar to heart problems, depression and anxiety, memory and concentration problems, and so on.) Forest walkers had decreased sympathetic nerve activity, lower blood pressure and heart rate. (The constant stimulation and demands of life trigger activity from the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in “fight or flight” reactions. On the other hand, relaxation and feeling at ease are associated with a system that works in opposition to it, the parasympathetic nervous system.) When the walkers completed questionnaires, the nature group report better mood and less anxiety.
More evidence comes from psychologist Roger Ulrich, who connected subjects to EEG and showed them slides, either of nature or of urban scenes. Those who watched nature slides had greater alpha rhythm, which is associated with relaxation and release of pleasurable endorphins. He also exposed subjects to a stressful activity, and then had them watch 10 minutes of either (a) nature scenes, or (b) urban scenes. Within five minutes, the sympathetic activity of the nature scene group returned to baseline, while the other group only partly recovered.
Qing Li, an immunologist at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, looked at the impact of mood states and stress on the immune system. Li was interested in NK cells, a kind of white blood cell that sends self-destruct messages to tumor cells or virus-infected cells. Stress can decrease the number of these beneficial NK cells. Li took a group into the forest for three days that included hiking in the woods for a couple of hours daily. They had a 40% increase in NK cells. Li wondered if this was due to aromatic volatile substances coming from trees, and so Li had thirteen people spend three nights in a hotel where a humidifier could vaporize oil from hinoki cypress trees (or, for a control group, just water vapor). The cypress oil resulted in a 20% increase in NK cells, compared to controls.
I’m seeing more of the LBJ National Grasslands this summer than I have in a while, and it’s been wonderful. The rainfall over the past eight or nine months have resulted in a bonanza of plant life, which leads to a bonanza of bug life, and so on down the food chain. Yesterday, I visited again with a couple of “bug nerd” friends (shorthand for “people who know a lot about invertebrates and other stuff I don’t know”).
Actually, Meghan and Paul are all-around fans of the entire natural world, which is just my kind of folks. We talked about the Post Oaks and Blackjack Oaks which are the signature trees for this ecoregion, and Little Bluestem grass and Partridge Pea and what the difference might be between Meadow Pink and Prairie Gentian, and bent over to look at a hundred different plants. Meghan suggested it would be fun to come back and try to inventory all the diversity of grasses and forbs in a one-meter space, which we all agreed would be a long list.
But just as I am first and foremost a “herp nerd,” these guys are “bug nerds” and more specifically, Meghan specializes in spiders. It’s an interesting and probably helpful collaboration, as I still have enough residual arachnophobia that I won’t handle spiders (though I can examine and photograph them with no problem). As the sun neared the horizon after 7:00pm, we started noticing lots of the orb-weaving spiders that cast their nets between branches and across the trail. I admire the concentric lines in their webs, but hate running into them.
Then, as we talked about the three-lobed leaves of Blackjack Oak with the little spine at the end of the lobes, I spotted a favorite amphibian, resting quietly on one of those Blackjack leaves and waiting for night to fall. It was a Gray Treefrog, currently showing the mottled green color that they can assume when they are not mottled shades of gray. There was no telling which species of Gray Treefrog we were looking at, as Hyla versicolor (sometimes called the “Eastern Gray Treefrog”) and Hyla chrysoscelis (Cope’s Gray Treefrog) are just about indistinguishable except by their calls and their DNA. H. versicolor has a second set of chromosomes, so that they have twice the number of chromosomes as Cope’s Gray Treefrog. Cope’s also has a more rasping and less musical trill than the Eastern Gray Treefrog.
I’ve noticed that I didn’t take photos of the spiders we saw, but I did take a couple of photos of grassland insects. One was a stick insect we came across, and the other was one of the thousands of grasshoppers (and a few katydids) that scattered as we passed through.
The grasslands were beautiful as sunset approached and a nearly full moon took its place in the sky. We were privileged to be able to visit this place.
But we weren’t done yet. Some evening road-cruising failed to turn up the usual Broad-banded Copperheads, but we were treated to a couple of Western Ratsnakes. These snakes are harmless – or let’s just say that they are “non-venomous.” Completely mild-mannered when left alone, they are pugnacious when picked up. I picked up each one so we could examine these beautiful animals, and Meghan wanted to interact with them, too. Knowing they could not hurt her in any important way, she said that she was unconcerned about being bitten. The second one was more than willing to put that to the test, and promptly bit her. After we admired and then released the snake, we looked at the pattern of little punctures on her arm, and she was delighted to see how these snakes have two rows of palatine teeth (fixed to bones in the area where the palate would be in the upper part of the mouth) between the usual rows of maxillary teeth. Four rows of teeth! And being able to discuss and enjoy that little bit of natural history based on the bleeding evidence of your arm, that’s the sign of a real naturalist!
A day when we might celebrate the founding of this country, and what that meant. We refused to live under a tyrant and were determined to go our own way. What amazing possibilities there were, as expressed in words like, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ….” Many of our dreams are noble, even if we stumble sometimes.
But Jo and I could not stay home and watch on TV as tanks rumbled through Washington, D.C., even if they were our tanks. We decided to celebrate what Woody Guthrie celebrated, that we share a beautiful and extraordinary landscape, some parts of which belong to all of us. It is our collective inheritance, unless we give it away or destroy it.
We decided to visit the LBJ National Grasslands up above Decatur, mostly in Wise County. It is a patchwork of over twenty thousand acres scattered among small farms, ranches, or homes. Most of it is mixed oak woodlands with little pocket prairies or big open areas where native grasses like Little Bluestem and Indiangrass can flourish. The soil is mostly sand or clay, and in places the loose sand has eroded around the streams and ponds. The Grasslands is located within the Western Cross Timbers ecoregion and seems pretty typical of the Post Oak and Blackjack Oak forests and patches of prairie.
My visits to the Grasslands started in 2001, with an afternoon and evening spent finding reptiles and amphibians with Steve Campbell. Multiple kingsnakes, ratsnakes, watersnakes, greensnakes, copperheads, turtles, frogs and toads later (all in one day!) the place was a favorite. Over the years since that first trip, I have tried to educate myself about some of the other plants and animals there. It is a work in progress, and I have a lot still to learn – and what a pleasant task that is! “Which juniper is that? Is that a Gulf Fritillary butterfly? What is that flower?” The questions just keep coming, along with a few answers.
One trip to the Grasslands happened on a really hot day in late May last year when I led some members of the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge in search of herps. The first part, which we will call the “heat exhaustion” portion of the trip, failed to turn up the Texas Spiny Lizards and Western Coachwhips that Clint and I anticipated. However, at 7:30pm (with the sun low and late afternoon shading into evening) we spotted an Ornate Box Turtle, a species that is no longer seen nearly as often as it once was. Then, exploring around a small pond just after dark, we saw a couple of ribbonsnakes, a watersnake, and we watched a baby Northern Cottonmouth swim across the water to avoid us. My attempts to get a good photograph of it clearly demonstrated how nonaggressive these snakes usually are, as it kept trying to get away without ever attempting to bite. Finally, at the end of our visit, we were able to gather around a beautiful Broad-banded Copperhead on the road, another potentially dangerous snake that really just wants to be left alone.
Today there were no box turtles, although I did think about that possibility when we arrived early enough in the morning that the temperatures were very moderate. We didn’t see any snakes, either, but there were plenty of flowers, and the landscape was green and lush after all the rain we have had this spring and early summer. The season of basketflowers and thistles is winding down, though we did see some in places. A metallic green bee was visiting one of them.
We both love Little Bluestem, and today there were plenty of pocket prairies and fields with the blue-green clumps of this native grass among the other grasses. The little bunches of bluish leaves are gorgeous, but as they send up those straight, tall stalks they really stand out.
In one of those bluestem prairies I spotted a few White Rosinweed, a species of compass-plant. This one is a Texas endemic – that is, found nowhere else but in the central part of Texas, in prairies from near the Red River down to Austin. Its leaves are big, with long and narrow lobes, with a stiff, sandpapery feel. The white flowers are beautiful.
We also saw lots of Spotted Horsemint (aka Spotted Beebalm). Jo is a particular fan of this plant, which is taller and less colorful than Lemon Beebalm, but its whorls of tiny-spotted flowers (in layers alternating with leaf-like bracts that may be tinged purple) are beautiful when examined close up.
There were also patches of what I imagine were Black-eyed Susan and Meadow Pink, making a beautiful carpet of yellow and pink in some open areas. We saw them at roadside and in open areas near stands of oak, and the flowers made a gorgeous tapestry.
We are also both big fans of Silverleaf Nightshade, a plant with beautiful violet flowers with yellow stamens. The stems and leaves are somewhat hairy, making them look rather pale. They are related to the tomato plant, but the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center describes Silverleaf Nightshade as an “aggressive, poisonous weed.” That doesn’t discourage us in the slightest in our appreciation of this plant. In one location, we found several beetles crawling on these plants, a sort of velvety-tan insect with little or no markings on the wing covers or elytra, but black antennae, legs, and black-bordered segments of the abdomen. Best I can tell, these may have been some sort of blister beetle in the genus Epicauta (thanks, Meghan Rose, for suggesting this identification).
Grasshoppers were everywhere, ranging from the slender, slant-faced grasshoppers to big lubbers. I took a photo of a beautiful katydid, which iNaturalist suggests was one of the round-headed katydids.
In one little roadside puddle, I spotted a young bullfrog with his head angled up out of the water, but he retreated before I could get out of the car and I didn’t dig through the caliche mud to try to find where he was hiding. The same little spot had several cricket frogs. We weren’t sure where these frogs will go when the puddle dries, but I’m confident they will find their way. We were just grateful that they provided a few sightings of herpetofauna while we were out.
And that was our Fourth of July celebration. No fireworks, no “blowing stuff up,” and no parades. Just an appreciation of one spot among the public lands shared by all of us.
I climbed up “Kennedale Mountain” today, an old-ish man with pulmonary disease scaling the summit easily. Kennedale Mountain is a ridge at the Southwest Nature Preserve. A primitive trail gently climbs to a sandstone ridge at the top via a series of switchbacks. On the lower slopes there is a section of plastic netting that urges people to stay on the trail and not climb straight up the hillside, where they would damage vegetation, churn up the sandy soil and make erosion likely.
I wish that unsightly barrier did not need to be there. Why would people take the short cut to the top? Is there a race? Frankly, I’d much rather take that slow, meandering path and see all the little wonders that can be seen on the way up. If you’re not in a hurry, there is a lot to see.
Even the plants that some would consider a nuisance can be pretty spectacular. It seems that sunny openings where there is adequate moisture and sandy soil are just great for Texas bull nettle, a plant that I carefully avoid brushing up against. Its hairy, spiny branches and leaves and the pure white blossoms are a real treat, though.
The ridge at the top has a flat, open area where Little Bluestem grows between scattered Blackjack Oak, and the shelf of iron-rich sandstone looks great, if you avoid places where people have carved initials.
Elsewhere within the oak woods, which are a remnant of the Eastern Cross Timbers ecoregion, lichen-covered boulders are scattered among Blackjack and Post Oak, Sumac, and a wide diversity of other plants. Dragonflies hover and swallowtail butterflies flutter among the trees. There is really a fine diversity of butterflies and skippers to be found there.
The beautiful dark skipper was resting on sumac, a shrub which can easily get out of control but is a beautiful plant. Today the seed heads where brilliant red; in the fall the leaves will be even redder.
This season, horse mint is growing like crazy in places; in lower areas the purple Lemon Bee Balm is common, and in other areas the Spotted Horse Mint grows in profusion. It’s a nice-looking plant, but if you look closely, it’s a spectacular plant!
Speaking of looking closely, there was a gorgeous little bloom growing low to the ground here and there in the woods, and you have to stop and really look to appreciate it. Bend down, spend a little time, and notice that it grows on a sort of trailing vine and that some narrow green seed pods are developing. According to iNaturalist, it’s “Fuzzybean,” which sounds like a Sesame Street character but is actually a legume.
Looking closely and taking your time pays off richly at the preserve. There are all kinds of flowers that you could lose yourself in. I stood in the steaming sunlight, admiring and trying not to drip on my camera. (Most of the close-ups were taken with an iPhone, and while I don’t claim that they’re anything special, I think that phone may be my best close-up camera.)
On the way back, there were more butterflies, including a beautiful Question Mark, a kind of butterfly that is utterly camouflaged with wings closed but is a beautiful study in orange and dark brown when it opens those strangely-curved wings. It was doing what butterflies do, sipping on a clump of scat. We don’t like to think about such beautiful insects getting nutrition from feces, but there you are.
On the way back, I passed the place where that rogue trail joins the “official” trail near the top. Stacks of tree branches were piled there to discourage the cut-through down the slope. I still cannot imagine why anyone would come to this amazing place and want to take the short cut. I hope that they at least stopped somewhere, took a good look at something, in their race to do whatever they were doing.
(You probably noticed a lot of references to iNaturalist. I use it pretty regularly and it’s a wonderful way to get suggested identification of what you’re seeing and also to share your observations with other naturalists and with the scientific community. I’m pretty well-versed in reptiles and amphibians and have learned as much as I can about the bigger picture, but there’s an incredible amount that I don’t know. The iNaturalist app helps a lot.)
In late January of 2018 I visited Caddo National Grasslands for the first time. I walked through the quiet winter forest alone, enjoying the solitude but also wanting to see the open patches of grassland that I knew had to be there. I finally found it at the end of the day, and later I wrote about those moments:
“The sparrows might call with their high-pitched ‘stip,’ and dormant grasses might crunch as I walked, but such sounds did not have to compete with highway noise or other mechanized sounds. It was quiet, in a way that perfectly framed the occasional bird call. Here was a refuge, a sanctuary in that original sense of a sacred place. Like so many other natural places that have barely been touched by human activity, it was a place where the ‘noise’ of everyday life could be stripped away, down to the experience of the garden in which we originally lived. That garden feels like home, even if most of us would not know how to live there now. It can be a brutal world of predator and prey, unforgiving of accidents or sickness, but in our sprint through the modern world we might be forgiven if we romanticize that world just a little, and want to step away and stand in the late afternoon sunlight and listen to the birds.”
Moments like those are important to me, and worth sharing with others. I didn’t see anything of great biological importance, but I experienced something of psychological, maybe spiritual importance. It might be some individual quirk of mine, that the solitude and golden light in the savannah grassland worked such magic, but I don’t think so. Many other people have similar experiences in nature, perceptions and feelings that transcend the simple reality of grasses and leaves. They may experience a sense of peace and joy, wrapped in that moment and that place. Past and future concerns drop away and for a while do not exist – only the present, only right here and right now.
This is an example of what is referred to as “mindfulness,” a practice that is now widely used in therapy and mental health. It is not new; it has much in common with meditation techniques that have been used for centuries. A focus on the present moment, letting go of thoughts about the past or future, quieting the inner discussion in which we evaluate what is happening, simply accepting our current experience – these things happen in meditation. You do not have to be out in some quiet, isolated spot in nature to practice mindfulness, but for many of us, nature makes it easy to let everything go and be at peace.
Our connection with nature has been explored by lots of people, in many ways. Famed biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote about the “biophilia hypothesis,” the idea that our species is wired to be attracted to other life as a result of evolution. Researchers are testing how humans respond to experiences in nature, compared with experiences in urban settings. They are finding numerous benefits, in terms of stress hormones, ruminative or depressive thinking, and so on, when we spend time in nature.
In this blog, I want to explore some of these ideas. What does it mean to say that a particular time spent in nature was “spiritual” or gave rise to states of mind that seem spiritual? Are the health benefits of time in nature (such as in the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”) real and significant, or just the opinions and testimonials of people who simply want to believe?
I also want to simply share experiences in the field. I have written a lot about the natural history of reptiles and amphibians and I often wear the “natural scientist” hat while writing about nature facts. As important as the objective findings of science are, the subjective experience might be just as important. Words are usually inadequate to communicate the beauty and meaning of these experiences, but I have to try to do so because such things cannot be kept quiet.
I hope you will join me in this exploration, and I hope that you post a comment if something resonates with you or if you have another way of looking at something that can expand the discussion.