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.
On June 19 of 2018, I hiked most of the way up the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains within Big Bend National Park, and lost myself for a while in the silence and beauty and peace of the place. I wrote the following:
In one of Beethoven’s final string quartets (Op. 132), he wrote a slow, hymn-like movement titled, “Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity,” expressing his gratitude as he recovered from a serious illness. (An absolutely mind-blowing deconstruction and analysis of what Beethoven does in this incredible movement can be seen and heard here.) It is a profound, beautiful hymn, not sweet or sentimental, but exactly as I imagine how his soul would express what it means to be alive, in the full realization of how easily life could be gone.
I am hearing the opening notes of that quartet movement now, sitting on a bench in the Chisos Mountains. I have not had a close brush with death such as Beethoven had, but I do have deep gratitude for experiences like today’s walk up the Lost Mine Trail. Here, there is a sense of connection and healing of things that are broken, in a sanctuary where troubles cannot reach. No gift could be more appreciated than this.
It is completely quiet except for occasional distant thunder, birdsong here and there, and the beginning sounds of insects here at the end of the day. I keep returning to this theme, how genuine quiet brings such tranquility. That is especially true here in the calm mountain woodland just before sunset. The hikers have gone. Even the knowledge that black bears live on these slopes does not cause concern, perhaps because it is one more indication of how raw and unspoiled this place is.
Here I am, after sixty-seven years still able to climb this trail – not that it is an especially difficult feat – and sit in the silence, watching the shadows lengthen and listening to the song of this earth, uninterrupted by noise. It is a rare privilege in a world that spins and spins, this opportunity to sit still.
A thunderhead builds, and I watch it expand and drift this way. The thunder is still distant, one of those sounds that can be so relaxing from afar. The long, slanting rays of the sun highlight the tops of piñon pine and Emory oak. A nearby solitary bird trills and occasionally chirps, as the clouds turn rose-colored and the last light glows on the mountaintops. Soon it will be dark, and I will have to go, but I will remember these moments of solitude in the Chisos Mountains.
Once again this year I had the privilege of teaching herpetology to an incoming group of Master Naturalists. Today I led them on a short walk into the bottomland forest at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. Each year, I appreciate the Texas Master Naturalists even more; they are the “rangers” of the remaining wild lands and creatures of our state.
By “rangers,” I am drawing upon the stories within The Lord of the Rings, and referring to the Dunedain, the people who wandered the lands in the north of Middle Earth. The rangers knew those lands and protected them as best they could, just as the Master Naturalists learn about the land, animals, and the plants around us. Maybe you’ll forgive what could seem like an overly stretched analogy, but in a world increasingly separated from nature, we need to celebrate those who understand and are drawn to nature and who might help advocate for it. Who else studies the intricacies of natural history and spends time wandering in the forests and fields?
Becoming a Master Naturalist involves a series of classes and readings; you do not sign up, pay your money, and now you get the title just for joining the “club.” There are classes and field experiences, and after certification there are activities and ongoing training. Some of the people in the Master Naturalist program are quite expert in one or perhaps several areas of nature study.
What did we do today? We walked down through the bottomlands, past huge cottonwoods and other trees and in areas that periodically flood. Fallen logs and branches shelter numerous herp species, along with lots of wolf spiders and other invertebrates.
Two amphibian species dominated our walk today: The Southern Leopard Frog and the Gulf Coast (or Coastal Plains) Toad. The ranges of three species of leopard frogs converge near here, and some hybridization occurs, but the ones we saw appeared to be Southern Leopard Frogs (Lithobathes sphenocephalus). They are medium-sized spotted frogs that can leap long distances. Today’s leopard frogs had continuous, unbroken sets of dorsolateral ridges, no spot on the snout, and the light line on the upper jaw was not particularly bold – and that set them apart as the Southern species.
The other common amphibian was what I’ll just call the Gulf Coast Toad, since that’s what a number of sources continue to call it. Others refer to it as the “Coastal Plains” Toad, which is only one of many name changes. This toad’s scientific name has gone through considerable taxonomic chaos, seeming to land at the name Incilius nebulifer. It is a dark toad with a light stripe down the back and a light band on either side. The cranial crests – those bony ridges that the “true” toads have on the crown of the head – are dark and very obvious.
What about reptiles? There were a few, though no snakes today (a source of some disappointment to me). One really nice find was made by a very observant ranger who spotted the skeletal carapace (the bones of the upper shell) of a box turtle. To my eye this was pretty clearly the Three-toed Box Turtle species, not only from the shape of the shell but because a bottomland forest would much more likely have the Three-toed species than our other species, the Ornate Box Turtle. And because box turtles have become more scarce over the years, finding one here was exciting.
We also saw several young Little Brown Skinks – aka the “Ground Skink” (Scincella lateralis) in many field guides. The body length (not counting the tail) might be a little over two inches in a fully grown Little Brown Skink, but the ones we saw were smaller and younger.
They are brown or coppery-colored along the top, with a darker band along the side that fades toward the belly. Little Brown Skinks have small legs but move quickly, virtually “swimming” through the leaf litter to disappear under cover.
There was another lizard, for which I have no photo, but which I was excited to see. I had just talked with the group about the Prairie Racerunner, a beautiful lizard within the “whiptail” genus. Then, a small movement caught my eye along the edge of the trail and it was a little miniature striped lizard – a recently hatched baby with thin little light lines on a dark background and a tail that shaded from a sort of tan to a slightly bluish color (not typical of adults in our area). It was probably a Prairie Racerunner, but it’s not so easy to tell with a hatchling. The other related species is the Texas Spotted Whiptail, and those have spots between the stripes as adults and they do not have the lime green wash over the front of the body that the Prairie Racerunner has. Whichever species he “grows up” to be, I hope he does in fact grow up. I don’t see those lizards that much, and would love to see more.
Our short walk was over all too soon, and I hope these new Master Naturalists enjoyed seeing what we saw and will continue to get to know the Cross Timbers with the familiarity of one of Tolkien’s Dunedain. I’m encouraged by them, at a time when there’s not a lot of encouragement to go around. Congratulations to the group on becoming Master Naturalists … and rangers!
In August, mornings are the best
times to take a walk, although that advantage begins to disappear not long
after 9:00am as the bright burning sun rises to a nice, hot angle overhead. Add
a little overnight rain and it’s like wearing a hot, wet sweater in the
sunshine. But what’s a little sweat and discomfort when there are woods and
wildlife to see? My friend Barbara, her two kids, and I hit a trail through
part of the LBJ Grasslands Saturday morning with no regrets. Or only a couple
of regrets, maybe!
This trail threads its way through
oak woodlands and small openings that people call “pocket prairies” because the
Little Bluestem and other native grasses make miniature prairies tucked away
among the trees. A wild profusion of flowers hung on this year until the Fourth
of July (when Jo and I visited – see the earlier blog post). Some are still
tucked away in these pocket prairies, including lots of bitterweed, the
beautiful little scarlet pea growing at ground level, and other flowers. On the
way out, we saw a few Snow-On-the-Prairie, a favorite of mine.
However, if you walk along the
trail looking for flowers, you’re apt to run smack into the web of one of the Spotted
Orb-weavers that spin silk into concentric rings suspended between nearby tree
branches. These chunky spiders are extremely common here, so bumping a web is
pretty much unavoidable. Most of the time we saw the silken orbs and could
dodge around it or duck under it, but not always.
Nick, who is eleven, is the
shortest of the group right now (just you wait until he hits a growth spurt!)
and so he had the easiest time. He’s also got good eyes for such things, and
often warned us when we were about to face-palm into one of the webs. Nick’s
keen vision also got us our only reptile sighting, a very small lizard
skittering through the leaf litter. He described it as gray and said it did not
look like the Little Brown Skink we saw on our last trip here, so perhaps it
was a hatchling Texas Spiny Lizard. Nick also came up with an earthstar (a
“False Earthstar” to distinguish it from a related fungus), which I always
think of as a magical sort of thing to find. False Earthstars are fungi with an
outer cover that splits into rays and opens in response to humidity, exposing a
sac rather like a puffball, full of spores. Great find, Nick!
Dani liked to walk ahead of the
rest of us. She’s a friendly, smart thirteen-year-old who said she tends to
either go ahead or lag behind, even when she enjoys the group she is with.
However, walking ahead down spider web alley means you’re going to plow through
the webs – and she did, numerous times. She would smack into it, hands
desperately clawing at her hair and face to clear the silk away, and run back
to have her mom check her for stray spiders. After a moment’s recovery, off she
would go to risk further entanglement! I share that same reaction when running
into a web, and so I responded with empathy the first time – “Oh, no, I hate
when that happens.” But after a time or two when she took the lead again, I had
to chuckle when the inevitable happened. No harm done; like her brother, she
said she enjoyed the walk (except for the part about the hot, muggy, sweaty
morning … and the getting up early to come here). And, I’m pretty sure the kids
would want you to know that I had my own freaked-out, sputtering moment when I
ran into a web.
We stopped at a pond and looked for Red-eared Sliders poking their heads above the water’s surface, but this time did not see any. We did see plenty of Cricket Frogs, and a young American Bullfrog that ducked under the water before I could get a photo. Compared to the crowds of leopard frogs we saw on our walk on July 28, this pond was nearly frog-less.
As we walked, Barbara and I talked
about old times. She’s the founder of the DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club and
we’re both veterans of the DFW Herpetological Society. However, going out into
the field with her is a recent thing, and part of her motivation is seeing Nick
and Dani spend more time in wild (or semi-wild) places. We both see time spent in
nature as physically, psychologically, and spiritually nurturing. I don’t mean
“spiritually” in anything more than what happens when the “built” world is
stripped away and we have the chance to feel like we’re part of something
bigger than ourselves, something grand and beyond our comprehension. Of course,
the various parts of the natural world are comprehensible through the science
of biology, and we have some understanding of how the parts work together
through the science of ecology. But without picking it apart into food webs,
species, and ecosystems, on one level the whole thing seems bigger than our
scientific understanding. And being wrapped in it, walking through it, feels
After a while, the kids declared
that maybe we had walked enough, and so we sat in the shade on the cool, sandy
trail, drinking water and talking quietly. We talked a little about what we
were seeing, but we also talked about other things: how “paying attention”
works and the things that can interfere with it, what it’s like to navigate
different peer groups and how we can have different styles to match different
groups, and such things. Sitting in the shade of the Post Oaks after a walk is
the best way to have such conversations. The woods quiet the mind, relax the
spirit, and invite calm reflection.
The walk back was warmer and went more quickly. Before long the car came into view, but for me there’s always a little bit of reluctance to leave. There were still so many kinds of flowers tucked away in the grasses, and in a little bare patch of wet, sandy soil a group of small yellow butterflies was fluttering around, looking for the best place to land and pull a little moisture from the damp sand. So much to see and experience!
In honor of my wonderful friend Kelby Dupriest’s birthday today, I’m reprinting the following post that first appeared on “The Great Rattlesnake Highway.”
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost, That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly, wash again and ever again this soiled world. — Walt Whitman
Caddo Lake is a big, relatively shallow body of water on the Texas-Louisiana border. Its backwaters are a maze of waterways tracing through big stands of cypress and water tupelo, trees whose trunks broaden at the base and are draped in the bromeliad that is referred to as “Spanish moss.” Just south of the lake, on the Texas side, is a mixed pine and hardwood forest that is set aside as the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. But its history involves much more than a quiet pine forest with the calls of birds in the tree tops. It is a place where the forest is gradually recovering from a time when a workshop of war was built among the trees.
In the war years of the last century, the Army acquired 8,493 acres south of the lake, and in 1942, the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant began making the explosive TNT. During the 1950’s the plant made rocket motors and incendiary bombs, and this continued during the Viet Nam war. In 1988 it was the site where some U.S. missiles were destroyed as part of the INS treaty, beginning to de-escalate the arms race with Russia. Finally, in 1997 the Army indicated that the plant was no longer needed, and the land was transferred to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service the next year. Some places where the worst pollution had occurred were designated Superfund sites by EPA, and efforts were made to remove toxic chemicals. And so, we are really only about twenty years out from the time when concrete buildings scattered through the woods gave birth to bombs and rocket propellant.
Clint King and I first visited the refuge in 2011, during a terrible drought. It was very surreal to walk along the partially overgrown paved lanes through the forest, running across a big open expanse of concrete where some building appeared to have been razed, and then find a small concrete shell of a building, or maybe a series of upright walls. Walking through beautiful pines and sweetgum trees, we would emerge on yet another tombstone from the war effort – sometimes they were concrete pillars that would have held some tank full of who knows what, or a hollow bunker where a couple of bats roosted. And some areas had a vague pesticide smell, places behind a fence with a sign that said, “restricted area.”
Yesterday, Kelby Dupriest and I visited
the place again, a road trip for a restorative walk in the woods. Caddo was the
best of our regional options, with less chance of rain and more moderate
temperatures, and the wildlife refuge is certainly an interesting place. I have
seen it as a place struggling to hold on to its integrity as a beautiful upland
forest and stately cypress wetland. It seemed to me to be a place out of the
Twilight Zone: “Picture, if you will, a quiet southern forest, but a forest
that hides secrets.” The wind sighing through pine trees, the soft carpet of
pine needles, and the ferns and mosses, all make the sudden appearance of
concrete skeletons from a bomb factory all the more jarring. These structures
do not look like they housed the precise and efficient mechanisms of 20th
century technology; they look crude and rough, like something shamefully hidden
away in the woods.
Walking through the winter woods with
Kelby, I also remembered that the scars from the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant
should not blind me to the beauty of the place. There were signs that spring
will soon return to this forest. Trees are starting to bud, and in places there
were clusters of white blossoms. On the thick branches of a big oak, mosses and
ferns grew in a little garden where rain and fog and humidity make it possible for
them to survive, their roots digging into the tree bark. Life goes on, and
because of it, things begin to heal. Despite the things that we may do, this
earth is determined to create and sustain life, and to return things to the way
they work best, as soil and water, lichens, plants, and animals.
Maybe this time the walk was a little more hopeful.
The damage was done, and the place isn’t yet healed, but the forest is
gradually reclaiming the concrete and the fallen apparatus of war production.
Mosses and plants take hold and begin to break it down, and even the poisons
might one day be converted and filtered away. A garden is growing where the
work of war was once done. Think of it as a place where, year by year and inch
by inch, life has the last word. I don’t know how long the forest’s full
redemption will require, but someday it will come.
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!