“Mindfulness and Other Ways to Be in Texas Nature”

I’d like to invite anyone who is interested in mindfulness in nature to join me this coming Monday, August 15 at 7pm, when I will be talking about the practice of mindfulness in nature, the benefits of time spent in nature as well as the benefits of mindfulness. I’ll include a bit about my upcoming book about mindfulness in various places across Texas, with some photos by Meghan Cassidy, the photographer for the book. Additionally, I’ll touch on Kayla West’s and my LBJ Grasslands Project, an effort to document the natural and human history of the LBJ National Grasslands and take people out to introduce them to this wonderful place.

Guests of the Master Naturalist chapter are welcome, meaning that you do not have to be a member to attend. Details on my Calendar page and below.

Register in advance for this meeting: https://agrilife.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJUvfuqvrz0pHdED-vcXGPtLx74CJLTUXtvz

“I Hope One Day They Will Be Protected”

Today I talked with a great group of kids at River Legacy Nature Center in Arlington. The twenty or so children were in a week-long “Hands-On Herpetology” class, having fun and learning about native reptiles and amphibians. I brought a few snakes and we talked about things like how they live as well as being safe when around them.

The trail approaching the River Legacy Living Science Center

One of the snakes I brought is a Texas garter snake. He has a dark background color and three light stripes, big inquisitive eyes and an active, athletic build. We talked about how snakes with stripes generally rely on speed – and a sort of optical illusion – to get away from predators. The thing is that when “Tex” or other striped snakes move, it’s hard to see their motion. If they had spots, it would be easy to see the spots move as the snake’s body slipped away. The stripes, however, seem to stay where they are, until the stripes converge on the narrowing tail and then the snake is gone. The predator may be left empty-handed.

There’s a tendency for people to think of garter snakes as common “garden snakes,” but in the case of Tex it just ain’t so. He’s a member of an uncommon subspecies of garter snake whose fate is not well understood. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department considers the Texas garter snake to be critically imperiled. It appears never to have been actually common, but there were places here and there (particularly within prairie habitat) in which they might be found at times. A recent study noted that despite trying to find these snakes in the field in 2013 and 2014, researchers were not able to find any. Tex is a long-term captive donated to me years ago by a landowner in Hill County so that more people might see and understand Texas garter snakes.

The Texas garter snake (“Tex”) – photo by Meghan Cassidy

My discussion about this was much more brief with the kids, but they got it that this is a snake that may be disappearing. When I mentioned that they are not legally protected, a girl commented, “I hope one day they will be protected.” Me too. I hope one day we will understand the reasons for the snake’s decline in more specific ways that allow us to protect it. And I hope we continue to have children who, when they learn about a species that is in trouble, want to protect it.

We talked about being safe when out in the field where there could be venomous snakes, and I showed the kids a prairie kingsnake and the young bullsnake that was a big hit with kids in Dallas earlier this week. The kids asked good questions and they already knew a number of things from their week at River Legacy. But nothing quite equalled that girl’s comment. It was an offhand remark that revealed her empathy or her capacity to care about a unique, lovely little member of the natural community. It made my day.

More Children in the Woods

Children should walk in the woods, often. They should be able to do so fearlessly, knowing how to explore safely, with wonder and confidence. That doesn’t happen enough for kids growing up in urban areas. Recently, I was asked to talk with a group of kids at TR Hoover Community Development Center in Dallas. Despite living near the Great Trinity Forest, I was told that a concern about the presence of snakes kept many of the kids from exploring the woods. Volunteers from Master Naturalist programs thought I could help the kids understand snakes in a more realistic way. I was eager to try to help with that.

There are lots of possible reasons that urban kids might not visit the woods. There can be the fear that dangers lurk in the woods. Some of that can be realistic, and some not so much. When I asked about their worries, one of the children mentioned wolves. I could reassure her that there would be no wolves, but some of the wildlife might potentially be dangerous. Surprise close encounters with feral hogs, for example, or a copperhead half-hidden in the leaves. Kids need to know about watching where you are going and knowing what to pay attention to.

A young copperhead

If they haven’t developed the skills that can make a walk in the woods full of delightful discoveries and minimal risk, it would not be surprising. In cities and suburbs, children play inside most of the time, and a lot of that time is spent in front of a screen of some kind. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reports that elementary school-aged kids spend four to six hours a day in front of games, TV, tablets and phones, and the number is even higher for high school kids.

In 2005, Richard Louv published his book Last Child in the Woods, introducing the term “nature-deficit disorder.” It wasn’t a formal disorder, just a convenient shorthand for the way children – and the rest of us – are becoming estranged from nature. In the years following the book’s publication, a lot has been done to try to address that widening gulf between children and nature. I hope to contribute as much as I can to bringing us back together.

I talked with the kids at TR Hoover about what makes a forest and that we need all the “ingredients” in order for it to be a real forest. I said that most of the snakes they would find would be harmless, but that they should not count on that. The rules I suggested that they follow were:

  • Your EYES go first before your hands or feet
  • Don’t touch or pick up an animal when you aren’t sure what it is – no guessing!
  • If you see a venomous snake – walk away

In other words, never put your hands or feet somewhere until you know what is there. And don’t be quick to touch (I worry that a child will become overconfident and assume that they know something is harmless when it is not). And last, when you see what may be a venomous snake in the wild, there’s no need for panic and certainly no need to kill it. Sometimes a person has a well-intentioned but mistaken belief that they will make nature safer for the next visitor by killing a snake. They endanger themselves when they come in close contact and make the snake panicked and defensive. Killing the snake only opens up a place for another snake to fill the gap left by the dead one.

The kids loved the young bull snake I brought with me. She is a gentle example of one of our biggest native Texas snakes, and most of the children wanted to touch her. I would have gladly allowed this except that having thirty kids touch you (and perhaps a few try to grab you) is pretty stressful for a snake. Toward the end, I brought out a Texas garter snake, a subspecies that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department considers endangered in our state. His three pretty stripes and graceful body charmed the kids and the adults in the room.

The young bullsnake

I hope these kids are more comfortable and more prepared to get out there and safely explore the woods. I loved their questions and their energy, and would love to see them out there walking on a trail and discovering all kinds of wonderful things in the woods.

Our Lives in Nature … and in Society

There are no trees, birds, or mysterious nighttime choruses of frog calls in this post. There are only thoughts about how crucial it is to preserve the “our lives” portion of this blog’s theme – “our lives in nature.” Our lives are embedded in nature, and they are also embedded in societies and cultures. Whatever threatens our lives also threatens our role in understanding, protecting, and being with nature. When groups of people threaten our health and well-being, our ability to fully function as individuals, and our very existence, we begin to break down. And then our relationships with other people and with nature suffer.

So much is happening right now that is frightening. So much that threatens us and those we love. Against a backdrop of insurrection, there are calls for people to be murdered just because they are gay or politically progressive. Much of our government consists of people who insist that anyone should be easily able to get (and carry) a weapon of war. When anyone can carry a weapon of war, some of them will bring war to our communities. Americans own 20 million AR15-style weapons and when one of those owners murders school children, the power and danger of that weapon of war holds law enforcement at bay. To whom will we turn for protection when those who should protect us are out-gunned?

And now a Supreme Court that many consider to be at the lowest point in its history has decided that states, not women, have control over women’s bodies when it comes to abortion. The most extreme of the justices has announced that the court should go after the rights to use contraceptives, to privacy between sexual partners, and the right of people to marry who they love, regardless of gender. Some rights, like privacy and making our own medical and personal decisions, are not spelled out in the Constitution but previous Supreme Court justices protected them. The idea was that these important rights are implied by other parts of the Constitution, and government cannot interfere in such matters without a compelling reason. People talk about this as “substantive due process,” and the majority of the current Supreme Court is not a fan of substantive due process.

What can be done to protect our lives in society and in nature? What can I do to protect my own ability to be a meaningful part of society and nature, and not succumb to apathy, rage, or despair? Those things harm us personally and can destroy our ability to bring about change. I need to stay engaged with people and issues and feel emotions without being overwhelmed by them.

The work toward a more just and inclusive society is never really done. Social and economic pressures constantly shift, there are setbacks, and new generations bring new ideas and different perspectives. It is easy to become apathetic, especially for people who are working extra hard just to keep a roof over their heads and take care of their kids. People get tired. We sometimes feel the need to disengage with these problems, let someone else deal with it. The other side, people who want to impose their vision of how society should work, want us to be apathetic. They also want us to question whether we’re being reasonable because that’s one route to apathy. They suggest that we should calm down, but they have no such doubts about their own reasonableness.

When I feel the tug of apathy and the urge to disengage, I’m going to:

  • Be understanding of my need for rest and diversions
  • Recall how hard others have worked for issues that are too important to set aside
  • If necessary, re-evaluate what I do and choose tasks and roles that are a good fit for me
  • Visit the people and places that rejuvenate me
  • Re-engage – soon!

We also must avoid rage. I’m not talking about anger which is a thoroughly appropriate response to what is happening. Anger is almost unavoidable if what is happening truly matters to us. However, if I am consumed by constant anger, my energy may be wasted in attacks on others or a kind of simmering, unthinking rage. We can use the energy of anger, but we need to figure out how to use it effectively. This means I want to:

  • Attack problems, bad ideas, stupid arguments, cruelty, authoritarian political campaigns and the like; attacking the people associated with those things won’t help
  • Remember that rage comes from fear and helplessness, so when anger becomes overwhelming I will examine its sources and try to address them

That first commitment is difficult. I can think of one ex-President and several people in Congress who, in my view, deserve whatever ad hominem attack might come their way. It would feel good, but it wouldn’t really help. When I do it, my sense of identity is fractured between “we win through the ability to hurt others” and “we win through our ideas and through nonviolent resistance.” It’s difficult because giving a boot to the backside sure would feel good.

Another challenge is avoiding despair, that awful hopelessness where nothing seems possible. Despair paralyzes us. It’s akin to that protective response in the autonomic nervous system that shuts us down when nothing more can be done. That can happen when fighting is useless and all that the nervous system can do to get us through it is to make us immobile and numb. And I think that despair is its close cousin, a sort of surrender that sets in when nothing seems to work. 

When we are at the point of despair, it is essential to swim back to the surface, to take care of ourselves for a little and get ready to try something else. Here’s what I hope I can do:

  • Connect with someone who understands – they could sit with me and listen, and I would not be as alone with the problem; the point is to not be isolated
  • Like in the case of apathy, visit people and places that rejuvenate me
  • Examine the situation and look for good news, even if it’s small and seems dwarfed by the size of the problem; remind myself that something is possible
  • Find ways to contribute, to do something because doing something feels like I have at least a little bit of control, a way of making a difference; fight the sense of helplessness
  • Establish a sense of safety – physical safety if need be, as well as psychological safety

That last one, about psychological safety, is a little tricky. If I’m going to take a stand about something, I can expect that some will disagree and disapprove. I have to figure out what is tolerable. Name-calling by strangers might be no big deal but death threats may not be something I can let roll off my back. I need to figure out what adds to my psychological safety and what erodes it past what I can tolerate. Each person’s tolerance for risk is different, and that’s ok. 

If you want to work towards a just and inclusive society, thank you and I wish you great good luck in navigating the challenges I’m thinking about in these pages. We need healthy systems in nature as well as healthy societies. Our lives in one area depend on what happens to us in the other.

The Road and the Refuge

The road meanders ahead, 
Slips easily through trees and dappled light. 
Twin tracks through soil and grass 
Disappear at the edge of sight. 

Today I followed some trails and roads at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I needed some time to sit at “my” bench, located in a little patch of live oak and bluestem savannah. Under a live oak, the bench faces a little patch of little bluestem and a nice community of other plants.

The first thing I noticed were a few scattered slightly purple-pink flowers on slender stalks; Texas skeleton plant, according to iNaturalist. Each of these flowers had several small beetles rummaging around within it. They appear to be a species of metallic wood-boring beetle (the larvae may be wood-boring but the adults seem to love flowers). This place is very familiar from my winter visits but it was delightful to find out how spring changes it. There were other plants – tall wooly whites with their clusters of flowers and a plant with clusters of long, oval leaves with red stems extending up into the central leaf vein.

I also found a new grasshopper, identified by iNaturalist as a post oak grasshopper (and there were certainly post oaks nearby). Green and black striped bodies with orange and yellow back legs – wow, what a beautiful insect!

Birds were calling all around. There were northern cardinals singing, “cheer! cheer! cheer!” and one that sounded like “cheater-cheater-cheater!” I liked the first version best.

This road might bring us 
To some new place full of mystery, 
Or perhaps to a familiar spot 
With bees and songbirds for company. 

I followed the trail to the edge of the marsh, past a twenty foot tall dead tree whose bark had the appearance of being twisted, as though earlier in its life something grabbed it and gradually twisted it as it grew. There was also a hole, very much suggesting a woodpecker’s cavity nest, but it was only about seven feet off the ground. At the water’s edge there were dragonflies and a handsome brown duskywing skipper to see.

There was another road to walk, the familiar old path down into the bottomlands. The giant cottonwoods and other trees were like the pillars of a giant cathedral, and the place was full of life. One of the things I noticed was a bowl-and-doily spider, a small woodland spider whose web looks like a bowl suspended over a flat, old-fashioned doily.

I’m glad for this place – these trees – and all the other living things here. Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge lives up to that part of its name, “refuge,” as we can escape deeply enough into the woods and prairies to reach a place of sanctuary and safety.

The road continues on and on 
To quiet places where, with feathers and trust, 
We soar above grief and fracture 
And continue the journey as we must. 

Experiencing Awe

Halfway up into the Chisos Mountains, we reached a spot where the view opened beautifully. From where we stood, framed by pinyon pines, the mountainside sloped downward, dotted with yellow flowers, green clumps of sotol and shrubs. On either side the mountains rose up above us. To our right were the smooth granite towers of Casa Grande Peak, and to the left was the way upward along the Lost Mine Trail. The view south showed a series of mountain ridges, overlapping each other as they receded into the hazy distance. I sat under a pinyon pine, in awe of what was around me.

The word “awe,” in the form of the adjective “awesome,” is overused today to express, usually in an offhanded way, that something is good. French fries that manage to be both hot and crispy are “awesome.” The sense of confronting something mysterious and powerful has been wrung out of it, so that it fails to convey any suggestion of the meaning of “awe.” As defined by Merriam-Webster, awe is

an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime

The word’s origins nearly a thousand years ago emphasize terror or fright along with great reverence. Perhaps these emotions come from the religious connotation of being helpless and vulnerable in the presence of a God who could turn a person into a pillar of salt. In a more general way, we can experience fear in the presence of something powerful that we do not understand. As our species came of age in prehistory, a thing that seemed overwhelming and beyond our understanding might inspire dread and terror. Perhaps our survival depended on those emotions and the caution or shelter-seeking that would follow. Maybe a residual hint of fear adds to the emotional power of awe.

Standing in the Chisos Mountains, I was not aware of any terror or dread. There certainly was wonder and reverence, a deep respect for this place and all that it contained. The mountains, the Mexican jays and butterflies, the century plants that send up tall stalks ending in bunches of yellow flowers, all these things inspired fascination and gratitude. I was thankful for the privilege of being a great many miles from places where the experience of awe is shriveled to the size of an order of French fries.

I think we need the experience of awe, of being in the presence of the sacred or sublime and feeling moved by participation in something grand and wonderful. That might happen if we are in the audience as an orchestra plays the Shostakovich tenth symphony. It could happen as a jazz group plays Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” so that musicians and audience together resonate with emotion. Or we could be standing on a mountain or in a prairie, shedding our self-awareness for a time and becoming absorbed in the life around us. The result might be shattering, in the case of the second movement of Shostakovich’s tenth symphony, described as a musical portrait of Stalin. Or, it could be transcendent and joyful, in the example of time spent in nature. In a variety of ways, we can join with something bigger than ourselves and sit with emotions and perceptions raw and real as we look out at the world from this different vantage point.

Where are the opportunities for awe in modern life, goaded by capitalism and breathless in the need for multitasking, relying on Facebook and French fries for moments of joy? Not only do the demands of modern life crowd out the space for reflection and wonder, the stresses and catastrophes of the last few years have pushed us to the limit. In the face of pandemic, isolation, mutual suspicion and insurrection, and now war in Europe, the desire to escape can be strong. Looking for that escape, some people put their shoulder to the wheel all the more, and some lose themselves in anesthetic good times. The rest of us – all of us – grow more numb from waves of trauma. When too much pain and stress come flooding in, the self-protective circuitry of our minds may keep us from being overwhelmed. One way to do that is to put up a firewall between us and our emotions, leaving us shut down and numb. If it is used very much, this shutting down is a very expensive strategy. In addition to protecting us from trauma, it also cuts us off from much of our emotional life, including those vulnerable experiences of joy and wonder.

What can we do to create space in which awe might come to us and find us open to the experience? We can look for – and plan for – times when we can slow down. I am thinking primarily of slowing our minds, taking things one thing at a time, having time to pay attention in a purposeful way. We could “slow down” while running or paddling a kayak, so long as we are not preoccupied, multitasking, and mentally running on autopilot. In order to be open to what is happening right now we have to be present, here and now. We cannot be somewhere else and fully experience our lives.

The trick is to slow down during the time that we have, not spend it in things that keep the mind revved up and distant, such as on smartphones or TV. Why do we constantly distract ourselves? Some of it is because we’ve trained our brains to expect constant stimulation and we are bored when it becomes quiet. Also, when our minds are quiet and receptive and worries or unpleasant thoughts come crowding in, we use distraction to keep them at arm’s length for a while. A capacity to be more quiet, present, and open might not come easy, but we can practice it and gradually find it easier to sit in stillness and be open to whatever we experience.

Frogs (And More) Among the Palmettos

My friend Ruthann Panipinto was sure that Palmetto State Park, east of San Antonio in Gonzales County, would be a great place to visit. She really wanted to see if we could find a cottonmouth there, which involved neither bravado nor fear on her part. It was simple curiosity and love for those misunderstood pit-vipers. Ruthann has answered many snake relocation calls from fearful homeowners. She has captured and moved many venomous snakes and freed some that were stuck in glue traps, too. We both would welcome whatever reptiles and amphibians we might see. And so, we decided on March 29 as a good day for a road trip.

And if we didn’t see reptiles and amphibians (herps), Ruthann would be delighted with the plants that would now be flowering there. She remembered from a previous visit that there were lots of red buckeye with deep green compound leaves and upright clusters of red flowers. In addition to buckeyes, a couple of flowers – baby blue eyes and blue-eyed grasses – were blooming among the palmettos.

Blue-eyed grass

We started our walk at 2:30pm and within minutes we heard a gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) calling. That call is what allowed me to identify it, because the trill of one species (versicolor) is slower and musical, like a bird call. The other gray treefrog species (Cope’s gray treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis) has a faster raspy-sounding trill. If you see a gray treefrog without hearing the call, you won’t know which of those species you are looking at, because their appearance is nearly identical. Either one of them is a lichen-gray frog about 1.5 inches long. To add to the confusion, they can change color so that the gray has a little green in it, or the upper part of the frog may change to completely green.

We heard the frog, but finding it was something else entirely. Ruthann looked in nearby branches – it is a treefrog after all, and we usually find them hugging a branch or the trunk of a mid-story tree. The frog called again and Ruthann resumed her search, but these treefrogs are masters of ventriloquism. It seemed to be close and everywhere at once. Finally she found the frog, a little lump on a branch about eight feet above the ground.

Gray treefrog, hidden in the branches

We moved on, imagining that at nightfall, when frog breeding really ramps up, the choruses of frog calls might be pretty impressive. And within a couple of minutes, Ruthann spotted a green anole. Another critter capable of shifting color and blending in beautifully with the green palmetto fronds. At the moment he was mostly green, with what Ruthann aptly described as a little “blue mascara.” The anole’s eyes are partly covered with a little turret of powder-blue skin that shifts position with the lizard’s line of sight.

Green anole

We saw dozens of green treefrogs hugging the palmetto fronds, trying to get a little rest before night fell. These were not gray treefrogs that had shifted to green, they were a different species, a little less toad-like in form and with the most beautiful lime-green skin. A dark-bordered white stripe begins on the upper jaw and extends down the side of the body. Their beautiful golden Kermit-like eyes have pupils in a horizontally-flattened shape, like those of most frogs and toads.

Green treefrog

There was plenty of bird life above us. Ruthann was hearing parula warblers in the treetops, and we saw a red-shouldered hawk and at least one crested caracara. Wrens, northern cardinals and other birds were calling from within the forest above and the expanse of dwarf palmetto that stretched out around us.

As we walked along one of the trails, a couple of park staff approached on a Gator. They stopped ahead of us, intently focused on something at the edge of the trail, a sure sign of something Ruthann and I would want to see. It was a young cottonmouth, no doubt surprised to be surrounded by admiring humans. We were happy to see that the park guys were very protective of the little snake, and we took a few photos while explaining that we would never harm the cottonmouth. We watched the pretty little reptile turn back and slip under the palmetto fronds.

Juvenile northern cottonmouth

We talked with the park staff for a while about the local ecosystem and wildlife, and they said that they do sometimes see timber (aka “canebrake”) rattlesnakes in the park. That would be a wonderful thing to see, though we did not forget that we were already privileged to see some beautiful and fascinating species.

As the afternoon progressed, our discoveries included a Texas ironclad beetle. It looks like a cream-colored beetle that was splattered with black paint, and its claim to fame is that its exoskeleton is really, really hard, justifying the name “ironclad.” Internet sources such as the Field Station of the University of Wisconsin say that you would not kill it by stepping on it. Please don’t try that out in the field – this is a harmless, attractive beetle that just wants to go on its way munching on lichens as it roams around tree trunks or fallen branches.

Ironclad beetle

After a break, we returned to the trails as evening approached. One small squiggle caught our eyes, motionless on the crushed granite trail. A baby plain-bellied watersnake, born just last year, hoped that we would not notice a squiggly “twig” lying on the ground, even though the twig had scales and a somewhat banded pattern. I took a photo or two of this “twig” and then Ruthann scooped him up, now a fully animated snakeling struggling to get away. Nothing doing! Ruthann had to examine and talk to the scaly bundle of cuteness before releasing him to go on his way.

Along the Palmetto Interpretive Trail there is a water tower built nearly 100 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corp; its pump still pulls water out of the ground to help supply the swampland. A little after 7:00pm we found a luna moth sheltering under the stones at the base of the water tower. I can remember a time or two when I have found luna moths, and each time the beauty and form of this large moth have been irresistible.

Most of the luna moth’s life is spent as a green caterpillar. When it emerges from the pupal stage as a mature moth, it will complete its life in a very short time, so short that it does not even have a functioning mouth to eat. Females release a pheromone to attract males; they take flight in the darkness and some time after midnight they find each other and mate. During flight, the long trailing hindwings are said to interfere with bats’ ability to find them by echolocation.

Luna moth

This might be a difficult night for flying. As sunset approached, the breezes became strong winds, making the tops of the trees sway drunkenly back and forth. Gusts sometimes carried dust and grit through the woodland, and it occurred to me that we might wind up dodging falling branches. The sky became rosy and golden, giving this palmetto swamp a magical sort of glow.

The Palmetto Interpretive Trail at sunset

As the swamp was enveloped in darkness, we put our headlamps on and continued walking. The winds subsided for a time, and then periodically swept through the woods again. When the trees and palmettos quieted, the frogs began calling.

Frog calls represent males advertising themselves to females for breeding. When a female approaches a male, he gets on her back in a piggy-back sort of position known as amplexus. Then, as the female lays eggs, the male fertilizes them. Different frog and toad species have different calls, so that often the call allows us to identify the amphibian, much as bird calls help us identify birds.

Against a background of the accelerating “grick-grick-grick-grick” of cricket frogs, the gray treefrogs began to call. I mentioned that it is hard to locate the frog (though it must be easier for female frogs, since that’s the point of the call). Their voices seemed loud in the close darkness.

Cricket frogs and gray treefrogs

Then the green treefrogs began to call, with overlapping sounds a little like the honking of ducks. Sometimes it was almost as if they took turns, a few minutes for gray treefrogs and then some time for green treefrogs to be heard. Sometimes they overlapped.

Green treefrogs and cricket frogs, with the occasional gray treefrog

I usually describe it as “magical” to stand in the midst of these frog choruses in the darkness. Sometimes it comes near to being overwhelming if you are right in the middle of it, or at least the word “immersive” would apply. If you get the chance, give it a try, and although you may want to search for the frogs, you owe it to yourself to try turning off flashlights and headlamps and simply letting all that frog communication wash over you.

A gray treefrog located during the night chorus

As it turned out, Ruthann was right. Palmetto State Park had been a wonderful place to visit, a beautiful and unique pocket of wetlands next to the San Marcos River. The reptiles and amphibians we saw were species that we can easily see in other places, but if you look and listen as if doing so for the first time, they are amazing. And experiencing them in this palmetto swamp made it even better.

Hunting and the “Honorable Harvest”

(I wrote the following as I was working on a book on mindfulness in nature that is now in the editorial process at Texas A&M University Press. I wound up not using it, but I do think it has some useful things to say.)

Before there was agriculture there was hunting and fishing, and there are still communities whose food primarily comes from the fish they can catch and animals they hunt. For many other people, hunting and fishing are not necessary for subsistence but are activities that provide a break from everyday life and an opportunity to spend time in nature. While the number of sport hunters may be falling, in Texas there were 1.25 million hunting licenses issued in 2017,1 and ranchers still make money off deer leases. Fishing and hunting can reflect a very wide range of motivations, attitudes, and relationships with the natural world. As a result, hunting in particular elicits a polarized range of views. A 2014 nationwide survey of U.S. residents found that 87% of respondents agreed with hunting as a way of obtaining food, but only 37% agreed that trophy hunting was acceptable.2

Catching fish and hunting game can be done sustainably and honorably, according to a set of informal guidelines drawn from Native American beliefs and practices. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the Honorable Harvest as guidelines that are not written down but are simply acted upon in daily life. Her listing of the guidelines is as follows:

“Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them. Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life. Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer. Never take the first. Never take the last. Take only what you need. Take only that which is given. Never take more than half. Leave some for others. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken. Share. Give thanks for what you have been given. Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken. Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2013, Braiding Sweetgrass, P. 183

Imagine if these ideas of the Honorable Harvest were printed within each year’s Outdoor Annual, published by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, to promote a sustainable and respectful harvest in which each angler or hunter comes into the field as a member of a community, rather than as a stranger with neither kinship nor responsibility to that community.

Many already approach these activities with a strong emphasis on respect and sustainability, including many middle-aged and older hunters. An example is Brad Chambers, a friend who is a naturalist and a hunter who only shoots what he plans to eat. He told me about the intensity of his attention and focus when he is hunting, saying that at those times he notices much more than when he is just walking in the woods. While in a blind with his binoculars he’s watching all the wildlife, not just game species. Brad, who shares my interest in reptiles, remembered a time he was sitting very quietly on a log while hunting. A brightly-ringed coralsnake emerged from that very log and foraged for food while Brad no doubt sat in amazement and delight. Coralsnakes are secretive and shy, and an opportunity to watch one in this way is a rare treat.

Harry Greene is another hunter, also a retired professor and acclaimed author and researcher, who thoughtfully explores the implications of being a “born-again predator” in a chapter of his book, Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art (2013, University of California Press) He came to subsistence hunting during retirement after studying rattlesnakes and other predators during a long career in the field. Spending hours in a blind near a pond in central Texas, carefully waiting for an opportunity for a shot that will kill a deer quickly and with minimal suffering, he thought of the ambush predators he has studied. “Can I be as effective as the natural-born killers who have long held my interest, let alone carry out the task with equal grace?” (Pp.106-107). To be an omnivore – to eat meat at least sometimes – involves either subsidizing an industrial meat production that Greene finds repulsive or else taking on the role of predator. 

Now we have a younger generation of hunters who may not have grown up in hunting families and might at first have had no interest in hunting. Like Harry Greene, many of them are deeply concerned about industrial meat production, with its antibiotics, crowding of livestock, pollution of nearby land and water, and the energy required to transport animals for processing and then shipping of products.3 For them, it is more environmentally friendly and healthier to eat what they hunt. And these hunters, like some in the older generation, are likely to have a close connection to the land, appreciating and caring for the whole community of plants and animals, not just the game that they hope to bring home. Perhaps they will be among those who carry on the tradition of the Honorable Harvest.

1 Thompkins, S. There’s Safety in Numbers for Texas’ Hunters. San Antonio Express-News. https://www.expressnews.com/sports/outdoors/article/There-s-safety-in-numbers-for-Texas-hunters-12738710.php (accessed 10/29/20)

2 Byrd, E., Lee, J.G., & N.J.O. Widmar. 2017. Perceptions of Hunting and Hunters by U.S. Respondents. Animals, 7(11), 83.

3 Kuipers, D. 2020. Field to Fork. Orion, Vol.39 No.3, Pp. 30-35.

Goodbye, Winter

At LBJ National Grasslands yesterday, new green growth emerged from the soil everywhere. In this ecotone, this blended margin between prairie and woodland, what had been the sandy brown floor was now turning green. In some places it was hidden beneath last year’s grasses, and in other places around trees and shrubs the scattered green was unmistakable. In areas that were recently burned, where the soil now had the most contact with the bright, warming sun, the new growth was strong. 

It was March 19, the last day of winter. Tomorrow the Northern Hemisphere would be angled toward the sun just a bit more, reaching the vernal equinox. It would be the first day of spring. I spent most of the day at LBJ National Grasslands to say goodbye to winter in the biggest, quietest place I could wander through.  

It was bright and sunny, as if the weather had already passed the equinox and was intent on spring. I soon shed the hoodie I started my walk with, as the breeze warmed a little and the sun was higher in the sky. By the end of the day I would have a mild sunburn and no regrets for having walked and sat in so much sunshine. 

Limestone shelf at the top of an arroyo

I started up on a ridge where limestone lies beneath shallow soil. In places, erosion exposes the limestone from an ancient sea bed filled with small oysters. I walked around one spot where water had exposed a small limestone shelf and eroded back under it. This was at the top of one of those places where the land drops away from the top of the cuesta or ridge and forms a long arroyo down the hillside. Big junipers, hackberries, and woody shrubs fill these places where the land concentrates rainfall.  

On the top of the cuesta, prairie grasses grow where the soil is deep enough. In shallow soil, even in areas with bare limestone, you can find clumps of cacti such as the grooved nipple cactus with stems like rounded domes covered with spines. There are also prickly pear cacti whose pads in winter are colored in shades of faded brick red and pink. Elsewhere up on the ridge there are clumps of compass plant. I love those long deeply notched leaves that feel as if they were cut from stiff sheets of sandpaper.  

Mexican plum

A couple of hours later I was in the Cross Timbers woodland below the ridge, visiting a small pond. The breeze stirred ripples on its surface. The sunlight glittered brightly from the tops of those ripples, so that the pond’s entire surface seemed covered in sparkling jewels. When I let my focus soften, it was like a very fast twinkling of a field of stars. Even in simple places like this, the rest of the world drops away and there is only the pleasure of this moment in this spot. How we all long for such a refuge, and here it was. 

The stars in the water, only poorly represented in the photo

Throughout the winter the sulphur butterflies persist and dance across dormant prairies and sunny glades, but today more insect life was awakening. In one spot I began to see orange butterflies. At the edge of a clearing, two of them encircled each other and seemed to catch an updraft, swirling straight up to the crowns of the surrounding trees. When one landed, I saw that it was a goatweed leafwing. Their deep orange wings are scalloped, edged in ashen gray and the forewing and hindwing come to points. Their interesting name is based on description and natural history. The host for their caterpillars is “goatweed” or croton, and when closed the wings look just like a dead leaf.  

A goatweed leafwing

Finishing in this part of the grasslands, the practical but unimaginatively named unit 71, I drove to a couple of units near Alvord, including one of the beautiful and fragrant pine groves, and ended up in unit 30, one of my favorites. I let myself in through one of the green Forest Service gates and looked across the prairie and savannah toward the oak-juniper woodland. 

The prairie in “unit 30,” looking upslope

Here was that wonderful down-sloping prairie with little bluestem, Indiangrass, and flowering plants scattered throughout. Then the trail reaches the trees and turns sharply, losing itself in junipers, post oaks and other trees. The woods frequently open into little prairie patches as well as a few little ponds. I know the features of this part of the trail and I enjoy each walk there. I thought about why the places within LBJ National Grasslands have such an attraction for me, these “same old” trails. But the affection for the place holds. Walking here is visiting old friends, so why would I tire of it? And when I walk through spots in the grasslands that are new to me I usually see familiar landscapes, just arranged differently. Some of the appeal for me is the sense of being able to spread out, to be unconfined in grasslands and woods that keep on going. 

A nine-banded armadillo, oblivious to my nearby presence

So goodbye to winter, and welcome spring! I’m ready for frog calls and purple coneflower, and those spring evenings with distant thunder. And eventually I’ll come to miss the earth tones of dormant vegetation and quiet winter afternoons. In time I will welcome winter back again. 

Ready for Spring

As I drove through a northern part of LBJ National Grasslands, last year’s grasses were burned off along with some of the low growing brush. At the ground, some tree trunks were blackened, but the bark of the bigger trees protected the living tissue underneath. The trees will be fine. So will the grasses. The living roots below ground were already starting to send green shoots up within the charred clumps of little bluestem and Indiangrass. After all, what burned was just the dead stems and leaves of last year’s growth. What was pushed back was, hopefully, the growth of woody shrubs and tree seedlings. These ecosystems were built with periodic fire as an important ingredient. Without it, the shrubs and seedlings would grow into thickets, closing off open areas and replacing the meadows and pockets of prairie in this place.

The Forest Service had done well, lighting fires that would move across the land quickly so that it did its job with little real damage. Larger wildlife would move out of the way and most smaller animals would shelter in burrows or climb higher in trees. They would plan the burn when fuel loads would not be too high and wind conditions were right, keeping the fire within certain boundaries. With a well-planned burn, the fire would not linger long enough to become very big or hot. 

I walked a trail northeast of Alvord through areas cleared out by fire and looked at the green shoots beginning to emerge here and there where fire had burned last year’s growth to black stubs. Not only were grasses re-growing, along the surface of the soil – much more exposed than usual – new green growth was beginning everywhere. Spring is just days away (or already started, by meteorological reckoning).

Tiger beetle

A little movement caught my eye. A small wolf spider was scampering over soil and bits of wood on the trail. “Welcome, little survivor,” I thought. A fluttering spot of yellow bounded along the ground. The little butterfly, perhaps a clouded sulphur, had also made it through the fire or the wind had carried her in from nearby fields. Altogether in my walks in two areas of the grasslands today I saw sulphurs, variegated fritillaries, and a very dark swallowtail. At another point on the trail a small insect flew ahead of me, always landing back on the bare sandy soil of the trail. Sure enough, it was a tiger beetle with a metallic green head and thorax and a brushstroke of iridescent red on the wing covers (the elytra). It appeared that the invertebrates were doing pretty well after the burn.

Nine-banded armadillo

Somebody else may have noticed how well the invertebrates were doing. As I came around on the trail, I saw an armadillo about thirty feet away, busily rooting into the soil looking for anything edible. These tough, chunky mammals have a sort of leathery armor over their hips and shoulders, connected in the middle by nine bands of the same stuff (thus their name, “nine-banded armadillo”). Bony deposits are embedded in this modified skin, even on their foreheads and tails. They are very strong, as anyone who has tried to pick one up can attest. 

Armadillos need these attributes, because they are not gifted with strong eyesight or attentiveness to their surroundings. I approached the little beast quietly and downwind, moving mostly when he had his snout in the ground. Periodically he stopped to look around and sniff the air and then returned to the search for insects and grubs. I got within six feet or so, with no intention of doing anything more than taking a photo. At some point he figured out that I was present and ran off, sometimes bounding into the air with all four legs like a deer. It might seem like a parody of gracefulness, but he was fast and had a sort of armadillo-style agility.

Like Texas’ national forests, the national grasslands in our state are maintained in the belief that many different uses of the land are appropriate. These uses include mineral extraction along with recreation, hunting and fishing. We can walk and study nature on what’s left. I got my first reminder that this is a “multi-use” area when the path opened on a big cleared area with gas storage tanks and some sort of building. Nearby, a wide, bulldozed corridor led into the distance with signs saying, “Warning, natural gas pipeline.” Oil and gas extraction sometimes seems like the pre-eminent use of this place.

The other reminder of the multiple uses of the grasslands happened as I finished the walk back to my car. From the pine grove camping area came several loud shotgun blasts. Hunting is allowed on the grasslands, although what I was hearing seemed unlikely to represent hunting in any competent sense, as the shotgun was discharged sometimes four to six times in rapid succession. After a pause, more shots. I wondered if it was safe to get to my car. I decided that I must be hearing some sort of target practice and chose to believe the target was not in my vicinity. I have not had this experience before, but I have passed hunters with shotguns on the trail. When visiting, we should all keep in mind that hunters (and I suppose wild target shooters) may be present.

My last hour in the grasslands on this day was spent a little distance away, in a unit that had not been burned. I wrote this in my journal:

“I’m sitting at the top of a big rise, under a blue sky with a half-moon above and to my right. There is a light breeze, a little cool and a perfect balance to the warm sun behind me. It’s such a nice spring warmth that it’s hard to believe that in twelve hours it will be blustery, cold and raining. In my shade it is 68.9ºF and 59% relative humidity. 

“It’s quiet and peaceful – a sunny refuge with post oaks, butterflies and cardinals for companions. There’s a post oak in front of me with a trunk so thick that I was reminded of the baobab tree. A cardinal flew into it and is in the high branches – “cheer, cheer, cheer” – and when he faces me there is a bright crimson dot in the branches. 

“To my right is a huge oak with twisted arms, right out of a scary story. Along the trail a pair of small sulphurs, swirling together in figure-eights nonstop across the ground.”

The twisted branches of a post oak

I’ll be back soon, watchful for armadillos and butterflies and curious about the new spring growth of grasses and flowers after the burn. Frogs will be calling soon, especially if we get some rain. There’s a lot to look forward to.