A Curmudgeon’s Day in the Grasslands

On November 29th the LBJ National Grasslands had such a fine day that I spent four or five hours there and could have stayed longer. I came away filled with sensory impressions and not a lot of observations of animals (there were some butterflies, a dragonfly, a few vultures, and humans – one with a dog and a gun). It was a mostly quiet day, filled with sunlight, color, the feel of damp sandy soil, and periods of solitude.

I got to the gate at unit 75 (above Cottonwood Lake) about 11:15am, and started down the trail to the northeast. It was sunny and bright, with temperatures already in the 70s. I was passed by a couple, he on his bicycle and she on her horse, who I would see multiple times. They said “hello” with cheerful smiles, and should have taken nothing away from my walk. And yet, solitude is what I was after, so I looked for spots a little off the trail.

A track took me away from the trail and through an ungated and unmarked opening in a fence and out into a long meadow. This seemed to be the separation from society that I was looking for, until the couple crossed in front of me down a small trail. Their momentary presence was no problem, and I got back to sitting and taking some notes. It was 75 degrees and 49% relative humidity in the shade, and it would warm a few more degrees as the day progressed.

I kept following the trail, now headed east through oaks and past small ponds with a few cottonwoods. Scattered yellow cottonwood leaves made a beautiful pathway flecked with gold. When the land rose into a big open prairie, I sought out an old bois d’arc tree and underneath I found clumps of old rose bushes and some green grass like that which might have grown in someone’s yard long ago. Although I didn’t see the remains of any structures, I expect this was once a homestead. Perhaps those rose bushes were planted in a spirit of optimism that did not survive the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

And then, the couple on the bicycle and horse rode by. Now, every place I went there was an anticipation of their coming and going. I began to feel truly like a curmudgeon. They had as much right to be there as I did, and they were doing nothing to disturb my day. Except for that anticipation that now sat alongside my sense of stillness and openness.

The quiet sound of breeze in the tree tops was joined by a constant mechanical drone. On my way in, I had passed someone mowing the road right of way with a heavy blade on an arm mounted to a tractor. He had now resumed, sounding like heavy road construction going on just over the rise. I walked out of unit 75 and headed north.

Up in unit 15 the “orange” trail snakes along near one of the camping areas and through several other units east of Alvord. I joined the trail at a spot beside Forest Service road 908 and walked westward through woods and little pocket prairies. Here, at 2:00pm, was all the quiet and solitude I could wish for (making allowances for the occasional airplane going to or from DFW). I stretched out on the cool, sandy ground, shaded the sun with my hat and just listened to the sounds of leaves and breeze.

Like most introverts, I have relationships with some people I could not do without, and casual friendships that are important to me. But social gatherings are not a natural habitat for me, and frequently I need to retreat somewhere in nature and spend quiet time. This warm autumn day was so needed, and now the curmudgeon’s heart beats with a little more peace and well-being.

A Cold Walk for the Grasslands Project

On 11/11/22, four of us met at 9:00am in “Unit 30” of the LBJ National Grasslands. It was, ironically, a walk that had been rescheduled from November 4th because of bad weather. The past few days had been unseasonably warm and then, in the hours prior to the walk, the temperature crashed and it rained. I drove up from the metroplex through a light rain and cold wind, wondering if anyone would show up.

At LBJ National Grasslands

However, by the time I got through Decatur, the rain had ended and the clouds were thinner. Driving further north, I pulled off County Road 2560 and hung my thermometer from a nearby little plum tree, noting that the wind felt very cold. After a few minutes the temperature registered as 49 degrees, which is not exactly arctic. The relative humidity was 59% as a result of the morning’s rain.

The Facebook members of the LBJ Grasslands Project include people who are undaunted by an autumn cold front, and soon Debbie pulled in, followed by Sandy and Gary. Soon we were walking through the grasses and talking about little bluestem, Indiangrass, and how fire enables the prairie to survive.

It’s a fairly short walk down to the woodland with its oaks and junipers. We stopped just inside the trees and I recalled another quiet November day when I was here with Meghan, listening as waves of breeze moved through the woods. The movement dislodged a few leaves and we could hear them impact the branches, so deep was the quiet.

Some oak leaves were changing color, and it seems that along this trail it is smaller oaks, seedlings and saplings, that are most likely to turn. We followed the trail through yellow grasses, deep green junipers, and a few oaks with splashes of color.

A young blackjack oak with a lipstick smear of red

Further along, through the reddish sand and mud of the trail, we reached a spot where a short detour from the trail brought us to a little pond. Like the earlier place on the trail, this was a spot with memories attached to it. A couple of years ago I watched the late afternoon sun reflected off ripples in the pond, creating ribbons of light on the opposite bank in the dark shade of junipers and other trees. I wrote about those few minutes of small-scale wonder in the book on mindfulness in Texas nature that is now in the publication process.

The little pond, even smaller now due to the ongoing drought

Mindfulness is one of the things we touch on in walks for the LBJ Grasslands Project. People can visit the grasslands in a lot of ways including mindful attention and also a science-based intellectual analysis. My earliest visits were focused on finding and observing reptiles and amphibians, with thoughts and discussion with companions about where they might be, how species interact with each other, looking for characteristics that allow us to identify species and subspecies, and judgments about whether we were successful in the field. Birders, botanists, and other specialists can be caught up in much the same kinds of intellectual activities. A lot of good can come from such observing and questioning.

However, I found that it was important for me to set aside time to experience the grasslands directly, without filtering it through the lens of intellectual understanding or the success of my searching. I spent more time practicing mindfulness – being more quiet inside and out, not letting thoughts snag me away from what was happening right here and right now. Maintaining my attention on sights, sounds, and even smells and touch would make a walk more vivid and detailed.

In LBJ Grasslands Project walks, we make time for several ways to experience the prairies and woods, including some discussion and nature interpretation, and some time for mindfulness (especially when participants say they would like to spend some time on mindfulness practice). And we encourage participants to express themselves about what they have experienced. Nature journaling is an opportunity to reflect on our time in nature, often making that time more meaningful and consolidating memories. Sometimes people write a letter to the grasslands, and that often brings out expressions of gratitude and a sense of relationship to the place.

Junipers surrounding a little oak

Today’s walk was cold, yes, but also beautiful. When the grasses and trees are wet from rain or fog, their colors are often deepened. It was quiet and we seemed to have the place to ourselves (not that it is ever crowded), bundled up and delighted with the world around us.

Fort Worth Nature Center, October 30

It was a sunny mild autumn day and impossible to stay inside, and so I climbed up to the ridge at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge to visit Lone Point Shelter. The narrow path hugs the ridge, and on the last part you climb a series of stone steps.

Lone Point, when built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, offered a wooden roof as shelter, but now all that remains is the rock framework. Still you can sit on the inside rock ledges like benches, perfect for having a snack or writing in a nature journal.

Historic photo, from a sign at FW Nature Center & Refuge

I sat on the rock bench at 2:22pm, and it was sunny with scattered puffy clouds and a slight cool breeze. It was 74 degrees (and 46% relative humidity, according to the thermometer/hygrometer that I carry with me). Back to the northwest and away from Lake Worth, the trail circles a beautiful savannah with live oak, cedar elm, and open areas with grasses, prickly pear cactus, and Arkansas yucca.

Butterflies were everywhere – small yellow ones flying along the ground, bigger ones with pale yellow or brilliant yellow-orange bouncing among the yucca and cacti, American snouts, a red admiral, a hackberry emperor, and a big swallowtail (probably a tiger swallowtail from my glimpse of the yellow and black pattern before it disappeared around a possumhaw bush.

An American snout (lower center), camouflaged among the fallen brown leaves
A clouded yellow butterfly caught in flight

I chewed a few juniper berries, which I think were not fully ripe but they did have a little of that wonderful aromatic taste. It was warm (79 degrees) but still very comfortable, and the sky was a clear and fairly deep blue. I walked back to the Lone Point structure thinking that today was really remarkable and feeling very grateful.

Here the savannah slopes down toward woodland
A common buckeye

I would gladly have stayed, watched the shadows lengthen and seen the sunset, but the refuge was going to close. I looked around and this beautiful place a little more, got a glimpse of Lake Worth below the ridge, and headed back down toward home.

A Woods Full of Hackberry Emperors

Sounds strange, right? What exactly is running around trying to be ruler of the woods? Butterfly folks know that the hackberry emperor is a butterfly whose earth-toned wings are beautifully spotted, not bright and showy like monarchs or fritillaries, but really lovely nonetheless. They are called hackberry emperors because the hackberry tree is the host plant that feeds the caterpillars of this species.

A hackberry emperor

Anyway, today the woods were alive with butterflies, mostly hackberry emperors but also snouts and others. There were small yellow butterflies and little gray-white ones flying near the ground. It was one more sign of autumn, as butterfly activity ramps up.

This afternoon I was at Sheri Capehart Nature Preserve, the wonderful little remnant of Eastern Cross Timbers in Arlington and an oasis for butterflies and many other things. It has been a difficult year at the preserve, full of drought and record high temperatures. Then, briefly, there was drenching rain, and a return to drought.

The water level in the north pond was low today, lower than I have seen it in quite a while. I could see the bottom, or at least could see the ragged layer of reddish algae growing along the bottom. Above the water were dozens of dragonflies darting and dipping, floating on the air and perching on twigs and reeds. They brought to the pond what the butterflies brought to the woods: a sort of dancing, whirling energy.

A black saddlebags, a species of dragonfly (note the dark “saddlebag” patches on the wings)

There was one last bit of autumn, adding just a little more charm to this afternoon with the sun at a low angle and cool breezes moderating the warm sun. Maximilian sunflower, a native prairie plant that blooms at the end of summer through the fall, was blooming at the preserve. Those clusters of big yellow flowers are a beautiful sight every year.

Maximilian sunflower

A Morning at the Edge of Autumn

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

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

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

A field with lots of croton

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

A juvenile Mississippi kite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the Grasslands, With Gratitude

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

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

Dear Grasslands,

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

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

Leopard frog
American bullfrogs

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

Bird nest

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

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

Bones and teeth

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

A tiger beetle

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

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. 

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.