“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
– Bilbo Baggins
My favorite way to dodge weekend chores and recharge for the coming week is to wander around in the woods somewhere, often at Southwest Nature Preserve. And autumn is my favorite time to disappear into the woods, being swept off (as Bilbo would put it) to some place where leaves are falling, the sun sneaks in at low angles and feels warm, and the air might be just a little chill.
Today was a day like that. For a little over an hour I walked trails that circle around the preserve, considering how some things come to an end – or seem to do so – at this time of year. The oak leaves fall, grasses are dry and dormant, and the sun looks like it might be leaving us as it rises for shorter times each day and stays low in the sky. No wonder ancient people feared the loss of the sun and had such celebrations when it started a little higher arc across the sky and the days began to lengthen a little.
Autumn can seem like a time to slow down, to take stock of the year that is ending. The days are shorter, and many of the plants and some animals prepare for the long sleep through winter. Could it be that nature’s transition reminds us that all things end, that everything has its time and then passes into memory? Sometimes one of those memories seems near, like being brushed by the ghost of something that had its summer in full bloom and is now gone.
What is happening on these hillsides of oak and Little Bluestem is not death, but dormancy and preparation for new life. Beneath the husks of grass stems, the rest of the plant is alive and waiting for spring. The bare trunks and branches of the trees are alive and have merely shed leaves that would not make it through winter. Those thin, broad leaves are great for exchanging gases and making food during the warm season, but they become damaged and would not do well in winter. As autumn arrives, the trees break down the green chlorophyll and reabsorb the nutrients in the leaves, and the yellow or red colors are what remains.
I took a good look at some of those leaves today. Many were ragged and insect-chewed. But they have done their work well, and they end their time on this earth with a beautiful flourish. If I were a leaf, I would want my final days to shine like this.
Further around the preserve, I came to a spot where a small field of weedy flowers, perhaps Camphorweed, had finished the season, gone to seed, and what was left was dry and dead. The little globes that looked like seed heads were light-colored and scattered around like a field of fuzzy stars above the soil. Dried flowers and seeds often have detailed shapes and textures that reward a few minutes spent examining them closely.
In another place there was an intricate and lovely mosaic of leaves and the flattened and curving seed pods of Honey Locust. A few remained on the tree, dangling like purplish-brown ornaments, but most had fallen. The pulp of those seed pods is said to be edible (but if you try it, be sure that it is a Honey Locust, not the Black Locust, which is toxic).
On one tree, two sinuously-curving seed pods remained side-by-side. Their twisting forms were well-matched, like dancers, like smoke curling as it rises, or like the twin snakes of a caduceus, signifying that this is a healing place.
The preserve is not big in acreage, but it offers moments of loveliness and imagination on a grand scale. For those who really get to know it, each season brings new and wonderful experiences. Leaves fall and flowers die, but the woods and pockets of prairie are always alive and renewing themselves, which brings hope enough to see us through to spring.
(I’m very fortunate to be able to use some photos by Meghan Cassidy in this post. The captions identify which ones are hers, but basically the way to tell is to look for the really good ones – they’re hers!)
On a visit to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands in
Wise County, we walked a long trail through straw- and rust-colored grasses and
through the stands of oak trees that are the signature of the Western Cross
Timbers. Sunny days like this in autumn are perfect for walking in the woods
and prairies. The slanting sunlight and the colors of grasses and leaves (even
when they are mostly shades of straw and brown) result in the landscape having
a kind of warm glow, which seems like a comfortable complement to cool or even
It wasn’t cold, not even a little bit. The high temperatures
reached the middle sixties out in the grasslands, and the bright sunshine felt
wonderful as we hiked past post oaks and junipers. Juniper is no friend of the
grasslands, because without a combination of grazing and periodic fire, these
trees can spread and take over. Juniper is invasive, but here is the positive
side: the junipers at LBJ Grasslands are beautiful trees and really come to the
foreground in winter when they remain green amidst the bare branches of oaks.
And the berries! Those little blue berries give a refreshing taste when you
chew a couple of them – there is a little sweetness and that aromatic juniper
flavor from camphor and other aromatic oils.
The berries, we are told, are really modified seed cones and
not true berries at all. Sort of a blue, tasty variation on the pine cone
theme. But it’s only a little taste; much of what lies under that blue coating
is a seed, so there is not much to eat. Some junipers produce berries while
others produce pollen. In winter, some of those male junipers take on a golden
cast from all the pollen just waiting to be lifted by the breeze and carried to
the female plant.
My companions made the walk that much more enjoyable. Meghan Cassidy and Paul Mendoza are good company and knowledgeable about the natural world, particularly insects and arachnids. And those little jointy-legged critters came out to greet them in numbers greater than we would have expected. They discovered a little jumping spider on the trail which Meghan took great pains to get lots of photos of. All of us enjoyed seeing harvester ants out, and we wondered about the ones emerging from holes without the bare circle that usually marks the entrance to a colony. Lots of harvestmen were on the move. These might look a little like spiders but are only cousins. Everyone is familiar with “daddy long-legs” – the little dot of a body surrounded by eight long, impossibly delicate legs. None of them can spin webs and none have a venomous bite.
Despite being mid-November, a couple of herps graced us with
their presence. Cricket frogs were out at a pond and even in some small,
scooped out pools where rainwater had collected. And along one trail, a young
ribbonsnake slipped among the leaves, just long enough for me to see those
beautiful stripes but not long enough to capture it for a closer look. Happy
cricket frog hunting, my friend!
Several times we heard a little commotion in the leaf litter
and were able to see an armadillo digging for invertebrates. They stop and
probe the leaves and soil, sometimes scratching a short, conical excavation
into the soil as they look for insects, worms, and any other animal matter that
they may expose. After a short, snuffling exploration of one spot, they move a
short distance and try again. David Schmidly’s The Mammals of Texas (Revised
Edition) reports that much of their diet is larval and adult scarab
beetles, followed by termites and ants, and then caterpillars, earthworms,
millipedes, and other invertebrates. A few reptiles and amphibians are taken
occasionally, probably examples of small herps being in the wrong place at the
wrong time. An armadillo snuffling through the leaf litter can’t be too
particular about what they turn up.
We enjoyed our opportunities for a little armadillo
watching, and sometimes we were able to get quite close. They cannot see well,
so if you are quiet and stay downwind so that they cannot detect you by smell,
you might get very near to one. Once they do detect you, they may jump in
surprise and then crash off through the underbrush, protected from thorns and
branches by their bony armor.
We talked a good bit about Blackjack Oak and Post Oak and
marveled at the variety of leaves that we saw. Some looked like hybrids and
there were other oak species scattered here and there. I recalled that
Blackjack acorns were said to be bitter, while those of the Post Oak were more
tasty and sweet. We put this to the test, as Paul cracked a Post Oak acorn and
Meghan trimmed the dark husk away. A little sample of the nut was delicious.
At the end of the day, we visited a limestone ridge a few
miles away but still within LBJ Grasslands. Instead of Little Bluestem, the
grasses here were dominated by a shorter, uniformly straw-colored species
surrounding the scattered oaks and junipers. Numerous Grooved Nipple Cacti were
scattered on the ridge top, growing in small mounds in the thin soil barely
covering the “walnut shell” limestone. Here, we sat and watched the sun set, looking
out across an area of woodland and ranch land stretching into the distance. I
sat on that limestone, a conglomerate of ancient oyster shells cemented
together into gray slabs, and watched the sun make a nearby oak sapling glow
red-orange and then darken as the sun was obscured by some bands of clouds.
When the sun re-emerged, those beautiful oak leaves glowed brighter. Gradually
nature turned down the lights, and those leaves dimmed to dull red. The
horizon, however, was still a glowing ember, holding on for a time and painting
the undersides of the clouds red and then pink, and then they all faded to
blue-gray and closed a very beautiful day in the woods.
It was almost two weeks into autumn, and summer’s heat held on. On October 6th, when the high temperature in Arlington reached 97ºF, a cold front was scheduled to roll through late in the day. It would be an interesting time to be at the Southwest Nature Preserve. Would the change take the form of a whisper of cool air, or a line of storms? A good friend, Shelsea Sanchez, came with me to witness what might be the end of summer heat and drought. We got there a little after 5:00pm and stayed for a couple of hours.
The initial walk around the north pond felt like a late afternoon in summer. We passed a little Texas Spiny Lizard positioned on a tree trunk, stalking insects in the hot sunshine as if it was back in August. Actually, two months ago this very young lizard might not yet have hatched from the egg, but now he or she was feeding and growing as it if was endless summer.
the path up the gentle climb on the back side of the preserve, to pay a visit
to a Post Oak that will be proclaimed as a Texas “historic tree” later this
month. It is estimated to be over two hundred years old, with huge twin trunks
and massive limbs that stretch out over the surrounding vegetation. It is being
called the “Caddo Oak,” recognizing that it would have been an adult tree when
the people who lived on this land were Caddo hunters and farmers.
A good way to
spend time in a place like this is to clear our minds of the mental traffic
that pulls us to past worries or future plans, so that we can simply be open to
the present experience. A good strategy for this is to notice our breathing,
how the body expands and relaxes with each breath. From this focus on present
experience, we can connect more deeply with our surroundings – in this case a
massive old tree with deeply furrowed bark and a giant canopy of leaves. There
is a lot to notice and appreciate when practicing mindfulness in nature, simply
opening oneself to the present experience without judging it or being tugged
away from the moment by the internal “chatter” that often captures our lives.
We stood for a
while, taking in the tree, the sky, and all the surroundings. Later we talked
about what we had noticed: Shelsea’s perception was that those big limbs would
just go on reaching out to the woods and sky, ever wider. It impressed her as a
“wise” tree, something that had lived a long time and experienced a great deal.
The branching limbs of our oak trees often suggest to me a parallel with blood
vessels, extending into the surrounding air, supporting life in the process.
Following the trail as it turned and skirted a yucca meadow with deep sand, beyond a thicket of sumac and past a big juniper, we talked about how trees are linked together below the soil. A fine network of fungal threads, called mycorrhizae, connects with the roots and helps provide water and minerals. In exchange, the fungus gets nutrients from plant roots. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, and it is thought that mycorrhizae make possible a sort of communication between trees. For example, a tree that is attacked by insects may respond by releasing volatile organic compounds, and the surrounding trees connected by the fungal network respond in a similar way.
We spent some time in stillness and quiet, looking to the west toward some oaks in the background, and a scrubby open area with prickly pear cactus and a thicket of greenbriar. The front was coming, and darker blue-gray clouds were massing, and the distant thunder was a welcome and soothing sound. A couple of doves flew overhead, as we continued to absorb what we were experiencing. Afterward, Shelsea commented about how a nearby greenbriar was overtaking and pressing a shrub closer to the ground. Greenbriar is a strong, tough vine that I’ve described as like botanical barbed-wire, and this particular one was attempting to climb a shrub that could not support the vine’s weight. However, the main thing that we had both noticed in the last few minutes was the occasional low rumble from the advancing clouds.
You hear distant thunder when it is quiet – when there are no airplanes, no car engines, no roar of freeway traffic, no loud humming air conditioners. At an urban preserve, some of those things are inescapable, but if those noises are muffled – or if you are in a wild natural place away from mechanized sounds – you can hear breezes, birds, insects, and distant thunder. Through most of our history as humans, those sounds have usually been audible to us. We could hear coyotes howling on a nearby ridge, or a chorus of frogs a quarter-mile away. In a quiet glade we could hear water moving in a creek, and bees buzzing in nearby flowers. The sigh of wind in tree leaves was familiar. It makes you wonder if the loss of all those “quiet sounds” leaves an important gap in our lives, and if constant mechanized sounds and the ever-present TV and video sounds might be a source of low-level stress for us. The answer is yes, it is a source of stress, based on studies showing poorer concentration, increased anxiety and depression, and disrupted sleep because of noise pollution. Even low-level noise tends to increase the body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and chronically elevated levels of cortisol interfere with the brain’s ability to focus and plan, as well as putting us at risk of digestive and cardiac problems, weight gain, headache, and other problems. And so I place a very high value on those experiences of quiet, when a bird’s song or a breeze stirring leaves in a tree can be heard.
Looking up the
trail toward the west at 6:30pm, we saw a hawk rise above the tree line,
soaring in the turbulent air below the oncoming clouds. A second hawk emerged
near the first one. As they flew, the sun shone through a break in the clouds
and highlighted the wings of these birds. Another couple of birds joined the
group, which flew higher and stayed visible above the tree line. The aerial
dance continued and rose higher, with other hawks coming into view. Shelsea and
I needed a real birder with us; I did not see rusty reddish tail feathers that
would have identified a bird as a Red-tailed Hawk, and so I was at a loss. I
could tell that the underparts were light-colored, but my eyes and brain could
not follow the movement well enough to remember their color patterns as they
rode the fast-moving air currents.
As the number
of hawks grew and they spiraled higher, Shelsea pulled out her phone and began
recording video. I began doing the same thing, framing the swirling “kettle” of
hawks. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reminds us that hawks sometimes gather in
“kettles,” using rising air currents to gain altitude, especially when
migrating. In his book, The Birds of Texas, John Tveten notes that in
early fall, Broad-winged Hawks begin their migration south into tropical
America, rising on air currents and forming large swirling flocks. I do not
know if these were Broad-winged Hawks, but it seems quite plausible.
We stood for a
moment, taking all this in. Life at the preserve was in sudden motion, as the
cold front came through with distant thunder and the promise of rain, and this
seemed to have spurred the soaring, wheeling kettle of birds to rise into the
And then, raindrops began to fall. After the heat and drought, it was delightful, and we stood there enjoying the feel of a few cool drops of water on our skin. In our state of fascination with every detail of experience, I noticed that every drop created a little dimpled medallion of mud as it struck the fine red sand of the trail. If the rain continued, those little mud-craters would join and the preserve would get the water it needed. In the meantime, we walked through these sprinkles and enjoyed the feel of the rain.
We spent two
hours there, but we had little awareness of the passage of time. It didn’t seem
to go quickly or last a long time, because we tried to let go of the past and
future so that we could fully experience the present. Although we didn’t pay
attention to the passage of time, we had a great time!
On June 19 of 2018, I hiked most of the way up the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains within Big Bend National Park, and lost myself for a while in the silence and beauty and peace of the place. I wrote the following:
In one of Beethoven’s final string quartets (Op. 132), he wrote a slow, hymn-like movement titled, “Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity,” expressing his gratitude as he recovered from a serious illness. (An absolutely mind-blowing deconstruction and analysis of what Beethoven does in this incredible movement can be seen and heard here.) It is a profound, beautiful hymn, not sweet or sentimental, but exactly as I imagine how his soul would express what it means to be alive, in the full realization of how easily life could be gone.
I am hearing the opening notes of that quartet movement now, sitting on a bench in the Chisos Mountains. I have not had a close brush with death such as Beethoven had, but I do have deep gratitude for experiences like today’s walk up the Lost Mine Trail. Here, there is a sense of connection and healing of things that are broken, in a sanctuary where troubles cannot reach. No gift could be more appreciated than this.
It is completely quiet except for occasional distant thunder, birdsong here and there, and the beginning sounds of insects here at the end of the day. I keep returning to this theme, how genuine quiet brings such tranquility. That is especially true here in the calm mountain woodland just before sunset. The hikers have gone. Even the knowledge that black bears live on these slopes does not cause concern, perhaps because it is one more indication of how raw and unspoiled this place is.
Here I am, after sixty-seven years still able to climb this trail – not that it is an especially difficult feat – and sit in the silence, watching the shadows lengthen and listening to the song of this earth, uninterrupted by noise. It is a rare privilege in a world that spins and spins, this opportunity to sit still.
A thunderhead builds, and I watch it expand and drift this way. The thunder is still distant, one of those sounds that can be so relaxing from afar. The long, slanting rays of the sun highlight the tops of piñon pine and Emory oak. A nearby solitary bird trills and occasionally chirps, as the clouds turn rose-colored and the last light glows on the mountaintops. Soon it will be dark, and I will have to go, but I will remember these moments of solitude in the Chisos Mountains.
Once again this year I had the privilege of teaching herpetology to an incoming group of Master Naturalists. Today I led them on a short walk into the bottomland forest at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. Each year, I appreciate the Texas Master Naturalists even more; they are the “rangers” of the remaining wild lands and creatures of our state.
By “rangers,” I am drawing upon the stories within The Lord of the Rings, and referring to the Dunedain, the people who wandered the lands in the north of Middle Earth. The rangers knew those lands and protected them as best they could, just as the Master Naturalists learn about the land, animals, and the plants around us. Maybe you’ll forgive what could seem like an overly stretched analogy, but in a world increasingly separated from nature, we need to celebrate those who understand and are drawn to nature and who might help advocate for it. Who else studies the intricacies of natural history and spends time wandering in the forests and fields?
Becoming a Master Naturalist involves a series of classes and readings; you do not sign up, pay your money, and now you get the title just for joining the “club.” There are classes and field experiences, and after certification there are activities and ongoing training. Some of the people in the Master Naturalist program are quite expert in one or perhaps several areas of nature study.
What did we do today? We walked down through the bottomlands, past huge cottonwoods and other trees and in areas that periodically flood. Fallen logs and branches shelter numerous herp species, along with lots of wolf spiders and other invertebrates.
Two amphibian species dominated our walk today: The Southern Leopard Frog and the Gulf Coast (or Coastal Plains) Toad. The ranges of three species of leopard frogs converge near here, and some hybridization occurs, but the ones we saw appeared to be Southern Leopard Frogs (Lithobathes sphenocephalus). They are medium-sized spotted frogs that can leap long distances. Today’s leopard frogs had continuous, unbroken sets of dorsolateral ridges, no spot on the snout, and the light line on the upper jaw was not particularly bold – and that set them apart as the Southern species.
The other common amphibian was what I’ll just call the Gulf Coast Toad, since that’s what a number of sources continue to call it. Others refer to it as the “Coastal Plains” Toad, which is only one of many name changes. This toad’s scientific name has gone through considerable taxonomic chaos, seeming to land at the name Incilius nebulifer. It is a dark toad with a light stripe down the back and a light band on either side. The cranial crests – those bony ridges that the “true” toads have on the crown of the head – are dark and very obvious.
What about reptiles? There were a few, though no snakes today (a source of some disappointment to me). One really nice find was made by a very observant ranger who spotted the skeletal carapace (the bones of the upper shell) of a box turtle. To my eye this was pretty clearly the Three-toed Box Turtle species, not only from the shape of the shell but because a bottomland forest would much more likely have the Three-toed species than our other species, the Ornate Box Turtle. And because box turtles have become more scarce over the years, finding one here was exciting.
We also saw several young Little Brown Skinks – aka the “Ground Skink” (Scincella lateralis) in many field guides. The body length (not counting the tail) might be a little over two inches in a fully grown Little Brown Skink, but the ones we saw were smaller and younger.
They are brown or coppery-colored along the top, with a darker band along the side that fades toward the belly. Little Brown Skinks have small legs but move quickly, virtually “swimming” through the leaf litter to disappear under cover.
There was another lizard, for which I have no photo, but which I was excited to see. I had just talked with the group about the Prairie Racerunner, a beautiful lizard within the “whiptail” genus. Then, a small movement caught my eye along the edge of the trail and it was a little miniature striped lizard – a recently hatched baby with thin little light lines on a dark background and a tail that shaded from a sort of tan to a slightly bluish color (not typical of adults in our area). It was probably a Prairie Racerunner, but it’s not so easy to tell with a hatchling. The other related species is the Texas Spotted Whiptail, and those have spots between the stripes as adults and they do not have the lime green wash over the front of the body that the Prairie Racerunner has. Whichever species he “grows up” to be, I hope he does in fact grow up. I don’t see those lizards that much, and would love to see more.
Our short walk was over all too soon, and I hope these new Master Naturalists enjoyed seeing what we saw and will continue to get to know the Cross Timbers with the familiarity of one of Tolkien’s Dunedain. I’m encouraged by them, at a time when there’s not a lot of encouragement to go around. Congratulations to the group on becoming Master Naturalists … and rangers!
In August, mornings are the best
times to take a walk, although that advantage begins to disappear not long
after 9:00am as the bright burning sun rises to a nice, hot angle overhead. Add
a little overnight rain and it’s like wearing a hot, wet sweater in the
sunshine. But what’s a little sweat and discomfort when there are woods and
wildlife to see? My friend Barbara, her two kids, and I hit a trail through
part of the LBJ Grasslands Saturday morning with no regrets. Or only a couple
of regrets, maybe!
This trail threads its way through
oak woodlands and small openings that people call “pocket prairies” because the
Little Bluestem and other native grasses make miniature prairies tucked away
among the trees. A wild profusion of flowers hung on this year until the Fourth
of July (when Jo and I visited – see the earlier blog post). Some are still
tucked away in these pocket prairies, including lots of bitterweed, the
beautiful little scarlet pea growing at ground level, and other flowers. On the
way out, we saw a few Snow-On-the-Prairie, a favorite of mine.
However, if you walk along the
trail looking for flowers, you’re apt to run smack into the web of one of the Spotted
Orb-weavers that spin silk into concentric rings suspended between nearby tree
branches. These chunky spiders are extremely common here, so bumping a web is
pretty much unavoidable. Most of the time we saw the silken orbs and could
dodge around it or duck under it, but not always.
Nick, who is eleven, is the
shortest of the group right now (just you wait until he hits a growth spurt!)
and so he had the easiest time. He’s also got good eyes for such things, and
often warned us when we were about to face-palm into one of the webs. Nick’s
keen vision also got us our only reptile sighting, a very small lizard
skittering through the leaf litter. He described it as gray and said it did not
look like the Little Brown Skink we saw on our last trip here, so perhaps it
was a hatchling Texas Spiny Lizard. Nick also came up with an earthstar (a
“False Earthstar” to distinguish it from a related fungus), which I always
think of as a magical sort of thing to find. False Earthstars are fungi with an
outer cover that splits into rays and opens in response to humidity, exposing a
sac rather like a puffball, full of spores. Great find, Nick!
Dani liked to walk ahead of the
rest of us. She’s a friendly, smart thirteen-year-old who said she tends to
either go ahead or lag behind, even when she enjoys the group she is with.
However, walking ahead down spider web alley means you’re going to plow through
the webs – and she did, numerous times. She would smack into it, hands
desperately clawing at her hair and face to clear the silk away, and run back
to have her mom check her for stray spiders. After a moment’s recovery, off she
would go to risk further entanglement! I share that same reaction when running
into a web, and so I responded with empathy the first time – “Oh, no, I hate
when that happens.” But after a time or two when she took the lead again, I had
to chuckle when the inevitable happened. No harm done; like her brother, she
said she enjoyed the walk (except for the part about the hot, muggy, sweaty
morning … and the getting up early to come here). And, I’m pretty sure the kids
would want you to know that I had my own freaked-out, sputtering moment when I
ran into a web.
We stopped at a pond and looked for Red-eared Sliders poking their heads above the water’s surface, but this time did not see any. We did see plenty of Cricket Frogs, and a young American Bullfrog that ducked under the water before I could get a photo. Compared to the crowds of leopard frogs we saw on our walk on July 28, this pond was nearly frog-less.
As we walked, Barbara and I talked
about old times. She’s the founder of the DFW Turtle and Tortoise Club and
we’re both veterans of the DFW Herpetological Society. However, going out into
the field with her is a recent thing, and part of her motivation is seeing Nick
and Dani spend more time in wild (or semi-wild) places. We both see time spent in
nature as physically, psychologically, and spiritually nurturing. I don’t mean
“spiritually” in anything more than what happens when the “built” world is
stripped away and we have the chance to feel like we’re part of something
bigger than ourselves, something grand and beyond our comprehension. Of course,
the various parts of the natural world are comprehensible through the science
of biology, and we have some understanding of how the parts work together
through the science of ecology. But without picking it apart into food webs,
species, and ecosystems, on one level the whole thing seems bigger than our
scientific understanding. And being wrapped in it, walking through it, feels
After a while, the kids declared
that maybe we had walked enough, and so we sat in the shade on the cool, sandy
trail, drinking water and talking quietly. We talked a little about what we
were seeing, but we also talked about other things: how “paying attention”
works and the things that can interfere with it, what it’s like to navigate
different peer groups and how we can have different styles to match different
groups, and such things. Sitting in the shade of the Post Oaks after a walk is
the best way to have such conversations. The woods quiet the mind, relax the
spirit, and invite calm reflection.
The walk back was warmer and went more quickly. Before long the car came into view, but for me there’s always a little bit of reluctance to leave. There were still so many kinds of flowers tucked away in the grasses, and in a little bare patch of wet, sandy soil a group of small yellow butterflies was fluttering around, looking for the best place to land and pull a little moisture from the damp sand. So much to see and experience!
In honor of my wonderful friend Kelby Dupriest’s birthday today, I’m reprinting the following post that first appeared on “The Great Rattlesnake Highway.”
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost, That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly, wash again and ever again this soiled world. — Walt Whitman
Caddo Lake is a big, relatively shallow body of water on the Texas-Louisiana border. Its backwaters are a maze of waterways tracing through big stands of cypress and water tupelo, trees whose trunks broaden at the base and are draped in the bromeliad that is referred to as “Spanish moss.” Just south of the lake, on the Texas side, is a mixed pine and hardwood forest that is set aside as the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. But its history involves much more than a quiet pine forest with the calls of birds in the tree tops. It is a place where the forest is gradually recovering from a time when a workshop of war was built among the trees.
In the war years of the last century, the Army acquired 8,493 acres south of the lake, and in 1942, the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant began making the explosive TNT. During the 1950’s the plant made rocket motors and incendiary bombs, and this continued during the Viet Nam war. In 1988 it was the site where some U.S. missiles were destroyed as part of the INS treaty, beginning to de-escalate the arms race with Russia. Finally, in 1997 the Army indicated that the plant was no longer needed, and the land was transferred to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service the next year. Some places where the worst pollution had occurred were designated Superfund sites by EPA, and efforts were made to remove toxic chemicals. And so, we are really only about twenty years out from the time when concrete buildings scattered through the woods gave birth to bombs and rocket propellant.
Clint King and I first visited the refuge in 2011, during a terrible drought. It was very surreal to walk along the partially overgrown paved lanes through the forest, running across a big open expanse of concrete where some building appeared to have been razed, and then find a small concrete shell of a building, or maybe a series of upright walls. Walking through beautiful pines and sweetgum trees, we would emerge on yet another tombstone from the war effort – sometimes they were concrete pillars that would have held some tank full of who knows what, or a hollow bunker where a couple of bats roosted. And some areas had a vague pesticide smell, places behind a fence with a sign that said, “restricted area.”
Yesterday, Kelby Dupriest and I visited
the place again, a road trip for a restorative walk in the woods. Caddo was the
best of our regional options, with less chance of rain and more moderate
temperatures, and the wildlife refuge is certainly an interesting place. I have
seen it as a place struggling to hold on to its integrity as a beautiful upland
forest and stately cypress wetland. It seemed to me to be a place out of the
Twilight Zone: “Picture, if you will, a quiet southern forest, but a forest
that hides secrets.” The wind sighing through pine trees, the soft carpet of
pine needles, and the ferns and mosses, all make the sudden appearance of
concrete skeletons from a bomb factory all the more jarring. These structures
do not look like they housed the precise and efficient mechanisms of 20th
century technology; they look crude and rough, like something shamefully hidden
away in the woods.
Walking through the winter woods with
Kelby, I also remembered that the scars from the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant
should not blind me to the beauty of the place. There were signs that spring
will soon return to this forest. Trees are starting to bud, and in places there
were clusters of white blossoms. On the thick branches of a big oak, mosses and
ferns grew in a little garden where rain and fog and humidity make it possible for
them to survive, their roots digging into the tree bark. Life goes on, and
because of it, things begin to heal. Despite the things that we may do, this
earth is determined to create and sustain life, and to return things to the way
they work best, as soil and water, lichens, plants, and animals.
Maybe this time the walk was a little more hopeful.
The damage was done, and the place isn’t yet healed, but the forest is
gradually reclaiming the concrete and the fallen apparatus of war production.
Mosses and plants take hold and begin to break it down, and even the poisons
might one day be converted and filtered away. A garden is growing where the
work of war was once done. Think of it as a place where, year by year and inch
by inch, life has the last word. I don’t know how long the forest’s full
redemption will require, but someday it will come.