The Racer and the Jump to Light Speed

This article originally appeared in The Great Rattlesnake Highway blog.

There was once a time when I could chase down an Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer. Well, if it was on a flat surface … maybe if I had a head start. Probably not now, unless my head start was that I was allowed to grab it before it saw me. These snakes are not called “racers” for nothing.

MS-EYBracer
Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer

They can cruise around on a hot summer day, their big eyes alert to any movement, watching for a grasshopper or lizard to spring into action, and ready to give chase. When they do flush some unfortunate prey animal, they are unrelenting in pursuit. When a big grasshopper lands and freezes, the snake may have to search until it again makes the insect jump, and at that point the chase resumes. Having no venom and no ability to wrap and constrict, the racer simply swallows its prey or maybe pins it on the ground with a section of its body while swallowing. Racers can eat animals as large as a mouse or medium-sized frog, relying on the rows of sharp, recurved teeth and strong jaws to overcome the struggles of its prey.

Many years ago, my family moved to Fort Worth and my knowledge of reptiles and amphibians expanded from days spent hanging out with museum staff and reading books. At the end of the summer, I would occasionally find a little spotted snake around the yard. Their pretty yellow bellies were speckled with rust-colored spots, and as I held them their large eyes looked alert, and their jet-black tongues tested the air. Around the same time, a group of us kids found a medium-sized snake stretched along a branch within a shrub in a neighbor’s yard. It sat motionless, watching us, and I recall it being a sort of olive greenish color. I was puzzled about this snake’s identity but later figured out that it was what some people called a “blue racer,” but down here in Texas it was a different form called the Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer.  With further study, I discovered that the little spotted snakes I sometimes found at the end of summer were actually hatchlings of that same species. Over the course of a couple of years, the spots would fade and the snake would be brownish or olive or grayish-blue on top, and yellow underneath.

MS-juv-EYBracer
A juvenile Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer, probably in its second year, still showing the spotted pattern.

Occasionally I would find one in the field, sometimes as a serpentine blur disappearing in the grass. Other times I might find one under a board or a rock, and if I grabbed quickly, I might get a close look at this muscular coil of pure energy. When grabbed, that same energy is directed toward thrashing and biting, and the poor snake may injure itself if not supported properly. The bites are annoying but not particularly painful, and they seem to come out of nowhere as the snake thrashes around to a new vantage point. However, when gently supported and not harmed, the snake may settle down, after a fashion, continually testing the air with that black tongue and watching its captor like a hawk. Drawing the animal closer, for a detailed look, often results in a strike aimed at the person’s face. Loosening the grip a little too much results in a sudden attempt to break free, as if the racer was waiting for just this opportunity.

Part of the racer’s reputation as a snake that can make the jump to “light speed” is its ability to navigate through brush and around rocks without slowing. Its top speed is actually a little slower that a person could run on a track, but when seen, these snakes are often around rocky outcrops, fallen logs, or tangles of undergrowth, none of which cause the snake to slow down. Imagine the speed with which this reptile processes the visual images coming at it, like a fighter pilot flying low over the landscape, dodging left and right but keeping right on going!

MS-EYBracer-adult – Version 2
Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer

Eastern Yellow-bellied Racers make use of a fairly large “home range,” or area within which it hunts, rests, finds water, and so on. In their book, Texas Snakes, Werler & Dixon cite research done in Kansas showing that racers may use about 25 acres as a home range. Within that area, the individual snake may be familiar with refuges such as a particular abandoned burrow or crevice under the rocks, and where the best pools in a little creek may be. These racers prefer open areas such as patches of prairie or savannah, and they may hang around near the edge of a woodland.

Texas has a four other forms or subspecies of racer. The Buttermilk Racer lives in parts of east Texas, and has the same overall bluish-gray to olive coloration but is speckled here and there with small globs and specks of white. The Tan Racer, found around the Big Thicket, uses forest habitat much more than the other racers, and is a uniform tan color above and pale whitish below. Along the southern Texas coast, the Mexican Racer zips along through the thorn scrub. And at the northeastern corner of the state, the Southern Black Racer is found in several counties.

On a cool, overcast day in March, 2012, I found a young Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer under a big rock in Wise County. I was out with Clint and his wife, and we thought we might get an early start on field herping that year. Sure enough, we did find several things, but everything was under cover, since March in north Texas may turn unpredictably from sunny and fairly warm to rainy and cool. When I turned the rock over, the young racer was too cool to dart off. Oh, the disadvantages of being an ectotherm! Being cold-blooded means that if you hang out in a cold place, you are cold, too. The engines that drive all that nervous, alert activity depend on warmth, and if you’re a reptile you cannot generate your own heat. The little snake sat while I recorded it on video, tongue-flicking and moving slowly. It even flattened its neck vertically a little at one point, in a threatening display meant to make it look bigger.

In the summer, being an ectotherm would be a big advantage for the reptile. Us endotherms have to take in lots of nutrients so that our metabolic engines can constantly generate heat. Snakes are “solar-powered,” directly or indirectly, making use of sunlight or a sun-warmed environment to get up to speed. As a result, they do not have to eat as often. But on this day, at the end of winter, the little racer was slow-moving and vulnerable. After I got all the photos I wanted, I let her return to the shelter of the rock and wait for a warmer day.

If you find one, admire whatever glimpse you get of this snake and let it go. That three-feet or so of nimble hyperactivity will just make you sprain your ankle or get a face full of cactus if you chase it. Or maybe, if you’re lucky, you will find one under sheets of tin, or boards, or under a rock on a cool day when light speed is not an option. They are beautiful, graceful animals!

The Cloud Castles of Heaven, Seen From the Texas Plains

Or, in Plain English, a Visit to Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge

Long perspectives and flat horizons (photo by the author)

Last month, Meghan Cassidy, Paul Mendoza and I visited the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge for two days, a brief trip in search of open skies, prairie, and Sandhill Cranes. It was part of a project in which I am writing about mindfully spending time in nature and Meghan is photographing the places we visit and the wildlife that we see.

Muleshoe is northwest of Lubbock, and one way to get there is to go through Levelland, a community that is proud of the high school girls basketball team, the Loboettes. You can be sure that James McMurtry’s unforgettable song about sitting outside with his mom, watching the stars and dreaming of being gone from Levelland, was playing as we drove past.

“Welcome to Levelland” (photo by the author)

We arrived at the refuge, getting out of the car into an open expanse of grass, a broad flat prairie set between two ridges. Above us, the sky was bigger than I had ever seen it before. Clouds passed in an infinite field of blue. It was hard to judge where the horizon was, but it felt like we could see all the way to Montana. Above us the clouds were big masses of puffy white with gray underneath, but nearer the horizon they overlapped and formed a fantasy landscape of floating islands and castles. Standing there and absorbing all this felt wonderful, resetting my frame of reference from the human scale of houses and yards to the High Plains scale in which we can take our place with a little awe and humility.

Grassland and clouds at Muleshoe NWR (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Dry, winter-dormant grasses covered the gently rolling fields and ridges that stretched into the distance to meet the sky. Here and there a spindly cholla cactus or a sage plant grew, but the only visible trees were in the distance where rainfall drained toward White Lake. The land was ruled by grasses. We could make out several species, one of which sent up tall, slender stalks about waist-high, with leaves nearer the ground that were like curled ribbons.

(photo by the author)

Once again I thought about how much I am attracted to grasslands. I love walking through fields of grass and taking in the amazing but subtle variety of colors and textures. Here on the High Plains, the sense of openness and space was bigger than anywhere I have been except in the Trans-Pecos. Here was more prairie than I could walk through in a day, grass as far as my eye could see.

It turned out that much of the refuge property was off-limits to protect the winter population of Sandhill Cranes. A refuge staff member told us that people had been approaching much too closely, so they had taken action to protect the birds. We were able to see some of them, from a distance, in the northern part of the refuge around Paul’s Lake. Across the lake, the shore was dotted with well over a hundred big pale Sandhill Cranes. We watched and listened, though the birds were too far away for a good photo. Their calls and conversations came across the lake’s surface clearly when the wind was not blowing. The cranes were calling in a sort of low, stuttering whistle, repeated over and over again. Occasionally a squawk of protest came through, but mostly it was that short rattling call at a low pitch but with a higher whistling overtone. I found a spot of bare ground among the burned clumps of grass and settled in to watch and listen. The streaks of clouds were mirrored in the motionless surface of the lake, with some pastel blue and rose among the white and gray. Everything was still, and I could imagine that time was not moving forward or was only moving in slow motion.

Sandhill Cranes, flying overhead (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Sandhill Cranes calling (video by the author)

The next morning started with a cold rain, but by the time we headed back to the refuge, the rain was moving out of the area. Arriving before 8:00am, we saw a sky with clouds gathered in dark blue-gray masses and in some places stretched thin enough to be cottony white or even admit a patch of blue sky. In some places around us there were dark curtains of rain. Once again I was struck by the giant scale of this place. From horizon to horizon there was nothing to obstruct the sky, no trees and no buildings. All those clouds, all those mountains of water vapor, dark blue and dense or brightly illuminated where the sun struck them, slid across the sky on currents of wind. I meandered across the grassland, thinking of nothing as the clouds passed, trying to be empty of internal mental chatter so that I could absorb this experience in as raw and direct a way as possible. Standing here might have felt vulnerable, alone and uncovered to the sky, because in everyday life we rely on buildings, roads, signs, or even trees as cues for what is normal and safe. Instead I felt completely open and connected with the land and sky, without distraction.

Rain clouds at Muleshoe (photo by the author)

We saw a number of grassland birds, including meadowlarks. The Western Meadowlark prefers open grasslands and prairies, feeding as well as nesting on the ground. The Cornell Lab website indicates that they are still numerous but have declined about 1% per year over a period of nearly 50 years. It had been a while since I had seen one, but here they really were numerous, though quick to fly off when we approached. Our best observations happened when we used the car as an improvised bird blind. From the open window we watched and listened as a male sang his heart out while perched high on a thorny shrub, his musical whistling notes rising and falling. The call has been described as flute-like, with high notes dropping, coming back up and falling into a low warble. If we did not love this grassland already, we would have after listening to the meadowlarks singing spring into existence here at the end of winter.

Meadowlark (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Meadowlark singing (video by the author)

Our meadowlark dropped to the ground when a Northern Harrier cruised through the area, flying low and looking for prey. These raptors have a very distinctive white patch on the rump that helped us to identify them on the refuge and in nearby areas. They hunt near the ground, listening as well as watching for food such as rats, mice, birds, and the occasional small snake or lizard. As our meadowlark hunkered down under the grasses, the harrier sailed by and circled the area, at one point fixing us with a withering stare. He reminded us of why so many animals are cryptically colored, alert and fast, or take shelter in burrows in the ground. Harriers, owls, coyotes and other predators are a constant presence, weeding out the slow, the sick, and the unlucky. This constant dance between predator and prey added another dimension to what we took away from Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge. It is a beautiful, wild place that seems larger than life, with a complex community of living things on the ground as well as above and below it.

Northern Harrier (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

It was a great trip and my notes, and especially Meghan’s photos, will be a memorable part of this project, which will take us to places all around the state.

Meghan, photographing White Lake from a ridge (photo by the author)

Christmas Eve, at Home In the Woods

Everyone should have a home, a place where we feel like we belong. Ideally, home is a place where mostly good things happen over a long time, so that it feels comfortable and familiar. Americans move around a lot, so that long-term familiarity might not happen within the structure of one house. In my case, my family moved frequently until my middle teenage years, and after that there was college and other moves. But starting when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I visited the Greer Island Nature Center, which later expanded to become the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I have now been visiting that place for roughly 57 years, walking the trails alone or with friends and leading interpretive walks talking about reptiles and amphibians. I’ve had a lot of changes of houses, but a long and intimate familiarity with the oak woodlands, prairies, bottomland forest, marsh, and lake shore at the nature center. When I visit there, I’m where I belong. When it comes to people, I belong with my family; but if we’re talking about places, the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge is home.

Woodland near the marsh
Inland Sea Oats, within that woodland

I went home yesterday, for Christmas Eve. I took advantage of another unusually warm day with clear skies and bright sunshine. The high temperature near the nature center was 71ºF, not a record high but definitely warmer than usual. So I needed no jacket as I walked down the Wild Plum Trail to Forked Tail Creek Trail, starting in relatively open woodlands with oak, honey locust, and patches of grassland and gradually dropping as it wound its way toward the marsh.

Fork Tailed Creek

The trees got taller, and I walked over a wooden bridge crossing Fork Tailed Creek. A little further, and the trail suddenly opened onto a lovely savanna. Between the scattered trees were the dried and dormant leaves and stalks of prairie grasses, including the light rusty color of Little Bluestem. I stood for a while, taking in all the textures and colors, the pale rusty color of bluestem and the shades of straw where other grasses or plants were dominant. There were different textures: taller vertical brushstrokes, shorter grasses, curled leaves of the forbs mixed in among the grasses, and then there were the scattered trees with barren branches. Some branched out near the ground while a few sent straight, pale trunks upward before dividing to form a crown. So much detail to take in!

The trail led back through woodland and crossed a little patch with scattered Live Oaks among prairie grasses.  Under one of the Live Oaks was a wooden bench with a patch of bluestem in front of it. The perfect destination for this walk, a place to sit and take in the tall grasses in the foreground and, further back, the line of Post Oaks with their gnarled branches dividing into thinner, more intricate fingers reaching into the clear, blue sky. A couple of Turkey Vultures soared above me, riding the air currents gracefully and searching for a meal. Often one would pass by low enough for me to see its head turn from side to side, scanning the ground. Others sailed through the sky far above, wheeling and flying on broad, strong wings. The sunlight was warm in its low angle, casting shadows as if it were late afternoon. I could hear the breeze gently stirring the trees, and despite the background highway noise it really seemed quiet and peaceful. It was a great moment to stop doing. Not even writing or putting thoughts together, just being still and surrendering to this place. I put away my field notes and just sat there, letting the warm sunlight and the beautiful woods wash over me.

The bench

Of course, some thoughts continued to occur to me, and I tried to let them come and then pass by, returning my attention to the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of the place. Periodically I would get restless, as if ready to go on down the trail, but then I would settle again. I could have moved on, but was I done here? Was there something else I needed? Actually, no, it was just the habit that I think most of us have of keeping on the move, doing, thinking, talking, and so on. But what I really wanted was for these moments – this sunlight, these trees, the grass and the breeze – to continue. And so they did, for a while.

The view from the bench

Winter Solstice

Good morning Weathercock: make this day bright.

Put us in touch with your fair winds.

Sing to us softly, hum evening’s song.

Point the way to better days we can share with you.

-Jethro Tull, “Weathercock,” from Heavy Horses

The sun has set on the shortest day of the year; the sun is as far away from us as it will get. Although it is now winter, from here on out each day will have more daylight. The days will start getting longer, and perhaps the weathercock will point the way to better days.

It is now winter, by astronomical reckoning, although the climatologists count winter according to the three months with the coldest temperatures. By that reckoning, winter started on December 1.

It has felt more like winter today, but I wanted to take at least a short walk on this shortest day of the year, and so I was at Southwest Nature Preserve (my home away from home) at sunset. It was a moody, dark sunset with clouds obscuring the actual setting of the sun, but I have no complaints. Taking a walk at the pond and the woods is good regardless of weather, and that includes cool, cloudy, misty days like this one.

Reflections in the pond

Endings and Renewals in the Woods

“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
The road goes ever on and on

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.

The giant “Caddo” oak has nearly lost its leaves

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.

The sun warms a hillside with dormant Little Bluestem grass surrounded by oaks

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.

The green chlorophyll is nearly gone from these Post Oak leaves

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).

Honey Locust seed pods among the oak leaves

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 afternoon sun behind the leaves made the woodland luminous

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.

A Walk in the November Woods

(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!)

A patch of prairie at the LBJ National Grasslands

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 cold temperatures.

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.

Juniper “berries”

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.

Meghan Cassidy’s photo of the jumping spider

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.

Another of Meghan’s photos: this is one of the harvestmen we saw

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!

A cricket frog, hiding under the water (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

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.

Meghan’s photo of one of the armadillos

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.

Near a limestone ridge at LBJ National Grasslands
A last blaze of grasses and oaks before sunset

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.

Sunset (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Being Mindful of Oaks and Hawks at Summer’s End

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.

Juvenile Texas Spiny Lizard

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.


We followed 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. 

The Caddo Oak, a very old Post Oak

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.


Southwest Nature Preserve, October 6, 2019

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.

A kettle of hawks

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 sky.

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!

Shelsea