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.
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.
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!
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!
This is another blog entry that is “off the beaten path,” but I’m looking at some of the studies on benefits of time spent in nature (as well as mindfulness), and you are welcome to come along for the ride.
This paper contained three studies looking at the effects of exposure to real or virtual nature. They used questionnaire-type data to measure positive emotions and ability to reflect on a real-life problem.
The authors noted that years of research have established that time spent in nature “decreases negative behaviors and states” and “increases positive ones.” They also noted that we aren’t so sure if pictures and videos of nature are as effective as the real thing, or how exposure to nature works to produce benefits. Among the possibilities that have been considered are: nature helps us recover from stress and attention fatigue, it encourages exercise, it may facilitate social contact, it may encourage optimal development in children and/or perhaps it provides “opportunities for personal development and a sense of purpose.” They wondered if increases in connectedness to nature might be a mechanism through which time in nature yields benefits.
To measure this sense of connection to nature, the first two authors developed a self-report scale, the “Connectedness to Nature Scale” (CNS). With it, participants rate (on a seven-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”) their agreement with statements about feeling kinship with animals and plants or a sense of belonging with the natural world. The authors reported that earlier studies have shown that the CNS measures a real “thing” and does its job effectively.
The authors also wanted to see whether exposure to nature can lead to increases in the ability to reflect on a problem and feel more prepared to address that problem.
Seventy-six students participated. One group was taken to an urban downtown area and the other went to a nature preserve. While on the way, they were asked to reflect on a personal issue that needed resolving. After taking a walk in the assigned setting (downtown or preserve), they were asked to spread out from each other and independently complete some measures of attention, positive/negative emotion, connectedness to nature (the CNS), self-awareness, and a rating of how they perceived their ability to resolve that personal issue noted above.
Those in the nature condition reported positive emotions to a significantly higher degree than those in the urban condition. They also rated their ability to reflect on their personal issue as much greater. Spending time in nature also had higher scores for connectedness to nature. Further, those in the nature condition made fewer errors on the measure of ability to pay attention.
In this study, the investigators looked at whether real nature provides more benefits than virtual nature. Ninety-two undergraduate students participated. They met on campus and one group walked to an arboretum while the other walked to the psychology building where they were further divided into a group that watched a ten minute video of a walk at the arboretum and the other watched a video of a busy metropolitan street.
Those who walked in the arboretum had significantly more positive emotion either the virtual nature or virtual urban conditions. Participants’ ability to reflect on a problem issue was greater after either the real or virtual nature exposure and worse after the urban exposure. The measures of connectedness to nature were higher for both nature groups and lower for the urban video group.
This study was done to further examine the effect of real and virtual nature on participants’ ability to reflect on a personal issue that needed solving. Sixty-four students participated, meeting at an on-campus building. One group walked to the arboretum and the other group walked to the psychology building. Once arriving, the nature group walked for 10 minutes in the arboretum and the virtual nature group watched a 10 minute video of a similar walk in the same arboretum.
Again, those who took the real walk in nature reported more positive emotion. This time, with greater statistical power because there were only two groups to compare, the “real” nature group were significantly more able to reflect on an issue needing to be resolved.
The authors looked at the relationships among the variables, and for each study concluded that a person’s sense of connectedness to nature generally predicted the positive emotions, ability to reflect, and other positive results. Their conclusion was that exposure to nature increases the sense of connectedness to nature, and that is what brings some of the other benefits of time spent in nature.
Doing research to investigate these issues is challenging. To compare the reactions of different people, you must design experiences that do not have unintentional differences that could bias the results. The way you measure things must be the same across different people, or else you could get results that are skewed because of different ways that you measured your results. These challenges tend to result in studies that use paper-and-pencil measures and brief or limited exposure to nature.
Many of us might think “connectedness with nature” is hard to capture in a 13 or 14 item rating scale. We might note that our ability to reflect on problems might not fully be captured by having people rate how much they think they have that capacity. Additionally, positive or negative emotions were measured by having participants rate the degree to which they were experiencing mood states like enthusiasm or engagement, or anger or fear (the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, or PANAS). That is different from directly measuring emotions (and just how would we really do that?).
I do not mean to say that the study isn’t meaningful, and I’m not suggesting that it is misleading. On the contrary, the authors were careful to design studies that creatively come up with measurements and exposures to nature or to urban settings that allow different groups of people to be compared.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the next couple of years I will be traveling once again to various places in Texas for a new writing project that will also include great photos from my friend Meghan Cassidy. I want to explore ways to connect with nature, what happens to us when that connection happens, and the range of beauty and diversity found in Texas nature.
The importance of nature is a theme that caught hold of me early in life and I’m grateful that it will never let go. When I was in the 7th or 8th grade, I remember reading about a proposed dam that would have flooded portions of the Grand Canyon. I gave a class presentation about it, arguing that the Grand Canyon must be saved. I was a committed nature nerd, then and now.
Fast forward to the publication in 2018 of Clint King’s and my book, Herping Texas. Yes, we are both herp nerds with lots of stories of rattlesnakes, treefrogs and the like, but the message of the book is, “Look at the magnificent places that exist in Texas and the richness of plants and animals that can give so much pleasure if you get out there and walk among them.” Reptiles and amphibians are the sweet spot for us, but all if it is a breathtaking treasure, and more of it disappears every single day.
Now this year will see the publication of my book, The Wild Lives of Reptiles and Amphibians. As the title suggests, the point of the book is not that pet snakes are cool, but rather that wild populations of native herps are some of the most fascinating and beautiful things you can experience. And further, that the best way to experience them is where they live, in the wild. And not only that, the last chapter is a call for young people “to be a voice for the wild places in this country and the plants and animals that live in them.”
And now there is this new project in which I am teaming up with Meghan Cassidy, a photographer who can capture landscapes and wildlife in beautiful images. We will visit each of the state’s ecoregions, just as Clint and I did, but this time focusing on all kinds of plants and animals and how we can deepen our connection to those places. I will describe the use of mindfulness, nature journaling, and other ways to experience the prairies, deserts, mountains, woods and wetlands. We will include narratives and photos from each of the seasons – bare trees and golden prairies on sunny winter days, the return of spring with its flowers and frog calls, the hot desert summer and cool dark nights in the Big Bend, and the low-slanting sunlight and bright colors of autumn.
Time spent in nature is associated with a wide range of benefits to physical and mental health, and I will summarize some of the relevant research. I’ll talk to a few ecotherapists in Texas who are taking people into the wild and include some perspectives based on my own training and experience as a Psychological Associate. While there is no one way to spend time in nature, I will describe some ways that can increase a sense of connectedness and openness to the experience.
Meghan’s images will speak with their own language about the wonder and fascination to be found in nature. Whether bringing a bird up close with a telephoto lens, capturing a miniature world with macro photography, or laying out the details of a landscape, her photos beautifully illustrate what can be seen in the diverse ecoregions of Texas. Together, I think we will tell the story of Texas nature in a way that will stay in your imagination and, hopefully, inspire you to spend time in some beautiful place, quiet and fully present.
This isn’t the usual sort of post for this blog. I’m looking through some of the literature about mindfulness, and I plan to post a few summaries of studies, at least for my own understanding of it. If you’d like to look at little more closely at mindfulness, please join me.
This article reviewed the mechanisms by which mindfulness might work and proposed a model of mindfulness. Much of the research on mindfulness evaluates the effectiveness of interventions such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and shows that it can effectively treat psychological as well as physical symptoms. To examine how mindfulness works, the authors break the practice down into three “building blocks” of mindfulness:
The authors suggest that intentionally attending to experience with openness and without judgment leads to a shift in perspective that they term “reperceiving.” Instead of being immersed in our life story, we can stand back and witness it from a little distance. This perspective changes the experience and makes us less likely to react automatically. The authors draw a parallel between this and the development of an ability, as a child grows older, to take the perspective of another person. We are no longer caught up in a subjective or self-centered view of the other person and can more accurately understand the other person’s world. Reperceiving strengthens a sort of “observing self” who can observe conscious experience without being fused with it or defined by it.
Some additional mechanisms or processes are described as following from reperceiving. One is self-regulation. Intentional, nonjudgmental attention to our experience allows us to connect with what is happening without having to react and avoid. Automatic and maladaptive responses may drop away if we can experience anxiety or pain from a little distance, seeing it as a temporary thing that will pass.
Reperceiving can help us be more purposeful about choosing what really is important to us. While we might have adopted values based on what our culture or family provided, mindful observations make it easier to consider what is truly meaningful for us, choosing values reflectively rather than reflexively.
Greater cognitive and behavioral flexibility may follow from our ability to see our experience clearly and observe our internal commentary about it. Our thoughts may become less automatic and, more objectively observing our experience, we have more choice over how we think about and respond to our circumstances.
Finally, reperceiving may allow for us to tolerate greater exposure to emotions, thoughts, or sensations that previously were experienced as intolerable. If we can remain still, so to speak, in the face of such experiences, their power over us diminishes. The benefits of such exposure, in terms of decreased anxiety and avoidance, are well-documented in research.
Walking down a moonlit path in the forest, the trees on either side were dark sentinels, dimly seen but keenly felt. They held this place together with an underground network of roots, weaving the soil and rocks of the bottomland into one tapestry of living things. The last season’s leaves gave that fabric its pattern and colors, visible tonight only as shades of dark and light. On the path, in the moonlight, the leaves were edged in a faint silver-blue.
But above the trees, there was light. The moon looked on, her face a pale disc. In the surrounding blue-black sky, an uncounted field of stars shone in frozen pinpoints of light. At the edges of the sky, the trees reached up with bare branches, like river deltas dividing into ever-smaller paths, like the blood vessels of the earth reaching toward the stars.
That field of stars reminded me of a summer night in this very spot when fireflies blinked into existence in the dark forest, three and then twenty, and then more, swirling among the tree branches. It was as if the stars had come down from heaven to dance for a time here on earth, before returning to their cold stillness.
A low, hooting call brought me back to this night. Somewhere in the distance, a barred owl was signaling his presence. The deep quiet resumed for a time, but then, toward the river, there was a sound like the cracking of a big branch. Was it the weight of time, finally bringing part of a dead tree to the ground? A powerful animal, passing through a tangle of brittle branches? It stirred some unquiet thing within me.
Still, the luminous moon sailed in the sky. No sound disturbed her. No calamity could change her serene expression. Paradoxically, in her stillness it was as if she was speaking to me.
“Peace! Do not be troubled. Nothing happens here that is not part of life’s story. Tomorrow the forest will be here, strong and beautiful. Let your troubles go, and see the sunrise!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.