“I Hope One Day They Will Be Protected”

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

The trail approaching the River Legacy Living Science Center

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Urban Hiker

We’ve spent way too much time in the house, binge-watched Netflix until we get pulled into the screen and sucked dry. We’re trying to get through a crisis where people are dying and others are wondering how they will make a living. Uncertainty and stress pile up, and we crave an escape from all of it. Some of the preserves and natural areas around the city are open – and your thought is: “put on the Nikes and grab the water bottles, let’s go!” I get it; those preserves and natural areas are places I want to go, too. I just hope we can use them in ways that let them survive in good shape.

I watch you cut through the temporary fencing at the preserve so that you can take the short cut, climbing straight up the hill. You may not have noticed that this hill is composed of fine sand from the sandstone rock under the soil and exposed at the top as a scenic ridge. The oaks, yuccas, vines and other plants hold that sand together and create a thin soil. It is enough to support the cacti, wildflowers and other plants, but your footsteps break through that thin network holding the sand together, and the wind and rain wash it away. That happens later, and you do not see the consequences of your short cut, so it seems OK to you.

I also see you fishing at the ponds, maybe showing your child how to bait the hook and wait patiently for a bite. Sitting quietly with someone you care about, taking in the sights and the feel of the breeze, that is a wonderful experience that every child should have. I sure wish that you could bring a small trash bag with you, because the fast food wrappers and bait cups should not stay behind once you have left. It would also teach responsibility and thoughtfulness if you would pack out that broken fishing line and the floats and bobbers that we see caught in the shoreline vegetation. Small animals often get tangled in that fishing line and strangle or starve. This also happens later, and so again you do not see the consequences of what you leave behind.

We visit these places for a variety of reasons, and I know that this is OK. One of my reasons is to watch birds and other wildlife. Even urban preserves can support a good number of animals, from the cardinals, doves, and hawks in the air to lizards on the tree trunks, frogs on the banks of the ponds, and sunfish in the water. When your group passes me on the trail, loudly talking about the topic of the moment, I wonder if you know what we all just missed as the wildlife scatter. Keep in mind that I know you have the right to jog along the trail or amble along in social groups (although during this pandemic I very much wish that you would stay some distance from each other). Once you pass, I’ll wait for the wildlife to re-emerge. Lately, though, as everyone visits the preserves, it is more challenging because sometimes there is little break from the stream of hikers.

We all get to make use of these places, and I do try (I promise) to remember that different ways of using them can be just fine. Some of the things people do, though, are not so fine. Let’s compare some ways of visiting parks and refuges. Some visitors come for a little diversion and a workout opportunity, and going off-trail, moving  or destroying barriers, and ignoring signs asking people to stay on the trail seems like no big deal – “rules for other people, not for me.” For some it is a pleasant place to bring their burgers and onion rings, and since no one thought to station trash cans along the trails, what can you do but toss the Styrofoam cup and food wrappers into the woods. Who wants to carry a handful of trash for the rest of their walk?

Other people come for exercise in beautiful surroundings, with a commitment to leaving the place like they found it. They may jog through the place without stopping to look for birds or flowers, but they stay on the trail. Others might come for the solitude – or relative solitude – of a walk through a woods or prairie. They may be birdwatching, or might be looking for particular plants or flowers, or some other part of the natural world that has survived the surrounding city. You might pass these people sitting quietly somewhere or squinting through some binoculars. Chances are they are not interested in taking short cuts, and they know that they should not go off-trail to see some particular plant or animal.

The two uses of preserves and parks – one as a momentary convenience and the other as a place valued because of relatively undisturbed nature – are not the same. That “relatively undisturbed” part is the key. Users who trample the plants and create erosion, paint or carve graffiti, or litter, those folks are using the preserve up. Each visit brings the place closer to just some urban vacant lot, although the process is very gradual so each discarded cup, each carved initial, each off-trail excursion seems like no big deal. There is much less damage from the other users who walk or jog along the trails, pack out anything they bring in, and leave the place just like they found it. Yes, the noise and presence of people may make wildlife more scarce, and even foot traffic on trails can do a little damage. But these are impacts from which nature can recover.

So, my friend, here’s what I ask, respectfully and in the hope that we can all use the lands that belong to all of us: please leave it like you found it, and please visit in ways that allow others who are present to use it too. You are in an uncommon and wonderful place, and the slower and quieter you are, the more you are likely to discover that. Quite often you are getting a glimpse of what the surrounding area used to be like before the land was settled and developed. You can get a look at things that are in many cases being lost to us. They are disappearing in our minds and in our imaginations, and often they are disappearing literally, in terms of numbers. So when you are there, remember that we get to use it but we do not get to use it up.