A Curmudgeon’s Day in the Grasslands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Cold Walk for the Grasslands Project

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

At LBJ National Grasslands

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

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

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

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

A young blackjack oak with a lipstick smear of red

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

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

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

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

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

Junipers surrounding a little oak

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

A Morning at the Edge of Autumn

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

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

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

A field with lots of croton

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

A juvenile Mississippi kite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the Grasslands, With Gratitude

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

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

Dear Grasslands,

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

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

Leopard frog
American bullfrogs

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

Bird nest

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

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

Bones and teeth

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

A tiger beetle

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

Goodbye, Winter

At LBJ National Grasslands yesterday, new green growth emerged from the soil everywhere. In this ecotone, this blended margin between prairie and woodland, what had been the sandy brown floor was now turning green. In some places it was hidden beneath last year’s grasses, and in other places around trees and shrubs the scattered green was unmistakable. In areas that were recently burned, where the soil now had the most contact with the bright, warming sun, the new growth was strong. 

It was March 19, the last day of winter. Tomorrow the Northern Hemisphere would be angled toward the sun just a bit more, reaching the vernal equinox. It would be the first day of spring. I spent most of the day at LBJ National Grasslands to say goodbye to winter in the biggest, quietest place I could wander through.  

It was bright and sunny, as if the weather had already passed the equinox and was intent on spring. I soon shed the hoodie I started my walk with, as the breeze warmed a little and the sun was higher in the sky. By the end of the day I would have a mild sunburn and no regrets for having walked and sat in so much sunshine. 

Limestone shelf at the top of an arroyo

I started up on a ridge where limestone lies beneath shallow soil. In places, erosion exposes the limestone from an ancient sea bed filled with small oysters. I walked around one spot where water had exposed a small limestone shelf and eroded back under it. This was at the top of one of those places where the land drops away from the top of the cuesta or ridge and forms a long arroyo down the hillside. Big junipers, hackberries, and woody shrubs fill these places where the land concentrates rainfall.  

On the top of the cuesta, prairie grasses grow where the soil is deep enough. In shallow soil, even in areas with bare limestone, you can find clumps of cacti such as the grooved nipple cactus with stems like rounded domes covered with spines. There are also prickly pear cacti whose pads in winter are colored in shades of faded brick red and pink. Elsewhere up on the ridge there are clumps of compass plant. I love those long deeply notched leaves that feel as if they were cut from stiff sheets of sandpaper.  

Mexican plum

A couple of hours later I was in the Cross Timbers woodland below the ridge, visiting a small pond. The breeze stirred ripples on its surface. The sunlight glittered brightly from the tops of those ripples, so that the pond’s entire surface seemed covered in sparkling jewels. When I let my focus soften, it was like a very fast twinkling of a field of stars. Even in simple places like this, the rest of the world drops away and there is only the pleasure of this moment in this spot. How we all long for such a refuge, and here it was. 

The stars in the water, only poorly represented in the photo

Throughout the winter the sulphur butterflies persist and dance across dormant prairies and sunny glades, but today more insect life was awakening. In one spot I began to see orange butterflies. At the edge of a clearing, two of them encircled each other and seemed to catch an updraft, swirling straight up to the crowns of the surrounding trees. When one landed, I saw that it was a goatweed leafwing. Their deep orange wings are scalloped, edged in ashen gray and the forewing and hindwing come to points. Their interesting name is based on description and natural history. The host for their caterpillars is “goatweed” or croton, and when closed the wings look just like a dead leaf.  

A goatweed leafwing

Finishing in this part of the grasslands, the practical but unimaginatively named unit 71, I drove to a couple of units near Alvord, including one of the beautiful and fragrant pine groves, and ended up in unit 30, one of my favorites. I let myself in through one of the green Forest Service gates and looked across the prairie and savannah toward the oak-juniper woodland. 

The prairie in “unit 30,” looking upslope

Here was that wonderful down-sloping prairie with little bluestem, Indiangrass, and flowering plants scattered throughout. Then the trail reaches the trees and turns sharply, losing itself in junipers, post oaks and other trees. The woods frequently open into little prairie patches as well as a few little ponds. I know the features of this part of the trail and I enjoy each walk there. I thought about why the places within LBJ National Grasslands have such an attraction for me, these “same old” trails. But the affection for the place holds. Walking here is visiting old friends, so why would I tire of it? And when I walk through spots in the grasslands that are new to me I usually see familiar landscapes, just arranged differently. Some of the appeal for me is the sense of being able to spread out, to be unconfined in grasslands and woods that keep on going. 

A nine-banded armadillo, oblivious to my nearby presence

So goodbye to winter, and welcome spring! I’m ready for frog calls and purple coneflower, and those spring evenings with distant thunder. And eventually I’ll come to miss the earth tones of dormant vegetation and quiet winter afternoons. In time I will welcome winter back again. 

Ready for Spring

As I drove through a northern part of LBJ National Grasslands, last year’s grasses were burned off along with some of the low growing brush. At the ground, some tree trunks were blackened, but the bark of the bigger trees protected the living tissue underneath. The trees will be fine. So will the grasses. The living roots below ground were already starting to send green shoots up within the charred clumps of little bluestem and Indiangrass. After all, what burned was just the dead stems and leaves of last year’s growth. What was pushed back was, hopefully, the growth of woody shrubs and tree seedlings. These ecosystems were built with periodic fire as an important ingredient. Without it, the shrubs and seedlings would grow into thickets, closing off open areas and replacing the meadows and pockets of prairie in this place.

The Forest Service had done well, lighting fires that would move across the land quickly so that it did its job with little real damage. Larger wildlife would move out of the way and most smaller animals would shelter in burrows or climb higher in trees. They would plan the burn when fuel loads would not be too high and wind conditions were right, keeping the fire within certain boundaries. With a well-planned burn, the fire would not linger long enough to become very big or hot. 

I walked a trail northeast of Alvord through areas cleared out by fire and looked at the green shoots beginning to emerge here and there where fire had burned last year’s growth to black stubs. Not only were grasses re-growing, along the surface of the soil – much more exposed than usual – new green growth was beginning everywhere. Spring is just days away (or already started, by meteorological reckoning).

Tiger beetle

A little movement caught my eye. A small wolf spider was scampering over soil and bits of wood on the trail. “Welcome, little survivor,” I thought. A fluttering spot of yellow bounded along the ground. The little butterfly, perhaps a clouded sulphur, had also made it through the fire or the wind had carried her in from nearby fields. Altogether in my walks in two areas of the grasslands today I saw sulphurs, variegated fritillaries, and a very dark swallowtail. At another point on the trail a small insect flew ahead of me, always landing back on the bare sandy soil of the trail. Sure enough, it was a tiger beetle with a metallic green head and thorax and a brushstroke of iridescent red on the wing covers (the elytra). It appeared that the invertebrates were doing pretty well after the burn.

Nine-banded armadillo

Somebody else may have noticed how well the invertebrates were doing. As I came around on the trail, I saw an armadillo about thirty feet away, busily rooting into the soil looking for anything edible. These tough, chunky mammals have a sort of leathery armor over their hips and shoulders, connected in the middle by nine bands of the same stuff (thus their name, “nine-banded armadillo”). Bony deposits are embedded in this modified skin, even on their foreheads and tails. They are very strong, as anyone who has tried to pick one up can attest. 

Armadillos need these attributes, because they are not gifted with strong eyesight or attentiveness to their surroundings. I approached the little beast quietly and downwind, moving mostly when he had his snout in the ground. Periodically he stopped to look around and sniff the air and then returned to the search for insects and grubs. I got within six feet or so, with no intention of doing anything more than taking a photo. At some point he figured out that I was present and ran off, sometimes bounding into the air with all four legs like a deer. It might seem like a parody of gracefulness, but he was fast and had a sort of armadillo-style agility.

Like Texas’ national forests, the national grasslands in our state are maintained in the belief that many different uses of the land are appropriate. These uses include mineral extraction along with recreation, hunting and fishing. We can walk and study nature on what’s left. I got my first reminder that this is a “multi-use” area when the path opened on a big cleared area with gas storage tanks and some sort of building. Nearby, a wide, bulldozed corridor led into the distance with signs saying, “Warning, natural gas pipeline.” Oil and gas extraction sometimes seems like the pre-eminent use of this place.

The other reminder of the multiple uses of the grasslands happened as I finished the walk back to my car. From the pine grove camping area came several loud shotgun blasts. Hunting is allowed on the grasslands, although what I was hearing seemed unlikely to represent hunting in any competent sense, as the shotgun was discharged sometimes four to six times in rapid succession. After a pause, more shots. I wondered if it was safe to get to my car. I decided that I must be hearing some sort of target practice and chose to believe the target was not in my vicinity. I have not had this experience before, but I have passed hunters with shotguns on the trail. When visiting, we should all keep in mind that hunters (and I suppose wild target shooters) may be present.

My last hour in the grasslands on this day was spent a little distance away, in a unit that had not been burned. I wrote this in my journal:

“I’m sitting at the top of a big rise, under a blue sky with a half-moon above and to my right. There is a light breeze, a little cool and a perfect balance to the warm sun behind me. It’s such a nice spring warmth that it’s hard to believe that in twelve hours it will be blustery, cold and raining. In my shade it is 68.9ºF and 59% relative humidity. 

“It’s quiet and peaceful – a sunny refuge with post oaks, butterflies and cardinals for companions. There’s a post oak in front of me with a trunk so thick that I was reminded of the baobab tree. A cardinal flew into it and is in the high branches – “cheer, cheer, cheer” – and when he faces me there is a bright crimson dot in the branches. 

“To my right is a huge oak with twisted arms, right out of a scary story. Along the trail a pair of small sulphurs, swirling together in figure-eights nonstop across the ground.”

The twisted branches of a post oak

I’ll be back soon, watchful for armadillos and butterflies and curious about the new spring growth of grasses and flowers after the burn. Frogs will be calling soon, especially if we get some rain. There’s a lot to look forward to.

In the November Woods

Hardly anything is finer than a green Forest Service gate opening onto trails that lead through the grasslands and oak woodlands of LBJ National Grasslands. Those meadows and woods change throughout the seasons, and each of those changes is beautiful. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be autumn (but ask me again in the spring). The low-angled sun highlights details of light and shadow, the colors of leaves and grasses are wonderful, and afternoons can be sun-warmed but cool at the same time.

A common buckeye

Yesterday I opened one of those green gates that was new to me and walked a trail back through rust-colored little bluestem grasses and oaks with leaves now tinged with yellow and caramel, and a little red here and there. Much of it was familiar, like the way the sun makes little bluestem sparkle when it shines through the little tufted seeds tucked away along the stems. What made it wonderful was that it was more of the things that are always on the verge of being lost. Ranches are sold and turned into houses and lawns, and so a walk through a new patch of Cross Timbers felt reassuring. 

Croton and bitterweed along the trail
A sulphur visiting a bitterweed flower
A small pond

Along with the taller prairie grasses were areas with lots of croton (“prairie tea” for some folks), western ragweed, and bitterweed. I love this last plant, whose yellow flowers bloom so late in the year. Clusters of yellow bitterweed blooms were visited by bees and butterflies. Grasshoppers jumped in front of every step I took, taking advantage of these last warm days to nibble at the remaining vegetation. 

A skipper visiting the bitterweed
A variegated fritillary
Sunlight through bluestem seeds
“Me and my shadow.” A harvestman (daddy longlegs) and its shadow, wandering the prairie

After about an hour, I went down the road to another of those green gates, this one opening onto a trail that Meghan Cassidy and I walked a year and one week ago. After crossing a nice patch of prairie that very gradually slopes down to a line of trees, the trail turns and traces its way through oaks, junipers, and prairie openings. 

I stopped at the same post oak where we had stood and watched leaves drop, the air so quiet that I could sometimes hear a leaf bump into a branch on the way down. And then we would hear a wave of breeze approach through the treetops, stirring the top branches and releasing a few more leaves to pinwheel down to the growing carpet of leaves on the ground. Although not many leaves were falling from that tree yesterday, there was some of that sense of solitude and peace in the quiet of the woodlands.

Further down the deep sandy trail some of the same young oaks were turning, with leaves glowing scarlet when backlit by the sun. The woods were full of shade behind the trees which really had yet to lose many leaves. In other places the low mid-afternoon sun struck grasses and leaves with bright, warm light. The sunlight seemed that much brighter for the contrast with the shaded and darkened places deep among the trees.

The pond

I reached a place where the soil is cut by erosion and drops, exposing red and pale sandy soil in an irregular set of steps and furrows down to a small pond. Meghan and I sat here a year ago on a stretch of slightly damp sand tilting down to the water. I was entranced by a play of the light in which the late afternoon sun was reflected by ripples, sending squiggles of light up onto a shaded bank under a juniper. The very same thing was happening yesterday, with a tiny light show playing on the shaded bank of the pond. It was a very small thing, and also an example of something that seems important to me: Nature is so often a consistent, stable presence in a world that can seem chaotic. Places in nature can be anchors in our lives to which we can return over and over for reassurance that some good things persist in spite of all the changes around us. 

Juniper berries!

On the way back there was movement in the leaf litter a small distance off the trail. It was a nine-banded armadillo, snuffling along the woodland floor, oblivious to the human standing nearby. Once again last autumn’s walk was being repeated, as we saw an armadillo on the return walk on that day, too. This one kept searching for insects and grubs to eat while I took a couple of photos. I shifted and made a little noise and the little armored one stood up to look around and sniff the air. I coughed, and he crashed off through the brush. 

The armadillo
Tiny asters blooming along the trail
Grasshoppers were everywhere
More prairie

It was getting near sunset, and my walk was done. It is hard to put into words just what this time of year, this quality of light, this quiet woodland feels like to me. In the “Autumn” section of the book Meghan and I have been working on, I wrote this: Things come to an end / Be still in the golden autumn light / And consider how to make a good end of the year / With affection and acceptance. This season does feel like an ending of the year, and it seems like a good idea to spend some time being still and quietly reflecting on all that the year contained. This November walk at the LBJ National Grasslands had been perfect for that.

Quiet, and Then Storms at the Grasslands

At 3:30pm I was sitting in a chair in the shade, looking out at a field of little bluestem and Indiangrass waving in the gentle breeze. Scattered in with the grasses were a few violet spikes of dotted gayfeather, a smallish prairie plant whose flowers grow in clusters along upright stalks. A little further away were some little white puffs on thin, gangly stems, the flowers of false gaura. A couple of butterflies visited the area.

The sky was powder blue toward the horizon and a deeper shade of blue overhead, and cumulus clouds floated by. They were just big and dense enough to be flattened and gray along the bottom. Their puffy cauliflower tops were bright in afternoon sunshine that brought the temperature up to 90ºF on the shaded ground at the edge of a stand of post oak.

It was, for the most part, very quiet in this spot. There was the occasional passing airplane, but usually there was nothing to mask the sound of grasses moving in the breeze. It was wonderful to be out in a patch of prairie with no roads, no buildings visible, but what brought real solitude was the ability to hear breezes, birds and insects in a sound field with nothing else present. Real immersion in nature involves multiple sensory modalities, not just a pretty view.

I’m not the only one who needs occasional doses of solitude, or for whom absence of mechanical sound is important. In temperate rainforests and other remote places, Gordon Hempton has been championing – and recording – places where there is the least man-made noise and therefore the clearest experience of natural sounds1. Probably nowhere in North Texas is free of noise completely or for long, but this day in the LBJ National Grasslands was close enough. 

From the west, a hazy line of clouds approached, darker near the northwest horizon and much higher than the clouds I had been watching. The breezes picked up a little and the sun was filtered through the clouds. There was the potential for rain and lightning, at least toward the north. I decided to shift to a nearby ridge where I could watch the storm come it. This had the additional advantage of getting up a steep caliche and gravel incline while it was dry.

I got to the ridge, and by this time the high cloud deck brought the temperature down, helped by a fairly steady breeze. I sat looking through the waving stems of big bluestem at a western horizon that was enveloped in rain. About three feet in front of me, a bumblebee was visiting the purple spikey flower heads of Leavenworth’s eryngo, that prickly plant that people often mistake for thistle. At this time of year the leaves and flowers are a beautiful purple color. 

So I sat and watched the dark blue-gray bruise of a thunderstorm that spanned nearly half the horizon. There were places where the smudged gray of heavy rain connected cloud and ground. Distant thunder was somewhere between soothing and invigorating. As low rumbles, thunder’s effect on me is soothing, but now it was part of a nearby heavy storm with occasional bolts of lightning dropping from the sky. It was powerful and fascinating, and I was grateful to be able to sit and watch this storm system progress toward the north. The outer clouds streamed blue-gray across the sky, with a tinge of blue-green behind them. The clouds were like dark cream that someone started to stir, pulled across the bowl of the sky in long, thick streaks in front of the main part of the storm. 

Suddenly, what was breeze became wind – steady and strong, cooler and smelling of rain. This was the outflow from the storm, putting me on notice that although the storm seemed mainly to be tracking north, it was also spreading out and coming to me. Blowing across the dry grasslands, the wind picked up a little stinging dust and carried cool little droplets from the rain. I stood for a little longer, wondering if I might see a curtain of rain march across the treeline toward this ridge. That didn’t happen, but the cool wind became laden with big, cold drops of rain as I walked back to the car at 6:00pm. According to the car’s thermometer, it was now a much cooler 67ºF.I was thankful for whatever rain fell on the grasslands where the end of summer has been very dry, and for the chance to experience the transition from sunny afternoon to revitalizing storm.

  1. Moore, K.D. 2008. Silence Like Scouring Sand. (online: https://orionmagazine.org/article/silence-like-scouring-sand/)

At LBJ Grasslands, the Evening of May 27

(A writing experiment, with country cemeteries, beautiful prairie, a copperhead, and distant storms. On this visit to the grasslands, I did not take a camera. I intended to experience it without trying to “capture” it in images, although I did have my phone so I suppose I did have a camera. I also did not take a field notebook, but today I wrote some notes. It seemed like the sort of thing that would have, once upon a time, been sent back home as a letter, and so I offer my notes as a sort of letter from the grasslands, with no photos to augment whatever mental images and stories the words might manage to convey.)

I traveled to Wise County to see how all the rain has affected the prairies at LBJ Grasslands, and I also hoped to sit in the quiet darkness and watch lightning from the line of storms coming in from Oklahoma. In between those things, perhaps I would see a few snakes or frogs crossing the roads after sunset.

On the initial drive through the oak woodlands and patches of prairie, I looped around Ball Knob, a little hilltop and ridge. Tucked away among the oaks, prairie grasses, and wildflowers is a quiet little cemetery, a resting place for people who lived there in the 1700s and later. It is a beautiful place, dotted with oaks and a couple of junipers, with some of the headstones weathered beyond reading. It is comforting to think that they have rested here for hundreds of years in the peace of the cycling seasons. Who knows what it might mean to those who have passed, but for those who remain it is a reassuring reminder of eternal rest. For those who are buried here, each spring sees the return of Texas paintbrush and purple coneflower and each autumn their graves are kissed with a scattering of golden and scarlet oak leaves. The place is circled with an unassuming chain link fence, and there is a small, modest pavilion for anyone who wants to sit for a while. There is a historical marker, but no signs and nothing to disturb the peace. It is perfect.

I drove on, past the historical site of the settlement of Audubon and past the pine grove with its campsites and little ponds. From that pine grove, the road drops down to a broad, mostly open prairie that I walk year after year, following trails across fields of prairie grass and flowers and through post oak and blackjack woodland. Today, after the extended rains that have fallen, the fields were green and dotted with flowers. Red-orange Texas paintbrush pushed up through the green, and meadow pink flowers were tucked away near the ground. Big flower heads of antelope horn milkweed dotted the meadows. 

Butterflies and bumblebees visited these and other flowers. The first ones I saw were sulphur-yellow butterflies that fluttered near the ground, stopping at the yellow coreopsis and nervously moving on if I stepped closer. The buzz of the bees is very pleasant to me; I associate it with flowering and the expansion of life, and not at all with pain since these bees will gladly coexist and work around us if we just leave them alone. Everywhere the calls of northern cardinals and other birds made these meadows and woods all the more exquisite. To walk through the grasses and among the flowers, surrounded by bird song and the occasional bee, brings a peace and contentment that I find in few other places. 

I wandered for some time, soaking it all in. White-tailed deer peeked at me attentively from below a rise, bolted back a short distance as I continued walking and looked back at me again. Crows scolded me from a nearby line of trees. On a milkweed plant, a monarch butterfly moved among the flowers, took off when I got too close, and then circled back to the plant. The air was laden with moisture and felt warm and close, and the sky was hazy with thin clouds. Cricket frogs began to call, a soft and distant ‘grick-grick-grick’ from a pond somewhere.

Eventually I returned to my car, just prior to sunset. I started to get in and was interrupted by the graceful and acrobatic flight of a couple of birds very close to where I was. They had narrow wings that suggested a swallow, made for maneuvering rather than soaring. The tail feathers were cut into a fork rather than a broad fan, but these birds were too big to be swallows. They swooped and climbed, then one would rapidly pivot, diving down to catch an insect and then pull up and shoot across the meadow, flying out of range only to re-emerge a few moments later. Others joined, until there were five or six birds, each one putting on an athletic show for the earthbound human below. My friend Carly identified these as nighthawks based on their size and the big white spot under each wing. 

I drove the little back roads nearby, and at some point came upon a fairly large broad-banded copperhead. I always stop, both because they are beautiful and because they cruise very slowly across the road, very vulnerable to being run over. The glare of my flashlight showed the broad dark and light bands that give the snake its name, dark cinnamon alternating with sandy shade of tan. The finely-sculpted, wedge-shaped head had some of that cinnamon color in the back, divided from the lighter color of the face by a fine diagonal border. Like virtually all copperheads, this one held his head angled up, motionless for the moment, waiting to see what I would do. At such times they are balanced on the edge of a knife, between utter stillness (which would serve them well when camouflaged in dead leaves and grasses) and exploding into frantic attempts to escape. When I slid the snake hook under this one’s head and neck, he bunched up a little, maybe surprised and unsure what to do with this unexplained touching. He then decided it was time to leave, crawling quickly but not frantically off the road. 

That was an exciting encounter, despite my having found and interacted with a great many copperheads. I drove down the road with the satisfaction of seeing this beautiful snake and moving it so that it would survive this night. A few miles further, and another snake came into view. This one was a plain-bellied watersnake, dark and sullen but nonvenomous. I took a couple of photos with my phone but did not pick it up. At my approach, the snake pulled itself into a protective coil and lashed out with a quick jab. Watersnakes have no venom but usually do not hesitate to bite if they feel threatened. They leave small scratches, briefly painful and perhaps startling enough to make a coyote, a raccoon, or a human let it go. I nudged him off the road with my shoe and wished him well.

Soon, lightning could be seen along the northern horizon. An oncoming storm front and barometric pressure drop often sets the stage for snake activity, and that was a plus. However, when the clouds get close enough to watch the flashes of light and hear rumbling in the distance, I’m ready to stop and enjoy the experience. Maybe it is a contradiction that I respond to distant storms as gentle and soothing while at the same time representing immense power. Which part appeals to me, or is it the idea of such a powerful thing being capable of soothing? In any case, the faraway thunder is a lullabye and the flashes of lightning no more threatening than the moon or a shooting star. I pulled off onto a Forest Service road and stopped the car so that I could stand in the quiet darkness and watch.

It was very dark behind the tree line and then a flash appeared from within the clouds and rolled from one to the next. Then it was dark again until nearby clouds were briefly lit by what seemed like an internal fire, outlining the clouds in front of it for an instant or two. It was completely quiet. Radar showed the front still had not crossed the Red River; it was too far distant for thunder to be audible. Earlier, the air had felt warm and saturated, but now some cooler breezes were stirring. I stood in the darkness for a while longer, watching the random flowering of distant lightning and enjoying the quiet. 

Be well and happy. Visit the grasslands when you can.

Michael Smith

Summer’s Snakey End

It was September12, with ten days of summer left to us before the autumn equinox, and so we decided that the last outing of summer ought to be spent at the LBJ National Grasslands, in Wise County. It was some combination of work on this book I’m writing about spending time in nature, and just enjoying one more day of summer.

Meghan, Paul and I started at one of the pine groves, those patches of ponderosa pine brought in by the Forest Service long ago and planted here in the Cross Timbers. The series of ponds beneath this grove support huge numbers of cricket frogs, leopard frogs, and a couple of other species. In turn, the frogs help support a community of snakes, both the harmless watersnake and the venomous cottonmouth. We walked along, hearing frogs plunk into the water and seeing a few frogs that did not disappear fast enough.

A juvenile leopard frog

Beyond the pine grove is a gently rolling landscape of prairie patches and oak woodland dotted with small ponds. Among my prairie favorites are little bluestem and Indiangrass, creating a fine vertical texture of straight stems reaching waist-high or even head-high. The flowering tops and seed heads of Indiangrass remind me of candle flames on impossibly skinny candles. And while the Cross Timbers is dominated by oak trees, there are plenty of junipers scattered through the clumps and belts of woodland. Late summer flowers – goldenrod and various asters – add beautiful colors to the mix.

A green layer of mostly western ragweed beneath layers of little bluestem and Indiangrass

Something scaley was spotted – a snake of some kind – around a big fallen tree branch. We searched intensively for a few minutes, but the tall grasses and the tangle of other plants and tree branches concealed the serpent well. My guess is that it found a deeper place of concealment such as a burrow underneath the vegetation, or else made a quick unseen getaway while we were looking elsewhere.

On the walk back, I spotted something stretched across the damp sandy trail. It could have been a stick or an irregular ripple of soil, but that didn’t look right to me. As I approached, twenty feet away or so, it seemed to draw up into some kinks. I walked up on a fairly dark spotted snake that turned out to be a prairie kingsnake.

A prairie kingsnake

I gently picked it up, anticipating some thrashing or even a bite, which would have been briefly uncomfortable but of no consequence. Our nonvenomous snakes mostly have small, very sharp needle-like teeth that make small punctures or scratches but need no special treatment. This kingsnake, however, never thrashed, just moved her body as if trying to crawl away. She never offered to bite. We spent several minutes admiring her (judged to be a “her” because the tail tapered fairly quickly, as opposed to the thicker and longer tails of male snakes, whose reproductive organs are kept inverted inside the first part of the tail), and then released her.

When placed on the trail, she immediately moved to the edge of the leaf litter, nosed down just beneath the thin layer of leaves and vines, and began to disappear under it. The amazing thing was how she gradually disappeared under the leaves without moving them in the slightest or making any sounds. The snake simply dissolved into the prairie!

A little further down the trail, Meghan was determined to find another snake, and her attention was drawn to an area beside the trail with some old fallen branches that offered some cover. Sure enough, she spotted a small snake, fast and agile and therefore hard to get a good look at to verify that it was harmless. I hurried to where she was, and she wanted me to identify whether it was safe for her to pick up. I got a glimpse of scales and said “yes.” Together we lifted a piece of wood and as the snake took off in her direction, she restrained it and picked it up.

A baby western coachwhip

This was a baby western coachwhip, a snake that can grow to around six feet in length, although most are not quite that long. Babies are born in late summer and measure a little over a foot long. Based on time of year and length, this little snake had not been out of the egg very long. A coachwhip’s big, piercing eyes hint at its daytime hunting strategy, visually locating lizards or even big grasshoppers and chasing them down. It is hard to imagine winning a race with a determined coachwhip, not because they are so fast in miles per hour but because of their agility in weaving through branches and around rocks.

On the final part of our walk, back through the pine grove, we spotted a watersnake slipping over the banks of one of the ponds and into the water. I got enough of a look at its body shape and especially its movement to know that it was a harmless watersnake. While cottonmouths can move quickly, they never seem to have the grace and speed of a watersnake. While this one immediately slipped beneath the water, a cottonmouth would typically (not always!) ride along the water’s surface, more focused on looking around it or simply sitting still. A watersnake fleeing danger usually swims at high speed, along the bottom, until it finds a place of concealment where it can wait for danger to pass.

Eryngo

We visited other places and stayed until sunset, admiring things like eryngo, that beautiful, prickly purple plant found at the end of the summer. Sunset was subtle but beautiful, offering a wonderful way to say goodbye to summer.