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.
It was almost two weeks into autumn, and summer’s heat held on. On October 6th, when the high temperature in Arlington reached 97ºF, a cold front was scheduled to roll through late in the day. It would be an interesting time to be at the Southwest Nature Preserve. Would the change take the form of a whisper of cool air, or a line of storms? A good friend, Shelsea Sanchez, came with me to witness what might be the end of summer heat and drought. We got there a little after 5:00pm and stayed for a couple of hours.
The initial walk around the north pond felt like a late afternoon in summer. We passed a little Texas Spiny Lizard positioned on a tree trunk, stalking insects in the hot sunshine as if it was back in August. Actually, two months ago this very young lizard might not yet have hatched from the egg, but now he or she was feeding and growing as it if was endless summer.
the path up the gentle climb on the back side of the preserve, to pay a visit
to a Post Oak that will be proclaimed as a Texas “historic tree” later this
month. It is estimated to be over two hundred years old, with huge twin trunks
and massive limbs that stretch out over the surrounding vegetation. It is being
called the “Caddo Oak,” recognizing that it would have been an adult tree when
the people who lived on this land were Caddo hunters and farmers.
A good way to
spend time in a place like this is to clear our minds of the mental traffic
that pulls us to past worries or future plans, so that we can simply be open to
the present experience. A good strategy for this is to notice our breathing,
how the body expands and relaxes with each breath. From this focus on present
experience, we can connect more deeply with our surroundings – in this case a
massive old tree with deeply furrowed bark and a giant canopy of leaves. There
is a lot to notice and appreciate when practicing mindfulness in nature, simply
opening oneself to the present experience without judging it or being tugged
away from the moment by the internal “chatter” that often captures our lives.
We stood for a
while, taking in the tree, the sky, and all the surroundings. Later we talked
about what we had noticed: Shelsea’s perception was that those big limbs would
just go on reaching out to the woods and sky, ever wider. It impressed her as a
“wise” tree, something that had lived a long time and experienced a great deal.
The branching limbs of our oak trees often suggest to me a parallel with blood
vessels, extending into the surrounding air, supporting life in the process.
Following the trail as it turned and skirted a yucca meadow with deep sand, beyond a thicket of sumac and past a big juniper, we talked about how trees are linked together below the soil. A fine network of fungal threads, called mycorrhizae, connects with the roots and helps provide water and minerals. In exchange, the fungus gets nutrients from plant roots. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, and it is thought that mycorrhizae make possible a sort of communication between trees. For example, a tree that is attacked by insects may respond by releasing volatile organic compounds, and the surrounding trees connected by the fungal network respond in a similar way.
We spent some time in stillness and quiet, looking to the west toward some oaks in the background, and a scrubby open area with prickly pear cactus and a thicket of greenbriar. The front was coming, and darker blue-gray clouds were massing, and the distant thunder was a welcome and soothing sound. A couple of doves flew overhead, as we continued to absorb what we were experiencing. Afterward, Shelsea commented about how a nearby greenbriar was overtaking and pressing a shrub closer to the ground. Greenbriar is a strong, tough vine that I’ve described as like botanical barbed-wire, and this particular one was attempting to climb a shrub that could not support the vine’s weight. However, the main thing that we had both noticed in the last few minutes was the occasional low rumble from the advancing clouds.
You hear distant thunder when it is quiet – when there are no airplanes, no car engines, no roar of freeway traffic, no loud humming air conditioners. At an urban preserve, some of those things are inescapable, but if those noises are muffled – or if you are in a wild natural place away from mechanized sounds – you can hear breezes, birds, insects, and distant thunder. Through most of our history as humans, those sounds have usually been audible to us. We could hear coyotes howling on a nearby ridge, or a chorus of frogs a quarter-mile away. In a quiet glade we could hear water moving in a creek, and bees buzzing in nearby flowers. The sigh of wind in tree leaves was familiar. It makes you wonder if the loss of all those “quiet sounds” leaves an important gap in our lives, and if constant mechanized sounds and the ever-present TV and video sounds might be a source of low-level stress for us. The answer is yes, it is a source of stress, based on studies showing poorer concentration, increased anxiety and depression, and disrupted sleep because of noise pollution. Even low-level noise tends to increase the body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and chronically elevated levels of cortisol interfere with the brain’s ability to focus and plan, as well as putting us at risk of digestive and cardiac problems, weight gain, headache, and other problems. And so I place a very high value on those experiences of quiet, when a bird’s song or a breeze stirring leaves in a tree can be heard.
Looking up the
trail toward the west at 6:30pm, we saw a hawk rise above the tree line,
soaring in the turbulent air below the oncoming clouds. A second hawk emerged
near the first one. As they flew, the sun shone through a break in the clouds
and highlighted the wings of these birds. Another couple of birds joined the
group, which flew higher and stayed visible above the tree line. The aerial
dance continued and rose higher, with other hawks coming into view. Shelsea and
I needed a real birder with us; I did not see rusty reddish tail feathers that
would have identified a bird as a Red-tailed Hawk, and so I was at a loss. I
could tell that the underparts were light-colored, but my eyes and brain could
not follow the movement well enough to remember their color patterns as they
rode the fast-moving air currents.
As the number
of hawks grew and they spiraled higher, Shelsea pulled out her phone and began
recording video. I began doing the same thing, framing the swirling “kettle” of
hawks. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reminds us that hawks sometimes gather in
“kettles,” using rising air currents to gain altitude, especially when
migrating. In his book, The Birds of Texas, John Tveten notes that in
early fall, Broad-winged Hawks begin their migration south into tropical
America, rising on air currents and forming large swirling flocks. I do not
know if these were Broad-winged Hawks, but it seems quite plausible.
We stood for a
moment, taking all this in. Life at the preserve was in sudden motion, as the
cold front came through with distant thunder and the promise of rain, and this
seemed to have spurred the soaring, wheeling kettle of birds to rise into the
And then, raindrops began to fall. After the heat and drought, it was delightful, and we stood there enjoying the feel of a few cool drops of water on our skin. In our state of fascination with every detail of experience, I noticed that every drop created a little dimpled medallion of mud as it struck the fine red sand of the trail. If the rain continued, those little mud-craters would join and the preserve would get the water it needed. In the meantime, we walked through these sprinkles and enjoyed the feel of the rain.
We spent two
hours there, but we had little awareness of the passage of time. It didn’t seem
to go quickly or last a long time, because we tried to let go of the past and
future so that we could fully experience the present. Although we didn’t pay
attention to the passage of time, we had a great time!
After the long reprieve from Texas heat, with the rains of spring and early summer, we’re back to a more typical August. With temperatures climbing and the sun beating down, I decided it was time to take a walk at Southwest Nature Preserve. I was there from about 1:45-3:15pm.
Cricket frogs and turtles were busy at the North Pond, and dragonflies busily and silently did their dance, swooping and hovering. The Common Whitetail more than justified its name as the commonest of the dragonflies I saw.
I watched all this for a while, but the sun was merciless and I wanted a shadier place to roost. Up the red sandy trail and under some oaks, I turned to see a Texas Spiny Lizard on a Post Oak trunk, her body making an arc as she hung upside-down there, head pulled up to look at me and tail drooping a little away from the tree trunk. Like all such lizards who survive to adulthood, she was wary, and disappeared around the trunk as I moved in to ask for a photo.
Texas Spiny Lizards have had a heck of a year, with rain and runaway plant growth supporting a bumper crop of bugs. I hope they persist (as they always do, in some numbers) during the dry periods that may come. I never get tired of seeing these cute little reptiles that sometimes tolerate you coming close but always at some point scamper away, up and around the trunk, too fast for your eyes to follow.
I followed the trail at the back of the preserve and climbed up to the ridge where there could be more breeze. Around the little loop trail at the crown of the preserve, there is an old concrete pad left over from when it was a working farm, and I sat there for a while, enjoying the quiet. There is almost always some airplane noise, but the spot is on the other side of the ridge from most traffic and so you can escape much of the mechanized soundtrack of modern life, for a little bit.
Sumac is common in places at the preserve, and their seed heads can be a bright, velvety red before drying and darkening into the color of dried blood. Rob Denkhaus tells me I could make a tea out of it, and I’d like to find some growing somewhere that I could harvest a seed head or two and try it!
On the walk back to the trailhead, I saw one more of a kind of butterfly that seemed familiar – was it a Hackberry Butterfly like one I’d seen on a previous walk? I got a photo, and it appears that I was right. (Thanks, iNaturalist!)
At the end, Weather Underground was reporting that the temperature in Arlington was 101ºF, with a heat index making feel like 117ºF. So it got pretty hot today, though the lizards and insects didn’t seem to care. It’s a little more troublesome for those of us whose bodies only operate in a narrow range around 98.6ºF, but a little shade and a little breeze got me through.
I climbed up “Kennedale Mountain” today, an old-ish man with pulmonary disease scaling the summit easily. Kennedale Mountain is a ridge at the Southwest Nature Preserve. A primitive trail gently climbs to a sandstone ridge at the top via a series of switchbacks. On the lower slopes there is a section of plastic netting that urges people to stay on the trail and not climb straight up the hillside, where they would damage vegetation, churn up the sandy soil and make erosion likely.
I wish that unsightly barrier did not need to be there. Why would people take the short cut to the top? Is there a race? Frankly, I’d much rather take that slow, meandering path and see all the little wonders that can be seen on the way up. If you’re not in a hurry, there is a lot to see.
Even the plants that some would consider a nuisance can be pretty spectacular. It seems that sunny openings where there is adequate moisture and sandy soil are just great for Texas bull nettle, a plant that I carefully avoid brushing up against. Its hairy, spiny branches and leaves and the pure white blossoms are a real treat, though.
The ridge at the top has a flat, open area where Little Bluestem grows between scattered Blackjack Oak, and the shelf of iron-rich sandstone looks great, if you avoid places where people have carved initials.
Elsewhere within the oak woods, which are a remnant of the Eastern Cross Timbers ecoregion, lichen-covered boulders are scattered among Blackjack and Post Oak, Sumac, and a wide diversity of other plants. Dragonflies hover and swallowtail butterflies flutter among the trees. There is really a fine diversity of butterflies and skippers to be found there.
The beautiful dark skipper was resting on sumac, a shrub which can easily get out of control but is a beautiful plant. Today the seed heads where brilliant red; in the fall the leaves will be even redder.
This season, horse mint is growing like crazy in places; in lower areas the purple Lemon Bee Balm is common, and in other areas the Spotted Horse Mint grows in profusion. It’s a nice-looking plant, but if you look closely, it’s a spectacular plant!
Speaking of looking closely, there was a gorgeous little bloom growing low to the ground here and there in the woods, and you have to stop and really look to appreciate it. Bend down, spend a little time, and notice that it grows on a sort of trailing vine and that some narrow green seed pods are developing. According to iNaturalist, it’s “Fuzzybean,” which sounds like a Sesame Street character but is actually a legume.
Looking closely and taking your time pays off richly at the preserve. There are all kinds of flowers that you could lose yourself in. I stood in the steaming sunlight, admiring and trying not to drip on my camera. (Most of the close-ups were taken with an iPhone, and while I don’t claim that they’re anything special, I think that phone may be my best close-up camera.)
On the way back, there were more butterflies, including a beautiful Question Mark, a kind of butterfly that is utterly camouflaged with wings closed but is a beautiful study in orange and dark brown when it opens those strangely-curved wings. It was doing what butterflies do, sipping on a clump of scat. We don’t like to think about such beautiful insects getting nutrition from feces, but there you are.
On the way back, I passed the place where that rogue trail joins the “official” trail near the top. Stacks of tree branches were piled there to discourage the cut-through down the slope. I still cannot imagine why anyone would come to this amazing place and want to take the short cut. I hope that they at least stopped somewhere, took a good look at something, in their race to do whatever they were doing.
(You probably noticed a lot of references to iNaturalist. I use it pretty regularly and it’s a wonderful way to get suggested identification of what you’re seeing and also to share your observations with other naturalists and with the scientific community. I’m pretty well-versed in reptiles and amphibians and have learned as much as I can about the bigger picture, but there’s an incredible amount that I don’t know. The iNaturalist app helps a lot.)