Resilience, and Other Qualities Seen on a Walk in the Woods

I needed a walk in the woods. Too much time inside, too many news reports, too many Facebook opinions, too much about the troubles of human society. And although a couple of weeks ago August was an oven, a short walk would be a way to check in with the things that are our original home: land, water, and sky. We should, at least from time to time, go home.

The closest place to go home is the nearby Southwest Nature Preserve, a 58-acre remnant of the oak woods and savannahs known as the “eastern cross timbers.” Like other urban preserves, it has some invasive plants and is tagged in a few places by invasive humans with more spray paint than good sense, but it is mostly a beautiful oasis of post oak, patches of bluestem grass, and a few small ponds, stubbornly hanging on in the middle of the DFW metroplex.

In the first part of my walk, I skirted the big pond, peeking around cattails looking for frogs or turtles. It did not take long to spot a small male red-eared slider, basking on a branch just above the water. He looked around at me and then scooted off his perch and into the water, swimming past a beer can left by some careless fisherman.

MS-juv-redear-SWNP-14Aug16

Juvenile red-eared slider at Southwest Nature Preserve

“Resilient,” I thought, “that’s a good word for these turtles.” They are among our most successful reptiles, found in practically any pond, creek, or lake in Texas, most of the U.S., and even around the world, thanks to the commercial trade in turtles for food or pets. I have seen them swimming amid trash in polluted rivers, and making do with algae-clogged little ponds that turn into hot tubs as summer heat cooks away most of the water. They are tough, and able to come back from practically any challenge nature and humans can throw at them. They are resilient, and with their yellow-green striped bodies and brilliant red patches of skin toward the backs of their heads, they bring a little beauty to our neglected and littered waterways.

I kept walking, past the dragonflies that hovered and flitted at the pond’s edge on cellophane wings, and I brushed through vegetation growing nearly waist high at either side of the very narrow footpath. Eventually the path broke away from the big pond and climbed up onto a glade where grasses and forbs grew, surrounded by trees. “Forb” is a funny word, essentially meaning the plants that don’t have woody stems and are not grasses. Think of sunflowers, clover, Indian paintbrush, and on and on. Or hedge parsley, a little relative of the carrot, known scientifically as Torilis arvensis. Sometimes known in the vernacular as “beggar’s lice.”

MS-beggarslice

Hedge parsley seeds – “beggar’s lice”

In the spring, stems of Torilis arvensis have multiple little flower stalks (or “umbels,” like the ribs of an umbrella) ending in clusters of lacey little white flowers. As the year progresses, the flowers go to seed, producing clusters of tiny fruits that dry into spiny little dots of Velcro. As I walked through this sunny glade, I began to collect dozens of these seeds on my clothes. They were no longer anything beautiful or lacey, but more like … lice. Tiny pests that cause discomfort and are hard to get rid of. They can encrust shoelaces so that it takes much time and attention to rip them all out. And socks – sometimes it’s better to just throw them away.

For the plant, this is a wonderful seed dispersal strategy. For the species to survive, the plant needs to spread the seeds around, not just drop them and grow new plants in the same spot. They catch in animal hair – or clothing – and are carried to new locations before they are pulled or chewed loose and dropped to the ground. What wonderful tenacity! In our efforts to get something done, if we could hold on and never give up the way these seeds do, we might accomplish a great deal.

I was aware that I was interpreting my observations of nature in a sort of metaphorical way. I know the beggar’s lice seeds don’t intend to be tenacious, they are just designed in such a way that they made me think of the quality of tenacity. I can appreciate nature for what it is, and at the same time be open to other ideas that it inspires.

I continued my walk, trying to dislodge more seeds every few steps. What other good qualities might we see in nature, besides resilience and tenacity? I thought about the oaks, with their deep roots and the waxy coatings of the leaves, conserving the water that can be lost so quickly in the August heat. The refuge looked remarkably full of life, despite the relentless sun and intense summer heat.

Funnel web spiders are common in the cross timbers, and further along, on a wooded hillside, I came upon a particularly large web with an opening that led back into a section of fallen log. The spider weaves a big sheet that gradually forms a funnel leading back into some refuge. All around it, the spider leaves filaments that, when bumped by some unfortunate insect, signal the spider to rush out and grab its prey.  The funnel and all the associated strands seemed huge to me, and I wondered if the spider might have produced nearly its own weight in silk to complete this grand arachnid palace.

Funnel web-SWNP

Funnel web spider’s web

Another example of a positive quality. “Amazing industry!” I thought, borrowing the term used by Erik Erikson to describe a major developmental task of childhood. By showing initiative and working on things (industry), we develop competence and self-confidence. The spider must have worked long and hard to construct this elaborate trap to catch its dinner. If I had the patience, I would love to watch it work, and see how long it would take to build such a big funnel and then lay out all the zig-zagging tripwires that complete the trap.

Morning was turning to midday, and the summer heat was rising. It was time to leave, but I won’t stay gone long. I need to see examples of resilience, beauty, tenacity, industry, and all those other qualities that can always be found in nature.

(Thank you to Suzanne Tuttle for help identifying beggar’s lice with its more “official” name!)

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