Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. -Matthew 6:28-29
I grew up in a beautiful place, with oak woodlands and prairies with waist-high grasses whose pale blue-green leaves turned golden and rust-reddish in winter. Each spring turned patches of prairie blue with bluebonnets, crimson with Indian paintbrush, as well as yellow and pink from flowers like evening primrose. A big creek with clear water running over limestone traced its way through the prairie, a little shallow for swimming but perfect for wading and discovering the many animals there. I still live in that place, in the cross timbers of north central Texas, and consider it one of the miracles of creation.
Since I am now in my sixties, I have seen this region over a considerable span of time, and watched the highways and cities claim an ever-larger share of the land. I have watched as ever-fewer people know about those woodlands and prairies, and few would give a second thought to the wildlife in that creek. Some people do value nature, and I am very grateful for them. I am particularly grateful for those who want to get out and experience it, for no matter how beautiful the BBC series Planet Earth is on the screen, it is a representation on a screen, not an experience of being immersed in part of the actual planet Earth.
I am also grateful for those willing to slow down and experience the woods and fields by listening, really looking, and taking in the smells and the feel of the air, sun, and water. To borrow a term from health psychology and meditation, be “mindful” of it. What I mean by that is to let everything else go, and be there in the moment, with smart phone off and thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow dismissed. This is not just the curmudgeonly nagging of an old person who sees the world going too fast (though I am sure that applies a little). There is something to be said for mountain-biking through a place and experiencing the thrill of movement and physical mastery, and there is a place for animated conversations on a walk through the field. But stillness and peace and openness to each leaf and every bird are rewarding, too.
Smith Spring, Guadalupe Mountains
I remember hiking up to Smith Spring in the Guadalupe Mountains, and sitting on a stone bench for some time, amazed at the little crystal clear pool edged with maidenhair fern, with a bough of bigtooth maple hanging over it. Several varieties of butterfly visited the scarlet penstemon at one end of the pool, and the buzzing of bees was audible in the stillness and quiet that was unbroken by the noise of highways and machinery. The dappled sunlight, the very slight smell of the mountain woodland, and the otherworldly quiet and calm made for an experience I can never forget. There are some times and places where talking and doing have to stop, in order to “lose” yourself in the experience.
I have walked through the oaks and elms that border the creek at that brief moment in the spring when all the new growth is a fresh, pale green and the tree canopy has not closed and the sun warms the earth. The whole world seems to welcome new life, and careful looking among the tree trunks and fallen branches reveals a little prickly patch of bark that is really a Texas spiny lizard, warily looking back at you with little golden eyes. Studying a protected spot of soil by an old stump might reveal two or three mushrooms poking up through the leaf litter, showing that even the soil participates in the irresistible growth of spring. These are small experiences, but I value them very highly.
Riparian corridor along the creek
For those who want to lose themselves for a time, to step away from what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow and just be part of the exquisite beauty of life, the experience need not be far away. There are numerous little preserves near where I live, and bigger places throughout Texas and elsewhere. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website lists 19 refuges in Texas, and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department maintains over 90 state parks and 47 wildlife management areas. And there is the Big Bend National Park, Big Thicket National Preserve, Padre Island National Seashore – a total of 14 treasures managed in Texas by the National Park Service. On top of that, organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society own (or manage, in cooperation with landowners) places here and there, some of which are available to the public. For most of us, there is some place nearby where we can visit and either study nature or practice mindfulness while surrounded by it.
I cannot mention all these places without also noting that they are, to one extent or another, in considerable danger of being changed or poisoned. The land is not only a source of great inspiration and knowledge, it is where we plant food, grow cattle, and get minerals and petroleum from below the ground. It has often been our dumping ground, for the waste products of mining and drilling or even factory farms. When the human population was small and our technology not so advanced, we could use and even abuse the land and it seemed that the cost was small and acceptable. As we have grown in numbers and the reach of our technology has expanded, the cost – the damage to land and wildlife – has grown enormously. And the conflict between profiting from the land versus protecting it has become intense, with increasing calls to sell off federal land, allow extractive industries to degrade it, and roll back regulations that minimize the poisoning of the land, air, and water. The climate is becoming more unstable and hotter, and even our weak and tentative efforts to respond to that challenge may not be carried through. This is a time when all of us who care about nature should make our voices heard.
Those are part of a whole suite of worries that each of us carries. Can my elderly relative still live independently? Will I keep my job? How will we pay for this or that? Is this person really my friend? And the list goes on. If we can claim a few hours to get away, and if we can still our unquiet minds for a time, sitting at the edge of a pond listening to frog calls or watching birds may be powerful medicine. As can listening to music, or meditating, or looking at a painting. There are many ways to “take no thought for tomorrow,” in other words to let go of anxieties about the future, and nature is a particularly powerful way for some of us. To look at the birds in the sky and consider the lilies of the field; these are still powerful reminders of wonderful things happening of their own accord, just by living in the moment. In “The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry talks about seeking refuge in nature, and “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
To “come into the peace of wild things,” as Berry says, it is not necessary to be a field biologist or ecologist. I do not have to know how the Krebs cycle works to appreciate how its release of energy allows a hummingbird to hover around a flower. Many of us who spend a lot of time in the field know only a limited amount, often in only one or two areas. I am almost illiterate about the plant communities that support the network of wildlife of which my beloved reptiles and amphibians are a part, but I know just enough to recognize a few old friends among the trees and grasses and know roughly what neighborhood I am in. That is all that is needed to enrich the experience of being out in the field. Just know a few landmarks, recognize a few neighborhoods, and suddenly there seems to be more to see. For example, if you know that cedar waxwings like to eat juniper berries in winter, you might look for them around Ashe junipers or eastern red cedars. And, if you know that cottonmouths don’t really chase you, you may be much more comfortable stopping to take a photo if you see one. Male lizards may defend territory from others of their kind, and one of the displays they use to signal another lizard to stay away is a sort of “push-up,” sometimes done several times. On a walk in the woods, if you see a lizard bobbing up and down several times, it adds a little something to know what is going on. One more example: many people know that Texas horned lizards eat the big harvester ants, but they don’t often go right up to the central mound and start eating. Instead, they tend to station themselves along the little trails the ants use, and lap them up in ambush. When we are out in parts of south or west Texas in places where they can still be common, Clint and I will start from the harvester mound and walk outward, either in a spiral or along the trails, looking for horned lizards to see and photograph. This is more successful than wandering randomly and hoping to see one.
Texas horned lizard, in coastal prairie near Rockport, Texas
But whether you know a little or a lot of the natural history of a place, the important thing, in my view, is to take your time and really be present when visiting a prairie or a pond or forest. The pretty picture you see in the first few seconds deepens as you let the details soak in, and you hear things or see or smell things that a quick glance did not reveal. Perhaps one of those greenbriar vines begins to move, and you recognize it as a rough green snake, a delicate and harmless creature that is a fierce predator of caterpillars and spiders in the branches of the possumhaw and other understory plants. Or maybe as you look out across a pond’s surface, a turtle emerges to get a breath, or a frog chorus begins, one species at first, followed by two or three others joining in. The thing is that you will be there, in that moment, not in traffic, not worrying about what you will do tomorrow, not with your brain miles away while your body is in the woods. The point is not the escape to the woods, just to get away from things. The benefit I am talking about is being content to be right where you are, putting your whole heart into the experience.
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National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/state/tx/index.htm (accessed 2/26/17)
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Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. http://tpwd.texas.gov (accessed 2/26/17)
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. National Wildlife Refuge locator. https://www.fws.gov/refuges/refugelocatormaps/Texas.html (accessed 2/26/17)