Holiday Homecoming in the Cross Timbers

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Light playing with oak leaves

The day after Thanksgiving, November 24, the itch to get outside combined with perfect weather – I had to go somewhere.  I headed for the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, a place that, after practically a lifetime of walking its trails, feels like home. I have a dim recollection of going to Greer Island with Rick Pratt, from whom I learned a lot at the museum as a young volunteer, soon after the first 380 acres had been set aside as the “Greer Island Refuge & Nature Center.” That was in the mid-1960’s. A lot has changed in the fifty years that followed; the refuge expanded to become the largest city-owned nature center in the country, and the twenty miles of hiking trails leads you through cross timbers woods, prairie, bottomland forest, marshland, and limestone caprock at the top of a ridge. It feels familiar and welcoming, like an old friend who you see from time to time and immediately resume a comfortable and warm relationship. It is like home.

In yesterday’s homecoming, my aim was to visit some places along the oak motte trail. One of them is a patch of prairie within the oak woodland, where a giant live oak tree overlooks a gentle hillside with prairie grasses and yucca. Here is some of what I wrote in my notes, at 1:30pm:

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Live oak

I’m sitting beside a very big live oak tree with the early afternoon sun at my back, looking out across a little prairie within the Western Cross Timbers. Here, the soil is a sort of ash-gray, but as the elevation drops, more caliche and limestone appears, with more yucca and the grass is more sparse. Below that, a rusty beige line shows where little bluestem is dominant.

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A patch of prairie

As I walk down to the line of bluestem, it is obvious that (a) a tremendous diversity of grasses and forbs is present, and (b) my plant identification skills are not nearly up to the task. There appears to be broomweed growing amid the yucca, and who knows how many other species, from small, ground-hugging plants to a few big clumps of Indiangrass growing more than head-high. The prairie is dotted with a mesquite here, a couple of junipers there.

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American snout – the reason for the butterfly’s name is clear!

An American snout butterfly comes in over me, low and hard, fluttering away in a strong tailwind. These butterflies are out in force today, and for the most part they make it hard to photograph because they take off when approached. They must have some orange or yellow on the dorsal wings, but their flight is constant motion and when they rest on a stem of grass, their wings are folded, showing shades of gray with a little orange showing where one wing disappears beneath another.

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Northern cardinal, male

So far I have seen a northern cardinal, a mockingbird, a few turkey vultures soaring overhead, and only a couple of other small unidentified birds. The woods and fields are mostly quiet.

As the afternoon progresses, the sun is getting low and the quality of the light makes everything look more beautiful. Autumn here is an amazing mix of yellow, tan, rust, brown, orange, and red, with splashes of green. The yellows and russets of the grasses paint pictures with so many textures and patterns. It is 78 degrees (F) and 22% relative humidity. There is a light breeze. I want to stay!

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A sort of pocket prairie within the oak-juniper woodlands

Life, Death, & Coffee on the Wilson Prairie

The days are short now. Volleys of leaves, multi-colored, their dried husks deprived of chlorophyll but still beaming with the muted, subdued tones of accessory pigments, whirl in skirts across the yard, carried from the disrobing pecans, post oaks, and the ancient mulberry that stands like an old seminude giant across the road, its skeletal arms still reaching toward the sky, as if in prayer for an extension of photoperiod. On the ground, beneath the impossible, thorny tangle of the dried greenbrier thickets that adorn the tree’s trunk like some billowing medeival dress, a pair of eastern fox squirrels chatter and scold one another, their russet, bushy tails atwitch; they duck, dive and skitter across the leaves in great bounding leaps, as if engaged in a game of tag. They seem dangerously preoccupied, seeing as to where their place lies on the food chain, but in reality are anything but disconnected. I could stand and they would pick up on it instantly, the game suspended. I watch them from the porch, a steaming mug of black coffee gripped in my good hand, its surface still blisteringly hot. It is early morning, mid-November, a week before Thanksgiving. The weather has been unseasonably warm…much warmer than usual , a testament to McKibben prophecy. Still, there is a current overcast, grey wash to the eaarth this morning, the sunlight obscured behind a semipermeable world of pastel fog. 


In the field behind the house a section of the herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle that my wife’s uncle owns traverse slowly at a determined pace, seeming pointlessly driven but with an underlying air of unspoken unity that testfies to their herd mentality, a trait inherited from long-extinct wild ancestry. Their sleek black heads are down, lowered towards the weather-wrinkled prickly pear pads and dried stalks of silverleaf nightshade and dessicated pods of Proboscidea that lie on the yellowed prairie like tiny skulls. It is cold enough to see their breath, thick plumes expelled from the nostrils, likewise as of one accord, the gaseous carbon dioxide cloud doubtlessly reeking of the pulpy grass chewed to mush by saliva and stomach acids. 

The steam rises from the edge of my coffee cup, spilling out and disappearing into the moisture-rich sky. Yesterday a thick, marauding band of fall thunderclouds slipped in like black warhorses, but their swelled bellies held fast to the bulk of their contents, dropping only random spatters of rain in their wake. In they rolled in the late evening, and out again, still threatening doom but devoid of follow-through. 

The world is a collection of visible exhalations: my own breath hot as I blow across the oily surface of the coffee, the cattle leaving theirs behind to dissipate as they make for the grove of post oak, blackjack, and honey mesquites on the property’s east end, following the well-beaten trail, their hooves never veering to the left or right. Walking that seemingly tedious, programmed straight and narrow that runs from the pond to the woods and back and will inevitably end at the slaughterhouse. 

I take my first sip of coffee, invigorating, the bitter, acrid punch of it evoking my senses, strong and dark, a collection of exotic hints that speak of cloud forest mountaintops I have never seen. I look out at the deciduous hardwoods that cover the Wilson Prairie between the open areas, with their mottled autumn wardrobe. It is no cloud forest, but on this foggy, damp morning, with the air thick and heavy as a saturated blanket, I can imagine it to be. It is as close as I will get at this elevation anyway. 

Back beneath the mulberry, the fox squirrels have taken their game from the leaf-dense ground litter to the massive trunk, bigger around than a whiskey barrel, its bifurcated center bearing an enormous gaping cavern to which, earlier in the summer, my son and I had introduced a big female black widow spider, her shiny globular abdomen like a perfectly polished ball of obsidian beset by that marvelous crimson hourglass that serves as a ‘No Trespassing’ sign for its clumsy, unkempt web. A former resident of the windowsill by the front door, she had been relocated on the orders of my wife, who ignored her presence until she produced an identical pair of oval-shaped egg sacs, each one as large as her abdomen itself. While Amber is no arachnophobe, the thought of hundreds of tiny, venomous spiderlings going out in the world to seek their fortunes at our doorstep was a little much, and so we transported the female, eggs, and web mass all in one great glob on the end of a forked stick, with the irate mother-to-be dancing haphazardly between the broken strands of silk. 

Now the spider is gone, the only evidence of her presence is the remaining threads of web, which still remains partially intact due to its protection from the elements. The dried hull of an unfortunate paper wasp hangs suspended here, its inner contents long turned into soup and drained out by the spider’s fangs, turned into nutrients that produced a third egg sac in late August. A stray pecan leaf has fallen into the web as well, its brittle veiny skeleton adhered to the sticky strands. 


As I approach the tree the squirrels race around to the other side…around and up, following ages of instinctual successful predator evasion. While I have no intent to cause them harm, this does not hold true for another, keener pair of eyes that observes their comings and goings with less curiosity and more focus. At the edge of the field, just beyond the road, our resident redshouldered hawk sits, its lethal talons gripped firmly into the top of a telephone pole, turning its head with each and every movement that passes between me and the squirrels, missing nothing. 

The hawk is a fairly new addition to our little biological community here, having arrived only a couple months back. It is a young one, not completely fully grown but large enough so that the telltale retrice feathers stand out in their stark black and white banded contrast against the yellow, predormant pasture. It was first noticed by our late cat, Traveling Jones, former guardian of the front porch, whose sharp feline senses missed little. Jones had been sprawled across the double lawn bench that sits on the porch, scoping the world through tired eyes that looked like a pair of marbles beset between his marmalade ears. I was beside him, halfway through a cup of coffee, feeling lazy and listless myself, with the still-warm late afternoon sun hanging in a cloudless, powder-blue sky. Above us, the enormous paper wasp colony that claims territory in a corner between the archway and a support post were busy making preparations for the coming fall. Jones was disinterested in wasps, but his ears suddenly perked rigid, accompanied by ranks of long orange hairs along the back of his vertebrae, which folded up suddenly like porcupine quills. His bored stare disappeared, and he rose up onto his front paws, looking out across the yard at whatever had just captured his interest. I followed his gaze, and there, balancing immaculately as a porcelain ballerina in a snow globe, sat the young redshouldered hawk atop a t-post along the fenceline. It was looking right back at us. I thought about going in to get my camera, but I didn’t want to take the risk of startling the bird, so I raised my coffee cup to my lips in a slower, more practiced motion, and we simply watched each other. It was more than enough to satisfy. 

Now Traveling Jones is gone, slipped from this strange, unexplainable existence into that black, mysterious void of the hereafter, reduced to a savage, swift end that is not uncommon to the lives of vagabond cats who ever-precariously walk the tightrope between domestication and ferality.  One day he was there, same as ever, and the next he was stretched out in the grass in the yard, limbs stiff from rigor mortis, with his spine bowed in a permanent arch that ran down to his tail, glassy lifeless eyes wide as if still staring eternally now at whatever swift angel of death had swept in and robbed him of his existence. I stood over his body with my wife, our hands on our hips, filled with a mixed sense of wonder at this delicate yet savage life we all live and frustration as to how we were going to break the news to my son, who has never known life without Jones. 

The cat is gone now, returned back to whatever microscopic particles and stardust he came from, but the hawk is still here, eyeing the acorn-fat squirrels from its own comparatively benign perch at the top of the food chain, destined one day as well to perish like the rest of us, but not likely of fright or at the indifferent tooth or nail of some larger beast. The squirrels, even moreso than cats, cannot afford such luxury. Their lot in life is one of constant nervous attentiveness and caution, bundles of pent-up mammalian energy, like furry, coiled springs, seemingly always either in hyper mode or twitching and tensing at its threshold. Natural selection has ensured this trait is copied down and hardwired into their genetic makeup. Lazy, unobservant squirrels are dead squirrels. Lazy unobservant squirrels end up clutched between the merciless, plucking talons of a redshouldered hawk. 

But these squirrels are long-time residents, and they do not maintain their overfed dimensions through such deadly lack of caution. They have survived the brief seasons of young squirrelhood, in spite of nimble arboreal nest-raiding rat snakes, coyotes, and resident raptors, and they are born-again hard, in spite of their meek and merry appearance. Eventually the killer atop the telephone pole tires of the unlikelihood of their eventual capture, and wings off across the open field for the oak motte, its sleek feathered head pivoting left to right as it scans the open ground for a cottontail rabbit that hopefully possesses a preoccupation of whatever sort that will allow the bird to fall like a stone and slide into its soft fur and the quivering flesh beneath with lethal precision. But the hawk finds nothing, and the spread horizontal shape of its departing silhouette, like a stretched letter “M”, disappears into the cross timbers. 

The hawk is gone. The squirrels are gone. The cows are gone. The cat is gone and the black widow is gone. Now it is just me and the torpid wasps, huddled together in silent immobility, their ectothermic systems waiting for the sun to come piercing through the thick wall of dawn cloud cover and set them to flight. The coffee has released plenty of its thermal energy into my own endothermic shell, as well as into the cool surrounding air. As a result it has grown cold, and i quaff the chilled remnants with a bit of resistance.  I stare out across that great field in perfect solitude, its still-life appearance disguising the hidden wonders that lie within all those undiscovered worlds hidden away out in the deep brown weeds and tangled thickets and red clay banks. The prairie grasses sway to the caress of a gentle breeze that also whisks its way around the corner of the house from the northeast, sending a fresh outbreak of gooseflesh across the bare skin of my forearms. In this way, somehow, I feel a sense of connection. We are one, the prairie and I, caught up together in that ancient, beautiful, cataclysmic scheme of things, momentarily suspended here against the breeze of an autumn wind that, like this life itself, cannot be physically seen but must be felt and experienced to maintain its reality. It traces against our forms with phantom fingers and, in our own way, we both respond accordingly. 


The coffee mug is empty now. The forecast calls for an eventual spike in temperature, up to 76 degrees by noon, but for now there lies not a hint of it in this cold, pallid morning dominated by fog and escaping vapors of breath and the subdued and vibrant composition of autumn. For now it is a world rapidly being engulfed in dead leaves, bowing dried stalks of bluestem, bathed in golden glory, still and silent. A world in wait. I turn to go in to the house for a second cup of coffee, the sound of the door creaking on its hinges , an alien shriek that seems intrusive, out of place here. Unnatural.  Man-produced, and somehow wrong. The coffee can wait, and the couch and central heat and television spewing doom and radiation with it. For now I am content to sink back into the lawn bench, my legs propped up on Jones’s old cat box, eyes reduced to mere slits as I return to my post in the midst of this blessed natural world that surrounds me. It is a world I hold dear. A world I long to grasp and retain and somehow pass down, whatever is left of it to pass. When Zev gets home from school, I think, we will go for a walk in the woods, beneath the oaks, our tennis shoes parting piles of their symetrically-lobed leaves around our ankles. We will marvel at cocoons adhered to the crisp, delicate distal tips of twigs, waiting for the wind to pick up even more and send them plummeting to the forest floor to wait out the worst of the coming winter. Zev will point out the form of one of our seasonally-visiting male kestrels on a low limb, or perhaps, if the sun triumphs over the clouds, a Texas spiny lizard clinging headdown against the cracked bark of one of the oaks, watching us with copper eyes full of suspicion. We may remark on its superb camouflage or hypothesize on where it is likely to spend the winter. Wherever the trail takes us I will do my best to keep his interest in this rapidly passing natural realm kindled, so that he will carry the torch that will light its continued importance and conservation into a future I will not be able to occupy. But for now it is just me and the wind and the prairie, alone and yet not lonely on this cool fall morning before Thanksgiving. In that I find solace, and can find, in my own way, much reason for thanks, my heart full of gratitude that there is still a bit of the natural world and its tragic, glorious order devoid of such concepts as good and evil. For now, it is enough. 

First Weekend in November

A Hot Afternoon at Southwest Nature Preserve

fullsizeoutput_10acI walked north toward the pond at the northwest corner of the preserve, along a shallow hillside where post oak and blackjack oak woods open here and there to pockets of little bluestem grasses. It was a clear day, hot and dry, with leaves yellowing and falling as if from exhaustion due to a summer that refused to give up. We were about six weeks into autumn; in Texas the turning of the seasons from summer to fall tends to be gradual, but today felt like not so much a turning but a thinning of the same hot, dry season we knew in August. In fact, we set another record today, based on information at Weather.com showing that the record high temperature for this date was 88 degrees. At the north pond, the temperature in the shade, about three feet off the ground, was 92. The relative humidity was 41%.

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fullsizeoutput_10b4The mud banks of the pond were getting broader as the water recedes, and cricket frogs jumped for the safety of vegetation or into the water as I approached the edge. In one spot, a red admiral butterfly sipped moisture from the mud, and the damselflies and dragonflies were still very common. There were plenty of red-eared sliders in various spots around the surface of the pond and basking in the afternoon sun on a couple of snags. A big bullfrog that had jumped into the water later revealed himself, a pair of eyes watching me carefully from the shallows. He allowed one photo and then – was gone.fullsizeoutput_10b9

Sitting on top of “Kennedale Mountain” on a sandstone ledge was pleasant, in the shade. The oaks at the top of the ridge blocked out the city, but did not block out the sounds of the nearby streets and highway. It was enough, though, getting away for an hour and a half or so, surrounded by things that are no less beautiful for being common: the cricket frogs, the sliders, the butterflies and dragonflies.fullsizeoutput_10ba

I do find myself hoping for winter. I am hoping for days when the high temperatures do not break records, when a jacket might even be necessary. I even wish for snow, for a quiet walk through a woodland white with several inches of snow, for big snowflakes falling from a cold, gray sky. For now, I’ll enjoy whatever kind of day the preserve offers.fullsizeoutput_10ae