Challenge Accepted

The SWNP City-wide Nature Challenge

The late afternoon sun shone down over a wildflower-rich grassy clearing at the Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington, between the gnarled, lichen-covered branches of post oak and blackjack, their trunks flanked by saw greenbrier that sprouted amid a carpet of fresh shoots of poison ivy. I was here for the city wide nature challenge, a day-long event in which citizens attempt to record the most species.  It was a great opportunity to get out into the field, and to contribute some data as well. 


The rays cast metallic jade shards of light off of the elytra of beetles zipping and darting about in a delicate rosy-white bed of evening primrose. They caught my eye, and I veered from the trail and knelt among the flowers to observe them. At this closer level I could identify them as far as the tribe Agrilini. These beetles emerge from the bark of various trees in late spring after spending many months as larvae, where they feasted on the fibrous tissue beneath the bark. 

The buprestids weren’t the only invertebrates moving on this warm Saturday on the tail end of April. A rotund black and white scarab with dense golden setae was rolling around in the center of one of the primrose blossoms like a drunken bee. It was a Texas flower scarab (Trichiotinus texensis), a common species this time of year. It detected my presence and buzzed away on veined amber wings. The bright contrasting colors of black and yellow and white were suggestive of a bee or wasp, which the beetle mimics quite splendidly whether in flower or flight. 


Another nearby insect also watched it go, somehow wise to its true identity, for had it been an actual bee the creature would have followed. This was a bee assassin (Apiomerus spissipes).  In spite of its small size, it is a formidable predator, as its name suggests. Dressed in a mosaic pattern of maroon, yellow and dark brown that, when viewed from above, somewhat resembles a tribal face, it is well-concealed among the grasses and flowerheads. This is a member of the true bugs, and it is usually an ambush predator, perching in sunny patches in open areas, concealed amid the blooms of wildflowers as it waits for a visiting pollinator. The bug’s proboscis acts as a hypodermic needle, injecting a paralyzing venom that slows the victim’s movements before converting into a vacuum tube and sucking up its juices like a grim smoothie.


Eventually Michael and the group of contributors arrived, and we met with Nic Martinez at a pond near the front of the property. The goal was to drag a sein through the murky brown water in hopes of turning up some of its hidden aquatic denizens, but the mud was deep and thick, and it was instead decided that we dip from the shoreline with mesh nets intended for such purpose. In this manner we turned up robust, mud-mottled dragonfly and tuft-tailed damselfly naaids, as well as cricket frogs, tadpoles, and fairy shrimp. Behind us the newly emerged adult dragonflies tried out their new wings over the pond surface. One of them, a common whitetail, perched on a reed at water’s edge. 

A flash of Halloween black and orange caught my eye, and I watched as a Monarch butterfly winged its way across the clearing, soaring over the top of an ashe juniper. If it were a female it was likely in search of a milkweed, the species’ host plant, where it could deposit its eggs. In a few weeks the sausage-shaped, tiger-striped larvae would be munching on the toxic leaves, absorbing the cardenolides and rendering themselves poisonous as well. 

At the edge of the meadow I slipped into the realm of woodlands, where the sunlight fell in warm bright patches across my face. A Texas spiny lizard scurried around the trunk of an oak in their “barber pole fashion” up and around in a spiral, its hooked toe claws allowing it perfect vertical traction. In a moment it was out of sight. 

Among the dried leaves and deadfall at my feet grew sugar hackberry trees with rough, wrinkled bark, stout post oaks with trunks the diameter of barrels, and blackjacks with their deep green, point-tipped leaves. The chaotic branches of gum bumelia could be seen like crops of untamed hair. A thick tendril of Virginia creeper slithered its way across the soil beneath, the characteristic quintet of serrated leaves standing out among tones of gray and sepia. In one place possumhaw grew at the base of a blackjack, and a little red weevil with a black snout sat perched on one of its leaves.   This was Homeolabis analis, a beast who goes by the more colorful name of leaf-rolling weevil. They are small, generally around 6 mm in length, and are usually found in association with oaks, so the presence of this one beneath the blackjack was not surprising.  Like the buprestids, adults pupate over the winter and emerge the following spring. In a complex process that is remarkably technical for such a tiny creature, the weevil picks a choice, soft leaf and measures it precisely, then selects a spot along the midrib, severing it to dam off the water supply to the leaf’s lower part. It then moves to the other side, where it repeats the process. After the leaf begins to wilt and lose strength the beetle notches the leaf on the bottom of the midrib,preparing it for a smooth, easy roll. The extending veins are then cross-cut in a determined, painstaking process where every cut is precise. The leaf is folded in half and then rolled. The female weevil then lays an egg or two in the center with her ovipositor and tucks in the flaps like a tortilla, to prevent unrolling (UF/IFAS).  


Among the deadfall I found another nibbler of oaks, the ant-mimic longhorn beetle, Euderces pini.  These are mimics of carpenter ants, and are similarly colored in bands of maroon and black. This, coupled by their comparative size, renders them quite inconspicuous among their armed lookalikes. As I watched a pair of them raced up and down the tangled, leafless branches of a severed post oak limb. 


I had brought along a canvas beating sheet, sewn around a wire hoop in the form of a basket and suspended on a wooden pole to make a sort of “net.”  With my free hand I gently rapped one of the branches of the overhanging oak, holding the basket as a catch-all beneath. The goal is to dislodge resting insects, which fall into the basket and can be observed, or, in this case, recorded for Inaturalist. This method works surprisingly well, and seldom fails to turn up a wide variety of insects and arachnids. On this day it would produce a little green stick insect, Diaphemorera femorata. The kings of mimicry,walkingsticks virtually disappear among the foliage of their choice. 


When night fell the team of naturalists met up in the parking lot of the preserve and geared up for a night walk. We headed out across the edge of another large pond, where we saw fishing spiders performing little miracles on the surface of the water, their eight legs splayed out, sitting atop the thin membrane of molecules above the water. In the nearby reeds, long-jawed orbweavers climbed across the strands of their webs like acrobats. Our flashlight beams played across the water and mud, where Zev and I found a young plainbellied water snake that cut across the shallow edge like a black ribbon in the late twilight. 

We traversed a small rocky hill, and in the middle of the sandy trail the beam picked up a black bug scurrying among the low grasses. This was a black corsair (Melanolestes picipes) another true bug related to the bee assassin that patrols the ground for crickets and small spiders. A bite from an assassin bug is incredibly painful, as I learned the hard way as a teenager, and can even leave the skin around the site of the bite numb for several hours. 


Another member of the party discovered a striped bark scorpion (Centruroides vittatus), the only native scorpion species to occupy the western cross timbers. In spite of its inch-long size, it bared its pincers and arched its tail, the curved sting on the end of the telson at the ready. We admired its bravery and then saw it to the safety of the trail’s edge to resume its hunt for small arthropods. 


We made our way through the woods, engaged in enjoyable conversations, and the night came to life all around us, with screech owls and chuck-wills-widows piercing the darkness with their pleasing calls. The night would end, but not before it had been thoroughly explored. Overhead the pale light of a waxing gibbous moon smiled over the preserve, a final witness to a memorable day at the Southwest Nature Preserve. 
Sources:

http://www.entnemdept.ufl.edu

http://www.nwf.org

‘Beetles of Eastern North America’, Evans, Arthur V. Princeton Press, 2014

Atrox, Antivenin, & Amputation Anniversary


Well, today marks the one-year anniversary of my snakebite, and I believe I had promised a first-hand account to you all, dear readers. A year seems like plenty of time and then some to get over the pain and bother of it, I suppose. Over the course of the last 365 days I have had to reteach myself to type, and I can no longer feel anything at the end of what is left of my ring finger (except, of course, when I bump it on something) but other than that I can’t complain. So without further ado, here is a memoir of my painful, educational encounter with Princess Atrox…

*DISCLAIMER: any insinuation of intentional sadistic ill-treatment, gross malpractice, or sociopathic barbarism in regards to the doctors or nurses that treated me is to be taken lightly; I experienced a high degree of kindness and professionalism at both hospitals, from the nurses, doctors, anesthesiologist, and yes, even the surgeon…*

BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH

(A HANDS-ON LESSON IN HEMO-TOXICOLOGY)

 

 with thy sharp teeth

this knot intrinsicate

of life at once untie;

poor venomous fool,

be angry, and despatch

 – Cleopatra

– Act V

 

​It is past midnight. A brisk, violent wind has blown in from the wild western plains, piloting the way for a slow-moving thunderstorm that is soon to come rolling across the cross timbers on this warm, early spring. I am writing by pen, as the current physical condition of my left hand has left me in a disabled state unsuitable for life behind the keyboard. Occasionally I glance over at my crippled, bandaged left, and my gaze is naturally directed toward that odd, inch-long space where my ring finger used to be but now is not. It is not because seven days ago, for the brief span of what had to be less than a second, a juvenile western diamondback was firmly fastened to it, her minute curved hypodermic dentition embedded to the hilt, swollen venom glands contracting and expanding as they delivered a full load of potent hemotoxic cocktail into the soft pad of my fingertip. As quickly as she had struck the snake released her hold. But the damage had been done. The complex combination of proteins and peptides went to work breaking down the absorbent subcutaneous tissue just north of my wedding ring, and my nerves sent a bolt of hot, searing pain into my brain exclaiming something like, “Thirty-five percent of venomous snakebites are dry! Congratulations! Welcome to the majority!” And shortly thereafter came the most painful part: informing my wife that her idiot husband had gotten that part of his hand adorned with his symbol of devotion to her a little too close to the homing range of a rattlesnake’s heat sensitive pits, those chemosensory red flags of danger ablaze on the flickering tips of a violet-black forked tongue, signaling its reptilian brain to strike out with mouth agape, elastic jaws stretched, fangs unfolded from their fleshy sheaths and pointed forward in that age-old, sinless self defense mechanism devoid of malice but damaging all the same. It is one that works superbly well, accomplishing its intended purpose with a speed of which few other things can compare. Touch a red-hot pan and you drop it without thinking. Take a bite from a crotalid and you stop messing with it instantly, I can guarantee you. ‘Don’t Tread On Me’, her whirring caudal appendage continued to resonate as I secured her quickly in the lock box. Yes ma’am. Message understood loud and clear, thank you very much, and further accentuated with every pulsing throb of my fiery fingertip, from which twin pinpricks of bright red blood had begun to escape from their normal vascular course and make their way on a redirected route across my bare skin. There was an instant shout of some unmentionable phrase that I can’t quite remember, a slang crude version of, “fiddly-dee, this is going to require a trip to the emergency room!” Whatever was said, my wife heard it, and by the time I could secure the snake and get to the kitchen and explain, she had the car keys in her hand. I removed the wedding ring in order to avoid blood flow restriction, then turned on the faucet and gave the now-searing wound a quick rinse, marveling at how the rapid onset of tissue degeneration, intended to dispatch and begin breaking down the snake’s prey even before it has been located and swallowed, had already caused the outer edges of the bite marks to become awash with the dull, faded purple hue of smudged ink. 


​It is a forty five minute drive to the nearest hospital that I trust (the local so-called hospital in nearby Decatur has killed more patients than Jack Kevorkian), but my wife turned on the flashers and transformed 380 into the Texas Motor Speedway, so we got there in about thirty. The Denton Presbyterian Hospital had been called and notified of the situation en route, and they confirmed they had the antivenin on hand. Meanwhile, I am keeping the hand elevated and trying my best to document the finger’s digression with the camera on my cell phone in order to keep myself from chewing my seatbelt off at the shoulder. Thanks largely to Amber’s uncanny ability to mask her concern behind a fortified steel wall of collected serious calm, we arrived safely with no dramatic curb-jumps or two-wheeled grand entrances, parked and headed for the doors of the ER.

​The venom of hemotoxic pit vipers is a thrilling, exquisite joyride of almost unbearable, indescribable pain that can best be described as having whatever extremity one so happens to have the ill fortune of being punctured by struck with a red-hot ball peen hammer. The fact that this particular bite was to the highly sensitive pad of my fingertip, where all the delicate nerve endings were gathered, made it all the more enjoyable. Remaining calm is the most important issue at hand ( pun intended), keeping the heart rate from going into hyperdrive and exploding in the chest cavity like a party balloon in a cactus patch. It is not the easiest thing in the world to do, mind you, but it is vitally necessary, and so I buckled down and did it. While Amber handed over my insurance information at the desk I took a seat in the waiting room among the broken-boned, accident prone cohorts who were likewise having a problematic weekend, checking my pulse by counting the painful throbs in my finger. ‘King!’, I soon heard the nurse call out, and I made my way to the back, where hopefully that sweet, sustaining bottle of polyvalent had already been shaken and stirred and was waiting for me in an IV bag…

 ACT II

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the ER

 

Surely life is not intended to be easy, because if it were it would cease to be interesting and we would atrophy

-CJP Ionides

 ​Of course it wasn’t. After answering the classic “twenty questions” ( I would become so sick of repeating these to each and every personnel I came into contact with that I would begin to feel like one of those pull-string toys)… I was finally led back into an ER bed, where I was assured antivenin was on its way. Michael showed up a short time later, which was a real relief, seeing as to how medical personnel is much more willing to accredit the statements and opinions of a professional-looking person in regards to proper snakebite protocol than they are a long-haired unshorn type with bug tattoos all over him. It was a good thing too, for the ER staff, while courteous, professional, and definitely a far, far cry from the primitive treatments of my hometown docs, which still prescribe whiskey for snakebite and dancing the tarantella for spider bites, was admittedly inexperienced in the matter. I met with a few nurses and doctors who were nice enough to begin administering an IV of morphine for my pain (which at this point had accelerated greatly, graduating from the burning needle-points of immediate envenomation to the feeling of having my entire hand squeezed in a vice, with the burning still present on top of this, of course). The discoloration around the pad of my fingertip had now spread to include the entire fingertip, and the ink-smudge purple hue had darkened to a most unsightly blue-black as the hemolytic juice dissolved the tissue. Pain from a hemotoxic snakebite has been described as one of the top ten most intense sensations that can occur to the human body, related to the feeling of a subcutaneous third degree burn, which is sort of what it is, with the venom working like acid as it dissolves flesh, muscle, and nerve tissue. To add to this already excruciating experience, sometime later (usually within a few hours) such euphoric and delightful symptoms as nausea, vomiting, skin tingling, hives, itching, muscle spasms, drowsiness, profuse sweating, chest constriction, breathing difficulty, and disorientation are thrown into the mix. The end result is the very definition of misery.  

​The morphine, while definitely helping to curb the burning and crushing sensations in my hand, was doing little more than taking the edge off. Michael kept asking about the Crofab, where was it and how soon could they get it out of the bottle and into my veins? Prompt administration of antivenin is the number one issue of importance when it comes to reversing the above mentioned symptoms of envenomation, and I had errantly assumed calling forty five minutes ahead of time would ensure they had it in an IV bag upon my arrival. Unfortunately, antivenin is such an expensive commodity with such a short shelf life that most hospitals cannot afford to just go breaking it open immediately, as many snakebite cases are either dry bites (where the snake injects no venom) or are bites from nonvenomous species. Of all the questions I had to answer, the “are you sure it was a rattlesnake” was the one that perturbed me the most. “Well, I’m pretty sure. Between the fact that the snake had rattles and my hand being swollen up like a plum I’d say very sure, in fact. While we’re on the topic of certainties, are you sure the antivenin is coming?” We kept being told that they were mixing it, and that I could be assured that it would get there when it did, and that in the meantime I was just going to have to be a gentleman and writhe in the agony of my ignorance in the manner of such.  

​I jest, but in reality the doctors and nurses were very caring and helpful; I was just giving in to my impatience due to the effects of the toxin flooding through my system, which was no one’s fault save my own, but I would like to think in such dire circumstances a man can be granted a little irritability.  

​At some point Michael deemed it wholesome to document a few minutes of my suffering on video. This he did in a series of snippets between 1 1/2 and 2 hours after the bite, somewhere between the morphine and the antivenin, whereupon I described the sensation as it escalated:

cold chill. intense cramping. severe burning. shaking. itching around base of middle finger. intense pressure. cold. like having my hand slammed in a door. no nausea. increased pain to entire arm.

​A short time later the blessed serum finally arrived, around the time the symptoms that accompany the spread of the venom throughout the body began to manifest. Again, Michael recorded a few of my comments:

hives. itching. swelling. tightness in face. pressure in ears.

​I had already informed the nurses that I was going to need something to throw up in, so luckily there was a bag present when it finally hit my stomach. Shortly after this the headache/glandular soreness/rash/profuse sweating/chest constriction/difficulty breathing reared its ugly head, which caused the doctor to become concerned about my possible allergic reaction to the antivenin. An administration of Benadryl was added to the IV just in case, which helped to alleviate some of those symptoms, but when my platelet count dropped from around 450,000 to 36, my blood pressure plummeted into the ‘DANGER’ zone, and my finger continued to swell, the doctor came in and made the decision to Careflight me to a hospital that had more antivenin as well as a hand surgeon on duty. They had already given me six vials of Crofab (the recommended beginning dose) and very wisely had decided to take no chances. By this point the mind-debilitating effects of the venom mixed with the morphine had put me in a state of delirium, and all I can remember about my chopper tour of the metroplex was looking out of the window of the helicopter thinking ‘this is one expensive express lane to bypass I-35 construction backup’ and ‘wouldn’t it be ironic if I rolled out and plummeted to my death in a state of venom-induced delirium…now that would be a news headline!’ ‘WORLD’S UNLUCKIEST MAN’…


 

ACT III

 RATTLESNAKE ETIQUETTE

 

Something was obviously wrong with my technique.

– -CJP Ionides, Mambas & Man-eaters

 

 ​I suppose this is the point in my story where I should attempt to explain the facts and opinions surrounding the nature of how I caused my skin to come into contact with the business end of a western diamondback rattlesnake in the first place. I will start with a word to the wise from the formerly ignorant. If you must keep venomous snakes (as some of us feel they must) you will do yourself a mighty favor to keep them one to a box. Perhaps even more importantly, make sure that box is not a Vision cage, or any other type of cage that contains an interior rim where the snake can hide itself. While the rattlesnake(s) I had were only temporary captives (being rescues from a friend of mine who comes across them frequently on his property and wishes to have them relocated rather than killed), I had them stored in a 24 x 24, x12” locked Vision. There were four of them in there, all juvenile specimens under 18” in length. I was well aware of the interior rim of the cage, as the snakes like to tuck themselves into this space to hide. I neglected, however, to think the snakes would ‘climb’ up onto the top part of the rim. This was my first lapse in judgment; as the great snake man of Africa, Ionides, wrote, “one can never be sure with snakes”.  

​I was in the process of transferring them from the Vision to a snake bucket so that my wife and I could go release them when the second lapse in judgment, the use of an improper handling tool, brought down the subsequent rain of misery on my head.  

I own a pair of cage tongs which are around 18” in length, as well as a small hook of same size, that I use for the transferral of any venomous snakes I happen to be working with. However, on this particular day I had misplaced them and opted to use a standard 48” field hook instead. I grabbed the hook about halfway down to make up for the excess length, as anyone working with small, often flighty juvenile diamondbacks can attest they do not usually ride a long hook very well. I looked through the glass and could see three snakes, so I assumed the fourth was beneath the bottom rim, where it typically liked to hide. Not placing my hand inside the actual cage itself, I was able to successfully ‘hook’ the first two snakes with no problem. The third, however, crawled to the back of the cage while I was moving the other two. Taking care to keep my hand as far away from the bottom rim as possible, I brought the hook in at an angle from the top instead, with my hand upside down. As I did, the tip of my fingers entered the cage beside the top rim, where the little female, unbeknownst to me, had been coiled (as opposed to her usual place on the bottom). I saw the chunky, triangular head launch down and out from above, sinking both fangs into the tender, fleshy pad of my ring finger for only an instant before she released and drew herself back up into the recess of the top rim of the cage’s interior. I put down the hook, slid the glass door back into place, locked the two remaining snakes back up, made sure the other two were secure in the transfer bucket, and then double locked the snake room and entered the house to tell my wife the wonderful news. That’s what happened. I’d swear on a stack of field guides.  

 ACT IV:

 PEEKABOO, ICU…
 “You will not surely die, the serpent said…

-Genesis 3:4

 I can only vaguely recall my transferral from Denton Presbyterian to Harris Methodist; only that the denomination of the hospital’s foundry did not concern me in the least, provided they had more Crofab they could pump into my system. There were hazy flashes of nervous apprehension in the emergency room…I heard a nurse exclaim “I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached to my shoulders” and Michael’s voice sometime later “someone left a full vial of blood on the bed”. I kept expecting a booming voice to reverberate, ‘Don’t fear the reaper. Come towards the light, my son’, but instead woke up chained to a tangled procession of wires that seemed to grow out of two uncomfortable places on my right arm. There was an intense throbbing burn in my finger…oh, yes, the kiss of the snake…I was propped up in a tiny room, with a beeping, blipping machine behind me that, if I turned my head just right, revealed that my condition had significantly stabilized. Michael was there, as was my wife, and yet another group of nurses I knew I was going to have to repeat what happened to.  

​“Did I get the antivenin?” I managed to stammer in a groggy voice from between numb lips.  

​“Yes”, the nurse said. “Two more vials, which makes eight total. So how did you manage to get yourself bitten by a snake?”  

​“Well, it all started with a federal jury summons I received in the mail. I suppose there are better ways to get out of jury duty, although it seemed like a good idea at the time.”  

​One thing I learned from my hospital stay is that people who work in the intensive care unit cannot afford much time for comedy on the clock, and thus possess a very vestigial sarcasm radar. What they lack in comedic discernment they more than make up for, however, in concern and care for their patients. One of the worst parts of the full snakebite experience is the continuation of the pain; it never lets up, staying with you in varying forms and stages, throughout the day and night, whittling away your appetite, pulling you out of sleep about once an hour or so, and causing you general misery heaped on top of misery as the hospital staff goes about the seemingly never-ending routines of drawing blood, changing bags, monitoring your vitals, helping you exercise, measuring your rate of swelling, and asking you more questions than an income tax form. Thus I was very grateful for the ICU’s willingness to administer pain medication to thwart my writhing agony without raising an eyebrow as to my sincerity when I assured them that the pain scale rating should contain a number higher than ten. Using Fentanyl, one of the most efficient and powerful (and also addictive) painkillers known to man, they did an excellent job of managing my pain to the best of their ability without turning me into an opioid zombie.  

​In due time I was introduced to David C. Smith, the physician on the ICU wing. Conversing with him provided some much needed humorous relief, as he seems one who can appreciate as well as dole out a generous amount of humor into otherwise serious and dire situations. Laughter may not be the best medicine, but it definitely runs a close second to Fentanyl. The good doctor was baffled that someone who knew so much about snakes and the nature of their venom would be dumb enough to put himself in such close proximity to their fangs. The suggestion that perhaps I would be better off getting any further knowledge from toxicology handbooks rather than first hand experience was something I said I would try to remember to take to heart in the future.

​The days went by in the intensive care unit like one long, indistinguishable period. My platelet count dropped once again to an unsafe level and thus required an additional two vials of antivenin to stabilize. The swelling went down and stayed down. The pharmacist came in and we got to talk snake venom vs. polyvalent some more. The nutrition team seemed totally unable to grasp the definition of a vegan diet, forcing me to subsist on fruit breakfasts and lunches and mixed vegetable dinners, with my only source of protein coming in the form of soy milk and that advanced and complex form known as ‘hemotoxin’ (To their credit the meals I could pick around were superior fare as far as hospitals go). My mom watched my son the entire week without compensation, bringing him along with my aunt to visit me. My wife made daily hour-long drives to stand by my side for hours on end, on top of prior obligations to getting my son to school and going to school full time herself, and even stopped on the road once on one of her daily late-night trips home from the hospital to take a picture of a timber rattlesnake for me in an effort to lighten my spirits. And Michael showed up or called whenever he got a chance, monitoring and following my progress and putting up with my nonchalant references to death, amputation and gangrene while ignoring my insistence on his accomplice in ‘unhooking me from these infernal machines and busting me out of this joint so I could go herping.’ My cell phone virtually stayed abuzz with concerned checks from more friends and family members than I knew I had, offering much-needed and appreciated prayers, thoughts, well-wishes, support, and humor. This was often to the chagrin of my nurses in the fact that my ring-tone is the slow, menacing buzz of an angry diamondback rattlesnake, which always caused them to shake their heads at my assumed lack of sanity. And then the surgeon came in for debridement, and I only thought I had known what pain was.


 ACT V:  

 A TALE OF TWO SURGERIES

 

Buy the ticket, take the ride.

– -Hunter S. Thompson
Dr. Maxim Pekarev entered the room, sliding back the glass door and curtain in a single motion. He is a meek enough looking man, dark-haired, with smooth, gentle looking hands that beguile his real disposition as a merciless butcher of fingers devoid of empathy.  
​“Hello I’m Dr. Pekarev. I’m here to do the debridement”, he said casually. 

​“Hello”, I replied, extending my oversized purple hand, the affected digit of which had by this time swollen to the extent that it more closely resembled a grotesque black jumbo grape skewered on the end of a purple magic marker. “Forgive me for not shaking hands.”

​“Looks like you’re in need of some relief from that swelling”, he said, to which I quickly nodded in affirmation. Without further ado he seized me by the hand and proceeded to “debride” me.


​“All the tissue looks dead”, he commented as several onlooking nurses who were new to snakebite entered the room to observe the process and began passing out like cult members at a Kool-Aid party as he reenacted scenes from the movie Saw.

​“This shouldn’t hurt a bit”, he said, which to his credit was honest. It hurt a lot.

​He extracted a scalpel and quickly sliced into the swollen grape thing, causing a spurt of black blood to shoot out across the sterile towels on the wheelie cart he had laid my hand on. True to his word, I felt no pain. Not yet, at least. The finger immediately deflated like a bicycle tire with a broken valve stem. The doctor then replaced the scalpel with a pair of wicked curved tweezers, and began plucking at the thick layer of dead skin, ripping it off in sloughed sections. This didn’t hurt either, until he ripped backwards into live tissue, and I jerked back instinctively.  

​“That hurt”, I said.  

​“That’s just fear”, he said. “There can’t be any pain. It’s dead tissue.”  

​“It’s not fear!”, I retorted. “I was born without that gene! Check my record! It’s a recessive mutation! There’s live tissue under there.”  

​“Let’s see” he said, and brandished the scalpel once again, pressing it against the finger somewhere between the nail and knuckle. He pressed down, cutting beneath the skin, and again a burning bolt of pain raced up my arm.  

​“Yeah that hurts” I said.  

​“Okay. We’ll get you some anesthetic.”  

​A nurse came in with a needle that looked like a grossly oversized prop in a 1970s Mexican sitcom, and a few minutes later I was watching in painless interest as Dr. Pekarev finished the debridement of the finger, sliding the scalpel down a full half inch into the lateral tissue to see if the entire thing was indeed dead. No blood came out, and so he pronounced it deceased. I was a little concerned about that bright red patch of freely bleeding skin just north of the middle knuckle base, but at the time it didn’t hurt, so I shrugged it off. The shocked, horrified looks on the rookie nurses’ wincing faces, and the way that my wife had retreated into the furthest corner of the room, shrinking back like a frightened helpless rabbit while I gazed on with a sheepish grin and the Butcher continued to play Freddy Krueger on what remained of my finger should have served as an indication that this could not simply continue on in painless bliss. But he finished, applied a sterile wrap, then bandaged the whole thing up in gauze.  

​“The pad of the finger is definitely dead, and I don’t hold much prospect for the rest of it either”, he said. “The possibility of further necrosis is very likely. I will have to do a surgery that will at least require removal of the preexisting dead tissue and possibly half of the finger. The fastest thing to do with the quickest recovery time would be a simple amputation, although we can try to save as much tissue as possible, which would probably mean additional surgery involving skin grafts. But we’ll give it some time, do a reassessment, and save as much as we can.”

​“Sounds like a plan”, I said. “After all, what’s a little tissue loss between fingers? I’d probably be inclined to opt for the quickest route out of here if it were up to me. It is the beginning of snake season you know.”

​“You’re very brave”, he commented, and exited the room, the wide-eyed nurses, whom I suspected were at this point in no hurry to eat lunch, filing out behind him. Thirty minutes later, when the Lidocaine wore off, I doubt he would have accused me of such bravado had he still been present.

​At first it was just a slight prickle, a tingling sensation as the anesthetic dissolved. Tolerable enough.  

​“It’s beginning to hurt a little”, I commented to Kevin, the day nurse who was going on his second afternoon of caring for/contending with the poor sarcastic snake-bitten fool with the Tim Burtonesque macabre sense of humor in the room on the corner.  

​“Do you need something for it?” he asked.  

​“Nah, I’m going to try to tough it out”, I responded. “I need to begin trying to wean myself off of that glorified opium before I get out of here.”  

​Five minutes later I was hammering on my ‘call’ button, begging anyone and everyone within earshot to bring me as close to overdose as they could without jeopardizing my life, or else strike me in the head with the most readily available blunt object until I was rendered unconscious. Good old Kevin came to my immediate aide with a shot of Fentanyl. This time it did nothing, however. So they gave me the most they legally could for my body weight and then supplemented with Tramadol. Still I begged for something else.

​ “I can’t give you anything else until the Fentanyl wears off”, Kevin said. “Although I’ll administer some morphine as soon as I legally can. On a scale of one to ten, how much pain are you in?”  

​“Somewhere between ten and ripping that scale off the wall, twisting it into a cord and strangling myself to death with it!”, I yelled.  

​My finger literally felt like someone had skinned me alive and then doused the wound with gasoline and set a match to it. It was so intense that I could hardly concentrate, with the entirety of my left arm being engulfed in a single throbbing, agonizing sphere of indescribable torture. In what felt like a week another nurse came in and announced that she could give me a little morphine now. A short time later I passed out or went to sleep or something and the next thing I remember Michael was there and my wife was recounting my experience to him. Within the hour a nurse came in with a wheelchair and I said goodbye to the intensive care unit for good.


 ​I spent two additional days in a regular room in the inpatient care at Harris Methodist. My platelet count had finally gone down and stayed down, suggesting the venom had finally been neutralized by the antivenin, and there was nothing left to do but lie in bed with my arm elevated, awaiting what would either be the second half of my surgical debridement or an amputation. During this time I was kept on a steady diet of vegetables, ice water, Norco and Tramadol, and after my most unfortunate experience with the first debridement I had come to reassess that pain scale, as nothing I have ever felt before or since even came close. The throbbing, burning, hot-hammer pain that continued from the snakebite was thus quite tolerable by comparison, and I complained very little of it, sometimes going six to eight hours before requesting another pill, which my nurse Kathy insisted was only ‘glorified aspirin’. The day before the surgery Dr. Pekarev’s assistant came in to take photos of my hand so the surgeon could deem it keepable or tossable, and as soon as she unwrapped it I knew it was going to require at least a partial amputation. While the skinned part between the middle joint and the nail was still very much alive and blood-red, the distal tip was a dull, flat black, bloodless and lifeless. A short time later Dr. Smith appeared, announcing my surgery was scheduled for the morning some time before noon, with Dr. Pekarev presiding.  

​“Have you given any thought to whether or not you want to try to keep the finger or are you just going to have the whole thing removed?”  

​“I’m not sure”, I said. “What do you suggest? After all, I’m the one who went and put myself in harm’s way and got myself into this mess, albeit unintentionally. Obviously I’m not a champion decision maker.” “

​I think you need to be patient and let God work it out in His time”, he said. “Sounds like good advice”, I replied. “Que sera, sera, you know. After all, it’s just a finger.”

​The next morning they loaded me up with an extra dose of potassium and wheeled me down the hall to the surgical unit on my gurney. Dr. Pekarev met with me for a short time before surgery. He entered the room with that same humble look on his face, although this time I thought I could see the corners of his smile suppressing the anticipation of the drawing of blood.  

​“What’s up Doc?”, I said, doing my best to not let that twinge of recoil that was creeping up my spine show in my own face.  

​“Have you decided on what route you want to go concerning the finger?”

​“Just go in and do whatever you feel you have to do”, I said. “Save what you can and cut off the rest. Just make sure I’m out of it before you start cutting.”

​This broke the humility or ice or whatever you want to call it.  

​“Oh, I will, don’t worry about that. Had you rather have an anesthesiologist or more of that lidocaine like I gave you the other day?”  

​“I believe I’m going to have to go with the anesthesia this time. That way I’ll either wake up late with the worst of the pain past me or not at all.”  

​The anesthesiologist, Dr. Nathan Walters, came in shortly and proceeded to hook me up to the knock-out juice.  

​“Snakebite, eh?” he said. “I used to do a bit of cottonmouth catching in the swamps of Florida in my younger days.”  

​“A man after my own heart”, I replied.  

​“Ok, I’m going to give you a little whiskey in your IV now. You’ll be out like a light in a short while.”  

​There was a sharp, instant pulse in the crook of my right arm as the thick mixture of Propophol, Phenobarbital, and everything else went into my system. I managed to maintain consciousness up to the point where they wheeled me into the prep room under the bright dome, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in recovery with a groggy head, slurred speech, and a little less finger than I had going in.


 ACT VI:

 THE LONG ROAD OUT OF HEMOTOXI-CITY

(Giving the Hospital the Finger)

 

The man who can caress a snake can do anything.

– -Isak Dinesen, ‘Out of Africa’

 

 Today is April 4, 2017. Two full weeks have passed since that lovely little rattler sank her fangs into my finger. Yesterday was a full day back at Harris Methodist for my check-ups. As I walked through the doors I couldn’t help but feel like a small part of me had been left behind there. The plastic surgeon’s assistant unwrapped my finger, or what was left of it, and I got to see it for the first time in 11 days. It was severed just a fraction above the middle joint, a dog-eared, folded-over flap of skin stitched across the fleshy stump where the distal tip used to be, but the regrowth of tender pink flesh and the absence of any black, dead tissue looked wonderful. I was given some basic maintenance instructions and then off I went to get the lab work, which was faxed over to the doctor long before I could hoof it there on foot. In a short time I was brought in, and Dr. Smith came into the room.  

​“We meet again”, I said.  

​“Yes, how have you been?

​“Much better than the last time you saw me”, I assured him. “How’s the blood flowing?”

​“Excellent report”, he said. “Platelet counts have gone back up to 250,000. All levels returned to normal. I’d say you’re in the clear.”

​“That’s the best news I’ve heard in a while”, I said.

​“Yours was one of the worst cases of hemotoxic envenomation I have seen in ten years”, he then added. “It is rare to lose a finger these days due to a rattlesnake, especially after ten vials of antivenin. That snake must have come from a population with a very high toxicity.”

​“Yeah it came from Thurber”, I said. “Out in the rolling plains. The Big Empty. The snakes don’t have anything to do out there but sit around and get hotter and hotter.”

​We conversed a while on the marvelous nature of pit viper venom, its biological makeup, and how certain populations of the same species within a given range possess varying degrees of hemo and neurotoxic components. “So, have you learned your lesson when it comes to messing with venomous snakes?” he asked as I was walking out.

​“I certainly have”, I said. “Never misplace your tongs.”

​With three appointments down, the only other place left to go was therapy. After an hour and a half of various hand exercises, Dr. Sexton, my physical therapist, pronounced my hand ‘well on its way to healing’. While the amputated digit was still stiff, as was the pinkie finger next to it, the rest of my fingers had gained full sensitivity and dexterity, and by the time I left I was almost able to make a crude fist. And thus the final prognosis was one of overall excellence, with no infection, tolerable pain, no further surgery required, and only one more therapeutic and surgical follow-up to go, scheduled for two weeks out.


​We pulled out of the hospital parking garage and headed for home. Outside the window, I could see the road stretching out before me in that mirage-like optical illusion that seems to shrink it down to a sharp, fine point as it touches the horizon. With a year of pain, nerve healing, at-home therapy, and keyboard retraining ahead of me, it was going to be a long one. I couldn’t wait to get back out in the field, in the company of my beloved rattlesnakes, with a slightly shorter finger, a reclaimed smile of satisfaction, and a nine foot long pair of custom made tongs to reach into my mailbox with and extract my medical bills.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With Spring Around the Corner

The waiting is the hardest part

– Tom Petty


10…9…8…7…6…5…4 more days until winter is officially a memory. Unable to hold off our anticipation, Zev & I took a bike ride down a trail that cuts through 80 acres of gently grazed prairie & post oak savannah in Wise County yesterday evening. Everything was in bloom, and the nice weather (if a bit windy, but hey it’s March…in like a lion & all that) coupled by an amazing sunset made us forget that it was technically still winter. The newly emergent buds & flowers never fail to jump-start me out of the winter blues. Mexican plum, crow poison, and flowering dogwood filled the air with their sweet aromatic fragrance, catkins of cottonwood fell to the ground beneath towering trees awakening from their long sleep, and the lime-green tips of elms and fluorescent, Dali-esque purple tips of redbuds shone in relative brilliance against the stubborn straw and brown landscape that would be green in a matter of weeks. 

Beneath the Bark


Sunday afternoon saw Michael, Zev and I ascending a sandy trail up from the black water and dense vegetation of a section of bottomland forest at the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in Anderson County, Texas. It was a warm day (warm for mid-February at least) with the temperature hanging just under the sixty degree mark. While Michael is no stranger to the area, I had only visited once on a very brief side trip on the way back from the Big Thicket, which lies about 150 miles to the southeast. Zev had never been at all, and all three of us were excited to see what natural treasures the day had in store. After four months of cold it was nice to be out in the forest during this brief warm spell. Zev was hoping to see an eastern newt, and Michael was adamant about exploring the post oak savannah. I, however, had bugs on the brain as usual. After all, conditions were perfect for finding a plethora of overwintering species in choice microhabitat that just so happened to be all around us. It didn’t take much searching to find what I was looking for. A massive post oak stood tall and straight at the edge of a tannin-rich pool, its leafless black limbs reaching for the sky. In truth it was not unlike so many other oaks growing all around it, except for one little difference. The bark around the lower trunk was raised slightly, separated from the tree by a shadowy space where I knew a mystery grab-bag of invertebrates potentially lay in wait. I stepped to the side of the trail and gently peeled it back, trying to be mindful that this was many creatures’ home and therefore trying to keep the destruction at a minimum. As I pulled the bark, separating it from the base of the trunk, I was rewarded by a fine sight: a female southern black widow spider had constructed her infamous messy web here, where she now sat with her scarlet hourglass pointed at me, the globular ebony abdomen shining like a black marble. Around her, a quartet of tiny beige and black marked fungus beetles sat, waiting out the winter months on a bed of spongy white granular fungi that was smeared across the wood like paste. I snapped a photo as Michael ventured over to see what I had found. Afterwards I replaced the bark as closely to its original state as I could get, and we continued making our way upland.

A black widow (Latrodectus mactans) and fungus beetles (Ischyrus quadripunctatus) beneath bark

While winter is a time when many insect species see an end to their life cycles after the first freeze, and most of our lepidoptera are tucked away safely in their insulated cocoons, there are many species which ride out the long harsh days of ice and sleet beneath a thick layer of tree bark, where they enter a torpid state of dormancy until the call of spring ushers them back to life.  Some can be found communally, huddled together in odd clusters, while others tend to be found singly. From centipedes and millipedes to spiders, beetles, true bugs, ants and wasps, a little peek beneath the bark on a winter walk in the woods is sure to eventually provide one with a behind-the-scenes look at how arthropods (and even some vertebrates) spend their winter vacation.

A ripe stump in the Trinity River bottomland, awaiting exploration

We continued along the trail, where a prescribed burn had cleared away much of the undergrowth and allowed us easy access to the post oak savannah. Here, the charred black remnants of timber littered the sandy, nitrogen-rich soil. Bone-white tree trunks, their bases scorched and bark peeled back like finely shaved coconut slivers, were full of promise. Sure enough, we found not only invertebrates but a couple of slumbering prairie lizards in this area, and Zev learned about the bright turquoise patches on the undersides of the males of this species that can be used as a differentiation key between the sexes.


Fires, while generally considered to be destructive from our human perspective, are beneficial to ecosystems such as pine forests and grasslands, as they burn away sections of old growth and overgrown thicket so that new plants can start over in their place. The ashes of the burned wood that mix in with the soil are high in nitrogen and contribute to the nutritional medium the new plants spring up in. Without periodic fires (either caused naturally by such factors as lightning strike or intentionally set and maintained by the forest service) our forests and prairies would quickly be overtaken by brush and invasive grasses.

Michael & Zev walk the trail to a burned section of post oak savannah

After exploring the burned section of fringe habitat for a while, we moved even further upland, where a wide looping trail was bordered by a barbed wire fence. Here the brush had been cut back extensively, leaving a generous amount of deadfall in the wake of the dozer. We all began turning over choice logs and sheets of bark, and in doing so located a number of interesting creatures. The first was a southern yellowjacket queen, tucked neatly away in a crevice under a spongy section of oak. What many people call “yellow-jackets” are in reality paper wasps, a large genus of vespids collectively grouped under the name Polistes, whose familiar water-resistant nests constructed from plant fibers mixed with saliva are seen hanging from porch eaves and barn rafters. The real yellowjacket is smaller and nests underground, building a roughly rounded structure the size of a basketball. Yellowjackets are generally more aggressive than paper wasps, although this dormant queen seemed too snug and content to worry about us as she sat patiently awaiting the first warm days, whereupon she would set out to begin a new colony. It is for this reason solitary yellowjacket queens are known as “foundresses”.  Looking down at this one it was hard to believe she held the potential to build an empire of soldiers that, over the course of a few seasons, could expand to 100,000 or more individuals.

Foundress of a vast future empire: Southern yellowjacket queen

Polypleurus perforatus, a strange tenebrionid with densely punctate elytra

The trail eventually led back around to another section of open, sandy savannah, with post oaks and hackberries growing spaciously over some type of rough, woody growth that resisted the progress of our boots, forcing us to plow through it with some difficulty. Saw palmettos and patches of azalea mixed with greenbrier further inhibited our travel across this landscape. A small grove of oaks, their lower trunks showing signs of peeled, aging bark, beckoned to me from the trail, so I braved the undergrowth and walked out into the field to give them a look. Although it took a bit of time, the effort was well worth it, for this proved to be a popular brumation spot for inverts. The dried hull of a metallic wood-boring beetle of the genus Polycesta was found beneath the first sheet of bark, its head and abdomen missing but elytra and thorax still present, a relict of chitinous armor that spoke of the past summer, of a creature that had at one time possessed a set of mandibles powerful enough to chew through the heartwood of the oak but had now been reduced to minute bits of ant food. Still, the sculptured pitted elytral pattern gleamed in the late afternoon sun like pyrite, a testament to the profound beauty and intricacy of these remarkable insects.

Stand of young pines on the border between savannah & woodland, Gus Engeling

Not far away from it sat a huge assassin bug, Microtomus luctuosus, a tricolored beauty that is kin to the dreaded kissing bug, a vector for the potentially debilitating Chagas disease. Also known as American trypanosomiasis, it is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, and is transmitted to humans through the feces of the insect, which are involuntarily rubbed into the bite wound when the victim scratches the skin around the site of the bite. Chagas is a serious threat, especially in Texas, where a study conducted by Texas A & M found as many as half of the population of kissing bugs in the state to be carriers. Chronic complications from the disease include intestinal damage, heart problems, and can even lead to cardiac arrest in extreme cases.

Fortunately this was not the dreaded kissing bug (Triatoma sp), which also makes its home beneath tree bark, but a much more welcome and colorful member of the family. While it is larger than the kissing bug and capable of delivering a painful bite should one be so inclined to handle it carelessly, it carries no known communicable diseases. The species enjoys a wide range from central Texas south as far as Panama, where it is attracted to lights and feeds exclusively on smaller invertebrates.

Microtomus luctuosus

From the post oak savannah we followed the trail back downhill, where it led to a small pine grove flanked on all sides by water elm and sweetgum trees. Gradually we descended back into bottomland forest, and the rich earthy smells of organic mud could be detected on the breeze as we left the openness of the plain for the shadowy realm of the trees. In little time my eyes fell upon a dying pine. Unlike oak bark, pine bark tends to slough off in huge sections, and as I pulled the bark on this one back I couldn’t help but be reminded of a morning on the Louisiana border when I pulled off a great sheet of bark that broke off six feet above my head and rained an overwintering colony of imported red fire ants down on me. That had not been a serendipitous morning, but this pine tree would offer much better rewards beneath its flaky exterior. A small group of rough shield bugs (genus Brochypelma) were huddled up beside a few of the strangely rotund smaller shield bug Lineostethus sp.  Close beside them sat a cryptically marked click beetle, and several examples of the dull black tenebrionid, Alobates pensylvanica.  It was a true insect menagerie, a communal late winter gathering of mini-beasts, and a treasure trove of photographic potential for a student of entomology.

Shield bugs beneath pine bark

Click beetle

From the pine grove the trail wound back around to the vehicle, which was parked beside a bridge overlooking a small creek. From there we drove to a large section of bottomland where most of the forest floor lay beneath a shallow lake of dark water. At first glance the place looked as if a bulldozer had run amok through the woods, but upon closer inspection it proved to be the work of feral hogs. Feral hogs are notorious for working their way through patches of habitat, rooting and ripping and tilling up the ground and gobbling up everything they come across, leaving a trail of razed devastation in their wake. It did make for easy walking though.  The bottomland was replete with rotten logs and deadfall, and as we made our way along I knew it would only be a matter of time before I ran into more invertebrates.

Hemiscolopendra marginata

Solopocryptops sexspinosus

While Michael and Zev walked the edge of the waterline, with Michael photographing a basking redeared slider and Zev exhibiting his climbing skills across a felled tree, I resumed my pace, flipping and peeling bark, knowing that our time here was running short as the sun fell back over the treetops to the west. I found several centipedes here, as well as a handful of wolf spiders of the genus Hogna, and a pair of bess beetles as well. Also known as the horned passalus or patent leather beetle, this remarkable species is one of the few recorded types of beetles that rears its young. Bess beetles live in the pithy center of rotting logs and stumps, where they exist in communal family groups, with new generations growing up and “joining the family” to care for the next season’s progeny. They communicate through stridulation, whereupon they rub their wings against a special structure located on the underside of their wing covers, producing a high-pitched squeaking sound. While many species of insects are capable of producing sound in this way, bess beetles are unique in that their larvae “squeak” back by rubbing their legs together, demanding food like nestling birds. Bess beetles are important contributors to the breakdown of decaying wood in the forest, and their presence is generally indicative of a healthy ecosystem.

Bess beetle, in situ

From there we traveled upland, with no sign of Zev’s newts in spite of what felt like a thousand logs turned. “You’re not trying hard enough”, was his response when I asked him why he thought we weren’t seeing any.  “Dad has a metal ankle and a bad back”, I said. “Maybe they can’t be found because they’re good at not being found. That ensures their survival”.  But Zev would hear none of it.

At the day’s end Michael drove us up to another section of post oak savannah, and we tried out a trail that seemed to lead endlessly into dried bluestem sparsely dotted with small oaks.  As soon as we got out of the car I turned an oak log and found a pretty little black and white weevil that popped its head out from between the bark layers. It was Euparius lugubris, a first recorded sighting for Inaturalist.

Euparius lugubris

It had been a wonderful day of relaxation, an honorable day of rest. Aside from a throbbing back from rolling too many logs, I was glad to be back out into the field at the tail end of winter. As the air cooled and the sky darkened we said goodbye to the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area with plans for future trips already bouncing around in our conversation. It was back to the warmth of central heating to see me through until winter’s end.  We pulled back out onto the highway and headed for home, with the dense oak and pine rich forest all around us. Thousands of trees supporting a vast array of life through the winter, beneath the bark.

Bottomlands, Gus Engeling WMA

http://www.Animaldiversity.org

http://BugGuide.net
Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America: Eaton, Eric R & Kaufman, Kenn; Houghton-Miflin Harcourt; 2007

Whats biting texas? The hidden threat of Chagas disease”, Jennifer R. Hericks, 26 Jan 2016; The Houston Chronicle

Kissing bugs and chagas disease in the united states; http://www.kissingbug.tamu.edu; agriculture and life sciences, tx a&m university

http://www.Texastreeid.tamu.edu

http://www.Texasento.net

Beetles of Eastern North America; Evans, Arthur V; Princeton University Press; 2014

Recyclers in the Circle of Life: Bess Beetles; Michael J Raupp; http://www.entnemdept.ufl.edu

Observations on the life history of the horned passalus: LE Gray, 1946

A Trip Through Time On the Wings of Herons

The grey heron moved fearlessly and fast, long black sticklike legs pounding the ground as it spread awesome silk grey wings…

– ‘Martin the Warrior’ (Brian Jacques)

I was already running late for a biology class. With earbuds in and ‘Saint Dymphna’ playing, coffee cup balanced precariously in one hand while the other one manned the wheel, the morning found me barrelling down Highway 114, amid the eighteen wheelers hauling loads of gravel and beaten ranch trucks dragging enclosed stock trailers full of wild-eyed, bewildered cattle. Overhead, a steady procession of transparent wispy clouds reduced the risen sun to a pale yellow sphere in the new eastern sky. A front was on its way in, promising rain. Thick grey nebulous clouds obscured what would have otherwise been a clear blue January sky. A red-tailed hawk soared on an updraft, flapping its great wingspan for stability as it collided with an invisible gust that threatened to veer it in a different direction.  As I crossed the bridge over Salt Creek I habitually looked up at the overhanging power line, as a belted kingfisher can frequently be seen perched there, its keen eyes perusing the shallow water surface below for ripples caused by gambusia and leopard frogs. The bird wasn’t here today, nor were the motley flock of pigeons that reside beneath the bridge and  fly in seemingly tireless circles with the approach of every passing car.

After the bridge the land opens up on either side into a broad, plowed field which is used for growing watermelons and cantaloupes. In the summer the giant ovaline green fruits of the former and veined tan globes of the latter litter the ground before being harvested, and it is not unusual to see workers there day and night, some operating heavy machinery and the less fortunate stooped low, backs bent, with paisley bandannas tied over sweat-shiny faces and wide-brimmed straw hats combating the merciless sun. But summer is still half a year away, and for the moment the ground lies fallow and cold. To the south it is composed of barren dry clods of alluvial sand and clay deposited by seasonal overflows from the west fork Trinity River, but to the north a sea of high straw-yellow grass stretches out, its far banks governed by a treeline nearly a mile away, with the sandy Cottonwood Creek trickling over the land from the east. The highway runs through the middle of these two plots, atop a steep hill that provides a view of the scene from above, like driving atop a levee. Between the endless caravans of semis flanked by commuter cars and pickups the road is a busy one with a narrow shoulder. Dozens of carcasses of unfortunate wildlife lie along the white lines, coyotes and whitetail deer and raccoons and skunks and opossums, their presence a testament to the encroachment of man as well as the ignored speed limit. It is a dangerous place to break down, and a foolish one to pull over on.  On this grim black asphalt ribbon that invokes so much carnal destruction it is wise to keep one’s eyes on the road at all times, but on this particular morning I saw something from the corner of my eye as I passed, and I turned my head in the direction of the grass sea, where the lifting fog penetrated by the struggling rays of sunlight cast a primeval-looking spell on the land.

The early morning mist had just risen from the mud of the nearby creek. Towering above it were the crowns of oak trees, their boughs deceivingly bright with what appeared to be vibrant spring growth but was in reality the parasitic evergreen mistletoe. The tall grass waved in the remnants of the morning wind, and the dusky hue broken by the thick layers of elongated grey clouds added to the effect, giving the landscape a vaguely prehistoric look, as if I were crossing a bridge in time, one paved with modern-day blacktop made from ancient crinoids and other plants compressed over the eons and extracted as petroleum.

I took all this in in the span of a moment: a long, snakelike head popped from the grass, mouse-grey feathers mixed with those of stark white, with a familiar crest standing straight back at a slightly elevated angle from the graceful neck like a stubborn cowlick. The daggerlike beak pointed forward, orange as a flame-heated knife blade. It was a great blue heron, a noble and savage avian predator of swamp and creek and marsh and stock pond. Its scientific name of Ardea herodias sounds much more regal and befitting. This bane of frogs, fish and snakes dominates the shoreline from Canada to the Galapagos Islands. It is the largest heron in North America, standing over 54″ in height and boasting an impressive wingspan that can reach six feet across.

Closeup of head and bill of a roadkilled A. herodias

The bird lurched forward with a single fluid glide of movement, its bill punching the air, and I stole a glance back at the road, checked my mirrors. When I looked back I could see more herons. The sudden sight of them standing there, stalking the denizens of the grass with maddening patience struck an overwhelming chord with a mental image of a long-extinct dromeosaur from the late Cretaceous, dienonychus or velociraptor. Velociraptors were residents of Mongolia some 75million years before this foggy morning, and recent fossil evidence in the form of a forelimb containing what is believed by scientists to be a quill knob suggests that these last of the agile therapod dinosaurs may very well have sported feathers.  If dinosaurs were indeed endothermic, these would have supported the regulation of their body temperature as those of the heron and other modern birds do today.

As these magnificent rulers of the Cottonwood Creek hunted on long legs, their narrow tapering heads scanning the ground for prey, alert golden eyes detecting the slightest bits of movement, I could easily see the resemblance between the extinct and modern species separated by the ages, the shrinking back of the great seas, and the dawn of man.

Feet of A. herodias, showing resemblance to small therapod dinosaurs

As I passed over the Cottonwood Creek bridge it dawned on me that such a passing glimpse of nature’s transcending, ever-changing beauty simply would not do, and at the risk of being late to class I turned the truck around and passed back over, where I pulled onto what little shoulder that was available. The herons were still there, four of them in all, their elegant silhouettes beset against the grass stalks. Cars zoomed by me, buzzing in my ear like giant hornets as they passed only a couple feet from my driver’s side door. I had to get a picture, to at very least attempt to freeze-frame such a pristine conjunction of time and location. A thought fell upon me as I waited for a break in the traffic flow: a vision of a state trooper pulling behind me to ask why I deemed it necessary to park my vehicle along such a dangerously busy highway atop a steep hill with no shoulder.

“I have a perfectly justifiable explanation, officer. I just pulled over to take a shot of herons” was a response that could easily be misinterpreted. But I decided I would risk life and excuse and take my chances. After a few minutes the last car zipped by, and I bolted from the truck and headed down the hill. I stopped mid-way to take my first shot,which was too far away to capture much depth, but I was glad I did, for as I got closer to the fenceline the herons, which were still nearly fifty meters away, seemed to simultaneously take note of my presence. Had I been standing there in the late Cretaceous this would have most likely meant my untimely end as the dromeosaurs gathered together as a unified pack, but the herons spooked and took to their great wings, objects of perfect creation in flight, transforming from velociraptors into pterosaurs before my mind’s eye.

Dorsal view of a roadkilled A. herodias, showing resemblance to ancient pterosaurs

The fog was lifting now, and its departure was beginning to reveal patches of unnatural white between the oaks in the background. These were the rooves of barns. In front of them, a series of shiny new pumpjacks sat on open grassless ground, their crescent-shaped steel heads fixed onto craning beams that gave them the appearance of giant metal grasshoppers. The clouds remained, stacks of slate grey and pastel blue, unchanged over the countless centuries. The lifting of the fog had left the grass wet abd bright, and it was among it that I spied a lone, defiant heron who had refused to fly upon my approach. I snapped a picture, grateful for the opportunity, and then turned to leave. As I did a second heron sailed in like an avian hang-glider. It landed with exquisite form and grace, folding its wings up as delicately as an origami. Not wanting to further disturb the birds, I froze the frame in my mind and climbed the hill back to the truck. Less than four minutes had passed on that unexplainable scale of time. Somewhere far back along its track the Great Age of the Dinosaurs had ended, the seas had dried, and mammals ran through clumps of cycads that were on their way out while early birds tested out their new wings. A blink and here we were, making stone tools and driving automobiles and selling out to smartphones and blogging about great blue herons via the worldwide web. Millions of years and a three hour biology lab. For whatever all of it was worth, my moment  with the great blue herons of Cottonwood Creek that morning would make the time fly by.

Arnold, K.A. & G. Kenedy. 2007. Birds of Texas. Lone Pine Publishing International p. 92

Castro, Joseph. LiveScience. Velociraptor: facts about the ‘speedy thief’ https://www.livescience.com/23922-velociraptor-facts.html

Pough, Richard. 1951. Audubon Water Bird Guide. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. Inc. pp. 40-41

Sattler, H.R. 1983. The New Illustrated Dinosaur Dictionary. NY:Lothrop, Lee & Shepard p. 337-338.

Turner, A.H., Makovicky, P.J., & M.A. Norell. 2007. Feather quill knobs in the dinosaur Velociraptor. Science, Vol 317 (5845) p.1721

Countdown to Spring

‘follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness’

– Allen Ginsberg
Last Saturday the pontiac finally crossed over into the realm of the unreliable vehicle. After nearly 300,000 miles, 2 deer, and 2 water pumps, the transmission was a ticking time bomb. When the tape fell off the service engine light and the dashboard became a carnival of glowing symbols, I pulled over to the side of the road and searched for the panic button. Finding none, I sat helplessly as escaping steam belched from under the hood, the thermometer shot up into ‘self destruct’ mode, and the air took on vague undertones of acrid burning rubber. It was only a quarter mile or so from the house, so I hunched along the right side of the road, envisioning the engine stalling as I climbed the hill and trying to wish away the possibility of its occurence. I made it home fine, but the pontiac had a date with a mechanic shop and then a dealership. 

After a brief romance with a tow truck the car was restored to working order and we made the daunting journey to the dealership to be financially assaulted by the jackal salesmen. They swarmed down upon us from out of the jungle of cars lined up in neat gleaming rows of chrome, and when the dust had cleared we ended up with another bill in the mail and a brand new 2084 Jeep Orwellian, its dashboard pulsing with the lights from a thousand bells and whistles I would never understand. 

2084 Orwellian


“You have a year of Sirius XM for free”, boasted the dealer. “You can even watch Netflix on this baby”. I thought about asking him if the vehicle’s safety coverage accounted for headon collisions that occured as a result of watching Netflix while tooling along I-35 at rush hour, but he snatched the phone out of my hand before I could speak. 

“That’s not part of the trade in!” I yelled. 

“I’m just syncing your bluetooth to the car’s computer system. “, he said. 

“Now they’ve got me”, I assured myself, sinking down into the driver’s seat. “They’ll know every move I make”. 

“It’s not just a vehicle, it’s an entertainment system”, he continued. 

“That’s good”, I replied, “because I’m not going to be able to afford any other forms of entertainment after this car payment starts tracking me down.”

He didn’t laugh, but I figured he was saving it for after I had signed the papers. 

Less than an hour later we were driving the Orwellian home, with my nine year old son instructing me from the backseat on how to operate the XM radio. Our path took us through the Lyndon Baines Johnson National Grasslands, its black jack mottes and clearings of little bluestem adorned in the cloak of winter. Earlier in the week the area had seen a low of 7 degrees. I had gone out on an intended birdwalk that day once the mercury had climbed to 16, but with a wind that had several days ago swept through the Canadian tundra piercing the exposed areas around my eyes and cheeks, it had ended up being the shortest hike of my life. A pair of sparrows were the only things moving, and they looked as though they were having second thoughts. The ground and grass beneath my feet were encased in a thin layer of ice that crunched and crackled and melted and soaked through the mesh in my hiking boots, which still bore the dried smears of pond mud from last fall. 


The hike had been more of a last-ditch resort, in all honesty; an attempt to get back in touch with nature after a hectic steady onslaught of the winter blues fueled by the icy weather and mechanic shop dues and the beginning of another semester. And I felt it again as we passed the turnoff for Cottonwood Lake, a 40-acre reservoir built in the name of flood control on the LBJ. As the gadgets and apps beeped away on the jumbo screen someone had embedded in my dashboard, my mind went back to a summer of my past. I had actually skipped my own post-graduation party to go cruising the Grasslands for copperheads on that night, leaving a bunch of friends and family members high and dry, but it was late May on a new moon night and what a night for copperheads it had been! Along the sandy path that wound over the top of the levee on the lake and back into the horse trails that had been carved from a dense section of woodland I had celebrated my first night of scholastic freedom herping in cap and gown. The headlights falling upon the next serpentine assortment of russet and orange crossbands were worth more congratulations than all the handshakes from wellwishers and illegal beer kegs the night had otherwise to offer me. 

Passing by that familiar turnoff now, nearly twenty years later, with Siri and Zev engaged in a shallow conversation around me, I longed all the more for a wilderness getaway. But the grip of winter would be loosened no time soon, and the Machine is a mighty one, with great teeth and a cavernous, gaping maw that swallows all it sees and leaves poverty and desolation and wastelands in its wake. 

A week has passed now since I fed that machine and braved the world of barter and trade and negotiate and sign the dotted lines here and initial there, and still I have found no time for an outlet. No wilderness and too much commercialism make Jack a dull boy indeed, and while the average American slips into a euphoric funk that triggers the same chemical reaction in the brain as an opium rush when they purchase a new vehicle, I suppose I was wired differently. They say nothing beats the smell of a new car, but I have been to the Big Thicket after a warm spring rain, with the earthy tones of newly emergent fungi complementing the rich, sharp invasion of the scent of the pines. Where the drumming of an unseen pileated woodpecker somewhere above echoes through the magnolias and cypress swamps, with a perfection no surround sound system can replicate, and the frog and cricket and birdsong unavailable on any Sirius XM channel resound from the deep interior of the forest from tannin-rich pools and dense stands of greenbrier. Where cottonmouths and five lined skinks and the ever-present acrobatic anoles bask in the vibrant patches of sunlight that shine down in glorious celestial rays through the canopy. As I navigate the Orwellian back home at the end of another long, cold January day, my mind travels back there to where it is summer once again, where human progress and westward expansion and Chrysler Dodge and oil pumpjacks and fake news exist in some unseen and unwanted and undesirable dimension on the other side of the trees, whose naked branches are now clothed in long flowing dresses of jade and emerald and a new generation of countless species of a multitudinous number of organisms pulses through the woods and fields and prairies like a throbbing heartbeat. 

“Patience”, I say, accidentally aloud. 

“I don’t understand. Can you repeat the question?”, Siri suddenly blares in her monotonous, autonomous voice, devoid of emotion or concern. 

“Shut up. I wasn’t talking to you”, I warn the car. “You couldn’t help me with this problem, I assure you.”

“This is madness”, I think, this time keeping it to myself. “Keep it together. Spring will come.”

On Frozen Pond

Last night the temperature dropped to seventeen degrees. Some time between the ball drop in Times Square and the sunrise over the Wilson Prairie, an arctic blast swept across the prairie, freezing everything from the ponds and stock tanks to the pipes in my wellhouse. Needless to say, this first day of 2018 saw me running to the hardware store to try to improve the insulation over the well pump with more heat tape, foam fittings, a heat pad, and an incandescent bulb. After all that business was over and done, I needed a reason to appreciate the wintry conditions, so Zev and I went for a brief walk onto some property we have access to a few miles from the house. There is a particular pond here, located not too far from the fenceline, loaded with smallmouth bass, catfish and sunfish, not to mention bullfrogs, water snakes, and sliders. But with the mercury still poised at 25 degrees in spite of the blinding afternoon sun, there was little chance of seeing any of the aforementioned residents today.  What we did see were birds. A loggerhead shrike flitted between the blackjacks. House sparrows hopped noisily in the fallen leaves. A northern mockingbird watched us from the drooping outer branches of a mesquite tree, its normally ever-changing tune stilled inside it. A male American kestrel, its feathers aruffle, surveyed the prairie below its perch for something small enough to capture. In a the lowest branch of an elm, a redtail hawk watched a fox squirrel for a lapse in judgment. 


We walked across an open clearing, where a pair of killdeer piped their shrill alarms as they raced across the open ground on thin legs. Mourning doves pecked and scratched nearby, but took to wing in their sudden, explosive flight upon sensing our approach.   We passed under the rusty barbed wire fence, then walked the twenty yards south through a healthy section of little bluestem-dominant prairie to the pond. Upon first sight the scene appeared still and lifeless, a thick sheet of ice spread across the surface of the water, with the crooked black silhouettes of post oaks reflected as rippled shadows. The muted forms of submerged roots and deadfall shown opaquely from the murky brown depths, their outlines broken by sunlight reflecting off the ice in blinding patches. 


We broke through the dense stands of sugarberry that line the water’s edge, their leafless branches spotted here and there by the parasitic evergreen mistletoe. This plant, more widely known as a holiday invitation to kiss beneath, holds no such amorous intentions with the trees it uses as a host. The scientific genus name, Phoradendron, means ‘tree thief’, an befitting title for the mistletoe, which attaches itself to a tree and sends rootlike structures into the branches, which it uses to vamp up water and nutrients. While too much mistletoe can be a detriment to trees, its presence in an ecosystem is generally a healthy one, as its berries provide food for a variety of songbirds. The ovaline, waxy leaves also make choice nesting sites for these same birds, as well as food for the great purple hairstreak butterfly, a magnificently colored metallic species whose lime-green oddly wedge-shaped larvae feed exclusively on the plant. 


As we broke through the thicket, a blue-grey gnatcatcher darted in front of us. While not an uncommon bird, it is a seasonal visitor seen most often in summer here in the cross timbers. In spite of the avian diversity we were experiencing the air was devoid of birdsong, so I relied on the white-edged retrice feathers to identify this nervous species. 

As we approached the bank a great blue heron took flight with a hushed whoosh of its five foot wingspan. It must have been trying to figure out a way to go ice-fishing, although if so I doubt it was having much success, as the ice along the pond’s edge was thick enough to support my weight. 

Zev was enthralled with the icy pond, and took to casting rocks and branches across the surface. With little friction and no external force acting against them, they skated all the way to the other side. Uphill from the pond’s eastern bank a dense patch of greenbrier provided the only meager bit of verdancy to the frozen scape of browns and greys. The pallid, sea green vines, their thorns rigid and sharp, complimented the few cordate mottled leaves that remained. Shiny clusters of the greenbrier’s characteristic black berries hung from them. 



Further out in the field a group of ashe junipers grew, their branches loaded so thickly with their own powder-blue fruit that the trees appeared solid blue from a distance. All these fruiting winter evergreen species would explain the diversity of bird life we were seeing. As we watched a northern cardinal’s bright red plumage dropped down from one of the junipers and landed in the path at trailside. I pointed it out to Zev. 

 “It’s a male”, he added, which opened the door to the topic of sexual dimorphism in the animal kingdom. After giving him the definition of the word I asked if he could think of any other examples besides cardinals. 

“Cowbirds”, he said, “and cattle egrets.” 

 “That’s right”, I said, impressed with his quick response.

 “Your turn”.

“Monarch butterflies”, I said, referring to the characteristic black spot of androconial scales on the hindwings of the males.

  “Lizards”, Zev came back with. 

“What about rattlesnakes?”, I quizzed him. 

“You can tell the difference in their tails”, he replied. “Praying mantis”…

Our conversation continued as we crossed back under the fence and headed down the trail toward the gate. As we walked, a small flock of eastern meadowlarks passed overhead on swift wings. Behind us the icy pond and bare sentinel oaks and lively junipers stood as if transfixed in time, a world entombed in the grip of winter. 


December Beneath Post Oaks


The western cross-timbers occupy over 25,000 acres of Texas, rolling westward from what is left of the blackland prairie, where they slide into the southern end of the plains. Mixed grasses conquer vast open meadows where bands of mesquite and honeylocust spring up from the Trinity sands, whose powdery composition dates back to the Cretaceous period.   It melts into the crusty layer of Redbeds from the Permian Basin, where chunks of igneous and sedimentary rock sit and wait out the centuries with timeless indifference. Their jagged, irregular surfaces speak of a past that was vastly different from the one the region enjoys now. Five hundred million years ago my property was submerged beneath the saline waters of a shallow sea. Tylosaurs and the great turtle Archelon patroled for the fish, crustaceans, and echinoderms that would eventually become beds of limestone, and archosaurs and hadrosaurs left their distinctive  trifurcated tracks in the mud. Their bones would witness the Ice Age of the Cenozoic period, mastodons and dire wolves and sabre-tooth cats. The prairies would erupt from the rich soil, and man would walk across them over thousands of years, hunting with ancient spears and then Clovis points and then Comanche points knapped from flint, chert, and obsidian. The bones of the prolific bison can still be found alongside these artifacts after a heavy rain, rough and white and chalky, with red clay embedded in their many fissures, the smooth dark marrow still visible on either end.   Generations of hunters and gatherers saw the land change. Dire wolves became red wolves and coyotes. Smilodon was reduced to a mountain lion, and the coniferous forests to petrified wood. 

On this crisp cold dawn in December, several centuries after the North American bison and Comanche and Apache disappeared, replaced by cattle and oil tycoons and railroads, the splendid cloak of another morning begins to blossom all the same. The red-orange orb of sun sends a Jacob’s Ladder through a dense heap of lavender-edged clouds, crowning the tops of the post oaks in gold. My son and I stand across the field, the prickly pears casting long shadows toward the west. It is a minute’s walk to the edge of the treeline, with the crisp air in our lungs, dessicated soil crunching beneath the soles of our shoes. A scraggly ashe juniper stands at the forefront of this massive stand of oaks, its evergreen needles mocking the naked oak branches. A blue jay erupts from its midst in a flurry of sky blue and black and white, sounding a hawklike alarm. The pastel blue juniper berries it has doubtlessly been gorging itself on come into view as we approach closer, complementing the deep jade hues of the juniper needles, like a naturally decorated Christmas tree. The bird disappears into the woods, winging its way expertly amid the rough boughs of oak. 


At the fenceline, bright pink clusters of what I assume to be beautyberry stand out in vivid contrast to the earthen tones of late fall. They are encircled by chaotic coils of greenbrier, a little paler and devoid of their characteristic heart-shaped leaves but otherwise none the worse for wear. They tug at our socks and pant legs as we venture into the understory. Here, dried leaves form a crackling carpet broken in places by sun-bleached cover boards and pieces of lichen-covered deadfall. Zev lifts one, peering beneath it in the hopes of spying a slumbering centipede or cluster of harvestmen. He finds nothing that pleases him, and moves on to the next piece, knowing the locations of each from memory, pausing to dust away a thin layer of leaves from a large sheet of weather-worn plywood, its cracking edges bent up toward the sky by repeated seasons of saturation and dehydration. He starts to pull it back, then freezes, eyes wide. Zev drops to his knees and peers forward into the leaf litter, where tiny fingers of fiery coral colored fungi reach up in frozen tendrils. I join him and, of course, he has to ask what it is. I tell him I don’t know but I own a book that does, and we conspire to look it up when we get back to the house. 


It is too cold for even the fossorial reptiles and mammals and arthropods that seek winter shelter beneath the boards. We venture deeper into the woods, where the post oaks interspersed with the occasional blackjack grow closer together, the bases of their trunks hidden beneath the leaves. 

There is some strange magnetic force that exists between children and fallen leaves, and Zev can’t resist plowing through the leaf litter at full speed for a short burst. The sudden break in the stillness of the woodlands startles a solitary American crow, who adds his own displeasured brand of noise to the disrupted solitude. I explain to Zev the genetic relationship between the crow and the blue jay we saw moments earlier. But he spies a late cloudless sulphur butterfly as it bats its oversized wings and he is off like a shot. The sulphur’s wings are a fluorescent yellow that glows as if they have been painted by a highlighter. Cloudless sulphurs are fall migrants that journey to Mexico with the seasonal lapse in photo-period, and we ponder how this one has survived several freezes and why it has chosen to stick around. But then again the temps have been unusually warm for this late in the year, and it feels good to be out on a more normal winter day. 

We come upon a dying oak, a probable victim of lightning strike. It has been split in a jagged diagonal line by some powerful unseen force. As a result the tree has suffered excessive branch die-back. Unlike the surrounding trees, most of which still bear a few stubborn leaves that vibrate in the northern wind, this old behemoth is on its last roots, destined to return to the dust it sprouted from untold decades ago. 


A closer inspection reveals sharp, slanted holes cut clean into the scarred areas of the wood. The oddly segmented, bulbous-headed larvae of buprestid beetles, known collectively as flatheaded borers, are the culprits. It was a summer for Polycesta elata, a large handsome silver-speckled metallic species that infests stressed trees. The holes in this particular unfortunate oak look fairly fresh, likely bored this past summer. They were made as the adult beetle left behind its youthful larval stage for its comparatively brief adult existence on the outside. This typically occurs between April and July. The fact that the species had been feeding off the wood long enough to mature and exit suggested that this had been a resilient post oak, for woodboring larvae can take several years to mature. 

Wood-boring beetle larvae


Buprestid beetles are especially attracted to burned wood, and if this one was in fact struck by lightning as we hypothesized, this could explain the presence of the holes. Using specialized infrared sensory organs, they can detect burning wood from miles away, and are important contributors to the natural cycle of forest fires, with the infestive larvae speeding up the process of returning the burned organic material to the earth, where the nitrogenous addition to the soil encourages new growth. This year’s crop of beetles have come and gone, the emerged adults having either found shelter beneath the loose bark or succumbed to last week’s low of 17 degrees. 

Too soon it is time to leave; we exit back out of the woods, from beneath the gnarled bare branches of the post oaks. They watch us pass as they have several generations before us. Zev pauses to admire a much smaller plant growing in their midst: a humble silverleaf nightshade that is still hanging on in the face of adversity. A few pallid, withered leaves still droop from its stems, alongside marble-sized yellow-green speckled fruits that look invitingly edible. But their beguiling, brightly colored flesh is full of toxic tropane alkaloids, and ingesting them would be a mistake. 

Silverleaf nightshade


“Deadly nightshade!” Zev points at the plant as it falls into view. He has been familiar with the plant since early childhood, when I explained to him that consuming those enticing “baby tomatoes” could send him into hallucinatory fits of delusion at best and possibly even prove fatal. He had already found out about stinging nettle, fire ants, and paper wasps the hard way, and was afterwards able to spot nightshade during all seasons. Still, he is mesmerized by the plant’s benign appearance which conceals so much harnessed destructive potential, and he speaks of it with a mixture of endearment and reverence, the same measure he gives black widow spiders and rattlesnakes.  Before leaving the plant behind us I tell him a story of how Native Americans on the plains used juice from the nightshade on the tips of their dart points, and how several Roman political assassinations were believed to have been carried out in the first century A.D.  In the spring the silverleaf nightshade will bear violet star-shaped flowers with rigid canary yellow pistils, but for now the berries hang on as the little plant trembles in the wind along the edge of the prairie, unprotected from the elements. 

Our house is in view now, and the skies’ hues have dissolved into a dusky blue, the pleasant orange ball that first peeked over the eastern horizon less than an hour ago already turned to blinding sulfur.  It looks down on us as we walk back across the dormant prairie, the same cosmic timeless star that has overseen the Earth’s Precambrian beginnings and the Age of Reptiles and then the Age of Mammals and the Dawn of Man.  It gazes down with all the unwavering indifference of the stones at our feet as our own species plods toward eventual extinction. A tufted titmouse sends its echoing, fast-paced trill from the fragrant juniper tree, its smoky grey crest standing out against the blue of the sky. Another year is winding down in the Cross-Timbers. 

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.