Increasingly, I wonder about how fellow Texans see the natural world, including the reptiles and amphibians of our state. Texas has 284 “taxa,” or – roughly speaking – “kinds” of these animals, according to the 3rd Edition of Amphibians & Reptiles of Texas (Dixon, 2013). They play important roles in ecological communities, as predators and prey, and their skin secretions and venoms have provided various medicines and are being explored for additional uses to treat cancer and other maladies. They also figure importantly in different cultures, from the myths and beliefs of indigenous people to the tall tales in J. Frank Dobie’s book, Rattlesnakes (1965). In other words, they have been significant in our world and, for some of us, in our lives. The relationships we have with these creatures, including fascination, fear, use and abuse, make an interesting story that ought to be told.
And, at least broadly speaking, they are declining. The global declines of various frog species are being matched by disappearances of turtle species. Various lizard and snake species are not faring much better. This makes our relationships with them even more important, because as the dominant species on the planet, what we do will make all the difference in the futures of many living things, including herps. How we value them and what (and whether) we think about them will make a huge difference in their future prospects.
To those Texans who have experiences, recollections, and opinions about the turtles, alligators, lizards, snakes, frogs, toads, and salamanders of our state: I am interested in talking with you to document your thoughts about these animals. I would like to talk with enough people to put together a picture of the reptiles and amphibians of Texas as seen through the eyes of Texans. I am not sure how this project might see the light of day, but in articles or other media, you could either remain anonymous or could be identified to the extent that you choose.
You do not have to be an expert, nor is it important whether you like reptiles and amphibians or dislike them. I want to talk to regular folks who have experiences and thoughts to share. I am not interested in talking about pet reptiles – my interest is in how people see the ones that live in the wild in our state. Unfortunately, I would not be able to pay you for your time, except in gratitude for what you can share.
I would come to you, or to a place that is workable for both of us, and we might talk for an hour or so. For those who don’t mind, I would record our conversation so that I can focus more on our discussion than on taking notes. Any such recording and any information about you personally would either remain private or be shared only to the extent that you give your permission.
In our meeting, I would ask some questions. I might ask about what kinds of turtles, snakes, frogs, and so on that you have seen and how your observations have changed over the years. I would probably ask what you think about these creatures, and whether you think people would notice if they were no longer here.
If this sounds interesting to you, please feel free to contact me and we can discuss whether you might want to contribute to this project.
I spend as much
time as I can in woods and prairies, or wading creeks and watching turtles slip
into the water or cricket frogs jump away as I approach. From my first
gartersnake in the early 1960s to now, I’ve spent a lot of time in the field,
looking for reptiles and amphibians. But that first gartersnake led to a sort
of addiction. Ribbonsnakes, watersnakes, box turtles, massasaugas – a list of
species that seemed ever-widening as I discovered more of the herpetological
That world expanded to more of the natural world when, as a young teenager, I spent some of the most valuable time of my life in a couple of Texas museums. I learned how my favorite animals were connected with other species, predator and prey. I learned about plant succession, symbiosis, food webs and the like, as we spent time in the field, patient teacher and eager learners like me, eyes opening to layer upon layer of the lives of forests and prairies, worlds within worlds.
It was as if my mentors and my experience in the field revealed a real and beautiful world to me. I waded in clear streams running along rocky bluffs, where map turtles basked on limestone boulders and little aquatic predatory larvae would transform into beautiful dragonflies soaring on cellophane wings. I learned about tallgrass prairies teeming with diverse plants and animals, adapted so that they required periodic fires and occasional grazing by bison in order to keep on being prairies and not be overrun by shrubs and trees. This seems to me to be the “real” world, while urban landscapes of steel and concrete are an alternate reality in which I may have to spend time, but never quite feel at home.
are more likely than most people to understand this “real” world and find
beauty in some things that others would overlook, or maybe be repulsed by.
Flipping tin to find snakes in the cool of the morning, we might think about
how ingeniously an ectothermic animal can make use of its surroundings to get
to the right temperature. The sun heats those sheets of corrugated tin and
might help get that racer up to speed and ready for a day of chasing down prey.
We could find a red-spotted gartersnake in Oregon and imagine the long-running
arms race these snakes have had with rough-skinned newts. The newts’ skin produces
a neurotoxin that is fatal to many animals and there is even a human fatality,
someone who is said to have swallowed the newt on a dare. That toxin that the
newt secretes from skin glands, tetrodotoxin, protects the newt from most
predators, but not from the red-spotted gartersnake. Perhaps early on the
tetrodotoxin killed some of the gartersnakes, but some with greater tolerance
for the poison survived. This new generation of snakes was more able to eat
most of the newts, but populations with stronger toxins were still protected,
and passed along their genes for more powerful secretions. And so it
progressed, with newts developing stronger toxin, followed by gartersnakes
developing greater resistance. Stories like this teach us so much about
predation, evolution, and survival. They continue to hook some of us into a
greater fascination and love for the natural world.
And so we go on hikes to look for reptiles and amphibians, and in the process may learn more about the living world around us. Successful searches depend on our understanding a few things about habitat, and we learn more about how an upland oak forest is different from a bottomland forest with its periodic flooding and rich soil. Finding herps depends on understanding a bit of their natural history, and so we learn to look in places favorable for shelter and prey, and we discover how a species’ activity can shift from daytime in the cooler spring and fall months to nighttime in the hot summer. Somewhere along the way, the natural world (which can seem foreign and exotic to some people) comes to feel like home.
That home is shrinking. What used to be a continuous mural of forests, plains, mountains, and deserts across the continent has been clipped into fragments and marked over until it is now a series of portraits and thumbnail images of what once was. A report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) says:
“Compared to pre- European settlement status, over 95 per cent of the tall grass prairie grasslands in North America … have been transformed into human-dominated landscapes. … over 50 percent of all wetlands in the United States have been lost since European settlement, with up to 90 per cent lost in agricultural regions.” (IPBES, p. 27)
Focusing in on herps in particular, the situation is very concerning. Amphibians are in decline globally, and similar declines in reptiles have been discussed for going on two decades (Gibbons, et al., 2000). Habitat loss and fragmentation, toxic pollution, invasive species, climate change, diseases, unsustainable use by humans, all these things are threatening herps and other species.
To borrow a movie (or book)
metaphor, it’s like The Neverending Story, in which a young boy reads a book telling
about a fantastic world that is being consumed by the “Nothing,” gradually
disappearing, bit by bit. Like in our world, where forests are cut, grasslands
ploughed, and the animals disappear along with the land. As Bastian reads, he
gradually discovers that by reading the book, he has entered the story, and has
become a character in it. And by going into the field, we have entered the
story, and we are a part of whatever happens to wild places and wildlife. What
can we do to fight the Nothing?
Among the things we can do
is to keep the remaining wild places as healthy as possible. This is important
not only in tracts of wilderness, but also in small local preserves. For
example, in a woodland we know that some herp species might be sheltering under
big loose sections of bark on dead trees. The easiest way to search would be to
pull those sections of bark off, but that would destroy a bit of microhabitat
that was used by lizards, snakes, and other animals. Once the bark is pulled
off, it cannot be put back. So maybe
it’s a big woods with a number of other dead trees, and it might seem like
we’re just doing something that is going to happen anyway, eventually as the
wood decays. But we probably don’t find what we’re looking for under the bark
of that first dead tree, so maybe we go on to the next one and peel the bark
off of it. Soon, we have done a lot of damage.
I would rather carry a small flashlight in the field and shine it into
such places, so I can see what is there without destroying the places where
these animals live.
“Rock-flipping” is a
time-honored, though back-breaking field herping practice. Big, flat rocks with
just the right amount of gap under them can be great places for herps to
shelter. The environment under them can be just right – they may gather the
radiant heat of the sun when needed but insulate against severe heat, and the
humidity will be a little higher than in exposed places. The easy way to flip a
rock is to simply turn it over and leave it there, but that destroys the “just
right” conditions under the rock. I am so thankful for those herpers to go out
of their way to re-position the rocks just like they were. Researchers
in Australia looked at whether herps used rocks that were left out of place and
found that they did not. A rock that had been carefully put back in its
original position was much more likely to be used by lizards and snakes. They
also found that the temperature and humidity were different under rocks that
had been moved by humans. A field of rocks that have been turned over and left
is the herp equivalent of a place that has been invaded by the Nothing.
Diseases are significant threats to
wildlife. Many of the well-known threats are fungal, like white-nose syndrome
that has killed millions of bats. More recently, snake fungal disease has
emerged as a significant disease in wild snakes, causing fungal lesions of the
skin and mouth. One of the biggest culprits in world-wide amphibian die-offs
are a couple of species of chytrid fungus. They attack the delicate skin of
frogs and salamanders, thickening the skin and harming its ability to exchange
gases and water. Field researchers working with amphibians have adopted protocols
to make sure they do not spread any such fungus, and we should consider some of
the same measures. We might, for example disinfect nets and other equipment as
well as the parts of boots that have gathered mud, before visiting a different
location. Bleach solutions work well for this.
You explore a hillside all
afternoon, being careful to pull rocks up just enough to look underneath, and
then put them back just like you found them. Under one of those rocks, you find
the most magnificent kingsnake! Its scales are a beautiful, glossy black, each
one with a little dab of canary yellow, speckled from head to tail. Do you pick
it up? Just take a photograph, or stare in quiet admiration? Or do you take it
home? Unlike birders, herpers get to pick up and hold many of their finds. In
many cases, perhaps with a hunting license or other permit, we can take
reptiles and amphibians home to keep in cages or terraria. Whether that is a
good thing is a long and complicated argument.
First, let me tell you about my
experience over the years. When I got started, I collected most of the reptiles
that I found. My parents accepted my hobby and helped me build cages, and I
brought home coachwhips, ratsnakes, box turtles, the occasional snapping
turtle, and others. Chances are, I did little harm to most of the populations –
I was just another predator, a two-legged boy taking a ribbonsnake rather than
a two-legged heron stabbing the snake with its long bill. Predation is a fact
of life for wild animals, and unless the predation is too high, the population
withstands it. (By the way, it is worth noting that collection by herpers is
just like being captured and eaten by a raccoon or hawk or other animal – the
herp is dead as far as the population is concerned.)
When increasing numbers of
collectors work over a small area, the losses can drive populations down in
that place. This is especially true for turtles, which mature slowly and live
long lives. A female turtle has to lay lots of clutches of eggs over her long
lifetime, because many eggs and young are killed and eaten, and only a few make
it to adulthood. This makes every adult box turtle or snapping turtle very
valuable. They have to stick around for a long time in order to contribute to
the population. Removing a box turtle takes away many years of reproductive
potential from the population. Being run over on the highways is a big threat
to turtle populations, but collection can harm them, too. In Connecticut, wood
turtles were studied both before and after an area was opened to hiking by
permit. The population of turtles was gone in ten years, likely because of
people who meant no real harm collecting them and taking them home (Internet:
Vermont Fish & Wildlife Dept.).
Over the years, I collected fewer
herps. This was partly because a large collection of reptiles demands a lot of
time and work if you care for them properly. It was also because I noticed that
a velvety-black coachwhip cruising gracefully through grassland and scrub loses
a lot of its magic once it is at home, in a box. As I came to appreciate them
more, I didn’t want to see them confined in a tiny area from which they would
gladly escape if they could (and on occasion they did). I learned more by just
watching, about how they moved and hunted when undisturbed. I remember watching
a watersnake periscope up and look around, and then take a leisurely swim
across the creek. I watched a racerunner lizard nervously make its way across
sand and grass with quick, jerky movements as if barely restraining its energy.
It grabbed an invertebrate to munch it down, and turned this way and that to
look for prey and watch for predators. More and more, these moments seemed more
valuable to me than chasing the herp down (maybe breaking the lizard’s tail in
the process) to collect it.
I don’t want you to think that I am
a purist who never captures anything. If it can be done without harming the
animal, I may capture it briefly and pose it for a photograph. I also think
that some collection of herps for scientific collections is justified – those
collections have increased our understanding of these animals greatly, and we
need scientific collections. But I found that I did not need much of a personal
What would I do with extra
animals kept at home, ones that I didn’t want to keep? I couldn’t (or shouldn’t
have) let them go, for several reasons. First, of course, I would never release
anything that was exotic. Quite often, something that isn’t adapted to the area
will simply die, but if it doesn’t, it can become quite a problem. I’d learned
about invasive exotic species, starting with the story of the cane toad,
introduced into Australia to control the cane beetle. Apparently the toad did
not help with that beetle, but it did eat lots of other things, adding extra
pressure on native wildlife. The toad’s toxic secretions were also a problem
for wildlife species that attempted to eat it, further harming local wildlife.
There are plenty of other stories of exotic wildlife that have gotten loose or
been released, such as in Florida.
Thinking about the problems
with spreading diseased like chytrid or snake fungal disease, I would not want
to release a native animal, either. Being collected is a source of stress, and
even if my local ratsnake was feeding and acting healthy, I cannot be sure if
that snake might be harboring some pathogen that got established because stress
can compromise the immune system. With weakened immune functioning,
microorganisms that had been present at low levels might now flourish, and my
ratsnake might pick up new pathogens while in my collection, because I did not
practice hospital-level infection control when taking care of that collection.
And even if the animal is
native and could be proven to have no disease that it could spread, there’s one
more problem. Out in the wild, as they grow and move around in their habitat,
herps generally stay within an area referred to as the “home range.” They get
to know the landmarks and resources of an area and generally stay within that
home range. The size of the home range varies a great deal across different
species and to some extent for different individuals. A home range might be
bigger for larger, active animals and when the resources are limited, forcing
the animal to move over a larger area to find what they need. When we capture a
reptile and later release it somewhere else, trouble often follows. The animal
may not settle down, continuing to search for “home” and having a greater
chance of being killed. This problem has been studied, and the results are
often similar. Plummer and Mills (2000) radio-tracked eight resident eastern
hog-nosed snakes and eight that were translocated. The resident snakes moved
about within their home ranges but the ones that had been moved traveled more,
often in straight line movements, and were three times more likely to die
during the study. Nowak & van Riper (1999) translocated western
diamond-backed rattlesnakes in Arizona and found that the translocated snakes
moved greater distances, and some found their way back to their original home
range while others experienced greater mortality. Overall similar results have
been seen with box turtles (for example, Cook, 2004; Sosa & Perry, 2015):
when moved out of their home range, adults often move greater distances, may
not stay in the area to which they have been moved, and may have greater
There have been a few successes when translocating herps, but overall the news has not been very good. Sometimes moving an animal is justified. When a herp is found in some high-traffic, developed location where it will be killed or be unable to find food and shelter, then moving it to the closest available place with suitable habitat may be the best we can do. Otherwise, moving the animal just because we think we know where it would live a better life, or in an attempt to re-establish it in some place where that species has disappeared, is really not a good idea.
So I guess that over the years I have learned a lot of “don’t do this” stuff. But you know what? It’s really stuff that lets me do what I love in a way that helps me protect the places and animals I love. Think of them as ways to fight “the Nothing” while still having a great time exploring forests, wetlands, and deserts, and seeing amazing animals.
Nowak, E.M., & C. van Riper. 1999. Effects and
Effectiveness of Rattlesnake Relocation at Montezuma Castle National Monument.
Flagstaff, AZ: USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center Technical
Pike, D.A., Croak, B.M.,
Webb, J.K., and R. Shine. 2010. Subtle
– but easily reversible – anthropogenic disturbance seriously degrades habitat
quality for rock-dwelling reptiles. Animal Conservation, Vol. 13, Pp. 411-418.
Plummer, M.V., & N.E. Mills. 2000. Spatial Ecology and Survivorship of Resident and
Translocated Hognose Snakes (Heterodon
platirhinos). Journal of Herpetology, Vol. 34, No. 4, Pp. 565-575.
J.A., & G. Perry. 2015. Site Fidelity, Movement, and Visibility Following
Translocation of Ornate Box Turtles (Terrapene
ornata ornata) From a Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in the High Plains of
Texas. Herpetological Conservation & Biology, Vol. 10 No. 1, Pp. 255-262.
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost, That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly, wash again and ever again this soiled world. — Walt Whitman
Caddo Lake is a big, relatively shallow body of water on the Texas-Louisiana border. Its backwaters are a maze of waterways tracing through big stands of cypress and water tupelo, trees whose trunks broaden at the base and are draped in the bromeliad that is referred to as “Spanish moss.” Just south of the lake, on the Texas side, is a mixed pine and hardwood forest that is set aside as the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. But its history involves much more than a quiet pine forest with the calls of birds in the tree tops. It is a place where the forest is gradually recovering from a time when a workshop of war was built among the trees.
In the war years of the last century, the Army acquired 8,493 acres south of the lake, and in 1942, the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant began making the explosive TNT. During the 1950’s the plant made rocket motors and incendiary bombs, and this continued during the Viet Nam war. In 1988 it was the site where some U.S. missiles were destroyed as part of the INS treaty, beginning to de-escalate the arms race with Russia. Finally, in 1997 the Army indicated that the plant was no longer needed, and the land was transferred to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service the next year. Some places where the worst pollution had occurred were designated Superfund sites by EPA, and efforts were made to remove toxic chemicals. And so, we are really only about twenty years out from the time when concrete buildings scattered through the woods gave birth to bombs and rocket propellant.
Clint and I first visited the refuge in
2011, during a terrible drought. It was very surreal to walk along the
partially overgrown paved lanes through the forest, running across a big open
expanse of concrete where some building appeared to have been razed, and then
find a small concrete shell of a building, or maybe a series of upright walls.
Walking through beautiful pines and sweetgum trees, we would emerge on yet
another tombstone from the war effort – sometimes they were concrete pillars
that would have held some tank full of who knows what, or a hollow bunker where
a couple of bats roosted. And some areas had a vague pesticide smell, places
behind a fence with a sign that said, “restricted area.”
Yesterday, Kelby Dupriest and I visited
the place again, a road trip for a restorative walk in the woods. Caddo was the
best of our regional options, with less chance of rain and more moderate
temperatures, and the wildlife refuge is certainly an interesting place. I have
seen it as a place struggling to hold on to its integrity as a beautiful upland
forest and stately cypress wetland. It seemed to me to be a place out of the
Twilight Zone: “Picture, if you will, a quiet southern forest, but a forest
that hides secrets.” The wind sighing through pine trees, the soft carpet of
pine needles, and the ferns and mosses, all make the sudden appearance of
concrete skeletons from a bomb factory all the more jarring. These structures
do not look like they housed the precise and efficient mechanisms of 20th
century technology; they look crude and rough, like something shamefully hidden
away in the woods.
Walking through the winter woods with
Kelby, I also remembered that the scars from the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant
should not blind me to the beauty of the place. There were signs that spring
will soon return to this forest. Trees are starting to bud, and in places there
were clusters of white blossoms. On the thick branches of a big oak, mosses and
ferns grew in a little garden where rain and fog and humidity make it possible for
them to survive, their roots digging into the tree bark. Life goes on, and
because of it, things begin to heal. Despite the things that we may do, this
earth is determined to create and sustain life, and to return things to the way
they work best, as soil and water, lichens, plants, and animals.
Maybe this time the walk was a little more hopeful.
The damage was done, and the place isn’t yet healed, but the forest is
gradually reclaiming the concrete and the fallen apparatus of war production.
Mosses and plants take hold and begin to break it down, and even the poisons
might one day be converted and filtered away. A garden is growing where the
work of war was once done. Think of it as a place where, year by year and inch
by inch, life has the last word. I don’t know how long the forest’s full
redemption will require, but someday it will come.
Our Relationships With the Earth, and the Wisdom in “Braiding Sweetgrass”
We live by certain rules. They may or may not be written down somewhere, but by observing what we do, we can see the priorities and patterns in our actions. These are the rules or principles that govern our lives. It seems to me that, across most major countries of the world today, the governing principles are to make as much money as you can, and fight against anything that could limit how much you can make. In order to do that, the harvesting, mining, and extraction of “stuff” in order to make money must continue and even accelerate, if possible. Everything else is secondary to those rules.
People may say that they follow different principles. Many of the world’s faith traditions, and many of the ways we like to talk about ourselves, emphasize caring for others, caring for creation (or at least enjoying nature), and sharing what we have. But I am not talking about what we say, but rather observing what we do. With some important exceptions, what most of us do seems to conform pretty well to the rules mentioned above.
What’s wrong with that? We are taught that economies must grow, and if they do not grow they will stagnate and fail, and so we must feed the machine at a faster and faster rate in order to be productive. It is as if we have to break up all the furniture in the house to keep the fireplace roaring, as if the furniture would never run out and there would be more and more tables and chairs to break apart and feed the fire. We have been living in a very big house, but sooner or later we will run out of fuel for the fire.
From the first century, when the world population may have been between 150 million and 330 million (World Population Estimates, Wikipedia), the human population has grown to a mind-boggling 7.7 billion people (Worldometers), practically covering the continents in an endless hive. All of those people deserve a good life, but only a minority will have one that is materially secure. Too many will be hungry, homeless, sick, or preyed upon by others. However, all of them – anyone with so much as a pocketful of change – is a consumer. And with the majority of the planet trying to make the most money by selling the maximum amount of stuff to those 7.7 billion people, we are stripping and poisoning the earth, the garden that many believe we were put here to steward.
That’s an old-fashioned term, “steward,” meaning to manage and look after something that is not ours. What if we thought of the earth as something that we don’t own, but that we had the responsibility to care for? The alternative view is that we own it. Ownership is a completely one-way relationship – the thing we own is there to please us, we don’t have any obligation to it. We can use it, sell it, destroy it, and that is perfectly fine in an “I own it” relationship. If we are stewards, the relationship is very different. We are put in charge of something that is not ours, so we must take care to use it wisely, so that it is not harmed. But that places some constraints on our own behavior; we cannot sell it and we cannot strip all the value out of it for ourselves. Stewardship is not a relationship that works for those who are driven to create wealth regardless of the cost. It is not a business plan for the mega-rich.
When the population of the earth was counted in the millions, humans could ignore the idea of stewardship and the earth only suffered in a few places. Over the centuries, more people meant more impact as we went about the business of each obtaining as much power and wealth as possible. There are billions more of us, and we need that much more of everything. Our roads penetrate most of the land area of the planet, and our mines, factories, and agricultural fields cover vastly more of the planet than in the past.
The consequences of our continually growing population and our drive for endless economic growth are all around us. A recent paper in the journal Sciencepredicts the collapse of all fisheries by 2050 because of the loss of marine biodiversity. In various places across the globe, loss of insect populations is causing alarm, as reported recently in Scientific American. Perhaps it is easy for some people to dismiss the loss of pollinators as some sort of inconvenience to gardeners, but insects are incredibly important. Not only do they pollinate our crops, allowing us to be fed, they help break down dead things so that we do not live in a rotting graveyard. Insects are a fundamentally important part of most food chains, so that the loss of insects would bring about the collapse of a wide variety of insect-eaters, leading to the collapse of other wildlife that depend on those insectivores. The oncoming effects of human-induced climate change are in the news everywhere: heat waves killing people, sea levels rising and threatening coastal communities, loss of species that cannot adapt to a rapidly changing climate, and on and on. We are losing all kinds of wildlife species, leading some to speak of our causing a sixth global catastrophic loss of species.
Because large ecosystems can absorb little disturbances pretty well, we have believed that the earth is too big for us to harm. Years ago I had a climate-denying friend who argued that we were too small to change the atmosphere, that it was arrogance to think we could change the climate. That point of view comes from the time when we were a younger species, far below the 7.7 billion that we now number. But we are beginning to overwhelm the only livable place we know in the universe. There’s no place else to go.
I do not have practical answers. Like so many others, I contribute to the problem; I drive a car, use air conditioning, and so on. As the clock nears midnight, I don’t know how, or if, these problems will be solved, but I know it is wrong to give up, to surrender to the trap we have caught ourselves in. And since we got into this mess through a particular kind of relationship to nature, we should explore other possibilities.
There are other ways of being in a relationship with nature, other than by owning it, selling it, stripping it of valuable materials. It is possible to see it as a garden to tend with care, as in parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we truly lived in that relationship, we might not turn the garden into a wasteland, but we would still be separate from the garden, benevolent but not really a part of it. There is also the possibility of placing ourselves within nature, as part of it, one of many lives that work together in partnership. Among the traditions and belief systems that see our lives and the lives of plants and animals as part of the same cloth are those of some Native American cultures. I am no expert on these cultures, but I can recommend a brilliant, lyrical, and wise book written by someone with one foot in the scientific tradition and one foot in the Potawatomi Nation of indigenous Americans. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. Among her books is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.
Throughout the book, Kimmerer tells us the indigenous stories that create a relationship with nature consisting of reciprocity and gratitude, starting with the creation myth in which Sky Woman falls to the earth and is rescued by the animals. Together, each bringing their own gifts, Sky Woman, birds, an otter, and a great turtle create the world – Turtle Island. It is a shared effort, and the world would be incomplete without the contributions of every species. There is also the Windigo myth that warns about how unbridled appetite can separate us from all that we love and consign us to an existence of eternally consuming and never being satisfied. Sound familiar?
Importantly, stories of the natural history of trees and other plants are interwoven throughout the book, clear and lucid portraits of sweetgrass, maple, as well as animals such as mink or salmon. These are not simply scientific profiles (though her training as a scientist means that we learn many things about the biology of these species). She places us there in the field beside her, helping us appreciate small observations like raindrops in moss for their incredible beauty, and also the big, grand pictures of forests and coastlines. And along with that, she weaves Native American ways of being in relationship with nature into her narrative. Like braiding sweetgrass, she braids field observation, culture, and philosophy into a beautiful narrative.
It is important to understand that the book is not selling some indigenous religion in which we are to believe certain propositions in order to receive something (not that I think that any Native American religions work that way). Instead, what is described are ways of seeing the world and being in the world, marked by respect, gratitude, and reciprocity. How different those are from the ways our societies treat the earth now! Everything embodied in this book feels like a satisfying way to live life, a way to escape the insatiable greed of Windigo. The book is not a “fix” for the ecological problems we face, but it sure seems like a good, healthy foundation from which we might search for solutions.
A final note: get it in audiobook form – Kimmerer’s voice is perfect, like sitting comfortably by the fire, listening to a story told with compassion, friendly good humor, and wisdom.
I was lucky to visit Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge on the last day of the year. The weather was wonderful and the refuge is like home. We go back a long time, at least fifty-three years.
I started off by climbing up part of the Canyon Ridge Trail, up to the top of the ridge. The last 20 feet or so are a climb on stone steps, and suddenly the trail opens up in an area of live oak and yucca. And right there, to your left, is the Lone Point Shelter, a Civilian Conservation Corps structure built in the 1930s. The roof is gone, but there is a nice rock bench on each side to sit and look out over the lake. I took some notes and set my thermometer out – it registered 61 degrees F.
Walking down the trail from there, I could have imagined being transported to somewhere on the Edwards Plateau; at least the live oak, juniper and yucca in a grassy savannah reminded me of central Texas. As I returned on this trail, I took a photo of another CCC structure. It’s really just a fancy stone outhouse, but it’s interesting and historical nonetheless.
At the base of one of the oak trees I found a big patch of moss, vibrant green from the rain last night. Spending a few moments, very close, losing oneself in the tiny forest of moss leaves, will wipe away some of your troubles – try it!
I followed the trail back down the ridge, noting that my sense of balance on narrow trails with steep drop-offs is not what it once was. However, I distracted myself by noticing some little sprigs of oak leaves that still have their fall color. They are tattered but still pretty.
My next stop was Greer Island. It was the first piece of land designated as a nature center, the little seed from which all 3500+ acres sprang. I walked the causeway to the island, remembering that when I was a kid, people drove down that causeway and parked on the island. I guess we’ve grown a little in our willingness to walk, thank goodness!
A number of trails crisscross the island, and I walked the Audubon Trail around part of it. Sitting on a bench beside the water, the temperature on my thermometer was 63 degrees F. I had spooked some mallards, and near the bench were more ducks or perhaps coots making their throaty whistles and muttering. They were completely hidden by a wall of reeds. A little later, I cut back across a little pocket prairie (so small that it might be called a “thimble” prairie!) and through the woods back to the causeway.
I’m grateful that this place is still there, still taken care of by Nature Center staff like the treasure that it is. It was a great way to spend part of the last day of 2018.
You remember last month, I posted an account of a trip taken by Viviana Ricardez and me to Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area (“Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek”). I’m happy to say that Viviana will join us as a contributor, and she will have lots to contribute! She speaks for turtles, sort of like the Lorax speaks for trees (for those of you who have read The Lorax – and if you haven’t, why not?).
Viviana speaks for turtles, and more than that. She is a dedicated supporter of the wonderful group of kids in the Spring Lake Adventure Club – which she’ll tell you about – and of other herp nerds and turtle folk who belong to that branch of the naturalist clan. Stay tuned!
It was sunny all day, with barely a wisp of clouds and little breeze. Weather Underground reports that it reached 68F in Arlington today; I did not have a thermometer at the preserve but it’s safe to say that it reached the mid-60’s.
I haven’t written a lot about Southwest Nature Preserve lately, but it is one of my two “homes away from home.” It is a surprising and fortunate thing that these 58 acres of Eastern Cross Timbers habitat have been saved, right here in the metroplex. The rocky hillsides with Woodbine Formation sandstone and blackjack and post oak woods mixed with juniper are prime examples of the Eastern Cross Timbers. The little “pocket prairies” of little bluestem and other native grasses fit right in. There are lots of other little treasures and surprises among the plants: Glen Rose yucca, false indigo, and farkleberry can be found there. And a meadow dominated by yucca, Texas bull nettle, and other plants has the deep sand needed for the Comanche harvester ant to have multiple colonies. Four ponds provide a home for what seems to me like a great diversity of dragonflies and damselflies. The ponds also support cricket frogs, leopard frogs, some watersnakes, and an assortment of sliders and cooters, which are a source of delight for herpers like me.
There is something to delight the soul of a naturalist all the year round, and I never regret a single walk there, even after what I’m sure are hundreds of times I’ve walked up to the ridge on “Kennedale Mountain,” visited the ponds, and passed through the little prairies. I was there yesterday at sunset to mark the winter solstice and returned today to enjoy the first afternoon of winter there.
The red-eared sliders were sunning at the ponds, one with the characteristic yellow and green pattern and red patches on the head, and at least one that was an old melanistic male.
Two turtles at the north pond
Some insects are hiding and dormant, others may have died with the brief spells of freezing we had a while back. Others were out and about, winter or not. A dragonfly skipped around and landed in front of me, bringing a particular bit of scarlet magic to the hillside.
Among the leftovers from the fall were a few clusters of oak leaves holding on to red color, and in places the sunlight shining through them was like flame on the woodland floor. The little bluestem still have seeds clinging to the stems, catching the sunlight as if the tiniest white birds had brushed against them and left little white feathers there.
A cluster of red post oak leaves
The north end of the preserve has its share of honey locust trees with clusters of long thorns, each with a cross piece of two additional thorns. Their seed pods are long and flat and are often twisted. One tree still held several of these pods.
Honey locust seed pods
One additional treat waited at the pond at the southwest corner of the preserve, where a boardwalk skirts one edge of it and extends out over the water for fishing. A great egret was looking for something to eat, but straightened and watched me carefully. Despite my slow approach, the bird would not stay, and I was able to take a couple of photos as it flew away.
It was a good start to a winter that I hope provides lots of opportunities for visiting all the preserves and natural places in north Texas.
I talked about hibernation today with a small group at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I love doing anything that may connect people to the natural world to a greater extent, either through knowledge, discovery, or “losing” oneself in a place of peace and beauty. Maybe we did a little of all that today, at least I hope so.
It’s fun to consider “where do they go when winter comes?” It’s fascinating to talk about what it really means to be “cold-blooded” and think about the different strategies herps use to protect themselves from excessive cold. And then it was time to go for a walk, in bright sunshine and temperatures that climbed into the low 60’s.
West Fork Trinity River
We walked the Crosstimbers trail, starting along the banks of the West Fork Trinity River and then bending to the west and into Cross Timbers woodland, dropping into a bottomland forest along a slough. The river usually provides some wintertime sightings of sliders or cooters, and sure enough, pulled out on a tree branch that had fallen into the water were a red-eared slider and a river cooter. Both turtles have somewhat similar overall forms. Among the differences, one of the easiest to spot is the red patch toward the back of the head of the red-eared slider, which river cooters do not have. However, some red-ears, like the one we saw today, are old dark melanistic males.
In the woods, we talked about possible wintertime shelters for the western ratsnakes, five-lined skinks, and other herps that live in the Cross Timbers. The downed trees or standing dead trees may have cavities that stay above freezing, and burrows beneath the leaves and soil can protect from freezing.
We also discussed salamanders, and the small-mouthed salamander that used to be seen more often in our area. Why wouldn’t we find them now, when late fall and winter in flooded bottomlands is when and where you would expect them? The refuge has some wonderful bottomland habitat, as well as patches of prairie with small ponds. And yet, there don’t seem to be any records in recent years of small-mouthed (or other) salamanders at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge.
Leaves beneath the water, overlaid by reflections of trees
The entry about the small-mouthed salamander in James Petranka’s Salamanders of the United States and Canadaindicates that breeding takes place after rains between January and February at about our latitude, and that they favor completely fish-less pools and ditches for breeding (since fish readily eat the larvae). More than some other mole salamanders, these can make use of very shallow pools, sometimes with depths no more than a few centimeters. In the section about conservation, he mentions loss of bottomland habitat as a threat.
So maybe this is the winter to pay more attention to possible salamanders in this part of north Texas. We had a very wet fall and we continue to have some rainfall, and so perhaps we will find one, or discover developing larvae in some ephemeral pool, sometime between February and May. It would sure be fun to go looking!
Small-mouthed salamander, seen in another place, at another time
You may recall that Clint and I visited the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area last spring (Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands) and had all good intentions of returning to this Anderson County location during the summer. After all, it is a place with velvety-black eastern coachwhips, the occasional box turtle, plenty of five-lined skinks, and it has its share of copperheads and cottonmouths. What could be better? However, I missed traveling to this spot except for a brief visit with Carl Franklin on September 29 where we were able to photograph a very nice cottonmouth.
Now that winter is approaching, we have had some cold weather, and the leaves are dropping from the trees in the bottomlands at Gus Engeling, my thoughts turn to salamanders. And so yesterday, Viviana Ricardez and I rolled the dice (and a few logs) to see if we might spot a salamander or two.
A flooded patch of bottomland at Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area
According to the Texas Amphibians field guide (Tipton, et al., 2012), The western part of Anderson County should be within the range of the small-mouthed salamander, the eastern tiger salamander, and the dwarf salamander, and we’d be within rock-throwing range of at least one more, the marbled salamander. Because of the extraordinarily wet autumn this season (you may recall the record rainfall and flooding in north and central Texas within the past two months), it seemed possible that some salamander breeding might already have taken place and there could be larvae in some of the pools. Low places that temporarily fill with water are great for amphibian breeding because they don’t have fish that would eat the eggs and larvae. In any case, a visit to this patch of the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion on a fine late autumn day seemed like a great idea.
Viviana is a veteran of lots of turtle field work, though she is ready to see any herp species that come her way. She told me of a trip to Pennsylvania during which she saw several salamander species, including our biggest, baddest, most wonderful salamander, the hellbender. We could not possibly top that on this walk, but we would have fun seeing what we could find.
A tiny crayfish from our net
We sampled several pools, pulling a dip net across the bottom and investigating the leaves, twigs, and whatever critters it might catch. Larval salamanders would look a little like tadpoles, but longer and with a feathery frill of external gills behind the head. Late in their development they would have the four small legs typical of the salamanders of the genera Ambystoma (small-mouthed and tiger salamanders as well as others) or Eurycea (including the dwarf salamander). Instead, what we found in the dip net included a few freshwater shrimp a some tiny juvenile crayfish.
We also visited some upland areas, and one beautiful pond that, as Viviana pointed out, had few snags for turtles to pull out on and bask. Otherwise, it was a delightful spot that should harbor all kinds of herps. I won’t say that Viviana is single-minded in her devotion to turtles, but if she was a character in Game of Thrones, she would be known as the Mother of Turtles. In fact, some do call her that!
We walked through a patch of cut and burned land that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is attempting to restore to the savannah that was once typical in this part of Texas. Some native grasses are attempting to come back, although the shrubby growth that swallows up parts of the WMA are trying their best to reclaim this spot. Before this part of Texas was tamed, periodic fires helped keep the woody plants down and helped grasses dominate the spaces between the trees. Small, prescribed fires are the best friend this patch of habitat could have.
Returning grassland, with the forest edge in the background
We returned to the bottomlands, and as we walked the sand and clay road toward a tributary of Catfish Creek, there was Old Man Turtle, to greet Viviana. The old man was a red-eared slider, with the typical pattern of greens and yellows now gone and replaced by dark pigment. Old male sliders often become melanistic in this way, with the carapace (upper shell) a sort of charcoal or vaguely olive-gray color with black borders of the scutes of the carapace. The head, neck, and limbs similarly darken, with the thin green lines breaking up into dots and dashes of darker and lighter gray or olive.
The Old Man – a melanistic male red-eared slider
Viviana, of course, spotted him first, and she picked him up to examine the details of his shell and pattern. There was a notch, an old injury, on his marginals just a little to the right of center near his neck. There were subtle but lovely shades of yellow darkening to gray on his forelimbs and parts of the shell.
His response might have been, “Good day, Khaleesi – to what do I owe the honor of your examining me?” Truly, you would think that this would be the only fitting response to Viviana’s joy and respect when she handles any of these turtles. However, he was not thrilled with being interrupted in his walk to the nearby creek tributary, and his opened mouth was not exactly a grin.
An exchange of gestures
After a series of photos of this delightful old turtle, we let him finish his trek across the road, plunging into the creek and immediately vanishing into the dark water. We were grateful to make his acquaintance, and happy to see him return to his watery domain as a free turtle.
We did not find salamanders, but we got to walk through some wonderful autumn woodlands and savannah, and meet Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek!
Two years ago I took a co-worker, her daughter Embry, and Embry’s friend Maddy on a walk through the bottomland forests at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. We had fun and some good discussion about the things that live in the forest. Here are my notes:
We had barely started our walk down the old trail down through the bottomland forest when the girls froze in surprise and fascination. Ahead of us, a whitetail buck stared back at us, his head up and alert and ready to bolt away through the quiet woods. After a moment, he turned and disappeared behind a ridge, leaving Embry and Maddy fumbling for cameras. We walked toward where he disappeared, with as much stealth as we could, and peered around the ridge, but the deer had gone. These moments, even with a common animal like this, are magical and evanescent; one moment he is present, with his black, shining nose, dark eyes, and rack of antlers, and the next moment he has vanished.
Embry and Maddy
We walked further down the wide track that cuts through the cottonwoods, burr oak, beech, and bois d’arc in this bottomland near a marsh within the refuge. Despite the abnormally warm autumn, many of the leaves were yellowing and some were falling, evidence that the trees knew the significance of the shorter days despite the warmth. Embry and Maddy, alert to every movement in the sedges and leaves, spotted wolf spiders and one that might have been a rather dull six-spotted fishing spider (my spider identification skills were not up to the task). I reassured them that these spiders held no danger and were trying to get out of our way. This was an odd role for me – if I ran into a web with one of the big orb-weaving spiders, I’m sure I would freak out as much as they would. The experience of having a spider on me overwhelms any objective knowledge of their benefits and general harmlessness.
At the edge of the path, I turned a section of fallen log and at one end, head tucked a little beneath an elm leaf, was a southern leopard frog. Its color was dark, with the spots practically obscured along its three to four-inch body. When more alert, they are often brighter and some have areas of pretty green color. At night, they snap up a great many insects, and jump away in long leaps if disturbed. Embry stepped in for a closer photo, positioning her phone over the frog to take a shot. Then I reached down, hoping to capture the frog for a moment and show its bright eyes and powerful legs, but at that moment it made its getaway.
At some point we came to a pool of water, four or five feet across, with tiny disturbances in the surface of the water here and there. What could this be? We talked about how bottomland forests flood from time to time, and the rain-swollen river and marsh stretch out to cover the ground where we stood. The flood waters carry fish along, and when the waters subside, smaller fish may be trapped in pools like this. A couple of dozen mosquitofish swam among the leaves and along the surface of the water, creating little disturbances when they suddenly turned or darted away. The girls showed a slight revulsion when I mentioned “mosquitofish,” until I explained that they were small fish that ate mosquito larvae. Embry was determined to catch one, circling around and trying to ambush one. Her mom commented, “You won’t catch it,” correctly judging that human hands are not effective tools for catching such a lightning-fast little fish. Nevertheless, it was delightful to watch Embry spot one and then another of these fish and make a quick grab into the water. Her enthusiasm made this common little fish new and exciting.
Isn’t this one of the things we treasure about children? I might have walked past this pool and noted that there were mosquitofish in it, with little reaction. Thanks to Maddy and Embry, I remembered what it is like to want to see them close up, and try my hand at grabbing one, in the process learning a great deal about how fast fins can propel streamlined bodies through the water. I once again see the crosshatched pattern of fish scales on a partly translucent body, and the iridescent blue that these fish show in the right light. I promised myself to bring a dip net on the next walk through the bottomlands.
They taught us the same lesson regarding the lowly bois d’arc tree, also known as the Osage orange or “horse apple” tree. They are medium-sized, somewhat thorny trees that grow well in deep, moist bottomland soil. The iron-tough wood was prized by Native Americans for making bows (thus the French “bois d’arc” or “bow-wood”). And, as most kids used to know when we spent more time in the woods, they produce a green, wrinkled fruit that roughly resembles a green orange or maybe a bumpy green apple. Just the right size for throwing, but completely unsuitable for eating. They are a fibrous, spherical collection of seeds that oozes a milky substance if cut. But the girls knew another thing that you could do with these horse apples. They could be kicked like soccer balls!
And so, there was an impromptu soccer game in the woods, with Maddy crowding Embry out to move the ball to the goal (under the fallen log over there), and Embry giving one a little side-kick to position it for the goal shot. Horse apples rolled over a layer of leaves, between downed logs, and past stately cottonwoods and oaks. It was great!
We also encountered several places where feral hogs had rooted the ground up to find things to eat, and we talked about how these animals didn’t really belong here but a few might do only minimal harm. Turning the soil might even be seen as a plus, but these hogs reproduce quickly and there is little to hold their population in check. Large groups simply tear up habitat and eat everything in sight, and a sow, surprised with her piglets, can be quite dangerous. So can any hog in close quarters, so we would certainly not want to approach them if we saw any.
Cottonmouths were another species that we might have run into in the bottomlands. These venomous snakes are common in the bottomlands around Lake Worth, and on an autumn day with temperatures in the 70s, it would not have been surprising to see one. Embry and Maddy were on board with looking for snakes, but were not so sure about cottonmouths. That is hardly surprising, as many stories as people tell about being chased or attacked by these snakes, which are really quite nonaggressive if left alone. I told them there should be no problem as long as we saw it first and avoided stepping on it, and I said it was my job to spot them. That settled, we resumed our walk, the girls confidently in the lead as we explored the woods.
At the farthest extent of our walk, at a very old, twisted willow at the edge of the marsh, we found and photographed a gigantic black ant on the tree, which discouraged some climbing that the girls had considered. Embry had no hesitation to bring the phone in close, finding the ant at the end of my finger (I pointed but did not touch!). Afterwards, I asked each one if they had any thoughts about today’s experience.
“At first, I thought about whether there might be something that could hurt me,” Embry offered, “but then I knew it was OK.” She had enjoyed a walk through these woods with curiosity and confidence. Maddy added that the things that lived in this place really did not want to hurt you. I loved hearing that. This was a place that offered beauty, tranquility, and fascination, along with a few things that needed a little watchfulness and care. Even the “creepy” things turned out to be fascinating. I hope that they will carry this and a hundred (or a thousand!) experiences of nature with them through their lives. Maybe they will hold on to that sense of wonder at seeing fish in a pool, or a frog hiding under a log. I hope, as adults, that they can still be playful with horse apples and bring their own kids to walk through the woods and have the delightful surprise of seeing a whitetail deer staring back at them along a forest trail.