A New Year, a New Pond, and New Possibilities

My New Year’s Day destination

Whether this water-filled depression truly is a pond, I can’t say. It may be akin to a vernal pool, filling and drying as conditions change. Whatever its nature, I’ve passed the spot for years without being aware of its existence, until autumn helped to open the view and a pathway to its edge became visible.

Of course I named it immediately, and if the name ‘Walden West’ seems too obvious, it felt appropriate. I’ve never seen a New England pond, let alone Walden itself, but certain characteristics of this watery depression and the woods surrounding it — isolated, self-contained, unpublicized — suggested it as the basis for a year-long project dedicated to documenting the nature of a single place and its seasonal changes.

Vibrant poison ivy at the water’s edge

When I discovered the spot last Sunday, frustration limited my explorations somewhat. I’d been distracted, and set off for the day without putting a card in my camera — a fact I discovered only after attempting to capture the view shown in the photo at the top of the page. Two hours from home and an hour away from being able to purchase another card, it seemed that photos of my new spot would have to wait.

Then, I remembered my camera phone, and Sunshine came to the rescue. Once I’d learned to keep my fingers away from the lens and queried the search engine a dozen or so times, all was well.

Lichen (possibly Usnea spp.) on a fallen limb

Today, I’ll be returning to my ‘new’ pond; it seems a perfect destination for a new year. With a card already in my camera and an open path awaiting, new discoveries are inevitable: a truth that Thoreau, that other Walden-lover, knew so well.

“It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.
It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!
I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Forest and the Trees

A first encounter with Sandyland Sanctuary

It’s an old saying, and a familiar experience. “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” someone declares, and everyone smiles knowingly. We’ve all been there.

On the other hand, the opposite can be equally true. At first glance the pineywoods of east Texas — crowded, dim if not dark, deeply unfamiliar — can seem impenetrable: a pile of sticks leaning against a wall of green. Even the Big Thicket’s name seems off-putting. People who’ve never picked dewberries or read the journals of early Texas settlers still have a vague understanding of thickets. They’re difficult to pass through, possibly dangerous, and best avoided.

But thickets can be more than obstacles on the way to somewhere else, and the Big Thicket offers proof. Step inside the forest, and it’s easy to see the trees in a new way.

Longleaf pine upland forest ~ Big Thicket

Look more closely, and enchanting details begin to emerge.

Some especially appealing longleaf bark
An unidentified vine secures itself as it climbs
Shadows of neighboring shrubs play against the trees’ rough surfaces
One face of the forest peers out from among the leaves

Here and there, young longleafs bide their time, developing their root systems. For periods as long as several years, they resemble clumps of grass: their buds protected beneath a bundle of needles. Should fire sweep through, the needles may burn but the bud will remain protected and virtually immune to fire.  

Longleaf pine grass stage ~ Sandyland Sanctuary

When the root collar (a transitional zone between the roots and the trunk of a tree) becomes about an inch in diameter, the longleaf begins to grow. A single white tip called a ‘candle’ emerges from the protective sheath of needles, new needles develop, and, in time, bark begins to form.

Rapid growth allows the seedling’s growing tip to rise above potential fires, and after a year or two the bark has thickened enough to withstand most fires. No branches form during this so-called ‘bottlebrush’ stage, when all of the tree’s energy is focused on ‘up’ rather than ‘out.’

Longleaf pine bottlebrush stage ~ Sandyland Sanctuary (Sandhill Loop Trail)
Longleaf needles-in-waiting ~Sandyland Sanctuary (Sandhill Loop Trail)

After passing through the bottlebrush stage and the aptly-named candelabra stage so obvious in my photo of dawn in the Big Thicket, the longleaf moves on to maturity.

Longleaf pine showing off new needles and cones ~ Big Thicket (Solo Tract)

In time, cones will fall and seeds will disperse, preparing the way for more trees. But more than fallen needles are there to receive the cones. In the Big Thicket, pine trees of various sorts coexist with everything from cacti to ferns, and any fallen cone becomes an invitation to further exploration.

Pine cone and needles with eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) ~ Sandyland
Pine cone with ferns ~ Big Thicket (Sundew Trail)

 

Comments always are welcome.

Go East, Young Woman

Dawn in the Big Thicket

After years of living among Texas’s gulf prairies and marshes, and traveling primarily to the south Texas plains or the Edwards Plateau for a little variety, I finally was tempted into a third Texas ecoregion: the piney woods of east Texas.

Although I’d visited the area to search for Winkler’s Gaillardia, a rare white firewheel that grows at the Nature Conservancy’s Sandyland Sanctuary, it wasn’t until a recent guided field trip to the Sanctuary and the Watson Rare Plant Preserve that I knew a more extended trip into the area was called for.

A ranger at the Big Thicket visitor center tipped me off to an undeveloped but accessible area where I could find hundreds of sundews, another plant I was eager to locate. On Sunday morning, I returned to the spot to watch the sun rise among young long leaf pines, listening to birds whose calls I’d never heard greet the coming day.

 

 

 

Lewis And Clark Send A Memo

prairie fire

 

We set sail under a gentle breeze from the S.E. At seven miles, passed a white clay marl or chalk bluff. Under this bluff, which is extensive, I discovered large stone much like lime, encrusted with a clear substance which I believe to be cobalt, also ore is embedded in the dark earth resembling slate, but much softer.
Above this bluff, we had the prairie set on fire to let the Sioux see that we were on the river, and as a signal for them to come to it.
                                                                                        Captain William Clark ~ 27 August, 1804

 

Comments always are welcome.