Awaiting Equinox

Early autumn color at Brazos Bend State Park ~ September 18

 

It is an old drama,
this disappearance of the leaves,
this seeming death
of the landscape.
In a later scene,
or earlier,
the trees like gnarled magicians
produce handkerchiefs
of leaves
out of empty branches.
And we watch.
We are like children
at this spectacle
of leaves,
as if one day we too
will open the wooden doors
of our coffins
and come out smiling
and bowing
all over again.
                 “November” ~ Linda Pastan

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on poet Linda Pastan, please
click here.

Like Dipping Water With a Sieve

Mesquite trees ~ Frio County, Texas

From 1845 to 1847,  German naturalist Dr. Ferdinand Roemer traveled across Texas observing, collecting, and detailing discoveries in a journal published in 1849, after his return to Germany.  The expansive title — Texas ~ with Particular Reference to German Immigration and the Flora, Fauna, Land, and Inhabitants — is justified, as Roemer was a curious, keen-eyed, and accurate observer.

After arriving in Galveston via steamship from New Orleans and traveling up Buffalo Bayou to Houston, Roemer departed for New Braunfels. Along the way, he stopped in Gonzales and Seguin, and spent time at the historic El Capote Ranch. Eventually, he explored the area around New Braunfels in the company of Ferdinand Lindheimer, another German who already had acquired some fame as a botanist; in time, Lindheimer would become known as the Father of Texas Botany.

During their time together, Roemer and Lindheimer followed the course of the Guadalupe River for several miles below New Braunfels.  Roemer’s description of the mesquite trees he encountered during that trip came to mind when I discovered a lovely stand of mesquite in ranch country south of Devine on May 9:

A natural prairie or meadow one-fourth mile wide extends between [the Guadalupe] and a gently rising chain of hills, on which mesquite trees (Pleopyrena glandulosa Engelmann) were scattered. These mesquite trees, which spread also over a great portion of northern Mexico, give to the prairie of Western Texas much of its peculiar character…
The trunk is gnarled and now and then bent, thus making it unfit for lumber. They seldom obtain a thickness of over one to one and one-half feet in Texas, nor a height of more than twenty to thirty feet…
The foliage resembles the so-called acacia, inasmuch as it is plumeous. The individual leaves, however, are much narrower and the whole foliage is more graceful and transparent.
To find shade under a mesquite tree is like dipping water with a sieve.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For an entertaining and informative article about mesquite trees in Texas, click here.
My copy of Roemer’s journal was published by Copano Bay Press, an independent Texas press dedicated to bringing back important works of Texas history.

Spring’s Sweet Tangle

Texas Redbud ~ Cercis canadensis var. texensis

Every spring, a variety of blooming redbud trees abounds in my town’s yards, at the edges of commercial parking lots, and in public gardens. Nicely shaped, well trimmed and well fed, they’re both a dependable sign of spring’s arrival and a colorful addition to the urban landscape.

In the woods, things aren’t always so tidy. This native Texas Redbud is no less colorful but, left to its own devices, it’s wandered a bit among the junipers and oaks. Still, the sight of a blooming tree in the midst of a thicket is enormously charming: presenting a good reason to get off the proverbial ‘beaten path.’

 

Comments always are welcome.

Walden West ~ February 1

Since the first day of February fell on a Tuesday, I made my second visit to the spot I’ve come to call ‘Walden West’ on January 30 and 31. Tucked between freezes, the days were sunny and mild, with sunlight emphasizing the green of emerging grasses; although the water had receded somewhat, enough remained to reflect the clear, blue sky.

At first glance, I thought a turtle was lounging in the middle of the pond, but I discovered it was only a turtle-friendly log. Perhaps one day in the future I’ll find an actual turtle there.

Many of the trees surrounding the water had lost their leaves, making the details of their trunks even more interesting. This trunk, which I take to be a Dwarf Hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia), had been split along its length, giving it a scroll-like appearance.

Nearby, a Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia) still held a few leaves.  The most common elm in Texas, the tree often is found near streams, in flatwoods near rivers, or on dry limestone hills.  Its seeds ripen in fall, helping to distinguish it from other native elms.

Cedar Elm

Winged Elms (Ulmus alata) have larger leaves and seeds that mature in the spring. Its leaves also provide a bit of color, but its most distinguishing feature is the wide, corky ‘wings’ on either side of its branchlets; the specific epithet alata is from the Latin word meaning ‘winged.’

Described as a “small and slender component of the understory in the wild,” the Winged Elms at Walden West fit the description perfectly. The examples I found were relatively small:; none reached more than six or seven feet.

Winged Elm

Among the insects that feed on the foliage, wood, or plant juices of Winged Elm are caterpillars of the Question Mark butterfly and the Giant Walkingstick. If I keep an eye on the elms, I might find another walking stick in the coming year.

Winged Elm leaf and ‘wings’

In nature, change is constant, and I found quite a change when I sought out the pretty, algae-decorated tree that caught my attention in early January.

January 1

On this visit, the obvious damage wasn’t particularly deep and it was limited to one side of the trunk, but it pointed to the presence of another creature in the woods.

January 31

Since the mud surrounding the pond was covered in tracks made by white-tailed deer, it seems reasonable to assume that one of the deer visiting the water also had damaged the tree with a ‘buck rub.’

Before and during the rut, or breeding season, bucks rub trees with their antlers as a way of marking territory, working off aggression, and intimidating other bucks.

But the earliest rut in Texas occurs in the Gulf prairies and marshes: an area which happens to be home to Walden West. Since the breeding season is well over, and since buck rubs also serve to communicate a buck’s presence to other deer by scent left on trees, brush, and saplings, it’s entirely reasonable to assume the damaged bark was the result of a buck attempting to establish his territory or dominance.

Dwarf Palmettos

Scattered among the elm, hackberry, yaupon, and oak, Dwarf Palmettos (Sabal Minor) add an interesting accent to the land surrounding the pond. Slow growers and usually stemless, the leaves arise from underground stock and are especially attractive when young.

One of our most cold-hardy native palms, dwarf palmetto can be found in a variety of habitats, including maritime forests, swamps, and floodplains. Its fragrant white flowers are followed by clusters of small black fruits that are enjoyed by a variety of birds and small mammals.

The palmettos also provide a hidden-in-plain-sight napping spot for the Green Tree Frog (Dryophytes cinereus). This is the third such frog I’ve found at the San Bernard Refuge; each had chosen a palmetto blade for its spot. If you look closely at the second photo, you can see the reflection of the inch-long frog on the palmetto’s stiff and shiny leaf.

In the grasses surrounding the palmettos, a Milkweed Assassin Bug (Zelus longipes) was busy preparing its dinner. Using its long mouthparts, it had captured and immobilized its prey with a paralyzing toxin. In time, it would ingest the creature’s dissolved body fluids through those same mouthparts in the same way that we use a soda straw.

Looking upward, I found the trees hosting a variety of vines. Colorful Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) encircled many of the trunks.

Equally attractive but less bothersome Greenbrier (Smilax bona-nox) twined through trees and shrubs alike.

Its fruits, said to be favored by opossums, raccoons, squirrels, and songbirds, must be tasty; very few remained on the vines.

The most exciting discovery of the day involved Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). Neither a moss nor a parasite, Spanish Moss is an epiphyte: a plant that absorbs nutrients and water through its leaves from the air and the rain. Like Ball Moss (Tillandsia recurvata), it’s a flowering plant, but I’d never found evidence of its flowers.

When I decided to try a backlit photo of its tangled strands, I discovered something odd. Rust-colored bits were everywhere. At first, I assumed they were insects; looking  more closely, I discovered they were seed pods.

A tangle of Spanish Moss
Opened Spanish Moss seed pod

At the edge of the woods, Early Buttercups were blooming: their waxy leaves reflecting the light.

Early Buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis) with hoverfly

Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) seemed to find them equally attractive.

Drummond’s hedgenettle (Stachys drummondii), a member of the mint family, contributed a lavender accent.

The first Ten-petaled Anemone (Anemone berlandieri ) I’d seen this year was a bit worn around the edges, but still delightful. Named for French naturalist Jean Louis Berlandier, its common name is misleading, since the plant has no petals, only petal-like sepals, and their number can range from seven to twenty-five.

Even at the beginning of February, signs of impending spring were everywhere. Seedlings of the Cedar Elm ringed the pond.

Basal leaves of the native Dwarf Plantain (Plantago virginica) were less common, but more obvious.

And finally, shrugging off the cold, new Turk’s Cap plants (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) were thriving.

In time, their vibrant flowers will ring the edges of the pond: a sign of spring arrived.

Turk’s Cap

 

“Is not January the hardest month to get through?  When you have weathered that, you get into the gulf stream of winter, nearer the shore of spring.”
~ from Winter:  The Writings of Henry David Thoreau

 

Comments always are welcome.
For an introduction to the Walden West project, click here.

 

The Tree With the Lights In It

Loblolly and Light

After spending a few hours on the Big Thicket’s Pitcher Plant and Turkey Creek trails last Sunday,  I nearly had regained the trailhead when I looked up, searching for bits of autumn color in the still mostly green trees.

Instead of color, a vision of what I first imagined to be an enormous orb-weaver’s web stopped me in my tracks. There was no larger-than-life spider lurking, of course. There was only a loblolly pine, and the sun, and a phenomenon I’d never before seen. Despite their apparently random distribution, the pine needles had transformed the light into a beautifully circular pattern; it was nature, not my camera, that had created the effect.

At the time, I didn’t think anything at all; I only stood, and wondered at the sight. Later, I remembered a favorite passage from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and realized I’d been granted my own vision of a tree with the lights in it.

One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.  I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.  I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.  It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.  The lights of the fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. 
Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared.  I was still ringing.  I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.  I have since only rarely seen the tree with the lights in it.  The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

 

Comments always are welcome.
NOTE: I consulted Jim Ruebush, who taught physics for years, and here’s what he had to say about the effect: ““In the fully enlarged image, the pine needles radiate out in all directions. But, the only ones that reflect brightly to the camera direction are aligned circumfully (if that is not a word, it is now) to the sun. Their surfaces act like long narrow mirrors. Needles aligned any other way don’t reflect brightly to the camera.” Or, to the human eye!