Monthly Archives: July 2011

The aire be stirred with wild things

Barn swallow in flight, north Erath County, Texas (2010).

They were storks!  When they circled lower, the long beaks and the legs that trailed in the slipstream showed red as sealing wax.  An old shepherd was leaning on the ramp close by and gazing up at them too.  When some of the great birds floated lower, the draught of their feathers brushed our upturned faces, and he said something in Magyar — “Net, gobyuk!” and smiled.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Hungary, 1934, in A Time of Gifts, p. 309.

Around me, the air has been stirred with wild things, but not storks.  During winters in central Texas I walked to the pond on my step-father’s farm and sat on the lee side of the water, standing still about a natural juniper blind, not moving, and ducks would fly so fast you heard them before you saw them, and they stirred the air about my face and landed swiftly upon pond water, sending ripples to the ice-crusted edge.  The aire be stirred with wild things.  In all the years around the pond, I took but one duck out of the sky, regretting it to this day because there was roast beef and bacon back at home beneath the thin, protective dish towel mother used to cover the food she prepared.

Three fall seasons ago I sat on the back porch, wearing an old, broad-brimmed felt hat as I looked out in the pasture at the horses.  Not moving much in the chair, a familiar wren — I had seen it countless times — flew down from the support post and landed upon my hat.  The wren stayed there for thirty seconds, maybe a minute, darting about the top of the hat, checking out the intricate perforations of the hat band for food, its tiny feet moving staccato-like about like a ballerina.  I felt its motion, the draught of wings I felt upon my face.  The aire be stirred with wild things.

Barn swallows fly through the porch today and stir the air.  They hover, literally hover in the air, fanning the porch like tiny, childish whirl-a-gigs, seeking a perch or possible nook for a new nest.  There are six swallows and they perform their aerobatics twice a day, morning and evening.  Coming close, within three feet, they chirp at me as an intruder in their world.  The aire, I tell you, is stirred with wild things.  And, ’tis good wild things.



See also The New York Times obituary of Sir Patrick:  NYT obituary of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Somewhere in my reading, I remember an Englishman that was on an African safari and in the evening ventured beyond the compound’s fire pit and was attacked by a lion.  In the attack, the lion grabbed him about the shoulder from behind and started dragging him away into the bush.  The Englishman — how I wish I could find this story again — thought he was done with and remembered the smell of the lion and that the lion purred as he took him away.  Interesting the purr.  The man reached for his bush knife and stabbed the lion who released him and ran off into the dark.  Not all wild things that stir the air are so gentle.


Filed under Birds

Field gifts in July

At 3:30 a.m., with such dignity as I can muster of a July morning, I step from my cabin door, bearing in either hand my emblem of sovereignty, a coffee pot and notebook.  I seat myself on a bench, facing the white wake of the morning star.  I set the pot beside me.  I extract a cup from my shirt front, hoping none will notice its informal mode of transport.  I get out my watch, pour coffee, and lay notebook on knee.

Aldo Leopold’s early morning field method, A Sand County Almanac, pp. 41-42.

This July morning, a warm morning that will expand into hot, I walked the one-half mile of Salt Creek on my 53 acre ranchito.  Salt Creek is an intermittently-flowing creek that twists and curves through the forested grove in the middle of the 53 acres.  During heavy rains, the creek reaches ten feet high and lays flat the water-gap fences on the east and west ends of the property.  This summer, waiting out the worst drought since 1895, the creek remains intact, its bed dry; yet elms, junipers (beautiful they are), cottonwoods, oak and pecan trees uplift subsurface moisture, retaining their leaves and shade for owl, redbird, bluebird, sparrow, deer, armadillo, skunk, coyote and fox.

Salt Creek on this day holds one watery seep, fifteen feet in length of oblong, deep water.  Flush against the shady side, this watery seep encapsulates water three-feet in depth, the water flowing from the native grass field I have tended these last four years.  I discovered on my walk, along the one-half mile of the creek bed, it is the only source of water in the bed.  Wildlife track abounds around the water cache, and it is supplemented by my stock pond — amply full — a quarter-of-a-mile away to the northeast.  Animal tracks puncture the wet soil of both seep and pond.  Trails radiate in all directions from these water pools, life-sustaining hubs among tens of thousands of water holes in west Texas.

Walking, ambling really, I kept watch for the unanticipated field discoveries that, without fail, always occur; and if none appear, I have not looked upon, within and close enough, the land upon which I trod.  I wrote in my field notebook the jack rabbit, woodpecker, roadrunner and fertile pond algae as they appeared in good order from the house.

As I turned in the creek bed at the last big U-turn loop, I gazed upon color, flower color, I had never seen before: the Clammyweed.  Not exactly the classiest of names, but it is what it is.

Clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra), Salt Creek, north Erath County, Texas (July 27, 2011).

Clammyweed grew on a sand bar in the middle of the dry creek bed.  Seven blossoms on three plants taunted the drought in all its brazen heat, stating in siren tones that shade, moisture and sand can bring forth purple and white, stamens a-blazing, here in July.  The heat be gone for the moment.  Hooray!  for Clammyweed!

I was already dizzy from the heat and lack of air circulation, but this discovery boosted me out of the spell.  I read later in field manuals that Clammyweed is a derivative of the caper family, one of my favorite garnishes, and that if one rustles the flower or plant, an odor emits that clams to the skin.  I must go back and find out for myself this attribute.

The second field gift on this July day came near the end of my one-and-a-half hour field trip.  Walking gingerly in the middle of the creek bed, avoiding large sandstone rocks, I looked down and saw a dark, flat-shaped, lithic object of iron ore that is abundant about the place.  Thinking it a natural chink or large piece of rock, I kicked at it with my boot.  Instead of a natural formation, it showed signs of flaking and abrasion — a lithic tool, used by Native Americans before the onslaught of mining, farming and ranching.

Abraded and flaked lithic tool (4'' x 2.5"), Salt Creek, north Erath County, Texas (July 27, 2011).

I noted the location, picked up the tool and continued my ambling to the west water gap, the end of my walk.

Returning to the house, I sat down, not with coffee but with a Dr. Pepper, and wrote out the rest of my field notes.  My observations had begun at 8:14 a.m. and concluded at 9:45 a.m.  The temperature by ten o’clock was 86 degrees, headed upwards to 105-107 degrees by the late afternoon.

The grove remains green.  A water seep looks healthy in the creek bed.  Wildlife track abounds.  Cultural artifacts appear, attesting to man’s continuing occupation of the surrounds.  The day will be hot.  Gifts, of a sort, have fallen in my path and I gain a sense of continuity with nature reviving itself in Clammyweed blossoms, bursting in color, a natural goddess emerging from the earth in July, glimmering in fertility.  Paradise regained.

* * *

The water cache and seep along Salt Creek, north Erath County, Texas (July 27, 2011).


Notes and corrections:

The photograph of the Salt Creek water cache was appended.

The sentence, “Paradise regained,” was added in the last paragraph of the essay.


Filed under Field Log, Plants and Shrubs, Wild Flowers of Texas

Chocolate to mesquite

Several months ago in a previous post, I wrote that one of my field objectives on the Flying Hat Ranchito was to identify every tree species rooted about the pastures and Salt Creek.  Beginning with this post, I identify the mesquite tree.  Unless Southwesterners have been reared in a dark box, everyone recognizes the mesquite and usually such identification is followed with a curse word or two.   Except for the far pasture between Barton Creek and Salt Creek, mesquite erupts constantly about the ranchito and requires annual shredding or pruning.  I relate to the mesquite tree without impatience, finding it worthy of praise, not scorn.  But, first, from a objective point of view, then followed by subjectivity.

The mesquite tree…

Mesquite is one of the most widely distributed trees in Texas. It is a small to medium tree with an irregular crown of finely divided bipinnately compound foliage that casts very light dappled shade underneath. It is armed with thorns sometimes up to 2 inches long. In the spring, summer and after rains it is covered with fragrant white flowers, and the long bean pods are ornamental as well as providing food for wildlife and livestock. Mesquite is not a rancher’s favorite tree: it readily invades overgrazed sites and other disturbed land, is virtually impossible to get rid of, and the thorns injure livestock. However, the foliage, flowers and fruit are attractive, it adapts to almost any soil that is not soggy, it is heat and drought tolerant, it fixes nitrogen in the soil and provides many areas of Texas with shade, fuel and timber where otherwise there would be none. The wood is used in flooring, furniture, and as a cookwood for seasoning.

“Texas Native Plants Database,” Texas A&M University (2011).

The mesquite bean is also ground up and can be used as an additive to wheat flour or corn flour for making tortillas and bread.  I’ve not tried the recipe, but I shall from a Native American reference I have on file.

* * *

Objects that appear void of emotional affect to one person may be illuminated with soundings of deep, ineffable meaning to another.  The mesquite and juniper trees in my life resound with spiraling emotion that takes me to a different plain, evoking events in my memory that I never forget and can only begin to understand.   I shall write about the juniper another day.  Today my focus is the mesquite.

When I was a boy, about five or six years old, I used to play underneath a mesquite tree adjacent to my mother’s studio apartment in Brownwood, Texas.  It was shortly after World War II had concluded and my father had separated from us and was reestablishing himself in Pennsylvania, far away from Texas, the place he met my mother.  Across the street from mother’s apartment, my grandmother lived in a small trailer house and took care of me while mother worked at Southwestern States Telephone Company.  At the time, I did not know how close we were to destitution.  I was a boy and I played outside underneath the mesquite tree, thoughtless and innocent about money matters.

One day as I played under the mesquite tree, I heard the sound of the wind — a southwest wind — flowing through the trees as I had never heard it before, but have ever since.   The sound was of medium pitch, neither high nor low, and it persisted with a rising and falling velocity, bending branches, shifting the shade about me and my toys.  As I heard the wind, I felt lonely, really alone in the world.  My mother was in the house — I knew that — but I sensed a separation from her and a state of emotion that evoked a sadness, a sorrow that I found inexpressible at the time.  The moment remains clear and even the affect is still apparent.  It  never leaves me.

Years later I came to realize that under the mesquite tree I felt, for the first time, a separateness from other things, other people.  I realized I was an individual, distinctively apart from others, and there was no going back I came to find out.  Under a mesquite tree was the place  the affect of estrangement spooled out and bound me.  I’m not alone in that awareness and that is a comfort, for we all sense that estrangement and how we meet the abyss and gain unity or self-loss is the rest of our life.  These days, as I walk underneath and beside mesquite trees on the ranchito, I sense the mesquite as a companion one day and a intransigent master teacher the next.  It helped me grow.  I didn’t want to, but it threw me out of my Eden.

* * *

In Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl, the giver of knowledge and wisdom to the people was thrown out of his city, country and reign for moral turpitude.  As he went into exile, going east, he crossed the mountains to the sea, his dwarf companions died from the cold and the chocolate trees he passed turned to mesquite and great sorrow came upon the land.

[This is first of several posts on the mesquite.]


Filed under Cedar, Life in Balance, Life Out of Balance, Recollections 1942-1966