Tag Archives: A Sand County Almanac

Rain at Flying Hat in central Texas

Within the last month, rain fell on central Texas and upon my place, Flying Hat Ranch, or ranchito.  My former professor, Donald Worcester of TCU, used to say of his 142 acres near Fort Worth was a “ranchito,” due to its size and to the calculations of John Wesley Powell, noted surveyor of the West in the nineteenth century, who opined that a ranch in the semi-arid West should be at least 2,560 acres to run cattle and attain self-sufficient for a family.  So, notwithstanding a definition of terms, my 53 acre ranchito has received rain.  And, we are forecast for more rain starting at 4:00 p.m. today.

Since the flourishing of grass and trees this spring, I have observed large eruptions of milkweed.  More milkweed has grown about the pastures and especially the roadways, such as Texas State Highways 16 and 114, than I have ever seen since moving here in 2000.  In certain places, where I would seasonally see ten blossoms of milkweed, I now see a hundred.  Monarch butterflies, however, have not passed by here.  I see one or two in my grove, but no more than that–for now.

Rain and milkweed abound.  Yet, there is a different caliber of field news.  Worms have destroyed many elm trees on the ranchito.  I saw an elm tree covered in worm strands down by the grove, encased like a cocoon.  I have not counted the loss precisely, but my elm tree loss is between fifty and a hundred trees.  Some elms survived the worm infestation and remain hardy; others have partially damaged limbs.  I shall bring out the axe and chainsaw to harvest the dead trees.

I am closing with a video of my petting a wild, juvenile cottontail rabbit.  I have seen its parents in the tall grass, not far from where I rescued the roadrunner from the water trough.  Yes, I know as you do, cycles of life and death on ranches, farms, cities, and this good earth.  And, lately, rain has fallen.

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Filed under Flying Hat Ranch, Salt Creek, Texas

Well springs Frio loam

Southeast corner of Pecan Tree Pasture, Johnsongrass and big bluestem (September 4, 2011).

Drought has come to the Southwest, particularly Texas. Wildfires erupt and I view every cloud in the sky as either friend or foe, rain-cumulus or pyrocumulus. Man lives in oscillating cycles: birth, maturity, degeneration and death; spring, summer, winter and fall; day and night. Nature’s theater, the grandest show — in fact the only show on the road — brings hot, dry days to us, an uneasy audience that sits without a program in hand.

Raising my hands and putting on a broad-brimmed hat to shield myself from the sun, I think, Is there is no way out of this parched country of west Texas, this incessant drought?  As a matter of habit, I drove to the far field two days ago, then again yesterday, and what I saw brought me out of the funk and into the reality of primary, nascent things that fosters renewal, not despair.  What I saw was the green field of my far pasture, Pecan Tree Pasture, a 35 acre field of buffalo grass, side-oats gramma, little bluestem, big bluestem and Johnsongrass that stood higher than my head!  The rain of about 2.5 inches two weeks ago provided enough moisture for a re-eruption of growth.

Trying to understand the dissonance of yellow-brown drought in Texas and this field of green grass, I gazed deeper and deeper into the field, trying to resolve these issues of color.  Then, it penetrated:  I was not looking deep enough, for beneath the grass lay soil, the wellspring for grass, the fountain of energy that we all thrive upon.  Well springs the soil.

Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.  Food chains are living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, p. 216, New York: Oxford Press, 1949.

In primary school, we all saw the pyramid chart of soil, plants, animals, man, sun and the flowing of energy back and forth.  The tooth and claw of the pyramid remained omnipresent, but never voiced.  We knew one thing lived by absorbing another living thing, whether cougar on deer, fox on rabbit or kids on hamburgers, but our teachers for reasons of refinement side-stepped the tooth, the claw.  The revealing of one thing eating another lay with fathers and uncles in the field on cloudy, windy and cold days.  Perhaps that is how it should be.

To know my soil, early this morning I unfolded the Soil Survey Map of Erath County, Texas, in order to type the soil of the far field I saw yesterday.  The map is ninety-one years old (1920); it is still accurate, still a good map.  My land, temporary occupant that I am, encompasses three soil types.  First, I have rough stony land (R) upon which sits the house, barn, stables and arena.  Second, the tree grove of American elm, willow, live oak, red oak, juniper and pecan rests upon Frio silty clay loam, Colluvial phase (F).  Through the tree grove runs Salt Creek, an intermittent flowing stream.

In the far field, where big bluestem is stretching upwards of seven-feet in height, a pasture that has not been grazed by Angus cattle in four years, is Frio loam (Fm), deposits of earth that have rushed down from High Salt Cove and between two creeks, Barton Creek and Salt Creek.  From Frio loam springs the grass in the far field.  The doe and fawn I disturbed yesterday lie between the high stands of big bluestem, and I lapse back to Oklahoma’s plains and the waving blue-red waves of autumnal bluestem that rustle with wind, the stems making sounds as they brush against one another.  The pasture holds the moisture of the last rain and though I am not a person of edgy competition, I would put my far field of green grass up against any non-fertilized field in Erath County for height, vigor, nutrients and wildlife.

After tending the far field for eight years and seeing the soil’s fountain of energy this late summer, How is it that man fouls such richness, such gifts?  The answer is complex, but knowable.  The resolution to stop the pollution begins with a respect for knowledge, deep knowledge that is revealed early and, unfortunately, forgotten early on with so many other things in our youth, a bulletin board that displayed the food chain in first grade.  The ethic of conservation and sustainability rests upon simple principles that need the status of a Commandment, an article of the Constitution, a catechism of the church.  Better yet, we should recover that which was lost when we began to make pottery, metal and textiles thousands of years ago, or left on that bulletin board at Coggin Elementary School in Brownwood, Texas.

Land is a fountain of energy.  In my far field, Frio loam is a wellspring.

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Click to enlarge. Soil survey map, Salt Creek and Barton Creek merger, from Soil Survey of Erath County, Texas (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922). The far field is located at about center-left along Salt Fork and is associated with the symbol, Fm, for Frio loam.

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Notes, corrections and additions:

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac And Sketches Here and There, New York: Oxford Press, 1949.  I am quoting from the paperback, special commemorative edition that has an introduction by Robert Finch.

Soil Survey of Erath County, Texas, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922.  The map was drawn in 1920, hence, it is ninety-one years old.  I found it in the workshop of the house I once owned in Mingus, Texas.  The house was know as the Old Bertino Place, named for the Italian family that had come to the area to work in the coal mines of Thurber in the nineteenth century.

I have been reading a considerable amount of literature this summer:  Aldo Leopold, Thoreau, Tolkien, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Edward Hoagland, Black Elk, Frank Waters, Wordsworth, Catulus.  I have something to write.  Whether it sells or not is a by-product.  I have to write, I really do.

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Filed under Life in Balance, Rain, Sounds, Weather

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).

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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.

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

Naturalist quote of day: Aldo Leopold on danger of not owning a farm

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm.  One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.

To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.

To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)

 

Winter by Joseph Fleck (Taos Art Museum and Fechin House)

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Notes:

Painting of Joseph Fleck associated with the Taos Art Museum and Fechin House.

See also Taos Painter Joseph Fleck.

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Filed under Life in Balance, Life Out of Balance, Nature Quote of the Day

Tickling the belly of buffalo: no more

[When I lived in Amarillo, Texas, from 1966-1990, I gazed upon the landscapes of the Panhandle-Plains and saw distances and life in those distances.  Not barren, not unlivable, but inhabited.  Sandhills Crane, burrowing owls, sagebrush, mesquite, cool waters of the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, geese, Mallards, mule deer, white-tailed deer and the Barbary Sheep of the Palo Duro Canyon.  I hiked into the edges of vast ranches and found campsites of cowboys and Kiowa tribes, they not-knowing, the owners that I was even there, lightly I trod.

In the midst of all this wandering, I taught at Amarillo College and I impelled my students in anthropology to sketch corn-grinding sites in the canyons for practice and awe.

Somewhere along the way of field trips and hikes, I came across Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. He died fighting a prairie fire.  Here is an excerpt about the Silphium of the Aster family.  It is more than a plant cut under the progress of road.  It is the canary in a cage in a mine, deep into the earth.

From the University of Texas, http://gargravarr.cc.utexas.edu/chrisj/leopold-quotes.html This excerpt is from Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.  Other excerpts are included at this website.]

Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm. It is time for a prairie birthday, and in one corner of this graveyard lives a surviving celebrant of that once important event.

It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by sythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July.

When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?

This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.

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Notes:

All photographs of the plants, courtesy of Lady Bird Johnson Center for Plants in Texas.

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Filed under Life Out of Balance, Plants and Shrubs