Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New neighbors on the western plains

A relatively new neighbor will be stalking around the Hardin-Simmons University campus over in Abilene. His name is Rick Hammer, and his passion--after his wife and son, of course--is the blooming plants of the Rolling Plains.

I haven't actually met Rick, yet, face to face. He dropped into my email box the other day just to say "Howdy" and to mention that he had stumbled across this blog. Kind words notwithstanding, I just had a hunch Rick is the kind of guy you fall in like with at first sight. Of course, it helped that he didn't ask for anything...not right off, anyway.

One cannot be too careful, however, in this funky cyber age, so naturally I ran him through Google. Thanks to Google, virtually anyone can get the bonifides on darn near anyone else. I learned Rick--or, should I say, Dr. Rick-- just recently completed a PhD in botany at Texas A&M with a primary interest in systematics, population genetics, and informatics.

Yeah, I know. I was scratching my head over that informatics thing, too. Digging a bit deeper, I found this on Wikipedia:

Bioinformatics is the application of information technology to the field of molecular biology. Bioinformatics entails the creation and advancement of databases, algorithms, computational and statistical techniques, and theory to solve formal and practical problems arising from the management and analysis of biological data. Common activities in Bioinformatics include mapping and analyzing DNA and protein sequences, aligning different DNA and protein sequences to compare them and creating and viewing 3-D models of protein structures.

Rick's undergrad work at A&M was in forest science, then he got lured away into computers and information technology with Lockheed Martin Aerospace and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway in Fort Worth. But his love for natural history in general and botany in particular brought him back to A&M to work on his doctorate.

"I tell everyone I am now retired as I begin a career in teaching and fun research into the flora of the Abilene area," Rick told me in an email interview. "I am 49 and went back to school to finish a PhD I had started in the 1990s. My wife and I moved from Ft. Worth to College Station in 2001. Guess I took my time in finishing my school work as we have a 4 year-old son--family is important!

"At Hardin-Simmons I plan to do research on the floristics of the Rolling Plains and other areas adjacent to Abilene. They've never really had a botanist out there since the 1970s, so there is much plant collecting work to be done. That's really my passion--not so much the technical lab work. I consider myself a naturalist first then a professional botanist. A big interest is in biodiversity--both documenting and conserving it. I may be doing some rare plant surveys in the Abilene area for TPWD (Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) and possibly also a
plant survey for Abilene State Park. I should stay very busy in my retirement!"

My hat's off to Rick and the task he has set for himself. We can't know what we're in peril of losing until we know what we have now, and with the continuing climate shift, we stand to lose quite a bit.

It's also good to know Rick isn't one of those ivory tower academics who never venture beyond the confines of their own labs. Rick seems eager to share his discoveries with the rest of us in a very readable blog he calls Flora of the Texas Rolling Plains. You can find it by directing your browser to

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Long Night

As the earth grows colder,
the winds blow faster,
the fire dwindles smaller,
and the rains fall harder,
let the light of the sun
find its way home.

Native American Winter Solstice Celebration

Whoever you are, wherever you are on this longest night of the year
May you know warmth, may you be free from hunger, and may you find cheer.
May the Creator guide your steps on the path of sufficiency free of greed,
And may the abundance of Mother Earth always provide for you according to your need.
May all who call this Earth our Home hold Her in our prayers, too.
This is my wish, this longest night, with Love from me to you.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A tale of cottonwoods and chinaberries

Frontier towns of the 19th century came and went, often with little more than some old tree to mark their passing. Such is the case of Teepee City and a gnarled old cottonwood tree.

No one today knows when the stand of cottonwoods first set roots beside a little creek in what would become Motley County, Texas. In the 1870s when much of the country was on the move, however, the high spreading crowns of cottonwoods often signaled a source of fresh water for trail weary travelers and their animals. Sometime in the mid 1870s, cottonwood branches spread over the creek bank invited a band of settlers, some 100 wagons strong, out of Dodge City to camp and refresh themselves and their stock.

The water from the creek was sweet and clear, the grass plentiful, and buffalo numerous. When time came for the wagon train to continue south, about a dozen or so families left the train to found a new settlement near the creek and its cottonwoods.

In typical prairie fashion, some of these Motley County pioneers initially constructed crude dugouts into the creek banks. No doubt the first flash floods of spring gave them pause to reconsider their housing options!

Other settlers opted for above ground picket-style cabins. Chinaberry poles-- which the resident Comanche used as lodge poles for their teepees--were set into the ground vertically. Spaces between the poles were chinked with red clay mud from the creek.

Given the nature of these first homes, it might be logically assumed the settlers would name their fledgling town Chinaberry. Rather, they called it Teepee City.

American bison yet roamed the plains in great numbers in the 1870s, but the markets for hides and bones were growing back East. Teepee City became a headquarters for buffalo hunters on the Texas plains. The first timber-framed structure to be built in town was something of a frontier multiplex, a combination hotel-saloon-gambling house.

In fact, as the bison herds began to thin, the main commerce of Teepee City shifted from separating buffalo hunters from their money to separating cowhands from their money. The lure of that old house beneath the cottonwood tree became a long-standing thorn in the flesh of range bosses serving the XIT, Four Sixes, and other spreads.

Teepee City held out until around 1891. The railroad bypassed the little town to go through Childress, and a local rancher at long last bought the saloon so he could have it torn down. A county government was organized, and the town of Matador was named County Seat. Tumbleweeds blowing with the west Texas sand soon erased the last footprints of Teepee City.

But the old cottonwood that once threw its shade over a hotel-saloon-gambling hall stood fast, if gnarled and broken by weathering, well into the 1980s. One hundred years is uncommon for a cottonwood. While neither tree nor town stands today, there is a state historical marker at the roadside park on Highway 62/70 ten miles east of Matador.

SOURCE: Famous Trees of Texas, Texas Forest Service, Second Edition

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Do you see what I see?

Long before “I Love Lucy” changed Americans’ idle hours, folks watched the splendors of the night sky. That’s how we got those imaginary, connect-the-dots images called constellations that look nothing like what they are supposed to represent, which leads me to believe there were Dalis and Picassos among us even back in ancient days.

We don’t star gaze anymore like we used to. For one, the collective ground light from our cities, towns and commercial farms have all but washed out the brightest celestial objects that are visible on Earth without the aid of telescopes. For another, we no longer wind down the day by sitting on the front porch as the world turns through dusk into darkness.

From time to time, however, along comes a heavenly spectacle that’s all but impossible not to notice. Such a display is on tap for Monday evening just after sunset.

I’m sure many readers have seen the two bright “stars” hanging low in the southwestern sky the past several nights. Those “stars” are, in fact, our neighboring planets Venus and Jupiter. On the first of December this pair of sparkling jewels will be joined by a thin sliver of silvery moon.

When that tiny crescent of moon appears, take a closer look. Go ahead. Look long and hard and see if you can’t make out the faint bluish face of the rest of the moon’s surface that is not bathed in sunlight. See it?

That wan, bluish glow is called Earth shine. As we all should have learned in 3rd-grade science, objects like planets and their moons emit no light of their own but rather reflect light from the sun. Earth shine can be quite spectacular, depending on the degree of cloud cover at any given time, as photographs taken by astronauts from the surface of our moon attest. So what you are seeing on the fainter side of a crescent moon is sunlight reflected off Earth reflecting back to us from the moon.

And did you know that moon phases and Earth phases are in sync in what astronomers call complementary phases? We just had a new moon Thursday evening with the dark side of the moon was turned fully toward us. At the same time Moon Critters would have been marveling at a brilliant full Earth.

Of course, our trio of heavenly hosts will not be anywhere near one another Monday night or any other night. They only appear to be approaching one another as seen from Earth. The moon will be roughly a quarter-million miles out. Venus, meanwhile, lies some 93.2 million miles distant, and giant Jupiter is a mind-boggling 540.3 million miles away and approaching the far side of the sun.

Such facts are for textbooks, though. One of my favorite pilgrimages, if you will, is to Brewster County, Texas, down in the Big Bend Country. Lie on your back after dark without a campfire or lantern, and open your eyes to the heaven above. It's not so much what you see as it is what you feel. For me it's a realization of being incredibly small and indescribably insignificant.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

That was a year that was!

Beetle Bailey and Peanuts are the new comics in town, premiering in American newspapers two months apart, and the game show Truth or Consequences debuts on that newfangled television which some folks already are calling TV. Of course, radios outnumber television sets in American homes by something like eight or nine to one. Still, there are some 100 television broadcast stations in 38 of these 48 states, and the federal census this year put the number of sets in American households at five million. TV sales, however, indicate that number to be nearer eight million.

Folks still go to the movies, though. A full-length animated film from Walt Disney, Cinderella, generates a lot of buzz at its release, and tough-guy personified actor Broderick Crawford takes Best Actor honors at the 22nd Academy Awards for his performance in All the King’s Men. The film takes Best Picture.

There are uneasy feelings at home and abroad when North Korea blatantly invades South Korea and Russia announces it has developed its own atomic bomb. Dark headlines and ominous newsreels do not dampen America’s post-war rally, however. A new concept in consumerism, something called a shopping center, designed by architect John Graham Jr. opens on the outskirts of Seattle, Washington. Decent houses are going for around $8,500, and a new set of wheels can be had for about $1,500. Fueling the new car runs around 18 cents a gallon. Wages? Oh, the average American worker brings home around $3,200 a year.

In New York everyone is raving about that new show that opened at the 46th Street Theater, Guys and Dolls. The cast includes Robert Alda, Vivian Blaine, Sam Levene, Isabel Bigley, Peter Gennaro and a local comedian calling himself Stubby Kaye who, they say, steals the show as Nicely-Nicely. Tune in a radio and you’ll likely hear Nat King Cole singing Mona Lisa or that new kid Teresa Brewer with Music, Music, Music. Ruth Brown tops the R&B charts with Teardrops from My Eyes, but perhaps no one is making the tears flow like Miss Patti Page singing Tennessee Waltz.

The world said a final farewell to some pretty good folks this year. Novelists George Orwell and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Restaurateur Sid Grauman and American automobile pioneer Ransom Olds. We lost the Jazz Singer, Al Jolson, and Irish-born writer George Bernard Shaw.

At the same time we welcomed several new ones into a brave new world. Names from the nursery this year to watch include Debbie Allen, Billy Ocean, Natalie Cole (yes, Nat is her proud papa), Cybill Shepherd, Julius Erving, Karen Carpenter, Bill Macy and William Hurt, Jane Pauley and Tom Petty.
But the most important new arrival, as far as this writer is concerned, came along on November 7 of this year, 1950, at St. Mary’s over on Stanyon Street in San Francisco. I did not know little Ann Elizabeth at the time, but I found here just as soon as I could.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Miller!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

What is a "native"?

You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, and even vagueness - ignorance, credulity - helps your enjoyment of these things.
Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892)

Today officially launches my seventh decade as an amateur naturalist, and the Web dropped Whitman’s quote on me as my reminder for the day. Thank you, Lord!

I have been in nature, observing nature for 60 years so far. Only in the last four years or so have I pursued nature as an avocation and just this past year that I have earned a fraction of a living at it. And while I do make a few bucks working with nature to teach others about nature, I refuse to surrender my amateur naturalist status and leave the ranks of giants like Darwin, Whitman, Thoreau and Muir.

Certain dangers are inherent in close observation and study of what goes on in the natural world. Chief among these (on my list, at least) is nitpicking; getting too hung up on scientific classifications, definitions and nomenclatures. I know Guy Here is a male ruby-throat hummingbird simply because he presented his red throat patch when he visited our porch feeder. Do I need to know his proper name is Archilochus colubris to appreciate his behavior as he camps out in our yard, defending “his” feeders against all male (no, he doesn’t chase away females) comers? No, I don’t. In fact, I had to Google “ruby-throat” to get Guy’s Latin name for this citation.

Like Willie said, “What’s in a name?”

But it goes deeper than that. Down at the nature center, our mission is closely tied to preserving the ecosystems on our 15 acres. Most of the site is river bottom wetland inhabited by cottonwoods, buckthorn, pecan, sugarberry, soapberry, rough-leaf dogwood, green briar and Japanese honeysuckle. Of those eight species, one is a foreign invasive introduced into the region long before there was a nature center.

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), in fact, ranks high on Texas’ list of public enemy plant species because it is such a highly aggressive, invasive vine that left unchecked will take over everything in its way. Lonicera was introduced into the United States from Asia as an ornamental vine, and its popularity helped spread it across the country where it has naturalized in many areas.

Strictly speaking, then, all Japanese honeysuckle should be removed from the nature center as a non-native invader, right? Personally, I think so. Yet our resident honeysuckle has its fans who would be more than a little upset if the plant was totally wiped out. Many of those same folks would much rather I remove the prolific poison ivy that flourishes in our woods, even though poison ivy is native to our ecosystem.

So the debate becomes what is “native” and what is not “native”? The immigration issue does not apply exclusively to foreign nationals of the human species. Plants, like people, may become naturalized citizens, but it often takes more than an official status or designation to make them welcome.

When I was first invited to join the staff down at the nature center, one of my goals was to eliminate non-native honeysuckle (yes, Virginia, there is a native species, coral honeysuckle) from our acreage, and to my mind Lonicera is still the kudzu of North Texas. Today, however, I am more inclined to cut it back to the bordering neighborhood to the west, allowing it to remain on our fences as a specimen of what NOT to plant in your yard!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Home for the hummers

Certainly did not take long for a handful of
hummingbirds to find us! I noticed this little
guy to the right here dining at our feeder just a couple of days after I put it up in the corner of the front porch. Nearly all the books will tell you NOT to hang a feeder on your porch if you want to attract hummingbirds in close. The accepted method, they say, is to start with a feeder some distance from where you really want it and then to gradually move the feeder in to your target viewing area. Hmmmm. Day One: Hang a feeder on the porch; Day Three: Male ruby throat hummingbird observed at feeder. Anyone see a pattern emerging here concerning myself and following the rules?

Turns out Guy Here--I just this moment decided that what I'm calling the male ruby throat above--isn't the only one. Not even by a stretch. Saturday afternoon, about the time we had that nice little shower, I called Annie out to the porch to check out Guy Here. She no more than got settled into the folding-chair stand-in for a rocker when she exclaimed, "Oh, look! There's two of them! No, wait....three!"

Of course, we broke out cameras and took up strategic positions to capture the moment. Guy Here wasn't having any of it. He and his cronies seemingly were masters at popping in when we least expected an appearance and buzzing right back out of frame just as quickly. All in all, Annie tallied no less than five individuals, and nary a one of them was captured in pictures that day.

Some five yards out from the porch is a soon to be dead tree of indeterminate species. I say soon to be dead because what remains of the tree is terminally infested with mistletoe. For now, however, this is Guy Here's tree. Rubys are known for being strongly territorial, and Guy Here's preferred sentry perch is a small, bare twig some 15 feet above our front walk. This post offers a clear hummingbird's eye view of both porch feeders. Woe be unto any other hummer who dares dart in on Sir Guy's domain!

Annie is convinced Guy Here and a significant other has a nest in that old tree. I'm not yet convinced. He will, from time to time, vanish into the foliage for a few moments in area where the mistletoe is quite dense and sheltering. And while hummers are known to have as many as three broods in a season, I'm not sure how much the male figures into the nesting and child care scene. I could, I suppose, climb into the tree and see what I can find, but that's not gonna happen. I can just hear myself saying, "Hey, honey, I found it!" just before branch, nest and my 60-year-old ass all come crashing to the ground.

Some things are better left a mystery.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Saga of the sage

tzitzikas tzitzikas tzitzikas tzitzikasssssssssssssssssssss

Or so the Greeks transliterate the song of the cicadas, and if it's good enough for the Greeks, it works for me. The song is distant to the west where the sun is just sinking to the rooftops as I hand pull weeds from a small patch of earth at the base of the front porch. It's a rental, this house on Collins Avenue, so my Rule #1 was:

Do not plant anything in the yard! Use containers instead.
So I'm on my knees, ripping out handfuls of weed stubble left by Saturday's mowing and a few stringy remains of lawn grass, digging a hole in soil a lot better than I had expected to find and setting in a gallon-size Texas sage.
I can't really explain why I have such a liking for Texas sage, but I have planted this drought-tolerant sage of the desert in the last three residences Annie and I have shared. The first two plants, planted some four or five years ago over on Pennsylvania Road, are still there and well over five feet tall. They were gallon-size, too, when I set them in the ground.
Also known as purple sage and silverado sage, it originated in the Chihuahuan Desert's limestone shrublands of Northern Mexico, Southwest Texas and Southern New Mexico. Zane Gray fans, no doubt, are familiar with Riders of the Purple Sage published in 1912. It's the same plant.
Butterflies like visiting the delicate purple blossoms, and Annie does like her butterflies! So just a foot or so west of the sage I put in a second violation of Rule #1, a medium-sized starter plant of lantana. If I were going to create a butterfly garden but was limited to but one plant, that one plant would be lantana.
Two counts of planting in the ground notwithstanding, two or three specimens remain for setting out in pots. There's another, smaller lantana that I'll pot up and see how it goes. Then there are a couple of specimens of Mexican false heather which probably will need to spend the winter inside but will start out on the porch. You see, our neighbor lady to the east has a porch full of plants, and Annie is bound to have one, too!
Which, of course, means I get to collect, assemble and maintain Annie's mostly containerized butterfly & hummingbird garden while she gets to enjoy it and brag about it to her friends at work.
Kinda make a feller wonder just who's the real sidekick here, don't it?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

They say they taste like popcorn.

River City summers wouldn’t be the same without the song of the cicadas. Their lazy, modulating buzz is hypnotic and calming, like an aural downer, on a hot August evening.

Mamaw and Granddad called cicadas locusts, and locusts to them were grasshoppers. Took me years to sort through the confusing maze of common names to figure out what bug was what, and brought me to a greater appreciation of Latin-based scientific nomenclature, even though Latin names seldom sing.

Generally speaking, cicadas are insects belonging to the order Homoptera, suborder Auchennorrhyncha, superfamily Cicadoidea. Worldwide some 2,500 species of cicadas have been identified and many more await formal classification and naming. While “locusts” is commonly applied to these creatures throughout many regions of the United States, cicadas and true locusts are not related. Rather, cicadas occupy the same order as aphids, leafhoppers and spittlebugs.

Our neighbors in the Appalachian region know cicadas as “jar flies” or “dry flies” because of the dry exoskeleton, or shell, left behind when an adult molts. The most common U.S. genus Tibicen are also known as dog day cicadas or annual cicadas as adult Tibicens emerge every summer.
One would be hard pressed to find an order of insects more destructive than Homoptera, mainly due to aphids being classified in this order. Cicadas, however, do not fit the destructive mold as they are truly gentle giants of the insect world. Cicadas neither bite nor sting, nor are they destructive of plants. Of course, some folks find them ugly and obnoxious.

And, yes, some folks do eat them. African children delight in catching them for their grandmas to prepare as a crunchy, popcorn-like snack, and cicadas reportedly are consumed throughout many parts of Asia.

Guess I just haven’t been that hungry yet.

(Photo of Tibicen emerging courtesy of Roy Troutman)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

About that rocking chair...

Literally speaking, the rocking chair has not made it to the front porch yet. You see, as of now Annie and I do not have a rocking chair. We only got the porch a couple of weeks ago. So that rocking chair I wrote of in the beginning, well, that remains more metaphorical than actual.

Annie's got her bonnet set on matching high-backed wooden rockers parked side by side, looking out on the world of Collins Avenue. I'm in no hurry to make that particular dream real for her, though, even if I do break the 60-year tape in a couple of weeks. I acknowledged becoming my Dad at least a dozen or more years back, but I'll be switched if I'm ready to take the rocking-chair turn into becoming my Granddad!

That was the late Wiley Preston Saunders, by the way. He and his wife Cordie Ellen lived just around the bend at 14th and Clark Streets until his death in 1967. Can't help but think about him every time I drive over one of our remaining brick streets. Back in the day, Granddad and his oldest son Rodney--some River City old timers may remember Saunders Body Shop out on the old Waurika Highway--dredged sand out of the Big Wichita with a mule team for the mortar to brick pave those streets.

Some two years ago Annie and I left the road after hauling freight through every state in the lower 48. Oh, it seemed like a good idea at the time; to tool around the country, getting paid to cross "Visit every state in the union" off the Lifetime To Do List. Did not take this city boy long to figure out you don't get to see much nature through the windshield of an OTR freight hauler. I always wanted to snap a picture of the front grill of that old truck and send it to Dr. Horner over at the university; see if he could catalogue my bug collection!

Anyway, we came in off the road and rented a little two-room cottage right smack behind Mamaw and Granddad's old home place. Changes have been made to the place through the years, but I could still see the two of them of a summer evening, sitting on the porch and quietly enjoying their Coke floats. I even heard the same cicadas buzzing in the big pecan tree out front. Their descendants still define summer in this neighborhood to this day.

Annie will get her chairs soon enough, or, "d'rectly" as Cordie would say. I'm more into sorting out what variety of native Texas weeds inhabit the yard and figuring how far I can go away from "lawn" and toward native plains before the Landlady hollers, "ENOUGH!" Then, maybe then, I'll be ready to sit and rock for a spell with a tall, cold Lynchburg Lemonade.

Y'all come see us, now. Hear?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Thank God it's Friday

We had one of those little low pressure systems pass through the area the first of the week. The good news is it moved out the high pressure ridge that was pinning our daytime high temperatures in the low triple digits and brought a spell of sorely-needed rain. Right at eight inches of rain, give or take a tenth, at the nature center in the bend of the Big Wichita River.

Our trees down in the bottom land were mighty glad for the drink, but the rising river did leave a mess the entire quarter-mile length of the main trail. When the river crested sometime late Tuesday afternoon, I'd say our woodland was standing up to four feet deep in flood waters carrying red clay that gives the Red River its name.

Could have been worse. In the spring of 2007 a so-called 100-year flood left nearly 18 feet of clay-choked river water inundating our 13 acres of bottom land. The waters took nearly a full week to recede to a point where we could make it all the way down to the north end of the trail. About an eighth of an inch of treacherously slippery clay mud completely covered the concrete walkway, and we all but lost two outbuildings.

A pair of Mississippi Kites set up housekeeping in our woods this spring. I counted as many as four young ones at various times perched in the tallest snags. Just before the rains moved in on Monday I noticed six kites resting in the snag. Tuesday, after the deluge, I did not see a single kite. Wednesday and Thursday as I hosed mud from the trail the kites were conspicuously absent still. I began to wonder if that low pressure system had nudged the birds into starting their move south. Then today I heard that familiar raptorish scree overhead, as if the bird was saying, "I'm back!" It was an adult, male I believe, although my bird identification skills fall far short of my colleague Penny Miller's. I checked the tall snag that towers thinly above the canopy of soapberry, pecan and red cedar, and sure enough there were two juveniles waiting for breakfast.

The water did not rise high enough to reach the fox's den, and Wednesday morning revealed sign that the raccoons, opossums and armadillos had been out and about, benefiting from the washed in buffet while it lasted. The red-shouldered bugs were again going after the remains of the last soapberry crop, and the pill bugs were just skittering around, distressed by the saturated earth and doing whatever pill bugs do when they're temporarily forced from their homes.

In short, the little low pressure system brought about a day's worth of drama to the nature center. Then it was wash away the mud and back to business as usual for all concerned. After all, it's a riparian wetland. Its continued existence as a unique ecosystem on the Rolling Plains depends on periodic flood events.