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