Ecologically Homeless (a Field Notes Friday entry)

I’ve said to several people that I’ve loved every ecosystem I’ve ever visited (except human urban ecosystems, I suppose). And I do:

I love the Pacific Northwest,

the coast of California,

the sub-arctic alpine forests of Alaska,

the Pacific tropics of Hawaii,

the Caribbean/Atlantic tropics,

the Gulf Coast (except the obvious human-made damage of dying ocean & oil spills there),

the Arkansas rocky forests,

Louisiana bayous,

North of London rolling farmland (though it used to be forest),

the Great Redwoods,

the gorgeous country of Upstate New York & unsullied New Jersey,

the rocky hills and mountains of southern & eastern Oklahoma,

the big skies of West Texas,

the chalk hills of Aledo/Hill country…

I’ve never seen real prairie yet, but if I like the sickly shadow of it that’s left in North Texas I’d probably love the real thing in Kansas…

and now I’m in the pinewoods of East Texas. And maybe it’s my sore back from the first night camping or the disappointing drone of the nearby highway, or how little energy I had for our one real hike in the forest (where it was QUIET), but I have now turned that statement around and am looking at it from the other side.

I love every place I’ve visited, every ecosystem I’ve briefly experienced, but none – not one – feels like home. I feel like a homeless wanderer bound to love every place a little, but none too deeply.

There’s a character in a Miyazaki film (Spirited Away) who suffers a kind of amnesia – he can’t remember who he is because the river where he’s from has been destroyed – paved, obliterated.

I feel like that. I get the most excited about the Cross Timbers, but they’re vanishing even as I write. What’s left of the system is the skeleton – dying trees which will have trouble reproducing in Bermuda grass and sprinklers, which are cleared on the whims of businessmen and women who crave larger parking lots. Their birds are moving on, the forest’s silence shattered by highways and landfills and machinery, the trees’ once-impressive profile on the landscape obfuscated by rows and rows and rows and rows of squeezed-tight houses. The few builders who try to preserve the few trees do so as an afterthought, and the trees die soon after the check is written anyway.

The Cross Timbers is the only place I can think of right now where I would walk quietly, stealthily in my modern ‘moccasins’ (Vibrams) and be hunting thrill… belonging… comfort… and find it.

I want to research where remaining Cross Timbers (and similar habitats) are. Then have a getaway there.

[…] I think if an ecosystem is ‘yours’ in a deep sense, it’s like how I described the Cross Timbers to Tony- like a lover, simultaneously exciting and comforting. This is how we achieve my desire for continuity with change – you get so familiar with the same place that you are then aware of the differences. Seasonal differences, annual subtleties, overarching change. Last year the frost nipped the greenbriar. This year more grasshoppers than crickets. The kind of things you can’t notice if you don’t stay put, but noticing them makes you feel like you’re on a journey.

Field Notes Fridays are an invitation to share the raw entries in your own journal ~ whatever format, whatever content. Won’t you join us?

Field Notes Friday: Ecologically Homeless Field Notes Friday: Ecologically Homeless

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Field Notes Friday 0034: The Appearance of Destruction

Shocking as scenes after a fire may be, some fires are “good” (meaning they’re an essential part of some ecosystems). In a controlled burn, one of many goals is to burn often enough that raging, far-ranging fires aren’t a possibility in the future.

I imagine in the past, the swath of land a herd of thousands of bison had tread and munched might serve as a natural fire break – not enough fuel for the fire to continue. (I don’t have a source on that; just imagining.) In modern controlled/prescribed burns, at least the ones I’ve participated in, mow lines, water sprayers, and backfires do the job.

Here’s a before and after shot:

IMG_5122-0

It looks shocking. Like the land is devastated.

But it’s not. The fire burned through quickly and made way for native prairie species while making it harder for invasive woody species to encroach.

I hope to return and show a different “after” photo: one that’s full of the green and gold and reds of life, sprung anew from the ashes.

I’m posting this as part of my pledge that I will make it easier for myself to participate in Field Notes Friday. I’m taking my own advice: keep it simple! Just a photo and some thoughts are plenty.

Here’s a link to the photo and thoughts I shared on Facebook. I hope you’ll join me there as well as on WordPress (…and iNaturalist… And Instagram…)

Field Notes Friday 0020: Star Milkvine (Matelea biflora)

DISCOVERED: starfish alien flower life form!

I ecstatically soaked up information and enthusiasm at the 5th Annual the State of the Prairie Conference. I’m beyond glad that the Coastal Prairie Partnership decided to host the conference in Fort Worth, the Prairie Queen City of Texas. I might never have heard of the conference otherwise, and would be truly impoverished if I never met this group of knowledgeable, engaged, and proactive biologists, conservationists, land owners, and practitioners.

One of many great features of the conference was the field trips. My chosen trip was to the McFarland and Hilmont ranches. Jason Singhurst of Texas Parks and Wildlife and Dana Wilson were along, and their wealth of plant knowledge was as useful as it was stunning. I saw and touched plants I’ve never even heard of before. One of them was Matelea biflora, a vine I’ve never seen. LOOK at this thing!

Matelea Biflora

Notice the hairyness. Also, did you see the reason it’s called biflora (two flower)? There’s a green bud in the frame. These plants usually have two flowers together – no more, no less. (I’ve heard Star Milkvine is also called two-flower milkvine. Have you heard something like “two-flower milk weed vine” as its common name? I couldn’t find any references to that name online, but I only made a cursory search.)

Out of context, this plant may seem weird, or perhaps even wonderful, but it’s as disjunct as a factoid on a cereal box.

Only when you climb a hilltop in a generational ranch which is ecologically managed, and see this plant in its full range of life stages, scattered amongst other glorious flowers and inconspicuous green life, and take in the air and clouds and breadth of view – and realize you’re standing in a precious ecosystem that we have the power to save or wipe out – do you realize any plant’s significance. Star Milkvine is a harbinger of habitat, an ecological beacon. Whether it’s on the Floristic Quality Index or not, this plant is associated with good prairie, and if you live in the DFW metroplex (or any other urban area in the central US which is bursting at the seams) you understand how vanishingly rare that is.

McFarland Ranch

Star Milkvine in context at the McFarland Ranch

I’m proud to have ‘discovered’ this weird life form and to have documented it. I’ve been re-introduced to iNaturalist.org by Michael Fox, and I think I’ve finally got the impetus to fully participate, so I’ll be uploading my finds from this conference to iNaturalist soon. I’ll also be sharing more photos via my Facebook and Tumblr page, so stay tuned.

Thank you for participating in Field Notes Friday by reading my observations and and by sharing yours. We make a difference in others’ lives when we share our field notes; we’re educating and enchanting our friends and the public with the otherwise unnoticed life all around them.

Dear [Undisclosed] United Methodist Church: Please Don’t Litter!

Imagine enjoying a vacation in one of your favorite outdoor places. You come upon trash tangled in the grass by a river: a card attached to a pink ribbon and the remains of a ragged green balloon. The card has a friendly message from a church and a request for you to respond with where and how you found the card.

A group I was with last month was in this position. This is my response.

 

Dear [Undisclosed] United Methodist Church,

I received your Easter card attached to a balloon. Thank you.

But please consider finding another way to share your message.

The Story

I was in LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area), a 2,000 acre nature preserve in the heart of the metroplex. The group I was with hiked and explored beautiful forests, prairies, and aquatic ecosystems for three days. On April 26 we were surprised to find your card near the river, tangled in the grass. We read your message and although no one disparaged it, three people in the group are members of United Methodist churches and seemed to cringe at their denomination being associated with litter.

About the Nature Preserve

I do not represent LLELA when I send this letter, but I’m someone who cares about the place and all the life within it. Putting LLELA in context, the land is recovering from a history of harsh use by humans. The forests were cleared, the prairies were plowed, the wildlife was killed, and the land was used as a dump. LLELA staff and volunteers work diligently to restore ecosystems, reintroduce and care for native species (like Wild Turkey and Texas Bluestar), and ensure that our natural heritage is here for future generations. Slowly, LLELA is again becoming a refuge for wildlife and native plants and a place people fall in love with.

What’s the big deal about a balloon?

Plastic pollution is a crisis for our wildlife, fisheries, and fellow humans. (More info at Plasticpollutioncoalition.org)

Ribbons, string, nets, and fishing line are devastating to wildlife, including birds. LLELA staff show pictures like these to fishermen to encourage them to clean up their trash:

Balloons and plastic bags, once in water, look like jellyfish. They tempt and choke countless wildlife, including turtles.

You and I may seem landlocked in prairie, forest, and city, but we share a watershed connected to the Trinity, which flows to the Gulf.

Trinity Basin and Texas Counties

Trash, just like water, rolls downhill.

The Gulf of Mexico, as you probably know, faces plenty of pollution problems. Seagulls, pelicans, dolphins, turtles, fish and humans contend with oil spills, agricultural and suburban fertilizers, chemicals pouring in from our storm drains, and humanity’s ceaseless flow of unnecessary trash.

But it’s not just the Gulf that suffers. The problem is local, too. People at LLELA find wildlife tangled in fishing line and ribbon too often, and usually only after the situation has become fatal. There are lakes, ponds, and rivers near you, too, and if you look closely, scenes like this are common:

Great Egrets are a common Texas shorebird, and often end up fatally tangled in fishing line, rope, and twine: http://morningjoy.wordpress.com/2008/08/18/seaside-tragedy/

A Great Egret (a common Texas shorebird) with a mangled leg wrapped in fishing line: http://morningjoy.wordpress.com/2008/08/18/seaside-tragedy/

Due to ocean currents, even places where humans don’t live, or where humans don’t produce plastic, are swamped with debris.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the terrible plight of the Midway Atoll Albatrosses, where thousands of young birds die each nesting season because they eat plastic debris. Long after they perish and their bodies completely decay, the plastic remains, to be eaten by the next generation of chicks. One piece of our throwaway plastic can contribute to untold deaths.

Chris Jordan's heart-breaking photography of Midway Atoll Albatrosses: http://www.blog.designsquish.com/index.php?/site/plastics_dont_disintegrate/

Chris Jordan’s heart-breaking photography of Midway Atoll Albatrosses: http://www.blog.designsquish.com/index.php?/site/plastics_dont_disintegrate/

Alternatives

I implore and encourage you to use your creativity, passion, and love to find another way to share your message.

  • Send paper airplanes off a tall building, or leave little cards on benches, on buses, or in restaurants. You might be shocked to hear a conservationist propose strewing paper about, but paper is biodegradable and, in the United States, usually sustainably sourced.
  • Join the Geocaching community and leave messages of hope and love that way. When you add to or create geocaches of your own, you’re tapping into a network of engaged, interested searchers.
  • Start a sustainability club or committee to consider your outreach, even looking at your utensils, cups, and plates. I hope you ascribe to the well-founded belief that every action and choice an individual or organization makes changes the world – for good or ill. With more information, we can make decisions that better all species.
  • This website suggests alternatives to balloons.
  • You’ll find even more info and alternatives here.

I understand.

I’m sure you’re not intending to cause harm. I’m sure, like me, you’re trying to reduce suffering in the world.

I also understand that your balloon release was intended to be a joyful and community-enhancing event. My horror at finding a balloon in the wild doesn’t squelch my curiosity: I’m fascinated by the distance this balloon traveled: about 25 miles in 6 days (as the crow flies). I have lots of questions I’d love to ask you about how many responses you received, where they were from, and more. I’m not writing to squash your joy or outreach; I’m writing to help you do less damage.

I recognize your denomination and possibly congregation face many challenges in the future. As you decide your path and actions, please carefully and compassionately consider the environment in your ethics. Your decisions affect humans and all other species, the least of these, who have no voice in our society. With just a few habit changes, you can profoundly influence the world for good.

I have mailed this to [four staff members] and also posted it on my blog. I didn’t include the full name of your church, because that might expose you to undue criticism. I’m not here to gripe; I’m here to help.

Please, please find another way to share your message, and consider the environment when you do.

 

Don’t Mess With Texas!

Sincerely and hopefully,

Erin Taylor

The Happy Naturalist

Field Notes Friday 0016: Backyard Wildlife Surprise

I’ve made my first official Happy Naturalist video! I debated sharing this because I’d love for all my videos to be more polished and professional (like Orry Martin or Kelly Rypkema’s videos), but I finally decided that the information is more important than the gloss, and I’ll just do the best I can with the equipment and knowledge I have. My videos, as I hope you’ll see, will improve in production quality and information. But you’ve got to start somewhere! And this video isn’t half bad for an addition to #FieldNotesFriday.

Here are 2.5 minutes of discovery, even in the mud.

  • I’d never have known we had a visitor without that mud. That’s making lemonade of lemons, don’t you think?
  • The name of the song is “Loving Everything I Find.” Isn’t that appropriate?
  • So which visitor do you think came to our yard?
  • Bonus for identifying the birdsong!

For more information about #FieldNotesFriday and how you can participate: http://bit.ly/1pER2F4

 

Field Notes Friday 0013: Lucky Snake

We found our first snake in the yard! We’ve been living in this house for almost a year and a half, so I suppose it’s about time. I wouldn’t have thought of seeking out this sign of ecological diversity without finding it, though. Not that our yard is very diverse. Right now it’s Bois d’Arcs and so-called “weeds” (albeit edible ones).

We don’t hang out in our backyard much, but we want to change that. We also want to change how unwild our backyard is. The transformation will be a never-ending labor of love, which we’ve already started. I’m sneaking in native and fruit-bearing plants every now and then… but my failure rate with transplants is pretty high.

With the inspiration to wild our yard, and inspiration from a New Year’s visit to friends’ land, we’ve finally started our home nature journal. Here it sits in its pride of place, a showcase area of the countertop.

Home Nature Journal

But enough about that. The snake! The snake seemed paralyzed with cold, so I felt bad manipulating him/her for more than 2 photos. Hopefully I got enough for identification.

I looked on TexasSnakes.net and HerpsOfTexas.org, and I lean toward a *newbie* identification of Texas Brown or Checkered Garter.

What snake do you think this is?

What sites/resources do you use to identify snakes?

Mystery snake

Mystery snake

Here’s a pic of the journal entry, with transcript/translation(?) below, because… well, my handwriting is hard for even me to read sometimes.

Snake entry in home nature journal

Sunday, March 16, 2014

We found our first snake in the yard! We’d been digging up parts of the yard to change the slope. (The rain on Saturday nearly came in our back door.) Every earthworm & grub I found went into the compost pile, and then I put a thick layer of leaves over the dirt & worms. Right by the house & the sump pump, under a layer of leaves, I found a small grey snake. I remember a light underbelly & staring, round pupils. I took a picture. The poor thing was so cold (wind chill ~35°, temp 45ish, wind gusting 30+ mph) it wasn’t moving. We put it under the leaves in the compost pile. Landon looked for it later and found it more coiled up, hopefully comfortable. We’ll await an identification from Lisa. I’m hoping that we wild our yard enough that eventually we can’t even keep track of the wildlife sightings.

Oh! And thank you, thank you to all who helped with the butterfly mystery. I’ll be sharing the identification you made and giving proper kudos soon.

For more about Field Notes Friday and how you can participate, visit the #FieldNotesFriday tab, or click here.

Guest Blog: Seeking Wilderness Everywhere

Today, I’m sharing something different. Linked below is a powerful essay about where I work, volunteer, and recreate. It’s written by David Taylor of Center for Humans & Nature. I find this piece so moving that I want to share the writer’s words, experiences, and ponderings directly. I think you’ll feel inspired.

Here it is: http://www.humansandnature.org/blog/uncertain-memories

Look for these and other themes ~

  • the value children, juveniles, and adults find in nature
  • how repeat visits to wilderness can lead to deep ecological understanding
  • life skills developed through free exploration
  • the inherent value of wilderness, especially amidst urban development

What else did you encounter in David Taylor’s words? I always want to hear your thoughts.

http://www.humansandnature.org/blog/uncertain-memories

The Elm Fork of the Trinity River, just below the Lewisville Dam http://www.humansandnature.org/blog/uncertain-memories

Field Notes Friday 0008: Cycles of Life

This week I’ve been powerfully reminded: I’m constantly participating in a cycle of creation and regeneration. But wait! It’s not as new-age as it sounds. I actually got to participate in the very tangible life cycle of a particular plant in the last three months.

In December I helped with a prairie plant rescue, and described my interaction with Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium), a relatively unknown but interesting native plant. But there was another plant that was also a focus of the plant rescue: Penstemon cobaea, aka Foxglove (and a few other names).

We sifted through fields of gold looking for tall, stately, dark strangers (can you see them?): Penstemon cobaea

Here’s Penstemon, ready for harvest ~ Penstemon cobaea

And here’s the gold. Penstemon cobaea seeds. Penstemon cobaea seeds

And for those who follow me on Twitter, you may already know that I attended a Friends of LLELA meeting and won, as a door prize, a two year old Penstemon grown by the same folks who arranged the prairie plant rescue! Penstemon cobaea

Now these pictures may seem humble enough (though I find winter plant forms fascinating, as David Gaylord Chizum of the Native Plant Society also does – he published “Winter’s Botanical Strip Show” the very day after I went on the winter plant rescue!).

If you find the above photos underwhelming, you’re not alone. My Google searches returned not one photo of Penstemon in winter. Not one! I was shocked; the internet seems to have everything else. But perhaps Penstemon doesn’t attract enough attention in the winter, or its winter habit is known by plant lovers yet eclipsed in their minds by its Spring form. Just take a look at this absolutely glorious representation of what’s in store in my Penstemon’s life (from Dallas Trinity Trails’ blog):

Yes, it’s gorgeous. I’m excited to see it. But all stages in a life cycle have their own beauty, winter included. So… I haven’t yet participated in the full Penstemon cobaea cycle. But soon. And I predict it will feel very, very rewarding indeed.

Find out what Field Notes Friday is all about and how you can be part of the movement: #FieldNotesFriday.

Cougars and Wolves

Occasionally, online exploration can be as fruitful and exciting as outdoor exploration. Here’s the story of a digital hike as winding, breathtaking, and memorable as a mountain or forest trek.

I’ve recently toyed with committing to reading a scientific paper once a week. This week as I read Song of the Dodo I was inspired to look up papers about my growing obsession: wildlife corridors.

Like getting pleasantly sidetracked in the woods, I’m not sure exactly how it happened… somehow, reading “Do Habitat Corridors Provide Connectivity?” – perhaps it was the pregnant phrase “urban matrix likely impenetrable to bobcat and cougar” – led me to a Google search on Cougars (Mountain Lions, Puma concolor).  Shockingly, cougar hunting was an auto-complete option as I typed. A few clicks later, I learned that Cougar hunting is legal, and in my state (Texas), it’s legal any time, by any means.

I find this barbaric.

And I’m not alone. I was so grateful to digitally stumble upon the Cougar Fund that it brought tears to my eyes. I had never heard of it before, and as I let them know:

[The Cougar Fund appeared] among lots of websites promoting hunting, so I was wary, but as soon as I saw the intent of the website and [the video with] Jane Goodall, I was hooked.

Yep, that Jane Goodall. She’s a Director of the Cougar Fund, and in this heart-wrenching video, she explains why sport hunting of cougars needs to end. There’s also a handy donate button on that page, which I gladly used.

Like an unexpected wildlife sighting, in the same internet session the Sierra Club’s efforts to help the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) popped onto my digital trail. So I’m now, for the first time in my life, a Sierra Club member, and have signed the petition to continue the protection of the Gray Wolf. I urge you to do the same. (And if you join, there’s an option to receive a Sierra Club bag. I would have joined anyway, but cool!)

I never thought I’d be political. I never thought I’d be an activist. But these aren’t just charismatic megafauna. They’re living beings, with rights as unalienable as ours. When we spend just a little time studying them, we see their innate worth immediately.

And if we’d stop extirpating species – yes, the cougar and wolf were both native here*! – then people would stop saying about Texas (and I’ve heard this with my own ears several times) “there’s just not much nature there.”

Not much nature?! In the land of mesas and mountain lions, prairies and bison, forests and rivers and alligators and bobcats and armadillos? We’re not just wiping out species; we’re wiping out humanity’s memories of wilderness!

So help the Cougar Fund. Help the Sierra Club. We owe it to the future, for humans and megafauna.

* Gray Wolf range http://www.sightline.org/research/graphics/wildlife-wolf-cs06m/

Cougar range http://www.cougarfund.org/conservation/states/

Hunting Mountain lions is downplayed on the TPWD site, yet cougars are classified as ‘nuisances’. http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/nuisance/mountain_lion/

Field Notes Friday 0006: Rattlesnake Master and New Eyes

DSCN6190

Trying something different today – posting a picture I took in the field. This was from a December seed-collecting trip in one of the remnant prairies in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

This is a Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium). I like its stark contrast with the azure sky, and the obviously wintry trees in the background.

Things I noticed about RSM (as I abbreviated it in my notes):

  • This plant is well armed against herbivory!
  • Echinacea & RSM seedheads “look like sisters”
  • The stalk is so stiff that when I removed seedheads, the recoil spread a few seeds. That reassurds me that I wasn’t removing the whole population.
  • Other species close by (associates): Echinacea, azure sage, little blue stem, Dewberry, wild rose
  • Gathering is very good work for learning a species.

Things I’ve learned:

  • It’s an erygnium! Like “Eryngo”, that gorgeous purple “thistle” in the carrot family
  • Huge range in the US: Mentally draw a big rough trapezoid from Florida Westward to Texas, North to Minnesota and East to Ohio

After I found my first patch of Rattlesnake Master by blundering onto it, and removed every seed head I could find, I realized I was clueless to where I should go next. So I stood in place and looked down. What species were at my feet? Then I looked farther away. What species were clumped beyond this patch that weren’t represented here underfoot? How did the other patches of vegetation look: color & texture? How did this one compare? My impressions that other patches were warm maroon brown, and [the one I was in was] ‘spikey’ with hackberries. (There were other clues, like Dewberry thickness and proximity to motts vs open prairie.) So using my new ‘vision,’ I picked out a similar spot about 1/8 mile away. I walked there and was elated as if finding an old friend when I went right to more Rattlesnake master: There ARE patterns to be discerned.