Field Notes Friday 0027: Today I Felt a Prairie Fire

Is this what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands? Today I felt the heat of a prairie fire as I volunteered for a planned burn. It reminded me of the first prairie fire I ever witnessed, and an essay I wrote afterward in utter awe of the power. I’m taking liberties with my self-imposed 500-words-or-under rule to share this with you. The original publication was here in February 2011 (I was a guest blogger). There are great pictures at that link, and the other entries are well worth a read, especially for naturalists and prairie ecologists. The photos below are from Thursday, September 4, 2014.Today I Felt a Prairie Fire
Today I participated in a prairie burn at LLELA (the 2,000 acre wildlife preserve where I work). I now have a profound respect for the settlers who moved to the prairies and fought wildfires with their bare hands, with shirts and rags. They fought to help neighbors and themselves, to save houses, fields, and families.

I also gained a profound respect for fire fighters. Even several feet away from a blaze of waist-high plants engulfed in powerful, vibrant orange, I felt the skin on my upper arms burning and wondered if I’d walk away with blisters. How do fire fighters do it? How did settlers do it?

After work today I became aware of the bustling activity of a few LLELA employees and volunteers. The winds were right, the time was short, the plans were laid – it was time for a burn! Steady, slow winds and other factors expedient for a burn coalesce rarely, so when the time is right, action must always be swift (even though plans are made well in advance).

I was honored to be invited to watch my first ever prairie burn; I didn’t know I’d get to participate! I showed up to observe the pros at work, but instead was told to park my car nearby with the keys still in the ignition (so someone could start the car fast and get away if needed – yikes!). I was handed a big yellow bag full of water to wear on my back, and its accompanying hose and sprayer to douse unruly flames, and took turns with my boss Lisa using what looked like a mud flap from an 18-wheeler attached to a broom handle to slap little flames (or sometimes big flames) that strayed from their allotted zones.

Prairie Fire
It was serious work! My eyes would sting when the smoke thickened, my arms were burning, hot ash sometimes landed on my bare skin, my upper back muscles were sore, and the only shade available was from the smoke itself, and only when it became so thick and brown it blotted out the sun! In those eerie times, the glow around me would look alternately green, magenta, and even purple.

As I watched Lisa deftly handle the tools of the trade (the flapper, the hose, the igniter), and heard her conversing with Ken and Richard via radio, I realized how important communication is in such a situation. Teamwork is as essential as any of the other tools. A fire may be planned, but it is a raw, powerful, raging form of energy, and I kept thinking of the word force; it is a compelling, unavoidable, unrelenting Force of Nature which, once unleashed, is hard to contain.

And containing it was the art. The tools were never idle; used against a huge blaze, they may seem paltry, but they were deftly and strategically wielded. We were creating a fire break, an area that would be burned ahead of time so that the major fire would blaze toward it, get to the edge of it, run out of fuel, and subsequently die.

Our purpose was clear, but the method was subject to the caprices of weather. Our supposedly steady forecasted wind proved as fickle as a politician, and constantly shifted positions. Little flames seemed to be constantly testing their bounds, and when we turned our backs, they’d have created messes as toddlers with a new babysitter do.

And a new babysitter is exactly what I felt like! Experience is a grand teacher, and it was obvious that I had none. Lisa could see signs of fire where I saw only grass; she could see flames where I saw only wisps of smoke. When I first started helping, the scene would look placid right up until the point that there were multiple small fires out of my control. Gradually I became more aware of the patterns of the fire, and of the goal behind the smaller actions involved in keeping the fire in line.

Prairie Fire
At one point I saw flames brightly and colorfully reflected in big drops of water Lisa had just sprayed on the grass. So I knew that grass was wet and had no need of my attention, so I turned to other fires to swat. The next time I looked at the same area, it had become a bustling city of little flames, sprouted there as if by magic, or mischief! Vigilance is a must.

Little flames could also crouch unseen, hiding under small thickets of green grasses and plants. They seemed to watch with bright eyes until I turned away, then they’d suddenly burst forth and consume the towering goldenrod above them, as well as the shorter stems that had covered them. I could understand how ancient people might have attributed animate characteristics to fire.

The movement! The colors! The sound! The smell! The smell of a prairie fire is as homey to me as a campfire. Nothing was as unsettling, though, as the sound it made. Different plants burned with different sounds, but when many plants were burning inside of a wall of angry red and orange, the sound became cracking, popping, and a faint thrumming roar. I think it would have given me goosebumps if I hadn’t been so hot. If I heard that sound anywhere but in a controlled burn, my blood would to turn to ice in my veins. That’s the sound of death rushing straight at you.

And the animals noticed, too. We were only burning about 20 acres, so I’d guess that most of the animals we’d consider cuddly and cute were able to get away before they were in real danger. But the grasshoppers were caught by surprise. Some of them didn’t seem to be able to figure out which way to hop. Are they geriatric at the end of their season?

I had only a little time to contemplate the fate of some roasted grasshoppers, and wonder at the other animals who were (hopefully) making their escape. (In particular, I asked Lisa about snakes, her area of expertise. Could they slither fast enough?) But as I drove home, the implications of the power of fire wielded by human hands settled on me like heavy ashen dust.

Is this, then, what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands?

We decide when to burn; we decide when to plant. We decide what to kill; we decide what to preserve. We decide what to contain; we decide what to eradicate. Fire is the most blatant display of such powers I’ve ever seen. The scorched land we’d created with the use of fire recalled scenes or war, or descriptions of a hellish wasteland, a true gehenna. What will spring from these ashes, though, is a healthier prairie, covering the scars of fire with breathtaking greens, golds, reds, blues, browns, and purples in less than a year.

Fire kills, and fire brings life. It’s a heady experience to control a power like that, even just to see it. Maybe control is too strong a word; perhaps manipulate is better. Manipulate – is the root word related to hands? That would be appropriate. With our own hands, and our own brains, we choose how and when to use a power like fire.

Prairie Fire Preparation

Some tools of the trade: an igniter (the silver can) and water tank with pressure hose (the white container on the ATV)

Fighting that fire (for that was my role, though others had different roles) was tough and rewarding. Though I’m inspired by the prairie settlers’ tenacity, bravery, and toughness, I can see that they were fighting a perpetual battle against a force of nature. Prairies and fires are as inextricable as forests and leaves.

Restoration ecologists know this about North American prairies: you can’t have a thriving prairie ecosystem without bison… and fire. Fire, as destructive as it seems to humans, is necessary for the renewal of the prairies, and the removal of trees. Prairie Fire

Trees, yes – those symbols of restoration. “Plant a tree!” we’re told. But trees are the enemies of some ecosystems. Trees and grasses are ancient enemies; where one thrives, the other rarely survives. So, fire it must be to keep the prairies alive. Fire, bison, and now humans, for so much of the prairie is incarcerated behind concrete bars and barriers that we are the new bison; we are the new force of nature, and in our hands is the power to protect or destroy.

After the prairie fire

Part of the fire team reflects after the burn is over. Note the charred area behind us.

Caterpillars and Curiosity

My recent strange interaction with caterpillars led to curiosity, then inspiration. During a wilderness survival weekend, I was on “Earth Time” as Mark Suter calls it, and I leisurely observed caterpillars around us. But I’m not as adept at up-close vision as E.O.Wilson (who lost his long-distance vision as a child but has seemingly microscopic vision up close), so I needed help from some handy-dandy tools.

Here’s a friend’s camera and a $4 jeweler’s loupe, and how I used them together. I put the loupe at the end of the camera lens, and WOW! could I see detail!

Makeshift macro lens

I used my makeshift lens to observe a caterpillar even more closely. I was amazed at the tiny critter. I had thought its pattern was simple (a white “skull”, some blue and yellow stripes)…

tent caterpillar

Normal macro setting

…but the pattern was complicated, intricate.

tent caterpillar

the view through a loupe and macro setting

I was surprised again when I turned the loupe to a second and third caterpillar: Each caterpillar’s patterns and colors were recognizably different. I could tell the caterpillars apart.

Start by looking at the white spots. Then look at the difference in colorful patches.

Start by looking at the white spots. Then look at the difference in colorful patches.

I was so intrigued, I created a palette for each, using the colored pencils I’ve recently added to my field bag.Nature's palette

Being able to tell individuals apart humanized (for lack of a better word) the caterpillars. They weren’t objects; they were individuals. Perhaps this is why (as I’ve discovered) sketching something leads to caring about it. The closer we look at anything in life, the more we understand and appreciate.

And don’t we want people to appreciate and care for the environment and its inhabitants, whether local or global?

My interest deepened to inspiration, so I’ve set brush to canvas to paint my fascination. (The tetraptych is still a work in progress, but I’ll share it eventually.)

All of this – the interaction, observation, curiosity, endearment, photography, inspiration, art – was before I knew what the species is called. But in a deeper sense, I knew the caterpillar in a way I won’t soon forget. I’d wager that this species will stay in my mind throughout my life, whether or not I recall the scientific name.

I even had a friendly wager going with a coworker. Was this a species that made the ‘tents’ on nearby tree branches, or not? As it turns out, we were both right and both wrong, at least according to the Texas Bug Book. This is a tent caterpillar, but it’s a kind that doesn’t make tents. Weird! Maybe that’s why they were falling on us from Grandmother Bur Oak…?

Obviously, there’s more to learn, and I’m grateful for the printed and online resources I’ll use. But please note: the curiosity, inspiration, endearment, and deep memorable learning wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had an experience with this species in its native habitat.

If someone had simply toldme about these caterpillars, or if I had only read about them, I might have retained the information but wouldn’t have made profound connections – connections which will deepen with time and experience, rather than facts which will erode due to irrelevance and disuse.

Field Notes Friday 0018: Caterpillars From the Sky

You know it’s been busy if I’ve missed two Field Notes Fridays in a row! But it’s been a good Spring busy-ness. I crave a job that embraces the changing seasons and helps me feel connected to earth’s cycles… and I have it! Spring is as busy for an educator/interpreter as it is for the bees and birds. And mammals. And butterflies. And caterpillars.

Yep, caterpillars. Some gardeners hate ’em, most butterfly lovers love ’em, and most people find them at least interesting, if not downright fascinating. My latest experience with caterpillars was not only fascinating, it was inspiring. And, frankly, a little weird.

I was participating in another Survival Skills weekend led by Mark Suter of Primitive Texas at LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area). Throughout the weekend, we noticed caterpillars on our backpacks, on our shoulders, on the ground around us… there were always several within view any time. They seemed to be everywhere. We tried not to kill any, but I’m pretty sure I rolled over one in my sleep. They were cute – a little bit fuzzy, pleasantly colorful, and with interesting behavior, if you took the time to watch.

And taking the time to watch came naturally. All of us made observations – this caterpillar was climbing, that one seemed to be sleeping, this one was reaching for branches, this one seemed to be jerking or dancing, oh, look, there’s another one on your sleeve – we were observing insect behavior without even intending to. We were immersed in wilderness, working on skills previous generations needed for survival (making rope and fire, finding resources), and it gave us time to connect to the biological richness around us without even trying.

A few of the survival students enjoying lush Spring surroundings.

A few of the survival students enjoy the lush Spring surroundings.

I’m sure wonder and bemusement turned to mild annoyance for some. Trying not to harm caterpillars that come out of nowhere is taxing. Did I say out of nowhere? They seemed to be raining from the sky. Actually, on the final day, when Mark and I sat in the warm dappled shade working on hand-drill fire technique and yucca basket-weaving, we figured out they were falling on us. Perhaps from “Grandmother Bur Oak,” as Mark dubbed the tree shading our beautiful shelter. We could hear the soft pat….. pat as they fell into the thick leaf litter around us and began what I assume is the next chapter of their lives.

The sound of caterpillars. The sight of them dancing. The feel of them tickling your arm as they walk. We experienced caterpillars with multiple senses (but not with taste or smell, thank goodness). Because of these mental connections, we’ll never forget these little creatures.

Experiences like this usually inspire curiosity, as they did in me. What in the world species is this? Why are they falling on us? Do they sleep? What butterfly or moth will they become? I’ll let you enjoy the curiosity and questions a little while, as I did. Answers (and inspiration) coming soon…

(And here’s a treat. At least, I enjoyed it: A relaxing 30 second video looking up at Grandmother Bur Oak)

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 0015: Quantity, Quantity, Quantity

It’s time for you to get brave. It’s time for you to learn the secret to sketching – the underlying, most secret, most essential knowledge that will make you a better sketcher: quantity trumps quality. If you let go of seeking to produce quality sketches, your quality will improve.

I wouldn’t have believed it, but encouragement from a friend at the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program plus a push from the John Muir Laws blog have sealed the deal. I’m a new convert to quantity over quality. I hope you will be, too, if you’ve been timid about sketching (as I have been).

Here’s my first attempt at my new brave task: occasionally, sketch everything around you. No holding back. No judging. Embracing ‘mistakes’ as learning opportunities. Just try it!

Quantity

I hope by sharing my attempts to improve my field notes and observation skills, you’ll feel more free to explore and improve your own abilities. Perfection is never the goal; appreciating our world and helping others to do so is.

To get connected to the community of scientists, naturalists, educators, interpreters, conservationists and restoration folk who participate in #FieldNotesFriday, click here: http://bit.ly/1pER2F4

Field Notes Friday 0014: Perfect Ordinariness

Sometimes it’s the small things that make you take notice of life. Since starting our Home Nature Journal, and since Spring is really beginning to spring here in North Texas, I’m noticing signs of life arising anew from the cold. But they’re tiny signs. I have to look closely, and that makes discoveries even more gratifying.

Here are just a few of the simple, normal, everyday moments I’ve seen – and just around the house, not in any grandiose nature preserves accompanied by sweeping vistas – over the last few weeks. Sometimes, ordinary is extraordinary.

A leaf on my Monstera, a lovely shade of new. This plant has family history – its progenitor belonged to my mom, then to my aunt, and now to me.

A bug – I don’t even know what it is yet – but I was delighted for days warm enough that a bug was able to move enough to get into the house!

My new Nasturtium is blooming beautifully, exotically, alluringly. I wonder who it attracts. Looks bee-worthy to me.

A cozy little cove for a spider… in a single Pothos ivy leaf.

Small Things

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The Richness of Listening

There’s more depth to our outdoor experiences when we take the time to listen. This hazy previous knowledge suddenly crystallized into understanding as I was participating in a bird banding research project this week. This is an excerpt from my field journal about the experience.

The richness of listening

Ken heard a call and almost instantaneously identified it and its location. He suddenly had an even deeper knowledge of The Bowl [an area of the prairie we were in]. He knew there was a Ladderback woodpecker in the trees. Maybe 2, calling to each other. In short order (when we were done banding) he had located a nest. Now there’s a game cam there, hoping to catch evidence of activity.

So  I realize: knowing nature by SOUND makes an experience so much richer. Birds. Frogs. Even some trees can be identified by their sounds in the wind.

Jim said he couldn’t hear the calls I asked him to identify. Rock & roll music & heavy machinery were the culprits, he said. I joked that it feels like by the time I can identify birds by sound, I’ll be so old I can’t hear them. But Jim said women seem to hang on to their hearing in that range longer. We’ll see. I know I protect my hearing with earplugs more often than anyone I know – although more people are admitting to bringing earplugs to movies lately.

So I want a way to study bird calls. I can A) attend more birding walks. B) Hang out with birders more. C) Design my own course: Pick key species in the area & season, look at their photos, & play their calls from my Audubon app. Repeatedly.

I consider myself a fast learner when it comes to music tunes, but those are created by humans & I can generally repeat them, practice them. I can’t whistle and haven’t found a way to faithfully imitate or recollect bird songs in a meaningful way, and I can’t rely on devices yet to listen & identify. This is hard work!

How and when do you like to listen? How do you remember calls? I’m all ears.

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.

Field Notes Friday 0012: Kayaking for a New Perspective

If you want a new perspective of wilderness, travel by water. This is Part II of my journey down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River with KayakPower.com (Part I is here). Shameless plug: join us next time! Or tour your favorite wild place via water soon.

The SIZE of this tree! The photo doesn’t even capture it. I wondered how on earth a tree so big could have roots so shallow. I took this photo to pose the question to you. However, I think I found the answer (below). You’ll have to tell me whether you agree.Mystery tree roots

Those aren’t leaves. Grackles! It was amazing hear their noise before we could see them. They are a cacophonous group! I’ve only previously seen them congregate like this in parking lots. It was quite majestic (raining poop notwithstanding) to see them in such a large group in a wild setting.Grackles!

These look like the same root structure that puzzled me (above), and they’re attached to a live Sycamore tree. More evidence below.Sycamore roots

We discovered a mystery, and formed a hypothesis. This boat may belong to Waste Management, who runs the (very) nearby landfill. That pole may be for picking up trash along the river. Oh! And I just noticed the shovel to the right of the walkway. Perhaps there’s a regular effort by WM to clean up what the wind carries from the site. If I worked for WM, I’d ask to be on that crew.Mystery boat

As close as I could get to a nesting Great Blue Heron.Great Blue Heron and Nests

The same tree the Heron and nests are in. Look at those white branches: Sycamore for sure. Now look at the roots. Same as the mystery tree? I think so. What do you think?Sycamore with Heron Nests

The white Sycamore branches against the blue sky. (Because… color!) Without the river to erode the land, I’d never see Sycamore roots displayed so clearly. Sycamores are spread widely in the area, so unless I hike for many miles, only traveling by river will give me this perspective.Sycamore and Sky

Two species compared: Turkey vulture and Black vulture.Black and Turkey Vulture comparison

I learned something about kayaking in the late winter: it’s a birding fiesta. Winter birding on the water is breathtaking. You startle Great Blue Herons and Egrets (unintentionally, of course), who fly hundreds of yards down the river just to be disturbed by you again and take to their giant wings in dramatic fashion, uttering prehistoric calls.

Approaching a volt of vultures who watch you dispassionately till you cross a threshold only they perceive, then suddenly, individually, take off and soar above you, is awe-inspiring.A Volt of Vultures 1 A Volt of Vultures 2 A Volt of Vultures 3

My grandfather-in-law wanted to reincarnate as a vulture, and I can see why.I love vultures.

I hope you’ve glimpsed how much wildness you can experience via kayak (or other human-powered water craft). Join us next time, or take a kayak or canoe to your own wild space.

KayakPower.com offers paddling trips down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River starting from LLELA on the third Saturday of every month.

Kayak for Better Eco-Vision

There’s nothing like seeing wild places via river! This is a mix of thoughts and images from a February 15 kayak trip down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River with KayakPower.com. I’ve made the trip before, but it’s enticingly different every time. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to explore, too.

Here’s Mike Swope (owner of KayakPower.com), demonstrating 1) a cut bank being eroded by the river, and 2) his dislike of being photographed. It’s great to review geology and hydrology while floating on the water and basking in sunshine. KayakPower.com

I love kayaking along tight lanes and tangled banks. Tangled Banks and Tight Turns

Have you noticed certain spots that are favorites of, and apparently often visited by, wildlife? This one wouldn’t be visible to me except via boat. This pile of barely-digested hackberries says ‘raccoon’ to me. What do you think? Raccoon Scat?

One of those tangled banks I love. I haven’t figured out how to photograph them and do them justice. The wilder the river, the more beautiful sites like this.Tangled Bank

In a side channel, I ventured out of the kayak, walked around and found stark differences in soil types exposed by the river. The yellow is sandy/rocky, and the grey is clay. The clay was sculpted by the ripples of the years. I’ve felt skeptical about ancient wave patterns becoming fossilized, but after seeing this clay preserve wave shapes so faithfully, I don’t doubt anymore.Clay and Sand

I thought this was the largest bobcat track I’ve ever seen… but the animal appears to have sunk in the mud so deeply that claw marks show. I reminded myself with a little research that bobcat tracks have an ‘m’ shaped palm or ‘interdigital pad’. But the track is so wide! I know a large male bobcat lives at LLELA near where I took this photo – I know it’s male because I saw him mark a tree – so I thought maybe this track was his. LLELA is an urban wilderness, so this could be the track of a very large, wide-footed dog. What do you think? Coyote? Bobcat? Dog?

It was a spot well traveled by several species. Again, inaccessible unless you’re willing to get wet.Well traveled waterway

Soil horizons? Urban upheaval? Different flood deposits? I look forward to spending more resources (like time) learning about soils. To me, this looks like Blackland Prairie soil overlaid with Crosstimbers soil. That might make sense along the Elm Fork, which has spent centuries blurring the boundaries between the two in its floodplain. Rivers lay bare the secrets of the soil. Soils

A tree which budded out very early. Elm?Elm?

The remains of a bridge from Old Town Lewisville. Was it for trains or regular road traffic? My kayaking companions debated.Old Town Lewisville Bridge

A perfect bank for a rest, a snack, and a sneak photo from a hill. I’ll take another rest now and keep my 500-or-fewer words promise. Please join me for Part II of the river trip!River bank

KayakPower.com offers paddling trips down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River starting from LLELA on the third Saturday of every month.