Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Way the Day Unfolds, part 1 of 4: Getting to Know Grass

When there are ten-thousand things that need to be done, it’s hard to know where to start. The weather, the wind, how wet the soil is, these ferret out a few tasks. Sometimes the disaster du jour sets the day. Or you see where your feet lead you.

Getting to Know Grass - Part 1 of 4

We stride out into the north meadow, determined once again to identify the new native grasses. For years we pummeled the 5 acres, yanking out the old Bermuda that didn’t do diddly for wildlife, disking and plowing and disking some more, then rolling in hundreds of dollars of native grass seeds, hoping to bring back the prairie that grew here a hundred years ago.

What came up we haven’t a clue. It all looks like the same grass – until the seed heads emerge in fall. Until we get a name we call them by their look: puffy top (looks like a frightened cat’s tail), red windmill (rusty tops with two to three strands that flop in the breeze), golden windmill (the same in gold), short spangle grass (conical seed head looks like a anorexic Christmas tree after all the needles fall off).

None of these are what we planted. Natives, yes, but all volunteers. They look great for sure, the puffy tops that gleam in the sunlight and sparkle with dew in the morning, the undulating windmills in the breeze, setting up waves of maroon and gold. Lovely, but with little seed value for wildlife.

Bluestems, that’s what we want, big-boned native grasses boasting tall vertical heads of ample seeds, plants that grow into large clumps that birds can nest inside. Here and there, little and big bluestem are giving it a go, spikey tops standing out among the puffies and windmills. Plus our old pal brushy bluestem, whose rust-colored fluffy seed heads poking out of the Bermuda several years ago convinced us the prairie yearned for return.

But where is the side-oats grama? After much digging, we find a solo distinctive spike, the seeds dangling off to one side. But the Indian grass? The Alamo switchgrass? We stand in the 30 mph wind screaming out of Oklahoma, flipping through books with pages flying, trying to match one of hundreds of pictures to the plant. Answers are just not going to happen today.

It may be a lost cause anyway. New native grasses tend to stay small the first year, investing their energy into putting down roots. We just won’t know until next summer. We simply have to have faith, much like the faith of the brushy bluestem, waiting for the right year, right weather, right landowner, to push out of the darkness and into the light.

October 25, 2007

The Way the Day Unfolds, part 2 of 4 – Invasion of the Cedars

Invasion of the Cedars

Our search for grasses takes us by jeep into the Back 40, to the East Flank. On this side of the wet-weather Cross Creek that divides the 43 acres, the cedar trees had not completely overtaken. Fifty years ago during a long drought, the neighboring rancher had cut the fence and allowed his cattle in. His cattle were starving and the Back 40 absentee owner had not been seen in years.

This forage larceny turned out to be an act of grace. With deer, buffalo and other native ungulates unable to access the Back 40, trees had moved in decades ago. At first it was oak, ash and pecan, wonderful hardwoods that make great mast, or large seeds. They lined the outer fences and shaded Cross Creek, growing immensely tall on the upper end where the seeps are. It was what habitat geeks call “mid-succession,” a fertile balance of food and shelter, sunny meadows and shady woods.

Then in moved the junipers, though everyone calls them cedars. They grew up underneath the hardwoods, choking out the food-rich undergrowth and eventually the hardwoods themselves. Over 70% of the rain that falls on a cedar is retained, never hitting the ground to nourish other plants. It was on its way to being a cedar dessert, until the hungry cows cleared out a generation of young cedars, restoring balance.

October 25, 2007

The Way the Day Unfolds, part 3 of 4 – Patience & Prairie

Patience & Prairie

The East Flank remained meadow-like for a while. By the time we got there 50 years later, the cedars had reduced the long meadow into a series of patches and in our first three years we watched the cedars get larger and more numerous. The drought of 2006 made it worse. The seeps stopped flowing. Plants like the surviving oaks and pecans that were on the line, were clearly dying, even the hardy persimmons and sumacs.

So we did the craziest thing: we cut over half of them down. Even though it was in a back-woods area that trucks couldn’t access, making it impossible to bring in shredders or sawmills to transform trees into timber or mulch. But Wade with his small bulldozer-like Bobcat with a table-sized buzz-saw on the front could get back there. He cut and shoved the 30-foot tall cedars into house-sized piles.

Where they remain, housing extended families of raccoons and rabbits no doubt. Too large and too close to the remaining trees to burn, they may be with us for quite a while. Inbetween the piles is some mighty fine prairie to be, a quarter mile long meadow, rimmed with trees that recede and project in lobes and points, creating a deeply curved edge that fosters life.

Decades ago, someone trying to be helpful, probably hunters attempting to attract deer, had seeded the meadow patches with a hybrid bluestem that took over, not much in the way of seed but a fine cover plant for erosion-prone soil. Wandering the nascent prairie on this day, here and there bluestems push through, and partridge pea, a fine forb with a great seed, makes a robust rally, all without any additional seed from us. Hope lives in the memory of the soil.

October 25, 2007

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Way the Day Unfolds, part 4 of 4: Crash, Cut & Tape, or, Being Lost is Half the Fun

Crash, Cut & Tape, or, Being Lost is Half the Fun

Our grass evaluations concluded, the kind of warped logic we are prone to takes over. Now back at the south end of the property, we’re curious about some woods work we continued yesterday on our latest trail. That was on the West Flank. It’s much like the East Flank, but since it didn’t have the mid-century cow invasion is far more overrun with cedars, forming a dense woods, some of them 50 feet tall.

Yet our crashing through the brush over the past year had uncovered an intriguing series of widely spaced large pecan trees, nearly swallowed by cedars, but surviving, along with the occasional possumhaw and roughleaf dogwood thicket, struggling remainders of a vibrant understory life. We marked our careening path by tying long strands of yellow tape with black dots, but didn’t cut the branches away to create a real trail.

That area of the West Flank is just a few hundred yards by foot across Cross Creek via the Funky Trunk Crossing and Hanna’s Trail. Or over a mile by jeep roads, since we have to drive down to the shallow end of the creek and back up again. So we strike out by foot, reasoning that we’ll go over there, cut and re-mark the trail, and come back. Piece of cake, nice hike.

The first tip-off that things would not go quite as planned was losing the trailhead. The trail we knew was still there; we worked on it a few hours yesterday and have the scratches to prove it. The trailhead was another matter. We knew it was off Hanna’s Trail somewhere. But sometimes the tape disappears, sometimes we run out of tape and don’t finish marking the trail.

We follow Hanna’s Trail to its hilltop clearing terminus, and walk back and forth over 50 yards or so, looking for the trailhead. A parting in the trees looks promising and we enter. One slight opening in the cedar forest leads to another and then another and then nothing, just solid thicket. We crash into it, knowing that out there, somewhere, were strands of yellow tape making vague partings in the woods.

Scooter begins fanning back and forth through the cedar brush looking for the trail, while I make a line to where I think the trail should be, cutting and marking a new trail as I go. We find yellow tape, but aren’t sure where on the original trail we are. He heads out again to figure the trail out. I’m too lost to do much of anything besides cut the trail we found, linking one yellow strand to another, to wherever the heck it’s going to go.

Eventually we connect, my new trail becoming more ragged and less well cut as it goes on until I crash into the original trail. We follow it to its trailhead, in a far different spot on Hanna’s Trail than we remembered. By this time it’s nearly dark; we spent almost five hours bushwhacking trails. Exhausted and out of water, we sit on some bare ground and remember, oh yeah, the jeep is quite a distance on the other side of Cross Creek.

We brush off the accumulated cedar needles and head back, another day spent where the feet wanted to go. Yet incredibly productive. Someday we’ll bring in machines to cut cedars on the West Flank as we did on the east. But before we do, we have to know where the good trees are to save them, and where the animals find shelter, so we avoid there, too. We return to the jeep and drive home in the gathering dusk. As we leave the high forest and enter the lowland meadows, a Full Moon surprises us, rising above the eastern treeline.

October 25, 2007

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The First Front of Fall

Hints arose earlier in the day, high wispy clouds, thin in the stratosphere, the sign of cold weather, even though temps were in the 90s. Looking for persimmons late that afternoon a mile north of Osage Moon, a whipping wind smacks me in the face with leaves. This isn’t the slow southern swamp breeze of summer. This is a genuine norther, bearing not just humidity, but rain. Overhead a dark blue strata edges forward, the upper clouds sloping backward from its own wind.

I race back to Osage, beating it by just minutes, rousting Scooter with flush excitement: Fall is here! We hunker on the back porch as the front moves in. Winds blow with wildness, scaring the dogs who think the ritual of storm-watching is madness. They cower against the back door and watch us with suspicion.

The trees shake, shimmy and groan, bending limbs and shedding leaves. Grapefruit-sized light-green horse apples fall from the osages with loud thuds; we moan on what this would do to our real apple tree. Tall grasses in the meadow bend low and horizontal, giving no resistance to the storm. Mabel, the shaggy sheltie mix, peers off the porch, nose pointed to the north, long wooly hair flying behind her. Finally, after the long summer, is her season.

The front moves with intent, barging southward, looking sleek and streamlined, its own racing winds pushing the clouds backwards in a steep slope. A low spread of steel blue clouds soon obliterates the sky. Then suddenly it stalls, the clouds barely moving except for odd dark fragments dropping from the blue shelf. It seems to be making up its mind.

A break in the blue clouds teases open and reveals what sits atop them: epic billows of silver and white cumulous, shining in the sunlight and radiant with moisture. All at once the bottoms of the blue open up and the clouds let loose an inundation of rain. Months of dust and pollen wash from the air. In scattered patches of sunlight the water shimmers bright.

It pours rain for an hour. We watch the back end of the storm hustle away like the dust trail of pickup zipping down a white-rock road. The birds had lingered long past their time, waiting impatiently for migration cues. Catching a ride on the front’s tail wind, two great blue herons head south to warmer, livelier ponds. Soon the robins from Missouri will arrive, over-wintering in our relative balm.

October 8, 2007

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Rain Break of the Bored Farmer

Rain Break of the Bored Farmer

After weeks of rain, the farmers have become restless. You see them in town during the day, loitering around the hardware stores and tractor places. Encounters have always been a brisk howdy-do, a run down on what’s up, and then on their way back to the fields. Now there’s nothing to talk about. No one’s doing anything. They’ve even been seen aimlessly roaming the aisles at Walmart, hunkered amid the screaming kids and harried mothers. Sad.

As a drought-ending deluge this one took as much as it gave. Ruined the winter wheat crop with too much rain, leading to sad spongy kernels flopping at the end of stems. Then created a bumper crop of corn, huge ears on immense stalks, a blessing after the two dried-out harvests before. But another week of rain and it’ll be rotted out, too. We appreciate having lawns again, but would like our gravel driveways back from where the rain has moved them several yards downhill.

Then Saturday morning brought sunny skies. The inland hurricane finally ambled to the east, drenching north Louisiana. Wildflowers responded with pent-up energy, able to open up their blooms unbattered by rain. The prairie fields erupted into a giddy frenzy of butterflies. Humidity evaporating from the fields formed expansive billowing clouds that grew by the minute. Soon the farmers’ unhappy hiatus would be over.

July 8, 2007

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Monsoon Season in North Texas

It’s monsoon season in North Texas. We’re halfway though the year, yet we’ve reached our annual average of rain. A huge low-pressure system hovers to our west and is slow to amble away. This hungry beast pulls up air laden with water from the Gulf of Mexico. The result is rain, rain, rain. On the weather radar, vast clouds spin slowly around the low in the middle, rotating like a diffuse inland slow-motion hurricane.

Lakes that dwindled to mud-puddle status now overflow their banks. Wet-weather “sudden” creeks surge 24/7. It’s nice to be out of drought for the first time in two years. It would be even nicer to see the Sun again. Or maybe not. When sunshine does break through, the fungus blooms. Your sinuses fill with spores and swell up like a watermelon inside your skull. Mushrooms sprout out of your ears.

But enough is enough. Rain no longer soaks into our black clay gumbo soil. It just rolls off the surface and on to creeks and rivers until reaching the Gulf of Mexico. There the spinning low pressure system picks up the gulf moisture and promptly brings it back to us. A seamless hydrologic cycle in which are soggily immersed.

In the endless rain, roiling creeks and rivulets appear where none were before, trumping the artificial grid of gutters and gullies. Water goes where it flows, in ancient paths never forgotten, each drop following its own call of the Continental Divide, making contact with the ground and then flowing one direction or another, toward the ocean of its intent.

July 3, 2007

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Sugar Freaks on Planet Earth

Sugar Freaks on Planet Earth

A sweet tooth is universal. If aliens ever land, I’m sure they’ll head straight to the sugar cane fields of Brazil. From the grizzly bear that raids the bee hive, to the microbes in my garden soil that get delirious over dried molasses, planet Earth is full of sweet freaks.

Hackberry emperors are the beer drinkers of butterflies, tanking up on rotting fruit and tree sap rather than the fine wine nectar of flowers. It looks like a tiny flying swatch of Persian rug, intricately patterned in brown, black and tan. Macho butterfly. Ants are the top sugar fiends of bugs, so hooked on sugar that some breeds will farm aphids, a soft white bug, and milk them for a sticky sweet secretion called honeydew, a nice word for aphid poo.

Down on our shady bottomlands, the sugar freaks have set up a bar district. The leaves of lean 10-foot water ash trees are all curled up and puckered, each encasing a small aphid colony. Hackberry emperors and their butterfly buddies careen about the trees, staggering from branch to branch, then go quiescent in stupor. An occasional bee tries to crash the party, June bugs dopily wonder what’s up. The bartender ants go briskly about their business, their slops and slip-ups the happy feasting of drunken flying bugs.

late June 2007