Mother Nature's Playground

A family member recently sent me some photos of her husband sledding down a sand hill at Monahans Sandhills State Park in west Texas. This brought back memories of climbing up and sledding down the white, gypsum dunes at New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument. We humans love playing on Mother Earth. We have our special accessories: sleds for snow and sand; pieces of cardboard for tall, grassy slopes or ice covered streets; skis and ice skates for snow and iced over ponds. We let gravity and friction take us on a ride. We go to the ocean to surf and sail. We go to the lakes and rivers to canoe or kayak. And then there is the fun of tubing on a river using the flow of water to power our ride.

But, we also have fun on earth without the accessories between our bodies and the elements. I remember rolling over and over down grassy hills when I was a little kid. And I had great fun jumping in puddles and leaping into piles of leaves. Maybe you made angels in the snow. Have you ever climbed a tree or gone up a cliff with only your hands and feet?

Here is a photo taken by my mother as I went hurtling down a slick, limestone incline at Pedernales Falls State Park in July of 1975*:

Photo taken by Barbara Downes (author’s Mother)

Last year I injured my back and right leg. I spent 5 months in chronic pain and outpatient physical therapy. I am much improved and can go on walks as long as the terrain is fairly flat. But, I don’t think I can do much physical playing on Mother Nature’s playground anymore. Just the idea of climbing up a steep hill seems impossible these days. I am mortal and age has caught up with me. I can’t do all I could do as a little girl or as a young woman, especially without some arthritis pain. The water is still my friend though. I can still float down the river on the current and swim in the lakes.

It is said that we evolved from the oceans and became land creatures. If I am lucky enough to get down to the coast this year I will body surf in the Gulf of Mexico. Guessing how the waves will break, I will try to be in the right place to float gently over the wave and down the other side.

*Swimming is no longer permitted at that part of the Pedernales River

Our Part of the Web

West Texas Spider Web (photo by B. McCreary)

                 Humans are an integral part of the web of life on earth. We have a great impact on and responsibility for the future of all forms of life here. I was planning on this last blog of the year to be about human’s deleterious effect on the rest of the natural world. I would share a photo I took of a duck with a 6 pack ring caught in its bill and around its neck. I would list numerous nasty things that animals and their habitats have suffered because of us. And then I would throw in some words about global warming and our impending doom. But, I froze like a deer in the headlights. I don’t really want to talk about gloom and doom.  Plenty of other people are already doing this (Greta Thunburg we are listening!).

                “We should change the narrative from one of fear and despair. Despite the bad (climate) news, people are still very optimistic. Optimism in this case is essential, because hope beats fear every time.”- Hillary Tam, Strategy director of global change agency Futerra” (news.globallandscapesforum.org)

                To follow the lead of Mr. Rogers, I want to look for the helpers. There are plenty of helpers out helping to make our world cleaner and safer for humans and other life forms. There are national organizations that have local chapters like the Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, etc. They can help people find a way to help locally and beyond. Individuals can help clean up a river, plant native trees, take samples from local waterways to monitor pollutants, survey area plants or fauna, remove invasive plant species, etc. If a person can’t physically get out there and do boots on the ground chores, most of these helper groups need office help and money. There are so many organizations that are helping and it can be overwhelming to choose which one to get involved with.   

                If you like to write, write articles or write your congressperson. If you are tech savvy, help design a new website or media campaign. Start a carpool at your workplace or school or church. If you are good at speaking before groups you can help spread the word this way. One thing I do is help with a local fauna survey. I go out to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center and join others in finding and recording every living thing that is not a plant. I cannot identify all the birds and insects I find, but I can help find them. And this is fun. We chat and laugh a lot as we work and learn.  I encourage everyone to find a way to help our planet. I especially encourage you to find a way to do this that is fun for you.

                I leave you with a quote from Dr. Jane Goodall:

“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

(from globalcitizen.org)

Thankful For A Single Tree

Bald Cypress

                I look at trees every day as a birdwatcher, but I don’t really “see” the trees.  Recently, a friend from Colorado has been e-mailing me of her encounters with various trees and this has prompted me to look at trees a bit closer.  Our native trees have been beautiful this fall. Not just beautiful, but spectacular: the brilliant yellow of the cedar elms and the big tooth maples; the reds of the cypress and the Texas red oak; the intense scarlet of the aptly named flame leaf sumac.

                 I had intended for this month’s blog to be a celebration of central Texas trees showing the rest of the country that:  “Yes, we do have seasons down here.” Driving down nearby streets, the colors would catch my eye and I would tell myself, “I will come back tomorrow and take photos of that tree.”  I kept telling myself I was going to do this, but I kept putting it off. Then, a few days ago I noticed that the tree colors were less vibrant and more leaves were falling off the trees. I realized I was missing, may have already missed, my opportunity. I thought I had already learned my lesson years ago when I did a lot of nature photography:  Take the photo now! “The sky will not look like this tomorrow.”  “That bird may not be in this spot tomorrow.”  

                This is a pattern of mine throughout my life, to plan to do something and then not follow through and then the opportunity has passed, never to return. There is a feeling of shame associated with this habit of procrastination, and a feeling of sadness.   

                On the 13th of this month while surfing the internet, I learned of the death of author Gary Svee. He was someone I had intended to contact.  I wanted to ask him about why he wrote what he did about an ancestor of mine.  I had been given a phone number of someone who knew him and was so anxious about calling a stranger out of the blue that I kept putting this off.  I put it off for a year and a half. Now it is too late.

                I went to his online memorial page and left a note. On the page it said that people were being asked to donate money to plant a tree in his memory. So, I did that.  There is some sort of meaningful connection between the tree leaves transitioning and people transitioning that I am trying to grasp as I write this.  The book of fiction this man wrote was entitled Single Tree and painted a sympathetic portrait of part of my family tree, a great, great uncle.   I wanted to thank him, whether or not my thanks would have been welcome by him. But, I didn’t do this. He will never know what his book meant to me. Maybe he wouldn’t have cared.  I cried when I read that he had died even though I had never met the man. I think maybe I cried more in disappointment at myself.

                So, I share with you here some of Austin’s color and my advice to take action. Colors don’t last. Lives don’t last.

*Obituary for Gary Svee can be found at:

https://smithfuneralchapels.com/book-of-memories/3924750/Svee-Gary/

(Tree photos by Betty McCreary)

Prairie flame leaf sumac
Sycamore- leaf snowbell
Big tooth maple

Things to do in Austin, Texas

The Great Paddle Boat Rescue

On a day in August, many years ago, two out of town friends and I decided it would be fun to rent a paddleboat for a short cruise on Town Lake in Austin. *Kay and I seated ourselves in front of the paddlewheel, while Mikey sat between us by the rudder. The adults would provide the muscle and Mikey, age 7 (almost!), would steer. We were all wearing life jackets. It took a little while for Mikey to get the hang of steering, so we didn’t get very far from shore at first. We paddled around in the area underneath the South 1st street bridge. We saw ducks near shore and people catching lots of fish from a short pier. We also saw abandoned Cliff Swallow nests under the bridge, along with numerous pigeons roosting on the bridge supports. I pointed out to the others that the high pitched sounds we were hearing were the sounds of baby pigeons.

Eventually we got ambitious and decided to paddle across the lake and over to the Congress Ave. bridge. Way up ahead we saw some sort of water bird out on the lake near our goal. As we made progress towards the bridge we saw the bird splashing around in the water. Kay said she thought it was diving for food. When we were about 50 feet away I realized that the bird looked more like a pigeon and that it was fluttering around so much because it was trying to stay afloat. I said that we had better pick it up or it would drown. Easier said than done! Kay and Miguel both tried to steer while I paddled and yelled at Kay to hurry up or the bird was going to drown and for them to get us up alongside it on my side where I could grab it and that even though I was wearing a life jacket, I didn’t want to have to go into the water after it!

Well, we rescued the pigeon. We still had half an hour left in our hour rental of the boat, so I kept the bird pressed to my side and we paddled on. Out of the cold water of the lake, under my arm, the bird was warming up nicely. At one point, I happened to look down to check on his condition and noticed mites running all over my arm! Grey mites. Red mites. All I could do was lean over and wash them off with lake water. Kay and Mikey and I enjoyed the rest of the trip, but half my concentration was on the mites. Back at the dock, one of the guys who ran the boat rental said that someone brings in a pigeon every other day! The one we had rescued appeared to be a juvenile with feathers long enough to fly. Perhaps the young ones do not know enough not to land on the lake.

The pigeon was dry and eating by the next day and was turned over to a volunteer with Wildlife Rescue for observation and eventual release. Thanks to Kay and Mikey for their part in the rescue! If anyone is interested, the paddleboat rental is located on the south shore of the lake near the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Have fun, but be prepared for the unexpected.

*Names were changed to protect the innocent

Grateful for a Blind Dog

My husband and I live with two old dogs and an old cat. One of the dogs, Dash, we inherited from a deceased family member. We had always said, “If any thing happens, we will take care of little Dash.” Dash is 13 going on 2. He is short and looks like a fuzzy tater tot. In July Dash went blind in one eye. Three weeks later he went blind in the other eye. I have never had a blind pet before and it is a challenge. He responds to our voices and he knows the house and yard pretty well. We are careful to not move things around.We keep track of Dash’s whereabouts so he doesn’t hurt himself. When he starts to rock and roll in the early morning, one of us has to take him outside to go to the bathroom. Sometimes I feel a bit trapped with the care routines between him and our other ailing dog.

But, last week I took Dash out at dawn. Groggy and a bit resentful, I looked up to see beautiful streaks of pink jet contrails and a silver sliver of moon. This was a special dawn sky that I would have slept through. I am grateful for getting to see this awesome scene, that except for Dash, I would not have experienced. Our little, blind dog is my guide these days.

Jet Trails and Moon Sliver
(photo by Betty McCreary)

The River And The Wall

U.S. On The Left-Mexico On The Right
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

My parents loved talking about their visits to Big Bend National Park in west Texas. A few of the trips involved hiring a boatman to take them across the Rio Grande to the Mexican side where they hiked and camped. This was legal and the Mexican police even offered a pistol to my dad to carry as protection. I grew up hearing these stories and looking at their photos of the natural beauty of the mountains. My first trip there was during my college years. I have been back on several trips since then with friends and family. We have camped in campgrounds with amenities (water and a bathroom nearby), back country primitive sites with no amenities, at the park lodge, and in nearby towns.

Big Bend Bluebonnets
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)
Big Bend Mountainside
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)
Beauty in the Desert
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

I have been thinking a lot about my trips and my parent’s trips after viewing the documentary movie “The River and the Wall.” The movie was filmed in 2018 and released earlier this year. It follows five people traveling the length of the Rio Grande in Texas from El Paso all the way to the mouth of the river as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. The group consists of four men and one woman and they come from a variety of backgrounds (photographer for National Geographic, ornithologist, river guide), but they are all conservationists. The goal was to document the existing border before a proposed border wall cuts through the natural beauty. They traveled 1, 200 miles using mountain bikes, walking, canoeing, and on horseback. They passed areas with a border wall and areas with border patrol agents, but much of the adventure is in wild and rugged territory with no man made border wall.

Sign Warning People Not To Buy Goods Sold By Mexican Nationals
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)
Mexican Made Items for Sale on U. S. Side of River
Hard to see in photo but there is a walking stick and some little scorpions made of colorful wire, some quartz, and a small can to put money in. The note says that the money will help the school across the river in Boquillas.
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

The movie is directed by Ben Masters. We saw the film at the Austin Film Society Cinema theater and after the showing we were privileged to enjoy a question and answer session with two of the adventurers, Jay Kleberg and Austin Alvarado. I give the film two thumbs up for the stunning photography and the message that we need to protect our natural areas from being destroyed. It is entertaining and educational at the same time, as well as containing some laugh out loud humor. Go see “The River and the Wall.” I guarantee you will learn something you did not know about our Texas/ Mexico border.

Cooling Off In The Rio Grande
(2009 photo by Betty McCreary)

At www.TheRiverandtheWall.com there is more information and a movie trailer. There is a The River and the Wall Facebook page with clips from the film. The movie is available in select theaters and you can rent or buy it if you have Amazon Prime.

Arachnophobia

     I have arachnophobia, which is the fear of spiders and other arachnids. From what I have read, my case of arachnophobia is a mild one. I used to be like most kids and had a curiosity about bugs. I don’t remember being afraid of them. I did have a healthy respect for red wasps and yellow paper wasps after some painful stings. My arachnophobia began one autumn when I was about 9 years old. I was standing up against a honeysuckle covered chain link fence talking to a friend who was in her back yard nearby. When the conversation ended I turned away from the fence and saw a large, yellow spider coming at me! At least I thought it was after me. I yelled and flailed and the spider ended up on the ground. What probably happened was that I had gotten caught up in the spider’s web and as I moved away I pulled her with me. This scared the heck out of me and for many years after that I had a real fear of all spiders. If a spider was in a movie scene, I had to close my eyes.

Fast forward twenty years to when I started to take photography seriously, especially the photography of all things “nature.” I started to lose a bit of my spider fear. As long as there was a camera lens between me and a spider, I was able to get pretty close to take their picture. Some spiders have really pretty colors and patterns that can only be seen and appreciated up close.

     In our household I am usually the go to person to get rid of insects inside the house. I would rather capture them and escort them outside than to kill them. My daughter and husband rely on me to remove what they consider pests. We took a trip to visit a family member living in Nicaragua a few years ago. My daughter came out of the bathroom telling me about a big spider in the shower. Mommy to the rescue! However, I took one look at the size of this spider and went and found someone else to remove it. I still didn’t want to get close to the really big ones such as tarantulas.

     I often go out with other nature lovers to help with the weekly fauna survey out at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center here in Austin. We are true nature nerds who get excited about almost any tiny insect creature we find, as well as the birds, cottontails, and reptiles. Learning about various spiders and their habits on that property has contributed to my lessening spider phobia.

     Recently I spotted a small garden spider in a web in a trash can half full of yard trimmings. I was excited to see her since it had been a long time since we have had one in the yard. I asked my husband to not use that trash can so she could keep her web. He said “Okay.” Well, he is not as excited about all of these little critters and forgot about her. I went back a week and a half later and I could not see the spider or her web. There was a pile of plant cuttings where her web had been. I was not happy with hubby! But, a few days later she and her web showed up again in the trash can. She is growing bigger and I check on her every few days. I have named her Charlotte. Her web now extends out of the trash can and onto the plant growing on our fence nearby. Guess what the plant is? You guessed it, a honeysuckle vine! I have come a long way from fearing to loving and protecting these pretty creatures. I am wishing her the best and look forward to seeing at least one egg sac this autumn. She will die before the eggs hatch and I will miss her and her lovely web.

Back view of Charlotte, the Black and yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia)
(photos by B. McCreary) (identification based on “Spiders of Texas-A Guide to Common and Notable Species” by Valerie G. Bugh)
Charlotte’s Underside