Just like many of you, the holiday lights that decorate our indoor and outdoor spaces give a lift to the melancholy and stress that I feel this time of year. Especially this year.
I also like to sit on my back porch and just sit and stare at the trees and the sky. Sometimes when I do this I am driven in by the sudden barking of a neighbor’s dog or yelling of children nearby. My main nemesis is the loud leaf blowers that are so popular among the anti-leafers. So, I was very lucky recently to sit at sunset and just be in silence. I guess this is my meditation. The more I am able to just sit, the better I deal with all the other everyday stresses.
During this particular quiet sit, I watched the bare burr oak tree as the waning sun gradually left the tree limbs dark in front and the ones in back glowed pink.
I have much to be grateful for this year, but am not sorry to say goodbye to 2020.
Here’s to a better, peaceful year ahead for all of us!
It was a dreary, drizzly winter morning. I had been sitting in my portable photo blind since dawn (several hours of boredom) waiting for the sky to lighten and birds to come in to the perch I had set up near a feeder. I was tipping back on my little hunter’s stool (not made for tipping) and must have started to doze. Over I went, taking the blind with me, not to mention my tripod, the attached camera, and heavy lens. Instinctively, I grabbed the lens as I was going down. I fell on and bruised my other hand. As I righted the blind and tripod, I hoped no one other than the birds and nearby cows had seen me go over.
Nature photography can be difficult. Sometimes I have had to carry heavy camera equipment and other essentials (blind, stool, water, etc.) over rough terrain. I have been bitten by chiggers, fire ants, ticks, biting flies, and mosquitos. I’ve endured heat, cold, and lightening. I have encountered cactus spines, cow patties, poison ivy, and snakes (once a sunbathing Cottonmouth water moccasin blocked my path).
But, the rewards are great. The most obvious reward is getting some nice photos. I can show them to people proudly and say “Look what I did!” I can also show them to people and say “Look what I saw!” Maybe show them something they have not seen before and maybe in the showing and telling I can help others in their appreciation of the web of life.
There is also gratification in the process of taking the picture. The focusing on that one subject. My whole being becomes concentrated on seeing and recording a single, small part of the world. All else fades away.
Sometimes I have sat in my photo blind for hours, being quiet and still so I wouldn’t frighten away potential subjects. I needed to stay alert and aware. After hours of this sitting, I may or may not get the shot I wanted. I was rewarded with just learning the art of being patient and still.
There is the reward in just being outdoors communing with nature. Listening to the quiet. Listening to the bird song, the insect buzz, the coyote howls.
And the reward of the unexpected:
I had not planned on getting this Jack Rabbit portrait. I had been passing through an area to take photographs of something else. He ran into some bushes as I walked by. When I came back through that area later he allowed me to approach him and take lots of pictures. It always feels magical when this sort of thing happens.
The rewards I have gotten from my photography have been a sustaining force in my life. I am full of gratitude for this. When I have finished taking pictures of a subject I always say a quiet “Thank you.”
*Photos by Betty McCreary- Bobwhite Quail and Jack Rabbit photos taken in Goliad co., Texas
*Author’s note: My days of lugging heavy lenses over rough terrain are pretty much over. I shoot mostly flowers and insects in my own backyard with a small, lightweight digital camera.
Lately, I have been worried about the future of our country and feeling a real sense of despair at the divisions between people. There is so much trash talking and disrespect and hate. The news of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg hit me hard. A sense of hopelessness settled on my spirit.
So, I have been sitting on my back porch looking for signs of hope. I must confess to a superstitious side of myself, the self who interprets natural occurrences to have some meaning beyond just being what they are. A quote I like, from Lady Bird Johnson, says “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” A few days ago, I saw this lovely purple flower in my backyard. It was the first time this plant had bloomed all year and I took this as a sign of hope.
Then, a day or two later I saw this:
Soon after this photo was taken, the hawk swooped down after unseen prey and landed in the pot on top of the very same purple flower. So, maybe, as Emily Dickinson says, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Or not. It is interesting to me that I look for signs of hope in nature when the despair I feel is because of humans. The truth is that nature gives me peace and distraction. Nature bathing renews me and then I am able to come back into and deal with the human world.
I realize that I need to look to people for the signs of hope I need. To look for the “helpers”, as Mr. Rogers would say. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a helper. Her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia over their love of opera, is a sign of hope. The idea that two people, with very different ideas on justice, could come together and enjoy a shared experience, gives us all an example to follow. What kept Justice Ginsburg going strong all these years? Was it hope? Her death brought sadness to many of my sister and brother Americans. It also brought a renewed urge to follow her lead, to work for justice and equality for all. That she kept fighting for all of us, despite numerous illnesses, is to be admired. We can hold her up as an example and as a beacon of hope when we are needing it, like right now.
I like keeping up with the news of the world most days and especially during this time of our Covid -19 stay at home. I watch the daily White House Corona Virus Task Force press conferences live so I can hear what they are saying without it being chopped up into incomplete sound bites later on. Watching from a comfy chair in my bedroom while playing solitaire I often glance away from the puffed up orange haired human on the screen and check on the scene outside my window. I distract myself from the insanity with the natural calming beauty of my backyard. I can see red admiral butterflies and monarchs sipping nectar from the pink and yellow lantana blossoms. There is also a hummingbird feeder with a lovely black chinned hummingbird in attendance. I scold the humming birds for fighting each other over the feeder. “There is enough for all of you!”, I tell them, at the same time knowing that it is in their best interests to be territorial. The butterflies calm me and the hummingbirds distract me. But, the creatures that bring me the most pleasure lately are the little green lizards who are in abundance this year.
Almost anytime I turn away from the puffed up man on the screen I look out and spot these guys puffing up their bright, pink throat pouches (dewlaps). They move along the tree branches or fence top and stop. Then they puff out the pink pouch a time or two and then move on. Then they stop and do it again. This behavior in these male Anole lizards (Anolis carolinensis) is to attract a female. My grandmother used to say they were “showing their money.”
They are among many Iguanid lizards in the Family Iguanidae. They range throughout the south eastern United States from Oklahoma south through much of east Texas and east to Florida. They are not true chameleons, but change color from brown to bright green.
Just like the ubiquitous face masks and empty store shelves, these little lizards seem to be everywhere. I see them on walks in the neighborhood. There is one that hangs out near the front porch and I have seen at least three different ones at the same time in the back yard. Or maybe there were always that many of them around. It is just that now I have more time sitting at home enjoying nature from my window. Making lemonade out of pandemic lemons.
*Photos taken by author
*Reference: Texas Monthly Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Texas-by Judith M. Garrett and David G. Barker
Ah! Spring! I don’t like winter. I need the promise of coming warmth, new growth, and renewal to get me through the cold, dreary days. I always look forward to visiting local parks to see the beautiful displays of wildflowers in central Texas.
Well, spring is here, but this year it will be different for all of us. We are now under city of Austin/county of Travis orders not to leave our homes unless it is for essential reasons. Buying groceries, walking our dogs, and exercising are considered essential. We are not allowed to gather with non family members and must remain 6 feet apart from all others when we venture out. This is new and scary territory as the number of coronavirus victims rises. As of this writing there are 179 cases in the county (up from 160 the day before) and there has been 1 death. I note my physical state each day and try not to leap to the conclusion that I’ve got it. I try for some sort of normality, but these are not normal times.
Last Sunday, March 15th, I ventured out to a nearby grocery store. There were too many bare shelves. I had seen some the week before, but somehow I thought those were anomalies. The bread shelves were bare. There was no milk at all in the dairy case. There was no cheese. No ramen. The frozen pizza area was picked almost to the bone. I walked around the store in awe. I did buy a few things. But, the only things on my grocery list that I actually found were wine and toothpaste. Driving out of the parking lot I started to cry and was pretty blue the rest of the day. At least we had some food at home. We are lucky. So far no one I know has gotten ill.
I am still trying to get used to the lack of freedom. At first I was sure that I would be able to go out and walk among the flowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Then they closed some of their facilities (gift shop, cafe, classrooms, etc.). Okay. No problem. The grounds were still open and I planned a visit. I would get to see the owl, Athena, who had recently returned to nest near the entrance. Maybe her owlets had hatched. But, No! The Wildflower Center decided to close their grounds to all but essential staff.
Okay, I thought, I can still go out to my favorite nearby state park, Mckinney Falls, and indulge my wildflower and birding passions. Their grounds (400+ acres) were still open when I checked their website on March 19th. The site suggested reserving a park day pass online to minimize park staff interacting with the public. I planned a trip to the park with my husband. On March 22nd I checked the website. No! The park was now closed too!
Okay, I know I am whining. So many people are getting very sick and many are dying. Even doctors and nurses are dying. Celebrities and heads of state are getting sick. I am in the older than 60 group that has a greater risk of dying of the virus and I am grasping at focusing on Nature’s beauty and not on Nature’s ugly.
I can’t go see the park flowers in person during this pandemic, but I have photos from past years. I can do a virtual park tour. I share a few here for you to enjoy. Stay safe and I hope to join you next spring among the flowers.
**All Photos taken at McKinney Falls State Park by Betty McCreary
My right hip is starting to ache a bit from the walk and my legs move stiffly. I am thinking that much of my life seems to be a chore these days. Simple things, like walking, I no longer take for granted. We come upon a pretty tree. I hand the dog’s leash to my husband and walk up to the tree. I want to get a closer look at a flowering branch. It is a Redbud tree, although the small flowers are not red, but purple. The Redbud is an early bloomer. It is only February, but spring is here.
I wonder what it would be like to be a Redbud tree. I could go dormant in winter instead of feeling the depression that kicks in with short, dreary days. No thinking about everything I have to take care of each day. No laundry! No insomnia. No worrying about family and old pets. I would just “be.” I would be rooted in one spot. I could grow tall and wide and my roots could stretch deep into the earth. Bunnies might munch grass and cavort below me. Coyotes will move past me looking for prey. I could be a home to birds and squirrels. My flowers could provide nectar for butterflies and bees. My beauty would fade, but then return again each year. I could live a long time, longer than any human. There is an Oak tree on the coast that is estimated to be at least 1,000 years old. Redbuds are prettier than Oaks, though.
I am a Redbud tree. The air is cool and the sun is warm upon me. I am nourished by rich soil and spring rain. Beautiful purple flowers adorn me. My green leaves are shaped like hearts, but I cannot love. I will give birth to more trees like me as my flowers become seeds in sturdy pods. Someday I will get old. My grey bark will become scaly. I will topple into the dust and will become a log. I will be a bench for nature lovers and a home for little creatures. I will be gnawed by beetles and ants. I wil rot.
My husband is impatient, so I say good bye to my tree and my fantasy. When I get home I pull my field guide to Trees of Texas* off the shelf. I read that the life span of the Texas Redbud is only from 50-75 years! The length of their lives is the same as humans. And trees cannot love. I would miss loving if I was a tree. Oh, well. I will be cremated when I die and my ashes will be spread outdoors. I will become one with all life, Redbuds included, and I will be at peace.
*Trees of Texas Field Guide by Stan Tekiela (Adventure Publications, Inc.; Cambridge, Minnesota)
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*:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.