Category Archives: nature

The grapefruit harvest that ended with me cutting down a tree

Grapefruit harvest has become one of my favorite things about living in the Little House on the Eastside. We have many fruit trees, but the only one, thus far to produce to it’s full potential in both taste and quantity is the faithful grapefruit tree.

The meyer lemon tree is a phoenix, which is finally producing after we thought it died in 2011. Verdict is still out on the quality. The pear tree produces plenty of fruit, edible only by Florence, who also eats plastic, wood, and probably metal. The pomegranate bush produced exactly three of the saddest fruits I have ever seen. Our fig tree is really only a fig tree in theory. The loquat tree produces plenty, but who needs that many loquats? The tangerine tree, usually pretty reliable, if extremely tart, is taking the year off, and our pecan trees barely survived the drought, so we’re not asking much.

Last year, we harvested in early December  in running shorts, sweaty and itchy as we climbed ladders and picked through the highest branches.

Harvest 2012. Note the shrubby anacua in the lower left.

Harvest 2012. Note the shrubby anacua in the lower left.

This year, the harvest came early, as I looked at the forecast and saw a freeze approaching. So I bundled up and headed to the orchard to see what I could salvage. It was 2 hours before we needed to leave for church, which is when all worthwhile projects are hatched.

Here’s how it all went.

2:50 pm: Upon inspection, Bekah determines that the meyer lemons were in fact, not ripe. Ripe meyer lemons are bright orange, and these are still a little yellow. However, while examining the lemons she did find this amazing creature.

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3:05 After filling 4 grocery bags from just the low-hanging grapefruit, Bekah goes inside and fetches the little step-ladder to get the next level. Lewis is nowhere to be found, and thus the plan goes forward half-baked and without precaution.

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3:10 A shrubby anacua and several hackberry saplings present an obstacle. [note: I’m not opposed to “trash trees” the way that some people are. True they will take over your back yard as aggressively as bamboo, and they are nearly impossible to kill…but they are native, the birds love them, and they aren’t ugly…well, okay, they aren’t too ugly.]

The shrubby anacua, seen in the photo from last year, was particularly obnoxious in dominating the space beneath and around 3 branches full of plump grapefruit. It had to go.

3:15– Bekah enters the house where Lewis is now working.

“Do we have a saw?”

“I’m sure we do…why?” (Lewis tries to keep the panic from showing on his face)

“I need to get rid of a hackberry tree.”

Bekah goes to the laundry room and finds the handsaw, instantly thankful for the Great Organizing Binge of 2012. Lewis gives some instruction on how to use the handsaw, which Bekah pretends to understand before she returns to the orchard and begins sawing down little hackberry saplings scattered beneath the grapefruit tree.

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3:29: It becomes clear that the handsaw is not going to be enough to bring down the shrubby anacua in any timely fashion. Or maybe ever. Don’t let “shrubby” fool you. It’s a fairly mature tree, it just has leaves all the way to the ground, because it came of age during a drought. Don’t feel sorry for it though. It was a bully shrub tree.

3:30: Bekah goes to the garage to find the ax. The ax came with the house, along with several other ancient tools. It’s approximately 1.5 million years old, and the origin of the old phrase, “fly off the handle.”

3:40: Tired from swinging the ax, Bekah alternates between handsawing the tiny hackberry trees all over the yard out of spite, and returning to the shrub, which has proven harder to kill than she’d anticipated. That’s the thing about South Texas natives (plants, animals, and humans), they are built to survive forces far more lethal than a pregnant woman with a dull, million-year-old hand tool that falls apart every few minutes.

The tiny hackberry saplings prove more rewarding.

3:50: Bekah marches back in the house, sticks and leaves in her hair. Lewis, no longer masking his concern, silently braces himself for news of disaster, but wisely resists the urge to intervene.

“Isn’t brush collection day coming soon?” she asks.

“Yyyeesss….” Lewis says.

“Oh good.”

Lewis is tempted to check on the situation, but knows that not knowing is sometimes the better option.

Florence follows Bekah back outside and proceeds to wretch throughout the remainder of the project. Who knows what she ate.

Bekah returns to the ax, only to realize that the shrub is so intertwined with its little sister shrub that the only way to fell the first one is to go for both simultaneously. Another brilliant survival move by the anacua, and nascent illustration on the importance of community…or the bond of marriage…or something.

3:55– Bekah puts the head of the ax back on the handle for the final time, checks to make sure that Florence is not within range should it go flying,  and keeps chopping.

4:00: Bekah finally topples both anacuas, does a celebratory dance, and realizes that she cannot lift the fallen shrub trees over the antique washing machine, that is for some reason a fixture in the back yard. She will need to do this in order to drag it to the sidewalk for brush collection day.

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4:01: Bekah goes inside, asks Lewis for help. Lewis looks openly relieved to be invited to supervise this unplanned project…and he didn’t even know about the ax.

4:02: Lewis is left outside to finish the job of hauling and chopping the shrub trees into manageable pieces, because, as Bekah says, “The baby and I are tired now. We’re going inside.”

4:05: Bekah remembers that the entire point of cutting down the anacua and hackberries was to get to some of the best grapefruit. However, she’s already started a hot shower and peeled off her wet outer layers, and the grapefruit will have to wait until tomorrow.

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Pregnant Lady or Hobbit? [Second Breakfast]

I’m pregnant. I think.

I wake up ravenous.Yesterday morning I had to be out the door by 6:30 am. So I grabbed a chewy granola bar to take the edge off, telling myself I’d have a tiny, nutritious snack when I got back home around 8 am. Okay, tiny or nutritious. You can’t have it all.

I came home, considered my options, and went for two hard-boiled eggs. I don’t like hard boiled yolk, so it would be just the whites. What is that, like 60 calories total?

Juuuust as I dropped the eggs into the boiling water, I realized that at my current hunger register, two egg whites would hold me over for approximately 45 seconds.

But two poached eggs…now that sounded more amenable my hormone-addled brain.

Snatch eggs from boiling water (with fingers). Add vinegar and salt to boiling water (don’t measure, just pour). Crack eggs into cup and lower into the water, and voila! Poached eggs.

But poached eggs by themselves? How will I sop up the yolk? (Never mind that the yolk was not entirely runny, thanks to the eggs’ brief dip into boiling water back when they were to be hardboiled)

Better add toast…umm, er, make it two pieces, one for each egg.

Mmm…doesn’t the smell of toast always make you want tomatoes? (Probably not…unless you are very British or pregnant with a constant craving for tomatoes.)

Tomatoes, poached egg, and toast. What’s missing? Of course, Parmesan! Finely grated Parmesan – the strangest impulse buy I’ve ever made at Central Market. Yep, sprinkle that on top.

Now that is what I call…SECOND BREAKFAST!

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As I get rounder, I have to wonder…am I going to have a baby? Or is Gandalf going to show up at my door on March 16 and send me off to Mordor?

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Last Call Adventure: Bruja Canyon Part II

When we last left our intrepid team of trekkers, they were setting off across the desert in the dark…

Part II: Up, over, around, and down

With our gaiters firmly in place and the desert air still dry and “cool,” we crossed Terlingua Creek (which was exactly as technical as Lewis nudging a rock into place and us skipping across), walked the dry tributary creek bed, and out on to the clay flats.

The terrain.

The terrain.

The expanse of soft clay felt like we were walking across a macaroon, leaving easily trackable footprints that we would later appreciate. The clay also radiated heat that it had been holding from the days before. Suddenly we all started doing math in our heads, wondering how it would feel to walk the flat in the scourge of the afternoon sun on our way back to the car.

My guess was that it would feel really hot. Like if you were put in an oven. Satan’s oven.

The open flat was soon interrupted by a stubble of desert plants. Mesquite, all thorn, prickly pear, lechuguilla, ocotillo, cholla, and the particularly sinister claret cup. Everything in the desert wants to kill you. Or rather, it wants to keep you from getting close to it, which I respect. Since some unfortunate childhood experiences, I have given cacti a wide berth. While my gaiters did reduce the diameter of my bubble, it was soon popped altogether by invading spines.

We got up close and personal with some very surly plants.

Bruja is a slot canyon, like a stab wound in the side of a Mesa de Anguilla. Standing on top of the mesa it would have looked like a fissure running across the ground. From where we stood on the plain, the vertical face of the plateau’s northeastern wall loomed, Bruja was just a void. A crack in the wall.

We picked our way through and eventually scrambled up the rocks at the base of the wall, still dodging the “pokies” as Jenna named them.

Then it was time for the adventure to begin in earnest.

The grade of the wall varies from report to report, but it’s in the high 4’s or low 5’s, if that means anything to anyone. There were some moments where those extra inches of arms and legs that the boys had on us girls really made a difference. My own first hurdle came somewhere near the bottom of the wall when it was fingers,toes, and pokies  between the ledge I was on and the ledge where I needed to be. There was a rope too, but we were not tied to it.

The little white dot is Colin on reconnaissance.

The little white dot is Colin on reconnaissance.

In life, I’ve made a habit of saying “one, two, three, go!” and jumping off of things. Or cutting things. Or pushing buttons. I can count to three and shut off my brain. But lunging at the next hand hold or sloped surface requires, “one, two, three, quickly-do-the-next-thing.” That’s harder.

Our feet on the first ledge.

Our feet on the first ledge.

Jenna on the other side of the gap.

Jenna on the other side of the gap.

So we needed a new chant. Fortunately as I hung there quivering, Colin said, “Trust yourself!”

And then I was on the next ledge. The rest of the wall was no problem, not simply because I now trusted my feet, but because it really was a lot easier. We just walked on up the sticky rocks.

From there we walked two miles along a ridge that was like the rim inside the rim of the canyon. This was pretty thick cactus habitat, but we were high on life after a quick ascent.

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At the back of the canyon we had snacks in a cave with burn marks on the cieling, and little Native American grain grinding holes outside. We were like ancient peoples…with Camelbacks, a decided evolutionary advantage.

From there we dropped down into the canyon itself. It was a fairly mild drop, just sliding down the smooth walls of the shallowest pool, which happened to be dry. From there we would slowly work our way back to the plane, dropping from pool to pool via rope, wiggle, and hopping.

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We moved along in full sun, finding shade along the edge or in crevasses where we could. We were almost to the highlight, the big rappel into water, when came to what would be, for me, the scariest moment of the trek. To get to our rappelling point for the first major drop, we first had to clear a gap. Colin suggested we take a running leap.

“Um…I don’t do run-and-jump,” I said. Playing the one princess card I would allow myself. I don’t. It’s one of those “one, two, three, be coordinated” moments that I avoid. Whenever I try to run and jump, I second guess myself at the last second, try to stop mid-flight, and fall.

Aborting this jump would end in death…or paralysis…and waiting to be rescued…in the heat.

Colin is setting up the rappel on the other side of the gap...while we pretend not to worry about the crossing.

Colin is setting up the rappel on the other side of the gap…while we pretend not to worry about the crossing.

So we figured out another method, which still required leaning across the gap, hands on one side, feet on the other, and pushing off into a precarious hand hold. But “trust yourself” did the trick and we all made it safely across.

From there Colin rigged the rappelling system. I say rappel. Really he lowered us into the pool of water beneath. There was little rappeling involved. Somehow even this uncomplicated plan still found me with my bare feet above my head, butt against the wall. Laughing too hard to help myself.

Once we were lowered into the pool, and safely past the floating cactus on the other side, we watched Colin actually rappel, put our boots back on and continued.

Before long we would rappel again. This time the drop was far more dramatic, into a bigger pool. The boys swam the pool with the packs on their back, keeping them amazingly dry while Jenna and I cleared cacti from the exit of the pool.

Just before we exited the canyon I got to rappel one more time, thanks to a particular feature of my anatomy wedging itself so tightly into a hole that everything from my ribcage on down was dangling in mid-air. I wiggled back out and opted to go over the boulder, rather than have a distinctly female reenactment of 127 Hours.

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We polished off the snacks, and made a mad dash for the mouth of the canyon, stunned at our quick pace thus far, and now just going for a quick finish. So many of these adventures fall apart in the last hour.

Ours did not. We were quiet, yes. My trudging was more trudge-like. I’d been wrong about what the clay flat would feel like in the heat of the day. Not an oven. A griddle. Satan’s griddle.

We ran out of water about 1,000 steps from the car. Part of the strategy game that is desert trekking is rationing water, and we were shocked at how well we’d done.

We soaked our top layers in Terlingua Creek (long sleeves are a must in the desert, in one of natures cruelest ironies), and made the final push to the car, where the beer was still cold.

Campsite number two, 1,000 feet higher, 10 degrees cooler.

Campsite number two, 1,000 feet higher, 10 degrees cooler.

That night at our 10-degrees-cooler campsite in the Chisos Basin, we marveled at how well the hike had gone. No injuries. No water shortage. And we all still liked each other.

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Last Call Adventure: Bruja Canyon, Part I

Prologue:

This was the big one.

When Colin first told us about canyoneering Bruja Canyon in a remote corner of Big Bend National Park, I was hooked at “rappel into a pool of freezing water.” I also knew that to make it happen, we would have to find a rare surplus of two extremely scarce resources: time and water. Looking for that magical moment when it had rained in Big Bend, and all four of us were free to skip town would be a challenge.

That magical moment was this weekend, July 5-7, 2013.

And whyever not? The forecast seemed totally amenable to a 10 mile desert trek. (Hike scheduled for Saturday)

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Part I: The journey West

So we loaded up Colin’s car with 4 friends, an ice chest, and every durable synthetic fiber known to man.

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Along the way we carefully rationed our David Sedaris Live CD, and did our best to listen to a Cormac McCarthy audiobook (by doing my best, I mean that I went straight to sleep). At some point everyone indulged in “I-only-eat-this-on-roadtrips” snacks. A sharp contrast to the meals we would be eating for the rest of the trip.

Yes, Lewis is using a sour straw to drink a Cherry Coke. We'd been in the car for many hours.

Yes, Lewis is using a sour straw to drink a Cherry Coke. We’d been in the car for many hours.

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What we ate outside the car.

 Once inside the Park we went through the rigmarole of permitting, paying fees, and not getting to go into Mexico.

We’ll save that for the next adventure, because it does involve 1) ferrying across the river, 2) possibly riding a horse into Boquillas, Mexico, and 3) chatting with U.S. Officials via virtual passport control upon return. All things I’m dying to do.

However, we were informed by the helpful NPS employees that we’d probably be stuck over there if we left after 4 pm. They reassured us, however, that there was no night life we were missing. Something about our sunhats and trekking shoes must have screamed, “I like to party hard.”

Here’s my question…do people really still go party at night in Mexican border towns? That’s terrifying.

This fancy border control station closes at 6pm folks.

This fancy border control station closes at 6pm, folks.

Jenna utilizes to topographical map at the headquarters to make tomorrow's hike look like "no biggie."

Jenna (who conquered Bruja back in March) utilizes to topographical map at the headquarters to make tomorrow’s hike look like no biggie.

So from there all we could do was set up our campsite along Terlingua Creek. We camped under the stars, being slow roasted by the desert floor which radiated heat through our inflatable sleeping pads like some device used by celebrity chefs to make the perfect braised duck.

It was far too warm for sleeping bags, so we slept largely exposed, which is thrilling in it’s own way.

Few things are more majestic than falling asleep under a glittering canopy of shooting stars with Scorpio rising up from the horizon as you drift off to sleep with no one around for miles… except the three other people lying shoulder-to-shoulder with you on a tarp.

Our first campsite, and the tarp we shared.

Our first campsite, and the tarp we shared.

We set our alarms for 4:40 am, only to awaken to a completely dark sky that looked no closer to daylight than when we’d gone to sleep. Big Bend is at the western edge of the timezone. So we slept another hour, until distant coyote howls woke us and the horizon was growing lighter.

Still, this is what “getting ready” looked like:

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Jenna and I added a clever, if not particularly trendy, piece of equipment to our desert gear: gaiters. Mine were “3 season” gaiters. I’m willing to guess that blistering summer is not one of those seasons. But I didn’t care. The desert is thick with pokey flora, and I intended to trudge like a pro. Gaiters on!

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From there we set out and the adventure really began.

Stay tuned for Part II of the story to find out if all four intrepid travelers remain intact as they climb, rappel, scramble, and swim their way out of Bruja Canyon.

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Last-Call Adventure: The Gault Site

On our list of adventures to have with our buddy Colin, perhaps one of the geekier ones involved a visit to the Gault Site, one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world. That’s right…the world. I’m not just spouting superlatives. Apparently people come from around the world to study and work on this failed farm outside of Florence, Texas that contained a treasure trove of early human debris.

Human's have been leaving our tools laying around for ages.

Humans have been leaving our tools laying around for ages.

Our adventure began at 6:50 am, when our 9-person caravan set out for Florence, a two-hour journey. Ironically, Colin could not make it (he was having a totally different adventure that he will write about himself), but his sporting girlfriend, Jenna, rustled up a replacement.

The tour through the Gault Site, an unassuming ranch gate nestled between quarries on the scrubby Edward’s escarpment, starts slowly. We saw a railroad boxcar which told the history of Florence in it’s ramshackle remains. A cotton boom-town, destroyed by synthetics and boll weevles.

The boxcar where the people of Florence once lived.

The boxcar where the people of Florence once lived.

We watched an atlatl demonstration and discussed the importance of maclura pomifera (Bodark trees) before heading into the creek bed where the Gault riches have been found.

Gault has yielded, according to our knowledgeable and entertaining guide, three huge surprises.

1) A Columbian Mammoth jawbone with tools nearby. Indicating that the megafauna was hunted and butchered on the site.

2) 2.4 million artifacts (a motherlode by any standard, considering that a successful dig rarely delivers more than 20,000 points, tools, and other artifacts).

3) The footprint of the oldest known house in North America.

This is where they found the mammoth jaw

This is where they found the mammoth jaw

What’s more, while it is the largest Clovis (13,000-9,000 years ago) site on record, perhaps a more significant contribution is evidence of human life before Clovis. It flies in the face of the theory that human being arrived in the Americas by way of an ice bridge connecting Russia and Alaska. It implies coastal arrival, which would require far more sophistication than the walking theory.

The grand finale of the tour was the tent. Archaeologists are excavating down to the bedrock, where springs flow like exposed veins. The meticulous nature of science is on full display as volunteers scrape away each centimeter-deep layer with a bamboo scrapper and a plastic trowel the size of a toothbrush. Since 2007 they have been scraping away at the earth, cataloging every single artifact and separating rocks and clay out into extensively labeled buckets.

So...much...precision...

So…much…precision…

It’s always been tempting for me to scoff a little when researchers get going on the habits of prehistorical man and beast. I mean…when I consider how easy it is for me to wrongly interpret evidence of what my own two dogs have been up to…dogs I interact with every day…evidence that is abundant and fresh…and still they mystify me.

But after watching the scientific process, hearing the explanations, the forensic technology, and the sheer volume of the data, I was ready to believe them when they told me that these people lived in tiny bands of 10-12, did not inbreed, and hunted alone or in pairs. That the identical looking chert tools were in fact used for entirely different things, one a hide scraper and the other a steak knife.

A 17th-century etching of the mission church down the road.

A 17th-century etching of the mission church down the road.

What intrigued me most was our guides assertion that people are people, and have been since pre-history. They take the easy way out, they leave messes, they seek shelter, they innovate. Thinking of our ancient ancestors (well, these were not my ancestors, mine were doing who-knows-what and trying not to freeze up in the tundra) as people with similar instincts and motivations was profound. We haven’t changed that much, and one day, that fact might save our lives.

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Last-Call Adventure: Canyon Lake Gorge

Our dear friend, Colin, is leaving us in August. He’s going to Boulder, CO (of course).

This is Colin.

This is Colin.

Lewis is sad to loose a kindred spirit. I am sad to lose one of our only friends who doesn’t think that all of my adventure ideas sound ominously fallible. In fact, Colin trumps me in great ideas that are more…grand… than anticipated.

So, in honor of his departure, we’ve begun to execute what I will here dub the Last-Call Adventures.

May 18 was Canyon Lake Gorge

This is Canyon Lake Gorge.

This is Canyon Lake Gorge.

Walking along the Canyon Lake spillway feels like a trek into a wasteland. Concrete severs the limestone in an attempt to solve a different man made problem (erosion of the man-made dam, which was built to make the lake), this scenario tends to proliferate when left unattended. Canyon Lake itself was born for flood and drought control, because German settlers insisted on inhabiting an area that is more flood-prone than anywhere else in the country. Barry Commoner might have had some thoughts on what we were setting ourselves up for here.

Lewis and Colin surveying the landscape.

Lewis and Colin surveying the landscape.

Case in point: A massive flood event in 2002 that crashed over the Canyon Lake spillway flooded homes, washed out roads, and moved enough earth to cover a football field under 30 stories of rock, soil, and flora. The flood carried such force ( 7 feet deep over the spillway at 67,000 cubic feet per second) that it ripped a giant gash in the land, exposing millenia’s worth of fossils, footprints, and geological features.

The laceration is now known as the Canyon Lake Gorge. The only way to gain access is by paying a for a tour from the Gorge Preservation Society (GPS). So that’s what we did.

Our guide was clearly a geology/archaeology enthusiast, and thus we spent the bulk of our time looking at fossils and dinosaur prints. There was also a rather excited 8 year old in our group, so fossils and dinosaurs were winning topics. However, since Colin is an environmental reporter who writes mostly about water and water issues, and Lewis is a spring fanatic, we took issue with our guide’s overall dismissal of the hydrological significance of the area. But we did learn a lot about fault lines and local dinosaurs, so the day was a most definitely a significant net gain, educationally.

The first layer of limestone to tear away under the flood waters revealed several dinosaur tracks. Personally, I buy about 70% of what any given paleontologist says on the matter because in grad school I became sort of a slave to sample sizes. However, these are undeniably footprints in the limestone, put there by the controlled fall of a bipedal creature long before several feet of limestone formed on top of it. Given the rate of limestone production in nature, the size of the print and the length of the stride…I’m convinced, and awed.

This is a very unphotogenic dinosaur footprint.

This is a very unphotogenic dinosaur footprint.

From the mega to the mini, our guide called our attention to the crunching beneath our feet and asked us to find fossils. Lo and behold the very tiny things crunching beneath our feet were, in fact, orbitolina texana. Tiny tiny fossilized forminifera (a one-celled creature with a nucleus and hole in its body).

Orbitum texana

Orbitolina texana

Another tiny fossil.

Another tiny fossil.

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Crunch.

We proceeded deeper through the strata into the gorge. Each limestone shelf gave way to another stunning feature, more forensic evidence for times past and the general behavior of the earth’s crust.

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Limestone is porous, and so for the Edwards Aquifer dependents in the group, witnessing both the porosity and the solubility of the stone was a telling look into how we get our own water. The water in the gorge leaks out of the lake, though the porous ground, as well as underground canals carved out by persistent rivulets over time. Lots and lots of time. A similar process created the Edwards Aquifer.

Our guide lost me a little bit when he snubbed the Edwards Aquifer Authority for placing water restrictions on San Antonio to save the fountain darter, tampering with right of captures laws (I think that differentiating between surface and ground water is absurd as well, but while I’d like to see ground water protected like surface water, he’d seemed to be advocating for the reverse). He also assured us that fracking would not hurt our drinking water and that the aquifer was far deeper than we would ever need it to be. Oh the confidence of those who don’t have to drink other people’s “rights.” Except that he did spend a few minutes ranting about an ex-business partner who poured motor oil into a hole in the ground near enough to effect his private well.

This water does not belong to you.

This water does not belong to you.

We progressed to an examination of the Hidden Valley fault. The dramatic effects on the rocks as they press and jar against each other is magnificent. It looks like wreckage, and yet its presence makes rivers possible, and fills our aquifer. We also learned the term slickenside, referring to the scrape marks caused by the hanging wall (moving plate) moving against the footwall (stationary plate). I think it sounds like something you’d find at Schlitterbahn.

Under the careful explanations and occasional soap-boxing of our guide, our three hour tour matured into 4.5 hours, but even the 8 year old weathered it well. It’s an amazing place, though I am a little leery of industry building around it, even something as noble as the GPS. It just seems like when a human ties their livlihood to the whims of nature,  the battlelines are drawn. Already there are power washers involved.

I highly recommend the trip, if you are heat/sun tolerant, and fond of a good hike. Take a note from Gilligan, and don’t build your plans around a three hour tour. We lost Colin to a work commitment about 3.5 hours in. On the way out I heard the 8-year-old say, “I feel so bad for that man. He had to leave right before we got to all the fossils!” Darling, but untrue. We’d seen 3.5 hours worth of fossils. But I admire his enthusiasm for the final sites.

Fossil

Fossil

Canyon Lake Gorge, as it is now, is the museum that nature made. Her response to Canyon Lake. Her moment to show off what she’s been up to for so long before we were looking.

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We Planted a Tree [Part I]

This is our sapling Taxodium mucronatum:

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Among the many cool CPS Energy programs, the tree giveaway is my favorite. It’s hard to get super jazzed about Energy Star Appliance rebates, and Enegy Saver Home Management, even though we appreciate them. But free trees? Hoo-RAY!

As the sole utilities provider for San Antonio, it’s good to see them give back. I heard someone make an argument for benevolent dictatorships once, and that sort of how I feel about CPS. In theory, I’m a fan of choice. In reality, I like CPS, and would probably choose them anyway. If being a monopoly allows them to give away trees, I’m not so terribly opposed.

I even found myself standing in Woodlawn Lake Park’s Earth Day celebration handing out free CPS trees to Westside residents. At the beginning of the day they could choose between such drought tolerant and attractive Texas natives as Eve’s Necklace, Mexican Buckeye, Redbuds, Possumhaw Holly, and more. As the day wore on, the choices narrowed considerably, until all that was left were Possumhaws and an entire grove of Montezuma Cypress.

Throughout the morning, two master naturalists carried an ongoing discussion as to whether or not Montezuma Cypress trees, which typically grow along rivers banks, were actually drought tolerant. If indeed they are not, then the middle of the bone-dry Westside in the middle of the 3rd worst drought in the city’s history might not bode well for the survival of the Montezumas.

(According to Wikipedia…they are both drought tolerant and usually found in riparian areas.)

At any rate, their audible debate did not bode well for marketing the Montezumas. So at the end of the day, I eyed the remaining saplings, looking like little Charlie Brown Christmas trees, and thought, “Well, kids, one of you has got to survive.”

I happen to have access to a creek on my husband’s family ranch. Gallagher Ranch is a fine specimen of the Edwards recharge zone, and this has just the sort of springs and soils in which cypress trees thrive. Whether or not Montezumas can actually flourish in any Westside back yard may be up for debate, but on the banks of San Geronimo Creek they seem to do quite well.

So on a Friday night Lewis and I headed out to the ranch with out friend Liz and her pack of dogs. We walked the creek bed until we found the perfect place.

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Lewis dug the hole.

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We set the tree in.

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I covered his roots. (I’m posing here…this is not the posture of someone actually shoveling.)

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Now we will hopefully watch him grow.

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If you’ve never planted a tree, I highly recommend it. I could wax on about the poetry of the experience, but I think that would only muck up it’s utility and grace. There are times where the poetry is in the doing, not the reflecting. Planting trees is one of those things.

I will only say this. Trees are so much simpler than people and politics. They take nutrients and they grow. They give back in predictable ways. They do what they do because of what they are, not how they feel or what they think. I know that it’s our magnificent minds and souls that separate us from the rest of the natural world…but trees have got something going for them. They live by the immortal creed: “It’s not how you look when you’re doin’ what you’re doin’. It’s what you’re doin’ when you’re doin’ what you look like you’re doin’.”

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Something New and Good : Easter and Earth Day

“Give me something I can touch.”

It started in London at a St. Paul’s Ash Wednesday Service. There was something sobering and meaningful about feeling the ashes smeared across my forehead. That was actually the first time I paid attention to the tangibles of the faith.

After that I paid more attention to communion as well. The taste of wine and feel of bread. The cold pewter of the common cup against my lower lip. Faith often doesn’t feel real. We need something, even a small and symbolic something, to touch.

This is me, very happy, with St. Paul's behind me.

This is me, very happy, with St. Paul’s behind me.

Another famous English church experience was responsible for my awakening to a love of liturgical worship. Evensong at Cambridge Cathedral was a profound moment of worship not based on warm feelings or sentimentality. It was my first real experience of a sacred moment that had very little to do with my personal feelings, and much more to do with the sights, sounds, and air in the space.

Lent is when I feel my faith the most. Not “feel” emotionally, but “feel” in the Pat the Bunny sense. With my fingers. Christians aren’t supposed to need that. We’re supposed to be all about the “evidence of things not seen.”

But I need something I can touch. I can touch the earth.

Evolution is the ape in the room when faith and nature meet for lunch. When we force the choice between literal 6-day Creationism and Neo-Darwinian materialism, we must either close our eyes or deny our souls.

So many Christians opt to keep their eyes closed, or to fight data with dogma. We allowed the twentieth century to galvanize our faith into this cumbersome, rigid, behemoth must be authoritative on any matter, or it will shatter into a million pieces. So suddenly the Bible bears the burden of being a science text book.

The finch shares my popcorn.

The finch shares my popcorn.

Or we take the Don Draper (and now Peggy Olson) approach. “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” We can’t make nature jive with the Bible, so we just turn our attention elsewhere. We make the earth a lesser thing.

But I see things. I hear things. I feel things with my nerve endings, not just my emotions. I see things with my eyes, not just my reason.  I want a faith that fearlessly affirms discovery and understanding of the things we can touch, as much as the things we cannot.

So it was especially appropriate this year that I ended up in the Galápagos, “evolution’s workshop” for Easter…or Pasqua, as it became.

I had ignored Lent this year, coincidentally. For the first time since my British awakening, I did not give anything up. I did not seek out Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday. My intangible emotions were in full revolt against all things sacred.

Then, in a twist of divine brilliance, work sent me to the Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island for the holiday. My hotel was down the street from the Darwin Research Station. Darwin’s finches shared my Easter lunch.

And I was forced to answer the question: can I simultaneously believe in what is happening here and what happened 2,000 years ago? Here they are observing evolution in the beaks of finches. Can this possibly jive with a risen Jesus and a spiritual world?

Watching the magnificent frigate bird with his red ballon gular sac, and the Galápagos Prickly Pear Cactus Tree with its uncanny structure, I considered the Easter story.Why was it so important that Jesus rose physically? Why not just send the Holy Spirit from the cross and skip straight to Pentacost?

Because our physical selves matter. The physical world where we see flowers, hear birdsongs, and taste ceviche. Someone else understood that too.

“Give me something I can touch.”

Thomas. Had Jesus not been there with physical wounds, Thomas would have been lost. Thomas’s needs are more familiar to me now than ever. In a sense he was saying, “I’m going to need something more than their words. I’m going to need something more real than the physical realities of death. Give me something I can’t deny.”IMPORT March 2013 073

Jesus has not been as obliging with me as he was with Thomas. Instead he gave me Galápagos Easter. If every time I touch the earth I do not have to go to war in my soul, then I can live without touching Christ’s wounds.

The moment I was set free to the natural world I can’t deny and the faith I cannot bear to lose, it was as though the earth burst forth in song. Sun glinting through the prickly pear tree looked like the Cambridge Cathedral. Leaves and dirt and water felt like the ashes on my forehead.

I, for one, want a faith that goes to the Galápagos without fear of being dismantled. Rather than a porcelain mastodon that must stay safe and polished, I want a dynamic sapling that stretches and grows toward the light as it soaks up nourishment from the earth.  I want to celebrate Easter and Earth Day – when we celebrate the things we can touch.

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Explorer’s challenge: Five climate zones in 15 days

I pride myself on being a good packer. Or at least in having chosen an excellent convertible carry-on/backpack suitcase once upon a time. Two weeks in Africa, no sweat. Forty days in Europe, easy. This summer it was my moble mueble carrying not only clothing but plastic plates, utensils, and basic groceries as I lived three days per week at a hotel in Katy.

This last trip, however, may have stretched my trusty sidekick to its limit. He’s still going strong, zipper works, wheels roll, handle retracts. But my creative packing and his elasticity we going full throttle as I packed for my trip through Peru and Ecuador. First off, it was a business trip, so I needed to have the ability to look nice, should the situation present itself. I would also be hiking, snorkeling, city-touring, and boating. But the most complicated element:  I would be traveling through six climate zones, which I will here below grossly oversimplify.

#1 Coastal Desert

“It never rains in Lima,” said the man driving us from the airport to our hotel in Miraflores. We would hear this exact sentence 3 more times before we left Peru.

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Nonetheless, there were puddles on our terrace in the morning.

Lima’s coastal desert climate is a product of the Humboldt Current, which keeps it temperate (60s in their winter, 70s in their summer) and foggy. In my opinion, humidity makes all weather feel more extreme, so add 10 degrees to the heat index for summer and add “cold sweat” to the winter forecast. It’s a humid place, even if it rarely comes to fruition.  Most of their <2 inches of “rain” every year, like our puddles, are actually condensation from the dense fog called the garúa.  

The closest thing Lima has to crazy weather are El Niño events, when the Humboldt Current warms up and they have a heat wave. But that wasnt’ happening when we were there, so I have to say, Lima was easy to outfit.

#2 Sierra- Andean Valley

The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu are often lumped together in terms of climate. In fact good luck finding an online resource to say otherwise. However, thanks to the windows of the Vistadome, we watched as bromelia replaces agave, opportunistically sprouting on trees and rocks, while the agave ran out of personal space. The polite and orderly mountain flora is overtaken by aggressive and lusty Amazonia.

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The true Andean Valley is ideal for agriculture. Temperate, predictably dry, then torrentially wet November-February.

Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu are exploding with life. It’s everywhere, and while rain and dryness are equally predictable, there’s an added something in the air that covers the Citadel with clouds and the rooftops with jungles of lichens.

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#3 Sierra – Andean Highlands

Again, the highlands are often lumped in with the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, but anyone who has had to budget their long-sleeves and short sleeves know that this is simply not true.

Cusco is cold. Technically we were there in the summer time and I’m wearing a jacket in most of the pictures. Also, this has nothing to do with the climate, but the air is also terribly thin, so everything is out of whack when it comes to dealing with the climate. You’re cold, you’re panting, you’re dizzy, you’re thirsty.

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I have no idea what grows and lives naturally in Cusco, because we never left the heart of the city, or strayed from it’s concrete arteries.

#3 Selva – Amazon

This might have been our most dramatic transition. From chilly Cusco to Puerto Maldonado where the highs and humidity were in the 90s. We never stopped sweating. Fortunately, our mood was somehow improved by this, and Lewis concluded, “We’re just happier when we’re sweating.”

Never thought I’d hear that said about me.

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The Amazon is fascinating. The soil is nutrient poor, and so things grow quickly with shallow roots dog piling on top of one another. In some cases, like the banana tree, they are productive for about three years, and then they are gone. So few develop into hardwoods that our naturalist guide made a point to call attention to almost every single one we passed.

In the explosion of life, competition is fierce, and so everything is brighter and bolder than it would be in a world where there were enough of things to go around. Flowers need to attract pollinators, and you don’t waste your energy getting all magnificent if there’s no need to impress anyone. It also means that bacteria, mold, infestation and decay happen more rapidly. Everywhere you look, there is life…and it’s all fighting for the same small space.

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Four (some say five) layers, each it’s own system of relationships and bioeconomics, make up the rainforest. The herbacious floor, with life piled upon life and the detritovores coat the ground and speed decay. Next layer up are the shrubs and short trees of the shady understory, which provide shelter to much of the forest fauna. Next up is the canopy, which can only be explored by binocular or ingenuity, as it is both dense and impossibly high. The emergent layer are those survivors who hover even above the canopy, like the Jetsons.

Those last two layers, the canopy and the emergent layer are made of primary forest. Old growth. These are the treasures of the forest that have survived mold, parasite, and competition for light and nutrients. These are the mighty men of the rainforest. And they can’t be quickly replaced.

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#4 Galapagos

I had soaked through most of our warm weather clothes by the time we got to the Galapagos. Fortunately March, while it is the hottest month, is the best time for snorkeling, so I could wear my bathing suit most of the day.

But there were the morning hikes, during which I would wear slightly smelling post-Amazon explorer attire and give it 20 minutes until they were drenched anew under the unforgiving sun of 10am on Española Island.

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The Galapagos, like the coast, is dependent on the currents for it’s seasons. Humbolt, June through November, brings dry air and wetsuit weather to the waters, particularly on the western islands. Panama Current brings wet summer, peaking in March, when hiking is best reserved for the hours of 5am-9am. Which is what we did.

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Every few years El Niño comes and starves the islands, which are devoid of fresh water resources. Without rain, the volcanic rocks just bake, along with everything on them.

Being volcanic, the rocks hold almost no nutrients, and host desert plants like sesuvium and prickly pear (which impressed even this Texas girl by growing into trees…). Their iconic tree, the ever-adaptable endemic scalesia grows across the climate zones, including the highlands of Santa Cruz where it shares space with a wider variety of short but dense vegetation.

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Odd as it may seem, this remote and exotic world felt the most familiar, as far as my skin was concerned. August in San Antonio has a tropical desert element to it.

#5 Páramo

My favorite climate region was the one we visited last. Nestled between the continuous treeline and the snowline along the equatorial Andes lies the páramo. Cold and humid, pretty much year round and simultaneously home to delicate flowers, hummingbirds, and evergreens.

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The mid 60’s temperatures were welcome, as we were all out of warm weather clothes that didn’t smell like a gym floor.

We hiked all day, visited the Andean condor rehab center, and sat down to dinner fresh faced and still smelling nicely. The crops were not particularly diverse in the páramo, but the dairy production was devine, and the cows looked happy with their lot in life. They should be, at least, as the scenery in the Zuleta region is nothing short of breathtaking.

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If I had it to do over again, I’d spend two weeks in each location. No question. But as a survey, I left me utterly convinced that South America holds more natural wonders than anywhere else I’ve seen, and I hope that they know it, protect it, and stand by it.

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Nature’s Hallelujah: The Galápagos

As our panga neared a formation called “The Cathedral” at Cerro Brujo on San Cristobal island, I had mixed emotions. I was in awe, watching Kicker Rock appear and disappear as the waves batted us to and fro. I was also perplexed. How could anyone have ever sailed these waters and failed to realize the beauty of places like Cerro Brujo?

Blow hole on Española

Blow hole on Española

Sunrise from a balcony on Santa Cruz

Sunrise from a balcony on Santa Cruz

During the heady moment of imperial expansion, European powers planted their flags in just about every type of soil in the world. They mined, they conquered, they spread their germs and culture with liberality across most terrains. But upon reaching the Galápagos, yet unnamed, they found nothing to mine. No one to conquer. Nothing to take home. And so they called the islands cursed.

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Baby sea lion at Punta Pitt, San Cristobal

Baby sea lion at Punta Pitt, San Cristobal

The “Islas Encantadas” of the South American pacific would suffer through the middle ages under the worldview that nature’s singular purpose was to illustrate Biblical principals to mankind. Bacon and his lot didn’t help either, because usefulness as the measure of value did not change the status of the volcanic islands, void of fresh water and edible vegetation.

Punta Pitt, San Cristobal - tuff cone formations

Punta Pitt, San Cristobal – tuff cone formations

Blue-footed boobie on Española

Blue-footed boobie on Española

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Like most places deemed uninhabitable or useless by decent society, the Enchanted Islands began to collect indecent society. Pirates, felons, and women on the run found ways to inhabit the rocks, only to be murdered, run off, or defeated by the odds against survival in one place that would not yield to man’s narrow view of dominion. No one felt their efforts more strongly than the tortoises, who were the only edible game, and were thus hunted to within millimeters of extinction.

Tortoise on Santa Cruz

Tortoise on Santa Cruz

It was not until Charles Darwin stepped onto their shores in 1835 that anyone found something worth taking home: a bag of dead finches.

Darwin’s gaze dignified the islands, and anyone who now gazes at Kicker Rock glowing in the sunset owes to him one of the awesome experiences of her lifetime. And the islands that were of no value to those seeking gold, God, or glory, have become a goldmine to those witnessing the glory of God. Forget the culture wars for one moment and give thanks that we have been freed to love nature for what it is.

Kicker Rock at Sunset

Kicker Rock at Sunset

Cactus finch on Santa Cruz

Cactus finch on Santa Cruz

The Galápagos, in our time, are still not a quiescent subject to the whims and wishes of man. The National Park takes precedence over tourism, agriculture, and commerce. Guides are unapologetic in dishing out the answer we think we can buy our way out of, “No.”

A guide, protecting the sesuvium, where red-footed boobies nest

A guide, protecting the sesuvium, where red-footed boobies nest

Marine Iguana on Santa Cruz

Marine Iguana on Santa Cruz

Visions of Caribbean luxury are dashed on the tuff cones and chased far away by biting horse flies. Predictability is low where animals are not bated and tamed to earn big tips from schedule-bound tours. The heat is unforgiving in its season, and shade is found in as many places as is fresh water…none.

Marine iguanas of Española

Marine iguanas of Española

Yet, Darwin’s children flock like sea lions to those shores, seeking to understand the processes of nature, and its continual course of becoming. The islands attract those who are intrigued by an isolated ecosystem where predators are scarce and resources scarcer. Those who see a pond covered in sesuvium or a collapse crater and gasp in wonder. Those who marvel at the beaks of finches. There are some hallelujah’s only uttered in the language of science.

Los Gemelos collapse crater on Santa Cruz.

Los Gemelos collapse crater on Santa Cruz.

Sesuvium covering a pond on Santa Cruz island where tortoises seek shade.

Sesuvium covering a pond on Santa Cruz island where tortoises seek shade.

And so as much as indignance swells inside me to the rhythm of the waves beneath me, I am also glad. I am relieved that in a moment when we ruined so much, we did not ruin everything. I am relieved that those things which we did not deem worthy of our exploitation have survived to become our treasures. I rejoice for those who did not impose a tax upon every inch of Creation. Those who bound their fortunes to the flourishing of nature.

Española

Española

Baby sea lion on Española

Baby sea lion on Española

The conquistador spirit is alive and well, I know. Standing on the dock while Lonesome George’s remains were escorted by documentary crew off to the Smithsonian, I saw the sad face of the local girl who had grown up in the glow of his renown. She will never be able to buy the plane ticket to go to the Smithsonian to pay homage. She has lost him. Naturalist eyes are not immune to the allure of the spoils.

Lonesome George on his way to the Smithsonian.

Lonesome George on his way to the Smithsonian.

We cannot simply rest in our rapture over the rarity of this place. We must keep advocating, must keep reforming, must keep making those anti-Babel decisions that keep us off of the throne of Heaven. The Galápagos are a place where we can go to remind ourselves that we are not the measure of all things.

Red-footed booby in flight

Red-footed booby in flight

NOTE: for more light hearted detail of our trip, see the Alamo Area Master Naturalist Newsletter article.