The guy running the front loader couldn’t have been nicer. “Look at this,” he said to his wife as she wandered up, shovel in hand, trying to shush the dogs. “She’s got the same danged map as that other guy.” Handing the map to the woman, he gave me a look generally reserved for well-intentioned but slightly dim folk. “Around here, we don’t call it a prairie. We call it a hay field.”
“Well,” I said, “whatever you call it, I can’t find it. That map says it’s supposed to be twenty-six miles north of Highway 35. When I got to County Road 18 I knew I’d gone too far, but I sure hadn’t gone twenty-six miles. I decided I’d better stop and ask somebody who’d know.”
That made him smile. It made his wife smile, too. We stood around for a bit, grinning at one another while the dogs snuffled around my ankles and bumblebees trundled through the rising heat. Finally, he pushed back his hat and said, “Tell you what. Go on back down the road a piece, past the old Gibson place. Pass by the goat on the right and keep a-goin’. If you get to the substation, you’ve gone too far.”
Deciphering directions in Texas can take some skill, but there was no questioning the importance of “goat” and “substation” if I wanted to find the prairie. “Down the road a piece” and “over yonder” never translate into miles. If I’d asked enough times about the old Gibson place, I might have discovered it’s the Kutchka place now, or that the columns out front that made it recognizable aren’t there any longer since the Gibsons tore them out when they bought it. But, I might not have discovered any of that, so “goat” and “substation” it would have to be.
“That ought to do it,” I said, taking back the map. “Thank you kindly.” Heading back to the car, I heard the front loader start and then stop. “When you get there?” I turned around. “When you get there,” he said, “don’t go drivin’ in. It’s too wet for one thing, and I don’t know as they want people doing that, anyhow. Pull up next to one’a them metal posts and you’ll be fine.” Thanking him again, I headed off down the road, ready to use my new GPS – my Goat Positioning System – to locate 400 acres of virgin prairie.
As it turned out, the goat was at home. After a few minutes of letting him mug for the camera, I got back on the road and discovered myself nearly at the substation. Even so, between the substation and the goat I had to look twice and turn around once before I was certain I’d I’d found the prairie. Unfenced, ungated, unmown and unplowed, it appeared unremarkable from the road. Hidden in plain sight, lacking even a sign to mark its presence, Nash Prairie could fool anyone into mistaking it for just another hay field instead of recognizing it for what it is – a gem is its own right, a link to our past and a sign of hope for the future.
Texans do love their wildflowers, and the spring ritual called “going to see the bluebonnets” is deeply ingrained. Even state government does what it can to encourage the flowers. As early as 1934, the Texas Department of Transportation began to delay mowing until the end of the spring and early summer wildflower seasons. Today, adjusted mowing practices encourage native grasses, and about 30,000 pounds of wildflower seed are purchased and sown each year.
In years when the weather cooperates, such attentiveness can lead to breath-taking vistas. On the other hand, there’s a growing tendency to define “good wildflowers” solely in terms of vibrant and accessible color patches, like the stands of bluebonnets that line so many roads.
Nash Prairie is different. It’s subtle, not spectacular. Nearly invisible to someone traveling by car, it demands to be taken in at a walking pace and absorbed with all of the senses. The fragrance of the land is indescribable. More than an absence of pollutants or the sweetness of flowers, its aroma is at once rich and spicy, tanged with salt and redolent of growth, the essence of grass, sedge, soil and flower combined into one unexpected scent.
Unlike the more vibrantly-framed roads, Nash Prairie is a mixed bouquet. No human hand scattered these seeds. No master planner decreed “blue here, yellow there”. The land itself determines which life will flourish, and where. In the sandy, well-draining soil of the raised pimple mounds, sunflowers, Texas toad-flax, cone flowers and Indian paintbrush are flourishing among the grasses.
Near the base of the mounds, paintbrush and toad-flax mix with prairie parsley and sensitive briar while in shallow, barely visible meanders prairie nymph, a tiny member of the iris family, spreads and flows, a river of lavender petals.
That Nash Prairie survives at all is something of a miracle. According to The Nature Conservancy, the 400-acre tract is one of the last remaining segments of the Great Coastal Prairie, six million acres that stretched from Lafayette, Louisiana to Corpus Christi, Texas. Less than one percent of the prairie still exists, and barely a fraction of that is virgin prairie like Nash.
Once part of the historic 15,000 acre KNG Ranch, the land was willed jointly by owner Kittie Nash Groce to a cousin, to West Columbia’s St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and to the West Columbia Hospital District in 1957. Thanks to the farming practices of German and Czech settlers who used it as a hay meadow, the land never has been plowed. Occasional cattle were grazed and hay cuttings were taken once or twice a year, but the land always was allowed to regenerate, helping to maintain its rich diversity. The value of the management practices is clear. Hundreds of species thrive at Nash Prairie. Just across the road, in a pasture used to graze cattle, only a dozen species are found.
In 2003, Susan Conaty, wife of the Reverend Peter Conaty, Rector of St. Mary’s in West Columbia, happened to hear a Houston Audubon society representative mention the importance of the hay meadow as one of the last remnants of coastal prairie. “I had never knowingly seen this prairie, even though I had driven by it for years,” she said. Her new awareness began a long and complicated struggle to preserve the land – a process which culminated in its recent sale to The Nature Conservancy for $1.8 million.
Also in 2003, Dr. David Rosen, then botanist and plant taxonomist with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, began a survey of the Nash Prairie. Now Professor of Biology at Lee College in Baytown, he’s identified more than 300 plant species on the prairie. One extraordinarily rare plant discovered there – the buttonbush flatsedge (Cyperus cephalanthus) – first was described in 1843. Considered a reliable indicator of undisturbed Coastal Prairie, it was thought to have disappeared from Texas. Rosen says its discovery represented the “biggest surprise” of his work.
Grasses represent the bulk of the species found on the prairie. Among the most common are big and little bluestem, Indiangrass, brownsee paspalum and switchgrass. By 2008, Rosen had catalogued 52 species of native grasses, remarkably close to the total of 63 species reported at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in Kansas.
Grasses and flowers aren’t the only prairie joys, of course. Birds abound on every prairie, and at Nash, 120 resident or migratory species have been identified. During my early afternoon visit, few birds were visible, but I did see my first scissortail flycatchers of the spring, and smiled to hear the call of a meadowlark.
Nearly back at the road, I noticed a bit of bright red very near the ground. Bending down, I discovered a ripening dewberry, surrounded by blossoms and just-forming fruit. No ripened berries were visible on the surface. No doubt they’d provided a tasty snack to some bird or creature. But underneath the leaves, the plump, black berries were waiting, another bit of prairie life to experience.
Laying my camera on the ground, I reached into the brambles and began to pick. One, two, a dozen berries. I found myself wishing for a basket, but my hand would have to do. As I picked, I smiled to hear my mother’s voice chiding me in memory. You’re not going to eat those without washing them, are you?
Indeed, I was. No pesticide had sullied this land, no chemical residue would spoil taste or pleasure. As for dirt, the berries sparkled. Rains that had turned the earth spongy and left it unfit for driving had washed the berries clean. Plumped by rain, ripened by the sun, their sweet warmth was a delight. Gazing across the acres of prairie, tasting the bits of sunlight and rain, I imagined sweeps of flowers to come, the rising up of grasses and the flowing down of winds. Looking beyond the grasses, I sensed the tangled bracts of time, the seeds of history and the vining of seasons through an unbroken land.
Next time, I thought, I’ll stay longer. Next time, I won’t need a map.