Hidden in Plain Sight

The World’s First Goat Positioning System

The guy running the front loader couldn’t have been nicer. “Look at this,” he said to his wife as she wandered up, holding a shovel in one hand and brushing back the dogs with the other. “She’s lookin’ for the prairie, and she’s got the same danged map as that other guy.” Passing my copy of the hand-drawn 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 up to Cow Micham Road, I knew I’d gone too far, but I sure hadn’t gone twenty-six miles. I decided I’d better stop and ask for better directions.”

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 rural Texas can take some skill.  “Down the road a piece” wasn’t going to translate into miles, and as for the old Gibson place, it might be the Kutchka place now, or the Harringtons’. It might even be that the house itself had been torn down and a barn put up, but none of that would be recognizable to a stranger. So, ‘goat’ and ‘substation’ it would have to be. “That ought to do it,” I said, reclaiming 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 a new version of GPS – the Goat Positioning System – to locate 400 acres of virgin prairie.

As it turned out, the goat was at home. After stopping to let him mug for the camera, I got back on the road and discovered myself nearly at the substation. Between the substation and the goat I had to look twice and turn around once, but at last I was certain: I’d found Nash Prairie. Unfenced, ungated, unmown and unplowed, it appeared unremarkable. Hidden in plain sight, lacking even a sign to mark its presence, it could have fooled anyone into mistaking it for just another untended 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.

Nash Prairie in spring

Texans love their wildflowers, and the spring ritual known as ‘going to see the bluebonnets’ is deeply ingrained.

When the weather cooperates, the flowers provide breath-taking vistas. On the other hand, there’s been a growing tendency to define ‘good wildflowers’ solely in terms of vibrant and accessible color patches, like the stands of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush that line so many roads.

Nash Prairie is different. Subtle rather than spectacular and nearly invisible to someone traveling by car, it rewards a leisurely pace and open senses. The fragrance of the land is indescribable, with an aroma 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 our more vibrantly-framed roads, Nash Prairie is a mixed bouquet. No human hand scattered its 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  raised pimple mounds, sunflowers, toad-flax, cone flowers and verbena flourish 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 once stretched from Lafayette, Louisiana to Corpus Christi, Texas. Less than one percent of the prairie exists today, and barely a fraction of that is virgin prairie, like Nash.

Once part of the historic 15,000 acre KNG Ranch, the land was jointly willed by owner Kittie Nash Groce to a cousin; to West Columbia’s St. Mary’s Episcopal Church; and to the West Columbia Hospital District. Thanks to the farming practices of German and Czech settlers who used it as a hay meadow, the land never was plowed. Cattle were grazed and hay cuttings 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. Across the road, in a pasture dedicated to cattle grazing, 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 sale to The Nature Conservancy for $1.8 million.

Also in 2003, Dr. David Rosen, then a botanist and plant taxonomist with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, began a survey of the Nash Prairie. While identifying more than 300 plant species there, he discovered one quite rare plant — the buttonbush flatsedge (Cyperus cephalanthus) — which first was described in 1843. Considered a reliable indicator of undisturbed Coastal Prairie, it was thought to have disappeared from Texas.

Grasses represent the bulk of the prairie’s species; big and little bluestem, Indian grass, brownseed paspalum, and switchgrass thrive there. 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.

Little Bluestem

Grasses and flowers aren’t the only prairie joys, of course. Birds abound; at Nash, 120 resident or migratory species have been identified. During my first visit few birds were visible, but scissortail flycatchers cut through the air, and meadowlarks sang without ceasing.

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. Greedy as a child, I wished for a basket, but my hand would have to do. As I picked, my mother’s voice chided 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 damp, 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 tang of fruits formed by sunlight and rain, I imagined the 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.


Comments always are welcome.

125 thoughts on “Hidden in Plain Sight

  1. That’s funny about your GPS of the caprine kind.
    While I’ve often enough heard of the Nash Prairie through the Native Prairies Association of Texas, you’re one of the few people I know who’s been there. To modify a line from “Some Enchanted Evening,” now that you’ve found it, never let it go.

    1. At this point, my longing to go there can be almost physically painful if I dwell on it. Both Nash and the Sandylands Sanctuary remain closed, and there’s no indication of when The Nature Conservancy will open them again. I heard that mid-June might be a possibility, but it’s apparently still a no-go in the most literal sense. It seems odd, since TNC sites in other states have opened, but all I can do is wait.

  2. I will sound silly if I write as gushingly as I feel, about your visit to this prairie. The picture of the yellow and purple flowers — are the yellow ones coneflowers? — almost makes me cry. The berries, the history, a bit of land as pristine as it gets ….it is holy ground! Thank you, thank you, for going there, and for the vicarious visit you give. I’m happy.

    1. Those are coneflowers; don’t they fit beautifully with the verbena? The variety of flowers I’ve found there over the years truly is extraordinary: milkweeds, ladies’ tresses orchids, Maryland meadow beauty, black-eyed Susan — on and on. There’s another, privately-owned hay meadow not so very far away where I’ve spent a lot of time, too, but it’s for sale now, and was mowed at just the wrong time. The wonderful variety of flowers there haven’t appeared this year because of it, so I have my fingers crossed that it won’t sell, and by autumn other species will have emerged.

  3. Beautiful, vivid writing. Funny how getting directions in the country sounds the same no matter which state you are in. That butterfly looks as though a bit of stained glass peeled off a window and flew away.

    1. You’re right about direction-giving. I never use gadgets like a true GPS when I travel; I use paper maps, and often stop to ask for directions. Sometimes, I’ll even stop to ask if I know precisely where I am. I’ve found that if I express some appreciation for an area while I’m asking for those directions, I often get much more than ‘Go south three miles, and turn left.”

  4. I was just going to tell you to have a look at Steve Schwartzman’s blog. And who provided the very first comment? Steve
    Your post is a marvellous example of what a great nature blog should look like.
    Your third photo is a fantastic composition of foreground (the red flowers), the middle ground (the tree) and the sky as the background.

    1. I smiled at your comment, Peter. Steve was the one who introduced me to the pleasures of Texas wildflowers many years ago, and he’s the one who’s taught me a good bit of what I know about photography. If it hadn’t been for the development of that double interest, I never would have begun my second blog, Lagniappe. It’s provided me as much pleasure as this prairie has!

  5. The lines of the Simon and Garfunkel song, “Slow down. You move too fast. You got to make the morning last.” come to mind. I love it that a goat is a landmark.

    1. And now you’ve reminded me of the people who drive the auto tour loops at the refuges at 35 miles an hour. At Brazoria, I once hear someone bragging, “We made the whole loop in less than an hour this time.” Like Nash, the refuges (or a backyard, for that matter) reward dawdling. Dallying. Shilly-shallying. Goats know how to dawdle.

  6. This is certainly another place to add to my wish list. I love your new GPS system, and I agree with Peter about your third photo. And with WOL, about the Paul Simon song but I’d zoom in on “I’ve come to watch your flowers growin'”.

    1. I’d forgotten that song, and how rich its lyrics are. As for watching flowers grow, sometimes it’s possible, especially when it comes to opening blooms. One of my favorite mornings involved drinking coffee and watching a white prickly poppy bud burst its bonds to open into a fresh, crinkly flower. I was happy to have my camera at hand to record the happy occasion!

    1. I love the story not only for the amusing goat and the beautiful prairie, but also because, for me, it stands as a reminder of how naive I was, and how much I’ve learned over the years. Sometimes a look back is salutary! I’m glad you enjoyed it, too, Klausbernd.

      1. Dear Linda
        I can well understand this. Looking back I am shocked how naive I have (sometimes) been.
        The Fab Four of Cley
        🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  7. I am so happy that you found the prairie and especially that it yielded blackberries for you. It is sad in a way that this vestige of native landscape does not merit a special marker of some kind, but it would be wonderful if it was so common as not to need one!

    1. In fact, the absence of a marker of any sort is intentional. The last thing a piece of unfenced virgin prairie needs is curious visitors, particularly since they could be carrying the seeds of invasive plants on their feet, or feel the need to pluck the flowers. I don’t know, but suspect, that the absence of a fence is intentional, too. Put up a fence, and people grow curious. That the place is open at all is quite a gift.

    1. Of course I miss the prairie, since it’s closed just now because of the pandemic, but to be honest, that casual and informal interaction with a pair of strangers is something I miss even more. It’s a sad thing that so many people now see others as enemies to one degree or another; stopping along the road to chat isn’t so common these days — although it does still happen. After all — without the people, I wouldn’t have known about the goat!

  8. I used to belong to Nature Conservancy and love what they are capable of doing. After Nature went and painted a beautiful prairie, humans nearly took it all away.

    1. I suppose it’s that ‘nearly’ that counts. There are wonderfully dedicated and knowledgeable people working to hang on to what’s left, and even expand it in some cases. When I think about prairies, I think about bison, of course, and how Mary Ann Goodnight helped to preserve the species. Today, even pocket prairies in urban areas can help to educate people about their value, though we’ll never see those huge prairies again.

      1. I never thought much about Ted Turner one way or the other, until I saw a TV docu on him. How he hired people to walk hi ranches to clean it up and now has one of the largest herds of bison in the country.

  9. Your description of following hand-drawn maps and directions given by locals brings back many memories of exploration of rural lands in northeast Texas while in college in Commerce, TX. I once went looking for the “Panhandle National Grasslands,” which is located NOWHERE NEAR THE PANHANDLE. My directions said, “from Bonham, go through Ivanhoe, then on to Telephone and turn right at the gas station with the one-eyed dog.” Guess you could call that a DPS. I think the gas station and the dog are still there.
    The land between there and the Red River still held the last vestiges of the native wolf population in Texas, so it was a pretty wild place, with patches of native grasslands still living between previously cultivated land. It is now renamed “Caddo National Grasslands.”

    1. Whenever I come across the name Bonham, I always think of Helen Bonham, who happened to be Miss Wyoming in 1917.

      I’ve heard of the Caddo National Grasslands, but they certainly aren’t located where I imagined them to be. When I visit family in Kansas City, I go up to Paris and then take the Indian Nation Turnpike through Oklahoma; I was surprised to see those grasslands just west of Paris. When I make my next trip in the medium future, it would make sense to pay them a visit.

      Of course that one-eyed dog brought this to mind. It’s a great let’s-get-rolling song for the morning.

    1. The goat certainly suits me. On the analog/digital spectrum, I tend toward the analog end of things, and there’s nothing more analog than a goat!

  10. Linda, I always enjoy the goat story… I was last by the Nash in February and was surprised to see the cables down at that time. I backed up to the gate and sat and ate lunch while enjoying a bit of the past. It always amazes me how little traffic travels by that beautiful spot.

    1. I suppose most of the traffic’s related to the areas of housing closer to 35, and I doubt if anyone uses the road to go on up to Brazos Bend; there are easier and quicker ways to do that. But county law enforcement does patrol the road; I’ve had two delightful conversations with officers who saw me nose to nose with a flower, and stopped to be sure I hadn’t had a heart attack. It’s nice to know they keep an eye on the spot.

  11. Your discovery of a long forgotten GPS device is precious (with a photo for proof). This natural oasis is indeed a gem. Thanks for sharing the narrative and the photos.

    1. At the time, I took the goat’s photo just for grins, but I’m glad now that I did. The story on its own is great, but seeing one of the stars of the show makes it that much better. I’m glad you enjoyed it; your Montana heart would love the prairie if you could walk it.

  12. So much to love about this wonderful find, Linda! Isn’t it amazing how, if we humans will quit interfering, Mother Nature can bloom and grow to her heart’s content?! My mouth is watering from your description of those berries, and I look forward to your next visit to this lovely spot!

    1. Nothing can compare with fruit ripened on the vine or branch, and unexpected berries are a special treat. Pity the child who’s never had the experience of picking fruit on a hot summer’s day. I’ll bet you know the rule: one for the bucket, two for the mouth!

      Of course, a little human ‘interference’ is important for today’s prairies: occasional prescribed burns mimic fires of the past, controlled browsing can replicate the effects of freely-roaming bison herds, and an occasional mow at the right time can bring even more flowers. But too much concrete is being poured, and too much building ‘on spec’ is being done — that’s where the efforts of groups like The Nature Conservancy can be so important.

  13. What a very special place! And a wonderful piece of writing too – most enjoyable. (Especially the goat!)

    1. It is a special place. When I first began visiting, I was so intrigued by the variety of plant life, the flowers and grasses filled most of my photos. When I can visit again, I want to expand the view a bit, and see if I can capture some of its scope, especially at sunrise or sunset.

  14. I had a good laugh at your explanation of the Texan way of giving directions. That kind of GPS must be quite unique for Texas, and most likely only one of its kind in the world. Then of course your mother was right, but when it comes to washing berries I find out in the wild, I have never listened to my mother, either.

    1. It occurs to me that my experience with the goat, and the photo, are similar to your street photography in at least one way: it’s a singular capture of a unique individual. There are plenty of goats in the world, but there’s no goat quite like that goat!

      As for unwashed berries, they were part of a childhood that included bare feet, playing in the dirt, and plenty of food-sharing with friends. I’m convinced that all of that helped to build up our immune systems. Life in a bubble doesn’t build the kind of natural defenses that real life requires: physically or psychologically, now that I think about it.

      1. I agree with about strengthening the natural defense system. I have made it a rule that I always eat everything, no matter where I travel. And I am sure that’s why I never get sick (although I realize I can of course get unlucky and contrive something very nasty with that attitude).

  15. What a fabulous post, I so enjoyed it. The butterfly looks like it is lit by LED light, gorgeous. Do you have the expression ‘a country mile’? Meaning a mile longer than a city mile?

    1. We surely do have that expression; “longer than a country mile” is in the lyrics of more songs than I realized. On the other hand, I can’t remember hearing anyone use the phrase in speech. I do hear “down the road a piece” from time to time, and of course there’s ‘up yonder,’ ‘down yonder,’ and ‘over yonder’!

      I have several of those backlit photos of the butterfly and paintbrush. I just found them again, and have one I might publish, just for grins. I keep looking at it and trying to decide whether it’s really bad or really creative — albeit accidentally so!

  16. You had me with the smell of the land. The fragrance of a field might be one of the most evocative senses for me – all the better if it’s virgin dirt and growth, out there baking in the sun. I might have to get that map some day!

    1. Isn’t it interesting how certain scents evoke places and times? Every now and then, I’ll catch a whiff of midwestern fall — that combination of wet and rotting leaves, woodsmoke, and who knows what else — and I’m transported. There’s a certain smoke that can take me back to Liberia, too, but I have no idea what actually causes it. It certainly isn’t barbeque smoke, or burning brush piles. It might be from Louisiana cane fields, but I may never know.

      When Nash opens again, I’ll let you know. It’s a place you’d enjoy, and it’s easy to combine with history (in East and West Columbia) or more nature, at Brazos Bend.

      1. Oh, the smoke scents! I know exactly what you mean about being transported to Liberia as I have caught whiffs of other African places, as well as Himalayan wood-burning smells, right here in Houston on some of my walks. What is it? Like you, I have no idea, but I love the instant trip to somewhere far away.

        Would love to hear when Nash re-opens!

  17. Wonderful pictures and story, Linda. I don’t know if there’s ever been one of your posts, where I didn’t learn a few things. Pimple mounds!
    Hard to believe that big ocean of prairie is down to a few little pools, less that 1%! I’m glad for the Nature Conservancy, they seem to save the day quite often, this prairie preserve looks beautiful.

    1. ‘Pimple mounds’ also are called ‘Mima mounds’ from time to time. Here’s one of our most knowledgeable people explaining the mounds. Another debunked theory I’ve heard involves prairie dogs, but I suppose that’s just a variation on the Pleistocene gophers he mentions.

      When I visited the Diamond Grove prairie in the fall, it was easy to spot the pimple mounds; they were covered with bright red sumac that didn’t show up anywhere else. Here’s one view.

  18. What a gorgeous area! I’m glad you knew enough to decipher the directions and were able to find it. Personally, I had always though of prairies as only being in the Midwest, like Kansas and Iowa. I had no idea there were prairies in the south as well. So your post was not only enjoyable, it was educational!

    1. ‘Coastal prairie’ wasn’t familiar to me until I moved to Texas, either, and even then it took me a while to wrap my mind around how complex and interesting it is. In truth, we have several sorts of prairies here. I’ve yet to visit the Blackland prairie, which more closely resembles what you’d see in the midwest. It’s the large swath shown on this map. I’ve come close, but I tend not to travel north. I need to remedy that!

  19. “Rosen had catalogued 52 species of native grasses…” He could have come here and classified 34 species in my flower beds and I would have given him a glass of ice tea. Now to my serious question. How does one go about classifying which plants are grass? Google tells me grass “flowers” do not have petals. Would that mean he watches the plant year around to see if it has petals? I find so many varieties that are called grass, yet vary in blade size, color, root system, even sticky-ness. You have a knack for making me curious about so many common place items. You should have been a teacher – or maybe you were at some time. The history of virgin area is very interesting.

    1. “Welcome to Botany 301: The Grasses — a two semester course that will help you understand …..”

      I jest, of course, but the study of grasses could justify such a course. In the simplest terms, there are forbs (your basic flowering plant, like a sunflower), grasses (St. Augustine in your lawn, little bluestem on the prairie), and what botanists call grass-like plants (sedges and rushes). I found a nice, relatively short and understandable page that makes the grasses a little more understandable.

      Grasses do flower, but their flowering isn’t quite as noticeable as that of a rose or dandelion. Here’s a view of Eastern Gamagrass in bloom — isn’t it pretty?

  20. This is one of my favorite all time blog posts of yours Linda! Native prairie here in Iowa has suffered the same fate as in Texas. Few years ago, someone donated 120 acres of virgin praire not too far from me…Not quite sure why, but I’m drawn to it. I could also relate to your trying to find someplace you’ve never been, with sketchy directions…happened to me in April. I did’t have a goat for a reference point, just some tower. Glad you found what you were looking for. Take care. DM

    1. Some years ago, I took my mother back to Iowa to visit a friend, and we all trekked out to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge — a spot not far from my hometown, and a place where native prairie remnants can be seen. It was beautiful, and quite instructive, placed as it was in the midst of the cornfields.

      As for finding places, every now and then I remember my one experience with a true GPS, and laugh. A friend and I were in the middle of Kansas, searching for a country cemetery. All went well, and the GPS had us on the right road — it just didn’t know about the bridge that had washed out. A farmer in his old pickup happened by, and inquired. When we explained what had happened, he drew us a map on a piece of paper from his dashboard, and we found the cemetery. We had a nice chat, too. Very Iowa, wouldn’t you say?

  21. I love that the goat posed. And that you noticed the scents. So much about landscape is encapsulated in the way it smells. I’m glad this was somehow saved.

    1. Everything in nature has a scent — even snow. We don’t get snow often here on the Texas coast, but it does come from time to time, and when it does, you can smell it coming: like rain. Oddly, after being offshore for some time, the land can be detected by smell long before anyone cries, “Land, ho!”

      The goat was a cutie. The last time I was up the road, it looked as though the family had moved. I hope the goat went with them.

      1. Yes, if you can smell the sea 20 miles from the shore, you can certainly smell the land beyond the masthead reach. I agree with you on smelling rain and snow–and snow is more obvious than rain, signaling hours in advance, sometimes. Anyway, often I mention the smell of the air and the person I mention it to hasn’t noticed. So it felt good to hear someone talk about the scent of a small patch of prairie–of course, I’ve been known to stick my nose into tree bark to see what it smells like, so I’m just recognizing a kindred spirit.

  22. What an entertaining story of your visit. Those fields of wildflowers are absolutely glorious and no doubt the 400 acres well worth a visit, even though the GPS was a little unusual in its instructions.

    1. It was a fun day, even at the time, and it’s one of those memories that doesn’t fade with time. I’m glad you enjoyed it — and my GPS!

      I thought of you this week, Vicki. I’ve begun working on a boat in a different marina, and it happens to be right on the edge of a huge road and bridge construction project. I spend my days listening to the sounds of concrete being demolished and who knows what other kinds of work, and the constant rat-a-tat-tat of really big equipment reminded me of some of your comments about the construction noise in your neighborhood. However worthy the project, there’s no question that noise pollution is a real thing.

      1. I can usually overcome much ‘pollution’ and let loud repetitious noise recede into the background, Linda. But I guess there comes a time (15-18 months?) when enough is enough. I found some days it was like I had a jackhammer a few feet from my body, but no earmuffs to soften the noise. I figured it might be something to do with the sound ‘echoing’ off the cliff face?

        My new apartment will have some pros and cons, but at least I’m set back from the road/footpath and hopefully only local traffic in a much older residential area.

  23. A beautifully written article and I can feel the love for your country. Grasses and flowers and all that is between, depending on them, insects, birds and fruit it seems, your domain par excellence.

    Australia is similar in the sense we too have unlimited space, much of it hardly ever trodden on by men. A good rain and this previous bare and tired country becomes a haven for wild life and flowers, a re-birthing.

    Here we have also an expression of remoteness or wildness and that is; It is well ‘beyond the black stump’. It means a total wild and uncivilized area. Most likely too remote to even consider visiting let alone living here and well beyond medical care or facilities.

    1. I’m surprised that I’ve never heard the expression “beyond the black stump,” even though it’s obviously common parlance, and has been used to title everything from novels to a cartoon strip. What tickled me is that the black stump seems to have been used much as my goat was: as a way of providing directions. In the Wikipedia article, I found this:

      “The most prosaic explanation for the origin of ‘black stump’ derives from the general use of fire-blackened tree-stumps as markers when giving directions to travellers unfamiliar with the terrain. An early use of the phrase from the Sydney journal Bulletin (31 March 1900, p. 31) seems to lend support to this explanation: “A rigmarole of details concerning the turns and hollows, the big tree, the dog-leg fence, and the black stump”.

      When I think of the wild and isolated portions of your country, it’s ‘Outback’ that comes to mind first, or ‘woop-woop.’ When I thought about similar expressions here, “out in the sticks” came to mind. It probably is related to the presence of far more trees than you have in the Outback.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Dana. For some reason, the goat makes me think of Roy, now — maybe because every time I saw it, it was just hanging out, being friendly. You would have loved those berries. I’ve never tasted any that were sweeter; dewberries often have a bit of a tang to them, but these didn’t require added sugar.

      1. Just wait until you see my next post – the Roy has been shorn! He looks so much happier to have all that heavy fur shaved off. Plus, Mike & I were pleasantly surprised at how FIT he looks – we thought he was really overweight, but it turns out it was just his massive coat!

    1. I’m glad I found it, too. What I can’t remember is how I first heard of it. I think it might have been from one of my readers, who lives in the area, and who also visits the Brazoria refuge a good bit. In any event, my curiosity was piqued, and off I went. It was a worthwhile trip, to say the least.

  24. I’ve wandered back roads in the northeast looking for nature sites, but I’ve never seen anything as amusing as your goat positioning system. Your pictures of the prairie are beautiful, especially the paintbrush and trees (!).
    Your story of the vanishing prairie reminds me of the loss of old growth forests in Massachusetts. My state was razed for farms long ago, there are only a few small stands of old woods, mostly in the western part of the state. Ironically, Massachusetts is reforesting, and some people lament the loss of fields and open spaces – but mature woods can’t be replaced.

    1. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything as amusing as that goat; its use as a travel marker certainly was unique. A detail I didn’t include in the story is that the fellow I was talking to mentioned that the goat would most likely be on top of his shed: and so he was. The paintbrush and trees are from last spring, when the wildflower bloom was spectacular. So many photos from my trips never got posted, including that one. It’s just a standard Texas front yard, along a county road. It was the most amazing year — maybe a retrospective’s in order, since this year’s travels were mostly put on hold.

      In east Texas, the loss of old growth longleaf pine forests presents the same sort of issues. Like the prairies, those forests used to cover huge amounts of land, but they’re gone now, save for bits and pieces, and the birds and flowers and insects that thrived there are under threat, too. There seems to be a good bit of replanting going on, but the same truth applies: we don’t always know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone.

      1. I’ve been promising myself that I’d visit the old growth stands in the Berkshires. Someday!
        There used to be a butterfly (Regal Fritillary) in prairie habitats in Massachusetts. Gorgeous butterfly. It was last seen in numbers in Massachusetts in the 19th century, last recently seen on the islands (Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard). I think they are gone now from my state, habitat loss is the usual explanation. I’d have to drive to Pennsylvania to see them, or visit a tall grass prairie location in the midwest.

        1. That is a glorious butterfly. I smiled to see it described as a ‘prairie specialist.’ At least it’s only moved, and not disappeared. I hope you get to see it sooner rather than later. Our Gulf Fritillary’s pretty, but the Regal’s certainly an equal.

  25. Quite a bit of ground around here is being turned back into prairie. In fact, the family has 120 acres going back this year – but you mentioned something that always bothered me about the management of prairie land. Where are the grazers?

    Sure, cattle operations try to squeeze the last blade of high quality grass out of their pastures and that is not comparable with the natural landscape – but neither is the lack of animals munching on plants that require an intestinal system to pass through.

    Flowers are good, fire is wonderful – but to be a true prairie, the land requires grazers.

    1. That’s right. It’s been interesting to read about the grazing patterns of bison vs. cattle, and the way the different species shape the land differently, particularly when cattle are fenced..

      There are people thinking about those issues, of course. During the last North American Prairie Conference, I sat in on a presentation by Chris Helzer, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska. He was discussing what he calls Open Gate Rotational Grazing: one alternative to patch-burn grazing. He’s a good communicator, so he can make the issues understandable even to someone like me, who lacks a good bit of background. I think you’ll appreciate both articles.

  26. I like any story that includes a goat. How could anyone not? Now that I think on it I’m not sure I’ve seen a real prairie that wasn’t under the care of some nature conservancy. Your photos of the vibrant colors of the Texas prairies make me sigh a bit. I’d like to see the flowers and trees in person, but with the world more or less closed that’ll have to wait.

    1. Well, maybe you could find a spot that’s less closed, rather than more closed. I know that everyone’s tolerance for getting out and about varies, but being outdoors with the flowers and the trees certainly lifts my spirits. In many of my wanderings over the past weeks, I’ve been literally the only person around. I certainly miss a few favorite spots that remain closed, but there’s a lot of world out there!

  27. I loved this writing and the images were simply outstanding. You always manage to inspire me to get out there, even if it is only to venture to the pecan orchard, to take note of the wildflowers in bloom and what is flourishing at the moment in nature.

    Which is why I need to be “out there” more to observe just how mulberries, dewberries and wild blackberries all seem to disappear before I can pick any, just for the pure enjoyment of popping a few in my mouth. There are many suspects out there… I must plan a stakeout!

    1. You’ve reminded me of an afternoon on Galveston Island. I’d found a good stand of dewberries, and a group of grackles decided to challenge me for them. I’ve never seen birds eat berries so quickly, and with such ease. They were much more adept at getting through the thorns than I was. They certainly know their business!

      We’re finally going to be getting some rain, and I’m hoping it will refresh things around here. Before we know it, fall will have arrived, and those pecans will be on the menu. It’s hard to believe that we’ve come to the summer solstice — I hope your day was a good one, and that you’re found some time to be outdoors and enjoy this longest day!

  28. I am pleased you found the prairie, how sad to hear how much of it has been lost over time. Loved your pictures, the story of the goat marker and how you enjoyed those delicious berries. I always pick stuff in the garden and eat it unwashed.xxx

    1. My grandmother used to carry a salt shaker in her apron when she went out to pick tomatoes — she’d stand in the middle of the vines and eat that sun-warmed fruit with a big smile on her face. I can imagine you in the middle of that fantastic garden you’ve created doing much the same thing — salt shaker or no, I’m convinced you do a lot of smiling out there!

  29. A thoroughly charming essay and many thanks for taking us with you to this marvelous Texas place. Your description of the driving directions made me chuckle and I stood right with you viewing the landscape and taking in the fragrance on the breeze.

    I just love The Nature Conservancy, as well as The Texas Conservancy–they do such good things for our lands and souls.

    1. One of these days (or weeks, or months) I intend to head north, and visit some of the Blackland Prairie. Everything I’ve read, and the photos I’ve seen, suggest it’s equally beautiful, and well worth a visit. Besides: my gr-gr-grandparents on my mother’s side moved to Texas after the Civil War, and lived on that prairie for a while — east of the rail line that turned into the town of Melissa. I’ve been in the area once, but I want to return: an odd kind of nostalgia, but still quite a strong impulse.

  30. I was going to mention the loss of prairie land as akin to our loss of old growth but I saw that Tom already mentioned that. You probably know that part of that loss was due to the British Navy wishing our tall pines for masts on their sailing fleet. But much else was the result of industrious settlers looking to create farms and raise families. Sadly, many family farms have been lost and replaced by industrial farms which might be part of the reason prairie land has been lost along with the increasing numbers of those fruitful and multiplying humans. But those losses are allowing for re-establishment of some of the lost forested land. Your images display the beauty of the Nash Prairie.

    Loved the new fangled GPS. Around here directions might be given in a similar manner but more like “take a left about a mile after you pass a gnarly old sugar maple with a broken branch aside an old stone wall with several rocks missing.” And…that stone wall may be the result of fields being cleared of the very same stones in the construction as is true of the majority of stone walls in New England.

    1. I just learned about the Pine Tree Riot of 1772 in Weare, NH. Your comment about the ships’ masts made me wonder what the Brits used for their ships, since I usually think of Sitka spruce. It turned out to be Eastern white pine, and looking for information on that tree was what led me to the riot. In New Hampshire, pine trees rather than tea helped to foment the Revolution! It’s a great tale.

      Using rocks pulled from fields is a part of Kansas tradition, too. The Flint Hills were preserved partly because all that rock made them unsuitable for farming, but in some areas fields were cleared and rock used for fences, buildings, and so on. Of course, rock formations of various kinds served as landmarks for settlers, too. If I were traveling that prairie in the 1800s, I’d be happy for any landmark around.

      1. Yes, rocks are landmarks in many ways. Cairns are both a boon and a curse lately. Cairns of course are used as trail markers, especially on mountain trails. But, thanks to Andy Goldsworthy, too many people now litter shorelines, along the Quabbin but in local rivers and streams, with their own versions heedless of both the effect on creatures that rely on those rocks for breeding and hiding from predators as well as ruining the natural experience for those who follow. I drove over a brook once on the way to a house call for work and as I looked upstream there dozens of stacks of a good height. Admirable effort but not the practice itself.

        Yes, citizens got fed up with a lot of things King George ordered to be done here besides tea tax and no representation.

        1. I’m of a divided mind about cairns. The functional ones probably have been in use since the first cave dweller headed out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. And there’s no question that a lot of Goldsworthy’s work is beautiful and intriguing — but not everyone piling up rocks is an artist. We don’t see many down here, but of course our beaches are bayous are a little thin when it comes to building material!

          1. Yes, most of them are not at all artistic but some do represent engineering accomplishment with the balance of shape and size. But they are, for the most part, eyesores in places that should remain relatively pristine.

  31. I’m glad you were able to find such a breathtaking place in such manner. The advantage of these places is that at least they are more open. Sometimes I’d like to visit a forested area, but it’s either gated or too remote, or not reachable neither by foot nor car.

    1. I wish you were here, where there are forests galore for visiting. I learned just this weekend about one spot of public lands that I’d never heard about, and it sounds wonderful: longleaf pines and hardwood forest, with all of the grasses and forbs that are so delightful. It’s a little farther away — maybe three hours — so I probably won’t visit for a while. But I have to hope that things will settle a bit, both in terms of the virus and social upheaval, so that the world itself can open up.

  32. Your intrepid adventure to find the Nash Prairie was beautifully written and documented, Linda, and I found it very moving. As a birdwatcher and someone who grew up in the Midwest where prairies were once prolific, I have spent many days seeking out U.S. prairies and absolutely reveling in their pure beauty. As you wrote about the many wildflowers I was already hungry to hear what bird species you might find, as the prairies are home to some of our loveliest songbirds. In 2014 I went on a similar adventure as yours, getting lost, in search of the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge a few hours outside of Houston. It, too, was a spectacular prairie filled with wildflowers and prairie birds. We did not see prairie chickens, however. I was happy to read about the birds you found at Nash, and hope you are able to fulfill your quest to return there. Really special post, my friend, thank you.

    1. Attwater’s a special place, too. I’m glad you were able to visit, even though you weren’t able to enjoy the prairie chickens. I’ve heard birding friends talk about the number and diversity of species on the Nash. I don’t know birds very well, but I have come across dickcissels there, and meadowlarks. Red-winged blackbirds and a variety of sparrows, too. On the other hand, insect life is as abundant as you’d expect: especially the butterflies and dragonflies.

      I’m so glad this post pleased you. I think many of us are longing for the time when we can be as free as those birds again — or at least freer!

    1. Giving directions can be hard, especially when the people giving them are so familiar with the territory they don’t give it a thought when they’re going from here to there. I was lucky to come across some people who’d been asked directions to the same spot on multiple occasions, so they knew exactly how to help people aimlessly wandering around.

  33. Wonderful story, all of it. Reminds me a bit of the Hempstead Plains on Long Island, a prairie remnant much smaller and much more abused. It’s still there, on the campus of a community college hard by a shopping mall, and there are still people fighting to preserve it. http://friendsofhp.org/site/

    1. I enjoyed roaming around the Hempstead Plains. It’s heartening to discover more and more of these projects around the country. Even some of our schools have begun butterfly and native plant gardens, and the number of pocket prairies is increasing.

      One of our most interesting local projects involves the establishment of gardens at individual homes, all spaced out to accomodate the flight distances of bees. That way, the bees can travel from one little garden to the next — it’s part of the Pollinator Pathway project, and it’s one way to join communities of humans as well as of pollinators.

  34. I’m so glad your Goat Positioning System worked, Linda. My heart flows over when I read your vivid descriptions, and I feel as if I’m right there with you. What an inspiring success story and illustration of nature’s resilience–if we only give it a chance. Thank you for sharing, this made me both smile and shed some tears.

    1. Procuring this land and securing it for the future was quite a process, and as so often happens, it came about only because of the dedication of some individuals, and the contributions of many: financial and otherwise. It is a success story. Peter Conaty is gone now, but he was able to see the fulfillment of his dream. It’s quite a legacy.

  35. Wow, that is a description and illustration of a little piece of heaven! One year we journeyed across the prairie in southern Saskatchewan by foot. It was intoxicating. I still get goose bumps.

    1. A little piece of heaven, indeed. Walking a prairie by foot is the only way to appreciate it, in my opinion. It’s not just that more can be seen on foot, it’s that foot travel engages all of the senses: including awe at the ever-receding horizon. I once clipped this bit from the Welsh poet W.H. Davies:

      “Now shall I walk
      Or shall I ride?
      ‘Ride,’ Pleasure said.
      ‘Walk,’ Joy replied.”

      He’s the one who wrote the poem titled “Leisure,” which begins:

      “What is this life if, full of care,
      We have no time to stand and stare.”

      I think he’d be a great prairie companion.

  36. What a treasure trove you’ve found! And maybe the only one for a while yet unless they have managed the new GPS system as you have. That image of the butterfly is just magnificent.

    1. I was pleased to find that butterfly. I thought at first it was a perfect specimen, but few are: see the bit of damage on its hind wing? It’s a rough life at there. The prairie, thank goodness, had its life improved when humans got involved. That isn’t always true, but it certainly was true here.

  37. I felt like being with you when I continued my reading. Very enjoyable post. Your photos are terrific. I have not been to Texas and thus do not now it, but I know a little bit of Arizona thru the magazine called Arizona Highways. Readings and the reality do not meet always, but they feed imagination. Thank you and have a good day!

    1. You’re right that words and images can feed the imagination; that’s exactly why I enjoy your posts as I do. Finland, especially, was a bit of a blank space in my mind, but you’re helping to fill it up!

      You would enjoy Texas, I think. West Texas has much in common with Arizona, but the variety of our landscapes would keep you entertained and engaged for quite some time! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Mattie.

  38. Your post put me right back in Peoria in the late ’80s, happily on the trail of little prairie remnants “just down the road a piece, hang a right at the barn”. Indeed my favorite country highway did make a 90 degree turn at a barn! And oh, the fun of exploring them once you found them. Each one with its own character, slightly different list of species.
    A botanist once scolded us about eating fruit on the prairies unless we intended to hang around and void the seeds back where they belonged!

    1. Going with buckets and baskets to gather berries on the prairie is one thing, but refusing to sample the fruits of the earth? That seems silly to me, particularly when the fruit is so abundant that even the birds tire of it. Of course, I’m especially tired of scolds just now, so there’s that.

      You’re right that each prairie has its own characteristics. Some have described certain areas of the Piney Woods as “a prairie with trees,” while our coastal prairie differs in obvious ways from the Tallgrass Prairie in Kansas. I keep learning about prairies in places I wouldn’t expect them; there’s a lifetime of exploration waiting out there.

  39. I will never hear the term “GPS” ever again without it translating straight to “Goat Positioning System”!!

    What a lovely and diverse spot. Definitely a treasure for you to clutch to your chest, cherish and visit throughout the year to see how it changes from season to season.

    Thank heavens for people who let a prime piece of farming real estate be nothing but a hay meadow.

    1. If I’ve embedded the new meaning of GPS into your mind, my mission here is complete! The Nash is beautiful, if subtle, and it is delightful to see it experiencing its seasonal changes. I’ve come to enjoy seedheads as much as flowers — at least in some instances — and I’m hoping it will be open again in time to enjoy autumn there.

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