A Little Hike to a Big Tree

The Big Tree ~ Goose Island, Texas

For years after being designated Texas’s State Champion Coastal Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) in 1966, the tree affectionately known as The Big Tree reigned in leafy splendor at Goose Island State Park near Rockport.

Thirty-five feet in circumference and forty-four feet tall, the Goose Island Tree is more than a thousand years old. It would have been little more than a sprout when Dirk III, Count of Holland, defeated Holy Roman Emperor Henry II at the Battle of Vlaardingen; when England’s Buckfast Abbey was founded; or when Aeddan ap Blegywryd, King of Gwynedd, passed on.

More recently, the giant oak survived an 1864 Civil War battle that destroyed the nearby town of Lamar. After doing battle with Hurricane Harvey, although battered, somewhat broken, and stripped of leaves, it remained firmly rooted to its ground.

The Big Tree after Hurricane Harvey ~ September 5, 2017 (Texas Parks & Wildlife photo)

Today, the Goose Island tree continues to recover, but it’s no longer our champion live oak. That honor now belongs to a tree on private property in Colorado County. Certified in August of 2016, the Colorado County oak is 61 feet high, with a circumference of 338 inches and a crown spread of 114 feet.

The current champion live oak ~ Colorado County

Between the reign of the Goose Island oak and the designation of the Colorado County oak as Texas’s largest, a third, equally impressive tree served as state champion. Still the second largest live oak in Texas, and one of the largest in the United States, the so-called San Bernard Oak was discovered in 2000 and officially entered into the record books in 2003.

Estimated to be 200 to 300 years old, the San Bernard Oak is hidden away in Brazoria County, on the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. The area, sometimes called Austin’s Woods in tribute to Stephen F. Austin and the settlers he brought here in 1823, is more commonly known as the Columbia Bottomlands: another historical reference. Established in 1826 by Josiah Hughes Bell, Columbia (known today as West Columbia) served as capital of the Republic of Texas from September to December 1836.

The Columbia Bottomlands extend through four Texas counties — Brazoria, Matagorda, Fort Bend and Wharton — and share a forested floodplain network of rivers, creeks, ponds, and marshes.

Finding the San Bernard Oak isn’t difficult, but it does require a bit more effort than driving up and snapping a photo. This satellite image shows the upper half of the trail. At the bottom edge, toward the right, you can see the trail crossing a utility easement. Nearer the center of the image, another section of the trail is visible; the San Bernard Oak is to the north and west of the visible trail.

The Columbia Bottomlands, one of the few forested communities within the Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes ecoregion, consist of interconnected floodplains of the Brazos, San Bernard, and Colorado Rivers. Historically a patchwork of forested bottoms and prairie uplands, they extend approximately 75 miles inland, and serve a variety of critical funtions: lessening the destructiveness of floods; reducing soil erosion; retaining river-borne sediments; and filtering out pollutants.

While some protected bottomland areas now are closed or only partially open to the public, the San Bernard Oak is accessible, and the trail leading to the oak is as interesting as the tree itself.

 

After a short drive from the main section of the San Bernard Refuge, a sign marks the beginning of an ecotone: a word used to designate transitional areas of vegetation between two different plant communities. Here, the transition is between wet prairie and bottomland forest; evidence of plants’ adaptations to increased shade, less sandy soil, and constant fluctuations in water levels is obvious even to casual observers.

At the trailhead, vines and a few palmettos suggest the changes to come.

As the trail narrows and shade becomes deeper, a wall of green thickens on either side. Still, at the woods’ edge, enough sunlight flickers through to encourage a variety of flowers:

Purple bindweed (Ipomoea cordatotriloba)
Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Turk’s cap ~ Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii

On either side of the first boardwalk, no water is apparent, but soils are moist, and more flowers appear.

Heartleaf skullcap ~ Scutellaria ovata
Panicled ticktrefoil ~ Desmodium paniculatum
Texas pinkroot ~ Spigelia texana

Here and there, deer trails intersect the main path. Follow one, and the little dramas of woodland life appear everywhere. Impaled on a broken segment of vine, a moth  — perhaps a Virginia tiger moth — may become another creature’s midnight snack.

Close by, an Eastern Pondhawk struggles to contain a Pearl Crescent butterfly.

Sometimes, there are mysteries. I can’t identify either this plant or the spider who did the work, but the shape of the shadow suggests something else tucked away for safe keeping.

Scattered throughout the leaf litter, older bones bespeak earlier struggles. Snake, raccoon, and deer are easily enough identified. Other fragments require more knowledge, and a sharper eye.

Eventually, dry leaves give way to water, and the value of the boardwalk becomes obvious.

Some plants thrive in the wetter conditions, blooming and apparently thriving despite being anchored in standing water.

Brazos penstemon ~ Penstemon tenuis
White swamp milkweed ~ Asclepias perennis

As the trail approaches the utility easement, the canopy opens, and flowers more closely associated with prairies and full sunlight begin to appear.

Evening primrose (white form) ~ Oenothera speciosa
Mexican hat ~ Ratibida columnifera
Gulf vervain ~ Verbena xutha
Pyramid flower ~ Melochia pyramidata
Clasping Venus’ looking-glass ~ Triodanis perfoliata
Carolina elephant’s foot ~ Elephantopus carolinianus

Here, too, the practical skill and artistry of the spider is evident.

Black and yellow Argiope cocooning its prey ~ Argiope aurantia
Golden silk orbweaver ~Trichonephila clavipes

Eventually, the boardwalk turns and runs parallel to Little Slough, and a true ‘wet bottomland’ emerges.  In especially rainy years, the area may remain saturated for months. Thick groves of palmettos indicate poorly drained soils, while trees such as cedar elm, green ash, hackberry, and water oak thrive in the watery glade: well-adapted to prolonged flooding.

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Dwarf palmetto ~ Sabal minor

Hidden among the trees and vines, a variety of butterflies, moths, amphibians and snakes secret themselves, motionless and nearly invisible.

Ilia underwing ~ Catocala ilia

Rushes and sedges abound, while long-stemmed, woody vines called lianas root in the soil before making use of their tendrils to climb or twine around the trees.

Short-bristled Horned Beaksedge ~ Rhynchospora corniculata
Vines represent one structural difference between tropical and temperate forests; where lianas have formed a hanging network of vegetation, their presence provides a good indicator of older, more mature woodlands. In the Columbia Bottomlands, rattan, trumpet vine, Virginia creeper, and mustang grape twine toward the canopy, adding a certain ‘atmosphere’ to the woods.
Where oaks are more prevalent, the canopy opens, allowing a glimpse of blue sky and sunlight. If you look closely, you’ll notice that some of the limbs seem fuzzy, and in a sense they are.

The limbs are covered in resurrection fern, one of three fern species on the refuge. An epiphyte that uses the trees for support while gaining nutrients from sunlight, air, and rain, the fern grows on the upper side of the live oak branches.

Without rainfall, the fern shrivels and appears dead; it can lose as much as 75 percent of its water content during typical dry periods. After a good rain, it rebounds within a day, once again appearing green and healthy. This remarkable ‘resurrection’ gives the plant its name, even though it never actually dies during the process.

Resurrection fern on a live oak limb ~ Pleopeltis polypodioides
Dried fronds of resurrection fern, awaiting rain

Finally, the San Bernard Oak comes into view. Its bifurcated trunk is immense; only the bench provided for visitors at the end of the boardwalk offers some sense of scale.

Given the tree’s size and the tangle of surrounding growth, photographing it in the same way as the Goose island or Colorado County oaks is impossible. On the other hand, the San Bernard Oak’s isolation has kept it safe from humans, just as the forest has helped protect it from storms.

In time, I’ll return to the tree, eager to experience it in a different season. For now, I’m happy to have made its acquaintance. Those whose work established the refuge and allowed the land to return to its natural state deserve to be honored; like the San Bernard Oak, they’re providing a legacy for future generations.

The San Bernard Oak

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Red-Winged Blackbird

 

Like the thrilling call of a returning osprey, the song of the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) announces an undeniable turn of season. Hear the song, and it’s not difficult to find the bird: defending territory or seeking a mate by displaying his brilliant red shoulder patches atop any convenient cornstalk, cattail, or branch.

The song, once heard, lingers in memory: evocative, freighted with unexpected meaning. For Welsh poet R.S.Thomas, a song similar in so many ways to the landscape of Wales — a little rough, a bit dark — gave rise to a simple and yet enjoyable poem.

Sometimes compared to the American poet Robert Frost, Thomas is less philosophical and less sanguine about the realities of rural life. Still, there’s little question that he absorbed those realities and transformed them in his own way, much as he imagines the blackbird’s song as a particularly pleasing alchemy.

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes’
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.
You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.
A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history’s overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.
                                          “A Blackbird, Singing”  ~  R.S. Thomas

 

Comments always are welcome.
Click here for more information on poet R.S. Thomas.

Ashe-Choo!

The scourge of the Texas Hill Country ~ Ashe juniper releasing pollen

Overwhelmed in kindergarten, we wouldn’t have dared to jeer at anyone. In first grade, we began forging alliances, sending our boldest competitors into the fray and encouraging them from the sidelines. By second grade, we were ready to join in the fun, taunting even fifth and sixth-graders with our generations-old insults:

So’s your old man!
Your mother wears combat boots!
Liar, liar, pants on fire!

In time, developing vocabularies and an increasing appreciation for word play moved us toward more complex insults:

When they were giving out brains, you thought they said canes, and said, “I don’t need one!”

As our ability to lob or fend off good verbal assaults developed, we became unknowing participants in a tradition reaching back to Shakespeare and beyond: a tradition maintained by sharp-tongued repartee artists closer to our time.

“He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” (Oscar Wilde)
“He has all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty.” (Sam Houston)
“His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” (Mae West)
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.” (Groucho Marx)

When Lady Astor remarked to Winston Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” Churchill famously replied, “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” Churchill spared no one, as George Bernard Shaw learned after telegraphing Churchill to say, “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend – if you have one.” Completely unfazed, Churchill sent a message of his own. “Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second – if there is one.”

Despite being attributed to Dorothy Parker, one of most trenchant and oft-quoted bits of snark in recent history actually was embroidered on a sitting room pillow belonging to Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

No group sat next to Longworth more willingly than many of our best-known novelists and poets. T.S. Eliot said of Henry James, “[He] has a mind – a sensibility -so fine that no mere idea could ever penetrate it.” Robert Browning endured Gerard Manley Hopkins’s assertion that, “[Browning’s] verse is the beads without the string,” while Austenites no doubt recall Mark Twain’s observation that “Jane Austen’s books…are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”

Even William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway felt it necessary to trade insults. Faulker once observed that Hemingway “has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.”

Chafed by the criticism, Hemingway responded, “I use the oldest words in the English language. People think I’m an ignorant bastard who doesn’t know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which, if you arrange then in the proper combination, you make it stick.”

Given today’s general loss of vocabulary, the promotion of crude and vulgar language by celebrities, and the tendency of social media postings to resemble grade-school level banter, artful insults are hard to find. Nature, on the other hand, continues to perfect the form. Each spring she offers up wordless taunts in a form difficult to counter: the impertinence called pollen.

In Texas, spring pollen season begins early. By December or January, the tree variously called mountain cedar, post cedar, or, more properly, Ashe juniper begins to develop tiny, amber-colored male cones. When conditions are right, pollen-covered cones blanket the trees, drooping the limbs with their weight and making the hills glow an unearthly orange.

Ashe juniper cones ~ photo by Bob Harms, University of Texas

As the wind rises, great clouds of pollen are released to drift across a broad swath of Texas, as far south as the Rio Grande and as far east as Beaumont. If conditions are right, you can hear the sound of the trees releasing their burden into the wind.

Newcomers to Texas can be forgiven their assumption that references to cedars “popping” are hyperbole, or perhaps a folksy figure of speech. In fact, the ‘pop’ of the cones can be audible, and the ‘cedar smoke’ that results — clouds of a particularly nasty pollen — are nothing to sneeze at, even though multitudes do sneeze because of the ghastly allergy called ‘cedar fever.’ Most don’t develop a true fever at all, but that’s small comfort given the severity of other symptoms: itchy eyes, a runny nose, sneezing and wheezing, and major sinus infections.

Rusty Hierholzer, Kerr County sheriff, captured a release of the trouble-making pollen on video.

Mountain cedar, aka Ashe juniper ( Juniperus ashei) releasing pollen

In a passionate and humorous Texas Monthly harangue on all things cedar, Joe Patoski pondered the phenomenon:

I hate cedar. Especially this time of year, when central Texas cedars—one of the most prolifically pollinating plants in North America—dramatically release copious airborne pollens in explosive puffs of orange-red smoke whenever cold winds blow from the north. Like gnarly little fishhooks, the pollens invade my nostrils and sinuses. Before long I’m sniffling and vacant, sick and tired. I hate cedar fever.

As do we all. Some barricade themselves in their homes. Others buy stock in antihistamine manufacturers. The writer J.Frank Dobie famously left Austin every year when the pollen began to fly. As his biographer, Steven L. Davis, recalls:

Dobie suffered terribly from Cedar Fever, the winter allergy outbreak that afflicts many Austinites. For years he had made himself scarce during pollen’s peak months [and] had long arranged his university schedule so he could teach his “Life and Literature of the Southwest” course in the spring, after the pollen had died down.

Given its ability to annoy humans, as well as its disputed reputation for hogging water, it might seem tempting to pursue on a state-wide basis the course taken by some individual landowners: eradication.

But Ashe juniper is native, and an important part of the regional ecosystem. The tree provides shelter for a variety of wildlife, and nesting materials for  the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Deer, raccoons, gray foxes, coyotes, and jackrabbits consume the berry-like cones, particularly when other forages are limited or of poor quality.

Ashe juniper berries

American robins and cedar waxwings, common winter residents in central Texas, feed on the berries as well, and the trees help to limit soil erosion on steep canyon slopes and in areas where vegetation is sparse. 

Host to the Juniper hairstreak, a green-winged butterfly that feasts on its leaves and nectars on native agarita, ‘mountain cedar’ also provides a rich environment for the native plants that thrive in its mulch.

Texas juniper hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus castalis) nectaring on milkweed

As February gives way to March, the amount of cedar pollen decreases, even as oak and pine pollen increase. Elm, ash, and willow already have begun to add to the mix and soon, as spring unfolds across the country, the sneezing and grumpiness will commence in locations as widely separated as South Carolina and Oregon. But if the thin, greenish-yellow veils covering patio tables, mailboxes, sidewalks, and cars are as insulting as they are inevitable, they bring a certain beauty as well: the aesthetic appeal of pollen swirls on water, and the equally pleasing swirl of a new season into our lives.

Oak pollen abstraction

 

Comments always are welcome.
Photos can be enlarged by clicking on the image.

The Poets’ Birds: The Mockingbird (and a Donkey)

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

 

José Rosas Moreno (1838-1883), a native of Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, Mexico, served in various governmental positions during his lifetime, but was equally well-regarded as an author. One of his best-known works centered on the life of  Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648 – 1695), a nun sometimes known as the Tenth Muse because of her work as a poet, dramatist, and scholar. 

Sor Juana, as she is known, emerged as an outstanding writer during the Latin American colonial period, although it was not until Octavio Paz’s 1982 biographical and literary study of her writings, Sor Juana: Or, The Traps of Faith that José Rosas Moreno himself became known to a wider audience outside of Mexico. Moreno also devoted himself to poetry, drama, and children’s literature; a series of Aesop-like fables he authored has remained popular in Mexico.

In 1872, American poet William Cullen Bryant was invited to become an honorary member of the Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística (Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics).  In order to accept the honor in person, Bryant sailed to Veracruz, then took a stagecoach to Mexico City. There, he met Moreno and translated nine of the Mexican’s Fábulas, or Fables. Writing in The Spanish Background of American Literature, Stanley Williams notes that Bryant may have been “the first major American poet to recognize the achievements of his Mexican brothers” and to allow, for the first time, “a poet of Mexico [receiving] in the United States the most substantial of recognitions: namely, adequate translation into the English language.”

After returning to the United States, Bryant wrote the following letter dated October 2, 1876, to one Miss Bates from his residence on Long Island, New York:

Dear Miss Bates.
It seems to me almost certain that I answered your inquiry concerning the author of the little poem which I translated from the Spanish. His name is Rosas — José Rosas — a Mexican, whose little volume entitled “Fabulas” is adopted as a leading book in the schools of the Mexican capital. From the preface by his friend Ignacio Altamirano, a literary gentleman of note — and of the pure aboriginal race — I learn that he was known as a poet before the “Fabulas” were published in 1872.

The Libro de Fábulas consists of five volumes. Each contains twenty original verse fables (although only nineteen are included in Book IV), plus an appendix of thirteen verse fables. Some, like a well-known fable involving a camel, have been included in public memorials. While I haven’t been able to locate all fables translated by Bryant, I was charmed by the humor in the mockingbird’s poem, and appreciated the introduction to a new Mexican poet.

A mock-bird in a village
Had somehow gained the skill
To imitate the voices
Of animals at will.
And singing in his prison
Once, at the closing of the day,
He gave, with great precision,
The donkey’s heavy bray.
Well pleased, the mock-bird’s master
Sent to the neighbors ’round,
And bade them come together
To hear that curious sound.
They came, and all were talking
In praise of what they heard,
And one delighted lady
Would fain have bought the bird.
The donkey listened sadly,
And said: “Confess I must
That these are shallow people,
And terribly unjust.
“I’m bigger than that mock-bird,
And better bray than he,
Yet not a soul has uttered
A word in praise of me.”
                              The Mockingbird and the Donkey  ~  José Rosas Moreno 
 

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Flight

White-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi) ~ Brazoria County, Texas
(Click image for more detail)

Despite his prolific output and the award of a Nobel Prize in 1971, I’ve only recently come to appreciate the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Despite decades of acclaim for his poetry, publications in English represent only a small portion of his oeuvre, apparently due in part to the difficulties of translation;  I simply hadn’t come across them until I found them on the internet.

The details of Neruda’s life are fascinating. A committed Communist and political activist, he returned to Chile in 1953, following some years in exile. Eventually, he began producing less ideologically influenced love poetry, as well as nature poetry celebrating every aspect of the world in which we live.

 In their book Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Manuel Duran and Margery Safir note that Neruda began trying to speak to everyday people simply and clearly, on a level that anyone could understand.  In his examination of quite common, everyday things, they say, “Neruda gives us time to examine a particular plant, a stone, a flower, a bird, an aspect of modern life, at leisure. We look at the object, handle it, turn it around, all the sides are examined with love, care, attention. This is, in many ways, Neruda at his best.”

In his poem “Bird,” he offers his attention to their flight in a remarkable and wholly memorable way.

It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through which the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air –
and there, night came in.
When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography –
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

“Caía de un pájaro a otro
todo lo que el día trae,
iba de flauta en flauta el día,
iba vestido de verdura
con vuelos que abrían un túnel,
y por allí pasaba el viento
por donde las aves abrían
el aire compacto y azul:
por allí entraba la noche.
Cuando volví de tantos viajes
me quedé suspendido y verde
entre el sol y la geografía:
vi còmo trabajan las alas,
còmo se transmite el perfume
por un telégrafo emplumado
y desde arriba vi el camino,
los manantiales, las tejas,
los pescadores a pescar,
los pantalones de la espuma,
todo desde mi cielo verde.
No tenía más alfabeto
que el viaje de las golondrinas,
el agua pura y pequeñita
del pequeño pájero ardiendo
que baila saliendo del polen.”

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more biographical details of Neruda’s life and politics, the Wikipedia page is useful.
For a history of his development as a poet and critique of his work, see the entry at The Poetry Foundation website.