On Not Being Late To The Party

Late winter wetlands

As lingering autumn wildflowers succumb to January frost; as grasses shrivel and shred; as trees offer up their branches to importunate winds from the north and are rendered bare, a certain impatience begins to stir.

Winter is winter, after all, and bland, monochromatic landscapes can oppress the spirit as surely as long months of ice and snow. When fog insists on shrouding those same landscapes and gray, glowering skies refuse to lighten, questions inevitably arise: how long will it be until we see the change we long for? How long must we wait until this gray, dismal time gives way to spring?

Certainly, by mid-February in coastal Texas there are signs. Mallards chase one another on the ponds, with mating on their minds. Coots begin flocking up, setting aside their aggressive quarreling in preparation for migration. Their leave-taking occurs as silently and secretively as their arrival; by the time their absence is noted, they will be well away.

Even as the coots depart, northern-bound ospreys cease calling to one another above the lake, and the kingfisher’s rattle already has flown. Bereft of sound as well as of color, the world waits for what will come.

What comes, of course, is the greening of spring: a process of flowering and renewal as silent and secretive in its arrival as the departure of coots.  Despite years in Texas, I’ve often missed those first arrivals, since my Inner Midwesterner seems determined to believe that spring arrives here on a midwestern schedule, in mid-to-late March, or even April.

My inability to adapt to seasons I’ve experienced for over a quarter century suggests that we may be imprinted as firmly by place as by face, with our understanding of seasons rooted in our first, formative years. True or not, what can’t be denied is that, year after year, each time I bestirred myself to go out to meet the spring, early wildflowers already were fading beneath a rising summer heat.

Determined to break an old pattern, I resolved last week to visit my favorite vacant lots, abandoned industrial sites, ditches, and nearby nature centers just to see what was happening. What I found astonished me. Had I dallied, I would have missed much of spring’s first flowering.

It isn’t that the flowers are particularly early. Some typically bloom in February, and many more appear in March. The flowers, it seems, are on schedule. But for once I was on their schedule, too, and I’m happy to share some of what I discovered in the past week.

If you’re still buried in snow, take heart; spring is coming your way. And if the sun is shining and the temperatures are warming, look around. There might be a party going on.


Crow poison, or false garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) ~ Bacliff, Texas
Ten-petal anemone (Anemone berlandieri) ~ Bacliff, Texas
Berlandier’s sundrops (Calylophus berlandieri) ~ 11 Mile Road, Galveston Island
Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis) ~ Settegast Road, Galveston Island
Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule – naturalized) ~ Settegast Road, Galveston Island
Texas dandelion (Pyrrhopappus multicaulis) ~ Brazoria County Road 227
Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge
Evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge
Texas vervain (Verbena halei) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge
Cut-leaf groundsel (Senecio tampicanus) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Dewberry blossom (Rubus trivialis) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Small bluet (Houstonia pusilla) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Texas umbrellawort (Tauschia texana) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Violet wood-sorrel (Oxalis violacea) ~ Vacant lot, Kemah
Bristly buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) ~ Shaded drainage ditch, Kemah
Deer pea vetch (Vicia ludoviciana) ~ Vacant lot, Kemah

Comments always are welcome.

First Grade, Forever

Five-year-old me, on my way to my first day of first grade

As Hurricane Harvey curved east and north, away from its landfall near Rockport, its rampage through Houston, and its nearly total immersion of the Texas Golden Triangle, families and businesses focused their attention on immediate needs: shelter, drywall removal, mold remediation, and the complications of living without electicity or water.

More than homes and businesses had been damaged, of course. Hospitals and medical centers, recreational facilities, and schools also faced substantial challenges. Entire school districts, poised to begin a new year of classes, were forced to delay their openings for as much as two weeks. Continue reading

Sailing A Different Sea

Kansas: an ocean of grass

To undertake a westward journey on any early American trail — to begin life on the Oregon or Santa Fe, the Mormon or Gila — necessarily demanded the acceptance of difficulties.

From accounts in pioneer diaries, scientific notebooks, and letters written to family and friends, it seems that Indian raids, horse rustling, gunfights, and buffalo stampedes were the least of it. More often, quotidian challenges became the undoing of even the strongest traveler. Mired wagons; swarming insects; meal after meal of crackers and tea; the combination of overpowering thirst and stagnant, disease-ridden water; all these demanded remarkable levels of commitment and persistence.
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Burned Into Memory

To pass through a fire-ravaged world — eyes stinging in the smoky haze; feet sinking and twisting in the soft and shifting ash; lips tight against bitter, blowing grit  — is to risk being consumed by irrational certainties: convinced, perhaps, that such desolation, such destruction, will last forever.  Even when burns scheduled for prairie management have been carefully planned and implemented with precision, the sight of the bleak and apparently lifeless land sears the mind as surely as the earth itself has been seared.
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The Other Side of the Tracks

img_9607Arkansas Freight

Always, there were the trains. Whistles in the night; the sharp, insistent whining of brakes; the vibration at the country grade crossing as a highballing freight passed by: all hinted at goings and comings, arrivals and departures, denied to us as children.

Fascinated by the trains and intrigued by everything surrounding them, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, to see where locomotives lived. From the bridges leading into Kansas City, I admired the terminals and rail yards filled with long lines of cars and chubby cabooses. Always, I wondered at the mysterious letters painted on tankers and boxcars alike: ATSF, RI, C&NW.

Even the tracks provided entertainment.  Encouraging one another, my friends and I laid on the ground, pressing our ears to cold, hard rails in hopes of feeling the rumble of an approaching train.
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Life’s Little Vacancies

Wichita, Kansas

Somewhere between Ness City and Hugoton, it occurred to me: most of the aging, slightly down at the heels motels still clinging to life along the business routes of small Kansas towns had “(No) Vacancy” signs somewhere on their property. A few signs had been modernized with neon. Others were more traditional: wooden, with an adjustable covering for the dreaded “No” that, when visible, sent discouraged and already weary travelers father on down the road.

By the time I reached Satanta, I was a little weary myself, and ready to stop, so I paused to ask a convenience store clerk if the town had a motel. It did. She gave me directions, and I found it easily enough. Unfortunately, I hadn’t found it soon enough. It had a sign, too, and the sign said, “No Vacancy.” Forty minutes later, I had a room in Hugoton.
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