Recalling Those Dandelion Days

Texas dandelion (Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus)

No matter which dandelion species comes to live in the neighborhood, everyone has an opinion.

Some consider them weeds, taking the emergence of even one flower as a personal affront. For them, the wildflower demands corn gluten, digging tools, or half-used bags of Weed-B-Gon® left from previous battles. Known to curse at the sight of dandelion fluff floating through the air, they need occasional reminders to stop yelling at the children who set the seeds a-flying.

Others consider dandelions wildflowers: sturdy little delights meant for the season’s first bouquets. Some call them dinner: happily boiling the young, tender greens and serving them up alongside ham and cornbread. Old-timers still bottle a sweet, light wine from the flowers, and lucky children still learn how to weave the flowers into garlands for their hair.

I’ll confess to loving the dandelions, and consider them more wildflower than weed. But above all else, those plump, yellow flowers bring to mind one very special experience: the year the squirrel went crazy.

Anyone who’s rescued and raised a squirrel as a pet has tales to tell – especially when the relationship lasts over a span of years. Inevitably, a squirrel in the house means pecans buried in the bedsheets, gnawed furniture, scratched limbs, and a full complement of creative mischief.

It also means providing a nice, balanced diet to maintain those bright eyes and that fluffy tail: a freezer full of acorns, fresh fungi in season, a full complement of assorted greens, and an occasional orange popsicle before bed. As everyone who’s lived with a squirrel knows, if the squirrel’s not happy, nobody’s happy, and popsicles made my squirrel happy.

 

One year, about mid-January, it became obvious that my squirrel wasn’t happy. He seemed bored and lethargic; none of his usual diversions gave him pleasure. He stopped lying atop the front door, scanning the traffic in the streets. He stopped dragging around his tennis-ball-in-a-sock, or demanding ear scratches. He even stopped watching Letterman, or begging for popsicles.

At first, I assumed creeping age was slowing him down, causing him to become crotchety. Then, he became a lot crotchety. The same critter who’d loved draping himself across my shoulder and nuzzling my ear suddenly took to flying off the refrigerator, grabbing hold of the nearest passer-by and biting their ear. He scolded everything that moved, and started chasing the bird. His silent, malevolent glare took on a certain intensity. Anyone who experienced it could be forgiven a shiver of fear, or an irrational belief that a two-pound squirrel intended to take over the house by force.

Eventually, after a fit of particularly bad temper, I snapped back. Surprised by my response, he ran to the back of the house and scooted straight into a closet, burrowing down among the hiking boots and coolers. That’s where I found him, digging into a plastic bag as though his life depended on it.

A strange but pleasant odor permeated the closet; it reminded me of a brewery. Puzzled, I pulled open the bag, and found mesquite beans that I’d collected, carried home as a souvenir, and promptly forgot. Thanks to their high sugar content and perfect closet conditions, the beans had fermented. My furry little darling was flying high on a South Texas version of home-brew, sometimes called atole by those who produce it for human consumption.

Even unfermented mesquite beans appeal to cattle, horses and goats, as well as to an assortment of wild creatures. When the beans ferment in the wild, cattle who’ve sampled them will do their best to keep bellying up to the bar.

In the case of my no-longer-free-range squirrel, closing the bar was easy. Getting him clean and sober required a little more effort. It took over a week for the effects of the beans to wear off, and during detox he was belligerent, contemptuous, and confrontational.

Unpredictably aggressive, he engaged in fits of foot-stomping rage. He became particularly fond of jumping up onto a bar near the kitchen, taking the phone cord in his teeth and daring someone to do something about it. Told, “No!” by one of his humans, the previously sweet little woodland creature would curl his forepaws into fists, stomp his little feet on the bar, and chatter away in perfect imitation of a two-year old throwing a tantrum.

Eventually, the aggressiveness ended. Still, he seemed lethargic; uninterested in life. Tempted with his favorite foods, he turned away. He slept a good bit, still refused ear rubs, and generally moped around in his log house. Despite everyone’s concern, the squirrel gurus counseled patience: and so, through the rest of January and all of February, we waited.

Finally, in March, as the sun rose higher in the sky and the grass began to green, the first dandelion appeared in the yard.

On impulse, I plucked and washed it, then carried it to the large aviary which served as the squirrel’s home. Whether sleeping or brooding, he was in his log, so I opened the door and rapped on his house. When I heard a rustle, I rapped again, and a tiny face appeared.

When I showed him the dandelion, he hopped out and sat on his feeding log, waiting for his treat. Once he had it in his paws, he sampled a petal or two, nibbled on a leaf, and then, as neatly as you please, bit off the end of the stem. As the milky sap began to collect at the bottom, he lapped up the drops with his tiny tongue, for all the world like an oenophile sampling a particularly fine wine.

I kept the dandelions coming, and within days he was back to his usual self, hanging out on top of the door and hiding pecans in my shoes. Was it the dandelion that made him happy? The coming of spring? The simple passage of time? There’s no way to know. Perhaps in the end it was a combination of all three, but it hardly mattered. The dandelion gods were back in their heaven, and all was right with the world: at least, all was right in the world of one previously miserable squirrel.

Today, looking around this soft, early spring, enjoying the already-blooming dandelions, waiting for the leafing of the mesquite, I take enormous pleasure in remembering my sweet, funny squirrel. I remember my belligerent, mesquite-bean-crazed squirrel somewhat less fondly, but the experience we shared leads me to wonder about people I see around me now: people who are behaving precisely like my poor, inebriated squirrel.

What have they gotten into? I wonder. What’s left them so belligerent, contemptuous, and confrontational? What could have warped their world view so badly that their life has been reduced to a clenched-jaw, foot-stomping rage?”

In truth, I don’t know. What I do know is that spring is coming, and the dandelions will bloom. The mesquite will blossom again, and the cycle will continue. Someone in West Texas will give atole a try, and vinters around the state will bottle dewberry, agarita and grape. They’ll all be good; there’s no doubt about that.

But if someone gives me a choice, I’m sticking with the squirrel. I’ll take the dandelions, any day at all.

Comments always are welcome.

Where, Oh Where, Has That Little Muse Gone?

It was bound to happen. While browsing a few blogs that hadn’t been updated in months, I discovered one writer I’ve always enjoyed offering an intriguing reason for his absence. “The pandemic got my Muse,” he wrote. “She’s been quarantined.”

Presumably his Muse’s isolation has ended by now, but more than a few writers and other creative sorts continue to grumble about a lack of inspiration. Isolation, an inability to travel, generalized if mysterious ennui, and simple exhaustion all have been mentioned as reasons for blank pages or screens.

As far as I know, none of the Muses have landed in the cemetery I found in Muse, Oklahoma, but when mine disappears, I know where she’s gone: to Poughkeepsie. I can’t say I blame her. From what I’ve seen of New York’s Hudson River Valley, it’s a beautiful area, and if it isn’t as romantic as Paris, France (or Paris, Texas for that matter) at least it’s not Glenrio.

Eventually, of course, she always returns. William Stafford, one of my favorite poets, has experienced both the departure and the return of his own Muse; his report of the experience is filled with astonishment and touched by the same wisdom contained in Georgia O’Keeffe’s oft-quoted aphorism: “Take time to look.”

Stafford’s “When I Met My Muse,” a wonderful poem for any season, seems particularly relevant now. Most interesting, of course, is its suggestion that our Muses only are traveling because of our reluctance to invite them in. Perhaps it’s time to open the door.

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off–they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.
                                        

Comments always are welcome.

Destination: Unknown

The good ship Adventure making way

In May 2017, two young brothers, Ollie and Harry Ferguson, launched a plastic pirate ship named Adventure into the North Sea at Peterhead, Scotland. Following the practice of generations of seaside bottle tossers, their ship carried a message asking anyone who found it to record the vessel’s location before returning it to the sea.

Over the course of several months, the boys’ ship visited Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Eventually, the Fergusons were approached by the crew of the Norwegian full-rigged ship Christian Radich, who offered to make needed repairs before carrying Adventure out of the North Sea to explore new waters. After refurbishing the rigging and installing new sails, the Christian Radich headed south with the tiny ship on board; on November 8, Adventure was released a hundred miles off the coast of Mauritania with hopes that she would be carried westward across the Atlantic, to the Americas.

She nearly ran aground in the Cape Verde Islands, but the little ship carried on. In May,  the voyage ended 18.6 miles off the coast of Barbados, where her GPS tracker died after recording 3,773.26 miles of watery travel.

145. Sail the Atlantic 1 (1).JPGAdventure after being re-launched from the Christian Radich

Initially, the plan was to pick up Adventure, recharge the tracker battery, and send her back to sea. Instead, a second family became involved in the launch of a second ship, Adventure 2, from the offshore support vessel Normand Installation. On the day of launch north of Georgetown, Guyana, Adventure 2  was less than a hundred miles from Adventure’s original course. At the time, some thought that ocean currents would carry Adventure 2 into the Caribbean Sea, where the Gulf Stream might catch her and carry her back to the UK. Today that seems possible, since her tracker shows Adventure 2 now moving north along the east coast of Florida.

Pondering the tracks of both Adventures, I couldn’t help remembering an off-handed remark made by a woman with decades of classroom experience. “Teaching is like throwing out words in a bottle,” she said. “Sometimes you’re lucky, and the bottle reaches shore.”

It’s an apt metaphor: one that applies not only to teaching but also to various sorts of creative activity. Few of us send toy pirate ships to sea, but all of us have tossed tiny, message-filled bottles into the currents of today’s great cyber-sea, leaving them to bob, tumble, and drift about until they safely reach shore, are broken and destroyed on the rocks, or disappear over the horizon, never to return.

Regardless of outcome, the first step is an enthusiastic toss seaward. Whatever our bottles’ contents, the words or images they contain will have no opportunity to touch people, clear their vision, educate, or bring comfort until the bottles are set free to travel.

Beyond that, patience is imperative. It takes time for bottles to bob their way to the beaches of the world. It takes time for someone to find them, and there are times when only pure luck allows the message to be plucked from the surf and acknowledged.

Over time, a few of my own metaphorical blog-bottles have reached shore with their contents intact, and I’ve been lucky enough to be contacted by the people who found them. At first, it happened only with words — poetry and prose from this blog —  but, as I’ve learned, it can happen with photographs, too.

Only weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall — also in 2017 — the natural world began to recover. One of the first plants to bloom at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge was Aquatic Milkweed; fresh and undamaged, the almost perfect specimens were a joy to photograph and to share on Lagniappe.

Imagine my surprise when, three years later, the Xerces Society contacted me, requesting permission to use one of my blog-published photos of the milkweed in their new publication titled 100 Plants to Feed the Monarch. After giving permission and signing releases, I moved on to other things and forgot about their inquiry, until a complimentary copy of the published book appeared in my mailbox this month. I was pleased, of course, and also amused. Thanks to the editors’ decision to arrange plants alphabetically, the section devoted to milkweeds begins with my pretty Aquatic Milkweed.

Aquatic Milkweed ~ Asclepias perennis

The request from the Xerces Society was the first of the year, but not the last. In late January, an intern for the group Indiana Phenology contacted me by email, requesting permission to use two of my favorite photos of Ohio Spiderwort in their educational materials. Part of the National Phenology Network, the Indiana group’s mission is the same:

[To bring together] citizen scientists, government agencies, non-profit groups, educators and students of all ages to monitor the impacts of climate change on plants and animals in the United States. 
Ohio Spiderwort ~ Tradescantia ohiensis

A third and more recent request came last month from Mark Egger, a University of Washington Research Associate and Burke Museum Specialist on Castilleja and related genera.  While researching stem fasciation in Castilleja spp., he’d come across my photos of a delightfully odd Indian paintbrush, and asked if he might use them in a paper.

Now published in Phytoneuron, described as “a venue for digital publication of miscellaneous reports on taxonomy, floristics, and geographical distribution of vascular plants,” Egger’s paper is both understandable and interesting, and I’m pleased to have played a small role in its publication.

I was equally pleased to be introduced to Phytoneuron. Looking through other papers published on the site, I found more than a few names familiar to any Texan interested in native plants: Jason Singhurst, Bill Carr, and W.C. Holmes. There’s some good reading ahead.

Fasciated Indian paintbrush ~ Castilleja indivisa

Each of these requests reinforced one of my most firmly held beliefs: that not every cause has an immediate effect, and not every hour invested brings immediate return. In a world dedicated to instant gratification and marked by the replacement of a 24/7 news cycle with instantaneous rumor, it’s become a decidedly old-fashioned view.

And yet, it’s only a willingness to take the longer, less demanding view of things that allows any of us to keep tossing our bottles or sending our boats into the vast, impersonal sea surrounding us: vessels filled with uniquely personal treasures that one day — some day –will wash onto a receptive shore.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the voyage, additional photos, and the real-time tracking map of Adventure2, click here.

Hulls and Humanity

While Galveston was seeking new ways to celebrate Mardi Gras and South Padre Island continued to hope for a successful spring break, Port O’Connor began cleaning rods and repairing reels in anticipation of the spring flounder run.

Port O’Connor knows how to party, but in Port O’Connor, fishing comes first.  Lying at the end of the coastal road, clinging to the edge of Matagorda Bay like a derelict boat that refuses to die, the town is salted with spray: rusted and grayed, weathered from decades of storms. At first glance, she seems an unpromising destination, but beneath the surface of her bays, redfish and  trout school and scatter. Beyond the intracoastal waterway, across the barrier island and over the dunes, surfcasters work the waves; offshore, marlin, snapper, and tarpon lure the adventurous with the promise of exhilarating combat.

Some years ago, I spent time in Port O’Connor maintaining a classic sailboat. Owned by land-locked partners who wanted to keep their boat near the Gulf for easy access to offshore sailing, it was a delightful opportunity. I labored through the days sun-lit and warm as a basking turtle; evenings were filled with equal delights. After dinners of fresh-caught shrimp or fish, a lamp-lit cabin and uninterrupted time for reading or sleep were there for the taking. If I happened back onto the dock to gaze at stars or watch passing barges, an old fellow who lived aboard two slips down sometimes came to visit, glad for a few minutes of conversation.

The man loved to tell stories, and his tales were memorable. Generally, they involved long, intricate meanders through the details of weekend bar fights: harmless confrontations fueled by drink and boredom. But he watched visitors to the marina with a sharp eye, and recounted their antics with amusement.

My favorite of his stories, a Hemingwayesque account of a young man and the bay, involved a novice who went out to fish in a lightweight dingy without a motor. He hooked the big one he’d always dreamed of, then found he couldn’t land it. The fish towed the dingy across the flats until the line broke. At that point in the story, between snorts and guffaws, the old story-teller would gasp, “Damn fool never thought to cut his line, but even if he’d had the thought, it wasn’t gonna happen, ’cause he didn’t have a knife. No knife! Who goes fishing without a knife?”

Sometimes the old man shared his recipe for ceviche, or bragged on the boys who hang trophy marlins, or reminisced about the old days, when life was simpler. Always, he ended with The Storm. The Storm was Carla, the mythic hurricane that landed on Matagorda’s shores long before Katrina, Rita, Harvey, or Ike provided their own dramatic narratives.

Carla was a Cecil B. DeMille kind of storm: a storm so vast, so compelling, that decades later people still gasped at the memories. Carla carried wheat straw from fields and drove it into the brick walls of homes. She left rattlesnakes hanging from trees, and broke the legs of cattle. Her unearthly howl so unnerved one woman that she ran into her back yard and howled back in defiance, until her panic-stricken family dragged her back into the house and made her drink whiskey.

Almost as an afterthought, Carla raged through Port O’Connor’s collection of boats. Skiffs and jon boats were scattered or destroyed. Shrimp trawlers plowed into fields; sport fishers were carried inland by the surge. Barges forced miles inland were strewn up and down major highways like old-fashioned toys. When it was over, there was nothing to do but gaze over the scene in numbed astonishment and think, Well.

Loss wrought by storms is at least understandable. When wind, waves, and surge tear at rigging and batter hulls for hours at a time, some boats will survive, but many let go before the implacable forces of nature, tossing and tumbling to their deaths.

What isn’t so easily understood is death by inattention: the death of a boat that’s been abandoned — left neglected and lonely, allowed to rot away in marshes, at docks, or on out-of-the-way moorings.

Like dogs or cats callously thrown into the world to fend for themselves, unwanted and unloved boats know they’ve been abandoned, and they grieve. Deserted by owners too busy to give them care, relinquished in favor of other pursuits, cast off as no longer romantic or affordable, they are ownerless in truth if not in fact.

Bereft of attention, they begin to decline. Unused hoses harden and crack. Unlubricated winches seize up; barnacles colonize the bottom. Rust blooms, paint flakes, and hanging gardens of algae begin to ring the waterline. Eventually, as time and weather shred the canvas and dry the wood, the boat begins to settle on her lines, leaning inexorably into dereliction.

Anyone familiar with boats has seen it happen, and knows the truth. A boat has to be loved, used, and maintained, lest it die. But when inattention has led to a boat’s dereliction or seeming death, nothing satisfies more than bringing it back to life.

The process of restoration is neither mysterious nor complicated. The only requirements — apart from money — are a few simple tools, a good bit of time,  and a high tolerance for tedium. It’s also helpful to understand that 19th century techniques don’t always lend themselves to 21st century schedules, and to have a passing acquaintance with the basics of weather. But with diligence and focus, even the worst damage can be undone. With patience and persistence, wood turns silky, fiberglass shines, and machinery that clanked, rattled, and banged begins to quietly hum like an absorbed and happy child.

As work progresses and the boat begins to realize that she’ll sail again, you can sense the signs of new life. A boat with hopes of leaving the dock rides differently in the water. The rigging no longer howls like a woman facing down a storm; it sings in the breeze with overtones of satisfaction and joy. When a boat no longer feels abandoned, when she once again hears the call of the sea, she begins to gaze into the depths of her watery mirrors with a sense of restored dignity. 

When I find myself working on a more-or-less abandoned boat, it becomes  impossible not to think of parallels between its condition and the plight of people left to bob and rot in the backwaters of society. Decades ago, ‘derelict’ was a word reserved for bums, drifters, and vagrants. To be called derelict was to face moral judgements built upon assumptions that you were negligent, undependable, untrustworthy, and irresponsible.

Certainly, there are irresponsible and deeply untrustworthy people in the world, just as there are people who seemingly prefer disconnected and unproductive lives. But some who wander our world have more in common with derelict boats than with skidrow bums or amoral profiteers. Abandoned by family, neglected by friends, or rejected by the institutions and structures of society, their dereliction is less a matter choice than of circumstance.

If transformation is to come, what holds true for boats will be no less true for such people. No matter how damaged a heart, no matter how hardened its lines, no matter how tattered its dreams or hard its grounding onto the shoals of unhappiness, there is nothing that time, patience and loving attention cannot restore.

Repairing a heart certainly requires dedication, an acceptance of the vicissitudes of daily life, and a willingness to engage in repetitively difficult or unpleasant tasks. Certainly it profits from steady faith and a willingness to believe that even when the past makes its presence known, even when its reflections linger and shimmer in the brightness of newer days, all of the shabbiness, disrepair, and simple ugliness of dereliction eventually can be undone.

In a season dedicated to exchanging hearts as tokens of affection, it’s worth pausing a moment to ponder these less romantic realities of life and love. Somewhere, docked at the edges of our lives, moored just beyond our concern, run aground in a marsh of indifference or neglect, a derelict heart leans inexorably toward desolation: forsaken and forlorn. It may be time to begin its restoration.

Comments always are welcome.

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.