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.

The Serendipitists

Green comet milkweed buds (Asclepias viridiflora)

It wasn’t the sort of news that would entice just anyone to change their weekend plans. Still, as word began to spread that green comet milkweed had been found on the Nash prairie, and that Susan Conaty would lead a prairie walk to see both the milkweed and other late spring beauties, plans began to change.

Susan knows Nash Prairie as well as anyone, and a chance to spend time there in her company wasn’t to be missed. I arrived at the prairie to find Susan had been delayed, but eager milkweed hunters already were comparing notes, trying to pin down the plants’ location with half-remembered bits of information, a few cryptic texts, and entirely wrong assumptions about the plant’s appearance.

As we bumbled about, the search for the milkweed reminded me of my initial search for Nash Prairie itself. On that trip, a goat standing atop a shed and a utility substation served as unmistakable markers. Our flower-finding directions were more vague: turn left from the hay road; scan near the fence; look for the fallen gate; draw an imaginary line to the stand of trees.

Finally, a cry of triumph drew us to plants we had to have passed at least a dozen times, oblivious to their presence. Still in bud and unblemished, the large round clusters of flowers and trailing leaves certainly made the name “green comet” understandable.

With the day’s primary goal achieved, people spread out to explore the prairie: taking photos, identifying unusual plants, and gauging the readiness of seeds to be plucked. Among the plants still in bloom, the unfailingly cheerful black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) bobbed and nodded in the breeze.

A typical black-eyed Susan

I spent some time chasing butterflies among the Rudbeckia, hoping to photograph a black swallowtail at rest. Unsuccessful and ready for a different subject, I scanned a nearby group of flowers and realized I’d found something I never imagined I’d see: an example of fasciation.

A fasciated Black-eyed Susan 

Derived from the Latin word fascia  (“a band, bandage, swathe, ribbon”), fasciation describes an abnormal fusion or flattening of plant stems, flowers, fruit, or foliage. In the case of this black-eyed Susan, fasciation has caused both a broad, flattened stem, and a double, or “twinned” flower. The causes seem to be varied, and somewhat mysterious: viruses, genetic abnormality, insects, or physical damage all have been offered as reasons for the phenomenon.

The flattened and ribbon-like stem

I’d heard that photographing a fasciated plant can be challenging, and so it was. As I contorted myself this way and that, I heard a voice behind me ask, “What have you got there?” I untangled myself, sat up, and said, “It’s a serendipitous Susan.”

Indeed, it was: wholly unexpected, entirely delightful, and odd as odd could be.

Over time, the excitement I’d felt at the discovery abated, although I enjoyed looking back at the photos occasionally. Then Chris Helzer added a new gallery of photos to his site, “The Prairie Ecologist,” and brought the joys of serendipity back into focus.

In 2013, as he photographed a crab spider on what appears to be a sunflower, an ant unexpectedly appeared. Describing the experience, Chris wrote, “Often, [these] older photos capture a particular moment of serendipity that still evokes strong emotions for me.”

I enjoyed his reference to serendipity as much as I did the photo, and began to ponder how often these serendipitous experiences seem to occur in nature.  We should call ourselves serendipitists, I thought, since we’re always hoping to bump up against some unexpected oddity of life.”

Horace Walpole, the British art historian and man of letters who coined the word serendipity  seems to have been a bit of an oddity himself. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes the author and critic as an exemplar of a somewhat peculiar strain of British tradition: one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness and just plain madness.”

There’s no question Walpole had a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When he wasn’t busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters  One of his most famous, a 1765 letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva and took up residence in France, was a fake.

The letter, supposedly written by King Frederick of Prussia, offered Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, the faux King Frederick said, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.”

Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, he suspected his friend David Hume, and the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.

When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole amused himself by renovating Strawberry Hill, his “Gothic mousetrap” of a house.  Like most collectors, he wanted his objects to be ­admired, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.

Walpole often “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi for a guinea a tour.”  Despite producing a guidebook to the place, Walpole eventually wearied of the numbers of guests traipsing through its halls. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court,” Walpole said. “Everyone will live in it but you.”

Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china and carpets.”  It seems reasonable to assume Walpole created Strawberry Hill as a concrete analogue to his writing. As he said,

­Visions have always been my pasture. Old castles, old pictures, old histories and the babble of old ­people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.

Michael Snodin, ­curator of the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, suggests Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting,” but his  fixation on the house and its furnishings didn’t exclude other interests. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. Today, his extraordinarily useful word serendipity  has become familiar to nearly everyone, and he surely would be pleased by the increased use of the word and its derivatives.

Writing to Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole first defined the word as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, a story in which the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

As John Barthes notes in his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere, and lose your bearings in the process.”

In that sense, my discovery of a fasciated black-eyed Susan on a day meant to be focused on milkweed surely was serendipitous. But it’s worth noting that Walpole’s serendipity is more than accidental discovery or happy coincidence. For Walpole, sagacity — the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous or irrelevant facts — was  equally important if previously unsuspected pathways for exploration and delight were to open.

Someday, a more sagacious serendipitist may stumble across another fasciated flower and make the intuitive leap to the unrelated, innocuous, or seemingly irrelevant facts that finally explain the phenomenon. If — or perhaps when — that happens, it surely will be fascinating.

Comments always are welcome.

 

 

A Little Nash Ramble

The guy running the front loader couldn’t have been nicer. “Look at this,” he said to his wife as she wandered up, shovel in hand, trying to shush the dogs. “She’s got the same danged map as that other guy.” Handing the map to the woman, he gave me a look generally reserved for well-intentioned but slightly dim folk. “Around here, we don’t call it a prairie. We call it a hay field.” 

“Well,” I said, “whatever you call it, I can’t find it. That map says it’s supposed to be twenty-six miles north of Highway 35. When I got to County Road 18 I knew I’d gone too far, but I sure hadn’t gone twenty-six miles. I decided I’d better stop and ask somebody who’d know.”

That made him smile. It made his wife smile, too. We stood around for a bit, grinning at one another while the dogs snuffled around my ankles and bumblebees trundled through the rising heat. Finally, he pushed back his hat and said, “Tell you what. Go on back down the road a piece, past the old Gibson place. Pass by the goat on the right and keep a-goin’. If you get to the substation, you’ve gone too far.”

Deciphering directions in Texas can take some skill, but there was no questioning the importance of “goat” and “substation” if I wanted to find the prairie. “Down the road a piece” and “over yonder” never translate into miles. If I’d asked enough times about the old Gibson place, I might have discovered it’s the Kutchka place now, or that the columns out front that made it recognizable aren’t there any longer since the Gibsons tore them out when they bought it. But, I might not have discovered any of that, so “goat” and “substation” it would have to be. Continue reading