A Sublime Landscape

Some might consider it little more than a proverbial wide spot in the road, but Sublime, Texas — population seventy-five or so — has a post office, a Lutheran church founded in 1868, and some of 2021’s earliest bluebonnets.

Traveling west of town on Alternate Highway 90 last weekend, I began to see pastures and rangeland that were filling with flowers. Before long, those familiar reds and blues spread among the oaks will be joined by an extravagance of colorful yellows, pinks, and whites.

No one around Sublime minds a pure blue field, of course.

After all, this is the highway and these are the fields that gave rise to one of the loveliest tributes possible to our state wildflower, and our “sweet bluebonnet spring.”

You don’t have to be Texan to get a tear in your eye when you hear Emmylou and Willie sing Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway,” but if you are a Texan, you probably can’t help it. I know I can’t.

Comments always are welcome.

Such a Nice Fruitcake!

Johnny Carson said it, although I never believed it. Every year he began the Christmas season by reminding us that “There’s only one fruitcake in the world. It’s been passed around from person to person since time immemorial, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try. You’ll never escape The Fruitcake.”

Of course his little joke wasn’t based in fact. Every year, multitudes of fruitcakes march like overzealous Nutcrackers into the heart of the holiday season, overflowing store shelves and filling up catalogs. How essentially good ingredients — fruit and cake — can be combined into a ‘treat’ both gummy and dry is beyond me, but the fruitcake people have managed it. I prefer not to waste my holiday calories on something that appears to have been circulating since the days of the Roman Empire, and I’ve always wished Carson were right. If only one fruitcake existed, it would be easier to escape the ghastly conconction.

Behind every fruitcake, of course, lurks a fruitcake-baker, and over the years various friends tried to convince me they’d finally discovered the secret to truly good fruitcake: soaking the raisins in bourbon, pouring brandy over the finished cake, substituting walnuts for pecans, eliminating the candied pineapple. Despite their opinions, I never wavered in my conviction that fruitcake was dense, dry and tasteless: except when it was gummy, sticky and tasteless. It was a grim excuse for a dessert, and a terrible holiday tradition.

When it came to fruitcakes, I was following in my father’s footstep. If co-workers or business associates gave Dad a fruitcake, presenting it to him with smiles so big you’d think they’d just handed over the keys to a Mercedes, Dad always responded graciously. He’d thank the givers profusely, then rid himself of the cake as soon as their backs were turned. Sometimes he sliced it up and left it in the coffee room at work. Sometimes he gave it to the postman. Now and then, he put one into a gag-gift exchange, counting himself lucky if he received a fishing lure or risqué necktie in return.

As the fruitcakes piled up, he always gave at least one to my grandparents’ neighbor, Sadie. One memorable Christmas, Sadie’d had enough. She gave the fruitcake to my unknowing grandparents and, ever willing to share, Grandma sliced up the cake and presented it to my dad. “Sadie! Such a nice woman!” she said. “See what she gave us — a fruitcake! Have a piece! Have two!” And so he did; my poor father playing the role of the good son, eating the fruitcake that had come home to roost.

One year, after lugging home the biggest fruitcake we’d ever seen, he suggested leaving it in the pantry for a year to see what happened. In the end, nothing happened. We opened the fruitcake a year later, sliced it up and gave it a try. It didn’t taste any better or worse than any other fruitcake. That was the year my frugal father began tossing out any fruitcake that came through the door. Under normal circumstances, wasting food wasn’t allowed in our house, but, as my ever-reasonable father pointed out, fruitcake doesn’t meet any of the normal criteria for food.

Edward Gorey’s Fruitcake Toss

It seems we were on the cutting edge. As more people became willing to admit their distaste for traditional fruitcake, the good folk of Manitou Springs, Colorado caught on and ritualized the tossing of the fruitcake. Their Great Fruitcake Toss became a Chamber of Commerce event involving catapults, relay teams, high school science classes, and spatula races. Even out-of-town visitors could participate; local motels provided personalized, heavy-duty fruitcakes to anyone wanting to join in the fun.

Eventually, I discovered fruitcake-free zones scattered around the world, but once I moved to Texas, there was no avoiding that apotheosis of fruitcake production, Corsicana’s Collin Street Bakery. As the Handbook of Texas notes, the place has quite a history.

In 1896 August Weidmann, a young German immigrant, opened a bakery on Collin Street in Corsicana, with financial backing from Tom McElwee, a local cotton buyer and opera-house proprietor. Weidmann’s specialty was fruitcake baked by a recipe he had brought with him from his native country. McElwee suggested the trade name DeLuxe Fruitcake for the product.
In 1906 the business was moved to a location on Sixth Avenue, and there McElwee opened an exclusive hotel on the second floor of the bakery. Enrico Caruso, John J. McGraw, and Will Rogers were among the celebrities who stayed at the hotel at various times. In 1914 a Ringling Brothers circus troupe, in Corsicana for a performance, bought dozens of DeLuxe Fruitcakes to give as Christmas gifts to friends and relatives all over the United States and in Europe. As a result, the bakery received an overwhelming number of orders from the recipients for more cakes, and the company’s mail-order business resulted.

When friends discovered I’d never eaten a Collin Street cake, a fruitcake party was arranged. Everyone brought their own version of fruit-and-cake, with the famous Texas fruitcake rounding out the menu. There were delicious offerings, to be sure: pear tortes and mincemeat tarts, apple-raisin-and-walnut cakes, povitica, and panettone. I brought along my California fruitcake, a concoction of apricots, dates, and pecans that fit in nicely.

After a few hours of coffee, desserts, and chit-chat, the Collin Street cake was sliced and passed around. I ate my portion, graciously agreeing, as my father would have, that it was very nice: even as I  thought to myself, I’ll not be buying one of these things. When the hostess asked if anyone would like to add a fruitcake to the order she was placing, I declined. And that, I assumed, was that.

And so it was, until the day I found an unexpected parcel slip in my mailbox. In those pre-Amazon locker days, the manager accepted shipments, but we had to dig through the boxes ourselves. After several minutes of looking, I couldn’t find my package. Hearing my sigh of exasperation, the manager looked around the corner. “How could you miss it?” she said. “It’s right in front of you.”

And so it was. On a box imprinted with a scene that combined frontier Texas with a romanticized winter landscape, I saw my address, and the words Collin Street Bakery. Balancing the box on one hand, I realized it had to be one of Corsicana’s finest: a traditional fruitcake in their famous red tin, studded with pecans and weighing nearly six pounds.

Convinced someone from the fruitcake party had decided to play a joke, I opened the box. The enclosed gift card  bore the name of a friend who lives in England. The fruitcake wasn’t a joke occasioned by my criticisms of the ghastly concoction, but a lovely, seasonal gift sent from the Fruitcake Gods by way of England to affirm Johnny Carson’s truth: You cannot escape The Fruitcake.

After calling my friend to thank her, I carried the cake to my mother’s apartment, and brought it out after dinner. “Oh!” she said. “A fruitcake — and from the Collin Street Bakery! Wherever did you find this?” While I served coffee and cut a few slices, I explained it had been sent as a gift, and laughed as my mother channeled my grandmother. “Oh!” she said. “I remember Jean. Such a nice woman. So nice of her to send you a cake!”

While I picked my way around the candied cherries and citron, Mom made her way through three slices. “It’s too bad,” she said. “I wish your dad was here. He always did love a good fruitcake.” Thinking of the multitudes of fruitcakes my dad had disposed of, I grinned as I gathered the empty plates, knowing that Dad would have been proud to see me tucking the remnants of this one next to Mom’s coffee pot.

“You’d better take your fruitcake with you,” she said, as I headed for the door. Just for a moment, I paused, then said, “I’ll leave it here. Jean will be pleased to know I shared it with you, and the next time I get an urge for fruitcake, I’ll just stop by and cut myself a slice.”

Comments always are welcome.

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.

On the Road, Again

  
It seems that cases of wanderlust are spreading among us as surely as cases of — well, you know. Even a casual glance at recent blog post titles suggests a certain restlessness: “Give Me a Road Trip Any Day”; “Rambling Through the Month of May”; “Running on Rhythm”; “Americana on the Road.”
As I’ve done my own day-dreaming about where I’ll go when free-wheeling travel again becomes possible, the urge to re-post one of my all-time favorite ‘travel’ stories became too strong to resist.
Some of you have read this tale before; others will find it new. In either case, I hope you enjoy it. It’s said that humor is the best medicine, and I suspect we all could use a dose or two at this point.

Floydada, Texas is cotton country, although it’s also known for good pumpkins, and likes to advertise itself as the Pumpkin Capital of the US.

It’s a flat, expansive piece of Panhandle real estate, a land marked by impossibly distant horizons and barely distinguishable days. Strangers develop a habit of looking around, as if to orient themselves. Even Texans who’ve grown up with the wind, the dust, and the storms say it aloud now and then, as if to remind themselves: “This place will run you nuts, if you let it.”

By the time things settled down, people wondered if Sammy Rodriguez and his brother Danny hadn’t been run nuts because of just those circumstances: too much wind; too much work; too little ability to get their bearings while facing the limitless horizons of life.

Whatever the cause, when they disappeared along with eighteen of their relatives, Floydada Police Chief James Hale heard about it as soon as some of the Rodriguez’s kinfolk tracked him down to report the missing brothers. The family members mentioned to Chief Hale that the men had been saying some strange things. “They made statements like the Devil was after them, and Floydada was going to be destroyed if they stayed here,” Hale said.

Later, someone remarked that Floydada wouldn’t be much of a loss if it was destroyed, but he said it quietly, and away from the crowds.

After more than twenty years, people in surrounding towns — even the Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals who tend to take their religion pretty seriously — still keep clippings about the story close at hand. When I saw the article tacked onto a refrigerator in Idalou, torn rather than clipped from the newspaper and starting to yellow with age, it still bore witness to the best part of the story: every living word of it is true, perhaps excepting those conversations the preacher had with the Devil. But no one’s sure about that.

The broad outlines of the story were clear. The Rodriguez family fled Floydada in five or six cars, abandoning one in Lubbock and a second in San Angelo. A third was found in Galveston, filled with clothing, purses, wallets, and other personal items. Eventually, all twenty people crammed themselves into one car and headed east toward Florida, only to be stopped short in Vinton, Louisiana.

Main Street ~ Vinton, Louisiana

The troubles in Vinton began after a campground owner called police to say the group had tried to commandeer an RV. When a Calcasieu Parish deputy stopped their car, the driver seemed willing to answer questions, but when he got out of the car, he was clad only in a towel draped around his mid-section. Vinton Police Chief Dennis Drouillard said, “When the officer went to ask what was going on, he jumped back in and took off.”

The group not only took off, they took off down Vinton’s main street at speeds approaching 90 mph, until the car plowed through a fence at the baseball park and hit a tree. At that point, fifteen adults and five children piled out of the 1990 Pontiac Grand Am.

“They were completely nude,” Drouillard said. “All twenty of them. Didn’t have a stitch of clothes on. I mean, no socks, no underwear, no nothin’. Five of them [the children] were in the trunk. The Lord told them to get rid of all their belongings and go to Louisiana. So they got rid of all their clothes and pocketbooks and wallets and identification and the license plate off their car and came to our gorgeous state.”

The car was totaled, but the injuries were minor. Sammy Rodriguez was booked on charges of reckless driving, flight from an officer, property damage and assorted minor traffic violations.


Like the police, city prosecutors found themselves bemused, and tended toward leniency. In exchange for Rodriguez paying a $650 fine and picking up the $975 tab for fixing the fence and a telephone pole, they dismissed charges of criminal damage to property.

In a fit of good sense, no charges were brought for indecent exposure. As Court Clerk Mary Vice said, “The statute states that for indecent exposure, you have to be exposing yourself in order to arouse someone. That wasn’t their intent.”

Magistrate Kent Savoie gave Rodriguez 90 days to pay for the fence and 30 days to pay the fine. He was ordered to spend 17 days in jail, but after being given credit for six days served, the balance of the sentence was suspended.

Once the proceedings ended, Savoie asked Rodriguez, pastor of the Templo Getsemani Assembly of God Church, why he and his nineteen relatives left their clothes behind in their flight from Texas. Rodriquez said he had a vision from God on August 17, telling him Judgment Day was at hand, and he and his family were to go to Florida. At some point in the journey, they became convinced the Devil was in the details of their clothing, so off it came.

Whatever Savoie thought of the response, he seemed to accept it. “I don’t know what possessed you to do what you did, but I’m relying on the statement you were told to do so by some higher being.” By that time, Rodriguez had been thinking things over. “It wasn’t God, sir,” Rodriguez answered, his voice nearly inaudible. “I would like to apologize to the people of Vinton and Floydada for everything, and I ask for their forgiveness.”

Rodriguez said he planned to leave immediately for Lubbock and then Floydada. “When I return to Floydada I am pretty certain that I will no longer be the pastor of my church, unless the people there can forgive me,” he said. “I plan to look for a job as soon as I get back.” Rodriguez’s wife’s family sent her a plane ticket, and she returned ahead of him. A relative drove the other 18 people on to Wauchula, Florida.

And that would have been the end of it, had not a fellow named Chris Stuart heard the story ten years later. Deciding he had enough material for a song, he went to work. In the end, he wrote a memorable one — good enough to be included in a collection of Car Talk Car Tunes put together by National Public Radio for their popular Saturday morning show hosted by Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.

Whenever I listen to the song, I laugh. I wouldn’t be surprised to know God laughs every time he hears the story, and taps his toe to the song. Let’s face it. Humans can be good for a laugh now and then, even when we’re trying to be serious.

 


Twenty Naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac

I was thumbin’ my way down to Baton Rouge, standin’ on the side of the road,
When a car pulled over and a voice cried out, “We’ll take you where you want to go.”
I jumped inside, but to my surprise, they were naked as a poor man’s toes.
It was a tight situation when the whole congregation said the devil was in my clothes.
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac,
Brothers and sisters shoutin’ in the back,
Elders in the front, choir in the trunk,
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac.
The sermon that morning was on Adam and Eve and the ways of the dreadful snake,
Everybody was clappin’ when the preacher pointed at me, my body began to shake.
I threw off my shirt, and my shoes and my socks,
My jeans and my BVDs.
We were all in the nude, shoutin’ “Hallelu!”
and singing “Somebody Touched Me.”
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac,
Brothers and sisters shoutin’ in the back,
Elders in the front, choir in the trunk,
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac.
We had the cruise control set to fifty-five, when a Smokey got on our tail,
He pulled up beside, his eyes got wide, and the siren began to wail.
We ran off the road toward the tree of life, Lord, the future was looking bleak,
We hung on and prayed, everybody was saved, ‘Cause we all knew how to turn the other cheek.
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac,
Brothers and sisters shoutin’ in the back,
Elders in the front, choir in the trunk,
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac.

 

 

Comments always are welcome.

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.