Book Review: The Nature of Texas

A review of a field guide to the nature of Texas, suitable for beginning naturalists

Here’s a new book that some of you who live in Texas might want to order. It’s a field guide called The Nature of Texas: An Introduction to Familiar Plants, Animals and Outstanding Natural Attractions, by James Kavanagh and illustrated by Raymond Leung.

The cover of the book, The Nature of Texas
Any book with an armadillo on it is a book I like!

This isn’t one of those huge compendiums of every single living organism in the state; instead, it highlights plants and animals that an average person with an interest in the nature in Texas might run into. The descriptions are brief and in lay terms, and the illustrations are really lovely (good job, Raymond Leung).

It’s a bit too basic of a book for me to carry around, but I could easily imagine giving it to a teenager or older child who’s going camping and wants to know what they might find out there, or someone who just moved to Texas and wants a nice overview. It would be fun to put on the bedside table for your out-of-state visitors, or on the coffee table of your rental property.

an open page of a book, with information about fish
An example of the text and illustrations.

The back of the book has two handy features. One is a brief list of interesting places to go to see the natural wonders of Texas, with clear maps. The other is a series of checklists you can use to mark off wildlife and native plants that you see in your travels. That would be a fun family project (though I’d have to add a bunch of things, like more owls).

I do recommend The Nature of Texas, just for the beautiful illustrations alone. And the introductory essay, “But a Watch in the Night,” written by James Rettie in 1948 is a real treasure, too. It’s a great reminder of how little time humans have actually been present and messing around with our planet.

Thelma and Louise Do Gardening. Mostly Thelma.

It was a busy day. Much of Kathleen’s day consisted of planting and hoeing again. I did a great job picking things out. I am not a very energetic Louise to her Thelma.

Some of our haul.

This morning we went back to My Flea, in Milano, where I’d gotten these cute guys with Chris last week. Kathleen and I got Mexican pottery for each of our new plants, and I got some for plants I’m going to root or divide.

What I got last week, and the plant that goes in the chicken.

They are so festive, and the prices are really good. I broke down and bought the plant-holding donkey to go with the other one. And I had to get a little claw-foot tub, of course, for my bathroom.

What a cheerful guy!

Kathleen got a stand for our fern and a cute little cart that actually rolls. The plan is to put seasonal decorations in the cart. Fun!

We came back and used up all our potting soil to plant our three big plants. They look so pretty, especially the fern.

Fern and stand.

We will get more soil next week. In the meantime I’ll be rooting some pothos plants.

Corn plant. Isn’t the pot pretty?

The rest of the day, Kathleen was a bundle of energy in the yard. She’s going to get rid of the burr clover and sand burs. She’s going to encourage actual grass! And she’s going to plant lantana around the trees.

Clearing around the oak tree.

And what I find most ambitious is that she is going to plant things to disguise the giant gas line and old flagpole. She prepped for those today. Next comes weed killer and whatever else. I’ll watch.

Future former eyesores.

Thelma and Louise Buy Plants

Because my employer gave us the day off in honor of Juneteenth (good for them), Kathleen and I decided to do something fun. We went to the little local nursery in Cameron to get some plants for the new office, since it’s pretty smelly in there from floor finishing (another post).

New plants!

It was hard to decide what to get, because they had so many lovely things. I got myself a spider plant for my office, because the ones in Austin got aphids or something. Boo. She got a pothos for hers, but I’m going to make one out of the plant in my bedroom (and Mandi May have made me one, too).

We found our company on a poster! Kathleen is wearing her Thelma hat. I happen to have Louise.

I also got a peace plant, and because I messed up Mandi’s, I’ve made it the Mandi’s Mom Memorial Peace Plant. That pleased her. That’s it for indoors.

The peace plant, before watering.
Before planting.

Kathleen got three roses for in front of her office and a hibiscus for the patio on the other side. She also got a fern and a corn plant. For now, they are on the front porch, but one is really for the reception office.

The hibiscus. It will be red.

She picked three pretty plants for the area around the mailbox. One the young man at the shop said was a Mexican honeysuckle. The others are purple. I had to look it up. PlantSnap said it was a golden dewdrop. Okay. Duranta erecta is its name and it will be big and thorny. Oh my. But it’s native to Mexico, so it may not make it through the winter.

Golden dewdrop, purple type.

Well, the nursery mostly has Mexican plants, so that makes sense! The people who run the place are very nice and take such good care of the plants. I’m very glad they’re here in our little town.

The Mexican plant collection.

After I went to the farrier visit, we planted the ones that go in the ground. I admit Kathleen did the hard work. I weeded. Then Chris also helped. It was fun, and the weather wasn’t too bad in the shade.

Thelma plants a foundation plant.

It all looks quite cheerful. Tomorrow Kathleen is going to work on the grass, and we are going to get some cheerful Mexican pottery for the indoor plants. Fun times. It’s feeling like a real, cared-for, old house!

The first three of many future rose bushes.

Grace, Nature, and Humor to the Rescue

What do you do to get through trying times? You take it one day at a time. I am doing my best to just observe and not get all caught up in things I can’t control, like I’ve been saying this week. And I figure one way I can help myself and others is to provide brief diversions. What the heck?

Grace

I’ve been reading and reading ideas on mindfulness and they have brought me a bit of grace, I think. Here’s a quote by Joanna Macy, the Buddhist teacher and naturalist, about the times we are in and our relationship to the earth:

…It is so great a privilege to be here on Earth at this time….Being fully present to fear, to gratitude, to all that is–this is the practice of mutual belonging. As living members of the living body of Earth, we are grounded in that kind of belonging. We will find more ways to remember, celebrate, and affirm this deep knowing: we belong to each other, we belong to earth. Even when faced with cataclysmic changes, nothing can ever separate us from her. We are already home.

Lion’s Roar, May 2020, p. 50. Excerpt from A Wild Love for the World: Joanna Macy and the Work of Our Time, edited by Stephanie Kaza.

Guess what book I just ordered?

Nature

As always, nature has provided me with a way to center. The magnolia blossom that Chris picked for me this morning has filled my office with fragrance, and I found myself in a meditative state earlier, just looking at the structure of the center.

Magnolia glory.

You can see how the current beauty is all set up to become a beautiful seed pod with bright red seeds. I take it as a reminder that we are always undergoing a transformation (including Mother Earth) and that we can gain solace from how destruction and metamorphosis bring their own beauty.

What’s cool is that it continues to change. The petals are folding up now (not happy we picked it, I guess)

I’ve noticed a lot of my friends sharing their gardens, whether flowers or produce, which brings moments of pleasure. And my Master Naturalist friends keep coming up with the best stuff! Look at this puffball mushroom my friend Pamela saw on her property, just a couple of miles from our ranch.

Now, that’s one big mushroom! I love all the patterns on it. Photo by Pamela Neeley.

Humor

And then there’s humor. I was rather surprised yesterday when I made a joking comment to my husband, and he took offense. He says I never joke around. This is disturbing, since I think of myself as funny. Oops.

But I decided that it’s a good idea to have some fun with images, anyway. I posted the following photo of a tile in my bathroom on Facebook:

What do you see in the center tile?

I said I saw a Satanic goat (it has scary eyes). The responses to the post were a lot of fun. People saw a llama, a dragon, a snail, a slug, a horse, unicorn, a goddess, and a duck (among others). The tile is a natural stone called river travertine, because it looks like flowing water, so the person who saw the ocean was right on!

I decided I’d just post things that made me laugh, so I also posted a picture of poor Penney and all her excess skin.

There’s a second dog in there somewhere.

So yeah, I’m not going to deny the undercurrent of doom swirling around me, but my pet bobcat (or whatever that is) and I are going to keep looking for grace, natural beauty, and the absurd as we go through the day.

Oh, SnapChat, when you don’t have me worried about my kid’s safety, you entertain.

How Many Invasive Species Did I Find?

Last week I had a lot of Master Naturalist fun participating in the Texas Invasive Species BioBlitz 2020 that got set up by Texas Nature Trackers. You may remember I talked about it a bit last week. The idea was to see how many observations you could get from a list of invasive species found throughout the state. I knew I had easy access to a few, so I figured I’d try.

Here’s the main page for the event.

I got a good number of invasives pretty quickly, since I knew right where there was some Arundo donax (river cane), Johnson grass, and a lot of nandina on my own properties. I must have spent 3 hours the first weekend looking for invasives (and observing lots of other things, too).

By the time I went to Austin on Tuesday, I was doing okay on the leaderboard. Just a few walks around the neighborhood of Bobcat Run produced more “goodies” like Japanese honeysuckle and privets.

My final list of plants.

By the time the week was over, I was proud to be in the top twenty of number of species observed, and doing okay with number of observations as well.

Here I am, number 17, and Linda Jo number 2 (I couldn’t fit number 1 on the screen, darn it.)

Of course, my fellow Chapter member Linda Jo Conn was in second place in number of observations and first place for species. Some other guy had way more observations, because he had multiple photos of some of the species. I did a few, like things I saw both in Austin and Cameron, or ones in distinct locations. However, I could have ROCKED the numbers by just walking across the lawn and taking pictures of Bermuda grass (I would NOT do such a thing, of course).

Regrets

Darn the luck! The day after the bioblitz was over, I drove down a street I don’t usually go by, and there were a whole bunch of mimosa trees taunting me with their fluffy pinkness. Argh!

Beautiful invasive mimosa tree, just one block off of where I usually drive every day.

Then, yesterday I walked to the horse barn (I’d been driving our utility vehicle because I have a sore tendon), and right on the side of the driveway was a cheerful annual bastard cabbage/ wild mustard plant. I’d been looking and looking for one, because I knew they were there! So, that’s two more I could have found if I’d been a bit more diligent.

What Did I Learn?

I think the project did what it was intended to do: it got me much more aware of invasive species wherever I saw them, and because I kept talking about it to friends and family, I raised awareness as well. That’s exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing as a Master Naturalist.

Oh, and also, I had fun. What have been your fun projects while we’ve been not gathering in large groups and such?

Prairie Patrol

The front pasture at our house hasn’t had herbicide applied to it, so it’s full of wildflowers, grasses, and riparian plants (by the arroyo). Since our internet tower got messed up and I can’t use the computer to write, I thought I’d share some images from walking around the pasture after a rain. It’s really windy, so the grasses are blowing around.

Lemon bee balm by the pond.
Meadow pinks and grass-leaved rush
Black-eyed Susan or something.
Grass arrangement
By the back fence.

Invasives and Dragonflies

Happy National Invasive Species Week everybody! Whee! I don’t know if we are supposed to celebrate them or deplore them this week, but I’m celebrating along with naturalists in the US, I guess. What I’m doing is participating in the Texas Invasive Species Bioblitz 2020 on iNaturalist. The project’s goal is to identify the locations of as many invasive plants, animals, etc., as possible in one week.

Here are the things I’ve found. No, these are not my photos.

While I’ve made over a hundred observations in the last few days in my quest to find invasives, I’ve only found seven on the list of official targets for the week. At least I’m contributing! It’s fun to see how some people are going all out finding things.

The floating plants are floating primrose-willow and will have beautiful yellow flowers soon. Logs are for the turtles, who are hiding.

I need to drive around more, because those are all I have on the ranch. I was disappointed that my potential chinaberry tree was a benign native soapberry. Then I said, wait, that’s a GOOD thing.

Dragonflies

Skimmer, skimming.

While I was off looking for some hedge parsley or bastard cabbage (where did it GO?) I wandered around our back pond and had fun observing turtles, water plants, and minnows. There were also quite a few dragonflies flitting around, and I did my best to get some photos.

I did not do a good job at all, as my blurry photos below attest, but I did enjoy myself very much. The skimmers were especially pretty, all bronze and dazzling, but they all were good to see. We have fewer these days than we used to.

I observed a damselfly or two, but they were really far away. Certainly looking at these insects while watching the dogs splash around in the pond is a great way to relax. And no dogs were stuck in cars yesterday!

The ranch house from the back. Looks majestic.

Book Report: Bunny Bunny

This book is a follow-up to the memoir of Alan Zweibel that I posted last week. In that book, Zweibel talked about a little book he wrote about his late best friend, Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer at a very young age. He said the whole book was dialog that just came to him after she passed away. I was interested.

The cover was put together by Zweibel’s wife and an artist they commissioned for the painting.

So, I set out to get a copy. That was harder than it might have been, because Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner: A Sort of Love Story (a book with TWO colons) is out of print, having passed its prime in 1994, I guess. Luckily I selected a reputable vendor of used books and got a copy in pretty good shape for just $7.

Once again. Zweibel made me laugh a lot, but I was also touched by the little stories he chose to tell. It’s a wonderful tribute to an amazing friendship. I had to read some passages aloud to the family, so they could enjoy them, too.

I got a real kick out of the illustrations, as well. They are simple line drawings by the artistically impaired author, but they are also really sweet and convey the essence of the stories perfectly.

Here, they have taken a taxi in New York City. I left in a snippet of dialog to show you the format.

So, I’m pretty sure none of you are going to go out and buy this book, but if you want to borrow it from me, see me after people can meet up more easily!

Mexican hats!

Enjoy some flowers. They’re left over from yesterday’s photo expedition.

Willows and Wildflowers

Wandering around the ranch this evening a theme for a photo essay came to me. We have so many river willow trees and so many wildflowers, why not showcase them in a photo essay! Enjoy.

Willow, thistle, and Mexican hats.
Pink evening primrose, stream, willow.
Thistle, willow
Indian blankets, willows, pond
My favorite. Vetch and old bent willow.

Humble but Beautiful

Yep, it’s one of those nature posts. I don’t have anything to rant about today. It’s probably because my day started out so nicely, having coffee with Lee on the back porch (usually I rush off to the office, but I had a sinus issue). Looking out at the lawn, Lee remarked that he was glad his brother hadn’t mowed yesterday.

The humble wildflower makes the lawn glow.

There were hundreds of dandelions in the field, with their little faces all turned toward the morning sun, or where it would be if it were less cloudy. More rain is coming. Remember, most of the flowers in our field are actually “false dandelion” (Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus) and not the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).

The chickens love both varieties, actually. The highlight of every evening for me is feeding the hens dandelion greens from my hands.

Yellow always pops on a gray day.

While I was out there checking out flowers, I saw this really great spiderweb. If you look closely, you’ll see how big it actually is, but I was drawn to the center, where it looks like weaving. I think I know where the term “orb weaver” comes from now. Too bad the spider is in back, so I can’t identify her. You can tell she is the size of the “woven” area, though.

We have lots and lots of wasps this time of year. Mostly they just fly a few inches above the grass looking for something to eat, or posing as bird food, depending on your point of view. These blue mud daubers sure are beautiful, though.

And just to clarify: No “murder hornets” live in Texas, so it’s okay to get this close.

A Very Humble Fly

I’ll leave you with what I saw when I came downstairs for lunch. This is one big fly. It’s not as big as a horsefly, but it’s big. Eric in our Master Naturalist class says it’s an Archytas. iNaturalist agreed. I just think it looks really, really, prickly and like it would bite. One thing I dislike is fly bites. Shudder.

It’s sitting on a mop. Look at its cool bronze eyes and greenish body. With bristles. Lots of bristles.

Well, I got curious, so I looked up more information on the Archytas flies. It turns out their larvae are parasites, and they often grow in moths, beetles, and bugs that harm crops. So, they are often used as natural pesticides! How about that? I loved this quote by the person who wrote the article I read:

This tachinid fly is one of my favorites. It’s a huge, hairy fly with a blue metallic abdomen. I frequently encounter it nectaring on flowers and mucking about amongst the vegetation, never on offal or other nasty things like many of the more disgusting fly varieties. I would not allow just any fly to walk my skin with impunity; Archytas is just, well, special. (My affection is probably misplaced, and this bugger is just as filthy and revolting as all the others, but what can I say?  One has to find something pleasant to think about.)

Tachinid Fly – Archytas sp. – North American Insects and Spiders

This scientist really loves their flies! By the way, the flies are named for “Archytas of Tarentum (c. 428-350 B.C.) – Greek statesman, military commander, leading Pythagorean mathematician and philosopher; often called the father of mathematical mechanics.” He also invented the screw and the pulley. There’s a crater on the Moon named after him, as well. Again, huh.

I think I found my favorite fly. Humble, yet lovable. And oddly beautiful.