Some Lessons Gleaned from Nature
Susan M. Sander, May 3, 2003, American Association of University Women lecture, © 2003
Twenty years ago I uprooted myself from a small island in Lake Michigan and moved to the Texas Hill Country. For the past two decades I've been reading the landscape -to learn its secrets, its underlying themes, and to understand the role of its players, both wild and human. As a curious naturalist I've learned a few things.
Lesson 1: “It all depends,”
This may seem ambiguous, but it's full of truth. All is not what it seems at first impression, or on the surface. There are many sides to each story. It depends on your perspective, whether you are human or a bird, whether you manage your land for economics or nature. Whether your view is long or short.
Lesson 2: If you don't like the weather, wait 10 minutes.
This is especially true during the shift of seasons, such as spring and fall. For many years I had the sneaky suspicion that the reason it flooded during the last weekend of May had to do with tempting Fate by holding two major public events outdoors. Actually this is the start of the hurricane season, and storms in the Gulf of Mexico can play havoc 200-plus miles inland.
During winter we can go from a balmy 60° even 80° then plummet to 30° in short time if a Blue Norther blows in. During my third winter 13 inches of snow fell and the pipes froze. One winter the Guadalupe River froze over in downtown Kerrville. Of course, all was back to Normal (whatever that is) within a couple of days.
Which brings us to RAIN: If we want spring wildflowers “It depends” on whether we had rain in the preceding fall and winter months. Plant life depends on rain. Blooms are sparked by rain. Our drinking water, ultimately, depends on rain.
Lesson 3: God willing and the creeks don't rise.
It depends on where the rain falls if we'll get a rise in a creek or the river. The Edwards Plateau is a land of canyons and the birthplace of seven river systems. Therefore, rain falling on the Divide might drain into one river basin but not the next. In the past 20 years I've experienced three 100-year floods. (But then again, we've only been watching the weather in this area since the mid-1800s.) Nonetheless, I've learned that it's wise to heed flood gauges at low-water crossings. And that one can hydroplane even on a county road due to run-off.
Lesson 4: Weather averages don't mean a thing.
The Chamber of Commerce proclaims our average annual rainfall is 32 inches. But we can get 10 inches in one day and nothing for months on end. After months of drought, during the final week of June 2002, 43 inches fell in my yard yielding an acre-foot of water (325,851 gallons). However, the weather data is recorded 10 miles away where only 8 inches fell, so it won't go down in the record books.
Someone once said that Texas weather is really “year round droughts punctuated by rain events.” Our plants tell us so. Hidden in the green blanket of wildflowers and native grasses are cactus and yucca, desert plants that do just fine during droughts.
Lesson 5: One inch can mean a world of difference.
It can take 500 years to make one inch of topsoil in this region. The hillsides are blanketed by a veneer of green vegetation rooted in very thin soil, in many areas only an inch deep or even less. Consequently, there is little organic matter to act as a sponge when it rains for below is hundreds of feet of limestone. Which means that even a 1-inch rain can result in a river rise if it comes in a downpour and just runs off (think concrete -with no ability to soak in). A one-inch rain over a day can soak in and revive the plant world as if overnight.
Lesson 6: We're not on the level.
All of us live in some part of a watershed (think of it as a bowl where the water drains to a common low spot, such as a creek or river). The Hill County is dissected by numerous steep canyons, when rain falls it travels down the slope, rapidly. Across Kerr County where I live the elevation drops from 2,200 feet in the west to 1,400' in the east. Kerrville (in the middle) is 1,000 feet higher in elevation than San Antonio which is only 60 miles away.
Lesson 7: The Hill Country it is just that, one big hill.
The hills may look isolated but the horizon is a flat line. This landscape was laid down during the Cretaceous Period when Texas was under an ancient inland sea; limestone is the result of marine creatures precipitating out in flat layers. Rain (being more acidic than the alkaline limestone) wiggled through vertical cracks in the horizontal layers of limestone, and dissolved it away bit by bit, until over time, a long time, the water's pathway become a cave, and sometimes the cave collapsed creating a sinkhole. Surface water took over the erosion process and creeks began to carve through the landscape. So basically I live on the side of a sinkhole in the land of canyons.
Lesson 8: Variety is the spice of life.
Our local native vegetation includes more than 100 -plus species of trees & shrubs, 300 species of wildflowers, 70 grasses, plus cacti (13 species within the city limits of Kerrville), ferns (many dry-land species), mushrooms, lichen and algae. These plants have evolved with the droughts and the limestone.
Lesson 9: We are not alone:
Besides the almost 40,000 human residents, Kerr County is also home to more than:
300 species of birds,
300 species of butterflies and moths,
30 species of mammals (besides livestock and pets),
plus numerous insects, spiders and their kin.
All have a role to play in the ecosystem if we could only understand it.
Lesson 10: Nature doesn't happen somewhere else.
Too often we think that the wild things are at the coast or in the mountains, but even in downtown Kerrville I have spied upon bald eagle, zone-tailed hawk, fox, turkey, deer, rabbits, 200 hawks in migration, 150 white pelicans and hundreds of bats. The point is: if we don't expect Nature to be in the city we won't look for it; and if we don't look, we will never see it when it quietly shows its face.
Lesson 11: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Our first embrace with Nature tends to be in response to her pretty face - a glorious sunset, a spectacular field of bluebonnets.
There is beauty in the grand scale - the wide-open vistas; the gradual seasonal shift of spring wildflowers along roadways and in open fields to the tans of summer and the last blaze of fall color.
There is the sudden beauty such as the profusion of rainlilies or the explosion of purple blossoms on cenzio triggered by rain.
There is ephemeral beauty that lasts only moments; such as the 3 o'clock blooming of celestials.
ORDER is another form of beauty: It can be the microscopic level of designs - the star patterns found in flowers, the precision of a spider's web, the spirals coiling in fossils and today's snail shells or a vine's tendrils.
Some order is visible but not readily apparent to us. It takes more practice and often a heavy dose of patience, and sometimes a suspension of our own expectations.
Seasonal change follows an order of Life: a seed sprouts and a plant starts to grow, bloom, gets pollinated, produces seeds then dies. A bird lays an egg, it hatches and grows, and so on.
There is the rhythmic order of courting great horned owls in January, returning hummingbirds and purple martins in February and March, the arrival of robins in the late fall. It's as if the birds are following the calendar.
There are other orderly changes, longer sequences that are harder to perceive and follow: the progression of plants reestablishing themselves in disturbed ground. The transformation of riparian areas scoured cleaned by a flood that is slowly greened by a steady progression of plants. After a fire or a plowed field, a similar process goes through the stages of pioneer weeds to wildflowers and grasses on to shrubs and trees.
Lesson 13: Time is relative.
We are not patient creatures. We move around and so too often never develop a relationship with a particular landscape. Hence, our view is so short especially when faced with geologic time. I live on a land that was shaped over long periods of time from the laying of hundreds of feet of sedimentary rock to the slow carving of canyons by water. A bulldozer can rearrange the order in a day.
Time is a factor of water availability. Groundwater and surface water depend upon rain, (when it falls and where it falls)-and it takes time to move through the limestone to reach aquifers hundreds of feet below surface. It takes time for the rain to resurface as springs that cry a river. It doesn't take much time to use it however.
There is seasonal time as the sun shifts in its path ever so slightly across the sky, and the days lengthen into summer and fade into winter.
Time is also ephemeral, fleeting moments when lightning zig-zags across the night sky; a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis; a flower opens at twilight to be pollinated by a moth.
The hard part is seeing changes over time and gleaning the patterns from the changes. What do the patterns tell us about the health of the landscape? That depends on our view point.
Lesson 12: Nature has value.
In 20 years I've come to appreciate the role of natural resources and the value of ecological functions: that floodplains accommodate the heavy downpours that just run-off the land, where trees and big rocks help dissipate the velocity of the raging floods.
I've become aware of the connections of plants and wildlife, the intricate dance of pollinators. When I gaze upon the wooded hillsides or wildflower blanketed roadways - I must acknowledge that I did not have a hand in planting that which I enjoy. For the most part, no man did. We have the birds and wildlife even wind and water to thank for dispersing seeds. Nature keeps our landscape looking natural, not us.
Some of the connections are hard to see because of our deeply held prejudices. Fear of certain wildlife or perhaps their seeming unimportance in our scheme of things can result in their demise.
Lesson 13: LIFE goes on.
Despite our inept management of natural resources Nature doesn't judge our actions. Nature just goes about the business of Life. Sometimes the only plants that can grow in soil that had been abused beyond the tolerance of most natives are weeds, such as thistles or horehound (nothing eats it). For the most part, Nature operates on basic common sense if we can only learn to read the signs.
It's this ability to continue on that fills me with wonder. That despite the profound sorrow I often feel at the loss of habitats, the paving over of the last wild lands within the city limits - I hold on to Nature's ability to fill in with life, be it a plant in the crack of the sidewalk or cedar in a barren field. It may not be the species of my choice, but it's probably the only species that can handle the new conditions. If I was only patient enough I would be able to learn more.