I took this picture while in the Gulf of Mexico last month. I find it special because of its beauty. In my world, it was a unique moment in time.
To anyone else, itʼs just another sunset. One theyʼve seen thousands of times in hundreds of magazines, TV shows, paintings, web sites, and more.
Our ability to capture and reproduce the magnificence of nature has also desensitized us to nature. I am fortunate that I can look at this photograph and not think “Great, itʼs a sunset.” But instead, I can remember a moment in time when the sun and the clouds and the sea and the breeze orchestrated a feeling of giddy awe inside of me. A web page has never been able to do that.
I went somewhere new to look for birds today. Itʼs the Baytown Nature Center. Four bucks gets you a friendly smile and a inkjet-printed map at the gate.
If youʼre someone whose lived in Houston for a long while, you may know it as the neighborhood of Brownwood. Brownwood was a nice little development on the edge of Crystal Bay. Today, itʼs birds and brush and otters and catfish.
What happened to Brownwood is what is likely to happen to a lot of places in the Houston area — man got too greedy, so nature took it back.
A number of places in this area get their drinking and industrial-use water from the ground. This is causing towns all over the region to sink as the water is depleted, and the soft earth above pushes down. Itʼs one of the reasons that foundation repair commercials are so common on Houston television. Yet people continue to demand that their municipalities rely on cheap groundwater, instead of other slightly-more-expensive sources. Gotta save a buck whenever we can, right?
Brownwood sank between ten and 15 feet in some places, and was a sitting duck when Hurricane Alicia came through in 1983. If people hadnʼt been so greedy, Brownwood likely would have been lightly damaged, like much of the rest of the region. Instead, it was flooded so badly that it had to be abandoned.
Nature is trying to take things back, but itʼs happening slowly. Perhaps I just went at a bad time of the year, but there was very little nature to behold. The stars of the show were the roseate spoonbills, all pink and flashy. Also, a couple of alligators, some catfish, assorted herons, and a persistently unlucky pelican.
The streets remain, though in an advanced level of decay. And you can occasionally make out where a house once stood by the sewer manholes, metal railings, boat piers, or incongruous and out-of-control landscaping.
Nature will erase all of this, too, eventually. But I donʼt think the washed out homeowners realize how awful it would have been to live there today. The place is surrounded by petrochemical plants that blare and thrum and whistle and shriek all day long, and all night. Itʼs not a peaceful place, and probably not somewhere that anyone would want to live, if they had a choice.
I went to a new place to find a slice of nature: The Trinity River Waterbird Rookery
Itʼs right off of Interstate 10 near Wallisville, Texas, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Itʼs great because the entrance is adjacent to a bridge over the Trinity River, so most people donʼt see it and itʼs inconvenient to get to, so hardly anyone ever goes there. The bad part is that the wildlife viewing platform is so close to the freeway that you canʼt hear whatever birds might be busy rooking up in the preserve.
Itʼs not formally a nature preserve, itʼs a flood control project, which is why it was built by the army. But when I was there, the foliage was recovering nicely from the Christmas cold blast, and there was a big fat painted turtle in the shallows looking at me with an angry face like some kind of swamp bouncer.
I spent the morning at the Turtle Bayou Nature Preserve. Turtle Bayou used to be a oil town, but when the oil ran out, so did the people. All that's left of the town is an abandoned ferry landing, scattered concrete foundations, and the occasional bit of rusting oil infrastructure.
Today, the preserve is a refuge for various birds and other wetland critters from coyotes to crawfish. It is also occasionally occupied by herds of cattle, who crop the greenery, fertilize with abandon, and churn up the soil so it doesn't get too compacted. Pretty much the same thing that deer and elk and buffalo used to do here, before they were driven out by suburbia.
The area also functions as a geologic sponge, regulating water levels and cleaning pollutants from the water that flows from the surrounding 88,000 acres into Galveston Bay. That's why the Chambers-Liberty County Navigation District supports this project. It helps both birds and barges.
Birds tallied on this visit:
My recommendation: do not hike the trails with flat-bottomed shoes. You need hiking boots at a minimum. Well-worn cowboy boots are probably best. Especially if it's rained in the last week, and if the cows are visiting.
One of the best features of the Sunday Morning program on CBS is the part at the end where we get to see some part of the natural world. No lasers. No music. No talking heads. Just birds, and plants, and bees, and animals doing what they're meant to do.
While CBS has slashed the time devoted to that segment each week from minutes down to mere seconds, other television stations like KHOU/Houston and Sky News, have started adding these segments.
As a former television producer, I know that in addition to be beautiful and memorable and giving people a reason to stop and stare, these segments with soft ending times are useful for padding out a short show, or sacrificing so that I can cram in some last-minute story.
With the infinite resources of the intarweb, there's no need to cut nautre for time. So here is my gift to you: A turtle being all turtle-y in Hermann Park. Watch as long as you like.
I donʼt know why the mob bothers hiding the bodies of its enemies in Indiana corn fields, or New Jersey stadia, or Nevada reservoirs. Chuck a corpse in a gulf coast swamp, and itʼll be chewed up, digested, and reduced to gator nuggets in a matter of hours.
Even if the F.B.I. knows where to look, the agents will be like, “Yeah, weʼll just let them have this one.”
I spent the morning at the tree museum. I think the Houston Botanic Garden will be really nice in ten years or so. Today, it looks a lot like itʼs just barely gotten off the ground. Lots of saplings on bare earth. Bulldozers. Sections cordoned off for construction. Urban hillbillies riding quads over the exhibits.
I became a member last year, but probably wonʼt renew. The benches that were nice for sitting on and looking at nature have been removed. Itʼs doing concerts now, farming for restaurants, and charging unwarranted prices to walk through its Christmas lights display. Even members have to pay, which is very unusual amongst serious musea.
It has a good location, and lots of potential. I suspect that the financial pressures of COVID have caused its leadership to lose its way in the forest.
I went for a walk to Starbucks today. No more masks. Not even signs for masks. Clearly there is a hazard, since the employees are still masked and hiding behind toll booth-grade plexiglass. But the rest of the store? Come on in! Sit and and stretch out! Stay all day! Go ahead and take your boots off and dig at your blackened toenails with a Bowie knife, weʼre all friends here!
I should have known it was a bad idea when I opened the door to my apartment and there was a black widow spider standing there. Not a female like we all know from the Batman TV shows. But a male black widow, which is larger, skinnier, and looks like a homeless crab with a hangover.
On the plus side, itʼs hard to get killed by a male black widow unless you disturb its web. Which means I should stop messing about with random spider webs I see on the way to get the mail.
We went to China Ranch today. Itʼs one of those places that makes me feel calm. If I had no debts, no obligations, and no cares in the world, Iʼd try my hand at being one of the China Ranch farm workers, picking dates in the desert, living in a rusty trailer, and generally staying off of civilizationʼs radar.
Since I do have debt, obligations, and cares in the world, I relish seeing the creatures of the wilderness. The score this trip:
Two kinds of lizards, including a cool one with a blue beard
The crayfish donʼt belong here. Like the bullfrogs that pollute the few water sources in the desert, they were planted by settlers who though they might be useful for food. Unfortunately, theyʼre the reason the entire Pahrump pupfish population has to live in a concrete fish prison out in Corn Creek.
Unlike the Amargosa dace and Devilʼs Hole fish, they didnʼt evolve in a hot spring, so in the winter they just kind of get sluggish and stop moving. Itʼs like aquatic hibernation. And since they canʼt flee, they are easy snacks for the big crayfish that were brought in from Louisiana a hundred years ago.
Darcie and I spent a peaceful day at China Ranch. Lots of wildlife running around, getting ready for the Summer ahead.
China Ranch is a place where an earthquake opened up a big crack in the desert letting the usually underground Amargosa River see the light of day for about a half mile. In the 1930ʼs someone established a date farm there, and you can get fresh date bread and date shakes at the little farm stand, and go for long walks hours away from anyone else. Itʼs just a nice place to get out of our heads for a while.
The crayfish donʼt belong here. Like bullfrogs, they were planted by settlers who though they might be useful for food. Unfortunately, theyʼre the reason the entire Pahrump pupfish population has to live in a concrete fish prison out in Corn Creek. Unlike the Amargosa dace and Devilʼs Hole pupfish, they didnʼt evolve in a hot spring, so in the winter they just kind of get sluggish and stop moving. Itʼs like aquatic hibernation. Since they canʼt flee, they are easy snacks for the big crayfish that were brought in from Louisiana a hundred years ago.
People ruin things. But I live in a place where several types of creatures have learned that not only are chihuahuas tasty, theyʼre slow, stupid, and frequently found behind doggie doors. Doggie doors are very common here. Sometimes nature gets even, and it makes the newspaper.
I like toads. I always have. But I donʼt know if Iʼm supposed to like this toad, or not.
Itʼs a California Toad, a subspecies of the Western Toad. The problem is that itʼs living on the edge of a very small spring that is the only home of the hyper-endangered Amargosa Dace, a type of pupfish.
The pupfish only live in this one little hole; nowhere else on earth. The toads live all over the West, from the Rockies to Alaska to Mexico.
In centuries past, settlers populated the isolated springs and oases of the Mojave Desert with frogs, in order to use them for food. Tiny, slimy, amphibious cattle. In doing so, they wiped out many populations of endangered fish.
Thatʼs why this toad may not belong here. He may be a descendant of hungry and industrious settlers of the 1800ʼs. Or he may have been here all along, since this is still California Toad territory.
Iʼd ask someone, but these are COVID times, so none of the nearby ranger stations are manned.
You think youʼre a bad ass? You think youʼre hard core? You ainʼt nothinʼ compared to the burros of the American West.
The lesser-traveled parts of this nation are infested with feral burros. They were brought out here to help the miners. When the miners went away, they left their companions behind. Itʼs all very sad.
Today, there are far more burros than the sparse desert environment can support, and many of them suffer. The federal government spends your tax dollars doing what it can to try to keep the population down, but a burroʼs gotta burro. Every now and again, there is a roundup of feral burros, much to the howls of online environmentalist poseurs who have only seen them on the internet, have never actually studied them in person, and donʼt have a better solution.
The captured burros are offered for adoption, but just like with humans, there are never enough homes for all of those who need one. Unlike humans, some of the adopted burros end up in illegal slaughterhouses, and thence as food for people and and pets in Asia, and rumor has it — France.
These burros are in the town of Beatty, Nevada. Theyʼre so used to being around people, and not giving fuck one what anyone thinks of them that they regularly block traffic, stare in windows, and generally make a comic nuisance of themselves.
They are the unofficial mascots of Beatty, and there have been some efforts to make them a tourist attraction. But tourists generally donʼt cuddle up to attractions that take a dump wherever they like.
Hereʼs a very sad picture. At least in modern times.
In centuries past, this little hole in the ground was a life-saver. For pioneers, for local indian tribes, and for many others it provided vital water in the desert wilderness. Today, though, itʼs a reminder of things gone wrong.
This is Longstreet Spring, at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Itʼs a boiling spring, which isnʼt a reference to the temperature of the water, but to the way the water forces itself up through a layer of sand at the bottom, making it look like the bottom of the pond is boiling.
This used to be the home of a thriving population of endangered fish. The fish are gone now, eaten by frogs brought by the pioneers. Today, all that live here are frogs and the insects that feed them.
Las Vegas locked down is a weird place. With no humans on The Strip, the city is being taken over by waterfowl.
Local media has been showing photos and video of geese and ducks all over the casinos. The theory is that they're attracted by the people-less fountains. Last week, I saw some video of a family of ducks that have made a home in one of the revolving doors of The Bellagio.
Apple Maps has Interstate 11 on it just weeks after the freeway that Obama tried to kill opened.
Apple even has satellite photographs. Those brown perpendicular things are tunnels so that big horn sheep and desert tortoises donʼt cross the freeway. Each is monitored by cameras and computers tally the number of critters using them.
Apparently the sheep learn quickly because the newspaper says thereʼs already several dozen using it per day.