Autumn color

It’s true that we here in Texas do not enjoy the same showy display foliage aficionados can watch in the Northeast.  In fact, we often say the bulk of autumn color in this neck of the woods consists of green turning to brown—all in one week.  And though that often feels truer than it is, finding nature’s gemstones this time of year doesn’t require a trip across the country.

Autumn foliage surrounding the Sunset Bay swamp (2009_11_08_037687_autumn)
Fruit of Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) in autumn (2010_02_20_050039_autumn)
The Dixon Branch riparian woods at the edge of the floodplain showing autumn colors (157_5744._autumnJPG)
Morning sunshine filtering through open woods in autumn color (157_5753_autumn)
The lavender fruit of American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) seen in autumn (2009_12_13_044546_autumn)
Rust-colored bald cypress trees (a.k.a. swamp cypress, southern cypress, red cypress, white cypress, yellow cypress, Gulf cypress or tidewater red cypress; Taxodium distichum) in autumn (2008_12_13_002386_autumn)
Autumn foliage on one of the small islands in the Sunset Bay confluence at White Rock Lake (20081101_14431_autumn)
Close-up of a common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) in bright sunshine (20080114_01296_autumn)
Autumn fruit of sacred bamboo (a.k.a. heavenly bamboo; Nandina domestica) seen on a cloudy day (2009_11_07_037328_autumn)
A blanket of autumn leaves showing a rainbow of colors (219_1928_autumn)

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  1. Unidentified: this flower has all the traits of an aster, yet the flowers are smaller than a fingerprint, the plant never grows above the grass (thus the flowers are small white spots in the turf), and it matches none of the asters I can find.  So still looking…
  2. Autumn foliage surrounding the swamp at Sunset Bay
  3. Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense)
  4. Dixon Branch riparian woods at the edge of the floodplain showing autumn colors
  5. Open woods in autumn
  6. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
  7. Bald cypress (a.k.a. swamp cypress, southern cypress, red cypress, white cypress, yellow cypress, Gulf cypress or tidewater red cypress; Taxodium distichum)
  8. Colorful autumn foliage seen on a small island in the Sunset Bay confluence at White Rock Lake
  9. Common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
  10. Sacred bamboo (a.k.a. heavenly bamboo; Nandina domestica)
  11. Autumn leaves the wind collected outside my garage door

But they don’t look like cows

I sat this afternoon watching a brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) sing from atop my neighbor’s car.  It reminded me of these photos.  So I figured I might as well share.

A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) standing in grass (2009_06_03_021982)

Cowbirds are nest parasites and their growing population puts increased pressure on the reproductive success of other species.  This usually means people hate them, somewhat like they hate house sparrows and European starlings.

A male and a female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) walking together through the grass (2009_06_03_021993)

But I don’t hate them.  Well, let’s be honest: other than sweet potatoes and yams, I don’t hate anything nature has to offer.

A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) perched on a tree branch (2009_04_11_014932)

Besides, have you ever heard cowbirds sing?  What melodious voices!  What beautiful songs!

A male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) standing in grass as he eats (2009_06_03_021820)

Oh, and the whole idea of nest parasitism is cool.  Since cowbirds evolved to follow herds of bison across the continent, they don’t stop to build nests but instead lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.  Their young even developed a tendency to push other hatchlings and eggs out of the nest to increase their chance of survival.

A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) standing in grass (2009_04_11_014938)

And being black birds means they match my affinity for the underdog.  Grackles, crows and ravens, blackbirds…  They just don’t get respect, which makes me like them even more.  They’re worth noticing more than they’re worth hating.

A male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) standing in tall grass (2009_06_03_021987)

It’s interesting to note that cowbirds are succeeding because we’ve made it hard for them to fail.  We mowed down all the forests and built vast swaths of open fields coupled with plenty of cattle.  That created a perfect environment for them.

Butterfly effect

I don’t always know what I’m going to say until I’ve said it.  That best describes what follows.  This represents more a rambling catharsis for me than anything else, as much a directionless mental and emotional ablution as it is an attempt to communicate.

A black-morph female eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) banging on a budding tree (2010_04_10_053365)

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”  Though the butterfly effect in fact first used a seagull flapping its wings as an example of how initial conditions in a dynamical system could vastly change the outcome, and though this was used as part of chaos theory where knowing the initial conditions of the system allowed one to model the outcome despite its complexity, I’ve always thought of the butterfly effect as being more appropriate for complex systems science, chaos theory’s unpredictable cousin.

In complex systems science, dynamical systems—large, complex systems—cannot be predicted even when the initial conditions are known.  The most common example of this is the weather, where generalized models, precedents and guesses make up forecasts while the actual weather remains truly unpredictable because the interaction of even the smallest things can vastly affect the outcome, and the same initial conditions can produce a different outcome each time.

An orange sulphur (a.k.a. alfalfa sulphur; Colias eurytheme) on a small aster flower (2009_10_23_032693)

Life—any life or life in general—is a dynamical system, a complex system, a system where every small variable can greatly impact the outcome.  Each event we face can alter our path: every hiccup in the fabric of normalcy can cause us to stumble and divert from our destination, every victory can turn us down a road other than the one we intended.  Who can say how different your life would be were one simple event changed in your past?

A Gulf fritillary (a.k.a. passion butterfly; Agraulis vanillae) feeding on a dandelion (2009_10_31_035393)

In late July I was stung by several wasps, an event that irrevocably altered my journey.  Being allergic to wasp stings—deathly allergic—meant several stings was a major problem.  Interestingly enough, however, the stings led to the discovery of an even larger issue, one far more dangerous.  And treatment for the wasp stings also slowed down the new enemy, an unexpected opportunity to react to the new assault.

But the newest enemy wasn’t to be deterred.  Instead of cooperating, it rebelled and became a bigger problem than it should have been.  Which resulted in my unexpected absence for a few weeks.  Yet even my return home would carry with it yet more unexpected turns.

A hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis) resting on a tree (2009_10_23_033250)

I sat at my desk several days after coming home, and I tried to catch up on e-mail.  That’s when I discovered that one of my close friends from high school had died in early November.  He was my age.  His death was so unexpected that the e-mail made clear that the cause of death was unknown at that time.  I was shocked and disheartened.  Michael had been the good friend in high school who read all of my early writing and who encouraged me to do something with it.  He mentioned to me several years later that he had spent much time watching for my name to pop up in book stores.  That he was gone so suddenly hit me like a punch in the gut.

Then less than week later another friend died.  She was in her nineties and her death came as no surprise, but it still hurt.  For as I’ve said before, accepting impermanence as a fact of the universe fails to soften the blow of death because we can expect it but never truly be prepared for it.  That her name was Glad carried a painful irony.

About a week after that my mother informed me that my father had fallen quite ill.  So sick in fact that he couldn’t sleep lying down because he would suffocate.  His health has been failing for many years, sure, and I keep telling myself that the call shouldn’t shock me.  Nevertheless, especially under the mounting circumstances, I wondered if this would be the turn for him.

And then just last weekend, just as I alluded to and wondered, my beloved Annie lost her dearest Jacques.  His decline had felt imminent, albeit coupled with the up-and-down unknowing that so often fills such times.  His suffering ended and her load relieved, it still felt like one more nail in the coffin, one more flap of the butterfly wings in my life, one more variable that would significantly alter the outcome.  Because in all honesty, I’d had my own downward turns coupled with so much death and so much bad news that I felt crushed beneath the weight of it all.

A male northern crescent (Phyciodes cocyta) perched in the grass (2010_04_10_053138)

So I put on a façade, a mask as it were, and found myself wandering aimlessly in what seemed to be never-ending shadow.  I smiled when I was expected to smile, I responded when queried, and I pretended.  Inside, though, where no one could see, I sank into the depths of abyssal despair.  For all the flapping butterfly wings in my life, it seemed all the change they offered was bad.

Yet more and more I had clarity of thought, something that eluded me for a while, and in that returning lucidity I received one more bit of news, this time about me.  The news was good, surprisingly good in fact, and received well ahead of schedule and in direct contravention of all the prognostications that had come before.  Things were suddenly turning around, a course correction thanks in no small part to the sudden downturn I had in late October.  The very bad thing had required very aggressive remedies that resulted in a very rapid turnaround.  Like, um, wow!

An American snout (Libytheana carinenta) perched on a dry reed (2009_11_26_041608)

There remains a long road ahead, one stretching years into the future, and I must travel that road before I can put these troubles behind me.  At least my own troubles.  But where there once was nothing but bad news, now suddenly there’s not just good news, there’s hope.  I had considered it a luxury I couldn’t afford.  Now it’s been thrust upon me.

And that leaves me feeling somewhat confused.  I want to leap up and down, at least virtually, which seems counter to the suffering of others that has piled up so quickly.  I feel selfish for not investing more in them right now.  I feel glad to know I might see the metaphorical road home more quickly than I thought, that I might step off the bridge to nowhere even though I feared I never would.

I’ve been on the edge, hanging from the precipice as it were, and the flap of a butterfly’s wings got me back on my feet even while it took so much from others.  At this time and place, in the face of conflicted emotions, I’m embarrassed to say that today, after hearing my own good news, all I could think about was how the smallest variable can dramatically affect the outcome.  All I could think about was the butterfly effect and how it worked to my advantage this time.

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[1] Black-morph female eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

[2] Orange sulphur (a.k.a. alfalfa sulphur; Colias eurytheme)

[3] Gulf fritillary (a.k.a. passion butterfly; Agraulis vanillae)

[4] Hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis)

[5] Male northern crescent (Phyciodes cocyta)

[6] American snout (Libytheana carinenta)

Not gonna be dinner

It’s May 2009.  In Texas terms, it’s hot as heck even though it’s early in the morning and it’s not even summer.  So I have the windows down as I speed my way toward the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast.

As I mosey along the desolate two-lane highway, something in the distance catches my attention.  A dark shape moves across the asphalt ahead of me and walks along a small side road leading to who knows where.

I slam on the brakes and pull over as I approach.  Already I can tell it’s a male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).  But the road he’s walking along is a private drive, gated in point of fact, so I dare not follow.

Instead, I get out of the car and race along on foot trying to catch up with the bird.

A male male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) walking along a roadside while displaying (2009_05_16_018665)

All the while, the turkey yammers aimlessly and displays from time to time, though I can’t for the life of me see anyone he might be trying to impress.  No deer, no turkeys, nothing.  Heck, there aren’t even any people around save me.  I haven’t seen another car since I left Port Lavaca thirty minutes earlier.

Running and snapping photos isn’t exactly my strength, so I run, stop, snap a few photos, then repeat the process, each pause filled with the hope that I’m close enough for some decent photos.  But the turkey never stops, never even slows down, and his lead is too great for me to close the gap.

A male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) walking down a country road (2009_05_16_018671)

Finally I resolve myself to letting him go.  He never worries about me, never feels threatened, mainly because I’m never close enough to be a threat.  Which means even a 400mm lens can’t pull him in for a respectable image.

Still, it’s a fun way to start the day.  I walk away from him laughing, wondering who he’s talking to and who he’s showing off for, and quietly thinking that he needn’t worry about me wanting him for dinner.  Even if I’m in the mood for a drumstick breakfast, the only thing I have to shoot at him is my camera.  And that’s something I know he’s thankful for even if he doesn’t realize it.

The path

As love affairs go, ours has lasted decades.  I know the every curve of her body, the every rise and fall of her earthen flesh.  I have spent many a year meeting her daily, sometimes many times a day, and I know her whims and wiles, her ways and wants.  I can walk her open woods in the darkest hours, even blindfolded, for she has guided me so often that she now is as familiar to me as my own self.

She cares not about those who came before, those who might kiss these lips or hold this hand, those who might compete with her for my affections.  For I am as much hers as she is mine.

A footpath leading through open woods in summer (20080419_03973_tr)

I know her torrid summer, the heat of her desire, the sweat she brings upon my brow and back.  I know her simmering.  I love the feel of her resting against me with the closeness of warm wet cotton, smothering me, holding me to her.  Even when I want for the coolness of escape, I cannot leave her embrace.

A footpath leading through open woods in autumn (20081101_14476_tr)

I know the shimmer of her autumn gown, the slow undressing that elicits craven appetites to see her bare limbs.  I know the falling of her leaves that lick at me in the gentlest breeze.  I trace myself upon her to find the dappled sunlight that warms me in her newfound chill.

A footpath leading through open woods in winter (2009_12_25_046658_tr)

I know her even when she wears her winter white, her stark nakedness in the cold.  I know the long shadows that rest upon her and draw out her intricacies, the patterns both subtle and showy.  I know the sun hangs low on the horizon not to hide her but to accentuate her.  The haunting loneliness of empty spaces, the bones of the world revealed, the hollow song of wind moving freely about her, the shortness of days…  None of these diminish her but instead amplify her, reveal her.

A footpath leading through open woods in spring (20080405_03076_tr)

I know the slow unfurling of her verdant spring, the deliberate unveiling of every glistening leaf, every blossom, every blade of grass.  I know the patterns of her limbs as they dance in vernal storms.  I watch her with a mix of awe and jealousy as she welcomes abundance to her bosom with open arms, yet I know she is for me just as I am for her.

And though I have missed her these past months, I know she waits for me still.  She remains.  She is the patient and unmoving paramour.  She rests always there, right outside, always willing to guide me through her world with the gentle touch she gives freely.

For as love affairs go, ours has lasted decades.