A desolation called Texas

A fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) standing on a fallen log (20080314_02632)

The world is brown now, and not a good brown, not a rich brown, not an earthen tone that looks warm against the skin and tastes good upon the eyes.  No, this is the brown of death, of drought, of crippling heat, of climatic records driven to the brink of extinction, then cast over the precipice of what was.

It started with drought, that’s all, the last appreciable rain falling in early September when the remnants of Hurricane Hermine came through, what with her tornadoes and floods and hail and wind.  But after that?  Nothing worth talking about.  In fact, what little rain came after just made it worse.

The few snow and ice storms we had helped get winter grasses started, but then the drought killed them and left dry kindling in their place, more dry kindling than we already had, more fuel for fires that swept the state, killing some, maiming others, knocking down home and hearth from border to border.

And the spring storm season gave us a few tornadoes, more lightning than the parched state needed, and a little rain here and there, just enough to start the spring growing season before the drought killed that smidgen of greenery, so more fuel for the fires, more death, more brown.

Burn bans spread almost as quickly as the fires did, crimson warnings seeping from major wounds in the map of Texas and spreading, oozing, spilling in every direction, all the while chasing the flames that gushed across the landscape.  And still no rain.

Then summer blasted in on the heels of a spring that grew hot, too hot, and summer’s been hotter, really hot, splitting the skin of weather records and pouring salt in the open wounds of worry.

A black and yellow mud dauber (Sceliphron caementarium) building a nest (20080708_09205)

Insects are scarce, something people have noticed since we’ve had no mosquito problems for quite some time, a surprising fact since we always have mosquito problems, even in winter if the day is warm enough.  And people noticed there are no moths around outside lights at night, and that surprises folks because, like mosquitoes, we always have moths and butterflies, as long as the day is warm enough.

I found the majority of wasp and bee nests have failed, many abandoned before they were completed, even in the nesting box I built early this year on a sleepless night, the majority of the abandoned attempts losing their queens over a single two-day period when temperatures soared and refused to fall, and climbing steadily higher since.  I’ve seen more dead insects than live ones and so few spiders that it feels like a famine of the sort.

A common whitetail (Plathemis lydia) resting on parched earth (20080712_09363)

Dragonflies and damselflies, at least the few that can be found, spend too much time on dead plants and parched earth, some landing never to move again, most in fact, and detritivores like millipedes and isopods have been no-shows this year, much like the fungi season last autumn and again this spring, complete no-shows, not even vain attempts to keep up appearances.

Ants venture out in the coolness of morning, but around dawn is the only time to see them since it’s too hot most of the day and night, and I’ve seen only a few katydids and grasshoppers, something that really put the halt on the digger wasps who built nests only to abandon them due to lack of food for their young.

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) perched in the shade of a bush (20081020_13873)

Though some might find it kin to karma, house sparrow numbers have declined, the flock that’s lived around my home for decades having diminished until it’s just a whisper, no more than a quarter its normal size for as long as I’ve lived here, and like them most birds are suffering, both young and old, both native and not so native, because when the bottom of the food chain suffers like this, the effects ripple along the links making sure everyone suffers.

Armadillos have been brazen and apparent, seen almost every morning before the sun grows too high and the day too hot, and their signs outside my patio have become almost desperate, each morning revealing more digging and destruction as they hunt for anything edible, sometimes digging deep and sometimes digging gaping holes and sometimes digging trails to follow the ants who won’t venture topside except when absolutely necessary.

A purple martin (Progne subis) chick hiding in the grass after leaving the nest early to escape the heat (2009_06_29_025000)

Three great purple martin roosts form a triangle around the metroplex, their enormous sizes making them oft watched radar regulars at the National Weather Service, but this year the numbers are down, way down, with most nests failing because young were too hot, too hungry, too thirsty, too weak, many abandoning the nest houses to escape the heat, only to be exposed to direct sun and predators without parents to help them.  I can’t count the number of unready young who fledged before becoming fledglings.

House finches, mockingbirds and mourning doves nested in the tree outside my patio, and all three species failed to fledge young, the mourning doves having tried twice before giving up, and I felt surprise seeing the mockingbirds bringing mostly fruit to the one hatchling they had who only lived a few days and spent most of that time crying loudly as though the same old berries weren’t cutting it and the few insects offered were just a painful tease.

Bats and common nighthawks vanished almost as quickly as they appeared this year, what with the nights empty and lights left lonely for the insect dancers who once upon a time filled their luminance with endless performances, but not this year, and so dawns and dusks are empty of the night flyers who have never been absent as long as I can remember, and the lights long for the moths and beetles and other bright lives who once filled the void with shining lines traced on dark backgrounds.

So now the whole state is in pain, climatologists saying the need here is more than 15 inches of rain just to get to a comfortable place, and saying it’s not going to get better any time soon, and the Forest Service saying all of Texas is a tinderbox ready to burst into flame, and farmers in the same area having long ago given up hope for crops of cotton and wheat and such, and ranchers culling herds because there’s not enough water and not enough grass and hay costs too much since it has to be shipped into the state since none of the Texas hay crops grew into anything more than fodder for wildfires.

Secretly like everyone else in the state, residents wish for an energetic hurricane season with multiple strikes on the Lone Star State, drenching rains being the primary need with other considerations becoming less than secondary, but like the storm seasons of last autumn and this spring, hurricane season is looking less promising for Texas, and the drought goes on and surpasses the Dust Bowl in severity and blows away other drought records like they were so much childish scribbling, and the heat goes on and begins a serious effort to challenge the heat wave of 1980, the heat wave to end all heat waves for the 40+ years I’ve lived here, and all the while we miss the rain, and relief from the heat, and the normalcy of nature, all of which now seem so far removed and so imaginary as to be from another world.

As we head into the season for migrations, both butterflies and birds alike, I worry what these creatures will find when they reach this place, for even now the hour is late, and there is no chance for recovery before they begin passing through, and what they’ll find here is a growing desolation, dry and parched land with no plants and no insects and no relief from unrelenting heat.  This place has become the kind of miserable that’s felt from the lowest to the highest, from the least to the most, and we’re all suffering, and waiting for change, and watching the sky, the forecasts, the prognostications, and wondering how bad it can really get since no one’s willing to say it can’t get any worse, because we know it can, and it has, and there’s no reason to think it won’t if that’s to be the way of things.

— — — — — — — — — —

Photos:

  1. Fox squirrel (a.k.a. eastern fox squirrel, stump-eared squirrel, raccoon squirrel or monkey-faced squirrel; Sciurus niger)
  2. Black and yellow mud dauber (a.k.a. mud wasp; Sceliphron caementarium)
  3. Common whitetail (Plathemis lydia)
  4. House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  5. Purple martin (Progne subis)

6 thoughts on “A desolation called Texas”

  1. “This place has become the kind of miserable…” What an absolutely wonderful turn of phrase.

    I feel for you and your natural world. When we have a drought here and even the forest understory shrubs shrivel up, I can’t bear to go for a walk. It’s just too painful. It must be so much worse there.

  2. Wow, I had no idea. We’ve been unusually dry too and also lamenting the lack of rain, but nothing like what you’re describing…unreal!!!

  3. Normally every night when I get home from work dragon flies fill the air in their search for a meal. We have no mosquitoes or gnats here anymore, something highly unusual, so now we have no drago flies either. And it just gets worse as we look upward in the food chain. We run a farm and far too many of our critters die daily despite our best efforts to prevent it. We are heart broken. I’m not silent about wishing for a hurricane, I’m desperate.

  4. Jason, this is a grim litany. I had no idea that things are so bad over there. Here in Wales the weather seems to be OK, a pleasant Spring having given way to a Summer in which the balance of sun to rain has been good. I really hope that the rain comes soon for you, though by the sound of what your mom has posted here, for some of her animals it will come too late. I’m sorry for all those caring for livestock which is suffering.

  5. Thanks for this post. It is heartbreaking indeed, this expression of what I know and see everyday. I live in Austin and as you know we’re seeing this too. Maybe I should say not seeing what we’re used to. I’ve been surprised to see a bat flying around the house in the evenings and early morning. I haven’t seen one all summer. Our house sparrow flock that (used to) frequent our feeders has also dwindled. The big surprise is the blue jay family, at least 5 fledglings, that seems to be hanging on, though I suspect they’re very very dependent on the suet and peanuts I put out. We live near a small pond and the dragonflies are starting to increase, standing out all the more because of the lack of other insects. Again, thank you for writing this and so clearly articulating the misery all around us.

  6. I read in the newspaper yesterday that the type of drought you’re experiencing has actually been pretty frequent in the tree ring record, and that such droughts sometimes have lasted 30-40 years. This doesn’t bode well.

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