Wednesday, May 25, 2011


When I think of bottomlands, I think of the south, the romantic, idealized south, as in the Indigo Girls Southland in Springtime.  I think of lush, tall hardwood forests surrounding a meandering river that is barely contained in the flood season and changes course every 100 years or so, remapping the layout of the bottomland as it does so.  I think of the Big Thicket forests of east Texas and the floodplain forests along the Neches River that I have read about but have yet to visit.  I think of cypress-lined bayous and old river channels and swampy floodplains fed by tributary streams.  I think of the diverse old cathedral forests that grew on this continent before we cut them down and dammed the rivers that fed them.

Closer to home, the streams run intermittently and the rivers, like the Pedernales, that manage to flow year-round flow through rocky, limestone landscapes where hardwood trees, like cypress and sycamore and pecan, are restricted to the banks of the rivers.  Where the rivers are big enough to have created bottomlands, that land has long been cleared for farming or development and that river has been dammed to create reservoir lakes.  I understand why rivers are dammed – for electricity, for water, for flood control, and for recreation – but I still dream of a world without dams, a world where the rivers flow free.  I try to imagine downtown Austin before the dams were built along the Colorado River.  What if, instead of Lady Bird Lake, we had several blocks of forested greenbelt surrounding the original, natural river?

In reality the bottomland forests of central Texas, long a rarity in this area, functioning as small refuges for plants and animals existing on the western or southern edges of their ranges, are all but gone.  So I was pleasantly surprised the Saturday before last when Lee and I went for a hike and found ourselves descending through a slope forest into a bottomland forest on the banks of the Colorado River, just fifteen miles downstream from Austin.  We were hiking in the McKinney Roughs Nature Park, an LCRA park on Highway 71 that is thirteen miles east of the airport.  This was our third attempt to visit the park (hikers, beware, the park is closed on holidays and does not open until noon on Sundays), so it was with relief that we drove through the open gates, paid for our hiking passes ($4 per person), and got our map of the eighteen miles of trails in the park.

Colorado River from the Bluff Trail Overlook

We followed the McKinney Roughs Bluffs and Bottoms Hike, as outlined in the guidebook, and found that, even with our park map, it was extremely helpful to have the guidebook with us given the sheer number of trail junctions along the way.  We started from the visitor center onto the Ridge Trail, which cuts through woodland typical of our area, a mix of cedar (Ashe juniper), cedar elm, Spanish oak, and mesquite interspersed with cactus-filled fields.  I was surprised to notice that many of the Spanish oak trees were just leafing out, in the middle of May.  Perhaps the thunderstorms the week before had finally convinced the trees to leaf out for another summer.  I also noticed Blackjack Oak, a tree that is uncommon in the Austin metro area, in the mix of trees.  Blackjack Oak is common in the Lost Pines area of Bastrop county and, indeed, the McKinney Roughs park contains the westernmost chunk of that pine forest. 

But this time we were heading for the river and its floodplain, and for the Giant Pecan Tree growing in the bottomland forest.  Once we descended into the floodplain, we saw few other hikers but several groups of horseback riders.  And, of course, we saw lots of trees.  Tall trees.  In fact, I can say without qualification that we walked through a forest, which is rare in this area.  We have tree-lined creeks and cedar-oak woodlands and live oak savannas and cedar shrublands, but we really don't have many full-on forests close to Austin.  In central Texas, my motivation for hiking, rather than getting out in the woods, has become getting out in the bushes.  I love this area, but sometimes this native Oregonian needs to feel the full height of trees towering overhead.

The floodplain forest was a mix of cottonwood, hackberry, box elder, mulberry, sycamore, and pecan trees, hardwoods that are common along waterways in the eastern US.  The trees were tall and thick-trunked and, indeed, did tower overhead.  For me, the highlight of the trail was feeling immersed in a forest, not just surrounded by a group of trees but truly in the midst of a forest in a place where forest seemed to be thriving.  Though we did have backtrack to find the main attraction – the park map was a greater help than the guidebook in this – we eventually found the Giant Pecan Tree and spent a few minutes gazing up into its branches and trying to take a representative photo.  Unfortunately, though the tree is the biggest in the park and almost twelve feet in circumference, I was too busy trying to capture the canopy overhead to take a shot of the wide trunk.  Oops!  The good news is that the 150-year-old tree looks healthy overhead.

From the pecan tree, we headed back to the visitor center by following the Park Ho signs (seriously).  Along the way we spotted a few armadillos and were able to watch one of them as it dug up an ant mound and snacked on the ant larvae, totally unaware of our presence the whole time.  By the time we got back to the parking area, we had hiked several miles and felt exercised for the day.  While we did find the Giant Pecan Tree, we hadn't walked through the pine forest, or viewed the river from Meditation Point, or stepped into the river from the Riverside Trail.  So I guess we will have to return to McKinney Roughs on another day, in another season, for another walk in the bottomland forest.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rain Lily

I love a thunderstorm.  I wake to the drop in pressure that precedes the storm, when the sky darkens and the screens bang and the cat tears around the house yelling because her kitty senses tell her that change is imminent.  I'm startled by the flash of lightening and, what seems like minutes later, the roar and roll of thunder in the distance.  When the first, fat drops of rain hit the roof, I feel relief that, yes, rain is really falling.  Then the sky opens and all of the rain that we have needed for so long falls all at once, in a huge rush of raindrops so close together that I can't help but look up and wonder how I can even hear drops within the roar, which gradually subsides into a steady drumming of raindrops on the roof.  That's the part I love most about a thunderstorm – the steady sound of rain on the roof, the steady draining of water from the eaves, the steady burble of water flowing down the hill and down the street and all around me.  The sound of the world being soaked in water.  At that point, in the midst of rain that has been falling, that is falling, and that will continue to fall, I go back to sleep and sleep more soundly than I have for weeks.

A thunderstorm does more for my plants than I could with 10,000 waterings.  Because it's not just the water in the ground that makes the difference, though the thorough soaking that a good storm gives to all of the earth surrounding my gardens has got to help.  A rain day is like a spa day for the plants, a day of cooler temperatures, cooler moisture in the air, and lots of water in the ground.  In that state of ground saturation and 100% humidity, the relentless pull of water, from the ground into the roots then through the stems and out of the leaves, finally stops.  Relaxed and at peace, with all their leaf pores open and no worries of losing water, is how I think of my plants on a rain day.

The proof of how beneficial a thunderstorm is to the garden is in how good the plants look in the days following the storm.  Even if I have been diligently watering my garden twice a week, or hand watering every two or three days in the worst of the heat, the plants always look so much more alive after a thunderstorm that I feel a bit jealous of nature.  All those weeks of watering just to keep the plants alive, then a storm rolls through and each plant in the garden emerges looking like it's just back from a wellness retreat.  The leaves grow bigger and greener, new flowers and fruits form, and existing fruits swell to full size and ripen in a matter of hours.  Obviously, with sufficient rain, I'm not much needed in this early-production stage of the summer garden.

Even the ground seems happy after a long-overdue thunderstorm, erupting in a blanket of white flowers.  The white flowers that emerge two to three days after a thunderstorm are rain lilies.  In central Texas we have two species of rain lilies, a spring and early-summer blooming species, Cooperia pedunculata, and a late-summer to fall blooming species, Cooperia drummondii.  Rain lilies are perennials in the Lily Family that regrow from bulbs in the ground.  I'm more familiar with the spring-blooming variety because it grows wild along the south side of my house.  The spring rain lilies have long, strap-like leaves, much like their relatives, the daffodils, and fragrant flowers with three sepals and three petals.  The tepals (sepals and petals together) are white to light pink.

Spring-blooming Rain Lily (Cooperia pedunculata)

Spring rain lilies (Cooperia pedunculata) are covering lawns, roadsides, and vacant lots all over Austin this week, singing the praises of last week's thunderstorm and encouraging the universe to send more rain in our direction, to give us a wet early summer where the creeks flow and the trees put on a second set of leaves and the tomatoes are plentiful.  But, in reality, that's just my wish, leading me to see the rain lilies as an offering to the gods, a request for thunderstorms to come.  The rain lilies bloom because the ground is soaked through now, because of the rain last week, and, in that, the rain lilies are offerings of thanks.  So, universe, thanks for the rain.

P. S.  Please send more.